Ethiopia was converted to Christianity two or three centuries before Anglo-Saxon England. Some parts of it haven’t changed much since then. Today, however, the spring of progress is overtaking the country. ‘Spring in Ethiopia – the personal impressions of Denis Mitchell’ is the title of a Rediffusion production for Intertel – the International Television Federation whose aim is to increase international understanding through television. It is to be screened on March 28. Here denis mitchell writes about his impressions of the country.
Ethiopia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but it’s hell to make a film about. Absolutely nothing seems to happen. Or rather, what does happen, happens layer upon layer below the surface. It’s like living in a Chekov play.
Admittedly, during most of the time we were filming, the country was undergoing one of its long and strictly-kept fasts. The Ethiopian Christian is the world’s most rigorous faster – 165 days each year are normal, and the devout notch up 250 days in the 365.
Ethiopia is in Africa but somehow it is not of it. Ask an Ethiopian if he really feels himself to be part of Africa and there’ll be a long pause before he says ‘yes’. There is a story told in the countryside about the creation of man. God took a lump of clay and He baked it in the oven. He took it out too soon and there was the white man. He tried again but this time He overcooked it – the black man. But the third time He got it just right and out came the Ethiopian. Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the Organisation of African States. As well as this it is crammed with the embassies of the warring tribes of East and West. When I arrived a Bulgarian Trade Exhibition was in full swing. With almost indecent haste this was followed by an American one. The British maintain a position of dignified torpor. You have to look hard to find any evidence of their industry or salesmanship. Yet, historically, they enjoyed a rather special relationship with Ethiopia and they are still generally liked. ‘We like you because, of all foreigners, you most resemble us. Like us, you are devious and subtle.’
All publications in Ethiopia are Government-owned or subject to strict control, but the United States Information Service publishes a special daily News Bulletin which has a wide distribution. This is a most useful service, but some of the items in the Bulletin are – to the English eye – a bit surprising. Here, for example, is the Asmara Bulletin’s full comment on the results of the British General Election: ‘The victory is viewed as a mandate of the English people for Prime Minister Wilson to continue his close cooperation with the US, British support for US policy in Vietnam and general agreement with the US for further support and strengthening of NATO.’
However, world politics don’t penetrate very far beyond the main towns – and these are nearly all hundreds of dusty miles apart. Out in the countryside it is as though time had stopped. A herdboy plays his pipe on a mountain top, a nobleman jingles across the plain on a horse with scarlet trappings, in gold and silver the barefoot deacons weave their way through the mysteries of a Christian ritual so old that its meaning has drifted away . . . life is stylised, grave, unhurried, hard, perfectly beautiful, immeasurably calm.
This is the country which the educated Ethiopian and the foreigner alike are busily kicking into the twentieth century. All I say is – hurry along, if you can, and have a look at it before they’ve succeeded. I know that people aren’t animals to be kept in a sort of game reserve for the benefit of tourists, and I know that there’s nothing admirable in disease and ignorance: but I wish that progress wasn’t so often associated with ugliness and a lack of warmth.