Ethiopia: The last Greeks of Addis Ababa

Ethiopia and Greece’s relationship dates back to ancient times, and a small community is keeping both cultures alive.

Ethiopia Greece
Ambassador Nikolaos Patakias takes a photo on the eve of Hellenic National Day [Thomas Lewton/Al Jazeera]

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’re 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.

Anastasia Mitsopoulou and Odysseas Parris [Alice McCool/Al Jazeera]
Anastasia Mitsopoulou and Odysseas Parris [Alice McCool/Al Jazeera]

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 isn’t 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.

Eleni Tsimas [Alice McCool/Al Jazeera]
Eleni Tsimas [Alice McCool/Al Jazeera]

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.

Around the table are second generation Ethio-Greeks, half-Ethiopian Greeks who have recently moved to Addis, and Ethiopians who are in some way connected to Greece through study, work or marriage.

Later in the evening, Ambassador Patakias and his family swing by for dinner and to show off posters they have made for the celebration, set to be even bigger than usual this year. As well as a special ceremony at the Greek Orthodox Church, and a showcase of Greek dancing and poetry at the Greek Community School, an official party is being held at the Greek Club – and Alternate Foreign Minister for European Affairs George Katrougalos will be in attendance.

These institutions in the city are at the heart of the now 500-person small Greek community in Addis. But a number of those interviewed said infighting has left some Ethio-Greeks feeling excluded. Community leaders, some say, lead with an iron fist and resist change. Some spoke of financial disputes, others of backward attitudes, such as prejudice against Turkish people who came to play a friendly sports match at the Greek Club.

Gabriel Shebale, an Ethiopian doctor who lived in Athens for nearly 30 years, is a friend of the community. He agrees there are issues “because they often only interact with each other, and are not the largest community. They develop a ghetto-like system. The infighting makes the community weaker,” he says.

The new Ethio-Greeks

Barbara Gembiaou owns the restaurant, which she runs with the help of her brother Filippos. Born in Greece but half-Ethiopian, Gembiaou moved to Addis eight years ago and set up Santorini shortly afterwards. Filippos followed a year later.

Both now have families in Ethiopia (new Ethio-Greeks) and they seem settled for now. Painted the Greek national colours of blue and white, the mainly al fresco restaurant full of dusty trinkets and old postcards has the homely feel of a Greek taverna.

The siblings are two of an increasing number of Greeks – some with Ethiopian heritage, others not – who moved to Ethiopia after the start of the Greek financial crisis in 2007. This is what brought back Shebale, the Ethiopian doctor, who said that with the crisis came increasingly negative attitudes towards foreigners.

Meanwhile, the embassy is encouraging Greeks to invest in Ethiopia’s agriculture, technology, textile and export industries. Ambassador Patakias recently stated in the local media that trade between the two countries has risen from 12 million euros (roughly $14.7m today) in 2013 to 22.5 euros million (roughly $27.6m today) in 2016, and he expects it to increase at an even faster rate over the next few years.

Filippos Gembiaou at the Santorini Greek Restaurant [Thomas Lewton/Al Jazeera]
Filippos Gembiaou at the Santorini Greek Restaurant [Thomas Lewton/Al Jazeera]

‘Magical culture’

But Gembiaou makes it clear she didn’t set up her restaurant solely for business reasons.

“It’s our house and we invite people in. As you’ve seen this place doesn’t feel like a restaurant – you’re only reminded it is when you have to pay before you leave,” she says, adding, “It’s the soul of this place that makes it Greek.”

“Ethiopian culture is something magical for me and I still haven’t discovered it all yet,” explains Gembiaou, who sees many similarities between the two cultures.

“First there’s the religion which gives you a culture, even if you don’t believe. The fact that Ethiopia was never colonised is also important. They are very proud, as the Greeks are of how they freed their heritage from the Ottomans. So that makes our connection stronger.”

The restaurant owner goes on to highlight more day-to-day cultural similarities.

“Ethiopian and Greek TV dramas are similar. And coffee culture – we can both meet for coffee and pass three hours talking without realising it,” she says with a laugh.

Gembiaou’s initial reason for visiting Ethiopia was personal. “After my father died we discovered among his personal things that we have a brother here who he left behind, so I came to find him,” she explains.

Gembiaou found her brother – and even ended up marrying the Ethio-Greek who helped her locate him. The two have one child together, though they are now divorced.

A captain in the Royal Ethiopian Navy, Barbara and Filippos’ Ethiopian father travelled to Greece to train as part of a bilateral agreement between the two countries. He later went on to set up the first Ethiopian restaurant in the country.

“My father was one of the committee to sign the contract between the two navies 60 years ago,” Gembiaou says with pride.

She adds this is particularly relevant today as the during the Greek minister’s visit a similar agreement will be signed, giving young Ethiopian seafarers the opportunity to work on Greek vessels.

Gembiaou pauses for a minute and then adds: “I feel extremely happy about this because for me it’s like history making circles.”

The Greek Club in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia [Thomas Lewton/Al Jazeera]
The Greek Club in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia [Thomas Lewton/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera