Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ethiopia: East Meets West, North Meets South (but Man only meets Woman?)

After an Ethiopian posted my blog to celebrate it with his Ethiopian LGBT friends in a closed Facebook group, a western-writer living in the UK began fueling fear that my obscure blog piece would expose LGBT Ethiopians. Despite strong positive feedback and encouragement from friends and contacts inside Ethiopia, I have decided that that fear - fostered by a foreigner - has become a distraction. Thus, I removed names of places I originally described. Read more about what happened in my latest blog.

Driving can be quite the challenge - but not if you're relaxing
on the roof of a truck!
Whether you’ve come because you “wanted to see Africa,” for business, tourism, or to volunteer – you won’t leave Ethiopia disappointed. Many challenges are here to overcome – from the lack of adequate infrastructure to omnipresent health challenges. Yet the people are so warm, friendly and optimistic you can often forget the problems (especially when the DJ plays “Happy” or you’re watching the very cliche “eCupid” on a tablet with a new friend). Let’s face it, this remains Africa – it’s not a “gay destination” for sure, but it’s an adventure and an experience not to be missed – and the people will surprise you.



First, let’s get my main gripe out of the way: Ethiopia remains a deeply religious society (from icon-crazed Orthodox Christians to conservative Islam) even gay Ethiopians hold dear to basic beliefs and of course the majority likely remain in a state of semi self-hate. Furthermore, this country has 250 fasting days and crazy incessant chanting at all hours of the night – also because, did you know, Ethiopia uses totally different time and calendar. All this must have some affect on the health and productivity of the society. Religion can provide personal and societal benefits – but not when it condemns whole groups of people or incapacitates an economy due to fasting! One positive religious side-effect (or at least constant) for those who appreciate it: you can always expect guys will be cut!

Finding gay in Addis

I try and taste the local fare -
Ambo: Ethiopian-produced
flavored water
Of course, you can use gay networking apps like stand-by Grindr (where you’re bound to find the expat gays too) as well as Planet Romeo, Manhunt and, used more in Africa & the Middle East, ManJam to make friends. While English isn’t spoken by everyone – or very well by anyone – it is widespread enough – and of course, it’s spoken by the gays you’ll want to meet. As usual social media are fraught with sexual ignorance, lies and insults – I always find it more useful to meet in person. But of course, that’s nearly impossible without first knowing some people already.

Thankfully, as an expat with expat friends – I quickly met the closeted gays. An expat friend invited a couple gay locals to a party I attended my second day – and BAM! – I was in. Then the next day, a different gay expat connected me with a Sudanese guy who had organized a gay party. Not only did I quickly make some great friends (ok, yes, and maybe more) but I got the latest scoop on local hangouts.
The name of this popular gay spot has
been disguised; hope local gays can
still recognize it!

The gayest place is owned by one fierce queen – (s)he might as well be a drag-queen – but some gays consider this place too trashy! Sad – its just the ONLY place that actually caters to the gay community: (name removed). Otherwise, you can also find gay guys at the (name removed) Hotel pub/bar – it will be mixed, but as the night goes on you’ll notice more frivolity and maybe even touching – so you’ll be able to figure it out! And if you’re looking for a real (western) venue Club H2O comes the closest. You might find gays there – but they will be discreet. Best make some friends first and let them show you the way.

To get the details for LGBT hang-outs email ashton@gaytlas.com

Me with a mock-up of Lucy - with her 1.3
million year old remains behind me
Thankfully guys dancing next to each other is acceptable (as friends only, of course) – and maybe even some touching. It just depends on who you’re with. The clubs play all the latest pop songs you hear around the world – sometimes with local tunes mixed in. Of course, there are also the bars at the major international hotels. Basically it’s easy to find gays if you’re with the western crowd – cause these are sometimes the only folks local gays can confide and trust.

If you go it alone – you’ll need to know that gays refer to each other as “Zea-gah” (emphasis on the "Z-egg") which means “citizen” in Amharic – so it’s innocuous to someone who’s unaware. Locals can easily ask "Are you Zeagah?” and get confirmation they are in safe company. Lately things have been rough politically for gays – but the Ethiopian government (thankfully bowing to foreign pressure) recently stopped further anti-gay legislation and cancelled a large anti-LGBT rally planned for this weekend. As this Facebook group alludes to, gays are accused of being and doing all sorts of terrible things – and religious groups fuel the hatred.

If you do get to make a friend and need a neutral place to meet in Addis - have them take you either to see Lucy (the world's oldest recovered human-ish remains) at the National Museum or to the Ethnological Museum, inside a former palace on the main campus of Addis Ababa University. Or you can walk around campus and see if you can make friends, like I did! No surprises, everyone wants to chat and improve their English. They will probably want to take you out in Bole - the hippest neighborhood, right alongside the airport (also named Bole) or to Piazza - the traditional touristy area (watch your pockets in both places!).

Beyond Addis
One of these poor guys got cut up
when he jumped out of our window!


Of course, most of what you’ll want to do in Ethiopia lies outside of Addis: the main attraction, Lalibela, in the north, is an easy – though not cheap for foreigners – plane ride away; they’ve carved amazing churches into the bedrock! You can also visit tribes in the south and get more of a taste of “real Africa.” But I felt like being a lazy tourist, I opted for trips that I could do with a locals and friends close to Addis.

First, I took a short trip outside of the city to Menagesha National Forest – a beautiful preserved forest that’s been a national park for 500 years! The trees are magnificent and you can also find wild boar, screaming monkeys, all kinds of beautiful birds and deer too. We ate local food (with injera) – but should have throw away the leftovers – the next morning monkeys came in a door we left ajar and ate them, then got scared and broke a window to get out!

To get there, you drive outside of Addis to Sebeta where you take a “tuk-tuk” here called “bajaj” – basically motorbikes outfitted with a carriage. It’s a rough ride – but exciting and beautiful – and there you see some of rural Africa, with donkeys and cows led by people living in straw huts…

View from a bajaj as we make our way out of the forest
Note the religious icons & cross...
I also traveled to Debra Zeit or Bishoftu an area of lakes (that you can’t really swim in) but the surrounding countryside is beautiful. We drank the afternoon and evening away – then ventured out to a beautiful local resort where owners invited us to a club back in the direction of Addis. It included a traditional hut, where a musician and singer played an instrument mixed between a guitar and a violin and sang/made up jokes about people who sat around the hut & awaited their turn to be the center of attention. Next door, awaited a (more) western club with dance floor. They played more local music but finally "Stayin' Alive" came on and I busted some moves; the shared Black Label Johnny Walker (popular here for some reason) took its toll.

Yep It’s Still Africa

The lack of infrastructure is always a challenge but, well, it’s warm-out – there’s no urgency – the weather never is terrible – except when it rains. You would think they would at least fix drainage issues – but well, I guess all the money has been funneled away instead of the water! Thus, make sure you visit outside of rainy season – which falls from mid-June through September. It’s best to visit during October or November after the rains have stopped – but it’s still relatively warm.

Getting around Addis is easy if you don’t mind spending about USD $10 (nearly 200 birr) to cross the city. If you want to go the local way, you’ll play between 10 to 20 cents (2-6 birr)! Big difference – but it makes sense as the disparity between rich and poor is much broader here. Local vans, “minibuses” cart people around parts of the city. Each has a driver and a caller who yells out to people on the street. If you’re headed where he shouts, hop in and pay what is asked – usually not more than 6 birr (about 25 cents) There are also big buses – but those are usually over-crowed, though cost a nickel!

Of course, you’re going to be mobbed by children wanting a hand-out. My advice, fill your pockets with candy – and keep your valuables in one of those security belts inaccessible to the outside (around your neck or around your waist). One common scam that I encountered was someone nearly spitting on me, then pretending be so sorry and wiping off the spit – while swiping whatever might be in my pocket!

Sadly the kids are also culprits – I encountered 2 different "teams" on the same road – in the western & “posh” Bole area who tried to rob me. First a child will approach and ask for money – he’ll be holding a pamphlet of some sort with (probably) hunger statistics for Ethiopia (or some other thing to distract you). He’ll shove that against your hip (right above your pocket) – and at the same time another guy will pull at your sleeve or coat from the opposite side! The intent is to go into your pockets while you’re distracted. It nearly worked – but I just started running or moving quickly when I saw kids (sad I know!).

Yumm... Fish goulash!
But don’t let the three attempts at my iphone & wallet dissuade you! I still have them – and the majority of people I met genuinely seemed friendly; just a few who tried to spoil the fun! I found my favorite dish: fish goulash. And though I’m not big on the most popular food injera (do you like spongy bread with various sauces with veggies and meat?), I found it growing on me towards the end.

Ethiopia has an incredible history: it’s at the center between east and west as well as south and north. Things are changing and improving little by little – but it remains the third world. That means excitement and challenges and different ideas about the world – but not necessarily a relaxing vacation spot. Nonetheless there remains beautiful countryside, friendly people, and new experiences to enjoy!

And of course they say, once you’ve gone black…









12 comments:

  1. I've heard a lot from the Ethiopian LGBT community about my blog - and I'm pleased that the majority of it has been positive. Some people would like me to consider removing the specific locations that I mention, but, for now, based on what I have heard, I have decided to leave the information here for people to use.

    The locations are already known to be LGBT-friendly (and they should celebrate that - if anything they ought to get more business!).

    I continue to receive feedback and will continue to access whether I should leave this information in the public domain.

    To contact me directly email: ashton@gaytlas.com.

    Thank you!

    -Ashton

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As an LGBT activist who has worked extensively on these issues in Africa, I think you are doing a serious disservice to the safety and security of LGBT people in the areas concerned. I have seen these things come back to "haunt" people many years later and while things may seem calm and safe at this moment, that may not be the case tomorrow. I will also note that some of the circumstances to which I refer were OK'd by locals on the ground, who themselves were naive to what came down years thereafter. So I seriously encourage you to take more responsibility and remove locations until the laws change.

      Delete
    2. I would like to add I have found out that you may be the cause of these venues going down as people have said they will no longer frequent them. So this article lands up being counter productive and hurtful. Please take down the locations.

      Delete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Ashton,
    Great piece for people who are interesting about seeing addis, and checking out the gay hang-out places.
    Addis was on tense about LGBT freedom for the last years, it all over media, and it caught the attention of people who didnt have an idea about it, but not in a good way.
    It might become the most difficult time for gays to live in Addis, some gay men might be more targeted then before.
    So mentioning some of the last places they feel free in, might cause a lot of problems to them.

    Im not from Ethiopia, I was on and off Addis for the last 5 years. and i discovered "Laguettu" in my last visit couple of months ago.

    I hope you can understand what im trying to say, and try to take gay men's fear under consideration, it might come across a bit selfish to keep a name of a place just for the sake of making your post be a bit interesting. "That is my thought and some people might think the same about you leaving it there after people commenting about it!"

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks to Fading Soul! I appreciate all the feedback I'm getting about my blog.

    However, I'm not leaving this locations in my blog for "selfish reasons to make it interesting." I'm leaving the locations here at this point because of the positive feedback and approval I have received from the majority of readers who actually reside in Ethiopia.

    Thanks for your concern - I am considering it - and considering the views of all LGBT Ethiopians who contact me.

    ReplyDelete
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