Having now spent far more time in Ethiopia than any other country I haven’t lived in, it feels strange and sad to leave for the next country, but it’s the right time. After hanging out in Addis for the third time, enjoying the company of friends both local and traveller, and being quite accustomed to the culture and pace of life, there couldn’t be a more strange (but beguiling) place to end my Ethiopia travels in than Harar.
Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Ethiopia is home to approximately 83 languages — so there’s at least that many tribes. From Oromo (the majority) to Amhara to Tigray to Afar to Somali, these tribes all have regions specific to them. But Ethiopia’s also got the Southern Tribes Region, which is jam-packed with tribes that speak completely unrelated languages, practice wildly different customs, and choose to live traditionally with little taste for modern amenities. Most notoriously, many of these tribes practice various body modifications and adornments, ranging from body painting to scarification to lip plates, believe in animism rather than organised religion, and often wear little to no clothing — all the kind of stuff you see on documentaries, as if some uncontacted humans isolated from the rest of the world. (They’re not.)
Unfortunately, in recent years it’s become sort of a human zoo, with hordes of package tourists arriving in villages in their 4x4s and minibuses, picking photogenic villagers — who often go beyond traditional dress to be more eye-catching to tourists — from a lineup, snapping pictures, and leaving. The tribes themselves have turned it into an income source, which they should, but some tribes take it too far by demanding tourists take photos then demanding cash, often getting into altercations about payment.
With a bit of reluctance, I decided to go visit the Omo Valley anyway. I held out some hope that there would be something more rewarding than just pictures of “exotic looking” people, and I’m very glad to say that there was indeed so much more than that.
(Warning: some images below may be considered not safe for work.)
Arba Minch, Ethiopia
Contrary to any preconceived notions of “parched African savannah” you may have, Ethiopia is both mountainous and ridiculously green. It’s no different in the area surrounding Arba Minch: surrounded by Lakes Chamo and Abaya with the heavily forested and lush Nech Sar National Park in between, this is not what I had in mind when I was invited by HOPE International to visit their projects providing water to communities. As I was taken up remote, mountainous roads surrounded by cultivated fields of wheat, banana trees, sorghum, and sugarcane, I still naively wondered where it was we were going to that needed water.
Of course, the problem isn’t just access to water: it’s access to *clean* water.
HOPE International is an NGO based in Vancouver, with additional funding offices around the world, and regional branches doing direct development in Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Where and what they don’t directly do themselves, they fund other smaller NGOs that do (in Latin America, East Africa, South Asia, and so on). HOPE’s primary focus is providing access to clean water, but they also provide sanitation education, support schools, establish women’s cooperatives, and more. Through a string of connections starting from my sister all the way to the office in Addis Ababa, Frehiwot, the Ethiopia regional manager, suggested that I take a site visit rather than just a visit to their office. An eight-hour bus ride later to Arba Minch, I was met by Wosen, the project manager. Over the next two days, he and hydraulics engineer Fetene (both of them took time from their weekend and a weekday just for me!) guided me through several projects in various stages of completion.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
“Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?”
Why yes they do. It’s just that they celebrate it on January 7th and call it Genna instead.
What prompted the writing of this (extremely patronising, but helpful in fundraising) song was Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, back in the days of Ethiopia’s big famine in 1985. (Bono: “Well tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you!” Yikes, no.) But that wasn’t its first, so let’s go back a little bit further into Ethiopia’s modern history. (Okay class!)
After a day of three long and bumpy bus journeys and its requisite touts and hassles, Rosie, Yuka, and I (all continuing together from the Danakil tour) forced ourselves awake at 5:30 am on a Sunday morning — though the non-stop chanting over the loudspeakers all over town started at 2 am. We joined the masses of white-clad worshippers to the churches of Lalibela. Looks like the whole town’s awake.
Lalibela’s known for its 11 rock-cut churches — to be clear, these are churches that look like they’re standing buildings, but were not built up like buildings, but carved *down* from the massive bedrock and made to look like buildings. (And I thought Petra was impressive enough — those are just façades!) Nothing prepares you for such a sight: peer down a massive quarry and you see a giant building in the hole, surrounded by maze-like passageways and tunnels. Archaelogicially, geologically, and architecturally fascinating as it may be, what fascinated me most was its continued use as a place of worship. Here were are, in 2015 (well, Ethiopian 2008), and these churches carved in the 1100s are still very much lived-in, crowded by villagers using it as their regular place of worship, and further crowded by pilgrims from the rest of the country.
Danakil Depression, Ethiopia
I’m hungry but bloated, suffering from doxycycline-induced acid reflux, can’t eat, and feeling weak. This is supposed to be one of the driest places around, especially in dry season. Oh look, it’s actually cold. And it’s starting to rain — maybe the one day in a year this happens outside of the wet season. Can’t catch a break. Why am I walking three hours up a rocky volcano in the dark?
So maybe I’m embellishing a little here, but let’s go back a little. The Danakil Depression is one of the lowest places in the world. It’s known for its extremely hot climate (typically 51°C in August) and extreme inhospitality, with little to no shade anywhere.
Compared to the rest of the cities I’ve been to so far, Axum seems the most prosperous. Wide, tree-lined avenues, elaborate brick-layed sidewalks and streets, trendy restaurants and bars, a nearby university… It’s a pleasant place to be. And yeah, someone snatched my phone out of my pocket while I played some foosball on the street with the kids, but so many people went out of their way to help me, or at least provide a little consolation. It’s still a pleasant place.
Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
I had no idea.
Throwing caution to the wind, I booked a four day/three night trekking tour to the Simien Mountains, since everyone was doing it. Didn’t even know it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Never even saw a picture of it. And on the first day of our hike, we hardly saw any of it underneath the clouds or the heavy rain that came through the evening. The temperature dropped to near-freezing and I froze too, wondering what the heck I got myself into.
Then as Florence and Rosie (my fellow trekkers) and I were led by our guide Dawit the next morning to a little viewpoint a few hundred metres from our lodge in Sankaber, it was all clear to me.
“Well, this is my explanation, straight from Ethiopia. N-E-G-U-S. Definition: royalty. King, royalty.”
Kendrick Lamar’s got the accurate translation of the Amharic word for emperor (the song’s the album version of “i”, by the way), and nowhere is this more evident than in Gondar, a former capital of Ethiopia under the emperors Fasilidas, his son Yohannes, grandson Iyasu, and further descendants who murdered each other for power. In the Royal Enclosure lies ruins of palaces once extravagant but now plundered or destroyed in war.
Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
The bus ride from Addis to Bahir Dar felt like going through different countries. Out of the hustle and bustle of the city, we passed through green pastures and farmland, zigzagged up and down some mountain switchbacks and canyons, and passed through tons of little villages. And in between it all, there’s a lot of walking. Children walking through some hills or along the road to and from school. Women walking way out to and from a group congregated around a well, while carrying buckets or jugs. Farmers herding their animals along the road. It’s peaceful out there.