Cycling around Europe promoting Ethiopia
Ethiopia, cycling, Girmay Mesfin, France, Switzerland, Germany, racism, travel,
For more than a year, Girmay Mesfin, a young Ethiopian, has been travelling around Europe on his bicycle to promote his country. On a cold winter’s day he arrived in Geneva, his last stop in Switzerland. After a couple of days in the City of Calvin, Girmay will be setting off for Italy and Spain before heading back home. He started his campaign in Addis Ababa, took the plane to Paris and cycled through France to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and finally Switzerland.
His inspiration came when studying tourism in France. People asked him if he had become chubby after arriving there, because they thought that all Ethiopians were tall and skinny. “I was very embarrassed because they told me that Ethiopia is a land of famine,” Girmay explains. “I told them that this was not true and that they were victims of television. There is another image of Ethiopia. You may think that there is only desert in my country, but we have more than twenty-five rivers, seven or eight lakes, and the largest lake in the Horn of Africa. The country is only about 10 to 15% of dessert; the rest is all green! The reason why there is starvation in the country is not because of a lack of resources.”
“So I started to hold meetings, showing people documentary films, showing photographs, brochures, etc. Suddenly, people became interested in travelling to Ethiopia. This positive feedback motivated me”.
“When I finished my studies, I wanted to make my own personal contribution on behalf of my country”. Girmay went back to Ethiopia and talked to the Ministry of Tourism about changing the image of the county –– and also his bike project.
“If I had waited for financing, I would have to wait for a long time,” he says, adding: “People may never have met anybody who suggests this kind of project, so they do not trust him. I did not want to give people the impression that I was begging for funds, so I decided to do it on my own. If people understand that this project can bring about some kind of change for the country, then anybody is free to participate and help me. Or they can create their own projects. These kinds of initiatives will be of mutual benefit both for Ethiopians and the Europeans.”
While working as a tourist guide in Ethiopia, he started saving money to realize his dream. His friends and family tried to make him change his mind. “They told me that I was crazy and it would be impossible for me to do something like that.” They said: “You know in Europe there are lots of small rural towns where people may never have seen a black person in their whole life. Perhaps there will be racism, xenophobia and finally it’s very expensive and cold –– what about the snow? Just do something else!” These were the recommendations of his well-intentioned friends.
However, being a determined young man, he decided to listen only to himself –– and just go for it. He put it this way: “I just took my bike and announced that I would go off on this tour.”
“Now I have discovered that it is they who were wrong and not me. Up to now, it’s really been very successful and I have not had any problems. It’s been the opposite. I have been so welcomed by a lot of Europeans, been invited to their homes where they cooked me meals, gave me clothes, repaired my bike for free. To date, more than twenty newspapers throughout Europe have printed my story and I have also received TV coverage in Belgium and Germany. It’s beyond my expectations. My parents are also very surprised over this warm welcome.”
In every town where he goes, Girmay will hold a meeting where he invites journalists, tour operators and the people he has met. In his luggage he has a video projector and a portable DVD. So even in the smallest villages he can show them a documentary film about his country. “In Ethiopia we have eight world heritage sites recognized by UNESCO. We have more than eighty different tribes, eighty different languages and more than 200 dialects.”
“There are lots of Europeans who are interested in cultural history, and in Ethiopia we have a lot to offer,” he says, before telling us about Lucy, the Queen of Sheba, the first Christian church, etc.
While travelling around he realized that a lot of people had bikes that they no longer used, so he asked people to give him their second-hand bikes so that he can send them back home. “You see, in Ethiopia there are a lot of school drop-outs. One of the reasons is that these children must walk a long way to school. In many cases they cannot afford transportation, so what I want to do is to create this bike project enabling these youngsters to continue going to school.” Up to date, he has collected 200 bikes, and once he has got 500 they will be shipped to Ethiopia. In Bern, the police officers have already given him bikes for his project and they will continue doing so.
Once back home, he will prepare an exhibition to share his experience. He will invite diplomats, government officials and other interested persons to attend. They will learn that one person can really make a difference, without spending lots of money.
Then he will start to plan for the next bicycle trip –– to Canada and the United States!
“I have realized how little the rest of the world knows about Ethiopia. What they know is only the negative issues. This is the fault of misappropriate coverage by Western media about the country’s poverty. I realize that the world still has a wrong perception about the real image of Ethiopia. Who is responsible for this, I ask myself? Everybody can say it’s the government, or the Europeans, or the media coverage. That’s one thing, but the ordinary citizens like me should react and say: ‘It’s not true what these people are telling you about my country!’ I feel I have to promote the image of my country and that our tourism potential should be known all over the world.”
“As an Ethiopian I feel very sad when I hear that people in my county are starving. If I had the chance to change that, I would do a lot of things.”
“As the young generation, we have to do something for our country –– contribute to change and not only think about ourselves. My grandfather fought against the Italian invasion; he taught me a lot. Today, foreign aid and foreigners come to us like baby-sitters to do things for us, as if we were incapable and did not know how to develop our own county. It drives me mad! Increased tourism would create jobs and bring foreign currency to the country, and that’s a field where I would like to continue working, either in developing programmes for Ethiopian tourism or working for the Ministry of Tourism. To work as an Ethiopian who shows concern about our history, culture, nature, wild life … that’s my wish!
It could be said that he has succeeded in his endeavour. He has created a lot of positive impact, both nationally and internationally. Lots of Ethiopians are sending me e-mails, encouraging him and telling me that they are proud about what he has achieved. He serves as a source of inspiration. However, it’s not only in Ethiopia that people have been inspired … young people elsewhere in Asia, the USA, the rest of Africa.
If you feel like learning more about his trip (and if you have a bicycle to contribute), you can find more information on www.incredible-ethiopia.com and you can contact Girmay Mesfin on: firstname.lastname@example.org