I count, among my many talents, the ability to make people feel uncomfortable by asking awkward questions, or by telling random stories at inappropriate times.
But in Ethiopia, anyone can do it! All you have to do is bring up the subject of homosexuals. On my last day in Ethiopia, I was hanging out with a young hotel worker. He wanted to make my last day in Ethiopia a pleasant one (because he thought I wasn’t treated right by another employee), so he showed me around Addis Ababa, and I had a beer with his friends.
In the spirit of small talk, I told him how, on one of my layovers flying to Ethiopia, I’d noticed a lot of homosexual males making out with each other. I said, “It’s not unusual to see this sort of thing, but at that particular airport, it was all over the place. I was confused – until I remembered that I was in San Fransisco.”
“Men hold each others’ hands all the time. It’s no big deal,” he replied. Indeed, in Ethiopia (and black Africa in general) it is common for same-sex friends to hold hands or put each others’ arms over each others’ shoulders. It signifies friendship, and no more.
“I’m not talking about just friendship…” I explained.
His eyes widened, and he became animated. “Oh no! We don’t have that sort of thing in Ethiopia. If it does occur, it’s only because that person was raped, or abused, as a child and his mind was messed up.”
And that’s how I learned that there are no homosexuals in Ethiopia. Except that, while staying at a hotel in Jinka, in the south, I happened to notice a printout of the hotel rules in my room:
I found rule #2 amusing but not surprising; Ethiopian law calls for the death penalty for homosexual activity – though I doubt it’s ever actually been carried out. I was told that this rule is common in Ethiopian hotels, though hotels that cater to Americans and Europeans might tone it down.
Even though I followed the rules at that hotel, I still got sick. My room had numerous insects, including mosquitoes, flying around, and this was a malaria zone. So I asked for some bug spray at the reception desk. They had some, and I sprayed it at the bugs as needed. I didn’t use much of it. Unfortunately, the window to my room had no screen, so I kept the window shut and, as I was tired, I laid down. After about half an hour, my throat was scratchy and I knew I was getting sick. The bug spray they use over there is much more powerful than what we have in the U.S. I’d poisoned myself, and I can still feel traces of the effect in my throat. Seasoned travelers to Africa know to bring their own window screens. Too bad I hadn’t thought of that.