What we know:
FAMINE. DROUGHT. ADDIS ABABA. HAILE SELASSIE. BOB GELDOF. HAILE GEBRSELASSIE.
After a punishing drive in aching solitude, torrid heat and big vast skies we are beginning to wonder if we should have ever listened to our Sicilian friend in Dar es Salaam.
We arrive in Moyale too late to cross the frontier. Check into a small hotel for the night. Approaching the frontier early next morning there are no signs of activity. This is usually a warning that your departure is not going to be a pleasant affair. By now we are experience hands at border politics, and have seen most of the scams. This one turns out to be one of the worst. Every tactic from unloading and searching Williwaw to demanding undeclared currency and threatening export duty on the vehicle are tried in an effort to line the custom and excise pockets.
Eventually with the assistance of a flying doctor we clear the frontier late in the afternoon. It’s time to good-bye or good riddance to a country that is destroying its geological leisureliness, its beauty, its hospitality, its people, for short gain.
During all hassle the Ethiopian side is monitor the whole Kenya per lava from their frontier.
As a result they seem to take a pride in dealing with our entry professionally and welcome us with open hands sending us on our way with out too much hassle.
Relying on notes marked on our map by Paul our Dar es Salaam Sicilian we head for Jinka. He recommends spending some time in the Omo river basin area using Jinka or Bako as a base to explore the area and its native peoples.
The Hamar, the Galeb, the Dassanithch, the Bumi, the Karo, the Amer, the Bena, the Mursi, the Bodi, the Anuak, the Nuer, the Surma, all of which Paul lament’s to be disappearing rapidly.
According to him despite the marked differences of aid on each tribe its effects is fruitlessly in the long-term because ultimately it erodes the tribe’s culture and inevitably brings tourism. “These peoples are the most remarkable ethnic people left in the world.” “Now they charge for photos,” says Paul. We make good time to Yabello our turnoff for Jinka but as always in no time we are in very rocky terrain returning to atrocious road conditions.
Not a person or animal relieves our monotonous struggle upward through Dry River courses that mender down from narrow rocky/sandy valleys. The long slow climb to Konso eventually ends at five thousand feet. Braking free we gaze down on a creamy red yellow colour world where every splash of green can be seen for miles. Terracing buttresses cling to the steep mountainsides. Here and there dots of small clusters of neat beehive shaped roofs surrounded by stone walls confess to human life. Each roof has a large earthen pot sitting at a slight angle on its peak to allow smoke out and prevent rain in. We have arrived in the drought Tuscany of Africa. The Konso are the principal and the least cut off group of this area of Ethiopia. They speak Cushitic a language that is a mixture of the other tongues of the Omotic languages.
Our welcoming is not what we are expecting. Instead of painted faces or bear breast woman pounding maze our descent is watched by large carved wooden figures huddle together in small groups either in a field or standing beside the track. They watch us pass like non-representational ghostlike signposts. The odd one is decked out with a large phallic symbol carved on the forehead. They impart a petrifying feeling.
“They are guarding against evil,” says Florence. Both Fanny, and I silence response confirms her intuition. We stop at the first cluster of hunts. The entrance to the compound looks menacing. Two large dried tree trunks buried under an array of dried branches form a wishbone gap into a dark passage way that is blocked waist high by diagonally logs. We are in no rush to knock so we park under a large tree that overlooks the terraced ground sloping down to the next compound.
The spell of our Ethiopian visit is beginning. Suddenly out of the confused mass of tangle petrified wooden appears our first Ethiopian. He is not skin and bone but wearing a suit, a tie and shoes. Unexpectedly in perfect English we are invited in. We enter with unarticulated expectations. A dog growls and is rebuked in a language totally non understandable.
Standing in the enclosure the dog crouches submissively on a small stone wall. The world has reverted several thousand years. We are on a different time clock. There is a strong smell of smoke, earth, and animal dung mixes with an overriding feeling of cramp, cold stone, thorns, and thatch. A drying table with some corn occupies a central position; a cow moo makes known the whereabouts in a dark stable.
Bending down to enter the upper level of the enclosure we follow him along the top of a small wall. In the main living quarters a man wrapped in torn ruff cotton cloth greets us. A corner of a sack adorning his head hiding a face that tells of a durable existence.
To our right in a room all on their own on a roughly flagged floor grinding stones with their stone rolling pins lay idle. An unlit cooking fire surrounded by pitch-black pots and large earthenware drinking water containers confirms that he is not the only occupant of the enclosure. We are waived to sit down. To our left is a low arched doorway of no more than three feet high leading to a short tunnel the entrance to the sleeping huts. The tunnel ensures no unwelcome guest arrive in the dark of the night. Any over amorous stud looking for a quick bonk could be easily club or speared before he ever got erect. Perhaps this is where the origins of phallic symbols come from.
Our young man explains that he is a qualified accountant on a visit home.
“Fuck me an accountant who ever have thought you meet one in this place above all places.” I have my suspicions when he is keen to be our guide. We explain that we are on our way to Jinka and will be in the area for a few days.
He is enthusiastic to show that he would make a very good guide promising a guided tour of the enclosure after a cup of Kosso tree tea. (We find out later that Kosso is the Amharic name for tape worm.) The tea tastes bitter like one of those medicines that tastes not too bad but has some hidden ingredient that only makes its self-known when swallowed. The tour over one is impressed with the cleanliness of the enclosure. The latrine is on the outside and all animal dung is collected for manure.
During our tour he explains that the wooded statues are caved in honour of Konso hero’s. They are called Waga figures. The deceased is usually in the middle surrounded by his wives and the figures on either extreme represent any his enemies that he has bumped off. Also any animals that he may have slain are carved and placed at the hero feet. The phallic symbol is called a kallaacha; however he is unable to confirm my theory of their emblematical source.
Our young man gives us Irish directions to Jinka. Pointing at one group of beehive roofs to the next and then over the nearest hill where his finger points to unseen further hills.
We leave skirting our way out from the first to last of the terrace walls. By the time we hit the valley floor ever-thatched roof looks the same. Although the land looks infertile every terrace has its Cabbage tree with maize, beans, yams, millet, it is obvious that the Konso are resourceful farmers.
Our route takes us north of Lake Chew. No matter what direction we look in a mountain ridge blocks the horizon. With no roads to speak off it is stop and ask but ask how. People are as uncommon as animals so we labour on blind up one craggy stone passage after another in the hope of finding somewhere.
A display of red totally out of kilter amongst the snarling bush and rocks traps our eyes. Two blooming plants of startling beauty invite us to consider our surroundings. Jinka on our map as the crow flies is only a stone throw away nevertheless getting there is turning out to be more than a bit of a nightmare.
There is nothing for it but to push on up our preferred mule track. A loud report threatens any further advance. Williwaw has snapped one of her coil springs. Luckily I had not got my thumbs around the steering wheel. (Top TIP: When driving off-road get into the habit of holding the steering wheel without your thumbs hooked around the wheel. If the vehicle hit a stone or dives down a rut it’s more than likely you end up with a broken thumb.) If there is one quality a Land Rover has is it ability to limp on when others have given up the ghost. With every lurch sounding torturous we drive on.
Heaving and a tossing from port to starboard we are welcomed to Jinka by an orange moon.
Limping up a grass dirt runway that divides the village it’s too late to find the mission that Peter has advised us to camp in. The only guiding electric light turns out to be the Bar. Here we are fed and stay for the night in a small room behind the bar. Even though it is stifling hot it’s a sleeping bag job under our mossy nets. Sleep is extremely difficult. All of us spend the night begging for dawn to arrive. When it does we find that we are seven years and eight months behind when we arrived. The Ethiopia calendar conforms to the Julian calendar and is divided into twelve months each of thirty days and a 13th month of five or six days in a leap year. Hence the slogan that Ethiopia is the country of “13 months of sunshine.”
With Williwaw far from well the acquisition of a replacement coil spring is upper some on my mind. First daylight impressions of Jinka and its territorial surrounds do not offer much hope of finding one. It is obvious that if one arrives here on a buses or public transport your onward options are limited if you have or don’t have a set of wheels. The few vehicles parked outside the pub are packet to the roof. By the time we have moved into the Mission compound the cool of the morning is long gone. Pitch No 113.
Here I am informed by one of the two priests running the mission, which also runs a small school, and hospital that my only hope of getting a replacement spring is to fly to Addis Ababa. The next flight is the day after to-morrow seven years ago. “You are in luck as Jinka is the only off-line landing strip that Ethiopian Airlines serve for miles around here.” “To morrow is market day so you’re best to book a ticket in the bar today.”
After a late afternoon visit to the School and the hospital I book a flight. As to what time the flight departs I am at a totally loss. However with a little help I discover that Ethiopians measure time in twelve-hour cycles starting at 6 am and 6 pm. Twelve-o-clock turns out to be six am arriving at eight am, which is two pm. Dinner is with our three missionary hosts. The conversation goes on into the night delving in and out of all subjects both biblical and classical.
Ethiopians are Axumites that is those people who live in the Ethiopian highlands. The expression Ethiopic comes from the Greek (burnt-face) and the terms Ethiopia and Abyssinia (the latter deriving from the Arabic word habishat) became exchangeable when the Europeans arrived. Current Ethiopia is a spin-off of the 19th –century scramble for Africa. It was once thought to be the kingdom of a bloke called Prester John. Seventy different languages are spoken in Ethiopia. Ge’ez the language of Ancient Axum is still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Ahow means yes and Aydelem means no is about as much as I can remember of the subjects touched on.
Hitting the pit a three am with a twelve o clock start a joke about time comes to mind. This smooth talking Irish guy is in a bar when a cool looking babe walks in. He starts looking at his watch till the babe can’t help but notice. “Your date late?” No he said. “I’m just looking at my new sate of the art watch which I bought down the street. “ I’m testing it.” It uses alpha waves to talk to me.” “What it’s telling you” That you’re not wearing any panties” “Well sorry,” she said, “but I am.” “Jesus’, it must be an hour fast.” Sweet dreams.
Jinka’s market day bears out that at least 20% of Jinka’s current population don’t know that they are Ethiopians and for that matter they could not cared less.
Accompanied by the usually pack of kids and dogs we descend a steep rocky path. Passing a butcher shop advertised by a few hopeful perched vultures on the roof the meat looks less than appetising. We eventually surface onto a relative large flat area. It is thronged with vendors sitting on the ground and shoppers from another world > A world of symbolism. Every thing is haggled over and is sold or not sold by the grain or the gram. My camera has me in trouble almost immediately. Over our journey I have taught myself all sorts of tactics to take photos without the subjects noticing. I am caught red-handed by a very annoyed young lady. She is a Mursi’s or a Surma I don’t have time to ask.
She confronts me head on. Her lower lip hangs over her chin like an orange peel. Beauty is in the beholder. The larger the plate that signifies the amount of cattle her perspective groom will have to pay is not on view. Her eyes say it all. Another click and there will be hell to play. I back off feeling like a sulking dog. I can feel her saying “I am not a weird specimen but a human being.”
Every moment and every face in the market is a photo one must have. Many a western coffee table bears witness to this temptation.
God knows markets bet supermarkets and hypo shopping markets any time for social interactivity. This one reflects the hardships, the cultural mix, and the daily lives of the region. We spend a day a wash with art in the form of body scarring that either illustrative of a kill or visual beauty depending on the sex of the human being. Every scar with our knowledge of enhancing beauty or brutality asks a question that cannot be answered.
AK 47s are carried around the market like handbags. Wounds and scars are shown off with pride.
Western clothing warns of in pending, impinging, imposing technological of civilized growth grabbing hold of this other wish remote and forgotten territory. Large tracks of uninhabited bush, hills, and the Omo River are still contested over to this day by each and every one against every single one. We return to our campsite with a longing to be able to communicate beyond the constraints of our sunglasses.
Scattering the awaiting crowd the DHC –6 lands > There is no check in an hour in advance or have you left your luggage unattended? Or Gate 56, Metal Detectors, it’s a free for all. My spring comes in handy.
Fully loaded and I mean fully loaded the props fire into life with a cough of encouraging black smoke. We swing around, hold on the brakes till the plane shakes like a wet dog. Four or five whoops bumps and we are air-borne. First stop Arba Minch not that I knew.
The rugged highland landscape with dirt roads winding from one small village to the next takes form below. Without warning a sharp turn we are on the way down over a lake. We land at Arba Minch. A half-hour later we are once more in the air following the rift valley lakes. The land soon changes to look like a large quilt. As far as the eye can see every square inch is cultivated.
It’s hard to believe that famine ravaged and lay waste to this land producing some of the most horrific and soul-searching pictures to challenge the priorities of humankind.
In such a short space of time from a world of half-naked, orange peel hanging lips, where bodies are a talkative art form it’s more than weird to walk out of an Airport into to a world of Sheridan and Hilton, taxis, traffic, and air pollution too tee-shirts and trainers.
The first thing one notice about Addis Ababa is that it is rather overwhelming busy, full of life, with beggars, raving loonies, children, street-hawkers, cripples, and confidence trick artists all by the ton. The whole place is infectious and far safer than Joe Burgh, or Nairobi.
Because of our long stay in Africa I have come to learn that it is unrealistic to think I can understand another culture because of my culture, but that it is possible to communicate. There is still a great deal of comatose double standards in our attitudes to ethnic cultures. On the one hand we wish to protect cultures without the bits we don’t like such as circumcision, scarring, snipping balls off and the like when in fact we should be accepting the whole packet, and not treating the cultures of the world as merchandise. The interesting thing about Addis is the total contrast between native and out of the ordinary cultures that are being absorbed into an Afro-western style city. Walking around is westernised facilities you’re snowed under with a spirit of excitement, and curiosity.
After some Taxi fare barging I am installed on the recommendation of my taxi driver in the Lido Hotel not far off the main drag five minutes walk too Mexico Square the city centre. “A spring no problem” “Come in morning 2pm that is 8am. Ishee (OK).My taxi turns up on time and in no time I am getting my first lesson in Amharigna > Ishee just does not mean just OK is also can be used to say hello and good-bye. “Chigger Yellem” says my driver. “Ishee” says I no problem says the driver which is chigger yellem. A spring says I, Ishee says he. We drive across the city with a small guide tour thrown in for good measure. Menelik 11 founded Addis Ababa or the New Flower in 1887 (our time). Addis has the largest market in Africa named Addis Ketema is about all I understood.We arrive in a street dedicated to the car industry. Stall after stall loaded to the hilt with scavenged car parts. It’s a breakers yard dream. As there is no possibility of I finding my way back to the hotel I indicate to my driver to wait on my. “Chigger Yellem,” with a large smile.
Everyone has a spring or knows where to lay their hands on one. I am besieged by children demanding, “You give” “Money” “ Franaji” to the point of irritation. Taking a landmark I venture into the heart of the scrap yard. Down an oily alleyway up another till I spot a mount of springs. “Aw, Aw.” My spring disappeared arriving back with another that is obviously not the same. “No, No say I (which means Is, Is, I learn later in Amharigna.) Another attempt brings more no, nos. I start rooting through the springs. This one >How much. Twenty minutes of good spirited haggling follows.
I have come to appreciate during the course of our travels that there is a cheapskate way of bargaining that one can get wrapped up in. It is practiced by many a traveller whether they be backpackers or fly by nights in the belief that every penny counts. It is contemptible and to be avoided. Bargaining can be done with fun and honesty rather than with humiliation and sheer currency pinching. A fair deal is a fair deal and a rip off is a rip off.
While all attempts to compress the spring fail miserably I strike a deal in US$ and as an extra freebie the hangings on kids are sent scurrying for cover. I return to my awaiting taxi arriving with the reformed herd of kids who are once more sent running this time with a loud > Hid (Amharigna for get lost) from the taxi driver and scram from me. On the way back to my hotel the guided tour takes up where it left off.
The Hilton>The Commercial Bank of Ethiopia >The Palace> The Dinquinesh > Lucy Skull – thou are wonderful to Ethiopians. Lions House > The Football Stadium > Menelik Mausoleum all offered as a stop with no chigger yellem.
Arriving at the Lido Hotel I agree the term for a pick up in the morning for the airport and my flight back to Jinka. Jinka no bother. No the Airport. Isee Isee.
Showered I venture out for a look around. First it’s the bank for details re arranging the last transfer of funds. Armed with a small map of the city I soon cop on that none of the names on the map relate to any of the names of the streets or squares. Every place has two or three names depending on whom you are asking. Taxis swoop over to you even doing u-turns in the hope of earning a few Birr. Beggars home in on you all deserving but I have decided to help only those that don’t hassle me. I make it as far as the Hilton.
A spot of lunch:Those of you who have the fortune to visit Ethiopia can image my surprise when rather large pancake-like sourdough bread is placed in front of me. For all attentive purposes it looks like a tin brown sheet of foaming rubber called Injera. Normally it has what is called the wot served on top, but here in the Hilton the wot is served in separate little dishes. The wot is stewed meat and different vegetables. I look around at my fellow diners to get a hint on how to tackle it. Simple rip of a bit of Injera till it snaps off and then scoop up some wot. Deposit the wot on the Injera and hope the lot fits in your gob.
It is filling like one of those gurn kinobles you get in Austria that feels like a lump of lead in your stomach. With a mind all of its own that endeavours with all it might to dragging you down a black run long before you have mastered a blue run. There you have it but what do you expect in a country where every bit counts. Washed down with a beer in the garden bar I am once again ready to run the gauntlet of the no names streets of Addis.
(To be continued )