The Russian spirit in Ethiopia has been almost blown away over the past twenty years. And the interest in this country fell in Russia too. Unless the former passionate love phantom is still alive... And, of course, nostalgia is alive in spirit of those who had left a slice of life in Ethiopia.
My Moscow friend, Maria Maskina has recently been to Addis Ababa. She bought a travel package and went. Impressions are very bright. At her house, we had Arabica coffee from the Café Provence (hence the word “coffee” appeared in the world). We made it by rule - in a black clay jug. On the table there was an injera (national bread in the form of pancakes) and we ate it dipped in sweet pepper bitterness, as the Ethiopians do. Mark you: the injera and pepper were bought in an Ethiopian restaurant thriving in Moscow.
But most of all, I was struck by this detail of Maria’s story about the modern Ethiopia: the package holiday young operator’s name was Gumalo. This name is special, you will not find it in the “Ethiopian church calendar”. A century ago, so was named the boy who was born in a simple Ethiopian house, where the great Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev stayed during his third trip to the “witchcraft country of Ethiopia.”
Gumilev saved the elderly lady of the house from malaria - just gave her the medicine from his field medical bag. In those days, such a drug was invaluable. Gumilev, of course, accepted only “thank you” in answer. Meanwhile, the family did not know how to express their gratitude and – named the newly born infant after the Russian guest. This story was told to me by a teacher from the Addis Ababa Lyceum, a descendant of the family in question. It was all that long ago, the name given on the occasion, in honor of the foreign philanthropist, would have disappeared. But it still lives in new generations.
A new chance
However, the lethargic failure of the Russian-Ethiopian relations, occurred under crucial historical events, is likely to change for the better; anyway, “the spirit of the Renaissance” is in the air. People in Russia sincerely strive for such a course of things and hope that the 21st century will offer the two countries an optimistic scenario, and the history of their relations of more than one hundred years, will acquire a new chance.
At a shrewd guess, I'd say that not only Moscow but also Addis Ababa hope for this. Ten years ago, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Melesa Zenawi, after his visit to Moscow, admitted: “A whole generation of Ethiopian people take the friendship and assistance of the Russian people for granted.”
True, since then there has been no tangible progress. Meanwhile, the political will has been exercised, and the matter depends on actions. A fast implementation of plans for rapprochement between the two countries needs, of course, the former “Soviet component”, which allowed solving problems without any delay. By the Kremlin’s order three hundred power engineering specialists immediately went to Ethiopia to build a hydropower plant “Melka Wakana”. By the second order, a team of surveying party of ameliorators went to explore the wilderness Gambell - for its transformation into a flourishing region. And by the third order - a flock of Russian aircraft and helicopters at all speeds rushed to rescue the distressed Ethiopians - hungry, polios, with amoeba, etc.
In market-democratic realities, Moscow can no longer perceive Ethiopia as a kind of darling of fortune that Russia must take care of messianically, save, pull out of total darkness of poverty. This ancient country has enough resources - political, economic, demographic and moral to build its relationships with others on terms of equal bilateral cooperation, of which the model is recognized in the modern world.
Melesa Zenawi continues to say that in five years his country will not need any help, if the economy pursues an ambitious plan for development. The state aims at attracting foreign investment in large-scale agricultural projects, search for oil and gas fields, hydropower development.
It is high time to remember the unique hydropower station built on Ethiopian land by the Soviet hydro builders nearly a quarter century ago.
“A shallow ford”, turned into a sea
Soviet specialists have built quite a lot in Ethiopia. The question will be about a unique hydropower facility. It is low-powered, only 153 MW, however, it remains the most powerful in the country.
For a hydroelectric power station a small town of Melka Wakana was chosen, 350 km from Addis Ababa. I remember as among Soviet journalists accredited to Ethiopia, I came to the hydroelectric station opening ceremony. The government team was headed by President Mengistu Haile Mariam, a tired little man with a careworn face, clad in blue uniform.
The chief engineer of construction, Soviet expert Nikolai Shargorodsky told us about the features of the project embodied the original engineering solution. The striking fact of Shargorodsky’s biography was that he was born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), on land that once belonged to the ancient family of Hannibal, Pushkin’s ancestors.
Melka Wakana is translated as “a shallow ford”, at this place the Wabi-Shabelle River was easily crossed by a herd of cows. But it was here that a dam was built to make a reservoir storage. The plant building was erected in a canyon at the foot of the mountain; generators were mounted in a driven tunnel. In the body of the mountain a mine with a diameter of 3 meters was opened up. From a height of 300 metres, water falls in it, rotating the turbine. And all around is a bowl of canyon, covered with strange forest full of baboons, leopards and hyenas. Not far from this place also cave tribes live, which still strike fire with two stones. Ethiopia is a country of striking contrasts.
The Melka Wakana hydropower station, the building of which involved about 300 Soviet specialists and more than 7000 Ethiopian workers, in a sense is a symbol of how we can turn a “shallow ford” into a sea, creating SOMETHING blissful with goodwill, sharing knowledge, joint efforts.
Bilateral relations between the two countries in the Soviet times were defined by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1978), being very diverse in nature. 65 sites were involved in the system of economic cooperation and at the time of regime change 27 were in commission. An oil filling plant (now owned by Eritrea) was created and put into operation, four petroleum storage depots with a production capacity of 577 thousand cubic metres, a thermal power plant of 13.5 MW, the Melka Wakana hydropower station and power transmission lines were constructed. As well as a tractor assembling enterprise, a phytopathological laboratory and a polytechnic Institute.
Our experts did a wide range of exploration work - looked for solid minerals, oil and gas. Reserves of gold, tantalite, natural gas and gas condensate were discovered. We should not forget about personnel training. In higher and secondary specialized educational institutions of the USSR about four thousand Ethiopians were educated, and on the objects of collaboration 5000 local professionals and workers were educated for various professions.
There is another issue - the activity of the Russian Balcha Red Cross Hospital full of wonders and real medical feats. Their description is worthy of golden pens, numerous volumes. I beg to remember just one small unique episode.
Early one morning, a hospital nurse found “a crying package” in a refuse bin of the hospital. It was a newborn boy thrown by his mother. The kid was named Balcha, nursed by the entire medical staff, and when he got stronger, he was sent to Moscow, in a specialized orphanage for foreigners’ children. Balcha grew up, acquired a medical assistant education, whereupon he returned to his native Addis Ababa, and started working in the hospital where was given a dwelling. With due time, relatives were found, but Balcha did not forgive betrayal. He called himself a “Russian Ethiopian”, and considered his family to be the Soviet hospital.
A mystical gift of Moscow
Reminiscing about past facts of the Russian-Ethiopian history, I want to also remember how General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, once again receiving in the Kremlin a young, energetic Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of an influential country that had chosen the path of socialism, was so moved and touched that he promised to give him a new presidential Tu-154 B2 luxe. It was a technical phenomenon of those years. At the peak of the hot Soviet friendship with Ethiopia, such a fine and expensive gesture of the Soviet leader did not surprise anyone. But when after a time, a brand-new “flying palace” landed safety at a military airfield near Addis Ababa, Mengistu Haile Mariam did not even go to look at it. The matter is the gift has acquired a mystical sense because Brezhnev had already died by then. The airliner was “greetings from the other world”, a bad sign according to the Ethiopian belief. About this time, Mengistu purchased a villa in the elite suburbs of Harare, just in case... Condemned to death by the Ethiopian court, the former “Red Emperor” as he was called by his countrymen, still hides in Zimbabwe.
A small knot on the “golden thread”
Under Mengistu, the center of Addis Ababa was decorated with the largest in Africa, monument to Lenin, created by Soviet sculptor R.Muradyan. In 1991, I got to see a dramatic picture of its destruction - heavy sledgehammers hardly coped with bronze and granite. I was seized with different feelings at the moment. On seeing me, Russian, a standing beside Ethiopian, wearing gilded spectacles, said sententiously: “If they had erected a monument to Pushkin, nobody would have touched it ...". I said nothing, but appreciated the idea: it would not be bad to begin modernization of the Russian-Ethiopian relations with Pushkin. Perhaps Pushkin is just “the golden thread”, on which new links of Russian-Ethiopian relations should be strung?
However, in 2002, Pushkin Street appeared in Addis Ababa, as well as a bronze statue of our great poet, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos consecrated.
One can not but recall the fact that Melesa Zenawi at a reception in the Kremlin, expressed “gratitude to the Russian people for their support rendered to Ethiopia at the time when the Ethiopian people needed this help.” The Russian heart, of course, appreciated this subtle, wise sentence. The Ethiopian leader availed himself of the “knot” to connect the “scraps of historical links”. Time will pass and the pause in the relationship will expire, Russia and Ethiopia will undoubtedly find a new, pragmatic format for them, they are already looking for it...