Sips from the Firehose

Sep 07

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

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The goats got frisky, the herdsmen were convinced, but the monks initially disapproved … papyrus reeds scattered on the floor and thick incense to keep the bugs away … “Red Bull and Jolt Cola have got nothin’ on this rocket fuel” … the third round of coffee toasts is Baraka, and that’s the one that has all the luck in it … the original genetic line, preserved in the ancient monasteries …  

young girl brewing coffee

The thick incense here was initially annoying, until I figured out that it was handy to keep the mosquitoes away. I was told that the papyrus rushes on the floor are actually getting kinda hard to find.

Legend has it that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia when a herdsman from the Kaffa region noticed that when his goats ate the berries off a particular bush, they got really frisky and ecstatic, dancing around on their hind legs. He took the cherry (a quirk of coffee: the plural and singular for the raw berries are the same: “cherry”) to the local monks, who condemned it as sinful and tossed it into the fire. Well, in the fire, the cherry split open and people started “waking up and smelling the coffee” as it were. They raked the roasted beans out of the coals, crushed them up and put them in boiling water to distill out the essence – a process that in its basic steps, really hasn’t changed over the millennia.

young man  makes coffee

The other students were making fun of this poor guy for doing “woman’s work.”  The student kind of reddened at this, but kept on with his duty. In the lower left, you see the popcorn; in some of the videos, you can see the giant round of bread and the roasted barley.

Over the centuries, the ceremonial sharing of coffee has become a Really Big Deal; I was honored to be invited to a number of these ceremonies, which, in the smaller villages, are held three times a day, and all the important people in the village show up to trade gossip about who did what to whom, argue over politics and haggle over the price of everything from a new donkey, to a batch of prepaid scratch-off phone cards. As one of the objects of curiosity at these ceremonies, I learned to ignore all the people sneaking up behind me to have their friends surreptitiously snap cellphone photos of themselves posing to show how tall I am. (One of my students tried to teach me the Amharic phrase for “Albino giraffe”, (Quach’ne shasho) which was apparently one of my nicknames. Well, at least it wasn’t “Albino hippo” or something even worse.)

Anyway, the ceremony starts with the scattering of papyrus reeds on the floor and the burning of strong, sweet incense. A young girl dressed in a traditional white dress with colorful woven borders, sits on a stool, next to a clay brazier filled with heavy chunks of charcoal. She washed a handful of beans in the heated pan, and then shakes away the husks. When the beans have been roasted to shiny blackness, she grinds them up with a mortar and long-handled pestle. The grind is pretty uneven – it varies all the way from powdery espresso-type to coarse French Press consistency, all in the same batch. The maiden slowly stirs the ground-up coffee into a “jebena” which is a round-bottomed black pottery coffee pot, with a straw lid.

Depending on how strong the girl is, and how enthusiastic she was about grinding up the beans with the pestle, you can get some pretty murky coffee. It is strained a couple of time through a sieve, but still, if you are getting the cups from the bottom of the jebena, you are getting what my Uncle Pete used to call “Navy coffee, where if you stick a spoon into it, it stands straight up.”

In the video below, you can see some of my students doing the coffee ceremony. A lot of the guys were teasing the male students who were working hard to fan the stubborn charcoal into life. “This is a real post-feminist ceremony here – we have the men doing all the work, while the women get to lean back and laugh,” said one student. I gave him props for using the phrase “post-feminist”, while my other students reddened under the good-natured needling.

Here’s a little gallery of videos showing the above coffee ceremony (click on the links, and the video will open up in a player):

coffee ceremony1

coffee ceremony2

coffee ceremony3

In Addis Ababa, the participants in the coffee ceremonies loaded up their tiny china cups with spoon after spoon of sugar; to the point where, when one of them prepped a cup for me, the coffee was almost syrupy and chewy. Reminded me of some of the Turkish coffee I had in Georgia and Azerbaijan, where the combined caffeine and sugar one tiny cup would jack you up all morning. Red Bull and Jolt Cola have got nothin’ on this rocket fuel.

Out in the countryside, the participants in the coffee ceremony use salt instead of sugar, which is a real acquired taste, I must say. I had to gulp down a whole litre of water during one ceremony, because the combination of caffeine and salt was making my mouth as dry as the Harar desert.

Traditionally, roasted barley, popcorn, peanuts or small cookies are also served; passed around on big platters, you are expected to take a handful and use them to soak up all the caffeine singing in your belly. The barley is actually pretty tasty; in the morning ceremonies, I kinda felt like I was having dry cereal. Also, the incense that I kinda cursed for making my eyes itch in Addis, I found myself praising out in the countryside, because at least it chased away the clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies.

Serving the coffee is very much a not-so-subtle reminder of social ranking; the eldest and most powerful in the village are served first, and then after that, in descending order. As the visiting ferengi, I was kind of a wild card; in some places, they tried to serve me first, in others, they ostentatiously passed me by to pour coffee into the tiny cups of people on the other side of the room.

And yes, the coffee was good. It was not like the smoothed-out, characterless drivel that is shoveled out of chain coffee shops, or (shudder) drooled out of urns in Quickie Mart truck stops across the U.S. The coffee served in these ceremonies is intense and has an almost wine-like flavor; it sticks with you for a while.

The ceremony traditionally has three rounds – the coffee is seved in shotglass-sized cups, so it’s not like drinking American-style coffee in municipal-stadium  sized mugs, where you get ½ litre at a gulp. The first rounds is called Abol, and it’s when everyone murmurs compliments to how good the coffee is, how nice the ceremony is, etc.

coffee plants on sacred island

These are the coffee plants that grow wild all over these islands.

The next round is Tona, and that’s when people usually get down to the serious business of dickering. Maybe it’s the caffeine here that loosens everyone’s tongues, but I have noticed that Ethiopians really like to argue. A lot. Not violently (at least, not that I ever witnessed), but at these ceremonies, the discussions were what politicians and negotiators call a “frank and open sharing of views.”

The last round of coffee is the most important, and to leave before it is considered a grave insult. It’s called “Baraka” and it is the one that supposedly contains the good luck and blessing in it. By this point, the business discussions are usually entering their end stages, the elders have adopted their usual scowls, and the last round is greeted with more praise for the maiden serving it.

I have brought back with me a couple of kilos of the rare coffee from the monasteries out on Tana Lake. These are unroasted, and I hope to bring them to the local coffee experts to roast and sample, to see if there is anything truly remarkable about them. Supposedly, since they are from plants that have been isolated on these islands for nearly a thousand years, the coffee has a flavor and characteristic that has been lost by the plants on the mainland, that have been crossbred, hybridized, and thus, bastardized from the original genetic line.


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Jul 11

Bahir Dar Photo Gallery

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I found a draft version of this post on my computer, and can’t believe that I forgot to finally update it. Sheesh.

Anyway folks, here are some more of the photos from my recent stint in Ethiopia. Hope you enjoy. Coming up next: a detailed description of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

First, here is a shot I took while out in the countryside – the guy on the roof here looks like he’s just casually listening in to an interesting conversation. In reality, he was a total daredevil. When the van was in motion, he sat on the roof, clinging to the big package that you see strapped on to the cargo carrier. I’m not sure if he was doing that to try to keep the package steady on the roof, or if by riding outside the passenger compartment, maybe he got a break on the fare. Or maybe he just like the feel of the wind of the open road in his hair. Whatever – by his clothes, he didn’t look in that desperate financial shape … certainly not as bad as the kids I saw clamping on to the spare tire carriers on the backs of SUVs for a free ride (often with tragic results).

Sometimes the passengers choose to ride on the roofs of the ubiquitous blue minivans that are the backbone of the public transportation system in Ethiopia.

Anyway, the next shot is taken from the tour of the ancient monasteries in Lake Tana. I actually got to handle some of the illuminated manuscripts – a real honor, I guess. These are the types of things that I am accustomed to only seeing under glass, in heavily guarded cases, in museums.

It was a strange feeling to handle something this old and this precious. Then again, the monks didn’t really seem all that put out by the experience. I guess when you’ve grown up in an area where human history goes back 3 million years, something that’s only a few thousand years old isn’t all that remarkable.

It is amazing how vibrant the colors still are in this book.


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Jun 10

Bahir Dar Monasteries: Part 2

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Here are some more of the photos I shot when I was visiting the ancient monasteries out on the isolated islands of Lake Tana.

This first shot is the typical tourist shot, I know. The murals and tapestries here date back to about the 16th century, although there are earlier paintings and artwork.

dave lafontaine posing with the crutch-chairs in the bahir dar monasteries

Yeah, I know I kinda look like Long John Silver here, being stared at by all the little angels painted on the walls. The Ethiopian Orthodox churches do not allow you to sit, so the congregation has to lean on these sort-of crutches.

The artwork here shows the influence of all the cultures that have touched Ethiopia over the centuries.

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Jun 08

Ancient Monasteries of Bahir Dar: Part 1

Posted: under Online Video.
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Scattered throughout the vast Bahir Dar Lake are seven sacred islands, each home to an ancient monastery, where monks still live in seclusion and contemplation

monastery and monk on sacred island

The foundation to this building is ancient; the superstructure was built after it was burned/destroyed. The top part shows the influence of the Portuguese Jesuits of the 16th century, a particularly bloody period in the religious wars that have swept over Ethiopia with regularity. The cheerful guy in yellow to the right in the picture is the learned monk who cares for the priceless documents and treasures locked in the basement. There are also caves winding underneath this island; natural lava tubes that were used as retreats for the hermits - and are still used for that purpose today.

The lake is the source of the Blue Nile (more pictures on that in a bit), and just getting to the islands required a long boat trip through very rough waters. The bow kept getting swamped, and I was soaked to the bone by the time we made landfall. Apparently, the winds kick up in the afternoon, which is why there are so few (as in none) that will go out on tourism missions at that time. However, I had spent an extremely frustrating morning wrestling with the laissez-faire attitudes at Ethiopian Airlines (where the offices are rarely open to the public, apparently), so I wasn’t entirely in control of when I went.

Anyway, at the periphery of the island is a weathered stone dock. There used to be big tires as bumpers, but the local kids have swiped these and use them as toys.

To get to the sacred places, it’s a half-hour hike, all up steep and winding paths, paved with jagged volcanic rocks, through dense undergrowth that is dotted with ancient coffee bushes.

boy on way to get water

I met this boy on the path. He said that he makes the trip three times a day lugging this 5-gallon jerrycan to get water from the lake. Where I had to carefully pick my way, even wearing thick-soled shoes, he was as nimble as a mountain goat. I will post a video of our conversation in a bit.

More about those later.

The islands are inhabited by people who scratch out a living from the combination of fishing and selling souvenirs to the rare tourists who show up here. I was impressed by the fact that the first few stalls that we passed by were empty – but by the time we made our way to the top of the hills, the locals had rushed down and arranged rows of their little treasures and were desperate to sell to the lone ferengi (foreigner) who had stumbled across their little island on a Thursday afternoon.

The first monastery I went to was built in a circular shape; it symbolizes the nature of eternity. That everything goes in a circle, unbroken, with no beginning and no end.

There are 12 entrances to the monastery, one for each of the apostles. The paintings are a fascinating insight into the layers of history that have washed over this place, and left their marks.

The original paintings and carvings date back to the 1200s (or perhaps earlier), when the forces of Islam started disobeying the commandments of Mohammed and embarked on a campaign of burning and destroying Christian churches. This would not be the last time this happened. The monks, desperate to preserve their sacred writings – bibles that date back to the 4th century or so – fled to the highlands here, and out into the monasteries on this lake, where they could hide from the conquering hordes.

Among the treasures that they brought up to this region was the fabled Ark of the Covenant. Yeah, the thing that Indiana Jones used to melt the faces of a bunch of Nazis back in 1937. And no, there is not a giant warehouse where it is stored, along with a crystal skull or any other such nonsense (or so says my long-suffering guide).

On top of the monastery is a peculiar decoration – ironwork, festooned with ostrich eggs, which apparently symbolize fertility and rebirth. I’ll get to the amazing artworks that decorate the walls in the next post.

Meanwhile, the legend is that the monk who founded the first monastery (see in the first picture, above) was living in a cave, minding his own business. Like you do when you are a monk. Only the locals kept having sacrifices to a giant python that they worshiped. He came storming out of the cave and (as legend has it) called on god, did some angry preaching, and the giant python croaked on the spot. Which kinda impresses the locals, when you kill their pagan god and all. So they all converted and the monk figured he might as well build something on the spot over the caves where he’d been hanging out (better ventilation, some sunshine now and again, maybe even a chimney).

ornament on top of monastery

This bit of decoration features ostrich eggs at the ends of the spikes. Not sure if the eggs are petrified, hollowed out, or these are just replicas. I'm guessing they aren't still real, or they'd be rotten away by now & need frequent replacement, especially in this heat. The ornate spray of metal curlicues around the cross has a distinct meaning to those who know; the circle motif in the center is apparently a mark of Axum.



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Jun 03

Growing Pains: Daredevil Construction and the Future of Ethiopia

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Africa’s fastest-growing economy balances between dreams of the future and the shackles of the past

For those libertarians who feel that OSHA and any and all regulations on workplace safety are the very essence of neo-Stalinism, I submit the construction industry in modern Ethiopia. Please note that the scaffolding supporting this multi-story concrete building is basically lashed-together sapling trunks, and that while the workers are all wearing hardhats, the basic safety equipment you routinely see on construction sites in the West is pretty much lacking – no safety lines, no walkie-talkies to communicate with the crane operator, no nets or wind barriers at the periphery. Feel free to apply for a gig here, fellas.

building under construction at addis ababa university

This picture was taken under the baking-hot noonday African sun. The bucketful of cement on the way up seems to arrive at irregular intervals, and sometimes much to the surprise of the workers on the roof. I saw one bucket swing a little wildly and clip a guy off his feet. A little lower and to the side, and he would have been spread across the roof like grisly human jam on unyielding toast. (Click to enlarge)

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May 28

State of Media in East Africa: “Mover and Shakers” Interview for AfroFM

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, new media, Video.
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UPDATE: The first video below was erroneously a duplicate of video #3. I blame the shoddy connection I had – I am thrilled that the videos made it up to YouTube at all, frankly, and it took me an hour and several tried to get this post to publish, so I had some version-control issues. Anyway, I’ve fixed it so that vid #1 is now the proper first part, in which we talk about the persistent power of radio.

The more I learn about how the media operates in East Africa, the more I think this is going to be a fascinating area to watch over the next few years. The conditions here are ripe for some really interesting changes – we are going to see in this microcosm what the effects are of empowering a population that is still stuck with only one-way information flow (largely via radio – please see video #1, below) to suddenly leapfrog into the ubiquitous mobile web-fueled connectivity that we see in places like Japan, Korea and (to an extent) China.

BACKGROUND: A couple of weeks ago, I had a meeting with the CEO of Fana Broadcasting. At that time, I was told that the plan was to install 4G mobile connectivity throughout the country. I have since learned that the contract looks like it is going to be awarded to a giant Chinese telecom company. This is not necessarily good news. The suspicion among the journalists is that the infrastructure contract has been given to the Chinese because they have pledged to include many of the down-and-dirty spyware and censorship features that are common to the internet behind the Great Firewall of China. Also: it is rumored that the Chinese outbid US and European companies for this huge contract, because the government of China is (illegally?) subsidizing the work, secretly funneling money under the table to the ostensibly private-sector telecom company, to allow it to do billions of dollars of work for 1/20th the price. Conspiracy theories abound here; in the absence of any hard facts or verification, people always assume the worst.

At any rate: the plan is to wire up all the major cities and towns with 4G wireless internet service. One of the big reasons expressed for that is that the Powers that Be have noticed that on just about every roof, you can see a satellite dish. Those dishes are bringing news, information and TV programs into households from TV providers outside of Ethiopia. They want to jump-start their own domestic news and entertainment industry, to start to produce high-quality content, to lure audience away from these international sources. Part of this is to foster a sense of national unity: to expose Ethiopians to news, movies and TV series that star Ethiopians, speaking Amharic, and referring to matters that are of concern to Ethiopians (and eventually, to citizens of the surrounding countries, none of which really has their own video/web content production infrastructure). Part of it is to start building up the kind of media-production capabilities that might allow Ethiopia to start exporting its culture to the international marketplace; from what I have seen here, there is certainly an opportunity for the kind of smart, dedicated artists here to start changing the international perception of this place, which is still stuck in the famine years.

Anyway, in the first part of the interviews I did with Samson Tesfaye, for his show “Movers and Shakers” on AfroFM, we talk about what things are like in the present day – where the vast majority of the rural populations in Ethiopia still rely on what they hear over the radio as their main (perhaps only) source of news and information.

The next part of the interview, we focus on the impact of social media in East Africa. At this time, Sami says that social media is not having the kind of disruptive effects we see in North Africa, where the Arab Spring is still very much alive and kicking, or to the south in Kenya, where the technology scene is vibrant and lively.

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May 14

Teaching video techniques at Addis Ababa University

Posted: under journalism, television, Video.
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My students wanted to make sure to capture the conversation around the roundtable discussion we had on the subject of press freedom, so they set up the bagttered (but still serviceable) cameras outside the journalism department offices, and brought in all the accountrements of the formal coffee ceremony … the glowing coals in the brazier, the clouds of thick incense, and platters of roasted barley and chewy bread.

Dave LaFontaine standing with students at AAU

So far, everyone is still in a good mood....

It’s always difficult to figure out what the settings should be on a prosumer video camera, particularly when the opaque menus are written in a foreign language.

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May 14

Satellite TV dishes are common on the rooftops of Addis Ababa

Posted: under Digital Migration, television.
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I met with the CEO of the Fana Broadcasting network this past week. We talked about the phenomenal growth occurring here in Ethiopia, and what that is going to mean for the traditional media here.

Right now, as in so many other developing countries, the media landscape is still ruled by King Radio; the largely rural population may not have reliable access to electricity, and newsprint distribution is neither economically feasible nor attractive to a population that still lags in literacy rates. But TV?

Ah, there’s the rub.

satellite dishes on the rooftops of humble abodes

Even the most humble abode seems to sport a sophisticated satellite dish, capable of pulling in international TV signals.

“Even here, once people get TV sets, what they want and expect is the same high-quality, clear as a bell HD programs that they see from CNN, the BBC and on the movie channels. The problem we have is that we are simply not set up to deliver that kind of content right now. We don’t have the people with the expertise. So everybody just gets a satellite dish and puts it up on the roof of their house, no matter how humble.”

Well, that’s where I come in.

The push here is to try to develop a homegrown video content-production industry; not just as a point of national pride, but as a way of extending Ethiopia’s cultural (and thus, political) influence in the Horn of Africa. And looking ahead, the major media companies are already seeing the way that mobile media consumption is ramping up, and trying to figure out ways to incorporate web-based content sharing and discovery mechanisms (i.e. the social media aspects) into their planning.

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Jul 07

How Africa Sees the Attacks on Obama

Posted: under new media.
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I found this painting in a humble little clothing stall in the merkato in Addis Ababa, during my last day there, when I finally got some free time to wander around and explore this fascinating city a little bit.

obama surrounded by the ku klux klan

It surprised me to find such an accurate depiction of the garb of the KKK in faraway Ethiopia. I guess movies or popular culture have exposed even the ordinary people around the world to our more sordid side...

Amongst all the funky art & tchotchkes, this painting caught my eye for obvious reasons.

What you can’t see, of course, are all the other exemplars of Obama’s presence here in East Africa. People walk around with Obama’s face on t-shirts, bumper stickers, hats … his face is pasted onto the clear glass shelves in the jewelry shops, and to the sides of the little “blue mule” micro-buses.

This is a good thing.

Invisible to just about everyone in the U.S., we are in a struggle for influence in Africa, which more and more people are calling “The Last Frontier.” China is spreading around the oceans of money (that we gave them in exchange for cheap plastic consumer goods, but that’s another story), and they are doing it in a very tricky, manipulative way. The U.S. and Western Europe have had decades of work, trying to figure out ways to actually benefit countries with their foreign aid. It has not been the easiest process.

However, we have figured out that nation-building takes time. Lots of it. And the investments tend to be gradual, building up infrastructure, institutions, ecosystems. The kinds of things that people really don’t see all at once – but if you take a snapshot of a country 10 or 20 years apart, you see the radical transformations. I know I did when I went back to both Colombia and Venezuela after 20 years absence in 2007-8.

modern catching up with the ancient

In Addis Ababa, the modern struggles to catch up with the ancient.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are throwing up big, showy projects. Roads, bridges, dams, buildings. And slapping their branding all over them. Ordinary people see this and say, “Well look, the Chinese are actually doing something for us. What do the ferengi leave behind? They talk a lot, but what do we have to show for it all?”

In this kind of environment, having an African-American as President of these here United States is a definite advantage.

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Jul 01

Ethiopia New Media Training

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, new media, newspaper crisis, Online Video, Video.
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The clash of ancient and modern is never more stark than in these developing nations

I’ve been in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the last week, training the local journalists and government information officers (aka PR flacks) on how best to take advantage of the way that “New Media” is creating new ways of connecting with each other, and the world at large. I’m here as part of the same US Embassy program that has sent me to places like Chile, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Costa Rica, etc., to try to bring people the benefits of experience (aka the way newspapers & TV news has imploded in the U.S.), so they can start planning for the Great Digital Migration.

dave lafontaine teaches video editing to tv journalists in ethiopia

This is my class of TV journalists at Addis Ababa University (AAU). I tried to cram as much about online video and sharing into my short sessions as I could. Here, I'm showing how to use both professional tools like Adobe Premiere Pro CS5, as well as free alternatives like Windows Movie Maker.

The one thing that everyone here agrees on is that Ethiopia desperately wants to change its international image – c’mon, admit it. When you think of Ethiopia, what images come to mind? Deserts, starving people, vultures, Live Aid, right?

Well, it’s not like that any more. In fact, if you look around at the Addis Ababa skyline, you’ll mostly see cranes and highrise towers under construction. The real-estate bubble that burst and devastated the rest of the world never took hold here.

cows in the streets of addis ababa

There are still many reminders that the ancient ways of living are still very much in existence here in Addis, but please also note all the other markers of modernity in this shot.

However, they are facing many of the same challenges as the rest of the world, at least when it comes to the emergence of the internet, and the struggles of newspapers, radio and TV stations to come to grips with social media, and the ability of anyone to become a publisher/broadcaster/internet troll.

dave lafontaine and the owner of sheger fm

The very first place I visited was Sheger FM, the one independent radio station in Ethiopia. This is the courageous owner, who is really struggling to walk the razor's edge here in Addis.


I’ve found many of the same behaviors and attitudes I’ve encountered in the other places that I’ve done web/online video/social media training sessions – stubborn insistence that things will never change, toxic skepticism, and even outright hostility.

After a bit of a rocky start, these guys really came around and appreciated the hands-on lessons I gave them on how to do live video stand-up reports and how to compress video into the best codec to upload to YouTube. The Nelson Mandela building is a challenge, though; between the thin air at this 8000-foot altitude, and having to haul my big carcass up 5 (five) steep flights of stairs, the first few minutes of every class were mostly spent huffing and puffing, and hoping that someone in the class had a particularly insightful comment.


dave lafontaine and his tv production class in front of the nelson mandela building at addis ababa university 

Dave LaFontaine and his tv production class in front of the Nelson Mandela building at Addis Ababa university in Ethiopia.


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