Our committee came very low in the Ethiopian pecking order and did not merit a canine presence bigger than a chihuahua.
During my long life I had the good fortune to meet and get to know a dozen or more African leaders who led the freedom struggle in their countries. South of the Sahara all countries are black. All except Ethiopia and Liberia were colonies of Britain, France and Portugal.
A minuscule minority of bigoted, rabidly racist whites ruled all the South Saharan countries. The blacks had no rights. Most did menial jobs. Ninety per cent were illiterate. No elections at any level were held. Even Indians did not mix with “these kalas”. Blacks had to stand several yards away from Indian shops. Whatever they bought was flung at the blacks.
I was High Commissioner of India to Zambia from September 1977 to April 1980. Zambia had attained independence in 1964. I had got to know President Kenneth Kaunda in the summer of 1962. He appeared as a petitioner before the Decolonization Committee of which I was Rapporteur.
One day I decided to go to the market to buy a toothbrush, shaving cream and soap. All shops were owned by Indians. The other man was a black customer. It took me a moment to realise that he was Prime Minister Chona. We greeted each other. He had no security staff with him. As soon as the shopkeeper saw me, he stopped serving the Prime Minister. I was appalled. In Hindi I said to him, “Do you not know who he is? He is the Prime Minister of Zambia.” Response: “Mujhe pata hai. Par kala to hai.” I let him have it, asking the man to serve the Prime Minister first.
I profusely apologised to the Prime Minister. He smiled, put out his hand. Next day I sent for the shopkeeper. He promptly arrived at my official residence. I had one of my Indian guards with me. By this time the man was terrified. I told him I could have his shop closed for insulting the Prime Minister. “It is the likes of you that get India a bad name in African countries. Do not ever do what you did yesterday.” He promised with folded hands.
In the autumn the committee took a tour of Morocco, Ethiopia and Tanzania, a year back it was still Tanganyika. In Morocco the Committee did not have much to do. One cannot but admire the wonderful climate and beauty of the country. We were received by the King in Rabat, the capital. I fell for Casablanca (remember the film?) and the fabulous and fantastic city of Marrakesh.
I have written about this many years back. The story is so good that I am sharing it with a new generation of readers.
From Morocco we flew to Addis Ababa. The airport was not impressive. More goats than human beings were to be seen. Our audience with His Imperial Majesty was scheduled for the next afternoon. The Ethiopian delegate in the committee, Kifle Wodajo, instructed us on the elaborate palace protocol.
We arrived at the grand palace and were awestruck by the lions walking unconcerned in the vast palace grounds. The committee members were taken to a large hall. No chairs. We stood, knowing not what to expect next. The Emperor, very short, suddenly appeared, looking rather stiff in his military uniform. All Ethiopians present, including Kifle Wodajo, prostrated before him. His Imperial Majesty’s entourage included a chihuahua who was shown due reverence by our hosts. We later discovered that the choice of the tiny canine was deliberate. Our committee came very low in the Ethiopian pecking order and did not merit a bigger canine presence. Before we filed past, His Imperial Majesty said a few words in Amharic and wished our delegation well. Kifle Wodajo was last in the line. He crawled, lowered his head and walked backwards so as not to show his posterior to the King of Kings.
The Emperor had a gruesomely tragic end. He was dethroned by the army, and on 27 August 1975 was smothered to death with a wet pillow and buried beneath a palace lavatory.
Two of his granddaughters were imprisoned in a filthy dungeon, and their heads shaved. This was on 11 September 1975. In October, Winston Churchill Jr, MP and grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, met me at India House. He spoke of the terrible plight of the princesses and wondered if Prime Minister Indira Gandhi could impress upon the army regime to release them. I informed the PM. She did discreetly intervene on purely humanitarian grounds and they were allowed to leave Ethiopia. Both were released and flew to England. Thus ended the oldest dynasty in the world, older than that of Japan.