Archive for the ‘Traveling in Ethiopia’ Category

The South Omo

Omo ValleyWe’ve continued south in the Omo valley, down near the border of Kenya. Dirt is everywhere, so much so that it’s no longer a problem. We stop changing our clothes everyday. Dinner, often made by our drivers now that we are camping, is lentil soup, boiled vegetables, with fruit for dessert. When all of the amenities are gone, it becomes easier and much more fun.

This south Omo is home to 65 of the 83 ethnic groups of the country, most of them quite small tribal societies (ranging from ~200,000 in a tribe to ~ 2000) with little change in lifestyle for hundreds of years. They are dotted across the grassy land clustered around the Omo River, fighting for access.  Fighting between the tribes is common; the government tries to sponsor treaties, but to little use. Disputes have been augmented in recent years by an abundance of AK-47’s. They’re everywhere – whenever we camp our guide, Minalu, hires a local with an AK-47 to stay awake all night to guard us. We get a little history from him – his father was a smuggler who brought them in from Kenya on donkeys, buried in grain. Made a killing!

AK47Some are pastoralists, some are farmers, all are polygamist. The primary tender for trading or spoils of war are cattle and daughters. Dowries in the 21st century consist of cattle and AK47’s. Marking and form of dress and decoration are wildly variant from tribe to tribe. This is National Geographic country where the women wear only skirts and the men paint themselves.

The region is isolated from most contact with the rest of the country or world. There is no power, no internet, no TV or radio. Lives are recorded into five ‘ages,’ and no one knows quite how old he is in years. There is virtually no education, with only 5-10% of the children of the larger, more prosperous tribes going to school. Up to ~ 40 years ago most of the people did not know that an entity called “Ethiopia” existed. It’s changed some with the advent of tourism and the NGO’s, but the impact of the people in the tribes has been small.

There is strict division between the responsibilities of women and men, and the status of women is not good at all.  Daughters are used as trade and wives are beaten ritualistically. Disfigurement practices such as the whipping of young girls by boys in ceremonies and self-scarification of girls to enhance their appeal to boys are justified as “tradition.” The grossest by far is the Mursi; the women stretch their lips with large plates. This is an odd appearance that has been recorded often in National Geographic types photos, but mostly these women walk around with the plates out, their lips just hanging in a big loop down to their chins and below. Again, it’s a “tradition,” with many conjectures as to its origin, and no move to end the practice.

Some of the tribes we meet as we camp through the area:

The Benna   We encounter the Benna at the Key Afar market between the Dorze village and Jinka. These people are beautiful – very tall, very dark and very thin. The women wear their hair in dreads coated with butter mixed with red ochre. They have elaborate dresses of goatskins and beads. Each has three or four holes for earrings; the earrings range from beaded metals to the currently popular phone cards used by teens. But the men are more striking, with faces like models, very short skirts like loincloths, beaded armbands and ankle bands. Wow.

We get our first taste here of photography in the south Omo. Every shot is a charge, negotiated by our guide. The normal cost is 5 birr (about $.25,) which is not so bad, but the negotiation and the arguments tend to consume a lot of time. Then the people are uninterested in the process, never connect with the photographer, and so just looked bored.

The Ari  Jim’s comment “f”ing depressing.” The Ari village we visit (Kooray) seems much poorer than those of other tribes we’ve seen. Little boys are pantless, wearing only some beads. It’s an agrarian society; the only man we see is a blacksmith making scythes. The huts are made from mud sealed with dung and grass roofs. Richer Ari have tin roofs.

earringThe Mursi   We camp one night in a Mursi village (Hiloha). I’ve been dreading this – actually seeing the plate-lipped women. However, I didn’t see a single one – no one seems to wear a plate. They just walk around with their lower lips flopping down. Horrible. There is some conjecture that the practice started to keep the women from being stolen by marauders (by making them so ugly.) The young girls have huge plates in their ears. Bad enough. Many organizations are trying to help the young girls reject the lip-plates. Hope it works.

The women spend most of the day grinding corn, on their knees, rubbing it between two stones. The staple food is corn mixed with milk and cow blood. The men, when they’re feeling tough, just take blood directly from the cow’s neck.

Our campsite is hot (gets to 106 F during the day), loaded with flies, mosquitoes and other buzzers, the ground covered with shit. Everyone is friendly, people keep coming up to shake hands, but we have an AK-47 armed guard for the night.

The Hamer  Probably the most interesting of the tribes. This is a subsistence agro-pastoralist society. The women are responsible for food, farmland, producing honey and caring for the house and family. The men take care of the cattle. Dress is beautiful. The women wear their hair in short dreads covered with butter and red ochre like the Benna. They wear leather skins as skirts, lots of beads and earrings. They are sometimes topless but more often wear a cowl decorated with shells and beads, suitable for carrying a baby when appropriate. Their backs and arms are bare and covered with scars. Although the little boys are mostly naked they have on small belts hung with beaded loincloths.

HutIn the village of Wunarke we are invited into a hut for a coffee ceremony. Amazing. Our hostess sits in the center of a room ~ ten feet across and four feet high. She has three metal rings around her neck – one with a large protuberance meaning that she is a first wife. There is a baby in her cowl nursing, her four other children clustered around her and three others who have made their way in. She ladles coffee into large wooden bowls and gives us each some. Not bad – but it’s coffee so I can always drink it.

20130128-Ethiopia-1504When Hamer men are ready to be initiated into manhood they must undergo a test – they have to jump seven bulls – leap up and step on the backs of each one. This bull jumping is a whole day of celebration. It begins with hordes of young girls (maybe 13-18 years or so) dancing. They have bells on their legs and have coated their backs with butter and ochre until they’re dripping with it. During their dancing they are chased by men who whip them. With switches, leaving open wounds. To be honest, it seems it is the women who initiate this. The butter and ochre feature the wounds. It is thought by the girls that scars will make them more attractive to men (wonder how that rumor got started) and so they have been cutting themselves on the arm for years already, rubbing ash into those wounds. It also likely prepares them for being beaten by their husbands after marriage.

After the dancing and whipping, everyone retires back to the village for a couple hours of napping and coffee, then onto the bull yard. It’s getting late in the day. Ginny and I are quite interested in seeing how this ceremony progresses, but Jim and Maynard are only worried about losing their pictures if the sun goes too far down.

There are about 40 bulls. The man of the hour, our jumper, and his friends cull through them finding the ones most likely to stay still, then there is another half hour or so trying to ‘convince’ the other bulls to leave by grabbing their horns and marching them out. Bulls don’t take well to this sort of argument and there is one point where I am concerned that about ten of them are going to stampede right to where I am standing. Somehow organization is achieved, the jumper jumps, going over the bulls several times (maybe someone told him that we needed pictures!) Now he can go off and get his first wife and become a man.

Read Full Post »


toiletA point comes in every trip when I just can’t stand it any more; the dirt and heat, unfriendly people, bad plumbing, 10 hour drives over dusty eroded roads. I want to go home, to have a tablecloth, television, a good shower, and my own bed. It’s 95o F, altitude breathlessness is gone but mosquitoes have come. And…we have no internet virtually anywhere. So I apologize to everyone who is trying to follow this blog.

We’re in the south, in the Omo valley.  This is the real Africa! The north of Ethiopia, to which most tourists limit themselves, is an ancient Judeo-Christian country with ties to Israel and the old civilizations of the Mediterranean. The south is home to most of the 83 ethnic groups of the country, tribal societies with little change in lifestyle for hundreds of years.

We spent the first night here in a Dorze village. There are 38,000 Dorze in Africa. They take pride in the fact that they can live, make everything they need, if they have access to only bamboo, false banana (a plant that looks like banana but has no fruit,) and cotton.

DinnerThey use the meat of the false banana trunk to make a flat bread called kojo, similar to injera.  Their homes are the famous Elephant houses, constructed with a framework of bamboo, filled in with false banana leaves; the doorways lead somewhat out from the round building and the high windows look like the ears of an elephant. The floor space is ~ 1600 sq ft, enough room for both the family and their animals. Elephant houses are “repaired” every twenty years or so by replacing the leaves, and last 70-100 years.

Drinks  This particular village was very welcoming, first giving us Araki to drink with their kojo. This stuff really has a kick. It’s made from corn and hops that are pounded together then heated and distilled over a fire inside a hut. The alcohol, over 120 proof, is then flavored with garlic and anise, resulting in a drink that reminded me somewhat of ouzo – fire strong, clear, and anise tasting. You’re supposed to say “YoyoyoyoYO!” (cheers) then drink it all back. I was able to pour most of it in the dirt when no one was looking.

Coffee  After a quick break for a tour of their fabric making (in which the women spin and the men weave, since weaving is so Coffee Ceremonymuch more complicated) it was time for a coffee ceremony. Coffee is big in Ethiopia. Legend has that it was discovered centuries ago when a goatherd watched his goats become animated after eating the berries of a plant. He took the plant to a local monk who figured out how to roast them and the rest is history. Ethiopians make wonderful coffee – strong and not bitter, served in tiny cups. However, it was 6 PM, so I threw the coffee into the dirt on top of the Araki.

Read Full Post »


TimkatAt 4 PM a crowd of old men, some women and a bevy of small boys gathers at a church with a walled courtyard outside Hawzien in Tigray, the northern province of Ethiopia tucked in the mountains near Eritrea. It’s desert here, goats forage in the sand and birds rise and fall under intense blue sky. And it’s the drowsiest time of a hot day, when the sun and the buzzing of the insects conspire to make me want to simply go indoors, anywhere, and take a nap.

But clearly, the crowd around the church means that something is going to happen. It’s the eve of Timkat, Ethiopian Epiphany, and the people are excited. The boys circle around the few westerners, maybe ten of us, all in travel gear carrying cameras, “What is your name?” “Can I have money?” as the men and women haunch in separate groups watching the church – where nothing appears to be happening! A few minutes before 5 PM we hear drums from behind the wall, the women ululate in response and the boys’ running becomes more animated.

This continues in the same manner for a half hour or so. Festivals in Ethiopia unfold slowly, the promise of an event fighting with the boredom of nothing happening for long periods of time.  An umbrella, red, decorated with gold spangles and fringe, is sighted above the wall. The ululation increases in volume and all cameras swing in that direction. Then finally, just as the sun begins to set and the light becomes lovely, the courtyard door swings open and a procession begins.


And it’s worth the wait.  Forty young people – teens to twenties, robed in white scarves and simple vestments – parade toward us, led by two drummers who strut and gesture like drum majors. The youths sing and clap and the crowd joins in, the beat increasing a bit with each repetition.  Behind them are the priests, a snaking line of thirteen robed in mix of red, green and yellow vestments, each with umbrellas, each umbrella more magnificent than the last. And that last is truly the best. It is large and square, and it is held over what must be at least a bishop – a man with a handsome black face, a balding head, and the white beard of a prophet. He carries a large box covered with a gold cloth. We realize that this is the church’s replica of the Ark of the Covenant, the focal point of the ceremony, that will be transferred to a tent on a river a few hundred yards away, that will be guarded by the people of the village who will celebrate all night around it. Jim and Maynard run to get photos of the priests, who seem unperturbed by the attention, but who mostly just drop their umbrellas to forestall close-ups.

Not a problem, since the two groups continue to stand in that position for another 30 minutes giving our photographers plenty of time to find willing subjects and get their shots. The wait is for a similar line from another church which comes over the hill and joins our group. Then the march to the river begins, the crowd joins the official celebrants, and we walk a few hundred yards to the waiting tent.

Timkat has been celebrated in the same way at every church in Ethiopia for at least 700 years, commemorating the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. There is always a body of water, referred to as the River Jordan during the mass held on its banks, although the water may be only a small pool constructed for the occasion. At the end of a day of celebration, the replica of the Ark is returned to its church.

Timkat is a combination of a religious aspect for a devout group of people and a chance to gather, sing and dance, and take a day off from working. Just like Christmas, just like Easter, in the West.

Read Full Post »


Laliabel_Panorama1I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…but I swear by God in Whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than what I have written.”  Francisco Alvarez (early sixteenth century Portuguese writer.)

In the twelfth century King Lalibela of Roha was poisoned by his brother-in-law. He was taken to heaven by God where he saw a grouping of rock-hewn churches which God commanded him to recreate as a new Jerusalem in Roha. When he recovered, Lalibela did just that, excavating directly from the rock a cluster of monolithic structures.

The churches of Lalibela are set in the stunning high desert of northern Ethiopia. We visited the main eight of them in one day, climbing up to the site, then down to each church where we took off our shoes and walked around interiors that were almost one thousand years old yet still in active use, populated by Orthodox priests and pilgrims. They were all built in the three-part Orthodox arrangement. The first area is for the drummer. Drumming is central to the service: the two sides of the drum represent the old and new testament.

Jim taking pixThe drummer sways as he plays to imitate the walking of Christ carrying the cross, and inside the drum a pebble rolls back and forth as he sways, representing the casting of lots by the soldiers at the Passion. The central portion of the church is for the worshipers, and the third is the sanctuary. The frescoes, windows and paintings of each church were different, each the story of the saint for which it was named.

It was a difficult day. We were all still in the grip of jet lag, out of breath from the altitude climbing, and in pain from sore feet, Maynard, Jim and Ginny struggled to find enough light to take photos of the beautiful priests and enough distance to capture the church exteriors, often adopting creative positioning. Maynard’s patience with churches is limited at best, and he began to pine for some baskets he had seen on the drive into town. We had a challenge to keep him to the program, but he found his reward the next day as we left town to fly to Axum. He saw his basket shop and bought a beautiful multi-colored treasure for Ginny to carry for the next twenty days.

Read Full Post »

Addis Ababa, though only nine degrees north of the equator, is cool and sunny and meant to be our ‘resting place’ before we hit the mountain monasteries of the north and the bull-jumping and lip-plated Mursis of the south. We have only one day here, and our guide, the very young and very adorable Jermias, has set up an easy day of museums and churches. Instead we opt for the market.

The market of any city is the place to see the most activity, and the biggest mix of people.  Addis’s Mercato is huge – and a notorious home for pickpockets. Jermias arranges for two armed men in uniform (I don’t think they are quite police) to go with us as we prowl. It’s chaotic and confusing, street after street of little tin structures. One whole street is dedicated to shoes, one to women’s underwear and a whole block to spices.  By far the most interesting area is one corner consisting of several blocks that sells recycled goods.recycle

Now, we do recycle in the US. That means separating paper, plastic and metal from the rest of our trash and putting it in a blue box every week. What happens to it? Who knows? A truck takes it and we feel a bit smug that we have not just thrown something away.

In Addis, they are serious. The captains of the local recycling industry collect everything from everywhere, dismantle into components, and make something different that is sold into another generation of usefulness. The breadth of items is daunting: best to list a few.

  • Coffee Roasters. Some of the best coffee in the world is grown here and Ethiopians drink it strong. The beans are sold raw then roasted over charcoal just before brewing, often in elaborate coffee ceremonies. The double-funnel shaped roasters are sold in many sizes. Large roasters are made from used satellite dishes, and smaller ones to be used in homes from old cans. The labels are often just left on; I saw one marked “Strong Adhesive,” and one still labeled “Roach Killer!”
  • Sandals. From old tires, of course! This was the work of a whole street. The tires come in by ‘hand,’ either rolled two at a time, or carried in a variety of arrangements. For example, I saw one man with a tire over each shoulder and two stacked around his neck. It wasn’t at all clear if or how he saw where he was walking.  The treads are stripped off, the sandal cut into shape, and then sliced around the edge to insert the straps which are colorful nylon ribbons from some other source. Then the edges are nailed together.
  • Laptop Computers. From old laptops. The components are ‘harvested’ and then reassembled into working computers.
  • Saddles from animal skins, used wood and used sponges
  • Drums from oilcans, book covers from animal skins, dipsticks from old cans of perfume, freeweights made from old gears mounted on a rod, funnels that still say ‘insecticide,’ and so on. Everything is collected, often purchased from villages for a few birr (nickels) and then repurposed.

In the midst of the afternoon was a call to Islam prayer. Ethiopia is 45% Muslim and 51% Christian. Although people of both religions appear quite devout, there seems little animosity compared to other countries we have visited. Jermias just walked us through the men at prayer, and a couple of them even moved the edges of their mats aside to make it easier for us to pass. That would never have happened in Iran!!

Read Full Post »

Ready for Ethiopia


I think. Travel clothes limp from years of use, buckets of DEET for the fleas and mosquitoes of Africa, power bars for a break from Injera, all lie in piles around our duffels. Jim’s cameras, lenses, and tripods weigh too much – is it possible he will make me leave my shampoo to get in an extra lens? I have only my notebook and pen as we go in search of the Ark of the Covenant, the palace of the Queen of Sheba, the Rift Valley, and Missing Hospital, home of Marion and Shiva Stone.

I will update the blog every few days. Hope you enjoy reading it!

Read Full Post »