When we moved to Addis Ababa with our baby and toddler, it brought an explosion of change to our lives. There were the small things like no fish fingers or fresh milk. Then there were larger things like taking your baby to a country where measles is endemic, before they’ve been vaccinated; not seeing friends and relatives for months. There was a steep learning curve, but others who’d uprooted like us were just getting on with it, so we did.
We moved at the height of the refugee crisis and the Ebola outbreak. There was a lot of suffering in the region. Our challenges weren’t worthy of comparison. We enjoyed being away from the pressures of parenting back home. Ethiopia is a beautiful country and we were exploring it as a family. How lucky were we.
Then came reports of unrest. At first there were protests, but they quickly disappeared. The government had, after all, won 100% of the seats in the last election. Places we visited at weekends became unsafe, off-limits. Reports of unrest were replaced with reports of people being killed and injured in clashes with the government.
Then, one weekend we drove to a lake in the rift valley. Somewhere we visited a lot. There was no internet or phone connection there, so it wasn’t until we’d begun our journey home that we heard reports of what had been happening. A festival, which had become a protest, then a stampede, with many dead. We would need to drive past the epicentre on our journey home. At one point the British Embassy advised us to turn back. Radio messages from those behind us said the route back was blocked. We had to carry on. We drove slowly past protestors, our two young children in the back of the car, unaware of what was happening. The mood was tense, but peaceful. It didn’t remain so. Many places near Lake Langano, where we’d spent the weekend, were burnt to the ground later that day.
Not long after, the Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency and we were locked down in Addis Ababa. There were curfews and new laws affecting personal freedoms. People were frightened but also angry. Many were separated from relatives in other parts of the country. Food supplies to the capital dwindled. More homeless were visible on the streets of Addis as people arrived from the worst affected towns.
We had a freezer full of food already and 6 months’ worth of nappies. But our anxiety, like many people’s, was about not knowing what was going on. How likely was everything to fall apart. The internet was blocked, the mobile phone network was down. We could only guess what might happen next. We didn’t actually want to travel. Being in the city felt safer. We were close to the airport.
Some fared better than others under the new rules. Those with disposable income had smartphones and could download VPN to allow them to use blocked social media channels. They could contact relatives. Those who sympathised with the government, or who chose not to protest about land seizure or the absence of opposition parties were unlikely to be arrested.
There aren’t many parks, and hardly any pavements in Addis. Getting fresh air for the kids meant playing in the garden. We were fortunate to have one. Our chickens got a lot of exercise as the kids chased them round in circles.
Back in the UK, few people knew about what was happening. The most visible result of such circumstances was an increase in the number of refugees. More boats across the channel. In the UK there was more focus on how to stop people coming, rather than the source of their need to leave.
It’s hard to empathise with events happening far away, which aren’t going to happen to you.
So if one good thing is to come from COVID-19, perhaps it’s to change the way we think about events beyond our immediate experience. Because for the first time in living memory every country in the world is facing the same enemy. We watched something starting far away, and then the unimaginable happened. It came to us, too.
There’s no going back.
Perhaps now we can begin to define being ‘global’ in a different way. Less about transporting goods and people across the globe at great cost to the environment. More about acknowledging that we all cherish loved ones and freedom, and have the right to certain goods and amenities. We are all made of the same basic stuff. We all want the same basic stuff. Perhaps we could focus, instead, on sharing it out a bit more evenly.
Ele Fountain worked as an editor in children’s publishing where she helped launch and nurture the careers of many prize-winning and bestselling authors. Ele’s debut novel, Boy 87, won four awards and was nominated for nine more, including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. She lives in Hampshire with her husband and two daughters.