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Billionaire on a Bus
2023: The world’s eight richest billionaires own the same amount as the poorest 3.6 billion people.
July 1994: My first big magazine assignment. I fly to Addis Ababa. My final goal is war-torn Yemen, but I am trying to conserve my resources and decide to take the bus east towards the Eritrean coast. In Addis Ababa the buses leave from the vast sprawling Mercato market. Two years later I would return and do the same journey for my book, Eating the Flowers of Paradise, but I would go by train that time - largely because this journey by bus was so grim that I swore never to repeat it.
At the bus office they tell me that all tickets to Harar for today are already sold.
The clerk shakes his head with monarchial dignity, a bus station Haile Selassie full of imperial gravitas and diesel fumes.
"All sold out."
I am incredulous. "What about next month... actually I want a ticket for July 12th, 1999." That would be precisely five years ahead.
The clerk raises an eyebrow. "Sold out."
The ticket office doubles as a photo studio and social club for shoeshine boys. They are mostly three feet tall, aged about five, and with the aged faces of Haile Selassie without a beard. One of them takes me aside. "All the tickets are sold to those men outside." He asks me for a tip for this information.
Outside there is a line of sharkish-looking youths whose eyes flicker towards me hopefully. I beckon to one. He offers me a tatty, crumpled bus ticket for six-thirty tomorrow morning. I buy it. I have, of course, paid many times the face value of the ticket.
With the rest of the day to kill, I go for lunch, buying njera, a corpse-coloured sour bread served with a blood-red sauce. In the afternoon I chew qat with some Somalis who have visited London, but never been to Somalia. "It's not like here," Abdul says, "Everything is better there. The trains run on time."
"Does Somalia have trains?"
He seems unsure. (It does not, though the Italians did build 114km of line in the 1920s. The British Army dismantled it in the 1940s and no one has reinstated it. I can find no information on whether the services were punctual.)
After a few hours the hotel-owner appears. "Chewing qat is forbidden in my hotel." But I think the truth is that he doesn't want Somalis. In the evening, still with Abdul, we fall in with some Oromo people. "Let's drink draught," they say and we end up in what they tell me is 'a student collective'. The students seem to be well-rounded ladies wearing lots of lipstick who perch on the armchairs and ask provocatively, "Are you inviting me?" When I decide to leave, I am presented with a large bill for everyone's food and drink.
Do I look like a soft touch? I think my skin marks me out as a man with money and this attracts everyone. It is 1994. Ethiopia was a Marxist state until three years ago and it's full of people who don't know where their next meal is coming from. The wealthy are referred to as millionaires, not billionaires. That will come later.
The following morning, in darkness and rain, I arrive back at the Mercato market. Boys weave among the crowd whispering, "Soft, Soft." This is not a jibe aimed at my fiscal naivety, but rather a brand of toilet paper. They are making a living by buying a roll, then selling it off in squares. In this way capitalism begins.
I pay a youth to find my bus and when we eventually reach it there is a massive queue at the door. He roughly shoves people aside and places me next to the door, then demands 40 birr. I give him two.
I stand there awkwardly. No one speaks to me. I am different. I am a white man and a foreigner. My money and status, balanced precariously on the back of colonial history, has brought me to the front of the queue.
Eventually I can't bear it any longer. I don't want this unearned privilege, conferred on me purely by absence of pigmentation. What did I have to do with colonialism? My ancestors were labourers and cannon fodder. I go to the back of the queue.
One old man beckons to me. "Why did you do that?"
I shrug. How can I explain? "In Britain we queue properly. You must go to the back of the queue." Oh dear, I'm avoiding the truth and perpetuating stereotypes.
He smiles. "Ah yes! You are a Britisher." He is a Yemeni from Aden. "We want the British back."
I am appalled. "But colonialism was terrible."
He smiles. "Yes, but there was order. No queue jumping!"
When the bus door opens, any scruples about queueing are immediately forgotten by everyone. There is an almighty ruckus and a fight to get aboard. Once on the bus, however, we find that youths have climbed through the windows and reserved all the seats with pieces of wood. The passengers who had wisely employed these sturdy minions, now take their seats.
I stand in the aisle, wondering what to do. The man sitting near me shuffles up and indicates that I can join him on the bench seat. His name is Buheilo, a shopkeeper. Amid clouds of noxious fumes, the bus lurches away through the mud. We have done a few kilometres before a stowaway is discovered under my seat. A white-haired old man is pulled out, like a survivor from an earthquake. The bus stops and a huge debate ensues. Should the white-haired old man be allowed to stay? He begs. The bus driver wants him off. The old man tells his story. Someone had died. He is alone. Please help. A relative in Harar is the only hope. But he has no money. The passengers are swayed and he is given a bag to sit on in the aisle. The bus driver is furious and drives like an absolute maniac for several miles before his anger is worked out.
We pass a black building that is covered in vultures. All around are piles of bones, hooves and skins. "Meat-packing factory," says Buheilo, adding informatively, "For export."
A little further we stop for breakfast at some stalls. The clouds lift to reveal a high rolling plateau stretching far ahead towards some distant hills, ruched up on the horizon like forgotten bolts of silver silk. The white-haired old man thanks me effusively for breakfast. Turns out I have unwittingly bought it. Buheilo nods. "You are a good man." I have paid for his too. I accept their gratitude gracefully. The role of patron is quite enjoyable.
Underway again the Somali behind me starts telling jokes. "Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Siad Barré all die and go to heaven for Judgement." The whole bus is listening while we wallow through mud, gears grinding. (Siad Barré, if you remember, was the Somali dictator from 1969 until 1991, widely accused of murder, torture and the worst human rights record in African history - until then, of course.)
"Reagan goes in first, and comes out, holding his head in his hands. Gorby goes in second and also comes out with his head in his hands. Then Barré goes in." He pauses for dramatic effect. The bus knows the punchline already. "Then God comes out, head in hands."
Across the aisle is an Oromo schoolteacher from Jima. "We started writing our language down two years ago." He has about 80 students in each class. "Our language is precious - they want to learn but we have so much war."
I try and sympathise. "I'm fortunate. In my country, Britain, we don't have war."
"Yes, you do," he says, determinedly. "Northern Ireland. War is never finished."
We enter the Awash National Park and stop for lunch. Buheilo rushes around making sure everyone eats. He has taken on the role of Mother Hen. I am Le Grand Patron. The white-haired old man cannot believe his luck. I don’t think he has eaten two meals in one day for a long time.
This is Afar country and the women are gorgeously colourful, wrapped in bright reds and yellows with hairbands of electric green, their hair in two large balls. The men look ready for combat: a long sword at the waist and a Kalashnikov on the shoulder.
The bus engine is making some horrible noises and we stop repeatedly for the driver and his assistant to rummage under the bonnet. Now and again they throw something out: an intestinal length of black cable, a tumorous blob of grease, a metallic implant. Then in one small town, the engine coughs up a black cloud and dies.
Buheilo takes control, shepherding the passengers up the main street. "There is a good hotel here. The bus will not move until morning."
The hotel is horrible. Rain is thundering down on the leaky tin roof. There is mud everywhere. I'm shown 'the best room' and it's full of cockroaches. I open the door to the bathroom and find a cow in there. It has got in through a broken door to the outside and now refuses to move, glowering at me.
In despair I go to the bar in time to see a woman attack a man with a Fanta bottle. Onlookers wrestle her to the floor. I ask the manager to deal with the cow in my bathroom, then set about drinking myself into a stupor. The tipple of choice is tej, beer made from honey, or araki for real emergencies. I drink araki. A flea bites my hand. The floor is alive with crickets and ants. Above all the noise there is wailing music, like a long drawn-out moan of absolute dejection.
Buheilo is smiling dreamily. "Lovely music." We drink on, joined by others. There is, at least, in all this squalor, a little camaraderie. I buy more araki and the camaraderie gets stronger.
The bus driver comes in and says, "We will leave at eleven thirty."
I go to my room. The cow has gone. I sit waiting. At eleven I go and knock on Buheilo's door. Time to go! He comes out, "Kevin, it is time for sleep." I have forgotten that the Ethiopian clock is different. Eleven thirty is dawn. I still have a night to get through. It is sheer hell. Fleas. Cockroaches. Mosquitoes. Rain. Mud. At two o'clock the cow comes back, bringing a friend. At three I chase them out and step in a cow pat. The man in the next room is having sex with a prostitute and the bed is banging against the wall.
At dawn I have not slept at all.
During the night the bus has been revived. After departure the Somali behind me starts telling more jokes. "Siad Barré dies and goes to Judgement. God shows him the various options. In one room Saddam Hussein is being tortured with fire. Barre says, "Well, not that one, thanks." In the next room the Ayatollah Khomeini is being repeatedly drowned in alcohol, screaming and choking. Barre says, "I'd rather not". God says there is only one more choice. He opens a door and there is Yasser Arafat making love to Madonna."
Everyone knows Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader with blotchy face and unattractive puffy lips, but some need to be told who Madonna is, the blonde sex goddess encased in corsetry who embodies everything indecent, and therefore attractive, about The West.
The Somali continues. "Siad Barre smiles and says, "Yes, please, I'll have that one." God laughs. He asks if Barré is sure. "You do realize that this room is Madonna's punishment?"
I am so tired that sleep comes like tiny electric shocks. And each time my forehead smacks the seat in front. The bus breaks down. I mean mechanically rather than emotionally. At Kalubi the driver announces that he can't continue. He will hitchhike to Dire Dowa for spare parts. I sleep where I sit. When I wake the afternoon is golden and sunset approaching. The road ahead will shut at nightfall because of bandits.
"There is a good hotel," says Buheilo. I start screaming uncontrollably, inwardly at least.
At that moment an enterprising mini-bus driver pulls up. He is offering to drive the last 80km - for an exorbitant price.
"Our driver will be back in one hour," says Buheilo, over-optimistically. "Maybe half an hour." We both know this is an outright lie. The driver will not be back before morning.
Buheilo remonstrates with everyone who is tempted to leave. He wants to keep the group together. We have become family, he says, together in adversity, sharing our food and our challenges. But I have the money and I cannot bear the thought of another horrible hotel. I get in the minibus.
As we drive away I look back to wave at Buheilo and see the faces of those left behind. Their expression is haunting: not jealous, not happy, not even resentful, just a simple acceptance. The millionaire had the money. The millionaire left. They always do.
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