February 13th, 2011
The Arab in Addis Ababa
By Faisal al Yafai
I wake up suddenly in the skies over Africa and everything is quiet. Outside, the last wisps of white cloud vanish as we break cloud cover descending into Addis Ababa and, in slow motion, a carpet of green unravels below. As far as I can see, dark, lush fields stretch away, the sunlight through the clouds creating patchworks of lighter shades here and there. But everywhere to the horizon, where the grey mountains rise, is covered in a canopy of green. If this is what this cradle of civilisation looked like millions of years ago, it’s not clear why our ancestors ever left.
I’m telling this to Tewodros in the Piazza the next afternoon. Teddy (”Please call me Teddy, you are not my mother”) is a fearsomely clever man, with angular eyebrows, grey stubble and fingers that seem too long for his hands.
The Piazza isn’t really a place; it is a collection of streets tailing off from a central roundabout, with Addis’s most famous sight, the neo-classical cathedral of St George, overlooking it. The area, which features Italian-style architecture from the (brief) Italian colonial days, is one of the best places to come to find great coffee, good pastries and relaxed conversation.
But you have to know where to look and luckily Teddy can guide me. (For a price: I start off paying him 500 Ethiopian birr a day (Dh110) and it increases by 100 birr (Dh22) daily, but Teddy is such good company, I’m happy to overlook this quirky attitude to pricing.) I first meet him in a pool hall off the Churchill Road; he’s a man who talks endlessly about his family, but spends his days driving and his nights playing pool. While we talk, ageing cars and the ubiquitous blue taxis and minibuses splutter along. Aster Aweke, an Ethiopian-American singer, oozes out of the music store opposite, a beautiful voice rising and falling with words I can’t understand. Everything is slow; the sun and the dust take the edges off our words.
This, to me, is what I came to Ethiopia for - good coffee and good conversation. But it’s hardly worth pretending other people see it that way. You can’t avoid the fact that Ethiopia is not high on the travel lists of most people; memories of the 1984 famine and the starving children of Ethiopia still linger. Even in Ethiopia, Addis is often just a stop on the way to the astonishing carved churches in Lalibela or the hiking of the Semien mountains.
But there is much to experience in Addis, as everyone calls this sprawling city, if not all that much to see. The main sights - the enormous Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Derg and Yekatit 12 monuments, respectively remembering the lives lost under communist and Italian rules, even the new urban parks that are filled with residents picnicking - all can be seen in two days, leaving plenty of time to take life slowly, like the Ethiopians.
After lunch, we head to Mercato, reputedly the largest market in Africa, but in reality a slum with things to sell. Corrugated iron shacks house the endless stalls, which stretch out in all directions. We walk for two hours through this alternately pungent and aromatic market, where everything on Earth is for sale. People call out to us and rush over to grab my hand and lead me somewhere I don’t want to go; deeper in the market, we are ignored, and the streets widen to reveal mosques and people in jallabiyas. Here people greet me in Arabic.
In the midst of the endless stalls, I find a beautiful stone statue of the Queen of Sheba, the semi-mythical ruler of an ancient city state in what would be modern-day Yemen. But at her feet sits a lion, the symbol of Ethiopia’s emperors, and beside her is an obelisk, a symbol of Axum, the city in the north of Ethiopia that was the centre of a 10th-century BC city.
For the Ethiopians, the Queen of Sheba (whom they call Makeda) is part of their royal line and they tell a different story to the one known from biblical and Qurannic texts, a story that shows the country’s intimate connection with both Christian and Islamic histories. For while the Abrahamic religions tell of the Queen of Sheba hearing of the wisdom of King Solomon and travelling to Jerusalem to meet him, the Kebra Nagast (”The Glory of Kings”), the Ethiopian national epic, recounts how the queen bore King Solomon a child, who eventually left Jerusalem for Axum, taking with him the Ark of the Covenant, and founding the line of emperors that stretched unbroken from him until the last emperor, Haile Selaisse, was deposed in 1974.
Such legends are what histories are made of, and there is no doubting the extensive links between Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula. It isn’t just the language, with fragments of Arabic bursting through Amharic, nor the familial lines (I meet Yemenis and Saudis who are married to Ethiopians), nor even how Ethiopians share the slim noses and wide eyes of the Peninsula Arabs, more than their African cousins to the west. It’s something else, to do with the warmth and welcome of the city, with the way people are always quick to smile.
A day later and we go walking in the Entoto Mountains that surround Addis to the north. A couple of small churches dot the hills and walking between them is an easy and pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Lush green hills and barely used trails greet us and the sky is so close and so blue above us, it feels as if someone has turned down the oxygen and turned up the contrast.
Down in the city, I noticed very few tourists: occasionally I would catch a glimpse of a couple of bright backpacks on packed buses, or see a middle-aged couple quizzically pondering a map. But up here, the walkers are mainly foreigners, part of the enormous NGO contingent that works in the city, taking a respite from the noise of Addis.
It’s past nightfall when we return to Addis and I am in need of a shower and a good meal. For the latter, a friend takes me out along the Bole Road, a crowded strip of restaurants, coffee shops and nightclubs that stretches south-east from the city, almost as far as the airport. This is where Addis residents with money come to spend it and it is where we find a restaurant called Habesha, which features traditional dancers.
The food is excellent, a mix of spicy wat stew and vegetarian dishes, all placed on the doughy bread injera, a staple of Ethiopian cuisine with a slightly spongy texture that - you find after a few days - is astonishingly versatile, adapting its taste to bland eggs or searing hot meat.
Around us are the performers and the noise is extraordinary. A group of dancers have commandeered the marble floor between the tables, while diners watch them “in the round”. Each set of dancers perform ensembles from a different region, with costumes. The performers are prodigious, popping their bodies and rhythmically snapping their arms, chest and legs in time to a fast beat, more like gymnasts than dancers.
It is lunchtime the next day when Teddy and I drive up to the National Museum on the main King George VI St. On the way in, a group of teenagers on their lunch-time break from school call to me and I spend half an hour talking to them. They know their history, pointing out statues in the museum grounds and telling me the tales behind them. They are happy, smiling teenagers but, between the lines, you can read the scars of Ethiopia - at least one has family with Aids, while another tells me his father was killed in the war with neighbouring Eritrea a decade ago.
The museum itself is small, spread over four floors, and houses some nice artefacts from the period of the last emperor. But it is in the basement that the real attraction lies. It is here that two casts of hundreds of bones belonging to a hominid that walked the Earth 3.2 million years ago have been reconstructed.
The finding of the tiny Lucy in 1974 in the burnt valleys of Hadar marked a new chapter in the understanding of human evolution - she walked upright but had a small brain, overturning the old theory that humans developed large brains first.
Alone in the dimly lit rooms below the museum, facing the dark eyes of the reconstructed Lucy, I think of her and her families, walking out across the fields and mountains of Ethiopia and on to the wider world. And I think of the teenagers I’ve just met, eager to be part of the modern world and held back by disease and war. Like Ethiopia, the human race has come so far. And yet, like Ethiopia, we have so far yet to go.
If you go
Return flights on Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Addis Ababa cost from Dh2,065, including taxes
Kuriftu Guest House (www.kurifturesortspa.com; 00 251 11 662 3809) on Bole Road has homely apartments with living and dining areas from US$120 (Dh440) a night for stays less than two weeks. For proximity to the Piazza, try the Ras Hotel (www.africa-ata.org/ras.htm; 00 251 11 551 7060), which likes to boast that Nelson Mandela is a former guest. Double rooms start from around $25 (Dh92). At the top end is the Sheraton Addis (www.starwoodhotels.com; 00 251 11 517 1717), which also offers private three-floor villas. Prices for a double room start from $410 (Dh1,506), including breakfast, free internet access and taxes.
By Faisal al Yafai
source: The National
April 6th, 2010
By Dr. Will Roberts (Cardiologist)
The picture you most probably have in your mind when you imagine ‘Ethiopia’ is that of an emaciated child sitting in the middle of a desert, with flies hovering around his head. That was the picture I too had of Ethiopia before my visit, but the reality is quite different. In this report I hope to paint a picture of a different Ethiopia, the Ethiopia I found, the Ethiopia I both love and hate.
However much I write in this report, I can only give you a very meagre view of Ethiopia. During the two months I spent in different parts of Ethiopia I would like to think I learnt a lot about the place, though obviously this is still a subjective outsiders opinion. To know Ethiopia you have to live and grow up there, appreciate the history by living it. That said, Ethiopia was not a closed off culture, the people I met were very willing to discuss their thoughts with me, correct my errors and show me around. On several occasions I was invited to peoples’ houses to eat, and I doubt that has anything to me being a particularly worthy guest.
Lets start with the simple tangible things, easy to see and contrasting greatly to what we see in our lives. The country is poor, one of the worlds two poorest countries in fact and this is readily displayed. The buildings are badly maintained, the main roads are single dirt tracks, only major roads in some cities are tarmaced, there are beggars everywhere, there are disfigured and sick people wandering the streets. The majority of people live in mud huts and live off their land; even in cities only the lucky have solid houses with ‘real’ floors. There is massive unemployment; in Addis I was told that 50% of the people there were unemployed. The waitress in my restaurant was the top student at her university, but could find no other job and coveted the one she had. Many people don’t wear shoes, but there is a peculiar obsession with keeping them shiny, despite the filthy, muddy streets. This obsession has spawned a horde of shoeshine boys who attack anyone they think should have their shoes polished. Saying no, or even having your shoes shined by one doesn’t deter the other twenty who still shout ‘Mister? shoes-clean, shoes-polish, mister!’ The shops and markets give a good idea of the poverty of the country, though always seemed flushed with food of some kind or other.
Most amenities and facilities do exist in some form or other, though many may be out of the reach of most Ethiopians. There are places you can get (slow) internet access, there are banks, airlines, tour agents, electronics shops, music shops, post-offices, chemists, sweet shops, clothes shops etc. But these were not shops as we know them, you buy bread or a live chicken from a guy who jumps on your bus, fruit from the man on the corner, bread from a window in someone’s house. Outside Addis, when I came across a shop I could actually go into, I found it strangely comforting with all the various household items piled to the ceiling and a man looking obliquely at me across the counter.
I also found Ethiopia dirty and not such that it could be explained by poverty, this was more a cultural issue. Unwanted things such as bottle tops and used batteries are just thrown into the nearest gutter or just outside the front door. For days I walked past a dead dog in the road on my way to the hospital, gradually decaying and being eaten by flies, I even drove over it once in the bus. Another issue was people going to the toilet, OK so I don’t expect public lavatories with hand dryers and flushing loos, but people pissing and shitting in the streets, that can’t be healthy, and it certainly doesn’t smell nice. I think that must be due to the fact that in the rural areas, when people are farming or herding their animals, they just stop where they are when they need to and offload their waste, but in a city thousands of people doing the same thing is asking for trouble.
The people of Ethiopia are not just one people there are many tribal / racial groups. In the area around where I was staying most people where from the Amhara tribe, the largest in Ethiopia. Ethiopian people are quite a beautiful race, and the wide white grins are uplifting. People say that the Ethiopian people are a friendly and happy people, but that is as much a naïve stereotype as any that would offend in the UK. Certainly, many Ethiopians are happy, but many are unhappy, some are angry. I think that being at ease with happiness and a more willingness to show emotion would be a better way to contrast with the masses in England. Perhaps what strikes most people is that fact that people can be happy in such conditions, can play games, laugh and be human. Unlike, some of the other African countries, Ethiopia is not a violent or dangerous place. I never once felt under threat, in the middle of the mountains or in the Capital City.
I have no room to tell you about the history, the fascinating solid coffin, the fallen stellae, the Aksumite empire, the awful food, the arc of the covenant, the singing fountain, the castles of Gonder, the brothel hotels, the beer commercialism, the scams, the children on the street, the mission hospital, dancing the iskista, the volcanic view in the mountains, the 700ft waterfall, the Blue Nile falls, the monasteries of Lake Tana, the horse we killed.
Gondar and surrounding area
Gondar is a city with population of about 120,000; the surrounding areas are concerned with agriculture. The farming methods are primitive, using manual ploughs, sowing and harvesting. Individual families manage and live on a small area of land. Outside the city there is no electricity, except, intermittently in some health centres. This electricity is sporadic and unreliable. Water is of a poor quality; largely coming from unprotected springs and wells. Sanitation is poor and waste is disposed of on land near the house or into open sewers in villages. But Gondar is a Pepsi town, what wonderful contributions the developed world has given Ethiopia; Michael Bolton and Pepsi.
I was attached to Gondar College of Medical Science (GCMS) for my elective, this is one of Ethiopia’s three medical schools and its associated hospital, known locally as kolej. The hospital has approximately 350 beds and provides both medical care for the population of Gondar and surrounding rural areas and training for doctors, nurses, midwives and other medical staff. There are currently 800 students at GCMS, but this is increasing greatly next year.
The hospital facilities are, as you would expect, radically different from those found in the UK. There is a shortage of EVERY routinely required object; needles, gloves, fluids, all medications, bandages, dressings etc. ‘Traction’ in Ethiopian means tying a bag of rocks to the bone nail and dangling it over the end of the bed - crude but effective. In terms of investigations, the doctors have little more than extremely good clinical skills and the ability to cut a patient open and have a look. X-rays are available, but they are of poor quality, ultrasound is sometimes available, but there is a problem with trained personnel. Blood tests are minimal and the results variable. Don’t even dream about CT, MRI, nuclear medicine, echocardiography and other fancy stuff.
There are no intensive care facilities, so sophisticated operations cannot be performed and trauma patients have a much higher mortality. There is no functional ambulance service, trauma victims and acutely ill patients are brought to the hospital in taxis or minibuses. There is an ambulance, which patrols around the city some evenings picking up the losers of fights and victims of attacks, but it is not a reliable service. Again I will mention that I did not feel that Ethiopia was an unsafe place, and if I had not been working in the hospital I would never have seen Ethiopia’s violent side.
One thing that I disliked greatly about the hospital was the fact that there seemed to be little pride taken in it. Basic maintenance was not carried out and it was quite filthy and I just assumed that the operating theatre had to be sterile. This cannot be excused through poverty or lack of resources, screwing a nail into a wall, changing a bulb, mopping the floor do not require as much money as a vial of insulin. One day whilst waiting for a clinic to start I counted fifteen used needles, several syringes, a used bag of fluid and what I think was a catheter, all in a small patch of ground where patients sat waiting.
I should mention that in Ethiopia medical care is not free, unless you have ‘poverty papers’ you must pay for everything yourself. A site in surgery that always amazed me was the patients walking in with a plastic bag containing sterile gloves, cannulae, bags of fluid, sutures etc, plonking them down at the anaesthetists feet and lying down on the operating table. You must also pay for your bed and you are likely to be looked after by a member of your family who does all your cooking and nursing and washing etc. At Leicester we have the social implications of medicine rammed down our throat at every opportunity. In Gondar, social circumstances are rarely considered, is that because everyone is assumed to live in poverty? Or is it because that is a luxury secondary to the real business of treating patients? During the ward rounds, all relatives and carers are rounded up and dismissed from the building and patients are generally treated in an off hand manner. Perhaps ‘communication skills’ is an area where the highly astute clinicians of Ethiopia could improve.
My original plan for my elective was essentially two small projects. The first was to help the medical students in Gondar write patient information leaflets for some of the commoner chronic illnesses and the second to gather a small amount of information about diabetes as part of an international project.
The first project was suggested by one of the doctors visiting Leicester from Gondar, a year prior to my visit. With this in mind I had accumulated a small library of English language leaflets and CD ROMS packed with diagrams to aid in my quest. My suspicions to the value of this project were confirmed on arrival in Gondar. Despite the efforts being made in urban schools, the literacy rate in Ethiopia is tiny, with less than 25% of the population literate. In the rural areas covered by some of the hospital’s clinics this was suspected to be optimistic. A confounding problem being that the tribal nature of Ethiopian society there are several different languages and dialects even in the area around Gondar. I felt that there was very little point in spending time on this project as it was unlikely to be of any real use and decided to cancel it.
The second project was to find out a small amount of information about diabetes care, and the supply of insulin to patients. Around the world there are many other medical students gathering similar information from as many of the worlds HIPCs (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) as possible. The aim is to provide data to support the work of Professor Yudkin of the International Health and Medical Education Centre at The University College London. Professor Yudkin is in the process of forming an ‘International Insulin Foundation’ with the aims:
1. To improve the access to insulin for Type 1 diabetic patients.
2. To improve efficacy and sustainability of diabetes management in Type 1 diabetic patients.
3. To collect accurate information on diabetes prevalence, incidence and morbidity in these countries.
My part in this was to assess all issues I could surrounding Insulin Availability in Ethiopia, to provide information to support the foundations creation and to help choose the pilot site for the scheme. I have written about my findings in the section below.
Diabetes Care and Insulin Availability
I wanted to assess the availability, cost and consistency of the supply chain for insulin in Gondar, I was also interested in the provision of diabetes care.
Gondar and the neighbouring areas are very lucky in that a Chronic Illness Project is being undertaken here under the umbrella of the Leicester-Gondar Link. This has provided funding for a team of doctors to travel to the rural health centres once a month to run outpatient clinics for epilepsy, diabetes and hypertension. Otherwise the patients would have to travel to Gondar, usually by foot, a journey that would take several days. The work of Dr Shitaye Alemu, a highly motivated doctor, has also led to greatly improved diabetes care.
99% of patients are managed on a twice-daily regime of slow acting insulin. There are problems in implementing any other regimes because of the lack of other types of insulin and mixes and because of the difficulties in training and educating patients both in terms of poor education and resources.
The average monthly income of a family living in a rural area is: 100Birr, which approximates to £10. A doctor earns approximately 400Birr per month (£40).
Insulin is handed out at the rural clinics free of charge, inside the city; it is either given free when available or can be purchased from the pharmacy within the hospital or in the local chemists. The cost in the pharmacy is 48Birr (£5)
The type of insulin available is animal (bovine).
Blood sugar tests are carried out by finger-prick if the patient attends the monthly clinic, these are not charged for. There are no facilities for monitoring long-term control by checking levels of HBA1C.
Patients are given on average one syringe every month or two. They must reuse this syringe 60 times or more. When you consider that these syringes are usually kept in the bags that the patients carry everything, you might expect them to get damaged or dirty to the point where it would cause frequent infections of the injection sites.
This was not reported, but I have no specific data for this. The cold chain does appear to be reasonably intact, though I think it is quite a fragile system. Electricity is intermittent in the city, and non-existent in the rural areas. Some of the rural clinics are equipped with refrigerators and generators. I did note that on several occasions the insulin appeared to be kept in a cupboard in the hospital and left in the vehicle overnight before heading to the health centres. I was assured that this was not the case.
The supply of insulin is quite variable, Dr Shitaye relying on insulin from various sources. Some of the insulin is donated from abroad, via charities or individuals, some is purchased by the hospital with government funding and some is purchased with money from the chronic illness project, supported by THET (Tropical Health and Education Trust) and the Children’s Research Fund in Liverpool.
Once the patients receive the insulin vials they will carry them to their home, a journey that may take a day or more. I estimate that 80% of patients keep their insulin in a tin buried in the ground. 18% do not make any attempt to refrigerate their insulin and the remaining 2% have access to a fridge. This hole is surrounded by sand and during the summer months it is regularly watered to keep it cool. I do not know how cold this actually keeps the Insulin. Ordinarily a patient will receive one vial every month, but over the rainy season when rural clinics are not operating, they will receive 3 months supply. I am aware that the official recommendation is that insulin that is not kept refrigerated will only last 24-48 hours. How long it actually lasts at these temperatures is of great importance. It would appear that the insulin is enduring these conditions as patients are surviving.
If it were not for the Chronic Illness Project, the cost of providing insulin would be prohibitively expensive to make treatment of diabetics an economic impossibility. If we consider that basic sanitation and nutrition needs have still to be met, it would seem an inappropriate priority for the hospital to purchase insulin, which is essentially a high annual cost project. Insulin accounts for a massive proportion of the hospitals drugs budget. If insulin were freely available, work would need to be done to assess the effectiveness of the cold chain and the patient refrigeration to ensure that the insulin was still viable.
A final word
I have so many things I want to say about Ethiopia, I feel they would fill a large book, but probably my most important one I will try to explain below.
The saddest thing for me in Ethiopia was the lack of hope, the feeling of need and worthlessness and paucity of motivation. There is an ill-defined concept called aid-fatigue, when countries are so used to foreign aid that they become dependant on it. The lack of motivation from within Ethiopia that I perceived must be stalling the change that could help the country out of this mire. I cannot point and blame, nor do I know why this situation exists, but it does.
Many people are aware that ploughing in indiscriminate aid to countries such as Ethiopia does little to improve the lot of the people there. I agree entirely but I also think that some attempts at sustainable development are still aiming a level too high, they must go deeper.
Ethiopia must get itself out of this mess, but we must help it a great deal, charity is not the right concept. The people of Ethiopia must feel proud of any improvements it makes, rather than feeling grateful to the rich countries of the world. We should not put up big banners declaring every time we dig a well or build a school. This only serves to make us feel better about ourselves and perhaps less guilty for our privileged position on this planet. We must quietly point them in the right direction, hope they can miss out some of the mistakes we have made in our ‘development’ and most importantly we should not exploit their people or natural resources. We must not tolerate regimes that are corrupt or impinge on human rights.
One thing that frustrates people is that this will be a very slow process, you can’t just create a modern society overnight, it must evolve in stages to reach the levels of technology and standard of living that we enjoy in the UK. Maybe it can be sped up slightly by borrowing knowledge that we have already learned, but it will be hundreds of years before the catch up game is finished. The difference between people living in mud huts, ploughing the land manually and the high technology world we live in is hundreds if not thousands of years. Huge changes in social structure and economic arrangements would be necessary to bring these millions of people to a standard of living that would ease our minds.
My priorities would be:
· Human Rights
However poor a country is, however ill its people are there is never any need to compromise human rights, to kill each other and discriminate. I would encourage this as the main ethic behind any assistance to Ethiopia. Once we have ensured that, what remains is degrees of life; more people unemployed, more people ill, less people reading, people living shorter lives. None of these is to me as awful as what humans continue to do to each other today in terms of killing, wars, torture, discrimination and persecution.
If we want Ethiopia to share in some of the delights of our world, where the degrees are different, it must come through knowledge. We must support Ethiopia in its provision of education at all levels from schools to Universities, to education in terms of improving skills and training in the workforce. Ethiopia will be dependant on foreign aid until it is able to compete globally with other countries and to do this it must have people who are educated and well resourced. There has been progress here; Adult literacy has risen from 28 to 40% for men and from 11 to 26% for women since 1980.
By stability I am talking politics, years of war caused great problems for Ethiopia, and the relative tension that remains in that area to this day greatly discourages foreign investment into the country. Hopefully peace will be retained and this situation will improve. The Ethiopian government is still finding its capitalist feet and is very controlling of any commercial development. When companies feel safe venturing into Ethiopia, they will bring with them jobs and money for many. Hopefully some of this will come from enterprising Ethiopians, rather than being imposed externally. Greedy foreign companies may see dollar signs in the wealth of cheap labour available in Ethiopia, but we must not let these companies exploit the Ethiopians, they must pay them a fair and reasonable wage. Infrastructure too will enable the creation of commerce and business so Ethiopia has it’s own share of the world’s money. Stability in terms of population is also important, fortunately the growth of the population is not rising, but it would certainly be easier to feed all the mouths if there were fewer mouths to feed and the same can be said of jobs, healthcare etc. I think this comes through education as well.
Strange that for a medical student health isn’t in that list, but is it such a huge priority? I realise that these are quite radical comments I am making. In a country where one of the biggest problems is the overpopulation, is making people healthier really useful? It hurts me to think I am suggesting we let people die. And how can I argue that my top priority is human rights and yet suggest not looking after people’s health. Well, the biggest obstacle to people’s health in Ethiopia is poor sanitation and the living conditions so that should be a priority - and it is; infrastructure includes water supply, sewerage, and housing. Another obstacle to peoples health both directly and by the effects on poverty is education, hence another of my priorities. A great problem leading to illness is the shortage of food, or the inability to pay for food. An infrastructure which allows the delivery of food to all parts of the country and distribution to the most needy is more important than sending the equivalent in medicines or medical equipment.
There is a great deal of work going on in Africa, some may be misplaced and it is certainly a drop in the ocean. But progress is being made and it will remain slow progress. I hope that through all this development some of the cultural individuality of Ethiopia remains and Ethiopians regain some pride in themselves and their country.
November 26th, 2009
A Festive Journey to Africa’s ‘Holy Land’
(Return via Dubai)
(December 27th/09- January 18th/10)
By Dr. Nienkirchen
Ancient religious festivals…spectacular exotic topography…layers of history …mysterious Christian traditions …the oldest evidence of human origins…an esoteric view of time…this ‘Down Ancient Paths’ venture to Ethiopia, the ‘Galapagos Islands’ of world Christianity, has it all. According to early legendary accounts of human beginnings, Cush, one of the sons of Ham and grandson of Noah, migrated to Ethiopia (known as the land of Cush in the Jewish scriptures) from Mesopotamia. A later legend claims that Menelik I, a son born to the Jewish King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, settled in Axum, bringing the storied Ark of the Covenant with him from Jerusalem. He established a dynasty which with only brief interruptions reigned until 1974 ending with the overthrow of the Christian Emperor, Haile Selassie. Ethiopia has had one of the oldest monarchical lines in the world.
A journey to Ethiopia which occupies a substantial part of the Horn of Africa is literally a return to Christian antiquity on the ‘Roof of Africa’. In her recent book, Vertical Ethiopia (2007), Majka Burhardt describes Ethiopia as having ‘extraordinary terrain’ AND… you wouldn’t want to miss a Jan. 6-7th Ethiopian Christmas celebration in the world famous, rock-hewn cave churches of Lalibela, the eighth wonder of the world, would you…
Day 1/ Dec. 27-28
Depart from Calgary for Frankfurt/Addis Ababa
Day 2/ Dec. 28
Arrive in Addis Ababa in the early evening after which we are transferred to the Ghion Hotel for overnight.
Day 3/ Dec. 29
Today is a much needed entire day of rest and refreshment after flying half way around the world! This attractive hotel with its rambling lush gardens and central location near Meskel Square takes its name from one of the rivers which had its ultimate source in the biblical Garden of Eden (Gen 2:13). (Overnight: Ghion Hotel)
Day 4/ Dec. 30
Today we explore Addis Abba (‘New Flower’ in Amharic) the third highest capital in the world at an altitude of between 2300-2500 meters and founded in 1887. We ascend Mt. Entoto where Emperor Menelik II made his permanent camp in 1881. The air is filled with the fragrant scent of eucalyptus trees as we make the climb. The summit, where Menelik was crowned, affords a panoramic view of the city and also features two churches built by the emperor, the one the Church of Miriam and the other dedicated to the Archangel Raguel. Nearby and still intact is the emperor’s old palace and a museum featuring royal attire, war artifacts, period furniture and treasured books of historical interest. Descending from Mt. Entoto we contemplate the origins of humanity in our visit to the National Museum which ranks among the most important museums in sub-Saharan Africa. Here the recently discovered skeleton of Selam, an Australopithecus aphaeresis, is on exhibit. It was unearthed in 2000 at Dikika, Afar in northern Ethiopia. Selam is 150,000 years older than his more famous counterpart, Lucy, who is currently touring the United States. We continue our city tour to Holy Trinity Cathedral, the largest Orthodox Church in the country, built in 1941 with a somewhat chaotic mix of international styles to commemorate the patriots who defeated the Italian colonialist invaders in the 1930’s. The windows and walls of the church are adorned with Old and New Testament stories. Also of significance within the Cathedral are the tombs of the late Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife, Empress Menem. We continue to The Ethnographic Museum of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies on the campus of the University of Addis Ababa which includes among its many interesting displays and holdings, the actual bedroom of Emperor Haile Selassie and the first Christian coinage minted in the history of the world! Our day concludes at the Merkato, the largest open market in East Africa which is bursting with life. It serves up a fascinating medley of people and culture. There is virtually nothing which can’t be purchased here! (Overnight: Ghion Hotel)
Day 5/ Dec. 31
After breakfast we drive northward from Addis Ababa to Debre Markos to commence our exploration of Ethiopia’s ancient Christian heritage. Driving through beautiful open plains with lightly treed hills, after approximately 100 km. is the much revered monastery, Debre Libanos, founded by St. Tekle Haimanot in the 13th century. According to tradition the saint withdrew to a nearby cave and pursued a lifestyle of ceaseless prayer, standing upright for 22 years, as a result of his right leg withered and fell off. Situated at the bottom of an immense gorge through which one of the tributaries of the Blue Nile flows, this monastery is a modern centre of pilgrimage where many Ethiopian pilgrims still go seeking healing in its curative waters. During the Italian occupation the monastery was the site of some of the worst excesses of Fascist brutality (267 monks executed in 1937) hence the memorial to the martyrs. The Abbot of Debre Libanos is the spiritual head of all the Ethiopian monasteries and thus is given the title ‘Itchige’. Our drive continues to Debre Markos via the Blue Nile Gorge. This is one of the most breathtaking stretches of road in Ethiopia plunging over 1000m with hairpin curves as it descends the escarpment to the bottom of the Gorge. The present road and bridge were built by the Italians who skilfully demonstrated their flair for civil engineering. At the end of the day we arrive at Debre Markos, capital of Gojam, formerly known as Mankorar (“coldplace’). Of special interest to us is the 19th century Church of Markos with its well executed paintings. (Overnight: Shebel Hotel)
Day 6/ Jan. 1
Our destination today is lakeside Bahir Dar via the District of Awi, home of the Agaw people who reside in neatly fenced compounds and circular residences with tall thatched roofs bound tightly by entwined bamboo sticks. Scenically nestled on the southern shore of Lake Tana with a population of almost 97,000, Bahir Dar is an important regional commercial centre beautified with wide streets, palms and flamboyant trees. Emperor Haile Selassie once briefly entertained the idea of making the town his capital. The town is symbolized by the famous tankwa, the open-ended papyrus canoe that continues to be used on Lake Tana for trade. Also, it was here that Jesuit missionaries attempted to impose Catholicism on the Ethiopian people, with disastrous consequences. On arrival we’ll check in at the traditionally decorated Tana Hotel located in an Edenic setting, have lunch, take a rest and then venture into the countryside to the majestic Blue Nile Falls or Tissisat Falls (‘Water of Smoke’) approximately 30 km. from the town. Here the Blue Nile, which contributes 85% of the main Nile flow and the prized subject of adventurous explorer narratives, starts its long journey to the Mediterranean. (Overnight: Tana Hotel)
Day 7/ Jan. 2
This is a day when you need to make a choice according to your interests. One of your options is to participate in a day long excursion to the weaving cooperative of Awramba founded in 1985 by a group of 20 persons to demonstrate to its members and the rest of Ethiopians that the best escape from poverty and hunger is not by religion or prayer but rather through education and hard work. It is the only overtly atheistic community to be found anywhere in Africa and takes pride in its egalitarian, non-sexist and nonracist ideology.
You can join an intriguing expedition (will take approximately 7-8 hrs.) on Lake Tana to the mysterious, rock walled ‘island’ (in fact attached to the mainland) of Tana Cherkos, the purported, secret resting place of the Ark of the Covenant for 800 years. This journey will also provide the opportunity to visit two additional Tana monasteries- Rema Medhane Alem and Mitsle Fasiladas. (Overnight: Tana Hotel)
Day 8/ Jan. 3
Definitely a day to be anticipated! After an early breakfast we leave by chartered boat to traverse the ‘watery wilderness’ of Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest crater lake, covering 3500 sq. km., with a maximum depth of 10 meters. It is the source of the Blue Nile. Monasteries dating to the 13th and 14th centuries exist on some 20 of the lake’s 37 islands and introduce us to Ethiopia’s version of ‘desert spirituality’. Flocks of birds, especially pelicans, will be visible on this journey back in time. Our excursion first takes us to the Zeghie Peninsula, made affluent through the cultivation of coffee, which is noted for its 14th century churches with round, grass roofs and magnificent wall murals. We visit the two 13th-14th century churches, Betra Miriam and Ura Kidane Mehret, renovated around 1900, which house both ancient crowns and illuminated manuscripts. The latter has an exquisitely painted ‘maqdas’ which is practically a compendium of Ethiopian religious iconography. On Dek Island, the largest island in Lake Tana, is the monastery of Narga Selassie built by Queen Mentewab in 1747 and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The round church of the monastery is unusually illuminated by 8 doorways. The colors of the interior canvas paintings (not frescoes) are intense in a variety of hues…red, orange, brown and a distinctive bluish shade of green. We disembark at Gorgora on the north shore of Lake Tana where we see the monastery of Debre Sina Mariam which contains a 14th century church with a conical thatched roof and some of the most complex murals to be seen in the Tana region. A 2 hr. drive on dirt road brings us before sundown to Gondar and the Goha Hotel situated strategically on a hill which offers a splendid, panoramic view of the town. (Overnight: Goha Hotel)
Day 9/ Jan. 4
After breakfast we undertake the exploration of Gondar, once the royal capital of Ethiopia. The charming atmosphere of the town, established in 1636 by the great Emperor Fasiladas, is enhanced by a landscape of incomparable beauty. Among its highlights are the castles and churches built by Fasiladas and his descendants. The fascinating Debre Birhan Selassie Church, its name meaning ‘Trinity at the Mount of Light’ (a UNESCO World Heritage site) has walls decorated with scenes of biblical lore and medieval history. As Ethiopia’s most famous church, it is claimed to have been a onetime resting place of the Ark of the Covenant on its journey to Axum. It was the only church saved from the Mahdist invasion in the 1880’s by a timely swarm of bees. The open plan of the church, combined with its completely painted interior, makes entering it a breathtaking experience, the spiritual intensity of which is heightened by standing underneath the ceiling decorated with the staring faces of 80 archangels who face both east and west symbolizing the omnipresence of God. 2 km. outside the town is the Bath of King Fasiladas where during the season of Epiphany (Timkat) a nearby river is diverted to fill an area the size of a small swimming pool in order to accommodate mass baptisms which commemorate the baptism of Christ in the chilly waters. Our day concludes with the ruined palace of Queen Metowab and the Church of Qusquam Mariam on the outskirts of the town and a drive to the nearby village of Wolleka, a Falasha village which was once the thriving home of a community of Ethiopian Jews, most of whom were airlifted to Israel from 1985 to 1991. The ‘Jewish’ character of early Ethiopian Christianity continues to intrigue western Christian scholars. Buy your miniature statuette here of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba. Tonight we enjoy a traditional dinner and an entertaining experience of Azmari Beats, the Ethiopian equivalent of stand-up comedy done in Amharic. (Overnight: Goha Hotel)
Day 10/Jan. 5
This morning we take to the Ethiopia skies and fly to isolated Lalibela, perched on the rugged Lasta Mountains, the Rocks of Ages, at an altitude of 2630 meters…an unquestionable highlight of our itinerary. The scenery is the most awe-inspiring in the country. The town, capital of the Zagwe dynasty, was posthumously named after the legendary King Lalibela who in the 12th or 13th century aspired to build his own ‘holy city’ of Jerusalem’ away from interfering Muslim presence. It ranks among the most important religious sites in all of Africa and perhaps in the entire Christian world. Place names in Lalibela duplicate those in the Scriptures- e.g. the Jordan River, the Mt. of Olives, the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb of Adam etc. which adds to its sacred atmosphere. The 11 monolithic churches of Lalibela date to the reign of King Lalibela in the period between 1180 -1220 AD. They can hardly be called ‘constructed’ as they were carved inside and outside from the solid rock…a technological wonder indeed said to have taken 24 years. One local tradition says that the churches were the handiwork of ‘angels’ but most likely ‘Ethiopian angels’. Perhaps Egyptians and Indians or even the Knights Templar were involved. However the churches came to be, this is medieval Ethiopia at its best. The churches will be visited in two groups. The first group of 7 north of the Jordan River include Bet Golgotha, Bet Mikael, Bet Miriam, Bet Meskel, Bet Danaghel, and Bet Medhane Alem (said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world). The second group, south of the Jordan River, is comprised of Bet Emanuel, Bet Merkorios, Bet Abba Libanos and Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el. The climax of the tour of the churches is reached at the oft photographed, Bet Giyorgis, (made known to the world by an episode of the ‘Amazing Race’) only reached through a tunnel. It is the most elegant of the churches lying towards the southwest of the town which achieves a visually perfect architectural design unsurpassed in Ethiopia. (Overnight: Jerusalem Guesthouse)
Day 11/Jan. 6
A real Ethiopian adventure is on the agenda for this morning…a hike or mule ride to the Church of Ashetun Mariam (about a 4 hr. roundtrip) which ascends through small villages enroute to the top of a mountain at 3150m. where the church is located. The local priests quite justifiably claim they are ‘closer to God and to heaven.’ From this vantage point the views of the surrounding countryside are spectacular. Our afternoon destination is Yemrehana Christos (named after King Yemrehana Kristos who is buried there) which lies 20 km. northeast of Lalibela. It is the finest church outside the town built within a cave. The exterior of this 11th or 12th century church is decorated with white marble panels and the entire church sits on a foundation of olive-wood panels which allows it to float perfectly above the marshy ground below. Everywhere the carving and decoration is exceptional. To the rear of the church are the bones of innumerable pilgrims who chose to be buried at this holy site under an overhanging rock. Tonight is one of the liturgical highlights of our journey…we attend the Ethiopian Christmas Eve celebration. The faithful participate in all night church services moving from church to church. Genna (Christmas) is observed after 43 days of fasting known as Tsome Gahad (Advent) and marked by a spectacular procession which lasts from midnight to 3:00 am. After the Mass people go home to break the fast with a meal of chicken, lamb or beef, injera bread and traditional drinks. The sight of candle burning, white robed worshippers crowded inside churches will be unforgettable. (Overnight: Jerusalem Guesthouse)
Day 12/Jan. 7/
Christmas Today is the Ethiopian Christmas, a day of jubilant festivity wrapped in enthusiastic, colourful celebrations, the third most important festival (after Timkat and Meskel) in the Ethiopian ecclesiastical year. The air is filled with the vibrant chants of a multitude of Lalibela priests engaged in centuries old ritual dance which flows into a ceremonial procession commencing around dawn. Much needed rest time will come in the afternoon after the release of so much energy in a marathon of celebration. (Overnight: Jerusalem Guesthouse)
Day 13/Jan. 8
Today’s flight to Axum, the sacred city of the Ethiopians, transports us into the fabled world of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and the mythological traditions related to the Ark of the Covenant. According to the Kebra Nagast (Book of Kings), the city was the 10th century capital of the Queen of Sheba…probably more fantasy than fact. We visit the main churches of Axum including the most holy Church of St. Miriam of Zion Monastery church which allegedly houses and guards the Ark of the Covenant brought from the Temple in Jerusalem by Menelik I who according to tradition was the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The church dates to the 4th or 5th centuries when the emperor became Christian, making it one of the earliest Christian churches in Africa (cf. Acts 8:26-38-Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch). Today we will be in the most holy precinct of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church almost within touching distance of the Holy Ark itself if one believes the tradition. The Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion is the repository of the crowns of the former emperors of Ethiopia and is considered to be the oldest church in all of Africa. The seven mysterious obelisks of Axum in the town centre (one of which was recently returned from Italy and another is reputedly the world’s tallest monolith) invite us to contemplate their origins. Also of interest in King Ezana’s Park is a trilingual tablet inscribed in Ge’ez, Sabean, and Greek, Ethiopia’s version of the Rosetta Stone. We then ascend a hill to view the castle of King Kaleb (514-542 AD). Next to be visited is the tomb of Kaleb and the tomb of King Basen who ruled Axum at the time of Christ’s birth. In the late afternoon as the sun begins to set we read accounts of the meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba from various texts in the imaginative setting of the ruins of the queen’s own partially reconstructed palace on the edge of town. Patronize the local market economy in this onetime center of a great African civilization on the fringe of the Graeco Roman world which blossomed before the time of Christ…the historical facts concerning which remain obscure. Axum is truly one of the country’s star attractions. It is to sub-Saharan Africa what the Egyptian pyramids are to North Africa. It is to Ethiopians what Mecca is to Saudi Arabians. (Overnight: Remhai Hotel)
Day 14/Jan. 9
Today we drive from Axum to Adigrat the largest town in Tigray province after Mekele. The town of Adwa enroute is of momentous historic significance to Ethiopians as it was here that Emperor Menelik II inflicted the most crushing defeat ever on a European army in Africa thereby saving Ethiopia from colonization. About 11km. east of Adwa is the Monastery of Abba Garima named after one of the nationally esteemed Nine Saints who founded it in the 6th century. Among its treasures are 3 illuminated manuscripts from the 10th century. Further on we come to Yeha, Ethiopia’s earliest capital with its dominating pre-Christian Temple of the Moon, the country’s oldest building dating to 500 BC. As the earliest symbol of civilization in Ethiopia, scholars are still uncertain as to who built Yeha. Its temple survives as a ghostly relic of the past. Beside it stands a modern church dedicated to Abuna Aftse, another of the famous Nine Syrian Saints from the eastern Roman Empire who Christianized the country in the 6th century. The church houses crosses, old manuscripts and stones bearing Sabean inscriptions. The physical challenge of the day is ascending to the spectacularly located Monastery of Debre Damo which dates to Axumite times and is claimed to contain the oldest intact church in Ethiopia. Accessible only up a cliff by rope! and not open to women…the hearty among us will undertake the arduous ascent to be rewarded by the opportunity to view the treasures of the Debre Damo church which have survived the ravages of time due to the elevated, secluded location. The plateau (2800m) on which the church sits is 24 meters from the ground. Start your bicep building, rope climbing preparation now! Our journey ends at Adigrat which lies on an important junction linking Ethiopia to Eritrea. (Overnight: Hohama Hotel)
Day 15/Jan. 10
Our destination today is Hawzien, 36km. south of Adigrat and less than 60km. from the northern Ethiopian border. Here one gains a commanding view of the Gheralta plains out of which the Gheralta mountains, a sandstone escarpment, rise abruptly. The solitudinous splendour of the region defies description…a rock climber’s paradise…Ethiopia’s vertical heritage. It feels like uncharted land, relatively untraveled by outsiders, where heat and aridity reign. Numerous churches have been hewn out of the sandstone but because they have not been cut free from the rock they are scarcely visible when looking up at them from the plain. Up to the mid 1960’s the Tigray churches, perhaps around 120 in number, were hardly known outside the region even to Ethiopians. Resident monks claim that the churches date to either the 4th or 6th centuries, both highpoints in Ethiopian Christian history, but the evidence points to a more likely origin for most of the churches in the 13th and 14th centuries. The roughness of their sculpted style, some like renovated caves, suggests that dedicated monks on a spiritual quest for remote silence and not professional craftsmen (as in the case of Lalibela) built them.
Day 16/Jan. 11
The heart of Ethiopian Orthodoxy beats in the triangle between Axum, Debre Damo and Wukro. Many people bear the mark of the cross on their foreheads as an expression of their devotion. However, a large proportion of the rock-hewn churches of the Tigray region are inaccessible due to their daunting locations in the faces of cliffs to be scaled only by the skilled. Their hidden secrets have remained locked away for centuries. At least 80 of the churches are in the Wukro (means ‘rock hewn’) region in the centre of the rugged mountains of Tigray. Our first objective today is the Church of Inde Mariem Wukro, 6.5km northeast of the village of Nabelet overshadowed by towers of rock. The Church of Mariem, not a free standing structure, is both complex and magnificent. We continue on to the churches of Teklehaymanot in Hawzien and Gorgis Ma-kado both of which are architecturally interesting. (Overnight: Gheralta Lodge)
Day 17/Jan. 12
Today our excursion in this rock dominated, expansive wilderness proceeds to the Church of Abuna Yemata, 4 km. west of Megab, purportedly built over a period of 8 centuries starting in 800 AD. Though hardly spectacular in an architectural sense, the church is carved out of the face of one of mountains of Guh. Its sheer vertical relief prompts a second thought about climbing to it…without ropes!!! The final stage of the access is a gangplank. But the effort is worth it…inside are beautifully preserved frescoes adorning two cupolas including a rarely seen depiction of the Nine Syrian Saints…Aragawi (also known as Abba Za-Mikael), Pantaleon (also known as Za-Somaet), Garima, Aftse, Guba, Alef, Likanos or Libanos (also known as Mataa), Yemata and Sehma. The colours are striking…red, blue, green and black over white backgrounds, the saints’ faces gently radiating the spiritual vibrancy with which they lived and missionized Ethiopia. On the southern edge of the village of Dugem is the Church of Dugem Selassie, a tiny, antique church contained within a newer one. Once a double tombed chamber, it was most likely converted into a church. (Overnight: Gheralta Lodge)
Day 18/Jan. 13
After breakfast we drive via Wukro to Mekele, Tigray’s capital. Enroute we visit Abreha Atsbeha one of the most revered churches in the region with deep spiritual roots. It was supposedly built by the two royal brothers, Abreha and Atsbeha, known in the West as the kings Ezana and Saizana. They were responsible for the conversion of Ethiopia to Christianity in the 4th century. Also, according to its clergy, the church was established by Frumentius (also known as Abba Salama, Father of Peace) who was the first abuna (archbishop) of Ethiopia and instrumental in the conversion of Ezana and Saizana. The church, which claims to possess a gold cross which belonged to Frumentius, is an important pilgrimage centre visited annually by thousands of pilgrims. Nearer to Wukro and also on our itinerary is Wukro Cherkos, the most accessible of the rock hewn churches in Tigray. Time permitting, after arriving in Mekele we’ll visit the Italian–designed Yohannes IV museum constructed for the emperor in 1873 as his castle home. Mekele, at an altitude of 2062m., has a population of approximately 97,000. (Overnight: Axum Hotel)
Day 19/Jan. 14
This morning we leave the remote region of Tigray and fly back to Addis Ababa for a leisurely day which includes savouring the ever-changing array of contemporary and traditional paintings from all over Ethiopia which are on display at the Makush Art Gallery and an evening of enjoying local cuisine, dress and dances at an Addis restaurant. Save some energy for this!!! (Overnight: Ghion Hotel)
Day 20/Jan. 15
Our last day takes us back millennia of time to Ethiopia as a cradle of human origins. We drive southwest on the Jimma Road and then due south to the Butajira Road arriving at Melka Kunture near the Awash River Gorge. It is one of the country’s most famous Neolithic archaeological sites where prehistoric, human made tools have been found. 5 km. further along on the Butajira Road is the rock-hewn Church of Adadi Mariam which dates to the period of the Lalibela churches though cruder in form than both the Lalibela and Tigray churches. In fact the local tradition claims that King Lalibela built the church on his visit to Mt. Zuqwala in 1106 AD. It was only rediscovered in the late 19th century. Continuing down the Butajira road we come to the Tiya monuments, one of Ethiopia’s UNESCO World Heritage sites restored by French archaeologists. Of significance here are examples of a peculiar style of engraved, upright stellae which stretch across parts of southern Ethiopia. The monoliths, which serve as grave markers, display carvings of four designs- the sword, a symbol like the number ‘3’ standing on its side, a sideways letter ‘M’ and a circle which appears only on a few graves (5) perhaps indicative of female gender. Three separate sections of standing monoliths give the site a certain ‘mini-Stonehenge’ character. The stellae date to between the 12th and 14th centuries. The identity of those buried in the graves however, remains a mystery. (Overnight: Ghion Hotel)
Day 21/Jan. 16
Today we transition from Addis to Dubai for some rest and relaxation before returning home.
Days 22-23 /Jan. 17-18
These final days of our journey in one of the richest and most powerful of the 7 city-states which constitute the United Arab Emirates are in juxtaposition to our travels in Ethiopia, one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Such is the disparity of the human experience. Dubai is a testimony to the creative ingenuity of human beings. It symbolizes the pinnacle of human achievements in the 21st century. From the sands of a harsh desert environment which covers 1,588 square miles has emerged a cosmopolitan, commercial global crossroads which has architectural ambitions unrivalled in the world, all funded by petro-dollars. 27% of the world’s construction cranes can be found in Dubai. The state, a shopping paradise for western tourists, boasts the world’s largest airport, the world’s tallest tower, the world’s largest artificial harbour, the world’s largest manmade island…all of these astonishing civilizational accomplishments emerging in the last 20 years. The Emirate Dubai International Financial Centre aspires to host 20% of the world’s investment funds. We’ll combine a guided tour of some of Dubai’s major attractions with lots of free time to relax and explore the many dimensions of this Arabian convergence of East and West according to your interests and energy levels. Depart…
If you want to get on the seriously interested, right of first refusal list and receive a complete info package when it is ready, please contact Dr. Nienkirchen at email@example.com There are only 21 spaces available and the list of persons desirous of going is already growing! First come first served. Ethiopia is beginning to appear on the global radar screen as an exotic travel destination. This is your chance to experience the country in a more pristine state on a customized Down Ancient Paths itinerary before hordes of tourists arrive to turn the path into a multi-lane highway.
July 17th, 2008
Travel journal by Nancy Chuang
Semqua and I were each on a fourth mini bottle of red wine. It was the most enjoyable intercontinental flight I’d ever taken alone.
My drunkenness was heightened by lack of sleep; I’d purposely stayed awake the previous night both to take care of all those niggling last-minute things and to crash hard on the flight. But thanks to Virgin Atlantic’s impressive entertainment system and my inability to both cradle my backpack and sleep soundly through my interminable Heathrow layover, I was still exhausted. I’d dozed a bit on the second leg, but upon waking for dinner, I chatted with Swedish-born Ethiopian and London university student Sem happily the rest of the BMI flight.
He taught me my first Amharic words—tadias (hello) and ameseganalehu (thanks)—then teased me when I tested out my new vocab at the airport bank counter at 4AM. With a hug and a kind offer to lodge me when I returned to Addis, my new friend bade me farewell while I headed off to Dire Dawa.
© Nancy Chuang
Ethiopian Air requires re-confirmation of all flights the day before departure. While many locals prefer face-to-face confirmation in the airline offices, I breezed through check-in at the domestic terminal thanks to the quick email I’d sent to the airline before leaving home.
Despite the second bag check at the gate, no one bothered to tell me my backpack was too large for the small plane’s overhead compartments. The airline seemed pretty casual about the whole thing, flight attendants gently admonishing me with beautiful smiles and then simply tucking my pack into a corner. I noticed another passenger actually stood the entire flight so yeah…they weren’t fussy.
Outside Dire Dawa’s small airport, the taxi drivers fighting over me offered the option of taking a private car all the way to Harar rather than a minibus. Not ready to splurge so early in my trip, I insisted on getting to the minibus station, where I basically met a new man every few feet saying “Harar? Get on bus.” They seemed to think I would lose my way in the 40 feet between the parking lot entrance and the minibuses.
I should have checked for seats on the apparently-full minibus, which took off immediately while mine sat for 30 minutes as I tried to ignore the ancient woman out the window with her pleading eyes and hand outstretched, and children reaching inside to sell tissues (locally referred to as “soft”) and gum. Behind me, a man nonchalantly asked his plump seatmate if he’d purchased two seats because he was so fat. Making light of it, the Dutch tourist dryly said, “Thanks for the compliment!” Grinning, the Ethiopian replied, “It wasn’t a compliment, it’s a fact.” Welcome to Africa!
The sweet young woman wedged in between me and driver smiled constantly but spoke no English. She’d caved and purchased gum from the hopeful children, immediately offering me a piece. Unable to make conversation, I found myself staring in awe at the rolling mountain scenery. I’d heard plenty about Ethiopia’s beauty, but the green valleys were still an unexpected thrill.
The road between Dire Dawa and Harar is on good asphalt, but parts are still under construction. Slowed more by frequent stops to pick up new passengers along the way, a distance that could be covered in an hour took almost two. Shenanigans ensued when the driver informed us we had too many passengers to get through the customs check. What customs check? Where did the regional border begin? The line of minibuses pulled over, re-shuffled passengers until every minibus held no more than 12 passengers, and eventually drove on.
Exploring the City with Child Guides
Considered to be the fourth holiest city in Islam, Harar’s walled old city contains perhaps the world’s greatest concentration of mosques, devout women in headscarves, and while I was there, a joyful population preparing to celebrate Eid Al-Adha. Outside its graceful white walls and atmospheric alleyways, the hectic, densely-inhabited modern city feels like a giant open-air market.
Upon retrieving my backpack off the bus’ roof, I gaped at the seething crowd until my kind seatmate grabbed my arm. As we walked through the station, the baggage handler yelled in Amharic until she pushed a tip into his waiting hand.
© Nancy Chuang
She pulled me into her friend Efraim’s mototaxi. Tewodros Hotel was only a short walk away, but I had heavy bags and hundreds of eyes on me; in the brief period since touching down in Ethiopia, I’d already sensed the infamous “ferengi-hysteria” building.
The eager young receptionist at Tewodros spoke only halting English. Immediately after showing me my room, he gently recommended the resident guide’s services. Disoriented, I told him I wasn’t sure yet; uncomprehendingly, he asked me several more times.
The Harar Gate, the Haile Selassie-era addition to the five traditional gates into the old city, was close to the hotel. Within minutes of entering the wall, Efraim drove up on the wide main road with a big smile.
“Remember! I am here if you need anything! Do you still have my number? Write it down again!”
I wish I’d had the nerve to call and taken the opportunity to hang out with locals. But it’s difficult enough for a woman to trust strange men without being the one initiating a meeting—what impression does that give?—and there was no guarantee he’d invite the girl from the bus.
We made small talk as a couple kids sidled up to the mototaxi. They acted like they knew Efraim, but soon it was apparent it was just my first case of “ferenjo, ferenjo, let me be your guide…
Unable to shake them, I allowed the small boys—who claimed to be 16—to show me their city. Ambling vaguely along the cobbled dusty alleys, the kids served as nothing more than company; yet I depended on them to get me out. While my guidebook claimed it was impossible to really get lost as long as one followed the wall, I couldn’t see the wall.”
The boys led me to a traditional Harari home, now a guesthouse requiring a few birr to visit. A woman showed me around while a young man—perhaps her son—impassively watched TV in the main room, its high walls covered in the famous Harari pottery and baskets.
While I hadn’t expressed interest in shopping, the boys took me to a small store with beautiful baskets on display. As I examined the work, the lead boy noted, “white people sure love baskets!” I’d been previously informed that Africans consider all non-blacks to be white, but was still startled. Me? White?
We strolled past the street tailors of Mekena Girgir into the odoriferous meat market, surrounded by optimistic birds of prey. A man struggling with a camel’s bloody head insisted I take his photo for one birr. I didn’t even want the picture but as the crowd grew around me, I didn’t know what else to do but agree.
A merchant woman in a makeshift tent called out, “American? American!” Cackling, she called herself a Jamaican, revealing her mass of dreadlocks as proof. A refugee from Shashemene lost in Harar? I refused the plain injera she offered to share but took a few photos of her adorable child, after which she screamed out for money but didn’t chase me down.
A car pulled up and the men inside asked where I was from. “New York,” I said. Mysteriously, they then screamed “GROUND ZERO!” with huge grins, pumping their fists joyfully.
We left the market and exited through Showa Gate, surrounded by another market. The boys had repeatedly asked me to see the hyena man with them, but still exhausted from the journey, I repeatedly deflected. One tried to convince me the hyena man was his father, and their persistence won me over in the end. They ran off before we reached the hotel, begging me to say nothing to the live-in guide at Tewodros.
The hotel guide Guma approached immediately and informed me that it was illegal to see the hyenas with my unofficial child guides; whether or not that was true, I decided it was easier to go with him instead of some random kids. Almost an hour early, he knocked on my door and awoke me from a long-delayed deep slumber. We rescheduled for the following day.
Harar and its Hyenas
I don’t think Guma owned a watch because the previous night he’d tried to pick me up for the hyenas almost an hour early. I’d been too exhausted from the long travel day to go then, but tonight when he showed up 30 minutes early I was ready.
Harar has a weird relationship with hyenas. The tradition of feeding raw meat daily to hyenas, which by most sources dates back only to the 1950s, may have transformed into its present version from a yearly ceremony begun centuries ago during a famine. Hararis fed the starving hyenas porridge to prevent them from attacking humans, and continued to set out a bowl of porridge yearly to symbolize this pact. The amount of porridge left in the bowl later came to represent the success or failure of the year’s crops. Sort of an Ethiopian Groundhog Day.
© Nancy Chuang
We strolled across the football field behind Tewodros Hotel, taking in the pleasant Harar evening. Guma was the first person I’d met in Ethiopia who spoke English fluently, although there were still misunderstandings. He agreed that directions to Babile’s camel market were not clear in guidebooks, but also insisted that it was simple to follow the stream of animals from the main road, yet the stream hadn’t existed.
As relieved as I was to find an English-speaker, I wasn’t comfortable with the way he looked at me, or his insistence that we should have spent the day together to avoid some vague peril. Was he trying to assert his indispensability, or was it something more salacious? He said I should never have planned to hike in the Valley of Marvels alone because it was dangerous. He said the bus driver dropped me off in the construction camp instead of Dakata because Dakata was also dangerous. It seemed odd that none of this was mentioned in my guidebook. Walking along the dark path outside the old city’s walls, I grew uncomfortable with his staring. Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the feeding site and I gladly ended the conversation for a while.
The site was at Fallana Gate, with a younger hyena man rather than long-established Yusef Pepe. This hyena man almost seemed bored, and did not attempt to create any mysterious atmosphere in his relationship with the hyenas. They seemed like docile dogs being fed by their owner.
Even so, there was something intriguing about the feeding. The furry hyenas were surprisingly cute as they nosed curiously at the man’s basket of food. But when a car pulled up with a tour group, their fangs glinted in the headlights, snapping at strips of raw meat. The hyena man alternately fed them from his fingers and off the end of a metal stick. The tour guides, familiar with the procedure, also took a turn feeding the hyenas and invited their guests to join in; I was too chicken.
The feeding lasted perhaps no more than 20 minutes, during which the flashes from various cameras never ceased. I paid Guma the agreed-upon 50 birr and he gave a portion to the hyena man. Until seeing the small crowd at the feeding, I would have sworn I was the only tourist in Harar. Afterwards, I still wasn’t sure where the others I’d seen were hiding.
We walked back through the brightly-lit old city. At night, Harar was full of activity, with stores still open and street stands selling food. I wished I had a travel partner to visit with. Guma wasn’t an acceptable substitute, as his overly-familiar behavior turned me off. He wasn’t even that helpful in his capacity as an officially-licensed guide because of a collision with another pedestrian. He was so distracted soliciting sympathy for the small cut on his forehead that he couldn’t help me negotiate for photos.
June 28th, 2008
Community-based TESFA offers trekking around Lalibela for a revealing glimpse into the life of Ethiopia’s rural people, which make up the majority of the population
The TESFA Routine
Travel journal by Nancy Chuang
Mulay warned us he’d be waking us at 7:30 sharp. Due to our early bedtime, I was up long before he was. We were invited to sign a guest book at each camp, and were thrilled to see Brad Pitt had visited in 2004 when Mequat Mariam was the sole location—pre-Angelina and baby Zahara.
© Nancy Chuang
The staff set up our lovely breakfast table outside on the sunny cliff edge, serving tasty scrambled eggs and rather dense pancakes with a locally-produced crystallized honey. Every night they asked our breakfast preference but with a large group, we always opted to share both dishes. Smiling staffers wished us good morning. Tea or coffee appeared before we even asked.
While I trusted the praise I’d heard for TESFA, a small part of me had worried of finding locals gussied-up in pseudo bush gear obsequiously bringing us cocktails on a platter. Instead, the well-trained Mequat Mariam community treated us as family, happy to teach us Amharic and share the differences in our lives.
The walk was rockier than the previous day’s. Hanna from the Addis TESFA office had described the paths as “boulder-strewn,” which sounded rather more romantic than it was. It was hard to find a flat spot at times and my feet frequently rolled out from under me. Of course, I was the only one klutzy enough to fall down.
By the second day, I still hadn’t gotten used to the kids. I’d noticed their apparent love of tourists and complete lack of guile, yet after Gondar and Harar it didn’t seem possible they could really be sincere. But the more kids that approached with warm smiles, hands outstretched only to touch and not to beg, imploring to be photographed, just to see a shot of themselves, the more enraptured I was of the experience.
Due to the crowd growing every time Jodie raised her camera, she eventually began arranging a posed group photo, creating a roar of children running from all corners to be included.
Each child needed to say “hello” and hear it back. Each child needed to say “chao” and hear it back. It was almost unbearably cute, and was definitely a theme of the trek.
I’d misunderstood what supplies would be available where, and had been under the impression that we would be wandering in and out of villages prepped for trekking groups throughout this hike. Unprepared, I ran out of water early in the day and relied on sweet Jodie to share a bit of her extra.
I was completely parched by lunchtime and disappointed to see lunch was injera and shiro wat…I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed that anyway but having only soda to wash it down with and no prospect for water for another few hours, I had to abstain. Even less appealing, the injera had been folded up into itself to fit into the container and looked like a big brain. With mild distaste, I watched Mulay’s hand thrust into the thick center and retreat coated with shiro.
At each lunchtime we received “fresh” donkeys (as the literature described) and a new local guide. I loved our grinning guides from Mequat Mariam but welcomed the new ones from Wajela. After a pleasant rest in the shade, while no one but Mulay touched the injera, we pressed on.
Mulay was quite fond of British English, and charmingly told Nina that her countrymen were “custodians of the language.” It was sweet, if not just a little misguided. A clipped “press on!” quickly became one of the group’s phrases. Quite unfortunate that Mulay so dearly loved Nina’s English but Nina couldn’t be bothered to correctly pronounce any Amharic names and words. Her pronunciation of Lalibela as “lollyBEE-la” grated on my nerves and I doubted she ever properly thanked anyone with ameseganalehu.
The second half of the hike was somewhat less interesting. Mulugeta asked if we wanted to continue along the escarpment or cut across the fields. Unclear on the difference but hoping this meant more interaction with people, perhaps visiting a home (not realizing that a home visit was a separately scheduled event), we voted for cutting across. It turned out it was nothing more than flat grasslands, actually containing fewer people than before.
© Nancy Chuang
Later when we carefully mentioned that the previous day’s walk had been more beautiful, Mulay smiled sweetly and said well…he’d asked our opinion. Of course, we hadn’t known the difference between options when asked.
Getting to Wajela camp involved a brief rocky descent. I envied people who never worried about tripping but as someone who’d twisted her ankles numerous times, I walked unsteadily while staring at the ground. I still stumbled.
Wajela was colder than Mequat Mariam so we opted out of showering, although the fenced-in shower itself was picturesque against the moonrise. Our snack of crispy potato sticks wrapped in pieces of “Meket pizza” was so appetizing we easily polished off the heaving platter…although avoiding the injera at lunch undoubtedly increased our appetites. As we watched the sun go down, the camp manager noticed Jodie’s binoculars and asked to take a look. Fascinated, he spent a good thirty minutes searching the valley, locating the nearest church, the schools, and various small mammals.
Bundled in our warm clothes and drinking chilled beers, we huddled on a tukul’s porch and chatted until a random dip into nostalgia brought up an unfortunately racist childhood rhyme of Jodie’s. In horror and embarrassment, we couldn’t stop laughing while Mulugeta in all seriousness insisted, “Jhodee…Jhodee…say the word again. Say the word again.”
Throughout the trek we would find ourselves constantly imitating Mulay’s adorable pronuciation “Jhodee. Jhodee. Jhodee.”
TESFA prided itself on its “eco-toilets with a view,” which were similar across camps. A tiny tukul at the cliff’s edge featured a seat placed over a drop toilet and a window facing the valley on the inaccessible side where no one could peek in. The toilet collected both kinds of waste for fertilizer. As there was no flush, users put down ash to diminish the smell. The accommodating camps provided toilet paper when available, although most trekkers probably came prepared.
Wajela’s innovation was large water jugs with spigots for washing. At other camps, the staff patiently held a bowl of water and soap and rinsed our hands with a pitcher, but it was nice being able to handle that ourselves.
The surprisingly delicious dinner was perfectly al dente spaghetti, which turned out to be the best rendition I had in the country. Sadly, the “shoulder-dancing” Mulugeta promised us never materialized due to the “expert dancer” of Wajela being unavailable.
I dearly love community projects, especially ones as well-run as TESFA. 60% of each tourist’s fee goes to the Meket Woreda communities, for camp supplies, staff salaries, and reinvestment into the camp’s structures. The remainder is used in a manner voted on by the community, with one vote per household. The other 40% goes to the office support in Addis and Lalibela, and the Lalibela-based guides, who trek continuously with very little rest. Mulay’s doctor even told him he was too thin to eat fasting food twice a week, with his trekking schedule.
As much as I love natural beauty or historical sights, my main focus while traveling is always the chance to interact with local people. TESFA provided exactly what I’d hoped for.
June 27th, 2008
Morning in Filakit
Travel journal by Nancy Chuang
As I headed toward the outhouse, a young cleaning woman motioned for me to wait. She filled a bucket with water, indiscriminately sloshed it into the tiny room, and with a proud smile deemed it ready for use. Combined with last night’s disbursement of plastic chamberpots, Filakit was getting surreal.
© Nancy Chuang
Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustained Future Alternatives is a program run almost entirely between the office in Lalibela and the community of Meket Woreda, a district in the highlands. Additional support comes from the TESFA office in Addis, where British founder Mark and his Ethiopian co-worker Hanna work on the website, answer requests for information and schedule bookings. Save the Children UK was also affiliated, and had an office in Filakit.
Through numerous questions to Hanna and her patient replies, I’d arranged to join a solo trekker named Jodie to save us both money, but needed help meeting this schedule with my limited time. A couple weeks before I left, Hanna informed me their contracted driver Habtamu would already be in Gondar, so I’d get the ride for half-price. Once Jochen joined up, the private ride—merciless as it was—cost less than flying to the usual starting point of Lalibela.
We expected our trekking partners to show at 10AM, and had little to do other than watch the blanket-wrapped drivers negotiate the gas pump in front of the hotel. We moved down the road a bit to watch students heading off to school, a sea of forest-green uniforms whispering ferengi, ferengi. After exhausting Filakit’s possibilities, Jochen and I headed back for coffee. With Habte already on the road back to Lalibela, we were stuck trying to communicate on our own in a town devoid of English speakers.
Our initial request for 2 cups of coffee (hulet buna, my mangled attempt at Amharic) was met with gales of laughter. We lingered over the strong brew but when conversation began to fail us, we tried to flag down the happy waitress again. She was in full-on “ignore” mode, yet she kept throwing quizzical glances our way. Was she wondering why we were still there?
We watched Amarigna-speaking families enter, eat, and leave while we continued wondering about coffee. Eventually a waiter we recognized from the previous night came over. We tried asking for “hulet buna” again. He told us the price. We nodded OK. He waited a while, then left with questions still hanging in the air. We didn’t get any coffee.
Perhaps he thought we had simply wanted to confirm the price. More than an hour later we eventually convinced someone to pour us a second cup. My guidebook was sparse on Amharic restaurant directives, and Jochen’s phrasebook of course only translated from German, but I figured if I stared at it long enough it would all make sense.
What a relief when Jodie and Nina finally arrived after 11! With a warm smile, our trekking guide Mulugeta asked us to call him Mulay and insisted we eat lunch before starting off. The five of us easily shared a big vegetarian plate similar to the one Jochen had ordered for himself the previous day. We regaled our new companions with stories of the drive and of Filakit, most especially of the various toilet experiences. We had five days together, so we might as well get friendly.
We piled into the car that brought Jodie and Nina from Lalibela and drove to the meeting point, where grinning teenaged boys gathered shyly. Not a single word was exchanged, only fascinated stares. The spell was broken when our local guide and porters arrived, and began to strategically load four people’s luggage plus a large amount of bedding onto two small, patient donkeys.
© Nancy Chuang
Finally on our way, one small boy suddenly piped up for money. Mulugeta reminded him gently that this community welcomed tourists and wanted to show them the best side of Ethiopia, away from the harassment in other parts of the country. The boy sweetly promised to never ask again.
Jodie taught high-school psychology and—like every other Australian I’ve ever met on the road—was from Melbourne. She was meeting her boyfriend for a group tour through East Africa later so she’d jumped on the chance to trek in Ethiopia first. Nina was a blustery physical therapist, an English gal of the “jolly” variety. Nina was in Ethiopia only for trekking as well—although the best-known sites are near enough to the historical circuit for quick visits—and immediately after this trek was headed to the Simien Mountains.
I’d originally only known about Jodie but TESFA had managed to locate three other solo travelers who were willing to adjust their schedules. Our fifth, Jess, would come later.
The first bit of climbing from the stream to the escarpment was steep, but after that the trek was as easygoing as we’d expected. TESFA did not involve physically challenging hikes, but rather an opportunity to interact with people and observe life in the rural northern highlands. Maximum distance was about twenty-five kilometers and no more than six hours per day, although we often finished in five.
We couldn’t get our eyes off a particular small boy on the same route, perhaps no more than 5 years old, who took his self-appointed task of harshly whipping cows with a stick quite seriously. However, it wasn’t our place to correct this behavior. Other children seemed to have little to do other than scamper after us, welcome us with outstretched hands and solemnly ask,”what is your name?” They never had any follow-up once we told them.
We’d been wondering where all the adults were when we came upon a church in the typical rural style: round with a cross squarely at the center of its thatched roof. It was St. Maryam’s Day, and a large group of men gathered first to watch us enjoying the view from the cliff, then went back in the churchyard to drink a strangely sweet and foamy home-brewed barley beer.
We agreed to try some, not expecting to receive a quart-sized metal cup to pass around. Mulay assured us most of these men would put away several large cups on any given Saint’s day. It wasn’t pleasant. Neither was the bread made in the church, nutty but dry and extremely filling.
This was our first true taste of the Meket Woreda community, other than the children wandering in and out of our paths and our limited interaction with the local guide. The guide taught me to say konjo, or beautiful, and particularly applied it to the Ecuadorian woven purse I used as a camera bag. Other than that we could only exchange smiles.
At the church we were able to see how far-flung neighbors came together and how much they enjoyed the growing tourist attention to their rural area—especially seeing photos of themselves. Not for the last time I wondered if I should have carried my point-and-shoot digital camera in addition to film, as I never had anything to show.
Sundown in Mequat Mariam
Mequat Mariam camp emerged on the horizon after a mere three hours’ walk. The circular thatched huts called tukuls were modeled after traditional homes in the region, using materials donated by Save the Children UK and other charities. Inside however, we found clean, comfortable mattresses set into concrete hollows. The pretty bed covers were embroidered with traditional designs reminiscent of Lalibela’s crosses. Candles and matches were provided to deal with the nighttime dark, although we were all prepared with flashlights.
© Nancy Chuang
Lining up to greet us, the polite staff welcomed us in English with great effort. I had misunderstood how the lodgings would work—I thought we’d be quartered in community homes but instead each community built these remarkable camps.
Mequat Mariam was the original TESFA site, and currently the smallest. The single large tukul was divided into two spacious rooms. Jochen and I shared one side, while Nina and Jodie—who were rapidly bonding—took the other. Mulay was relegated to a tent, but the bedding we had carried with us from Lalibela would go into the new tukuls the community had nearly completed.
We’d been told to expect a “snack” upon arrival at each camp, but while in the awkward process of pulling off our dirty boots and stinky socks, the courteous manager materialized with an overflowing plate of “Meket pizza”—wheat-based injera spread with a tasty tomato-onion chutney. With unlimited servings of coffee or tea and not a hint of the sourness of tef-based injera, it was hard to avoid making a meal of it.
After a dusty couple of days, with hair still refusing to lay flat since the drive from Gondar, I ached for a shower. Striking a balance between the rural lack of running water and the foreigner’s need for private upright bathing, a stall of wooden sticks with a door that didn’t quite close was set some distance from the tukuls. The staff filled the canvas waterproof bladder large enough to wash two people with conservative usage. Water dripped rapidly upon turning the knob, so ideally, bathers would turn it off while soaping up. Rather chilly despite TESFA’s romantic description of sun-warmed water, especially in the cooler air temperatures of December. But with the sun shining and views of the valley below through the spaces in the stall, it was a beautiful way to get clean.
Mulay decided we were ready for beer. The “rock bar” was an outcrop at the edge of the escarpment where we could drink and watch the sunset. The rock was very uneven in spots, so while I’d been relieved to change into flip-flops after the trek, I would have been more secure clambering over that last boulder in my boots.
Our candlelit dinner was served in the dining tukul around 7:30, while we were still quite full of Meket pizza. At 3000 meters, the night was so cool we arrived at dinner wrapped in our jackets, gloves, hats and scarves, but the campfire inside the room had the desired effect. To our delight the meal was injera-free: a scrumptious vegetable soup, a potato-based sauce with chicken and a spinach wat with rice.
Everything was tasty and hot, prepared in a separate cooking tukul. I’ve always been disinclined toward safari-type hyper-luxury accommodations in the African bush, but our first night at Mequat Mariam proved that TESFA’s organizers understood how to provide its paying clients with relative indulgences in an appropriate way.
June 26th, 2008
A Turbulent Start
Travel journal by Nancy Chuang
Laughing was the only possible reaction.
“This is the worst ride I’ve ever taken!” Jochen shouted over the noise of the rattling car.
“I’ve been on much worse!” I yelled back flippantly.
I had—the choppy dirt path climbing to Parque Nacional Celaque in Honduras, which I foolishly undertook in a jittery moto-taxi, or the road winding through the Ecuadorean Andes toward Chugchilán, so narrow that every bump threatened to toss the busload of praying passengers off the cliff.
© Nancy Chuang
The difference in Ethiopia was that this rough patch lasted 6 hours. By the end I fully admitted Jochen was right.
I’d expected the car to collect me from Circle Hotel at 8:00. Several apologetic phone calls later, Habtamu arrived sometime after 9 claiming that Jochen caused the delay by changing money. Later I found out that easygoing Habte had kicked back and ordered breakfast after the transaction was already complete.
Jochen, a friendly German with a sweet smile, hoped to visit every continent before he turned 30. People with “before I’m 30″ plans make me itch. By coincidence, I’d split a taxi into Gondar with him the previous morning.
Spurred to visit by a half-Ethiopian half-Eritrean close friend back in Cologne who’d waxed poetic on Ethiopia’s beauty, he was a former professional-level runner who now worked in sports journalism. He’d brought a small videocamera and interviewed marathoners in Addis Ababa soon after the annual high-altitude Great Ethiopian Run, and was quite jazzed about his footage.
We raced along the paved road from Gondar, the wind whipping my hair into a tangled snarl. Suddenly making a sharp left turn, Habtamu intoned, “asphalt is finished”…and the turbulence began.
Hours of jarred organs later, we vibrated into an extremely basic restaurant filled with wary eyes. Small children discussed terms with Habte and appeared to be watching the car or possibly washing it (at this point, why?) while we had lunch.
As strangers, we were shy about sharing and instead ordered separately: I got tibs, Habte got kitfo, and Jochen got the fasting food mixed platter that easily would have fed all three of us. Kitfo is raw ground beef and looked like brains. My opinion did not improve after Habte allowed me a sample.
The bumps intensified after lunch, including one jolt so strong I hit the roof. Jochen burst out laughing, but it was less funny by the fourth time.
I’d begun the day with an astounding tej hangover and was having trouble focusing. I could not re-hydrate because the very thought of water sloshing inside me was revolting. Habte generously invited us to tea so we stopped in another village. Although we sat right next to the car, he still paid some kids to watch it. I hoped soda could settle my roiling stomach but no such luck.
Amazingly, the road grew still worse due to construction. Eventually asphalt would connect Gondar and Lalibela, but there were three more years of work ahead. When the road crew threw a shovelful of dirt on our car, Habte meticulously wiped off some of the mound with a tissue. Without rancor, he suddenly popped the lid and let the remaining dirt to fall into the engine, setting us on another fit of giggles.
A couple of the elusive Chinese engineers supposedly distributed all over Ethiopia were reviewing blueprints with their foremen. We exchanged looks of vague recognition.
My head still throbbed as we pulled into a Filakit truck stop. In this tiny village, our small rooms cost a mere 15 birr. The outhouse reeked of urine on both the squat-toilet and shower sides. Mysteriously, the shower was operated from outside the stall. It was definitely time for a beer.
We forced down a bit of shiro wat, neither Jochen or I particularly hungry. The electricity in Filakit shut off at 9, surely a downer for the boys playing foosball on the street, but this hotel had a generator that operated until 10:30. Departing at 5AM with the other buses, Habte went to bed while Jochen and I felt we shouldn’t waste the light. But as the night grew cold and an odd Kenyan man nearby started rambling about the joys of drinking mother’s milk directly from the breast, we downed our last beers and headed off.
May 22nd, 2008
Paradise Found in Ethiopia
by Gwen Tiernan
After stumbling off the truck, totally beaten down by the harsh travel experience of northern Kenya, we dragged ourselves through Kenya border control and walked to the Ethiopian side where the border was closed. We would have to come back at 3pm when it reopened. Spent the next hour or so walking up the hill that Ethiopian Moyale is sprawled across looking at every accommodation option; they were all just that bad.
We didn’t have our tent because we didn’t have our bike, and already regretted it. One place had an ensuite bathroom, but there was a very large pile of human fasces in the shower. When we pointed it out to the guy showing us the room he said, “Yes, shower”. Umm…. Things went on in a similar vein, and we finally settled on Tourist Hotel back at the bottom of the hill next to the border post. Cockroaches that could feed a family, but there was a poo-free shower.
The next morning we were up at 4am to catch a bus to Addis Ababa. Buses are only allowed to travel between 6am and 6pm in Ethiopia so they try to fill them up as early as possible, and it would take 2 days to get from Moyale to Addis with an overnight stop in Awassa. The trip was the height of comfort and uneventful compared to the truck through northern Kenya, though both days the bus had a flat tire, and both times it was replaced by an equal bald tire.
In fact, I could see the weaving so it was beyond bald. The conductors were quick to change it so I didn’t mind, and southern Ethiopia is scenic, similar to northern Kenya with scrubby vegetation covering the dry earth. We noticed a profusion of donkey carts on the road, and this was our introduction to how essential donkeys are to the Ethiopian economy: everything is transported near and far by donkey.
From other travellers we had heard nothing but bad news about Ethiopia, especially the begging, and were prepared to hate the country. However, people are friendly and begging to us wasn’t nearly as bad as East Africa. At a lunch stop on the bus a few kids came over to complain that they were hungry, and some older guys threw rocks at them to make them stop begging. Definitely have not seen that before in Africa!
Ethiopians are fine featured and tall, and I think the men and women are beautiful. The food is great as well, which is worlds apart from what I would say about most African cuisine: injera, a huge, flat, spongy piece of bread-like substance, covered with some variety of wot (stew), tibs (sautéed meat), spaghetti, or fasting food (vegetarian food without egg or dairy either). Coffee’s very good also as the Italians left lots of espresso machines behind when they briefly tried to colonize Ethiopia in the 1930s. They also left gelato, pasta and pastries, and Ethiopians brew some of the best African beer I have tasted. What more could you want? My only complaint would be that Ethiopians have some inexplicable superstition regarding fresh air, and the windows on the bus stay firmly closed despite the sweltering heat, sun pouring in, and people getting sick. At least we will appreciate the bike when we get back to Nairobi, no lack of fresh air there.
Arrived in Addis late in the afternoon of the second day and it was like stepping out of prison. We splashed out on a decent hotel and went out for martinis, wine and dinner at a nice restaurant; after the 5 day ordeal to get from Nairobi to Addis, and the good impression we had of the country on the way up, we were now ready to love Ethiopia. Addis is quite a modern city, but still has oodles of character, great museums, and loads to do. The day after arriving we treated ourselves to coffee and pastries- eating out is a rare novelty on the trip as we usually make meals on our cooker- and made our first attempt at getting a Cameroonian visa. Nick’s application (NZ passport) was accepted, but the receptionist told me I needed an invitation letter (American passport). There’s no Cameroonian Embassy in Nairobi, so we need to get it here. The visa costs US$114 so I would have thought the bribe was included, but apparently not.
Village in North Ethiopia
Our next destination was the predominantly Muslim walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. We caught an overnight minibus, much quicker than the buses, and spent the day wandering around the city, checking out markets, alleys, the various gates, and taking it all in. Really cool, picturesque city, and just walking around is an experience. People herding fully-laden donkeys through the alleys, crazy homeless men motioning you over and uncovering a severed camel’s head sitting next to them, an amazing amount of beggars clogging the road inside the walls and sleeping on the cold streets at night. Once walking down an empty alley a huge grey dog that looked half hyena came out of the haze from someone burning rubbish. Scary dog and we weren’t quite sure what to do as it was growling at us and pacing around the end of the alley, but then this kid walked by and held up a stone to scare away the dog for us. He had this big grin, and every time the dog got close, he held the stone higher and it left us alone. Even remembering it feels like a dream.
Tried Kitfo, an Ethiopian specialty of raw mince mixed with butter and berbere (a hot, uniquely Ethiopian blend of spices including up to 94 different spices) - tasty. That evening we went to watch the hyena feeding, according to the Lonely Planet a totally traditional, non-touristy event. Other than the floodlights from the tour bus full of aging German tourists… We had to pay an extra 5Birr for staying 5 minutes longer than our time allotment. Still, I got to feed hyenas out of my hand so without the LP build-up it was quite a cool, unique experience.
Back in Addis we checked out the National Museum, quite a rarity for us to darken a museum’s door, and so glad we did! We saw casts of the Lucy bones that were discovered in Ethiopia (they keep the real ones locked away in the museum’s archive), and a cast of what her complete skeleton would have looked like, which is short. Also passed by Yekatit 12 Monument to those who were killed during a massacre by the Italian occupiers, and Holy Trinity Cathedral which is the final resting place of Haile Selassie and his wife. We walked around Piazza, a very Italian section of Addis, ate some of the best food we have had on the trip, and generally loved being in Addis.
Minibuses are the way to go in Ethiopia, so for our next foray, to Gondar in northern Ethiopia, we arranged to go by minibus. It left at 3.30am and got into Gondar at 4pm the same day, which sounded vastly better than spending 2, or possibly 3 days on a hot, slow bus. On this trip faranjis (foreigners) far outnumbered the 2 Ethiopians, but we still had to fight for every millimetre of open window. What a bizarre custom. Arriving in Gondar we had to wander the city a while to find a place to stay. In typical African style I had a kid pestering me as we walked along, and, typically Ethiopian, when I finally looked over to tell him to go away, he held up my keys that I had dropped and said with a huge smile “Welcome!”
Enjoying chat in Addis
Gondar is another pretty city with lots to see, and was capital of an Ethiopian kingdom from 1636-1855. Other than a bit of bomb damage from when the British helped chase out the Italians after WWII, the castles are in good shape. Most are concentrated in the Royal Enclosure in the middle of Gondar; the Lion Houses were actually used to keep lions until the 1990s, and restoration work has been done on the major castles.
We had been hoping to hike in the Simien Mountains, near Gondar, and were lucky enough to find the perfect group of 3 other people who wanted to do a similar route. There was Karen, a Scottish GP who has been the medical support for a number of other treks, Phil, a crazy Dutch psychiatric nurse who has also done loads of trekking, including to Everest base camp, and was the character of the trip, and Chris, an Aussie corporate bank manager and also well experienced. Could not have gotten luckier with a more fun, chilled-out and fit crew, and they made half the trip. For once we went along with flow and didn’t try to do everything dirt cheap, and had one of the best experience of the trip because of it. We organized the hike through a company (all this was virgin territory for me), and who knew hiking could be so luxurious? Mules carried our food and gear, we had a COOK (!), bonfires every night, snacks laid out for us when we reached that night’s camp- it was unreal. Everyone agreed that the scenery is some of the best in the world.
Everything in Ethiopia is carried by donkey it never took long to reach the next highlight. Waterfalls plunging 400m into gorges, gelada baboons and their constant shagging, valleys and amazing rock formations, picturesque villages, mountain ibex, and generally great scenery. The scout even let us pose with his Kalashnikov. The highest mountain was over 4400m and we were up pretty high the whole time, so it was mighty cold and one morning my breakfast plate kept vibrating off my lap because I was shivering so hard. At least we were always keen to get hiking first thing in the morning!
Back in Gondar we had a few boozy nights with our fellow hikers to celebrate, and one night had the dubious pleasure of experiencing an Ethiopian specialty. It’s like Ethiopian stand-up: someone, usually a guy, plays this stringed instrument while a woman sings. She comes around and sings to everyone individually and says either nice things or not depending on how much money you give her. Apparently is wickedly funny, but as it’s all in Amharic she could sing what she wanted to about us.
The main problem with Gondar is its lack of good restaurants: we found one good one only to have the
owners try to majorly rip us off and get nasty about it (never go to Mini Fogera), but our last night we went to a decent pizza place, and the waiter made it by teaching me how to shoulder dance (another Ethiopian specialty). I’ll post the video if travel blog lets me.
Scout on Semen Mountains
We really went overboard on the luxury side of things, and flew from Gondar to Lalibela as there were no minibuses between the cities, and buses could have taken up to a week. In our usual early morning Gondar state, totally hungover, we could hardly appreciate all the hassle the 20 minute flight saved us. Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches were not the stunningly beautiful masterpieces I had expected, and are probably a teensy bit over-hyped, but maybe once they are no longer shrouded in scaffolding all the work that went into making them will be easier to appreciate. They were built around the 12th Century, and I wondered how King Lalibela knew that the rock went deep enough to carve these multi-storied churches. The actual making of them must have been an amazing undertaking. We were lucky enough to be visiting on St. Michael’s Day, so we watched.
Every night he feeds hyenas outside the gates, and the tourists almost outnumber the hyenas the swaying, chanting priests and worshippers in Bet Mikael for a while. We got the bus back to Addis, 2 days of slow, dusty travel on mountain roads that made us glad NOT to be on the bike. The second day was mostly through road works, and it was interesting to see these camel trains of massively laden camels carrying the building materials. Sometimes their loads were taller than our bus, and the whole scene made me wish the road wasn’t too bumpy for my camera. No pictures, sorry.
Addis the third time around was meant to be a quick stopover to get my Cameroonian visa before the 5 day trip back to Nairobi where we still had to fix the bike before flying to Cameroon. However, quick it was not as the Cameroonian Consular took exception to my American passport and repeatedly denied me a visa. Luckily we ran into some good friends we had made along the way, Hugh, an Irish biker, Rene, a Canadian biker, and Guy and Marlaine, a vagabond Belgian couple. Had some good nights out in Addis nightclubs (they really are FULL of prostitutes, Ethiopians have a very liberated view of prostitution), and good times to break the Cameroonian Embassy monotony.
Here’s what happened: The US Embassy does not give invitation letters, period, and the standard letter they give out is almost insulting, so I was not totally surprised when I was denied my visa a second time. I now needed an invitation letter from someone in Cameroon. Luckily, my grandparents help sponsor a Cameroonian to study in the US, and his sister, Bea, was happy to help. It took ages to contact her, but I finally did and she wrote me the perfect invitation letter and had it certified. There were lots of problems with fax machines not working, the Embassy staff giving me the wrong email address, etc, but finally the letter arrived. No, denied a visa again, and this time there was no reason and nothing more I could do. We already had our plane tickets to Douala, Cameroon, so I really needed that visa and Nick went back to talk/beg the Consular on my behalf. The Consular railed on at Nick for ages that the wrong official had signed the letter; it had to be the president, vice president, or mayor inviting me to Cameroon! That is astoundingly incorrect, but I should not have needed this stupid letter in the first place and Herr Consular was above fairness. Stunningly, Bea somehow managed to get the mayor to sign the letter. Wow. Already this had dragged on for 2 weeks of me running between the Embassy, internet café, and hotel where I could call Bea in Cameroon. So, I went back to the Embassy and the Consular had left that morning on holiday and would not be back for weeks! The second Consular could give me a visa, though, and when the first Consular’s secretary ran down to ask for my passport, she ran back upstairs saying, “You are very lucky Mr. whoever is not here today. I’m very happy for you!” She came back down for the receptionist to put the visa stamp in my passport and fill it out, and both of them were really excited that I was getting my visa as they both knew me well at this point and were on my side. Now all my visa needed was the official stamp, which would be put in by the second Consular, but he was on the phone. I waited downstairs with the receptionist and secretary, and finally he swept downstairs with my application and told me there was a problem. On the visa application I had given an address in Douala, not knowing I would need an invitation letter, and he wanted to know why I had put an address in Douala when I was going to visit Bea in Limbe. He was on his way to a meeting and told me to come back the next morning and I could discuss it with him. As soon as he was out of eyesight, the secretary and receptionist were shaking their heads and motioning no, then when he left they told me he was a nice man, but I would not get my visa if I came the next morning. They had already put the final stamp in without him knowing! They told me to go, enjoy my holiday, and never come back.
On the road to the North
To compound it all we were at the same time trying to sort out our flights to Cameroon. We had booked our bike to be on a cargo flight the same day as our passenger flight from Nairobi to Douala December 14th. Now there was some problem with cargo flights in December, but no one quite knew what the problem was. Finally got Kenya Airways to call Nairobi, and were told that cargo flights to Douala were to be terminated as of December 4. No one was sure if we could take the bike on a passenger plane, and as it was so close to Christmas flights to anywhere else in West Africa were full. We really needed this flight to work out. The visa took so long that we would have to change the dates anyway, and the whole thing was such a mess I was looking at flights to Europe! If they hadn’t also been full, this blog may have had a premature ending: it was a trying couple of weeks in Addis. Found out, entirely through our own research with no thanks to Kenya Airways staff, that Kenya Airways flew a 767 on Fridays from Nairobi to Douala, and our bike would fit on that plane. So we rebooked for December 21st, a Friday, and kept our fingers crossed.
The morning after the Cameroonian Embassy told me never to return, we were up at 4am to begin the journey back to Nairobi. Again uneventful compared to what lay ahead, and despite all the final frustrations in Addis we were still sad to be leaving: we both decided that Ethiopia has been our favourite country of the trip so far. Ate our last injeras, drank our last Ethiopian beers, and crossed the border to where the fun began in finding a truck to Nairobi.
May 14th, 2008
Lip-plates and the people who take photographs
Uneasy encounters between Mursi and tourists
in southern Ethiopia
Taken from an essay from David Turton
Photo: Michael Sherdan
I shall give the last word to the Mursi, by quoting from an interview with three Mursi men, conducted during the making of a television documentary in 1991 (Woodhead, 1991). I had known these men for as long as I had known the Mursi.
One was the priest (Komoru), or politico-ritual reader of the northern Mursi, Komorakora. One was a relative of Komorakora, Bio-iton-giga, who often acted as a representative of the northern Mursi in their dealings with the government. And one was a younger man, Arinyatuin, who was also used to dealing with government officials.
During the course of this interview, with the film camera whirring away behind me, I asked what the Mursi thought about the tourists who were then beginning to penetrate Mursi territory, driving along the motor-track that links the Omo and Mago National Parks. The resulting exchange contained many ironies, but I shall mention only two. First, what began as an interview, with the interviewer asking all the questions for the benefit of the TV audience, turned into a more equal exchange as I was forced to answer my own question – ‘Why do the tourists take photographs?’ – and thereby to confront my own behaviour and motivations.
The answer that was eventually dragged out of me could, of course, have served equally well as an explanation of what I and the film crew were doing. Second, my question gave the three men a chance to tell their own ‘lamentable tales’ about the tourists – and, by extension, about ‘the world of the globally mobile’ (Bauman 1998: 88) which the tourists inhabit and from which the Mursi are excluded. Commenting on the failure of tourists to pay what the Mursi regard as a fair price for photographs, Arinyatuin is led, with more justice than he could have realized, to brand all white people as ‘thieves’.
DT: When the tourists come up and down this road to the Omo and take photographs, and when we come and film you like this, what do you say about it, privately?
Arinyatuin: We say ‘It’s their thing. They are that sort of people – people who take photographs. It’s the whites’ thing’.
What do we know about it? You are the ones who know. We just sit here and they take photographs. There’s one [a Polaroid photograph] that, as you look at it, you can see your own body appearing. If it’s bad, tell us.
DT: I’m trying to find out what you think, in your stomachs.
Arinyatuin: In our stomachs? We’ve no idea. They can’t speak our language, so we can’t ask them why they are doing
it. We can ask you, because you speak Mursi. They come with Kuchumba, who just sit in the cars. When the tourists have taken their photographs, they drive off. We say, ‘Is it just that they want to know who we are, or what? They must be people who don’t know how to behave.’ Even old women come and totter about taking photographs. ‘Is this how whites normally behave?’ That’s what we say.
DT: (Laughing) So that’s what you say!
Bio-iton-giga: Goloinmeri – why do they do it? Do they want us to become their children, or what? What do they want
the photographs for?
DT: They come because they see you as different and strange people. They go back home and tell their friends that they’ve been on a long trip, to Mursiland. They say: ‘Look, here are the people we saw.’ They do it for entertainment.
Komorakora: Recently, the Administrator at Hana told us, ‘Build a nice big house, with a fence – a big house, well built.
The vets can use it when they treat the cattle and the tourists can photograph it. The tourists come to enjoy themselves. They can sleep in the house and go back the next day.’ That’s what he said – what’s his name?
Bio-iton-giga: Dawit Shumbulu.
Komorakora: Yes, that’s it, Dawit Shumbulu. That’s what he said. We said to each other, ‘Are we here just for their amusement?’ Now you’ve said the same, so that must be it.
Bio-iton-giga: If they are going to take photographs, they should give us a lot of money shouldn’t they? But they don’t.
DT: That’s bad. Is that how they behave?
Arinyatuin: Yes, we are always arguing with them. They cheat us.
Bio-iton-giga: They’ll take a lot of photographs, give us a single note, and then get in their cars and drive off.
DT: Don’t you complain?
Bio-iton-giga: Of course we do. But they dive into their cars and escape.
Arinyatuin: They are thieves, aren’t they? White people are thieves.
DT: Yes, it’s bad. What about the Kuchumba – they are different
from the whites, aren’t they?
Arinyatuin: Yes. They don’t take photographs. They just ask for food. ‘Give us a goat to eat,’ they say. So we just give them one, When a lot of them come, it’s for tax. Don’t you have tax in your country?
DT: Yes, we do.
Arinyatuin: There’s none of this going round taking photographs with the Kuchumba – they are more like us. This photography thing comes from your country, [smiling] where the necklace beads grow. Give us a car and we’ll go and take photographs of you.
David Turton was formerly Reader in Forced Migration and Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. Before moving to Oxford he taught in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester.
His mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 12th, 2008
by Jon Clark
After about 24 hours and plenty of complementary London Pride on the BA flight I finally made it to Bahir Dar on the edge of Lake Tana. I tried to ignore the burned out plane just off the runway at Addis Ababa. The scenery was fantastic from Addis, a sort of green and brown patchwork with trees every now and again where the villages were.
The guy in the hotel mentioned my room would be 2 minutes, it ended up being 4 hours - A sign of things to come I think! While waiting in the hotel grounds I managed to spot pelicans, lovebirds kingfishers, hawks, hornbills, monkeys and more all within 10 minutes - I think I’m going to like this place!
Did an afternoon trip to the Blue Nile Falls, a bit of a disappointment - only 10 percent of the water actually goes over the falls now, the rest is sucked up by a hydro electric plant. The landscape and villages were fantastic though so that made up for a lot.
Met a nice family called the Tetts who I spent the next couple of days with, had dinner with them that evening and sampled my first Ethiopian beer, called St. George! An excellent day.
Next day Elliot got a good deal on a trip to the monastry’s on Lake Tana, we visited 3 monasteries where we saw some fantastic colourful vibrant paintings, crowns, manuscripts and carved crosses. On the second island we met a nice monk who gave us some of the local beer, Tella, looked a bit like muddy water, but tasted pretty refreshing. We also visited the opening to the Blue Nile, very scenic and managed to spot my first hippo, if only for a few seconds. We also spotted plenty of the local tankwa boats that the locals made out of papyrus.
Spent the afternoon in a terraced cafe called Mangos on the edge of the lake, the pelicans came within feet of the shore - very cool. Went posh that night for my last dinner with the Tetts where we paid less than $10 for an all you can eat buffet!
Day 3 and I decided on a trip to the local market, one guy followed me the whole way and pissed me off so much I went home! Tried again 20 minutes later, got followed by another ‘guide’, but decided it would be best to have him tag along he could potentially scare off any other unwanted ‘guides’! Turned out to be a knowledgeable guy and some of the more interesting things he showed me were the place they stored the honey to make a local mead called Tej, also the milling room where they produced the grains for the local Injera bread.
Feeling confident I headed out that afternoon on bike to Weyto, a village where they made the tankwa boats, an absolute tourist trap, I was swarmed with people asking for money in seconds, needless to say I didn’t hang around too long! Next was the palace of Haile Sellassie, which was closed but was meant to be on a hill with great views, to be honest it was a bit crap. Spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the dock trying to get pictures of the pelicans and some fish eagles, some guy tried to extract 50c from me for the privilege, I was quick to tell him where to go!
Gonder and the Simien Mountain next!
Unforgetable Sights of Lalibela and NO LUGGAGE!
The propellers whirred into action in the old creaky Ethiopian Air Fokker on flight ET126 Addis Ababa to Lalibela and after months of planning and preparation it finally feels like our 2007 adventure has begun.
We had experienced a grueling day before, leaving Perth at 3.55am and not reaching our final destination for the day of Addis Ababa until 24 hours later - sans luggage! To date we still do not have our luggage but thats a whole story in itself.
Our Sunday flight is taking us to Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia and we have been through massive security checks for an internal flight. Trouble is brewing with Ethiopia’s near neighbour Eritrea and our destination is in this general direction.
Why Ethiopia? Why Lalibela?
Lalibela is the home to some amazing historic Christian churches dating from the 10th century. Ethiopia’s King Lalibela wanted to create a new Jerusalem as Jerusalem had been taken by the Muslims and so he set out to create his new Jerusalem in a clever guise. He started with a solid rock and had a deep square moat carved out. This left a large central rock which was then carved by primitive hand chisels into a church complete with ornate decorative windows and doors. He didn’t just build one but eleven! Legend says that angels came down and helped. The roof remains level with the ground making the churches hidden from invading forces.
But the truly amazing thing is these churches are still in use and have been continually since being built. We met Christian Orthodox priests and saw hand written books and precious crosses still in use that are over 800 years old. Because it is little known as a tourist destination, none of these items are in museums but able to be seen and photographed.
Ethiopia was full of surprises. It is a very picturesque country with cultivated terraces into impossible slopes and wonderful warm smiling people. They don’t have much but they are a happy people and work very hard in the fields from dawn to dusk. Due to our lack of luggage we went as upmarket as you could go in Lalibela (Ghion Hotel) but this didn’t guarantee even water (totally off between 12 noon and 6.00 pm use of a bucket supplied) or power (also off between 12 & 6). Decent food was also practically non existent.
As well as showing us the 11 churches in Lalibela our guide Moges took us on a 4 wheel drive trip into the country to see an amazing cave church which is still in use also. This church comes complete with about 5,000 corpses to which no one knows the origin or history, it is a total mystery.
Lalibela has quite a lot of shoe shine boys and all of them wanted to clean Avan’s shoe’s, only problem was that Avan had only purchased his shoes the day prior to leaving Perth so were brand new thus did not need cleaning. In the interests of supporting a local kid he decided to get them cleaned on the last day, however when we returned from our 4WD trip there was not a shoeshine boy in sight, so didn’t happen. Would you believe we did not see another shoeshine boy (a girl actually) until Windhoek in Namibia, by which time Avan’s shoes’ were in dire need.
Back to the story of our luggage and our 24 hours en route to Ethiopia.
When we checked our luggage in at Perth airport it was tagged all the way through to Addis Ababa the capital of Ethiopia. Somewhere on the 3 flights (Perth to Mauritius - Mauritius to Nairobi - Nairobi to Addis Ababa) it went missing. On our first leg Perth to Mauritius there was an urgent call for a Doctor and it brought back memories of a flight 12 years ago when we had to detour via Auckland because someone died en route! Nothing seemed to eventuate this time however as no more calls were made. We had a very quick transit in Mauritius then on to Nairobi where we had to transit for 5 hours in a rather dirty run down airport. When it was time to board our Ethiopian Airways flight to Addis Ababa all the luggage for the flight was dumped on the tarmac and customers had to identify their luggage before it was loaded. Guess what? Ours wasn’t there! So we knew from this time and a luggage handler said we would need to report it missing on arrival at Addis Ababa.
Our biggest issue with not having our luggage was our anti malaria drugs/ repellent and our Lonely Planet Africa. These were not replaceable in Ethiopia. Clothes can be washed every night and toiletries replaced but the above 2 items should always be in hand luggage!
Jahful Greetings from Aethiopia
Ethiopian Airlines is a smooth carrier. I crossed the equator. The vegetarian meal was decent. Bole International Airport was a pleasant contrast to Kenyatta International in Nairobi. It was big and open and almost empty. The women who gave me my visa were having fun. My visa was $20, unlike the $50 Tanzania and Kenya wanted. Apparently Kenya will ask me for a new visa even though it says three months. They don’t consider Ethiopia part of “East Afrika.” I’ll have just enough USD to make it through.
I changed some travelers checks into Birr. They charged only 12 Birr ($1.50) for $100 worth of checks, the lowest commission yet. I had some trouble dialing with the payphone, but one of the Ethiopian Airline people was happy to help. She let me use her cellphone for nothing.
I got in touch with Mulugeta Biru, a contact I made through Annie and Christopher in North Carolina, who runs a small guesthouse. He helped organize Bob’s 60th birthday celebration here in Addis Ababa last year. He came to pick me up.
Driving through Addis was a little different than other Afrikan cities. It seems a bit cleaner and not so crowded. People drive on the right side of the road.
Back at the house I enjoyed some home-brewed barly beer (It was really good!) and found out that I’m just in time for Ehiopian Easter. I live with a brother and sister, Maurice and Nigist (Bumzy), both born in Shashamane of Afrikan-Jamaican parents. Pictures of Ras Tafari and figures of lions adorn the guest house. I finally got to taste some sinsemilla, the first since South Afrika.
I was tired and still a little ill, so I went to lie down. I slept from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. I woke feeling fine after dreams of familiar lakes.
My first day in Addis Ababa I just kicked it at home and around the corner. I live with the children of actual repatriated Rastafarians. There’s not that many out there. I’m having fun deciphering what parts of their culture are European, Arikan, Ethiopian and Jamaican. They can speak Patwa, English and Amahric. Bumzy’s in town to go to university. She skips class enough to stay mentally sharp.
They try to tell me how it is in Shashamane (or Shash). I’ll be there next week. The sensi is $12 (100 birr) per ounce.
Addis Ababa is the third highest capital in the world at around 7700 ft. It is in the center of the giant plateau on the northern end of the Rift Valley. It is surrounded by mountains, and fingers of mountains stretch in all directions within and from the edge of the plateau. It’s been called the roof of the continent. It contains 20 mountains over 13,000 feet. Ras Dashen is Afrika’s fourth highest at 14,900 ft.
Ethiopians speak Amharic, generally (In all of Afrika there are hundreds of local languages). It is difficult to learn, unlike Swahili, because it has Hebrew and Arabic sounds in it. Amharic has its own alphabet; everyone has their own spelling of Amharic words with Roman letters. Very few Ethiopians speak English. Amharic is part of Ethiopian identity. The language barrier is somewhat alienating. I can’t help but feel like an outsider. I felt the same way when I visited Italy. The Italians don’t care much for other languages. Isn’t it ironic that I would feel like an outsider in the land of my fathers and in the land of all our fathers. Visiting Ethiopia is tough as an Italian-American foreigner, when Italy has always been the only one bold enough to try to conquer Ethiopia. You really have to be cocky to lie about and pick fights with the last divinely ordained, empirical, theocratic throne left on Earth, which holds and guards the original Ark of the Covenant. The Italians only got as far as Eritrea (and the Battle of Adwa), stealing one stelae with many lives and treasures.
I was told once that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings about Ethiopia (”the last free nation of men”) and that his daughter wore an Ethiopian cross around her neck. It makes sense looking at the names of the great cities in the novel and in Ethiopia - Gondar/Gonder/Gondor, Roha(Lalibela)/Rohan, there’s even a town called Shire…. Middle Earth might as well refer to this equatorial, mountainous land that resisted all of its invaders. Tolkien died two years before the throne was lost to “socialists.”
One thing that makes Ethiopia stand out is the spirituality of the people. They know they live in the place known as both Eden and Zion. This (besides divine intervention) is no doubt why the Italians were defeated - the Ethiopians know themselves and would rather die than become somebody else. Even Mohammed told his followers to “leave Abyssinia in peace.”
Things are more natural in general in Ethiopia. The women are the most beautiful in Afrika, and they have real long hair, not extensions. Most things are homemade, like the barley beer and injera. Injera is a flat sourdough bread that everyone eats as the staple here. It’s stored at room temperature in a basket to keep the yeast culture going. Its made of tef, a tiny grain endemic to Ethiopia. Also endemic (found nowhere else but) in this incredible country are 31 mammals ([do a google image search] gelada baboon, mountain nyala, walia ibex, Ethiopian wolf,…), 24 amphibians, 16 birds, 9 reptiles and 4 fish. Between 600 and 1400 plants are thought to be endemic to Ethiopia.
Ethiopians love meat with their injera. The big delicacy is kitfo, minced raw meat in warm spiced butter. There are goat and sheep pieces littering the ground in the yard and street. Two days per week no one eats meat. I’m pretty much sticking to shiro, a puree of lentils, peas, onion, garlic, peppers,…. Berbere is the common, orange, homemade spice blend made up of 6 to 16 different ingredients.
Thursday I went to visit His Majesty I’s last palace (now a ethnological museum and library for the Institute for Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University). I studied some history in the library and entered the museum. They don’t allow cameras. I had to tell the curator that some of the medicinal plant labels were wrong. His Majesty’s bedroom was simple. There was still a bullet hole in his mirror from the failed coup in 1960. Empress Mene’s bedroom had no bed. They were using her dressing room as an office and her bathroom was also well-used. His Majesty’s office, where he was taken from by ignorant gunmen in 1975, was not open to the public.
All of Bumzy’s sisters and aunts and uncles came into Addis from Shashamane for a JRDC (Jamaican Rastafarian Developement Community) promotion at the Imperial Hotel to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in April, 1966 (1958 Ethiopian time. Ethiopia had a different calendar and clock than the rest of the world. Sunrise is at 1 o’clock, sunset at 12. The have 12 months of 30 days each and a short, 5-day, thirteenth month. The year is 7 years and 9 months behind the western calendar. The new Ethiopian millenium will begin September, 2007).
The party was graced by the presence of His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Zere Yakob, grandson of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I, and heir to the imperial throne of Ethiopia. He humbly accepted greetings all night from the many brothers and sisters in attendance.
The music was nice. Bumsy’s sisters did a dance performance, and their little brother, Isaac (or Saki, a.k.a. True Warrior) toasted nicely over some riddims (see clips). A singer who was popular during the days of His Majesty’s reign did a short performance (see clip), and a Nyabingi elder recounted (for almost an hour) the story of His Majesty’s visit to Jamaica.
I can’t wait to travel back to Shashamane with these folks. There’s a picture in a program for Bob’s birthday party last year in Addis. The picture shows Bob Marley with six or seven of the early Jamaican pioneers of Shashamane entering the hot springs at Wondo Genet, just south of Shashamane. The girls in my pictures are the daughters of these men. One of them, brother Flippin, wrote many songs for Bob including “Zimbabwe.” He has been blessed with children. His first three were boys, then he had boy/girl twins, twin girls, and boy/girl twins again! Believe it or not, that’s boy, boy, boy, twins, twins, twins. I’ve met them all but for one brother and their mother live in the U.K.
April 3rd, 2008
The best way to know about ourselves and about our country is to listen to what foreigners say after they visit us. We might be emotionally offended upon some remarks. But objectively seen, we also have different opinions about other countries. Opinions are the result of various circumstances. Depending on one’s state of mind, maturity and daily experience, opinions can be full of contradictory views and interesting assertions. We learn a lot if we perceive them objectively. Opinions usually doesn’t reflect the whole truth about the reality. But opinions can reflect a fragment of the whole truth.
Hereby we present five travel journals by tourists with completely different views on Ethiopia.
To start with have to say there is a stark difference between the Ethiopians and the Sudanese, the Ethiopians are cheating, stealing (I will come to that later), rude people. The country however is fantastic stunning lush mountains, and great lakes. There is a lot that we got to see in Ethiopia, so I will be brief.
Didn’t have a vast amount of time here as we spent much f our only day there trying to organise a flight to Axum, I won’t bore anyone with the details, lets just say it was time consuming for a number of reasons. We finally managed to spend a couple of hours looking around the castle which is apparently the Camelot of Ethiopia, it was Ok but I don’t imagine that Arthur would have been all that impressed by it. Or by the irritating shadow people who hang around outside.
We departed Gonder early and were in Axum by mid morning. Now what we hadn’t realized was that there was a huge religious pilgrimage hitting town at the same time as us, which meant that flights out and hotel rooms were at a serious premium. We eventually managed to secure both a hotel room and a flight out. However the hotel room was to turn into a bit of a nightmare, the second night were there the hotel told us that they had double booked and that we had to move somewhere else, initially we were happy to help them out, however when they took us to see the alternative hotel we found building site with no windows, or running water, so a rather long and nasty argument broke out, and it ended up in us staying in a Voluntary counseling and treatment centre for AIDs (actually very nice), spent that night getting drunk and trying to see the funny side of what had happened. Early in the night a group of flute (word used loosely) players came in the bar and started to drape grass all over us, very surreal and just the laugh we needed after the days ordeal, even if the music was awful.
As for the sights in Axum, we got to see the stele fields and the church of Mary of Zion which allegedly houses the arc of the covenant, which they wouldn’t let us see though we did get to see the doors to the room and the only man who is allowed in the room with it (apparently a rare treat)
After the hotel debacle in Axum it was a relief to check into a classy place and treat ourselves to some much earned R&R. We spent fair amount of time going on little hikes in the surrounding mountains which are beautiful. Also we visited the rock hewn churches, Ethiopia’s answer to Petra. They were stunning and quite the architectural feet, they were built by king Lalabella so that people wouldn’t have to go on such long pilgrimages they even have a river Jordan.
Had some great food and some not so great drink. The local home brew is called Tej, it is a maize beer, and it is rank. It was served to us from a kettle and we drank it from scientific beakers, it looked like of orange juice and had the same consistency. Heather soldiered on with her portion and managed half a beaker, I managed a couple of sips, and you will never guess which one of us had gut rot the next day!
Errrrm nice fruit juice, piss poor water fall!
The girls decided that they were going to have a girly day and treat themselves to a spa and cocktails so I went to the Merkato with some of the boys. The Merkato is a vast market area where you can find pretty much anything, it dos however have a very bad reputation for thieves and pickpockets. We had managed about 20 mins in the market before Pete took off after a guy shouting thief, so we all set off in pursuit, I managed to catch the guy and pin him against the bus, and much to the delight of the locals who all clapped and cheered (they apparently don’t like thieves either). With in seconds there was a policeman on the scene who started proceedings by giving the guy a clip around the ear. The policeman led us and the bad guy to the police station occasionally stopping to explain to people what had happened and giving the little shit a few more clips. In the police station we gave our statements while the Ali Baba was sat on the floor next to us, several different policemen came in and asked where we were from and what had happened, after they asked this they would shake their head at the criminal and give him a good kicking. Have to say it was quite the experience, especially as the guy hadn’t actually managed to take anything out of Pete’s pocket; Pete was just incensed that the guy tried. Also should mention that we are gluttons for punishment so went back to the Merkato we stayed long enough to have two more attempted robberies, and then decided to leave before anything else could happen.
For my girly day we tried to go to a spa for a massage, unfortunately they were fully booked and we realized we had forgotten our guide book, so now we had no plan or map!! We also ended up at the Merkato but our experience was far less exciting, we just shopped and had a nice lunch. One of the girls needed to use an ATM and after lots of inquiring we discovered that the only ATM is at the Sheraton. So poor us, we had to go to the Sheraton, it was heaven on earth. It was decorated beautifully for Christmas and we totally splurged and had cocktails, and we all used the bathroom twice. It was a great day in the end.
And we all knew it had to happen sooner or later, I had an accident… Our last night in Addis I was cleaning out the truck and I had my hands full and ended up missing the top step of the ladder coming out of the truck and fell. Don’t worry I did manage to hit every rung of the ladder (hard) on the way down. One of the guys had quite a fright when he found me in a heap at the bottom of the ladder surrounded by garbage, but I was lucky and only ended up with severe bruising, mainly on my arm and the biggest bruise of my life on my bum. That made riding in a bouncing truck a little painful. And everyone has agreed on the truck that I’m no longer allowed down the ladder with anything in my hands so I can use the railing.
We went to visit the king, but after smashing one of the truck windows on the drive through the thick forest we found out that the king wasn’t in. Not to worry had a very pleasant evening playing Frisbee and football with the princess and princess of Konso.
All in all Ethiopia was a lot of fun and very interesting, but it is not an easy place to travel and it can get very trying.
Ethiopia the Truth
Having only seen the stereotypical images of famine and drought on the media, we didn’t know what to expect when our plane landed at midnight in Addis Ababa. Leaving the airport we were surrounded by hoards of dodgy looking hooded men. We felt relieved to be dropped of to our hotel in one piece. Addis Ababa has got more flash cars and bangers than any other 3rd world Capital. The people wear stylish and clean attire and are mostly very friendly. Food is available in abundance. Not the Ethiopia portrayed abroad, but a pleasant surprise. The people were easy to deal with compared to India and most people can speak English.
Ethiopia is a very ancient country, devoutly Christian. Men and women whether walking or in thier cars bow going past the churches. Virtually everyone fasts wednesdays and fridays eating vegetarian food once a day and this worked out to be a great advantage to us as we could easily order “fasting food”.
Having heard about the ancient Christian monuments in the north we had a choice of using local buses or flying to get to them. Flying being out of our budget and local transport being a way of experiencing local life we got onto a bus at 5am. Before half way through our 12 hour journey we had decided to get on the next plane to South Africa! Dodgy smells, puking women, extremly bad roads and stops for hours for no apparent reason made up our minds.
However, we still had to wait for a few days before our flight left for Johannesburg. So we decided to head to the Southern lakes this time. We decided to hire a car with a driver; a decision we were later to regret. The people in the south were friendlier than the northern folk and we had a really good time exploring the region.
As we spent more time in the south and thereafter in Addis Ababa we realised that the strange country that we had entered with great caution was relatively safe and the people seemed to have the fear of God. Sipping gourmet coffees for less than 10p, melt in the mouth pastries and the best spring rolls we had ever tasted was cool. We really enjoyed our stay and look back on Addis as a friend. These people really won our hearts and if we ever gt a chance to go back again, even for a few days, we wouldn`t think twice about it.
Harar! We’ve Been To Harar
In order to keep us sweet and stop us carrying on the trip without a truck, it was suggested we spend a day in Harar, a walled city in the east of Ethiopia. It was agreed that as long as we are going places and seeing new stuff we didnt mind. So we set of Monday morning at 9am. Another 9 hour drive ahead of us seemed like a nightmare but it was actually really good. The scenery was really nice with mountains bushland and wetlands all along the way. We were driving in the mountains for a long time and it was rainy and we were driving on windy roads through the clouds which was a bit hairy. The animals have started to appear as well which is what we came to see, and most of them want to cross the road and get in the way so I’m starting a list of animals that block our path.
Got to Harar too late to do anything. It was a really dingy hotel and only our room and Brendan & Marie’s room (who have hooked up on the trip by the way) had decnet toilets and showers so everyone piled in ours.
The next morning we hired a guide to take us around the walled part of the city, which is 1 square kilometre and in it it has 362 alleyways and over 80 mosques. It also is weird because Christians and Muslims all live within the walls without fighting. It’s still really poor here and loads of kids follow us and find us “Farenjis” (foreigners) really odd.
In the evening we had the highlight of the trip so far and saw the Hyena men feeding the hyenas at the gates of the city. We had a go too! fed them meat with sticks on our mouth! Never realised how big hyenas are and how big their teeth are unless there bearing down on your face!! Paid 40 Birr (about 2.50 in english money) Got an encore in the hotel at night as well with hyena giggles out the back all night!! Had several close ups with vultures outside the window in the mornings.
On the way back to Addis saw some wild boar having a mud bath and a herd of about 50 camels drinking at the lake. Saw lots of trucks overturned as well one was still smoking from where it had crashed and caught fire while we were in Harar. Got back to Addis about 7.
By Alex Stonehill
A Night on the Road
We stood in the pre-dawn glow of the streetlamps, greeted by intoxicated heckles from the previous night’s most diligent drinkers. A battered, extended cab Toyota Hilux pickup pulled up, carrying a mound of mysterious goods under a green tarp and bearing faded Ethiopian Red Cross decals on its doors. Seeing that there were already three passengers inside, I almost threw in the towel right there and sent my colleagues Ernest and Julia on without me, motivated as much by the practicalities of fitting so many people into such a tiny space as I was by the thought of my still warm bed waiting for me just down the block.
I’m still not sure I made the right decision in allowing my backpack to be haphazardly strapped to the top of the green mountain, and folding my legs practically against my chest so as to wedge myself into the cab.
Though I’d never met any of them before, I knew the man seated directly in front of me — who’s heavy briefcase was now wedged under my arm — to be Salihu Sultan, a regional director for the Red Cross, who’d offered to take us on a quick tour of the water issues in the South on his way to distribute medical supplies in a remote region called Arero. The driver and middle passenger hadn’t been introduced, adding to the enigmatic feel of our 3am departure, though they were later revealed to be Salihu’s two brothers.
At first my sleepiness got the better of me and I settled in almost comfortably, but even before the asphalt road disintegrated just past Awasa, the pressure of six bodies, five bags and an inexplicable electronic keyboard inside the Hilux began to take its toll on me.
Luckily, I soon had plenty of time to stretch my legs as we changed two punctured tires in rapid succession, the second requiring Salihu and his younger brother to venture ahead on the bus to the next town to get the tubes repaired, while we waited, sharing awkward smiles with the locals who lived there along the road.
We ate “lunch” in Hagere Selam, though it was already close to sunset, and as we drove on up the winding, verdant road, it started to sink in just how far away from anything recognizable, and how powerless over my own situation I was. I felt a gnawing panic. When, and where would we finally arrive, and how would we eventually retrace the mounting kilometers of jagged roadway leading back to Addis?
Salihu had informed us that it was at least another 200km to Negele, which was the nearest place we could spend the night if he was to make it on to Arero in time to start his screenings and distribution of supplies the next day. My faith in the Hilux and its four worn tires had been deteriorating in step with the road conditions, especially after watching a teenage mechanic back in Hagere Selam stuff three or four scraps of old rubber tubing inside one of them as padding.
The fear slowly eased out of me as the sun set, blazing an orange trail of clouds across the horizon, past the expansive lowlands spread out below us.
I woke up to a frantic moaning from the front seat. We’d stopped, and Salihu’s brother was beating his own forehead with a closed fist, as a group of wailing, shrouded figures pulled him from the car.
We were parked in the moonlight facing a large dimly lit tent between two rows of mud buildings. As the silhouettes outside the cab embraced, I recalled Salihu mentioning earlier that his grandfather, who lived in Adolla, was very ill. He must have died just before we arrived; all of the hurrying, the driving through the night hours and the rushed meals along the way that had seemed so uncharacteristic of Ethiopian culture as I knew it started to make sense.
Ernest, Julia and I just sat frozen in the back seat of the truck in the darkness, not wanting to make a burden of ourselves as guests in the middle of the crisis. We began contemplating how Salihu and his brothers has put on such a show of hospitality and friendliness for us over the last 18 hours, even with the imminent death looming over them.
In our culture, a family emergency is the ultimate excuse to disengage from obligations. But here Salihu had insisted on honoring his commitment to bring us with him even though he had no responsibility to help us in the first place, other than a cultural sense of hospitality that seems to overcome the good sense of most Ethiopians.
After a time, he emerged again and hurried us inside the tent. A dozen men in keffiyehs and robes were reclining on mats at the far side of a tent, surrounded by scattered, leafy branches.
Even through my exhaustion, it didn’t take long to realize that I was finally laying eyes on the plant that I’d heard so many rumors about as we’d researched the East Africa project back in the States. In recent years, the DEA has declared khat illegal in the US and they’ve deported several of Somalis from the Seattle area for importing it from East Africa. I’d also heard many Somali’s bemoan the financial drain that the drug is on their country, as it is hugely popular there, but only grown in neighboring countries like Ethiopia.
We were invited to sit with the men, and before long I was chewing away at my first mouthful of the fresh shoots from the top of the branch I’d been handed. The taste was bitter and tannic enough that a swallow of water washing it down tasted as sweet as Coke by contrast. It seems to me that that psychotropic effects of khat have been overstated, although the mere fact that I was able to remain conscious at that point may be a testament to its potency as a stimulant.
Despite everything, Salihu remained anxious to cover the final 100km in order to reach Negele that night, so I filled my pockets with some of the remaining leaves, and we piled back into the cab.
Somehow the mood in the Hilux lightened once we left, as if the hour of intense public mourning between Salihu’s family had been enough to acknowledge the death of the patriarch, who at about 65 years had lived a long life by Ethiopian standards.
It was 3am again before we finally reached Negele. Contemplation of the cultural differences in mourning practices quickly gave way to weary frustration at the growing welt on my shoulder as it was methodically beaten against the truck door, and fantasies of the warm bed and shower that might await our arrival.
We arrived to a town much smaller than I’d guessed from the glow of its lights on the horizon, and a hotel where the taps had all run dry. Still, a full 24 hours and 600km after we’d departed, it was hard to think about much more than sleep.
By Ernest Waititu
A Night in the Bush
When our four-wheel-drive pickup truck vroomed off the town of Negele I knew I was in for a giant adventure. Well, I must quickly clarify that I was not here for adventure; Negele is of course not one of those places you go site-seeing. I was here to work, following stories on water scarcity and how it had impacted the people of Southern Ethiopia.
But work or no work, I had to steal some moments and have some fun. For how could I close my eyes, ears and soul to the beauty of Africa? How could I possibly not be moved by the expansive fields and the distant hills of Negele, which carried me back to my childhood as I took care of my family’s cattle in the plains of Kieni in Kenya? While drier, this part of Ethiopia had more similarities with Kieni – the place where I grew up — than any other place I had been.
I was compelled by this alikeness to take a psychological journey back to my boyhood. In the small, bare-footed, parched-faced boys who were following dozens of their cattle, I revisited my childhood. I saw myself in every one of these boys. My eyes opened up to the wild, to the large birds I had trapped for food, to the deer I had hunted with my dog Simba and to the joy of carrying loads of wild meat in the evening when I accompanied my family’s cattle home for milking.
These experiences had brought me to a dreamy sense of being and completely banished from me the troubles of the journey — the bumpy and rugged roads that had completely exhausted us on our first day of travel and made our 600 km journey from Addis Ababa to Negele a 24-hour nightmare.
I was jolted from my reverie by a round burst underneath the car. The devil himself had visited terror on us again. By this time, the fifth time we had heard this sound, it was unmistakable — we had another flat tire to fix. But the most depressing thing about this experience was not changing the tire but the fact that we had exhausted all the spare tires we had. When we had left Negele we had decided to take a risk, bringing one spare tire and hoping the road would be better. Until this time, 150 km into the trip, it had worked okay.
But now there was no chance of finding a tire. The Red Cross chief of the Borena zone who had hosted us for the tour, Salihu Sultan, observed that we were now deep into the lion country and that the tire-changing exercise had better be done fast.
We quickly and nervously changed the tire and hopped back into the car. A few miles down the road we came to a small town called Hudet — a village of mud-walled houses lined in each side of the street where our host unsuccessfully sought ways and means of getting a new spare tire. While we could not secure a tire from here, we were able to get some food: a piece of the delicious Ethiopia bread, a cup of tea and glass of curdled milk made the Borena way.
Having eaten, we were ready to get started again. Immediately after hitting the road, a lump tightened in my stomach perhaps as a result of the fear of losing another tire and spending the night in the bush. Judging from the past day, we needed nothing short of divine intervention to protect all the four tires from the jagged rocks that dotted the road.
And still, the lump in my stomach tightened. I am usually not given to premonitions but something deep down in my tummy felt terribly amiss. But still I hung on to hope, we had covered more than 200 kilometers. We had less than 40 to go. We could do it. We surely could.
When it came, the bursting of the tire sounded just like the previous five: a loud puff and then a stream of gushing air. In unison, as if premeditated, we all muttered a muffled gasp of despair and rolled out of the car.
Some silence followed, and then rather foolishly I decided to enquire about the status of the lions to a Borena man we had picked up and given a ride from Hudet – our last town. The man, having grown up in the area and being well versed with the terrain was the best person to consult on such matters. The lion was not exactly here, he said matter of factly, but it would be found a little further, perhaps a kilometer or so up the road. Good Heavens, I have never been more scared in my life!
Some more silence, and then a refreshing thought came to my mind. “How about making some fire?” I asked. The Borena man made a quick cracking fire from the dry woods that littered the bush nearby. While growing up, I had been taught that fire was a good way to scare away wild animals. I hoped to myself that the wisdom of my people would ring true even here in the bush of Ethiopia.
The fire was a good idea but in our tiredness we soon got fed up with it, and some of my colleagues retired to sleep in the car. We were right in the middle of the bush – more than 30 kilometers each side to the nearest town. There was no way anyone was going to walk to seek help. Our one hope, Salihu told us, was a vehicle coming from the direction we had come, which could help us ferry the tire to Arero for repair. In Arero, we could get a Red Cross ambulance to ferry the tire back to where we had been trapped. For a long time we kept looking up the bushes for signs of beams of light from an oncoming car.
Presently, our Borena friend being more in tune with the bush way of life started clearing up a spot on the ground and conveniently retired for the night. Unlike me, he was a seasoned bush traveler who had chosen to be more practical in the face of the current realities.
In the back of my mind the thought of the lion showing up when I slept would not leave. In a split of a second, I thought the whole attack through, even picturing what the headlines in the Kenyan newspapers would say: Kenyan Reporter Killed in Ethiopian Bush, or even better: Kenyan Journalist Mauled by Lion.
Close to three hours later, when all my hopes were drying up, some streaks of light shot though the trees — help was on the way. When the Isuzu truck arrived, it was full of people in the back, but the driver kindly gave our driver a ride. He took along the tire. His drive to get the tire repaired would be approximately 70 kilometers round trip on a bumpy road, which allowed you to drive at 25 kilometers per hour at best.
I knew it was going to be a long wait, and I was right. The night wore on, the car had not returned, and my fear for the lion swelled.
It was therefore tremendously relieving when Salihu suggested that we could all, the six of us, try to fit in the car for it would be risky for us to remain out the whole night. We quickly shoved ourselves in the front and back seats of the double-cabin Toyota Hilux and soon almost everyone went straight asleep. For some reason, I could not sleep a wink. I could not bear the temperatures and the stuffiness of the car in which six people were locked in their sleep, breathing and snoring. A few minutes into the experience, my allergies kicked in and I started sneezing. I walked out of the car for some fresh air. To my relief, my colleague Alex Stonehill came with me. We shared our nasty experiences inside the stuffy car and decided we would not get back in, wildlife notwithstanding.
We looked for ways to get ourselves comfortable in the bed of the truck, foregoing the security of the enclosed cab, which came along with tremendous discomfort. At this time, after having slept a maximum of three hours the previous night and after being out in a turbulent car most of the day, not even the fear of the lion could stop me from falling asleep. I was tired. Soon after getting at the back of the open truck, I fell fast asleep.
And then, the buffalo came. It looked more like a lion than a buffalo: mid-sized, brownish and aggressive. Alex and I jumped of the back of the car and broke twigs from the dry branches as we desperately tried to repulse the buffalion. It was such a scary task, we had to do it to survive. Our desperate and frantic attacks from both ends seemed to bear fruit momentarily. With his long swinging hands, Alex was doing a better job of attacking the monster than I was. I had to try harder. The beast would retreat fleetingly before charging. And just in one of those moments when I was huffing and puffing from the charging beast, Alex shook me from my sleep. It was just one of those rare dreams that brings you as close to reality as you can ever get. It was 3:30 in the morning. We were still sprawled in the bed of the truck. But our driver had just returned with the mended tire.
Finally, we were set to begin the last leg of the journey to Arero.
Fifteen hours, 250 miles, and two flat tires after Negele, we arrived in Arero. Salihu booked us what was supposed to be the best hotel in town – a line of mud-walled rooms each with a bed at the edge. Its state not withstanding, my bed that morning was the one bed I had appreciated most in my life. It was 6.am. and I had to make maximum use of the precious bed. In two-hours time, Salihu would be waking us up to start our next trip through the wilderness.
By Julia Marino
A Night at the Yabello Motel
The white Toyota Hilux glowed as it pulled up in the middle of the unrecognizable night to what was the small, destined village of Arero. In my comatose daze, I was astounded by the reality of our arrival, our minds and bodies unscathed, curious, and ready for a warm bed and an Aspirin. At that moment, I realized that part of me believed we would navigate the nebulous, jarring road forever, the truck jerking to and fro rapturously, repeatedly, sending our bags up in the air before stopping urgently to change another bald tire. Such an experience erases all consciousness of time, all understanding of place. Yet, once the moment sinks in, its unfamiliarity can create a sense of peace even amid chaos.
In the darkness, I was led to a place where I could sleep. The room was a shadow cast by a single candle that dripped wax onto a makeshift chair wobbling on the dirt. Dawn must have been approaching, for as I finally began to fall back into sleep, the first beams of sunrise streamed through the holes of the wooden door, casting fingers of thin light onto the walls. Outside, a rooster called steadily. Dogs howled and the hum of insects harmonized with the abrupt yelling of men in their native language of Oromifa.
I gave up on the prospect of sleep as the orchestra of sounds invaded my consciousness.
Unrefreshed, I found Ernest, Alex and Salihu in a similar room across the compound. We began an early breakfast of roasted goat tibs in a broth over a coal-fed fire. It was then time to talk about our goals, our ethics and our hopes as researchers, storytellers and journalists.
Salihu had been immensely helpful to us, and I respected his knowledge, compassion and eagerness to assist us in our work. Without his generosity, we all knew we wouldn’t be traversing the remote villages of Borena. He had led us to invaluable information and insight, helping us gain access to others who could inform us further. But after hundreds of kilometers from Addis, and many adventures lived already, we knew it was time to seek out the best location to do our reporting on our own. So, it was decided we would have to part ways so we could travel to Yabello, a central location for researching the lives of pastoralists and water-walkers
Traveling Through the Bush and the Brave Borena Woman
Before we left for Yabello, we set up a spot in the dirt pathway to interview Habiba Boru Gutu, an internally displaced Borena woman the Red Cross truck had picked up in Negele. While we roamed the rocky road to Arero the previous day, I decided that I would join her in the back of the truck. Salihu couldn’t understand why I would possibly want to sit in the pickup with the Borena woman.
“But it might be too cold! You’ll be more comfortable up front!”
I insisted that it would be fun, that I wanted to get to know the lone woman, and wanted to feel the cold wind on my face.
He eventually relented, and I found a spot on top of the dusty, green tarp covering our many bags next to Habiba, who like many Borena women, wore a brightly colored scarf around her hair that draped onto her shoulders. The truck took off on the road and jerked us toward the back of the cab as the sunset began to set behind us, the trail behind us narrowing until it disappeared into the horizon.
Despite a rather large language barrier, Habiba and I communicated with hand gestures and facial expressions, her unidentifiable locution lingering in the air. She spoke several dialects of Oromifa, as well as Kiswahili and Amharic. I, on the other hand, only knew maybe five words in Amharic.
I later discovered that she had lived in Nairobi for a few months, and so could distinguish a Kenyan any day. Upon learning that Habiba spoke Kiswahili, Ernest conversed with her greatly, learning details about her life I couldn’t grasp in the back of the truck.
Now in the dirt hallway of the humble inn, Alex and I set up and handled the video camera while Ernest interviewed her in his native tongue. Ernest explained how she had to flee her home once the Guji people massacred her village, mainly made up of Borena people, because of conflict over resource scarcity. I learned that she had once had a very productive business, and was able to afford to fly her children from Kenya to Ethiopia. After the massacre, she said that she lost everything - all her wealth, the basic necessities she needed to help support her family, and her home.
Despite being internally displaced and dealing with the harsh consequences of such conflict, Habiba spoke calmly, as if the experience had forced her to strengthen and placidly overcome the challenges around her. I knew at that moment, that I had a lot to learn from her bravery.
Mirages and the Governor’s Clothes
After we interviewed Habiba we said our goodbyes. We promised to see Salihu again in Addis, and he and Habiba gave us warm hugs. We hopped in the back of a Red Cross Ambulance, another Borena woman sat in the back next to us, offering us a sip of the cursed, curdled milk that we tried the other other night.
As we drove, we came across tiny villages with thatched huts. The women wore distinct, ebony braids and children carried large sticks, spears, sometimes even guns to help protect their cattle. Dust whirled into clouds as we passed the staring natives. The truck drove precariously in a gust, infinity ahead of us.
And just when we thought our flat-tire days were over, the truck came to a sudden stop again. Our sixth stop in the middle of the bush; this time felt more like a dream than reality. The scene appeared to us like a mirage. After all, the earth stretched as far as the eye could see on all sides, the sun coating our every breath. Only dust, a couple thorn bushes and two trees were within sight. All speculations aside though, we were all happy to know we had a functioning spare tire. We learned the hard way that you can never have enough spares in southern Ethiopia.
The changing of the tires was now clockwork, and before we knew it we were on the road again. Not too long afterward, what seemed to be another pseudo-mirage approached us. It was a paved road! The bumpy surface we were so used to bearing was now a calm, smooth pathway leading to Yabello But about six feet before the truck hit the pavement, the car thumped again, and we were almost sure we had lost another tire, stuck just feet away from safety. At that moment, we held our breath so tight that as soon as we made it across the paved road, we all let out a sigh so immense, the truck almost tipped over.
We drove to find the friend Salihu had set us up with - Abdulqadir Abdii.
Little did we know that Abduliqadir was the Provincial Commissioner, a similar role as governor. “PCs in Africa have so much power,” Ernest said, matter-of-factly. Our driver stepped out of the car asking random people if they knew where Abduliqadir was - that’s how small of a town Yabello was.
We finally found his home and sat down on small wooden stools near his front yard. We discussed our plans for the next day, where he agreed to help us find a driver and translator to take us to the town of Dubluck, a small pastoralist village famous for its singing wells about 70 km away. Another area we were planning on reporting in was an even smaller village around 200 km away named Dillo, an area with the most dire water scarcity in the entire region.
The Motel and The Buzzing Commissioner
After being stranded in the middle of the elusive bush, and experiencing the morning nap in the dusty room in Arero, we were all fantasizing about a clean bed, and more importantly — a shower. Hot, warm, frozen, it wouldn’t matter. At the advice of our handy Lonely Planet, we pulled into the Yabello Motel, a place the book described as “clean and comfortable.” Although the toilet and the shower were outside, it was nice to finally find a place to unpack and unwind.
The next day, we had a scheduled meeting with the Province Commissioner to discuss plans to visit pastoralists in Dubluck and women who carry water long distances around the area of Dillo. He picked us up at the motel, sunglasses glistening, shoes polished, his face with a serious look that meant business. As the PC approached our table, the waiters stared, the manager gawked, the birds chirped curiously from the tree branches, and the receptionist from that day forward became mysteriously more polite.
We entered Abduliqadir’s office to find it adorned in polished wood, shiny leather, and an assortment of documents stacked in his bookcase. The room smelled of cleaner and cologne. We sat in the conference area, his overstuffed, black leather chair asserting the head of the table. The ironical juxtaposition of his luxurious office to the thatched huts and outdoor toilets in the town made me a little dizzy. Although Abduliqadir was a generous man, this dichotomy showed the extreme gap between the wealthy and the poor, those with power and those without.
Between different phone calls, the PC would hang up his phone and then assertively press a giant button on his desk.
The sound was piercing.
His secretary would then peak her head in the doorway, nod her head as he spoke and close the door again.
Two minutes passed. “Buzz, buzz.” The secretary peaked her head in again, nodded, closed the door. “Buzz, buzz.” The same would repeat.
He told us he would find us a driver and interpreter to help us in our reporting in the region. However, finding an interpreter might not be an easy task, he said.
“English is a problem in Ethiopia, not like in Kenya,” he said smiling at Ernest. Ernest let out a loud guffaw, the kind of laugh he makes when he’s both amused and speculative at the same time.
But at the last buzz, we were on our way out, accompanied by the PC’s personal assistant Atanach Tolcha, who would interpret for us in the pastoralist village of Dubluck.
Cattle, Camels and Pebbles In My Sandals
The drive to Dubluck was rather short in comparison to our other treks, the truck letting out a large puff of dust with every bump in the earth.
As we approached the village, we observed a wide dirt road lined with mud homes serving as the center. As we opened the doors to the truck, little kids with no pants and snotty noses approached us wildly, pointing their fingers at my face and exclaiming, “you, you, you, you, you, you!”
We found the deputy chief Galgalo Dida at this center, and he guided us to the desert-like pastures and singing wells.
The ground was as dry and expansive as a deserted planet, with layered sand stretching for miles on all sides. A thin layer of dust grazed the surface of the ground as hundreds of cattle, goats and camels dotted the landscape. Cattle were being herded toward us and behind us and by our side toward a trough for a drink of water, or toward the horizon to graze or to the town to make fresh milk.
After a short interview, the chief led us to one of the traditional wells — its deep walls resonating with the low chanting of men, their beaming baritone steadily bouncing off of the well walls and into ears with each approaching step. The men’s singing is a ritual dating back centuries that helps them endure hours of long, laborious work under the scorching sky. The singing men bent down and then reached forward with such ease and steady deliberation, never missing a beat or a refrain.
At the “hauuuyauuuh!” of a pastoralist, the cattle stampeded down toward the well to drink water, scattering the ground with dung and mud at every step of their hooves. Women and men rotated buckets back and forth as they poured fresh water from the earth into a canal of water.
As Alex and I handled the video cameras, taking turns experimenting with new shots and angles, Ernest worked his interviewer-magic. The chief and a dozen pastoralists surrounded us as he asked about the struggles of the community to maintain a healthy livestock and livelihood in such a resource-scarce region. They talked about the importance of the wells in order for the cattle and the people to survive, especially during the dry season when it would cease to rain.
I began to imagine harmonizing with them in a hand-dug well, strengthening every muscle as I scooped out more cold, refreshing water. I tried to picture myself exerting hours of labor each day just to receive enough water for my family to live on. Of course, it was somewhat a difficult task to fully realize a life lived in a village in Dubluck - a place so distant from my own sprinkler-running, Aquafina-drinking environment. But now that I have come to know the beauty and struggle of these pastoralists, I am certain that water will never again taste the same.
With the approaching sound of the next cattle stampede, I was snapped out of my thoughts and motioned back toward the truck. As I walked away from the well, I could hear the distant echo of the men singing, the water splashing, the pastoralist shouting, and the cattle mooing - its distinct rhythm and unfamiliar pattern, somehow, resembling peaceful chaos.
more journals to follow…