What do British feminist Germaine Greer and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry have in common? A determination to visit this country that has impressed pictures of famine on the world's consciences.
They are part of a parade to Addis Ababa of celebrities, U.S. lawmakers, United Nations officials, Western European ministers, private philanthropists and reporters.
Charlton Heston and Cliff Robertson have come, made charity films and gone. Greer and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) are here now. Barry is due on Saturday, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is scheduled for Christmas.
Stepping off their jets into a 7,600-foot-high city, where the tropical sun is bright without being hot, they find the pristine air as cool and invigorating as a cloudless April morning in Washington.
The ethereal perfection of the highland Ethiopian weather is an apt symbol of the unreality of attending a famine -- as outsiders here do -- from luxury hotels in this city where no one looks hungry.
As in many African capitals where governments head off urban unrest by making sure that city-dwellers have enough food, Addis Ababa gets plenty to eat. Oranges and melons overflow from corner fruit stands. Children begging in the streets do not seem particularly skinny. Even the unruly longhorn cattle that herdsmen drive down the road that leads from the airport seem well fed.
To witness the suffering of a nation where as many as 7 million people are said to be in danger of starving to death, a very important visitor first must get out of town. Under the Marxist military rule of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, that is easier planned than done.
For example, Rep. Wolf, who arrived yesterday fresh from having landed a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, was forced today to cool his heels in the Addis Ababa Hilton.
The Fairfax County Republican had planned to fly this morning to Lalibela, a village 200 miles north of here where 6,000 peasants are being fed by a Los Angeles-based religious relief organization called World Vision. But last night, the U.S. Embassy was notified by the Ethiopian government that Wolf's travel papers were "lost" and his plane was denied permission to land at Lalibela.
Diplomatic sources here said the government was skittish about possible fighting at Lalibela between its troops and rebels of the Tigray People's Liberation Front, who have been battling in the mountains of Tigray Province for 10 years. The rebels briefly seized Lalibela in October and captured several westerners, who later were released unharmed.
Wolf was miffed by the cancellation of his trip. "I didn't come halfway around the world to sit in a hotel in Addis Ababa," he said, while eating a pizza in the Hilton's pizzeria.
The congressman, whose way was paid by World Vision, was told late this afternoon that he could go north to a feeding center on Monday -- but not to Lalibela.
What draws celebrities and assorted world officials to see starving people? Some say they come to assess the efficiency of relief programs. But the brevity of their visits -- as enforced by the Ethiopian government -- makes such assessments cursory, at best. The reasons for coming are often personal.
"I think I expiated a certain bit of Calvinist guilt," actor Robertson said in an interview after his visits to feeding centers in the north. Robertson, who recently has made a lucrative income as a spokesman for AT&T in television commercials, donated his time here to help Catholic Relief Services make a fund-raising film.
Asked why he came, Wolf, who has not specialized in African affairs, said: "I saw the Ethiopian children on TV. I have five children of my own, and I wanted to do something to help."
When lawmakers, celebrities and international relief officials come back from the camps, they often say they wept at the misery and death they witnessed. Some westerners return to Addis Ababa ill. A Newsday reporter was taken to Nairobi, Kenya, with a 105-degree fever and spent two weeks in a hospital there. An Associated Press photographer, after a tour of several feeding camps, returned to Addis with typhoid fever and is in a hospital here.
Besides tears and fever, some of the affluent, well-fed westerners who briefly witness the suffering of the Ethiopian people return to their hotels here with questions about their own lives and values.
"The camps are a high distillation of human misery and hope," said Hans-Juergen Schilling, a German-born, Vienna-based Red Cross official who runs his organization's relief programs in Africa.
Late last week, sitting in an overstuffed chair in the lobby of the Ghion Hotel, where many celebrities and officials stay, Schilling appeared exhausted and exhilarated. He had just returned from a four-day tour of the north that included the feeding camp at Bati, which has the highest daily death rate.
On the day Schilling was there 93 persons died, most of them children. He said he watched as many of them were buried on a hill above the camp. The same day, 25 babies were born at Bati, and Schilling said he watched as most of them were delivered in a maternity tent by women lying on the ground.
Three months earlier, Schilling said, his wife gave birth to his second son. He watched the birth in a bright, sterile delivery room in Vienna, where, he said, "Mozart was playing in the background. If you see these ladies giving birth in the dirt, what you learn is a new modesty, a new gratitude for the ease of your life."