Opinionista Robyn Kriel 26 March 2019

Boeing crash adds to huge hurdles Ethiopia needs to overcome

Ethiopia needs a break. Plagued by bad leadership for decades, Ethiopians are finally one of the few good news stories.

Whenever I fly Ethiopian Airlines, I’m struck by the giant smiles of the flight attendants, clad in dark green and mustard yellow uniforms.

They are particularly friendly if I have my two-and-a-half-year-old son with me. Ethiopians, as a rule, adore children. They are cherished, spoiled and people are always excited to see them.

As soon as we board, the flight crew always give my boy a “gift pack” of puzzles, crayons and a tiny, stuffed lime green crocodile. He has a collection of crocodiles that he adores.

But now, strewn across a patch of rough ground outside Addis Ababa, is the same line green that adorns the planes they call the “Spirit of Africa”.

The day after Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed, killing all 157 people aboard, diggers were working to extract pieces of the plane, sifting through, looking for the passengers and crew.

Ethiopian Airlines napkins fluttered across the field in the breeze along with flight maps, luggage tags and business cards. A woman’s purse. A man’s shorts. Pieces of the engine. A crossword puzzle. A life vest.

As I arrived, a local journalist put his hand over his heart and said he was so sorry. It became a common theme. Ethiopians were ashamed, they felt they had failed.

The country is immensely proud. They are part of an ancient civilisation dating back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. They have their own language, their own deeply religious culture, food, calendar and even their time – their clock runs from dawn to dusk, not midnight to midnight and sits six hours behind what they call “Westerners” time.

Nine Ethiopians were killed on flight 302 en route to Nairobi, as well as people from at least 34 other nations. Locals stood around the site for days. They watched, cried and apologised.

Standing near the wreckage, a man came over with a tray and plastic cups of strong Ethiopian coffee. He too apologised, hand over his heart.

He says he works for Ethiopian Airlines and I asked if he knew the pilots or crew. He says yes, he was friends with one of them. He hands out the coffee. Hospitality through tragedy.

Ethiopia needs a break. Plagued by bad leadership for decades, they are finally one of the few good news stories. Prime minister Abiy Ahmed is affectionate, energetic, vivacious and young, but most of all he appears committed to democratic reforms and is putting his money where his mouth is.

Despite the new leadership, the country has tremendous hurdles to overcome. After decades of corrupt leadership and draconian laws that have bred suspicion, you can’t unscramble an egg overnight. Amidst the country’s stagnation, Ethiopian Airlines always stood out as their success story. The Emirates Airlines of Africa, their national pride.

The company sponsored everything in Ethiopia and its branding is a common sight. Its CEO, Tewolde Gebremariam, is known to be hands-on and incorruptible.

Now I’m writing as I sit on another Ethiopian Airlines flight, headed to Tanzania with my family. My son is kicking me as my mum tries to convince him to go to sleep.

Six minutes into the flight I thought of the terror those parents on flight 302 must have felt clutching their children as the plane plummeted.

Through my cloudy eyes, all I can do is hold mine tightly, as he holds his lime green crocodile. DM

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