All computers need a name. They may come with a default, such as “Desktop 1E78AD”, so changing to a friendly and familiar name is crucial soon after purchase. Chris’s lovely super-slim Lenovo laptop that she brought from the UK to Addis in January 2015 was soon named “Bertokan”. It should of course have been “ብርቱካን”, but that would have been a little obsessive. This is Amharic for “orange”- as the laptop was a resplendent orange colour. It was designed to stand out from the usual black and grey crowd or perhaps to meld in inconspicuously on an EasyJet flight. (Confusingly oranges here are rarely orange – they are mostly green, although they taste OK sometimes).
Bertokan served Chris well, and even survived crashing on to the floor when I had borrowed it for a talk I was doing at church on “The Bible and Science”, suffering only a small chip to one orange corner. But shortly before we were due to travel to the UK for our rainy season break Bertokan refused to charge up. Something had gone wrong with its charging port – repairs were needed. Chris used it until it was discharged, and we planned to have it repaired in the UK during July, as there is nowhere here that can repair such a snazzy device.
Bertokan has travelled on Ethiopian Airlines between Heathrow and Addis on numerous occasions, and was in Chris’s backpack hand luggage as we arrive at Bole International Airport late at night on our way to our eagerly anticipated and much needed six-week rainy season break. Chris is of course especially excited – there is a new grandchild to meet. We’re x-rayed into the airport – no problem. We check in – no problem. On this occasion the person checking us in accepts our on-line printed boarding passes; on previous occasions they’ve torn them up and printed out the usual card version containing identical information in an identical format to the paper they just tore up. Large display boards around us remind us that there are limits on how much currency we can take out of the country – 200 Birr (at today’s exchange rate that’s £6.65). We need 400 Birr when we get back to pay Haile to collect us and take us home. Good job there’s two of us! That won’t leave anything to spend in the duty-free shops upstairs, where most things cost more than 200 Birr. Through immigration - no problem. Standing in the queue we are reminded by information on computer display boards that we have to register any electronics we are taking out of the country and have the serial numbers written in our passports. If we don’t, when we bring them back to Ethiopia we will have to pay import duty. A colleague once tried to do this, and could find no-one in the entire airport who knew what she was talking about. Upstairs to wait for boarding. In front of us are the shops and restaurants selling things for which we have no money. After a long wait the flight departures board (run by a Windows XP computer that keeps rebooting every time there’s a power cut) says “go to gate”. Excited passengers jump up and head for the security queue. An airport attendant is manning the entrance to the queue and says, “London flight?” “Yes!” they eagerly reply. “Sit down – 30 minutes” he orders. An exasperated passenger demands, “then why does the board say ‘go to gate’?” “Sit down – 30 minutes” repeats the attendant. This passenger clearly doesn’t live here – it’s that “why?” question again.
Eventually we can do what the board told us 30 minutes ago and we head to security. After a long queue we go through the scanners – no problem. Bags x-rayed (again) – no problem. Well, no problem for me…
Tired and exhausted and its now way past midnight, my spirits lift slightly as I see the departure lounge and gate ahead.
However, there’s a space between us and the welcome rows of seating, the entrance to which is guarded by airport officials. A queue forms which gradually turns into a melee of weary passengers all waiting to be allowed through. Eventually they let a group pass. Phil walks straight through to the seating, but two other ladies and I are asked to stand at the side. “Random check” we’re told. “Lemen?” I ask (“Why?”), but I’m simply told to “wait”. Soon I’m ushered to a long metal bench where slowly, one item at a time, an official empties the contents of my backpack into a tray. Then I have to remove all my outer clothing and I’m taken to a body scanner. Nothing untoward is found so we return to the tray on the bench. She swabs each item carefully, then I’m commanded to “turn on” my camera, phone and Kindle. Apparently satisfied she points to Bertokan. My heart sinks as I know I can’t comply. I’m not permitted to repack my own bag; instead I have to stand and watch as the emotion-free official slowly replaces each item - except Bertokan. This she clutches tightly and indicates with a nod over her shoulder that I should follow her. Phil meets us at a table where a young guy called Addisu is waiting, pen poised. He painstakingly records passport numbers, email addresses, phone numbers, flight details and Bertokan’s model and serial number, then hands Phil a flimsy receipt. Apparently, I can’t travel on the same plane as my incredibly slimline laptop because the battery is flat and no it can’t be carried in the hold – it mustn’t go on the same plane as me. How I could detonate my very slim potential bomb I have no idea! I listen with disbelief as the official tells us that Bertokan will be sent to Heathrow on another plane and be available for collection in 48 hours. Meanwhile, Addisu assures us, it will be taken to ‘Lost and Found’ in Addis airport. I feel deflated. It’s 12:30am and the day had been busy. So, it was with a mixture of annoyance and frustration we both express our doubts at the prospect of ever seeing my trusty Bertokan again. Although he obviously can’t say, the look on Addisu’s face tells us he probably agrees. Phil and I glumly head to the seating by the gate, leaving Bertokan sitting forlornly and alone on a table in the security area.
Several times I have gone through this extra security area unimpeded, every time with at least one laptop and I’ve never been asked to switch them on. When I realise they have pulled Chris out I wait the other side of a fence and watch the goings-on, as the officious female security inspector not-so-meticulously unpacks Chris’s backpack (she missed Bertokan’s charger and Chris’s memory USB stick completely.) I take a few photos. Several minutes later a raincoat-clad guard comes up to me and tells me off for taking photos. “It’s my wife” I explain plaintively, expecting sympathy to bubble up. It doesn’t. “Security area! Delete!” he orders, a bit like a Cyberman on Doctor Who although fortunately he meant the pictures rather than me. I do all sorts of things with my phone and he’s satisfied. It soon becomes obvious that Bertokan is in trouble, so I re-enter the “security” area (somewhere so secure that until a few minutes ago a group of bored American youth had been playing frisbee there) and I discover Bertokan’s fate. I carefully file away the flimsy receipt and, crestfallen, we head for the gate.
A week later I remember Bertokan and I phone Ethiopian Airlines in the UK. Eventually, after several attempts to put me off, I am connected to Negash. I know a bit about Ethiopian culture now, so I greet him warmly and politely explain what happened and Bertokan’s plight and plead for his help. I successfully repress the urge to go off on one about how I really feel about Ethiopian Airlines – that would seal Bertokan’s fate for ever. Negash asks for the receipt number and my email address. When he hears “SIM” in the email address he says “Sudan Interior Mission?” “Yes” I reply, not attempting to bring him up to date, “do you know it?” “I was a medical student at the Black Lion hospital” he explains, “the SIM compound is near there.” Result - now we’ve connected. Now he’ll help me. Shortly after finishing the call my phone pings to tell me an email has arrived. Negash, true to his word, has emailed several people in Addis airport asking after Bertokan’s whereabouts and has copied me in. Maybe, just maybe…
The holiday progresses and we hear nothing. I email Negash and he emails Addis again. Nothing.
Obviously the opportunity to have Bertokan repaired before we return has slipped away, but I wasn’t giving up just yet. I email again a week before we fly back and I copy in the addresses Negash had used – “ADD Baggage Service” and “ADD Lost and Found”. Very quickly I receive the following email:
“Dear Philip Griffin Dr.
Greetings From Ethiopian!!
This is an email from Ethiopian Airlines Baggage services Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. On the outset, we would like to express our deepest apologies for the delayed handling of your Security held item. And while checking our records, we have learnt that we have your item being delivered to our office from the Airport security department.
So we will make same available for you on the morning of Sunday, 05 Aug17. And you may ask our transfer or departure desk colleagues for our duty supervisors with the name, ALEM MEKONNEN(Mr.) or MEKOYA DERESSA(Mr.) or MUNA SULTAN(Mrs.), so they will help you to receive from our office easily.
Once again we apologize.”
So maybe Bertokan is safe! I now have the names (and sexes, and,for one, marital status) of three people in Addis airport, so I shall try to find them when we arrive Saturday morning and see if they can help. Having stuffed all the remaining space in our suitcases with breakfast cereals, cheese, butter and, most importantly, pork products, we head to Heathrow Friday evening with renewed hope. We check in quickly then eat our final British meal in our favourite restaurant in terminal 2 before boarding (yes, we’ve flown so often we have a favourite restaurant), wondering what tomorrow will bring. The story continues…