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Correspondent&#39s Week

"Ethiopia. I&#39m going to Ethiopia. Why?" This was my initial reaction when I was pre sented with a trip to this African paradise.

But what could this former war-torn, famine-plagued corner of East Africa have to do with the financial services industry in the UK?

Let&#39s get this straight from the start. Ethiopia has nothing to do with financial services in the UK, far less with IFAs.

But who cares? A free trip to Africa does not come along all that often and who am I to turn one down? So, off I went to a two-day conference called Trade and Investment in Africa.

Preparations began two weeks before I set out. I have never liked needles so six injections was a bit much. First, it was yellow fever, typhoid and hepatitis A, B, C or D. After the first two, the rest was a blur.

One week later, I returned for a needle in the bottom for tetanus. At least the nurse said I had a cute bum.

I left after work on Friday. As organised as ever, I knew nothing about Ethiopia and what to expect. Flying Ethiopian Airlines was also a bit of a worry. But I had nothing to fear because I was sitting in first class.

It was at this point that I began to wonder what this conference was really all about. Who was bankrolling this and why? A little chat with an Ethiopian sitting next to me revealed all.

Everything was personally paid for by some sheik or other who obviously had too much money. Estimates about how much the conference cost him ranged from £10m to a wild £30m.

A little more digging told me this was one of the biggest PR stunts ever undertaken.

The mythical sheik had over 60 per cent of his money invested in Ethiopia. What better PR than to treat 500 delegates and press to the free trip of a lifetime, with a bit of business thrown in?

The list of delegates gave a clue to the power of this sheik. It included the President of Uganda, President Bill Clinton&#39s lawyer, Vernon Jordan, and token former Conservative MPs, such as Michael Portillo.

I stayed in the Hilton, which turned out to be luxurious but a second-class cousin to the palatial Sheraton.

A quick shower and I set off to scout Addis Ababa, managing to pick up a local to take me around.

The Sheraton played host to the opening gala evening on Saturday night. It was obscene. We were bussed to the hotel in a surreal journey through shanty towns from which Ethiopians came to gawk at the splendour on view.

We drove down to the hotel, spotlights illuminating the night sky and the stunned faces of young, shoeless children running frantically behind the bus.

The splendour of the event after this experience was embarrassing.

After my first day in Ethiopia, I felt overwhelmed. The conference was to play second fiddle to this type of ostentatiousness all weekend.

On Sunday night, a renegade posse of hacks and PRs went Awol to spend the night boogying in an authentic Ethiopian nightclub.

What music, what rhythm – and that was just me. The Ethiopian night faded into a haze as we sank Bedele beer after Bedele beer.

Monday seemed to whizz by as the conference wound to a close. I spent the evening sampling the Italian delights of the Castelli family, who decided to stay on in Ethiopia when Italian rule ended.

But I saved the best until last. An early start on Tuesday allowed a group of hacks to take a trip into the Ethiopian countryside. Words cannot express the sheer vast beauty of the country.

Volcanic craters filled with clear blue water, vast savannah, dry river beds and tiny villages littered our safari.

We were stunned by the welcome of the people and dazed by such contentment in poverty.

We lunched at an Ethiopian restaurant on the banks of a sunlit lake. It was all too tempting for me as the heat forced me to jump headlong into the water.

And now I&#39m back.


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