ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - “Ireland,” I answered the taxi-driver’s question when I first went to Ethiopia in 2006.
“You know ... Bob Geldof, Bono?,” I continued, confident he would recognize me as a countryman of the two rockers who many Westerners think fed the world during the 1980s.
“Bondof?” came the puzzled reply. “Oh, Ireland! ... You mean Roy Keane! Gerry Adams! IRA!”
And so began a pattern of national identifiers that has lasted for my three years in this country the Dublin singers first introduced me to as a child during its ruinous famines.
Soccer legend Roy Keane. Political firebrand Gerry Adams. Irish Republican Army. In that order.
Rarely a “Bono’ or a “Bob’ spoken.
It’s not just that the people of this beautiful Horn of Africa nation are largely ignorant of the two men who still say it affected them like no place ever has.
It’s that, when they are mentioned, it’s usually in a critical tone that would surprise most Westerners.
Journalists often peg stories about the continent to what two of its most visible advocates say. “Africa aid levels a disgrace, says Bono,” “Give us your “effin money, says Geldof.”
Some say we journalists are lazy, others say their fame gives us a convenient way of getting stories that otherwise might not be heard past our editors and into the Western media.
I’ve sat with Ethiopians in gardens lush with greenery and laughed about a land where, according to the pair’s famous 1984 Band Aid song, “nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow.”
And I’ve heard people, in this nation that is largely Orthodox Christian and Muslim, laugh at the inappropriate nature of the song’s title for them: “Do they know it’s Christmas?”
Jokes about the well-meaning poetic license of the duo’s most famous fund-raising song are usually followed by the more worrying assertion that their pronouncements, and the fact those in power listen, actually damage the people they want to help.
“For most Africans it’s a turnoff when Geldof/Bono are used to present a range of African issues,” Max Bankole Jarrett, a Liberian living in Ethiopia responded to one story last month.
“It perpetuates everything these guys claim to be speaking out against — an Africa that is weak and incapable of picking itself up.”
Whether rich nations should focus less on aid and more on encouraging foreign investment in Africa is a hot topic for debate on the continent right now.
And the leaders of the Western countries who must make policy decisions on how they treat the world’s poorest people often meet with Geldof and Bono before they do.
“Even though Geldof and Bono now talk about investment, they will always be associated with negative images of Africa and that discourages investors and tourists,” says David Thomas, a Briton working on private sector development in Ethiopia.
“Success stories from new African faces would better promote the continent.”
I meet these new faces that Thomas is talking about every day. As Africa’s economies have grown, they have bred a new generation of educated businesspeople who are questioning whether the model of aid from the West is now helping at all.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — who regularly says Africa should become less dependent on aid — was selected by the African Union to represent the interests of the continent at last month’s G20 summit of rich nations in London.
But when Meles turned up at the British prime minister’s home for dinner with other world leaders, all smiles and waves for the cameras, one TV commentator was momentarily speechless.
He had no idea who the Ethiopian leader of 18 years was.
Instead, it was Bob Geldof we saw most often speaking for Africa in the media.
“These Irish singers have been a great help to us. And we thank them,” Meti Yilma, a 30-year-old Ethiopian radio presenter told me recently. “But they need start to paint a more positive picture of Africa. Or else move aside for some African voices.”