The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Southern Ethiopia

Before continuing southwards there was time to visit Mount Entoto outside Addis, the highest nearby peak at 3200 metres and the site of the first palace of Emperor Menelik II, the founder of Addis Ababa (New Flower in English). The mountainside is almost entirely eucalyptus forest and many of the impoverished local women make a scant living by strapping huge bundles of wood, weighing as much as 35 kilos, on to their backs to trudge down to the city and sell as firewood. (The men prefer weaving apparently and I wonder why!). For the first time in Ethiopia I observed the complete and utter brutalisation of a group of people - seldom evident in the bucolic scenes we drove through outside the towns. There were no smiles or attempts to return 'salaams', only pleading and despairing faces with hands out for a few coins.
Wood carrier
Addis merkato (market) is a wonderful if edgy experience given the mud, the narrowness of the lanes and the number of hawkers and touts. It has the biggest recycling/junk section I have ever seen with mountains of used plastic containers for sale and lines of people crouched down selling broken and often ancient electrical parts for a few birr. There was a right/left shoe street where you could get a matching partner for the one you had lost or worn out. Talk about waste not, want not; it puts western societies to shame. Donkey gear street was one of my favourites with all appurtenances available for the equine aficionado. It was a leather sniffer's heaven. Basket bend had a particular fondness for circular injera containers of various designs. The cheesy spot did not have much variety - most of it a bit like fetta - but honey comb corner was fun and the coffee selling lanes seemed endless with massive sacks of it and nary a customer in sight. It is always sold unroasted and prepared at home. In one of the restaurants, we were regaled with frying pan roasting of the coffee as a precursor to Ethiopia's coffee ceremony, often presented at the entrance to restaurants or even at airports. We went to Tomoca to taste the finished product in what is considered to be the best coffee shop in the world. I love Rwandan Maraba coffee but have to admit that Ethiopia is still numero uno.
Coffee ceremony
Heading south to Awassa we passed through the town of Shashemene where, in 1963, land was given by Haile Selassie to the many Jamaicans who came to Ethiopia to live believing the former emperor to be the chosen one. The traditional version of the Rasta story is that at the time of his coronation in 1930, Marcus Garvey's 'return to Africa' movement had been established in Jamaica and many saw the new emperor as fulfilling a biblical prophecy that 'kings would come out of Africa'. Selassie was given divinity - the messiah of African redemption - and the new faith bore his former name, Ras Tafari (Prince Tafari). That may be true but another version elaborates. Haile Selassie visited Jamaica in the early 1960s after a long period of drought there. As he arrived it started to rain heavily thus proving his godliness. From that point on the faith really grew in Jamaica (which would perhaps explain the date of the Rasta community's establishment at Shashemene). Most agree, however, that it was only after Selassie's death in 1975 that the Rastafarians really took off aided and abetted by a certain Mr Bob Marley.
Some Jamaicans
Our new guide was called Mohammed, an irreligious Muslim fond of a beer. It's always interesting to travel in countries where Islam is the minority faith, like Ethiopia, as practitioners are not then subjected to the diktats often applied when it is the state religion. In the Bale Mountains area, however, the majority are Muslim but, said Mohammed, can't complain about the night-time racket created by the Orthodox churches! He had been given as guide for this part of the trip because it was his home patch and was supposed to know the wildlife hot spots. He was certainly a very good animal tracker and great, in particular, at finding the rare Ethiopian Wolf in its favoured hunting grounds on the Sanetti Plateau, the highest part of the Bale Mountains National Park. We saw eight in total with maybe a couple of repeat offenders. It was only on the bird front that he was clueless. He ended up being my pupil which is not really the way it's meant to go when you arrive in a new country and employ a local at some expense. (Kiprom in the north had been an outstanding guide and companion excelling in the skill of cultural interpretation).
Top of Sanetti Plateau
There are reckoned to be about 500 Ethiopian wolves in the entire country, effectively the world's rarest canid, with maybe 250 of them on the Sanetti Plateau surviving at around 4000 metres They live in family groups but usually hunt alone or in pairs. They interbreed with dogs and catch the same diseases like canine distemper and rabies from which 30 died last year. They feed predominantly on Giant Mole-rats which grow to 28 cm and, comically, spend their day periodically sticking their gopher like heads out of their holes and then disappearing quickly back down them again to feed on the roots and tubers which form the main part of their diet. We sat down in a sunny, wind-free spot and watched a wolf fruitlessly attempt to snare a mole-rat. I wonder what their success ratio is.
Ethiopian Wolf
To maintain the viability of the wolf population - also known as the Simien Fox from the area where it is also found but much more difficult to see - it has been necessary to curtail human activity in the park. Unlike the Simien Mts National Park, a lot of cattle and sheep, and the dogs that accompany them, have been removed from the plateau although many farm animals are still present. It was not uncommon to see a man on horseback riding across the moorland landscape presumably to check on his livestock. The scene was reminiscent of Scotland apart from the Giant Lobelias, the cowboys and the absence of haggis.
Sanetti Plateau moorland
We reached the bitterly cold plateau summit at 4377 metres where we saw two species of hare, a rock hyrax and a wee man sheltering behind a walled wind break and whose job it was to protect the transmitter at the top from falling into enemy hands; he was a kind of Ethiopian lighthouse keeper I suppose. There were raptors galore including a Golden Eagle in one of its few African haunts. Who can blame them as it must be a bird of prey paradise? Everywhere we went small rats and field mice scurried for cover or chased each other for cuddles. We also saw one of Africa's rarer crane species - two pairs of the exquisite Wattled Crane which is also one of the world's biggest at 120 cm. The lakes (or lochs!) were full of European ducks on holiday including Shoveler, Pochard, Teal and (my favourite) Ruddy Shelduck.
Traditional hut dwelling near Sanetti Plateau
Down on the other side of the plateau is the Harenna Forest, the largest intact forest block in Ethiopia and the largest protected Afro-alpine forest on the continent. The lichen-draped trees, some hundreds of years old, look much like the beech forests of Victoria and Tasmania. Wedged between the plateau and the forest is a remote Muslim village dependent of stock farming and wood collecting, and living in round mud huts thatched with straw and protected from the elements by bamboo fencing. The government, it is said, wants to move the whole village to a location lower down because of the threat they pose to the fragile Sanetti Plateau and Harenna Forest. On the way back over the plateau we stopped to look at those charming little antelopes known as klipspringers which are unique for walking on the tips of their toes.
Elsewhere in the Bale Mts we got to see the very rare (that word again!) and striking indigenous antelope known as the Mountain Nyala as well as Menelik bush buck, Mountain reedbuck, warthog, olive baboon and bush duiker (a kind of dwarf, forest antelope). The birds were good but it was frustrating because, with very few exceptions, unless I knew what it was or could work it out from the family and its 'jizz', then Mohammed was of no help. He had the habit of interrupting when you were looking at or trying to decipher something interesting to point out one of the few common birds he knew. (By the way, there's nothing wrong with that in the right circumstances!) This is disappointing as birdwatching in Ethiopia is a significant tourism industry and yet there are apparently only three professional birding guides in the whole country! At Wondo Genet, well known for its birds and its hot springs, there is a cooperative of nearly 20 young bird guides who have, mostly, trained themselves to identify and show birds like Yellow-fronted Parrot, White-cheeked Turaco and Spotted Creeper to passing tourists. Their initiative is helping to protect the large trees of that area, under tremendous threat from de-forestation.
Mohammed, bird guide (right) and child helper
We visited several lakes including the very popular Lake Awassa next to the eponymous university town. Young couples walked hand in hand by the lakeside in displays of affection not seen in other parts of the country. Hotels are springing up in Awassa to appeal to the middle classes of Addis keen to get away for a weekend. Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Northern Carmine Bee-eater and Abyssinian Roller were highlight birds from this part of the trip. The Rift Valley lakes of Langano (where we stayed), Abijatta and Shalla are all very different from each other. Lake Langano is medium depth and reddish brown in colour; Abijatta, which was where most of the shore birds were, is shallow and brackish and entices lots of Greater and Lesser Flamingos; Shalla is extremely deep and blue and was once a volcanic crater. It has several bubbling sulphuric hot springs which the cattle know to avoid.
Back walking prayer leader in Awassa
The rift valley is the bread basket of Ethiopia. Everywhere were almost biblical scenes of agricultural activity as oxen moved in circles to thresh the wheat. Elsewhere people winnowed the grain by throwing it in the air to discard the chaff; and always little children came rushing out of fields of wheat, barley and tef to wave and smile (and, yes, to occasionally throw stones which I chose to interpret as another form of greeting not necessarily aggressively intended). And then there were the animals. They completely dominate the roads, always in mixed bevies (I've already concocted the word 'flerds') of donkeys, horses, sheep, goats, cows and oxen. Life - energy - action. Table football ruled the roadsides (so much livelier and less sleazy than pool) and Rastafarian centre Shashemene even seems to have secured a lot of ping pong tables for street use. Apparently Bob Marley was a good player or did I just make that up?
Haystacks in Rift Valley
Our last night in Addis was a beauty with an outstanding Ethiopian meal at the Habesha 2000 restaurant which locals as well as tourists frequent. The dancing and music were excellent and participatory although Stella did all the hard work. The evening was not at all tacky as some of these events can sometimes be and which I had worried about beforehand. I really like Ethiopian music - just as long as it's not the variety coming out of an Orthodox church at 3 o'clock in the morning!

p.s. We saw over 20 of the endemic or semi-endemic (includes Eritrea and Somalia) bird species.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Northern Ethiopia

Most people on short visits to Ethiopia usually decide to visit the north and/or south of the country. The west is considered pretty but unspectacular; the jewel of the east is the walled city of Harar - the fourth most important site in Islam but far to reach. We decided that a week of predominantly cultural attractions in the north followed by nature hot spots in the south would provide the right balance for a first visit to the country. The remote and famous tribal region of Omo in the south west would have to wait, along with Harar, for a return trip to the country.
Lada taxi
On arrival we spent a day in Addis visiting churches and the national museum, and enjoying the omnipresence of that great Soviet relic the Lada car which, heavily imported at the time of Mengistu's communist dictatorship, is still the standard taxi in the capital. The urban poor seemed to prefer lying on the verges of the roundabouts and groups of blind beggars chanted for their dues on busy streets. I was called Kenny Rogers two or three times which slightly disturbs me musically, although I can't think of a single song he's sung. (On the physical front, isn't he a chap who likes his food?)
View from plane
Flying north to Gondar, the 17th century capital of Ethiopia, it is astonishing to look out on such a heavily cultivated landscape, even on steep slopes and high plateaux. Every parcel of land seems to be neatly carved into tidy shapes for the growing of barley, wheat and tef, the indigenous grass whose tiny grains are made into injera the staple cereal of the Ethiopian diet. I'm not a huge fan but the accompanying dishes and sauces presented in a large, circular, basket - on top of injera as a base - are simply delicious.
One of the injera base dishes - my veggie only favourite
According to the airport clock and Kiprom's watch, the flight had left at 1.30 in the morning instead of the 7.30 on my timepiece and on the ticket. They were operating on Ethiopian time which, like Swahili time, begins with daybreak at 6 o'clock. This can work quite well in countries near the Equator with virtually 12 hours of night and day all year long. Somehow I don't think that Ethiopian or Swahili time would work so well near the Poles where there would be no time at all during the dark mid-winter or for that matter in the perpetual light of summer! Ethiopians also have their own calendar. It became 2006 on 1st September so they're not too far behind although it's depressing to think that George Bush might still be in power. Another source of national pride is Amharic, the uniting Ethiopian language, which has a funky, complex script and alphabet - and I have the T-shirt to prove it.
Amharic script
After our exploration of the castle city of Gondar, its expansive market and that famous night listening to the dreary guy with a lot to get off his chest (see the last episode), we drove to the town of Debark at the base of the Simien Mountains. Even that dusty, little place was not immune from English Premier League mania and, in our restaurant bar, an excited crowd of what looked mostly like sheep herders were rooting for a Fulham come back against Spurs on a wide screen TV. The game was a cracker but two St George beers on a cold night had done the trick and a waiter offered to show me to the loo. After a lengthy hike he pointed me to a dark and dangerous den - smell and appearance wise that is - and thrust what looked like a token into my hand. I could just make out the face of a woman. I wasn't quite sure what this had to do with the toilet dungeon. The door was wide open and I didn't see a slot to drop the coin. I was looking around for a tree, wall, ditch anything rather than go into that dire dunny. "Mother Theresa", he muttered. "Excuse me". "You want Mother Theresa". I was perplexed. Was there some kind of Mother Theresa cult in the remote Simien Mountains? I declined his offer of the token and braved the dunny.
Street scene in Debark
On raising this strange matter with Kiprom back in the safety of Premier League land, he told me that a lot of Ethiopians have coins of Maria Theresa, the only female ruler of the Hapsburg Empire (40 years long in the 18th century), Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Holy Roman Empress to boot. She also found time to have 16 children, one of them Marie Antoinette! Turns out that one of the Menelik Emperors at the end of the 19th century was a big fan and minted a pile of coins with her mug shot as Ethiopian currency. Lots of local squirrels secreted their coins in the back bunker of their homes for a rainy day or until a bunch of rich tourists turned up to flog them to. I was one such and it makes me feel kind of sorry that I didn't spend more time - admittedly difficult in the dark outside a smelly lavvy - to check the coin out thoroughly. I might even have been tempted to buy it, as I love the story so much, although I'm not sure about the ethics of buying up Ethiopian heritage. I wouldn't sell the Queen Betty 1953 silver coronation crown - five pre-decimal shillings to the uninitiated - given to me by my mum for all the proverbial tea but then I am not dirt poor. See, sentiment overcomes my royalist antipathy!
Spec view in Simien Mts with fields everywhere
The Simien Mountains are just outstanding. The scenery is spectacular as is the wildlife of Gelada baboons (which are apparently monkeys), Walia Ibex and Lammergeier vultures (they are the raptors that pick up bones and drop them over rocks to get at the marrow). We had to have a 'scout' and his rifle with us although there is no threat from ferocious animals, nor are there any dangerous bandits. His main purpose appeared to be to chase away children selling trinkets, fortunately without shooting at them. It was about 3300 metres high and cold, yet most of the children had no shoes. We asked one why he wasn't at school and he said that he'd sent his brother instead!
Our scout lived where the far mountains are - 3 days' walk
It's certainly a different concept of a national park to the western idea. All human and farm animal life and activity was there; large community meetings on bleak hillslopes, bric-a-brac for the tourists - grass woven ear flap hats, little cups and baskets - and the copious flerds (flocks and herds) of sheep, goats, cattle, horses and donkeys often driven by children barely off their mothers' backs. The one thing that might define Simien as a national park - apart from collecting significant income from the tourist trade - is not being allowed to kill the fauna although judging by the stories many would dearly love to. Geladas are blamed for virtually everything that goes wrong in the park - the disappearance of a goat, the theft of a treasured item, even the rape of a woman! The males are horny dudes but they do tend to stick to their own missus. Gelada live in groups of up to 400 and the sexes form regular partnerships spending their lives grazing on herbs and grass on the mountain plateau, grooming each other especially after sex and occasionally having male hissy fits where they chase each other and bare the massive teeth that seem to serve no other useful function. The males look like mini-lions as they move purposefully forward on all fours shaking their shaggy manes. As the day draws to a close, Geladas retreat down the edge of the escarpment to shelter from predators that may include Spotted Hyena and Jackal.
Mr Gelada bares his teeth
Walia Ibex are delicious but denied tucker for the locals. They are endangered with a population of about 250 in this the only place they are found although numbers are slowly increasing from the lows of previous years. We were very lucky to get as close to them as we did, helped no doubt by the overhanging mist that may have deprived them of their normally acute and fearful senses. Heading back from the high plateau which the ibex frequent, we asked if we could pick up some of the shepherds who were hitchhiking. One even had a hand out while holding a donkey with the other! Maybe he thought we could put it on the roof. Apparently there was no point because, according to Kiprom, all they wanted was to ride in a car and then walk back to their animals! Our scout had walked three days from a distant mountain village to reach Debark for the two and a half days' work that we provided for him (he had a wife and six children). Work is given to scouts on a rota basis and he would walk back to his village only to return to Debark when his next work opportunity came round in maybe six weeks' time. We tipped him liberally for protecting us from the children and herbivorous lions.
Misty Ibex (using contrast- see picasaweb for others)
On the way back to Gondar we stopped at a Falasha village. The term means stranger, foreigner or exile; they are the original black Jews of Africa who trace their descent from the so-called Son of Solomon, Menelik 1, back in 950 BC. (See previous post) They survive nowadays, mostly, by selling souvenirs to passing tourists. Readers may remember the Israeli rescue operations (Moses 1984, Sheba 1985, Solomon 1991) during the Mengistu dictatorship when large numbers of Falasha were airlifted to become Israeli citizens under that country's Jewish right of entry policy.
Persistent Falasha children selling souvenirs
At 2800 metres in Lalibela, we ate at the brand new, open air, space age restaurant of a 75 year old Scotswoman from Motherwell who wants to keep busy in her old age and provide hospitality work for disadvantaged girls. Shepherd's pie, pancakes and that other great Scottish stand by, fresh guava juice were on the menu along with local injera dishes. When the rain came down on some omelette eating French she channelled my mother, "Och, it's just a wee spit". Maybe I'm biased but I think the architecture works well in the grand Ethiopian landscape.
The restaurant
We wrapped up our northern week with flagons of honey wine in, you guessed it, a honey wine bar. Cheers!
Honey wine flagons with Kiprom

Monday, November 21, 2011

Exploring Ethiopia

Arriving in Addis Ababa the feel is completely unlike the East African countries of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda. In Ethiopia the mix of varying ethnicities presents a pot pourri of facial characteristics - diversity on display, reflecting the country's geographical location at the confluence of different religious and cultural worlds. This may surprise Lonely Planet, which goes on about how tough it is being a faranji (foreigner) in the country, but I found it refreshing to be, relatively, ignored compared to the incessant attention of being white in Rwanda. (Not one single shout of faranji or 'you' did I hear, whereas there were many cries of muzungu on the way back home from Kigali airport to Kibungo.)
A Gondar castle

Ethiopia is a huge country with the second biggest population in Africa, at about 83 million, after Nigeria. Our first guide Kiprom ('you saved us'* in Amharic) said that whites were considered just another tribe, albeit a rich one, to be incorporated into the national melting pot. As the only country in Africa that had never been colonised (note that the Italians only 'occupied' the country from 1935 to 1941), the Ethiopian people, he stated, had greater self-assurance when dealing with outsiders. Correct or not, there are certainly plenty of faranji around with burgeoning NGO and tourism industries. Trade liberalisation has led to foreign investors planting hotels like the ubiquitous barley. Half completed edifices are a feature of the landscape, as elsewhere in the world where free market policies encourage a go/stop cycle of ready credit followed by frequent collapse. I was assured, however, that many of the buildings were just 'resting' waiting for the dry season to fully arrive before work continued.
Street in Gondar

European tours are proliferating with Italians, French and Germans at the forefront. Germans are the guides' favourites, apparently, because they don't question the itinerary and are all present and waiting outside the buses at the appointed departure times. (I don't know if they leave their towels to keep a special seat on the bus!). Some Italians, French and Spanish are the complete opposite, with an individualistic and instinctive distrust of the guides' judgment and authority. " Why can't be leave 15 minutes later and go down that bumpy road instead of this bitumen one?" More examples of truth in stereotyping it would seem.
Solomon and Sheba making hay!!

Ethiopians are immensely proud of their history and who can blame them. Bipedal Lucy (locally known as Dinknesh or 'wonderful'), at 3.2 million years of age, is still considered, I believe, the oldest and most complete hominid ever found. My doubt is simply because almost every science section of the Guardian Weekly seems to present some startling new evidence with the potential to change the whole equation. Lucy, by the way, was discovered in 1974 in a dried up lake bed in the north east of the country and her reconstruction is nestled in Addis Ababa's National Museum where she looks very sweet.

However, it is in Ethiopia's religious history that most pride resides. Indiana Jones shouldn't have bothered searching. Orthodox Christians, the majority of the population, believe that Our Lady Mary of Zion church in Axum in the north of the country holds the original Ark of the Covenant that Moses carried with the Israelites during the Exodus. Legend has it that Emperor Menelik 1, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, brought the Ark from Jerusalem to Axum in about 950 BC. There he settled and established one of the world's longest known, uninterrupted monarchical dynasties - nearly 3000 years and 225 generations - which only ended with the dethroning of the Lion of Judah, Emperor Haile Selassie, in 1974 by the military Derg. (Wise King Solomon was a busy man because, according to the Bible, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines!)
Haile Selassie's tomb
Every Orthodox Church has a replica of the tablet with the Ten Commandants in its inner sanctuary or 'holy of holies' that lay people are not allowed to see. Very frustrating. I really wanted to open the curtain for a quick peek but was worried about joining Harrison Ford in the snake pit. You need to learn Ge'ez, the ancient classical language, from which Amharic is derived, to become an Orthodox priest and have a chance of touching the sacred, covered icon.
Priest with 900 year old book in daily use

Large numbers of Ethiopians want to be priests and deacons, the preceding step. Neither is a paid position but in a society where struggling on the land with the other 85% agrarian population is the major alternative, a position in the clergy has high status and, frequently, practitioner supplied food. That is how the many monks and nuns get by - with food donations left outside the monasteries although others make a living selling artefacts, like prayer shawls, baskets and religious symbols, to passing tourists. We climbed up to one of the magnificent rock-hewn churches at Lalibela on mule-back (mine was called Molla!) and I got Kiprom to ask a young nun what had made her join the order. Secular life was full of lies, arguments and an obsession with money in which she wanted to play no part. And no, her parents did not know where she was. Gradually, according to the norm, she would retreat further and further from the outside world and its exacting demands but was free to leave the order at a later date if it no longer suited her. The longer she stayed, of course, the harder that would be.
Priest with cross

It struck me that Ethiopia is a society far more deeply imbued with the Christian religion than, even, Rwanda where, for the most part, Monday to Saturday is God-free. Ethiopian Orthodox churches, on the other hand, seem to sound off at top loudspeaker volume at all hours of the day and night with particular emphasis on the fasting days (no meat eaten) of Wednesday and Friday and with a midnight kick off on Saturday/Sunday. It's important to know the proximity of the local churches for Saturday night hotel bookings as we found to our cost in the castle town of Gondar despite the wearing of super strength earplugs. One foreign tourist, said Kiprom, practically broke down his hotel door one night telling him to get that Muslim to shut up. When K explained that it wasn't Islamic and that there was nothing he could do about it, the tourist refused to believe him insisting he knew the sound of a mosque. Some muezzins (who call Muslims to prayer) are better sounding than others but having lived in different Islamic societies, I can attest that the call of the mosque is regular, relatively short and often beautiful in marked contrast to the incessant and repetitive day and night dirge emanating from the Orthodox churches. And when I see you, I'll tell you what I really think!
Ride that hoss (actually mule)
Ethiopian Orthodoxy believes in the literal truth of both the old and new testaments simply seeing the latter as an upgrade of the former. Where Lucy and evolution, so proudly displayed in the museum, sit in this context is not clear but the religion appears to absorb contradictions easily. (So what's new?) Angels and saints abound as the church considers that it would have been impossible for Jesus to have performed all the miracles himself and must have had help. Church tableaux are an assortment of biblical and esoteric references none more puzzling than the significance of St George and his slaying of the dragon. He crops up everywhere, next to the Holy Trinity, to the left and right of Mary, King Solomon or the Queen of Sheba or below the wise men. He even has the nicest rock-hewn church in Lalibela named after him.
St George's rock-hewn church at Lalibela
* Kiprom was born on Ethiopian New Year's Day - 1 September 1982 - when the troops of communist regime leader Colonel Mengistu were going around killing dissidents in his village. The occupants of the houses on the street front were shot but Kiprom kept quiet as he was born behind the protection of a row of eucalyptus trees. Go Aussie!