Kim Lovegrove’s Inaugural Speech as Ethiopian Honorary Consul to Victoria

Kim Lovegrove’s Inaugural Speech as Ethiopian Honorary Consul to Victoria

13 Mar 2019

By Kim Lovegrove RML, FAIB

My new title is Honorary Consul to Ethiopia, an apt title for it is my honour to be of service to the great nation of Ethiopia. Protocol dictates that I make mention of the VIPs that are in attendance at this function. The list of VIPs, I am afraid, is too extensive for me to announce in light of the time constraints. Suffice to say, every Australian, African and Consulate dignitary at this event is a VIP, for you are all important in light of your leadership and roles that you all play in your respective communities. So thank you all for attending this Consulate launch.

I am often asked, by both Ethiopians and ‘farangies’ (Caucasian people), “what is your interest in Ethiopia?” There will be some here tonight also who understandably ask that question; so I will do my best to answer it.

There are many reasons, my family lineage being primary, in that it has, from a young age, shaped my great affection for this ancient country.

My late grandfather, Norman Lovegrove, held a senior UNESCO post in Ethiopia in the 1950s and 60s where he was involved in educational capacity-building. Grandfather is today represented by his son Barry Lovegrove who first visited Ethiopia in the late 1950s as an 18 year old.

Barry went on to lecture in law in Malawi in the 1960s and concluded his career as a District Court judge in New Zealand.

Returning to my grandfather, Norman – having left the relative middle class comforts of New Zealand as a senior educator, he soon realised that the economic and logistical challenges of the country were such that it would be cost-prohibitive to build and staff the great many schools that were required at that time, as the country was very poor.

So he had to think outside the circle.  He persuaded the UN to invest in a fleet of VW Kombi Vans to enable Ethiopian teachers to drive into rural settings and bring schooling to the children, be they herdspersons, village children, or the destitute. The initiative was well received and VW Kombis with the iconoclastic blue UN sign became a common sight in the most isolated of rural settings where the classroom was brought to the fields as it were.

In 1966, I spent 3 months in Addis Ababa with my parents, as my parents were on academic sabbatical. My late grandmother, Evelyn, had developed a great fondness for Ethiopians.

In fact, both grandparents were somewhat besotted with the people and Evelyn learnt how to read and write Amharic fluently. I too, as a nine year old, felt an immediate resonance and empathy for what I observed to be the most graceful of civilizations.

Ethiopians are quietly spoken, unfailingly polite, gentle in demeanor but strong in substance – qualities that are very much resplendent in my wife, Tsigereda, and my son, Wezoor Gibril Lovegrove, and those Abashas (Ethiopian people) who are in attendance at this function in Melbourne this evening.

I also have vivid memories of 1966, when my grandparents took me on a tour of the country. Grandad had a burgundy Mercedes 220s with a tan interior. The Mercs were great on the African roads as the undercarriage was high off the ground, sufficiently high to navigate the challenges of the frequently undulating roughly hewn road terrain.

We visited historic sites such as Gondar and saw the majestic castles and fortifications; Axum and the ancient obelisks; and Lake Tana, one of the sources of the Nile and the Rift Valley. The scenery was often spectacular, mesmerizing at times (intoxicatingly so) in its own uniquely surreal way.

Even though I was of tender age 9, I concurred with one of my father’s key observations, Ethiopian people were very beautiful, often strikingly so. Grandpa, a somewhat vain man, used to say, although the norm is for New Zealanders to look ‘average’ or less than so, in Ethiopia most Ethiopians were beautiful.

Liya Kebede, for instance, is one of the top supermodels in the world and has adorned the covers of magazines such as Vogue and she has, at various times, been one of the faces of Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint-Laurent. Liya is one of the great many international Ethiopian supermodels and is also the goodwill ambassador of the World Health Organisation for maternal newborn and child health. She has also established a foundation to reduce infant mortality.

If you look at my Ethiopian wife (A former Ethiopian international beauty contestant herself, who is now studying law), my son and some of the men and women in room here this evening I think one would be hard pressed to take issue with grandad’s observation. But beauty is only skin deep and it would not do Ethiopians justice if I focused on this one dimension. More poignantly my family was struck by the internal beauty of the Ethiopian people; the humble yet immaculate ease by which Ethiopians carry themselves – an understated and restrained poise, an internal nobility, if you will, that is complemented by the melodic sound of Ethiopian dialect and the modest white shawls with the adorning of vibrant color that you will observe in the attire of the Abasha women here this evening. To put it simply: Ethiopians have élan.

So you can glean that even though I only lived in Ethiopia for 3 months out of the total six years of domicile in Africa, Ethiopia had a profound effect on me. It helped to shape my outlook and became part of my DNA.

Little wonder the inner sanctum of my family: my wife and my son are Ethiopians, and my little daughter Joy, named after my late mother, is half-Ethiopian. My son, Wezoor, incidentally, was born in Jima in Oromia, the home of coffee, attended Melbourne Grammar and is now, typical of Ethiopian industry, excelling at University. Also typical of Ethiopians, he was a great runner and accumulated 5 national running titles as a young teenager in the 400 and 800 meters. Melbourne Grammar awarded him an excellence scholarship for such prowess. Most of all he is a very fine person, so as you can see I am immensely proud of my Ethiopian family, I feel very Ethiopian and I am immensely grateful to have been blessed by the gift of an Ethiopian wife and Ethiopian children.

Another question that is often asked is “how was it that you married an Ethiopian – someone from such a faraway land”. Our law firm, for many years, sponsored a lawyer at an Ethiopian NGO called Hope for Children.  We still help sponsor the COO. On one trip to Addis, nine years ago, I was immediately captivated by a woman, and upon first sight decided this woman must be my wife. I proposed within a week but alas at the time, my wife to be, Tsigereda (“Rose” in Amharic) was engaged to an Italian film director. 5 weeks later, we were married. One of my friends based in Washington, Greg Copley AM, said “what took you so long?” In my defence, I said it only took me a week to propose to her.

So, now onto My Mission:

It is to promote Ethiopia to Victoria, and to build stronger relationships with the Victorian Government and the business communities in Australia & Ethiopia, so that both countries can benefit from one another and leverage off the immense contributions that both jurisdictions can visit upon one another.

Part of the work will involve re-engineering stereotypes. When I returned to the antipodes in my early adolescence after having spent the formative years being brought up in Malawi, Ethiopia, Swaziland and Zambia I was invariably asked “what is South Africa like”. You see, in the early seventies for some reason stereotypically many people confused South Africa with Africa itself. My answer was invariably “I can’t really say – I only visited it once at first hand saw the abomination that was apartheid.” I would hasten to add I was brought up in independent, predominantly post-colonial countries that were the perfect antithesis of that primitive apartheid regime.

I was amazed that people confused South Africa as Africa, but it bellied a profound ignorance of the vastness of the continent and the profoundly different cultures and countries that truly define Africa.

Yet local stereotypes still prevail. The term “people of African appearance” has become popular journalistic vernacular here in recent times. I am a New Zealander but I have never been labelled a “person of European appearance”. I never use the term “person of European appearance” nor in NZ do journalists quip “people of Polynesian appearance”, as this vernacular is lazy and does not do justice to the fact that every human being must be able to lay claim to their own nationality. So let this be clear: I do not represent “people of African appearance”, Polynesian nor European appearance for that matter – I represent Ethiopia and Ethiopians – that is my remit.

There is a second stereotype. My wife, some time ago, attended a dinner where one of the attendees showed some of her cohorts photos of ‘Wolo’, the great starvation. Indeed a tragedy of great scale but the encounter served to reinforce the stereotype that Ethiopia connotes poverty. Yes, there is poverty but the Ethiopian government is on a mission to alleviate poverty and, with the help of the international community and countries like Australia and New Zealand, will eliminate poverty. But poverty does not define Ethiopia. I am intent on generating a far more accurate comprehension of Ethiopia and this will be part and parcel to my raison `d`etre – the promotion of this emerging power and the paramount significance of this great nation and why Australia needs Ethiopia as a friend and partner.

The irrefutable fact of the matter is that Ethiopia is a country on the move, an ancient country with all of the status that goes with being a country of great historical ancestry, but also a country of the now and the future. Ethiopia has a fantastic new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, a visionary, a conciliator and a nation-builder. He is charismatic, eloquent and compelling; ‘cometh the hour cometh the man’. Ethiopia’s hour has arrived and Ethiopia has the right man as prime minister and the right woman in Sahle -Work Zwede as the first female President of Ethiopia. The right people have stewardship of the nation and are steering the country through a dynamic and exciting phase.

And my reasons for optimism are bountiful.

Ethiopia has a population of 107 million, a critical mass and an ambitious people; aspirational and cohesive. It is a safe place and stability is critical to investment, for without stability, investors are wary. With a growing ambitious population comes huge opportunity for investment in the tech sector, pharmaceuticals, irrigation, agriculture, food production and so forth. Ethiopia has the fastest growing economy in the world and, if anything, it will accelerate under the stewardship of the visionary new prime minister.

Ethiopia has been ranked as being the friendliest country in the world. This is consistent with in my view Ethiopia practising world best practice in terms of the peaceful of coexistence and harmony that is enjoyed by those who follow two of the world’s great religions, Islam and Christianity. Ethiopia is an international world role model on point.

The IMF has acknowledged the country’s strong economic position. According to the IMF, Ethiopia has averaged 10% economic growth for the past decade

As noted by the World Economic Forum, Ethiopia is pursuing several large infrastructure projects including a railway network and the Grand Renaissance Dam.  Upon completion, it will be the largest dam in Africa.

Coffee is the country’s main export, but gold, livestock, leather, textiles and agriculture are on the up and up. There is huge agricultural opportunity in Ethiopia and the advanced agricultural and food science expertise that Australia has makes Ethiopia a logistical beneficiary of Victorian skill and investment on point.

Tourism is untapped and on the move, although hotel infrastructure in certain parts of Ethiopia has been ‘placed on the back burner’. However, due to the burgeoning flurry of tourists to visit historic sites, surreal and Martian like landscapes and unique game and fauna, hotel upgrades are evident everywhere.

I will make brief mention of some of the world renown tourist attractions.

First I mention Axum and its obelisks that date back to 4th century AD.

There are the ancient ruins of Gondar, where an Emperor assumed  dominion and established an orthodox Christian epicentre dating back to 1636, that are listed on the UNESCO world heritage list. Mussolini absconded with the obelisk of Axum as bounty in 1937 and it was not until a decade ago that the obelisk was returned to Axum after many years of negotiation and transport logistical challenges.

Harar, a UNESCO world heritage city, is Islam’s fourth holiest city in the world and has 82 mosques. A desert city, it was constructed around the 14th century. Harar is also famous for the Sof Omar Cave which by all accounts comprise the longest network of caves in Africa. The famous English explorer Sir Richard Burton visited Harar is 1855.

Lalibela, named after an Ethiopian Emperor, is internationally famous for its 11 monolithic churches, carved out of solid rock  of volcanic rock derivative some 2500 meters above sea level. Folk law has it that the then-Emperor wanted to create a new Jerusalem in the 12th century. Lalibela has been captioned the eighth wonder of the world, for like the Egyptian pyramids the perseverance, dexterity and collective resolve required to build monuments of this calibre defies conventional comprehension.

So why does Australia need to engage and develop strong relationships with Ethiopia?

In a world of rapidly evolving moving parts, we all need friends. Ethiopia is geopolitically a powerful and important country. For many years it has been the home of the Organization of African Unity. It is close to the Middle East, close to Europe and has strong international relationships with the Asian, European and the American superpowers and the paramount NGOs. Ethiopia, on account of its large Ethiopian diaspora community and its philosophy of inclusiveness and enlightenment, can be a great friend to Victoria and Australia. But this requires commitment, visitations and inter-connectivity. It requires the investment of time and human capital. As my remit is limited to Victoria in that I am Honorary Consul to Victoria, it thus behoves me to help both Ethiopia and Victoria build these bridges.

On a final note a special thanks to my friend Mr. Harry Stamoulis who has provided magnificent offices in 61 Spring Street for the Ethiopian Consulate for a significant period of time rent free. Harry is an apology tonight, but Harry’s largess, mindful of the fact that the consulate is located in a magnificent historical building, is extraordinary. I also wish to formally acknowledge the outstanding work that Her Excellency, Ambassador Tirfu Kidanemariam has been doing as Ethiopian Ambassador to this country and New Zealand, along with her exceptionally capable team at the Ethiopian embassy.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen and venerated representatives from the Ethiopian community for attending this launch.  We will all, through cohesiveness and cooperation, contribute significantly to the great nations of Ethiopia and Australia.

Thank you for your time this evening.