I was picked up by the Universal Postal Union for a three-country assignment in Africa. This was in 1992 and, for a change, I was asked to proceed first to Addis Ababa via Berne, Switzerland. On previous two occasions I was asked to proceed directly to the country where I was supposed to operate. This time they wanted to “brief” me. Briefing, however, amounted to asking me to carry quite a bit of literature, most of them being useless for me.
Though Berne, like every other place in Switzerland, is a beautiful city yet I had decided that I would not be staying at Berne as my late eldest brother was stationed in Geneva. The question of giving up an opportunity to stay with him for a couple of days did not arise. Besides, Berne was only around two hours away from Geneva by train. My brother was at the airport when I flew in from Delhi via Frankfurt. I was back in Geneva after five years, having been here in 1987 with my wife and late third brother and his wife. We had spent almost a couple of months here during which we travelled quite a bit in Europe.
After two very pleasant days I was set to move for Addis. I had to again fly via Frankfurt and take the flight of Ethiopian Airlines for Addis. Its stock was pretty low with my brother but there was nothing I could do about it. The flight that night from Frankfurt was the last to fly out. We started boarding when the airport cleaning brigade was already on the job. The flight touched down in Rome and then at Asmara, which till then was a part of Ethiopia in the province of Eritrea but was fighting for independence. Eventually after a brief civil war the country became independent. Asmara was known to be a very beautiful sea port on Red Sea and had a lot of traffic with Italy. No wonder hordes of Italians climbed into the plane only to get off at Asmara.
The representatives of Ethiopian administration came and received me and lodged me in Hotel Ethiopia. It was a very ordinary hotel with virtually minimal facilities. Probably that was the best around the town but I couldn’t have had any say in the matter. The country had just come out of a dictatorial Leftist rule of Mengistu and I could divine an environment of fear still prevailing all around. It was Mengistu who had overthrown in the 1970s the Emperor Haile Selassie of the Solomonic dynasty. The Emperor traced his lineage from the legendary King Solomon and Queen Sheba of Biblical times. His relations with India were very cordial.
Though the departmental headquarters were not very far from the hotel I used to be picked up and deposited back at the hotel promptly at 5.00 in the evening. It seems none would work at the office after office hours as commuting through the streets was not very safe. The first day my counterpart took me to meet the Chief of the Ethiopian Post. He used to sit in a spanking new what looked like a building of aluminium. Perhaps, this was a donation from a friendly country. Together with the chief, I had good discussions over cups of Ethiopian coffee. They take black pretty strong black coffee with a sprinkling of a herb that floats on the top of the coffee giving it a peculiar pleasant aroma. No wonder there is quite a bit of traffic in coffee between Ethiopia and Europe.
The road in front was an artery of sorts and was always very crowded. People in tattered clothes would be sprawled on the central verge. It was like India when we had a substantial population of beggars. One day when I decided to walk to the office I got a taste of it. These people were all Somali refugees occupying the pavements and they would beg rather aggressively; they would nudge you, push you or even catch hold of your hand to beg. I told Mr. Mohammed, my counterpart, that after this experience walking to office was out for me.
My job in Ethiopia, as indeed in the other two countries, was to guide the local administration in finding new routes or new air services with a view to speeding up of the foreign mails. Certainly not a big job but this had not been done for quite some years. So together with the local administration and a newer version of airlines directory we devised a more or less improved schedule of receipt and dispatch of foreign mails subject to the approval of foreign administrations concerned. Since it had no railways of its own, the surface mails from abroad would arrive from Djibouti. Promptness or otherwise of it all depended on the political situation in Djibouti. It was pretty unstable during my stay in Addis Ababa, vital, as it was, sitting on very busy sea lanes passing through the Gulf of Aden.
I was given a round of the city and also visited some of the town sub offices. There was nothing distinctive about them. The city was, however, littered with some Communist-style structures. A big stadium was left incomplete despite apparent expenditure of millions. The town was, however, more like our sub-urban towns. After 1992, however, things seemed to have improved. There are high rises, overpasses and a light rail operating in the city. There are massive squares in the town and economic activities apparently have picked up.
Bayen, who was my companion during my stay, took me out to Nazareth (also spelt as Nazaret) a place around 50 miles away. It is on a highway originating in Djibouti. It is considered to be a transportation hub and is predominantly a Christian town. Bayan took me to a restaurant where we had some good Western food. Bayen used to be a senior official of the department but for lack of prospects he was looking for an opportunity to migrate to Canada. I understand he has since been able to get away to Canada.
The night before I was to leave for Nairobi Mr. Mohammed invited me to a dinner in a bigger hotel. Two other officials were also present. It was a typical Ethiopian dinner with the foursome sitting round a circular cane table with high rims. On it was spread the Ethiopian flatbread which is used as a plate for stews, vegetables and salads to be deposited on it. The diners sitting round it tear a piece of the bread to scoop out a morsel. There were around three or four entries. Mr. Mohammed, however, warned me about one which, he said, was half-cooked beef and might not be to my liking. Hence, I left it out.
After two pleasant weeks it was time for me to move again, this time to Nairobi. Climatically both are more or less the same, though Addis sits at an elevation of more than seven thousand feet against Nairobi’s almost 6000 ft elevation. Both are, therefore, cool and one has to use woollens. Nairobi, however, is much greener than Addis Ababa.