Sacred literature in both Israel and Ethiopia describes Queen Makedas visit to
the king of Israel. The Queen of Sheba heard of Solomons fame ... and she came
to test him with hard questions, reads I Kings, chapter 10, in the Hebrew
Bible. She arrived in Jerusalem with a very large retinue, with camels bearing
spices, a great quantity of gold, and precious stones.
This Queen of the South was very beautiful in face, and her stature was
superb, says the ancient Ethiopian holy text Kebra Nagast [The Glory of Kings].
Her understanding and intelligence which God had given her were of such high
character that she went to Jerusalem to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Makeda,
known to the outside world as the Queen of Sheba, married Solomon, and they had
a son: Menelik, founder of the Ethiopian kingship (thus, through the twentieth
century, Ethiopian kings claimed Davidic descent).
The parasols, spinning like kaleidoscopes above the dusty crowded streets,
sparkle with ancient secrets.
The traditional and the modern swirl together like this everywhere. A shepherd
steers his ratty-looking sheep along the edges of the manicured, sloping lawn of
the palatial Sheraton Addis Hotel. A hand-lettered sign in a shop announces WE
RENT MOTORBIKES, CAMELS. On the road to Zoia, a motorcade of semitrailers is
stopped by a proud, skittish procession of Afar camels and nomads: the men, with
long curls knotted under bright head scarves, jog alongside their animals,
waving sticks and yelling, oblivious to the trucks idling on the highway before
them. On a hard-baked plain, a hundred miles south of electricity, a young
goatherd stands in a field, holding a wooden staff and wearing a T-shirt with
the Boston Red Sox baseball logo. And one day I glimpsed a shepherd and his
sheep hitching a ride out of Addis on the top of an oil tanker. They straddled
the silver missile and hung on for dear life, the mans hair and the animals
wool blown back in the wind.
Selamneh steered pell-mell through the wild traffic, throwing us from side to
side in the backseat. Children roamed the streets, tapping on our car windows to
offer packets of tissue, or individual eggs, or upside-down live chickens for
sale. Nearly two thirds of school-age children are not in school in Ethiopia,
nearly the worst record in the world, and only 41 percent of adults can read.
Boys and girls in V-necked maroon or sky-blue school sweaters (no matter how
ragged) are the envy of dustier, unschooled children. The uniformed ones swing
their notebooks and parade down the sidewalks in laughing, gossiping bunches,
full of optimism and expectation, confident that their uniforms and notebooks
will add up to something.
They will feel happy until one-half year or one year after high school
graduation, Selamneh told me. Then they will begin to realize something is
wrong. The urban unemployment rate here is also one of the worst in the world.
Leaning against buildings and walls, sharing cigarettes, watching the horsing
around of high school students only a few years younger than themselves, are
listless young men, endlessly waiting, increasingly shabby, who finished school
and then fell into an idleness from which there is no escape.
Adult beggars of every description tapped at the car windows. Nursing mothers
did this, wordlessly indicating the babies within their dusty shawls; and a man
with six fingers on each hand displayed his hands to idling motorists until they
threw coins at him to make him go away. A man with leprosy displayed an arm that
ended in a charcoal-like stump. Another turned a face disfigured by burns. A man
lay on a sidewalk displaying a hugely swollen, gangrenous leg from which the
foot had been amputated; it was huge as a fallen tree trunk, red and peeling. A
woman at the car window showed a face swallowed by an eye tumor, and a young boy
led his blind grandfather from car to car. It was a walking sideshow, a living
testimony to the statistics: 81 percent of Ethiopias people live on less than
two dollars a day, and 26 percent live on less than a dollar a day, the marker
of absolute poverty in the world.
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