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Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
15. Medical, Political, and Dietary Innovations of Menilek’s Day
In recent issues we have been examining various innovations of Menilek’s time.
Other innovations of this period, in the cultural field, included the founding of the first Amharic newspaper Aimro in 1902 and the establishment of a Government printing press in 1911.
The Russian Red Cross Hospital
There were also innovations to chronicle on the medical side.
A Russian Red Cross hospital, operated in Addis Ababa from 1897 to 1907, but was later succeeded, in 1910, by the Menilek II Hospital. Ras Makonnen had earlier set up a hospital in Harar in 1902.
These institutions were never short of patients. The Ethiopian public, as we have seen in previous articles, were always quick to accept new ideas, or cures, in the field of medicine. “The superiority of European medicine,” claimed the British author Willes Jennings, “is freely admitted and whenever it can be had is readily sought”.
True, up to a point, but if an Indian or Chinese medical team, or one from the Moon, had arrived they too would have attracted no small attention from Ethiopian would-be patients!
Politically, the personal character of Menelik’s administration was retained until the latter part of his reign. Failing health, and the increasing complexity of government appears to have subsequently caused the ageing monarch to decide on establishing Ethiopia’s first cabinet.
This decision was taken in October 1907, and, according to chronicler Gabra Sellassie, stemmed from his master’s desire of “implanting European customs in our country.” Gabra Sellassie would appear to be correct in this assertion. A letter from the Emperor to the British envoy, announcing the formation of the Ministry, declared:
“It is some time since we thought of introducing a European system into our country. You have always … said it would be good if we too would adopt some of the European systems.”
The Ministers in question held the portfolios of the Palace, War, Finance, Justice, Commerce, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Agriculture, Public Works and Posts, Telephones and Telegraphs .
Democracy “Would Not Work” in Ethiopia
The Emperor, however, seems to have had little confidence in the possibility of introducing democratic institutions in Ethiopia. The French envoy Klobukowski reports a conversation in which Menilek questioned him on the working of the French Parliamentary system. The envoy, having alluded to political difficulties, the Emperor asked, “Then the Government is not the master in your country?”. “It is,” Klobukowski replied, “but on condition of being approved by Parliament.” “And if Parliament does not approve?”, the Emperor asked. “It must wait,” was the reply, “take up the questions afresh, modify them, discuss the matter again.” On hearing these words Menelik is said to have wrinkled his eyebrows, and to have commented : “Here that would not work.”
Wise words, dear Menilek!
A few years later, on March 31, 1911, the British envoy Wilfred Thesiger noted : “The Council of Ministers . . . is a novel institution, and its members have only a vague idea of their duties or of their powers, while as a body they have the confidence neither of the country nor of the principal rases, who are to all intents semi-independent.”
The Menelik era also witnessed the establishment of the first foreign legations in the country. The most important, in the early days, were those of Britain and France, Italy and Russia. Diplomatic missions were also received, at one time or another, from the Sudanese Mahdists, the Ottoman Empire, Germany, Belgium, and the United States.
Changes in Social Life
While Menelik was thus laying the foundations of a modern state, significant innovations were taking place, sometimes imperceptibly, in the country’s economic and social life, mainly in and around the capital, but to a lesser extent also in the area of other towns. These changes may be seen in food and drink, clothing, and housing and other fields.
The general attitude to food was, as ever, conservative. Donaldson Smith stated, for example that, at the end of the nineteenth century potatoes, were only eaten by European residents as the public at large thought the tubers were a slow poison.
Important hanges in the field of food can nevertheless be discerned in several directions.
In the first place, it was realised that the method of grinding grain could be transformed without bringing about any alteration in the character of the enjara, or traditional Ethiopian pancake-like bread. Because of the immense need of flour for his great banquets, Menilek established a mechanical mill. It was situated opposite the Palace, and managed by an Englishman called Walker, who ran the machines on coal, mined by the peasants of Tegulet on a corvee basis. The mill also supplied most of the chiefs, as well as members of the public, who were charged a quarter of a dollar per daoula of grain.
There was also a mill run by a Frenchman, M. Stevenin, which was fitted in 1909 with a petrol engine, and subsequently with an electric engine. Mention should also be made of a couple or so of Greek mills. All three were set up on the basis of private initiative.
Sale of enjara
The growth of the Addis Ababa population led to a second major development, namely an extensive trade in enjara, a commodity which had hitherto been made for home use only, and not for sale. Dr Merab recalls that, towards evening, all the squares and cross-roads of the metropolis would be invaded by multitudes of women, many of them Gurages, who came to sell the enjara they had made. They would sit on the ground with a large basket in front of them containing 20 to 50 pieces.
The presence of a large foreign community resulted meanwhile in a third significant development, namely the establishment of bakeries for the production of European-type bread. The most modern of these concerns were run by foreigners, such as Stevenin and several Greeks and Armenians, but there were also a number of bakeries in Ethiopian hands.
The growth of Addis Ababa also gave rise to changes in the manner of slaughtering, and obtaining meat. Hitherto it had been traditional for groups of families to join together to purchase an ox or cow. The poor animal would then be killed, and cut into pieces, whereupon one of the co-proprietors would often be blind-folded, and throw down tree leaves at random indicating to whom each piece should belong. Though private slaughtering continued, a municipal abattoir was set up in the early twentieth century at the foot of the Palace hill, near the hot springs of Finfini, where the no less poor animals were slaughtered more scientifically. The meat shops were mainly square or rectangular huts, with the barest of equipment. Cutting and chopping was usually carried out on a case or a large block of wood, or stone.
The trade in beef was largely monopolised by Gurages, while that in mutton was in the hands of Arabs, Greeks and Armenians. This division was due to the fact that the foreign butchers, who catered mainly for foreigners like themselves, seldom had enough clientele to justify their killing so large an animal as an ox. The Ethiopian population, on the other hand, was slow to acquire the habit of purchasing pieces of mutton, and preferred to buy a live sheep.
Restaurants and Drinking Houses
Another significant development of the period was the establishment of hotels and restaurants, which had hitherto been non-existent. The idea of opening the first modern hotel seems to have come from Emperor Menilek himself, but the edifice was actually built by Empress Taitu in 1907, and was called the Etege, or Empress Hotel. The chronicler, Gabra Sellassie, quaintly describes it as a “house for strangers, called hotel”, and notes that it served the finest food of both Europe and Ethiopia. He adds that, at this hotel, people paid according to the dishes they ordered. This obviously struck him as significant, for it was quite different from the free hospitality traditionally encountered at the Palace, and elsewhere.
Besides the Etege, which was much frequented by Ethiopians who had been abroad, there was the Hotel de France, which was established by M.Terras, a Frenchman from Marseilless.
Two or three Greek-owned restaurants and about a dozen coffee bars, also Greek, were set up in the same period. Dr Merab claims that the best known, around 1913, were the Splendid Bar and the Bar d’Europe. The first Ethiopian-owned restaurant, he says, opened in 1909. It belonged to Ato Ayele, and displayed a sign board declaring:
“In Ato Ayele’s hotel there is excellent food for Christians. Enter Buy ! There are dishes for fast and non fast days.”
Other early Ethiopian restaurateurs were Ato Kabada and Ato Alamu.
Innumerable taj bets, or bars for the consumption of taj, or meat, also sprang up in the early twentieth century. Dr Merab estimated their number at 50 in 1908, 100 in 1913, and at least 1,000 by 1922.
This, if true, was expansion on the grand scale, worthy of note by any government statistician!
Alcoholic Drink, and Drunkenness
Ethiopians appear to have been more responsive to change in the field of drink than of food. At the turn of the century Herbert Vivian described a French store in the capital with shelves of bottles of wines and spirits, many of them rather crude, but with elaborate labels, with legends such as “Grande Marque Extra Fine ! ” He adds:
“My curiosity was pricked as to the market which the man could hope to find for such luxuries in the heart of Abyssinia. He replied, with a smile, ‘I don’t recommend those; they are intended for the natives and contain the filthiest muck you ever imagined”.
Nothing like a little racism, in the retail trade!