Ethiopia, June 9th, 2011 – First Impressions
June 12, 2011
The crack of dawn gained imperceptibly and emerged from the reflections on the aeroplane window somewhere over Sudan. The rainbow horizon was intense and soon the glare of the re-born sun under-lit the masses of cumulus cloud below to great effect. It was too bad I couldn’t cross Sudan by land; great people, apparently, and soon to have a huge celebration down in Juba; the long fought for birth of a new nation as the old Sudan splits in two, but it was maybe 50 degrees down there in the daytime and vast. Then the scene became featureless again and I got back to Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman’s book The Long Way Down which I had just picked up. It follows their epic motorbike journey from Scotland to Cape Town and happens to describe exactly the route that I intend to follow from Ethiopia to Zanzibar. Soon we were descending towards Adiss Ababa. Things greened up. Endless fields draped like chequered sheets across rugged, fissured terrain. It looked like Africa. We landed. Bole airport was pleasant, simple and surrounded by park land. I got a SIM card and cash and headed out into the cool, hazy morning. It was a thrill. I was really here; it was a long-time dream, and at 2,400 m the morning felt like Scottish summer but the plant life was distinctly tropical montaine (pretty weird).
Unfortunately, having night bussed the previous day and not slept at all on the plane, preoccupied as I was by the changing light, I was totally knackered and had a seven hour wait for my connection to Mekele up north in Tigre, my starting point to make the long historic loop bag to Addis. Luckily, contrary to rumour, Ethiopia, the cradle of coffee cultivation, does not export all its’ best product and I sat drinking knockout foamy espressos at the cafes outside in the sunshine. The first guy I talked to said he used to be a physics teacher in Lalibela but now worked at the airport aiming to somehow move abroad. He needed someone who could change his life. I told him unfortunately it wasn’t me. After some beef tibs and later spicy chicken wat I felt better, and between reading ogled all the pretty, dark-eyed girls. Even in the morning at work, these girls had a sweet vivaciousness. The airport and nearby city all seemed quite modern. It’s the airport illusion; a strange place to take first impressions. Some raggedy kids came through and got shooed out.
Finally, time came and I boarded a turboprop in light afternoon drizzle. It was early in the rainy season in central Ethiopia. We crossed some awesome cloudscapes and then viewed the dramatic northern canyons. Mekele (2,200 m) is a medium-sized, Tigrean town; stone houses and elaborately plaited hair-styles. Tigre suffered terribly in the famine that sparked Live Aid in 1985. Certainly not the desolate wastelands we might recall but it is arid, the rains here can be fickle and it is not so far to the Danakil Depression; the hottest place on Earth. I got invited onto the bus into town for the local, semi-professional football team, Trans SC, returning from an away game loss. The guys were very cool. The £12 hotel was really rather plush but I took the somewhat broken-down £6 choice and immediately fell asleep. Waking at 11PM I was too late for dinner so my only option was nuts and beer which I was consuming at the bar across the road when two guys got in a fight in front of me, spilling blood on the floor. Some small town excitement. Apart from that, everyone was lovely.
June 12, 2011
Mekele – June 10th. After breakfast I paid a visit to the modest palace of Yohannes IV to get some grounding in Ethiopian imperial history. The museum inside was interesting, with exhibits stretching from the pre-Axumite civilisation that supposedly goes back to the Queen of Sheba who married King Solomon in Jerusalem about 1,000 B.C. to the times of Haile Selassie when the Ethiopian army kicked the Italians clean out of the country, much to the continuing edification of black people around the world.
I hopped onto a minibus amidst the usual confusion and headed north. The bus was relatively roomy. Not like the factory chicken micro-busses of Tibet, for example, and road conditions were good. 80% asphalt with the rest underway thanks to Chinese money, as I took it from the characters for middle kingdom (China) spray painted on the rock. Up here the table lands are still dry but it is planting season. I felt for the gaunt farmers breaking the hard, yellowish soil with oxen and home-made wooden ploughs fitted with a metal blade. The soil is so full of jagged chunks of sandstone that the land was a jigsaw puzzle of low walls surrounding the small fields that had been cleared. Everywhere people herded long-horned cattle, goats, little donkeys and rarely camels. Further on around Wukro prickly pear cactus proliferated enormously and there were virtual forests of a succulent tree (Euphorbia Candelabris, I think) growing about 6 m tall and equally wide, the crown dense with bulbous cactus fingers. These were planted around the blue-roofed churches with their ornate metal crucifixes. Further up the road, after a 20-minute breakdown, we eased up alongside the imposing cliff-fronted mountains. There was forest up above and at the base acacia scrub and much more grass. Swampy river channels attracted lots of herders. Over-grazing must be a big problem especially with the population growing at 3 or 4% per annum. Condoms are not too prominent but kids and HIV are.
I found acceptable digs in Adigrat with a lively downstairs restaurant/bar and friendly staff. An older lady was seeding about half a ton of red chilis in the courtyard. After eating spicy wat and injera, I fell into a conversation with a Captain Tefari. I guessed he was a veteran of the war with Eritrea. It’s only 35 km to the border. He would talk about it but kept almost bursting into tears. It seems like a very sad situation. Most of the population of Eritrea are Tigrean (the northernmost Ethiopian province) and he grew in the Eritrean capital Asmara. As a result of the post-secession war in the late ‘90’s common people and families are divided a la Germany. My guess is the border may not re-open until there is a regime change in Eritrea. That government is rated dead last in the journalistic freedom listings, right after North Korea. Whatever you have to do to come behind North Korea can’t be too good.
The Churches of Tekka Tesfai
June 24, 2011
One of the more remarkable features of the Ethiopian cultural landscape are the famous rock hewn churches such as those at Lalibela. The Ethiopian province of Tigre contains many rock hewn churches of a rather more obscure disposition which gave me an excuse to make an off the beaten path trip. Less than an hour by minibus from Adigrat is the TekaTesfai cluster of three such churches which date from the 10th or 11th century to the 16th strung along a dramatic granite escarpment. Tigreans take there Christianity seriously. Many women have Coptic style crucifixes tattooed on their foreheads and some guys have a cross scarred by knife in the same place which seems rather more an African than Christian tradition.
As soon as I started up the path I was accosted by a teenager who wanted to guide me. He was over-priced at 50 Bir (about $5) but spoke decent English so I took him on as it is always difficult to find the priest with the key. He said they get visitors less than monthly but seemed to be waiting for me. After a kilometre walk along a path lined with giant flowering yuccas, prickly pears and euphorbia cactus we reached the house of the family who have taken on the role of key-keeper since the first church, Petros&Paulos fell into disuse. Accompanied by the wife and a growing retinue of kids we scaled the cliff-face by way of a recently hacked together wooden scaffold stairway. The old curving stucco-walled structure was sheltered beneath a natural overhang and only a little of the interior was actually hand hewn into the rock. I handed over 100 bir, lacking the required 50 bir note and entered. It was full of earth tone paintings of Biblical characters executed in the traditional Ethiopian style which could best be described as naïve, illuminated by holes in the ceiling. Back down we found the husband. He didn’t have change for me.
The second church was hand dug into a big rock dome not far away. It looked really cool with a rustic graveyard in front under dense euphorbia cactus trees. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the priest. We shook off the additional pesky teenagers who wanted to negotiate for entirely unsolicited services and climbed a large escarpment to the third church. This was the largest and finest (they say) and held commanding views over a forested valley and plains dotted with farmsteads. Tigre is pretty packed with people. The sullen priest eventually came. Inside the compound we entered a pretty, windowed entry hall painted with interlocking geometric symbols very similar to Celtic knots. The church was impressive in scale, given it was had excavated a thousand years ago but quite rudely finished. More geometric designs were carved on the walls and ceiling, without much apparent attempt to square things off. Recalling the absolutely massive, perfectly executed caves at Ellora and Ajanta in India rather detracted from the impression as did the lack of light and unkempt furnishings but it was certainly atmospheric.
We went for coffee with a delightful local family. Tigrean houses are sturdy and low and quite large with an inner courtyard. The thick walls are constructed from densely laid flat bricks and outside the villages they are surrounded by dense cactus. Its pretty rough and Spartan inside but homey.The mother was tattoed and smiling and busied herself fanning the coals, roasting the coffee and brewing it in a tall curved pot, the same as I saw at Aswan. Her super-cute infant was strapped on her back with a colourful shell-beaded papoose. Her 14 year old boy spoke conversational English and showed me their beehive. She also roasted up some local grains. Eaten plain they tasted like buttered popcorn. The coffee was also delicious. That felt like an authentic (and cheap) experience. I hitch-hiked to Adigrat in the back of a pickup; warm sun, wind in the hair andunobscured views of the dramatic, flat-topped mountains reminiscent of the American southwest, the land peppered with domestic animals, young herders and stick wielding, blanket-wrapped peasants.
Axum and the Ark of the Covenant
June 18th, 2011
When it comes to dirt road travel, the best way to go is in the cab of a large truck. The view is good and the ride smooth. I travelled like that from Adigrat west to Axum, ancient centre of pre-Christian and Christian civilisation; an empire which at its’ peak stretched from the Nile in Sudan to Yemen. Axum is now a rather touristy town and the epicentre of Ethiopian Christianity. The most prominent feature of the town is the field of stellae; numerous flat, pointed, engraved granite obelisks which increased in stature with the egos of successive kings to be up to 33 m tall. The tallest weighed over 500 tons, and was transported 4 km by elephant, so they say. It must have been galling to watch it crash to the ground shortly after installation. It still lies there in several huge, sorry pieces. The second largest (25 m) was stolen by the cheeky Italians in 1896, cut in three and taken to the Piazza in Rome. It was recently returned and reinstalled, but seems to be leaning over rather precariously and has had to be re-anchored with winch cables.
Myself, a dissolute New Zealander and another local non-guide who just happened to want to accompany us went up the hill from the stellae field and checked out “The Queen of Sheba’s Bath” (a reservoir) and a couple of large, finely made, subterranean royal tombs. The countryside was very pretty, full of cacti and yucca and animals and the children very raggedy. At the top, stands Pantaleon monastery which was founded in the sixth century. It was the first day of fasting month and numerous mostly female, impoverished pilgrims were ensconced around the grounds. Women can’t actually enter the buildings. A priest came and showed us some beautiful illustrated books claimed to be as old as the monastery itself and other church relics. We scaled to the very peak where in the chapel, strange incantations marked the end of the afternoon ceremony. Sheet-swaddled monks filed out and we filed in to the brightly decorated interior. Back down near the entrance I took up the offer of some cloudy, smegma-flecked home brew from a big plastic drum. It wasn’t too bad and didn’t come back to haunt me but I wouldn’t fuel a night on the town with it. There are three local bottled brews for that purpose, one of which, Dashen, is actually good.
Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is often thought as a variation of Egyptian Coptic Christianity, but in reality it has developed in substantial isolation since its second century founding in Axum. The town hosts the holiest church in Ethiopia which in turn is said to contain nothing less than The Ark of the Covenant; the container constructed to house the Tablets of Law after Moses came back down from Mount Sinai. Ethiopia is a land of abundant miracles, according to tradition, and the authenticity of the Ark is a given amongst believers. The Ark is thought to have originally been kept in the old temple in Jerusalem until the Babylonians destroyed the temple and it was lost. While it’s not impossible that the artefact is now housed here, it is rather suspicious that no-one can ever see it except its guardian. We can, however, see a replica once a year when it is paraded outside the church by candlelight. By great luck, this night was the one – at 5 am! Unfortunately, I didn’t find out until I was well into a rather debauched evening at various bars in town that went on until 3 am. I scurried to my arched concrete shell of a hotel. When my alarm went off at 4.30, I didn’t really wake up, but wandered lost and confused, amnesiac, through the halls of my hotel in the dark. I think there was another power outage. I couldn’t find the stairs so I jumped six feet out the window, still sleep-walking. I was quite scared and when I found my room I collapsed back on my bed and missed the whole mystical performance. A really weird experience; never happened before. It might have been a case of divine intervention I suppose.
The Simien Mountains
July 5, 2011
From ancient Axum the road heads west, paralleling the Eritrean border to the town of Shire then turns sharp south towards The Simien Mountains (Gelada baboons, deep villages, boggling landscape) and Gonder (not to be confused with Tolkien’s Gondor but featuring a gaggle of impressive castles). Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find a ride at lunchtime. There were no Hobbits in Shire (Shi-rey) but fortunately, I was befriended by a charming, eloquent, 8th grade orphan named Jon who had picked up his English from UN people. He was paying his way through school mainly on the kindness of foreign workers…some mining operation. We hung out a few hours and he found me a ride through the guys at the truck stop, as is the way, and I slipped him 50 Bir ($3, enough to eat for a week, he said). Oddly, the ride turned out to be on a high clearance bus loaded with a big group of well off tourists from Addis Ababa, also doing the ‘northern loop’. I came to really appreciate the vehicle as we spent the rest of the day and the next morning negotiating properly hairy hair-pins on a long stretch of road under Chinese construction. It took us down and up several huge valleys to the final 2,000m climb to Debark. The greening of the land was progressive and perceptible even at our modest pace as we were now out of the rain shadow of the mountains. By evening we were in grassy open woodlands and by morning we were cutting through dense forest. It is hard to know what was the original state of cover since deforestation has been going on so long here. You see many native trees that have had all there branches torn off, now just sprouting a few new shoots or dead. As in many other countries, much native woodland has been replaced by eucalyptus, beloved of the locals for its’ fast growth. It makes good construction material as well as fuel, though the smoke seriously stings your eyes. Even around Adigrat it is everywhere, notably growing on the terraced vegetable gardens. That smacks of a dumb idea since it is a notorious water and nutrient hog on already marginal land.
Debark was kind of a dump and base for the Simiens. I talked to the well organised trekking association guys. Prices had gone up a lot recently. You have to hire a non-English speaking scout with a Kalashnikov and a mule and handler. I wanted a proper guide too. I’d already met some over lunch that seemed cool. I got my well used association cooking gear, tent and food set up. It was $200 for 4 nights, 5 days. We ended up being driven back by weather after three and a half days. Not surprising at this time of year. The Simien Range consists of a series of towering plateaus raised in some igneous epoch and eroded out into dramatic valleys and outlying spires and flat top islands which rise 100’s of meters from the patchwork farmland. From slightly desolate fields we hiked up valley and along the top of the main escarpment for a day and a half. It was super green and hazy and humongous; a kilometre high. The baboons soon showed up in ever increasing troops. Usually the red chested dominant males first with their giant frizz hairdoes and curving canines that look so un-vegetarian as they graze the grass. The untold entourage of wives and children follows. Getting married appeared to take about five seconds. It was a solid day’s hike to Sankaber where a jackal stalked the camp. Lammergeyers and griffins soared around the cliffs. Stars came upon us. Well into the second day of fortunate sunshine we entered a valley who’s river was expelled as a tapering, soaring waterfall. Above that was the village of Gich with big, thatched wooden roundhouses and stockades and the first giant lobelias. In September these other-planety things sprout 8m vertical rod-shaped blossoms but you can appreciate last years crop in June. Up above was a proper forest of it. At the village she cooked on a hotplate injera and lentil wat in a smoky house sitting on goatskins under a dark towering conical roof. That night we camped not far above at 3,400m using one of the also conical camp huts for kitchen. Despite looming clouds I was determined to use my tent since I was paying for it. This proved bad as the water tapered up my mattress from the leaking bell-end when the inevitable bucketing rain came. I evacuated to the hut. My three compatriots were lying in a big pile for warmth as the wind whistled rain inside through the open walls of the hut. It wasn’t the best of nights. We were grateful for the delivery of eucalyptus fuel which I managed to rekindle with kerosene in the midst of the storm. We huddled round the stove with poorly blanketed herders in the morning then hiked in and out the clouds, but mostly in, through lobelia world to precipices that disappeared completely. We beat it just ahead of more rain. That night back at the first camp it was massive thunderstorm time as we made an international get together in the now busy hut. There was much ingenious call and response musicology from the local contingent. We sneaked out on an illicit truck hitch the next day (officially only for locals). I was glad as I was a bit sick with an allergy from flea bites. In Gich the cattle share a part of the house. I was sorry for my friends from the night before who were headed up; the rain didn’t really cease next day either, and the streets of Debark started to get pretty muddy, the overloaded beasts of burden slipping on the cobbles.
Gonder, Lake Tana and Lalibela
July 5, 2011
The area south of the Simien mountains is the highland heart of Ethiopia. It’s the homeland of the Amharic people who gave their name to the national language and the seat of emperors who built idiosyncratic castles in the 16th and 17th centuries, all clustered on the same plot in similar competitive spirit to the much more ancient royal stellae at Axum. My Simien guide came down too for a short vacation. Gonder is a nice place to hang out with good food and entertainment. Somewhat of an artistic centre, the bars feature a lot of traditional music and dance. With pumping rhythm, a wailing, one-string, upright fiddle and (apparently) very funny improvised lyrics inevitably focused on the resident faranji (foreigner), travelling musicians keep everyone moving and grooving all night long. Both sexes indulge in a girating shoulder dance featuring a variety of improbable moves requiring great suppleness that at peak moments has the womens breast flapping up and down like they are waving hello in stereo superimposed on a ten per second muscular vibration. Many top Ethiopian musicians come from Gonder for some reason including stars of the ubiquitous pop that has enhanced my travels here. Ethiopian pop features a trance like bass kick, oscillating, convoluted vocals and complex blaring keyboards and guitars. If your lucky enough to be in a vehicle with intact speakers it will keep things bouncing the whole way down the road.
We stayed some time in Gonder. My guide’s friend, a pretty young nurse named Seble, came down from Debark. She worked doing preventative care using a WHO model in a clinic and also going around outlying villages, even in the Simiens. She knew the lady from Gich who fed us a tasty lunch. They need her help up there; sanitation is not great and the villagers are pretty vulnerable to all kinds of infections. She gets paid quite amazingly close to zilch for her work. My guide finished his stay in Gonder unhappy, especially when high on qat, because I refused to pay for the entire three years of higher education in ornithology that he wants to elevate him from a hand to mouth existence. Seble and I headed further south to Besi Sahar on Lake Tana, the largest Lake in Ethiopia. The lake is effectively the source of the Blue Nile, home to hippopotami, and studded with remarkable monasteries, some on islands. We took a boat tour to view the wonderful mural paintings at the monasteries; a riot of colour and virtual comic strip of Biblical and (other) apocryphal tales. The Ethiopian Church liturgy includes books foreign in the west such as The Miracles of Mary and various tales of Saints. Pivotal in the pantheon is St George who is featured slaying the dragon (our own shadow) almost everywhere, including on the label of Ethiopia’s second best beer. We viewed a variety of ancient vellum books and other relics. Each page of each book in each library requires the skin of one goat. The next day we visited the Blue Nile Falls an hour south. It was a dream since those heady days when Koko and I were regulars at an Ethiopian restaurant in Berkeley, California where on tourist board posters the mighty 500m long falls looked absolutely stunning. Now reduced to a shadow of it’s former glory, most of the water is being diverted for a hydro-electric power station that will no doubt not last very long. I hate dams. There must be some other way.
One of the worst things about Ethiopia is the 6 AM bus departure times and 4 AM hotel minibus pickups. 4 AM is 10 PM on the Ethiopian clock which you would assume meant 10 AM since who in their right minds would start a 4 hour bus journey at 4 AM. Thus we arrived in Lalibela for a timely breakfast, missing dramatic scenery in the dark as we crossed at full tilt to the drier, eastern side of the mountains. Set up on a ridge below an imposing 4,000 m mesa, this now rapidly expanding village, quite recently plugged into the transport grid, is home to a gamut of rock hewn churches ensconced in 15 m deep excavated courtyards connecting through channels and tunnels. St. George’s has the form of his eponymous cross. Though relatively plain on the inside and covered in huge steel and plastic UN-funded canopies, the churches make up a very impressive site. They are gouging 20-odd dollars for the ticket now; free for Ethiopians. I mistook that there was an ATM in Lalibela and I was fresh out of dollars. Travellers cheques being useless, we virtually got stuck when the phones went out snuffing the visa connection to the world. Our hosts were kind enough to let us run up large hotel and restaurant bills on promise of later bank deposit. There’s not much else happening in Lalibela anyway. It took another day of minibuses to get out the dry, rocky mountains and a bit down the Rift Valley with it’s rich, black soil and sturdier looking farmers. Then one last 8 hour jaunt from Dessie to Addis Ababa. After three weeks of tempering Ethiopian trails, the capital, especially from the perspective of a $20 dollar room at the oldest hotel in Ethiopia, didn’t seem so bad. The hotel opened in 1898, but that’s by the unique Ethiopian calendar which runs 8 years behind ours. They like to be different down here.
Chat in Harar with the Hyena man
July 19, 2011
Harar lies 500 km out east from Addis Ababa on a mountainous extension of the Ethiopian Highlands which separates the broiling Danakil and Ogaden deserts to the north and south. It is home to Ethiopia’s finest coffee but this is being progressively supplanted by production of Ethiopia’s finest qat (chat, khat). It is a fascinating, old walled city; predominantly Muslim, friendly and atmospheric with a vibrantly colourful population of mostly the Oromo minority. The trip there is a long one, starting as usual at 5 AM and made less tedious by spectacular scenery and crazy, chat-fuelled, minibus drivers. You could almost handle the driving were it not for the regular passage of upside-down trucks, destroyed SUV’s and mashed up dogs along the route. The day subsequent to our trip, a minibus crashed killing the driver at the least. Well, one less idiot in the world as Bill Hicks once consoled. We arrived in the midst of a college graduation that had all the hotels full. After paying an exorbitant rate for the only available space first night ($20 for a nice room!) we found a place inside the old walled city in a traditional Harari house for some reason over-looked by the domestic punters; thick pastel-painted walls built around a broad courtyard and rooms stacked with slightly garish local pottery and baskets.
We took a guide and toured the old town with it’s narrow winding lanes, bustling markets, mosques and five large entrance gates dating back 500 years. We visited the house of the French poet Rimbaud who, after reinventing western poetry in his drug addled teenage years moved to Aden and then Harar to become one of the most noted coffee exporters and explorers of the east African hinterlands during the late 19th century before he died an untimely death in his mid-thirties. Obviously a complete nutter, he and his mate would do reconnaissance in the Danakil by riding their horses full tilt through Afar villages despite the Afar’swell-known penchant for lopping off the testicles of any male trespasser. Though the house may in fact have never been occupied by Rimbaud it is a lovely building filled with fascinating blow-up photos from the period, some taken by the poet himself. In the evening we enjoyed the famous hyena-man show. Harar is rather infested with hyenas in the manner of foxes impinging on suburban Britain. Obviously also in the nutter brigade, the hyena man (men) feeds wild hyenas from a stick held in his mouth and invites all-comers to give it a go. Our hyena man has been at it for twenty years so it can’t be that dangerous but I was pretty impressed with Seble’s composure in getting up close with the strongest jaws in Africa.
An attempt to take a little hike in the “Valley of Marvels” (balancing rocks a la Utah) was dislocated by the inevident trail, the possible presence of lions and also, as it turned out, “shiftas”; basically a term for bandits but here nuanced into Eritrean sponsored, Oromo-protected Al Qaida-type insurgents. Apparently two UN workers had their throats slit while out for a strole, though the assailants identity was not clear (to me at least, through Seble’s minimalist, mass media influenced translation). I pointed out that UN workers in New York get their throats slit all the time, but people still go for walks. Seble wasn’t having it. I did enjoy the bright yellow weaver birds though, with their globular beak woven nests dangling from the acacia.
Much of the commerce and social activity in the Harar is centered on the aforementioned qat. This plant (Catha Edulis) has been chewed traditionally for it’s coca-like, stimulant effects (the chemicals are close to amphetamine) but in modern times has become a national obsession. In nearby Djibouti, when the daily shipments arrive from Harar, the country shuts down for four or five hours as the entire male populace and a substantial proportion of the female lie around working up a chat buzz. Considerable effort and time is required to chew a sufficient quantity of the bitter, green shoots and only a modicum of economic productivity is regained in the post-chat evening hours. It’s no better in Harar where, despite the stimulant effect, users (half the polulation) sit around in the dirty street (or tables) all afternoon with a green, foaming mouth seemingly unaware of any other purpose in life. More occasional users universally recommend chat for academic study or overtime at the office, but obviously it is fairly addictive and continuous use apparently can lead to psychological problems. Nearby farms provide top quality export grade chat which is shipped out to Djibouti, Somaliland, Yemen and even apparently to London, where, having been kept moist and fresh on the plane, the tender shoots are sold for a premium to the Ethiopian expat community. At around $2 a bag, domestic consumption must be stretching the pockets of the locals to an extreme too. Despite it’s obvious detrimental influence socially, I have to say that it is pretty good stuff, especially when you have nothing to do but chew for three hours like on a long bus trip, for example.
July 19, 2011
Addis Ababa is oppressive in the rainy season. Sullen, thundery clouds seem to condense the fumes that spew rankly from the multitude of minibuses. The streets are crowded; pavements host listless beggars. It’s cold, muddy, not pretty and when it works at all the shower water drains from the bathroom into the bedroom. We went extensively camera hunting and turned up one single digital SLR camera in the entire city (and none of the compact Canon SX series I was looking for) though I did score a Chinese tent for £25. In it’s favour, a bus in Addis is less than 10p, a good meal £1 (Addis is of course expensive being the capital), the hassle is not as bad as is made out (or else I’m finally getting oblivious to it) and the clubs, modern and traditional, are worth exploring. Still, I was glad to get out, even without seeing little Lucy at the museum (Australopithecus Aferensis c. 3.5 million BC). Seble and I were heading south towards the tribally exotic Omo Valley near the Kenyan border at Lake Turkana. First stop en route was Jamaica.
The founders of Jamaica left Jamaica in the mid-70’s. It wasn’t exactly an exodus, but the 12 die hard followers of Emperor Haile Selassie in his manifestation as the Rastafarian second coming of Jesus established their back to Africa commune just around the time of Haile Selassie’s death. The ailing old emperor and 3,000 years of rule by supposed descendents of King Solomon, was smothered out of existence by a pillow held in the grasping hand of Mengistu Haile Maryam, former royal servant and commander of theDerg; the ruthless communists who came to power at the collapse of the imperial government. Mengistu, notable for his large responsibility for the famine that spawned Live Aid in 1984, still lives a comfortable life in Zimbabwe under the protection of his mate Robert Mugabe. Quite how the new Rastafarian commune survived 15 Derg years is a mystery but they are there still, just outside the town of Shashamene, loosely 700 strong, and an Ethiopian-Jamaican-international hybrid. Bob Marley stayed there back in the day.
There is a museum of things Rasta, which was closed on our visit, but we did enjoy some good Caribbean cooking. I was hoping to hang out with somebody in the know, regarding the philosophy behind the movement (which includes a number of different ‘churches’). It’s curious that so many people around the world relate deeply to the values of a Rasta poet like Bob Marley but very few understand Rastafarianism or think it foolish or clearly the result of hallucinogenic doses of marijuana. Their reworking of Jadeo-Christian mythology comes off as pretty odd sometimes. The establishment of Haile Selassie as a Messianic figure, for example. There was ample reason that the communists took over, and too many ill things for which the emperor could be held responsible to make that stretch credibile to many. Nonetheless, the egalitarian, liberal, anti-corruption Rasta world view is ever in cultural circulation, shared, emulated, and marketed, not least forit’s damning indictment of western colonial and industrial history.
My hope was fulfilled in condensed form right after we ate, having tagged along with the first lad we met, a non-dreadlocked, Jamaican-accented Ethiopian named Natty. The eatery turned out to be on the property of one of the twelve original founders of the commune, an amiably gentle, talkative fellow named Ruben. He came to the window from some housekeeping to give us a conversational download; a laid-back but intense five minute diatribe about the meaning of Rastafarianism. I didn’t have any trouble with the download except getting to the parts about Armaggedon, the day of judgement and eternal damnation. I’m not saying those evergreen ideas are wrong. I just have trouble with them! Imminent collapse of the world economic system, war by the corporate elite against the order of nature, ultimate vanquishment of the world bespoilers and war masters by divine power manifest in the world; that part was fine. And so then the parts where they say it’s not so much a religion as a way of life and as such, open to all, also seemed perfectly acceptable. Ethiopia may not turn out to be the Zion they were after though. So far in human history, Zion is in the mind. Rumour has long had it that the late great Bob Marley’s remains would be reburied around Shashemene, back on the African continent as he had wished. Maybe one day it will happen. I’m sure they would catch a lot of tourist traffic.
The Tribes of Omo
August 7, 2011
The Omo Valley is a far out destination right on Ethiopia’s southwest corner where Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia come together. Lake Turkana, most of which extends far to the south across arid northern Kenya, prods over the border into Omo. The region is home to numerous agro-pastoralist tribes exhibiting a rich variety of dress, language and customs. We travelled there by bus, on top of trucks and by hitching in other tourists 4x4s. I was accompanied by our guide Gino whom I had originally met in the Simien Mountains as we sheltered from a massive thunderstorm, his friend Katie from Minnesota and my girl Seble. Seble’s behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic and I had tried with insufficient force to have her return home before we reached Omo following yet another outburst in which she declared she was going and then radically changed her mind at the last minute, ostensibly because she was in love with me. Her behaviour eventually resulted in a big fiasco. The approach to Omo is by way if the Rift Valley. The town of Arba Minch has a lovely setting adjacent to a national park between two large, crocodile infested lakes. Unfortunately, local Oromo tribes invaded the park twenty years ago, wiped out numerous large mammal species resident there and now refuse to leave causing security concerns that prohibit trekking. Further south is the non-descript town of Karat-Konso. The surrounding Konso villages, set in fertile, hilly pasture land, consist of domed, thatched huts crowned with odd, alien looking clay pots. Crossing the bridge at Weito by minibus, we officially entered low-lying, arid Omo. There is even a customs check. Smuggling from Kenya is rife. Close to Weito is a large corporate cattle ranch on land that the government confiscated from the Tamai tribe without proper compensation. We headed up and over the mountains via verdant Key Afer to Jinka, the largest town in Omo and home to the Bana tribe. Similar to the Hamer people further south, the Bana women dress in goatskins and wear colourful beads and shells. The men sometimes have their bodies bedecked in beads and sport a variety of elaborate headwear rather resembling the people of northern Kenya. We hitched on the back of a truck full of rocks to a family compound for an impromptu visit. We were uneasily accepted by the pregnant mother who relaxed after her husband turned up clad in his warrior gear. Their possessions inside the house consisted of just cooking pots on a small fireplace and we sat outside on animal hides on the dusty ground.
Next day we headed 50 km into Mago National Park on the backs of four motorbikes provided by a price-gouging, fake Rastafarian. They dropped us off two hours later at a Mursi village consisting of even more basic and small, hemispheric housing. The Mursi are justifiably famous for their practice of knocking out the bottom front teeth of their pubescent girls, slicing an opening through their lower lip and inserting a wooden disc indented like a pulley. By gradually increasing the diameter of the discs, the girls lips are stretched to outlandish proportions which, apparently, enormously enhances their attractiveness. Combined with strings of shells, animal horns and clay smeared skin, their appearance is certainly arresting. The men dress much more casually, the elders sitting around playing a backgammon-like game all day. Their attention was so wrapped up in the associated gambling that they completely ignored us while we played with the kids and, for a price, photographed their women. The Mursi are very fond of guns and spend much of the money they earn from tourists on weapons. The government has recently been confiscating their weapons to keep the peace but there is an ulterior motive; removing the threat they present to commandeering land for commercial purposes. Later we hitched to the trail head for the park campsite. Gino didn’t mention the subsequent 20 km bush hike. We arrived exhausted after dark to join some over-landing Italians who entertained us with their top 40-taste tunes blasting from the door speakers. We didn’t have much luck spotting wildlife; just numerous birds and a few antelope but even that glimpse conjured in my mind visions of the Elysian Fields.
Next we headed south into Hamer country and based ourselves in the village of Turmi for several days where there was a fabulous indigenous market and lots of affable locals stationed at the tourist hotel munching chat. The land there is and exotic semi-desert of twisted aloe vera, shapely acacias and other weird, stunted, flowering trees. Even more colourful than the Bana, the Hamer have some extraordinary cultural practices. Married women wear their hair in short dreads saturated in butter and red clay. Inevitably the butter melts lending a ruddy shine to their bodies. Young men are initiated into the world of mating by running back and forth across the backs of a dozen tethered bulls. Serious injuries can result. In order to entice the successful lads into a relationship, the girls then taunt the boys to hit them ever harder with long, slender whipping sticks. Girls who go after a variety of boys in this way may end up with a lattice of scar tissue all over their backs. At one of the nearby villages we enjoyed a community dance performance involving the boys jumping forcefully toward their chosen girl who ducks and dives around him. Acceptance of his bounding courtship by a thrust of the hips may end in intercourse but babies resulting from these pre-marital trysts are supposed to be killed. This would have happened to Gino but his mother spirited him out the village; he was raised in a Catholic orphanage in Addis Ababa. It is quite common for individuals to escape such harsh practices by running away, often south to Lake Turkana, where bands with new modalities may evolve. We met an amateur American anthropologist who had just completed his field recording of Hamer songs. He was of the opinion that traditional life in Omo is on its way out. Pressure from the land grabbing government, the corrupting effect of tourism and the on-going drought are all factors. Many of the villages have been receiving a lot of food aid from the numerous resident NGO’s and this is having a deleterious effect on their farming practices. Why bother working the rocky land when the organisations are competing to hand out maize, rice and vegetable oil? Over to the west, the Karo people, famous for their outlandish body painting and elaborate clay-shell hair-does, are currently struggling with another enormous, uncompensated land grab for a corporate cattle ranch. Even if it actually does provide local jobs, that only further degrades the culture.
In Turmi poor Seble had her final mega-freak out. We had an argument and in the morning she tried to get a ride out alone on some random truck. I prevented it by removing her bag from the cab and she became hysterical. I should have let her go. In the evening she reappeared at the hotel after hiding out with some low-life guys who were feeding her all kinds of sour information. She threw a bottle at Gino and after screaming at us more we settled into a sort of informal trial with the qat-inspired locals. Half of them believed her; half thought she was crazy. About twenty males set about a vocal debate while we sat by and watched with amazement. Damning evidence such as my feeding her injera backwards was brought forth. It was becoming ridiculous. One guy tried to attack her and we had to stop him. Eventually she left with the low-life drivers only to reappear in the morning demanding money. I had covered all her travel expenses and promised to pay for her return trip including a cheap flight from Addis. Now she was extorting about $300 (twice what she required) by threatening to go to the police and say I had been mistreating her. Despite having witnesses to counter this accusation I eventually had to give her almost all my money (cursing her name) and send her on her way. The idea of invo top of trucks. One was loaded with mattresses and when the thunderstorm came we all sheltered comfortably under tarps. We back-tracked to Arba Minch but I was unable to get any money at the bank there. My cards just wouldn’t work. I started to stress that I might need to call on Western Union. The driver that got us to the main road at Yabello refused to take us the whole way and we had to hike 6 km in the dark. All the hotels were closed or full and we were lucky to get virtually the last two rooms in town. We didn’t have time to explore, though the area near Yabello features a large volcanic crater, prolific lofty termite mounds and many Borano people who wear perhaps the most brightly dyed, crazily designed fabrics of all the tribes we had encountered. Finally we made it to Moyale and the long sought after ATM, on the Kenyan side. The border is virtually open and we passed freely back and forth. Next day we said our fond farewells and I commenced my Kenyan adventure, alone again at last, on top of a truck full of cows.