3 February 2013

Ethiopia: Local Pubs Rare Hubs of Free Expression

Tej Bets are local pubs where honey mead is drunk. They have quite a number of unique features.

They seldom advertise their products. They would not have to advertise, even if they were offered free services.

Tej Bet names, coined by their regular customers, are enough of a promotion in themselves. These names either imply the quality of the brew or describe the premises wherein the drink is consumed.

Take the case of names like Edme Ketil (Age Extender), Nibo (The Bee) and Gedel Gibu (Go to Hell). Edeme Ketil is a name coined to imply that if one consumes the brand, they will keep getting younger and younger with each passing day. Gedel Gibu, on the other hand, implies that the alcohol content is so high that one would fall down flat after drinking just a flask or two.

Kwas Meda (Football Field) and Darfur are simply based upon the sites where the pubs are located. Coining names to pubs could be taken as the first sign of free speech, known perhaps as 'freedom of expression' in the parlance of politicians.

Of course, you cannot expect formalities, such as moderation or expressing thoughts in turns. A buzzing sound, reminiscent of a swarm of bees, is heard emanating from the lively conversation held between the regulars at the pub. Most regulars can usually be found in the same corner every night.

They have good reasons for marking their territory and staying put. There they can always find like-minded peers with whom they can crack jokes and tell stories.

New customers tend to come in two categories. There are those who "slip" down the economic ladder to join the less well off masses below. For these newcomers, any corner seat suits them just fine. They are nicknamed "new fowls", since they tend to come for "business" (meaning they tend to leave right after they finish drinking), until they integrate well with the regulars.

The second group of newcomers are those that have risen from rags to riches. Experts of tej say that honey mead is alcoholic and as such has to be consumed slowly. Newcomers do not follow this rule. They tend to guzzle it down as though it were a sweet brand of fizzy drink.

Newcomers of both types usually do not feel at ease. Regular customers notice these misplaced folks, who use either their body language or figurative speech to watch what comes out of their mouths.

Filtering ones thoughts and opinions is not a typical feature of Tej Bets. On the contrary, many customers feel at home when they join the swarm of regulars. They speak their minds freely, using each other's comments to spark new ideas.

Vendors are usually the source of many conversations. They pester customers, trying to sell their different wares; be it DVD's, chewing gum or shirts. If a potential buyer happens to show some interest - say in one shirt - the vendor tends to display several shirts before the formal bargaining commences. The potential buyer is trapped in deep water at this point and is soon trying to decide what to buy and how much to spend.

Lottery ticket vendors are the most aggressive, pushing their tickets up to one's eyes, vexing customers. Many vendors try to underplay their nuisance by taking a seat and ordering a flask of tej. Of course, they tend to take their time when drinking and thereby optimise the duration of their business stay there. Some of them even play games and conduct bets.

Snack vendors of cooked and roasted cereals, peanuts, beans, fried potatoes and sandwiches are also frequent visitors to Tej Bets. Some Tej Bets also run small butcheries within the same compound.

Game playing is another feature of Tej Bets. These include small time gambling games, such as calling out odd or even numbers until landing on a predetermined number. The lucky winner may win a prize, such as a fattened ram or whatever else may be available.

The animal is usually dragged home and slain, if the winner happens to be a newcomer. Whereas the regulars prefer to sell it back to the drinking community, and enable the vicious cycle of betting to continue.

The other feature associated with the Tej Bets is the ample opportunity to express one's thoughts without any fear. These days, the 29th African Cup of Nations, being held in South Africa, is the popular issue. The topic started gathering some steam ever since the Ethiopian team beat their Sudanese counterparts and qualified for the finals.

The other feature worth mentioning is that Tej Bets also serve as venues where tradables can be brought forth and advertised under the table. All negotiations take place in a language of their own. A vehicle may be referred to only by its manufacture date, and a mansion by the number of bedrooms it has.

Prices are quoted simply, without mentioning the word Birr. For instance, a 10-year old, two storey house in the Gullele sub-city is quoted as "1.5" - meaning 1.5 million Br.

Sometimes these clandestine dealings can even go deeper than that. Large sums of money are offered to gain the favour and influence of men in power or on the judiciary.

A lot can be seen in the small confines of Tej Bets in the city and freedom of speech is certainly exercised regularly, whether it is for the good or the bad of the community.

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