Former French Ambassador to Ethiopia between 2003 and 2007, Ambassador Stéphane Gompertz, was back in Addis Ababa this past week. The ambassador, who is currently the director for Africa in the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, came carrying this time around a personal memoir accompanied by pictures taken by his spouse Cristina which collectively help compile a dazzling book entitled ‘Le Sourire En Chemin, Chroniques Éthiopiennes’ or ‘Smiling Along The Way chronicle Ethiopia’.
The book already on sale in French book stores has attracted a lot of attention across francophone readers. After introducing the new book at the Alliance Ethio-Francaise on Wednesday for readers in Ethiopia, Ambassador Gompertz talks about his new book and what he makes of Ethiopia’s progress since his departure in an interview with Capital’s Teguest Yilma and Kirubel Tadesse.
Capital: How did you come to write this book?
Stéphane Gompertz: The idea came gradually. I visited a lot of places, and saw a lot of people when I was in Ethiopia. And I didn’t think it would be a book but I wanted to remember the experiences. Since I am a lousy photographer, because I have shaky hands, my wife is the one who takes pictures (she actually takes wonderful pictures and some of them are produced in the book), I wrote down what I felt and the lessons I learned. So I started to take notes on pieces of paper and later decided to write them in order and accumulated them in my computer so that I can remember them better. After that I thought maybe it could be a substance to a possible book; this is how it started.
Capital: This is your second book; you published ‘Malgré Rothko’ in 2008. Tell us more about it, what message did you want to pass with ‘Le Sourire en Chemin’?
Gompertz: It basically focuses on people. Ethiopia is a beautiful country and tremendously developing but landscapes or places don’t play a prominent role; I am more interested in meeting people, people from all backgrounds. They can be journalists like you, politicians, farmers, business people, people with disabilities, artists and particularly people who were active in non-governmental organizations and civil societies. One of the things that struck me most in this country is that Ethiopia has a vibrant civil society. I was able to help some of those organizations with my wife, Cristina; my wife was incredibly active. In return we were able to help and meet wonderful people; and we received at least as much as we gave.
The message I want readers to hear is; Ethiopia is worth discovering and we should go beyond the clichés. We should go beyond superficial approaches, what is important is communicating with people. Also, I want to convey the sense of vibrancy I feel in Ethiopian society. I don’t mean to deny the difficulties or the conflicts, but I want to convey the sense of optimism. I know there are a lot of things to resolve and I know there are a lot of things I disagree with in this country; there are a lot of things that make me feel ill at ease but generally speaking I feel very optimistic about the future of the country and this is what I want to convey.
Capital: What are the things that make you feel ill at ease?
Gompertz: Few things… first the lack of trust between authorities [national and local levels] and civil society. It is not only a case in Ethiopia; it is also a case in other countries but I think it is particularly true here. It might go back to the long standing tradition of the Amhara Kingdom- Shewa Kingdom.
The second thing which makes me feel ill at ease is the weight of bureaucracy. We the French have our own bureaucracy. I myself am part of it, so I know how it can be a pain in the neck. I think all efforts should be to alleviate the weight of bureaucracy. Obviously it doesn’t mean there should be no rule of law; it is necessary to strike the right balance between the rule of law on the one hand and freedom to undertake and express oneself on the other.
Another thing is obviously poverty. The economy is making a lot of progress, very impressive. But still when I see beggars on the street, people with disabilities and not enough hospitals and doctors especially in rural areas, I feel a sense of urgency. I do think Ethiopia is going in the right direction but we should not be complacent.
Capital: Tell us three things you think readers should retain from your book?
Gompertz: One is the generosity and inventiveness of some people I met, especially people in NGOs and the humanitarian sector…. people who are active in helping women, children, sick, elderly and handicapped people.
The second thing is the prominence of art. I was struck by the inventiveness of Ethiopian artists but particularly painters. I met a lot of them, some of them became friends. When we arrived in Ethiopia, Cristina and I told ourselves we should not acquire any painting in Ethiopia as we have no room to put them in France. However, we left Ethiopia with more than sixty paintings and sculptures, actually when I was here last, I got another one. The same can be said about musicians, there are really very good singers.
The third thing that struck me is the contrast between bitterness and distrust in one hand and a gift of reconciliation in the other. Obviously I like to allude to the procedure called ‘Yikerta’ (Pardon) which allows thousands of detainees to be freed every year. On one particular occasion those detainees were leaders of the opposition. I think a country that is able to implement such a procedure necessarily has a bright future. If you allow me I’d like to add one more feeling. Ethiopia is encountering many problems, there are still a lot of conflicts which are not resolved but I am quite convinced that it has a bright future and after one generation or two it will be one of the leading economies and power of the continent.
Capital: You have been to other countries but you have not really sat down and written about them… Where does your passion for Ethiopia come from?
Gompertz: I first wanted to come to Ethiopia without knowing the country. Seeing it from far away I found it fascinating for its history, old culture and the fact that it is perhaps the only country that has never been colonized. Also when I entered the Foreign Service, I read a wonderful book: ‘The Book of Ankober’ written by a friend of mine who passed away unfortunately. He was posted in Ethiopia in a difficult time, because it was under the Dergue, and actually the poor fellow had to leave after a year and half expelled from the country for political reasons, nothing to do with him. Upon his return, he wrote this wonderful novel based on his Ethiopian experience and that was 27 years ago. When I read this book, I said I have to see this country. So when I saw there was an opening for the post of ambassador, I applied and lobbied hard to get it. I think those four years in Ethiopia were the most intense in my life, and I enjoyed every day.
Capital: How would you expect an average French reader’s perception to be influenced by your book?
Gompertz: I hope they will be more curious about Ethiopia. Actually this is what some readers have told me. I have received phone calls, email and letters from readers and they all told me ‘now we feel like visiting this country because we are really missing something’. Above all I think it has provoked some curiosity. Then it depends on how long people stay here and how they organize their visit; if for example they only come for a week to see Lalibela, Gonder, Bahir Dar and other places, it is great but it is not sufficient.
Capital: How did you choose the title of your book?
Gompertz: I was struck by two things. People who walk in Ethiopia, either in the city or the country side, smiling is one of the beautiful pictures I retained in Ethiopia… an image of a road by night and people who are walking along the road, people in white dresses coming from a celebration or market. People in this country are beautiful and very elegant; and the way they walk really strikes me. Also the fact that there are a lot of smiles, people in the street smile a lot, in a very dignified way. Besides since I am very optimistic about Ethiopia the title aims at giving the idea that something nice is awaiting this country. The country can, despite all the difficulties, smile because it will have a bright future.
Capital: You were posted here during the 2005 elections period, where the diplomatic community alongside the elders’ council were involved with the ruling party and the opposition. Should readers hope to read about it in your book?
Gompertz: No. I could have dealt with politics but I didn’t think it was appropriate. As an acting diplomat I have to keep some restraint, so I do not think it is appropriate for me to delve into politics. There are only two exceptions, but marginal ones. One is a description of visits I paid to prisons with the authorization of the government. And the other one is a description of the ‘Yikerta’ (Pardon) procedure as applied to the leaders of the opposition. But I haven’t written about them from a political point of view but a human point of view.
Obviously there are a lot of things I could say, like many of my colleagues I had friendly contacts with members of the government and members of the opposition. But I think it is too early to go into it, perhaps later.
Capital: Since your departure here four years ago; which areas would you say have progressed significantly and which areas do you see suffering a major setback?
Gompertz: I think there is improvement at least in two areas. One is energy. Electricity production is continuing; I know there is some controversy about the Millennium Dam but altogether Ethiopia is progressing very rapidly as far as electricity production is concerned. I think this is a major progress. Also food security; I think there has been a lot of progress.
I think Ethiopia is still lagging behind as far as telecommunications are concerned. I know a French company has been tasked with overseeing Ethio Telecom, we will see what comes out of it. But I feel that sooner or later the Ethiopian authorities will have to open the market for telecommunications. When I was here my colleagues and I had numerous discussions with the Prime Minister and other members of the government because if we want the economy to flourish, we need better communications; better access to broadband Internet and those kinds of things. I also think the banking sector is lagging behind to make the same remark. It will be inevitable to open this market too to foreign banks, not immediately but gradually.
Now I know also there is a lot of political tension. I think the present condition that the opposition has only one member in parliament is not healthy. It is not healthy for the opposition, the government or anybody. I am not saying it should be this or that party who should be in power that is for the Ethiopian people to decide – we don’t have to interfere. But in any country it is good to have a strong opposition which can challenge the government, express its own ideas, make proposals, and there can be dialogue, strong sometimes, but it is good to have a strong opposition. I hope the next elections will allow the opposition, whoever it is or whoever is in power. I don’t want to go too much into details but I just want to reiterate what I said; I think more trust between authorities and civil societies will be useful.