Ethiopia: The last Greeks of Addis Ababa

Ethiopia: The last Greeks of Addis Ababa
From Al Jazeera - April 10, 2018

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - "Did you know that Ethiopia gets its name from the Greek word Aethiopia, first used by Homer?" Greek Ambassador to Ethiopia Nikolaos Patakias says proudly.

Sitting in his office in the capital Addis Ababa, Patakias shows an ancient Greek romantic novel, The Aethiopica. It's a love story about the relationship between the daughter of the queen of Ethiopia and a Greek descendant of Achilles.

Also in his possession are photographs of relics from the ancient Ethiopian Kingdom of Axum. These include the famous Ezana Stone and some gold coins, both of which have ancient Greek scripture written on them.

"Tradition counts for a lot in Ethiopia and Greece, we follow it by the book," says businessman Odysseas Parris, 57, sitting in a Greek restaurant close to the ambassador's residence.

"We are very lucky because we get to enjoy festivities from both cultures."

As he sips his frappe - Greek iced coffee - and his wife Anastasia Mitsopoulou smokes and talks expressively with friends, they are unmistakably Mediterranean.

Yet Parris and Mitsopoulou are two of Addis Ababa's second generation Ethio-Greeks. Both of Parris' grandfathers were Greek and grandmothers Ethiopian. He, and his parents before him, were born in Ethiopia.

Mitsopoulou's story is similar, though she is also part Italian. But being part of what are arguably two of the world's proudest and most ancient cultures is not always easy, says Mitsopoulou, a teacher at the Greek Community School.

"Neither country really accepts us as one of them. In Greece we are Ethiopians, and in Ethiopia we are Greeks," she says with a sigh.

Greek sailors and merchants began emigrating to Ethiopia in significant numbers in the late 1800s. It is likely some were refugees of the Greek Genocide, Greek Civil War, and later the military dictatorship.

In its heyday, the embassy here estimates the Greek community numbered between 5,000 and 6,000 people.

Influential members of society

Eleni Tsimas, 80, is at the Greek Orthodox Church in Piazza, Addis' old Italian quarter. Although an ethnic Greek, Tsimas was born in Ethiopia to parents who ran a small business. Asked if she feels more Ethiopian or more Greek, she quickly replies, "I am Ethiopian. In Greece I am a foreigner. What to do?"

From age 18, she worked at Bambis, a pharmacy, grocery and eventually supermarket owned by a rich Greek family who moved to Addis in 1890. In the subsequent decades, Greeks became influential members of Ethiopian society and were among the closest advisers to Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor and Rastafarian messiah famous for resisting Italian dictator Mussolini's invasion.

"I met him many times, we'd go to the palace. He was something special. He would stop the car and give us golden coins," remembers Tsimas, who ended up marrying into the Bambis family.

But like thousands of other Greeks, the Bambis fled Ethiopia in the '70s following a revolution that overthrew the royal family, installing the Derg communist dictatorship that ruled the country from 1974 to 1987. With this came the nationalisation of all property and hostility towards foreigners, so most of the Ethio-Greek community left.

This included Tsimas and her husband. "They came with guns to take over the shop, claiming it as public property," she recalls.

Always yearning to return to Ethiopia during their 20 years in Greece, after the Derg regime fell Tsimas' husband saw Bambis was up for auction and won the bid. Today, they run the supermarket together.

"I started at age 18 and at age 80 I am back again. Yesterday I worked from eight in the morning until eight in the evening. I always work. I even delivered my children in the grocery," Tsimas says with a chuckle.

Greek community today

On the eve of Greek Independence Day there is a buzz in the Santorini Greek Restaurant as members and friends of the community drop in and out, frenetically discussing celebration plans. As everyone sits at one big table chatting, popcorn - made traditionally as part of Ethiopian coffee ceremonies - is brought as a snack to have with drinks. Greek salads, souvlaki and tzatziki soon follow.

The new Ethio-Greeks

'Magical culture'


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