Careless Talk

Published in Africa Geographic, December 2003 

You would think we’d know better! After nearly a year of travelling up Africa from Cape Town, you would expect us to know when to keep our mouths shut, especially in Marxist Ethiopia. But I remember how it was in that small village in the Bale mountains. I remember the chill of our tiny room with its rough, grey blankets and gaps in the wood panels of the door which let in the freezing air. The cosy, dark, smoke-filled bar of the little hotel. We hadn’t intended to stay in this village anyway – I can’t even remember its name – but our bus had broken down and forced us to spend an unscheduled night there. In short, we were fed up with Ethiopia, our guard was down and our tongues loosened.

The students had made a bee-line for us as soon as we appeared. Now they sat round our table asking questions. “My teacher says that in America a black person isn’t allowed into a restaurant!” one said. “And my teacher says a black man can’t go to university” said another.”… or get a job in an office” added a third. “Well, that’s simply not true!” George countered, provoked at this swipe at his homeland. “In fact,” he said, warming to the theme, “we have this policy called Affirmative Action. Did you know that it’s now easier for black people – men and women – to go to college in America than it is for white people?” They stared. “But what about the Broad Oppressed Masses?” “Oh well, in America even poor people have a television. And a car!” George sat back to finish his beer and enjoy the effect. “Capitalism isn’t all bad you know!”.

The students started to drift away, chatting quietly among themselves. It was only then that we noticed the man drinking alone at a nearby table. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand he rose to his feet and came over to us. “I’m an army lieutenant” he said “and you’re under arrest for promoting capitalism in Ethiopia.” We stared at him. “What’s your room number? I will come at six tomorrow morning and take you to our army headquarters for interrogation”.

I know the truth of the expression “my legs turned to jelly”. When I stood up I was trembling so much I had to hold onto the table for support. George was white-faced. We both knew the implications of what we’d done. This was our third arrest in Africa and by far the most frightening. Even Uganda in Idi Amin’s time had a framework of law and order. In Ethiopia in 1976 we felt we could be shot and no one would notice .

We were ready for the knock on the door at dawn. Our lieutenant ushered us into the back seat of a smart army jeep and then into a beautifully furnished office where a very good looking and immaculately dressed colonel greeted us with a cordial handshake. “Do sit down” the colonel said. His accent was Eton and Sandhurst. “Now, what’s this all about?” he asked the lieutenant who sat with downcast eyes. “They were talking about capitalism.” he said “We need to teach them a lesson, like those Australians last week”. “Oh my dear fellow, I don’t think we need go to those extremes, do you?” We quaked. What extremes? “I agree with you that they ought to be punished…” The lieutenant nodded. “So I am going to ask them to leave this district today.” He looked at us intently. “Did you hear that? And I would advise you to get out of Ethiopia as soon as possible. Now you can go free.”

We shook his hand and left. That is the last time I have had an inappropriate discussion about politics in another country. I have indeed learned a lesson. These days, when I travel, I try to leave my opinions at home.

© Hilary Bradt

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