Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The long road to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia . . . “You! You!”

I was a bit apprehensive about our journey through the north of Kenya to the Ethiopian border. There is no scheduled bus service and the only way to get there is by private car or to hitch a ride on a transport truck. I overcame my fears of potential bandit attack, which Phil convinced me were groundless, and we hopped on a truck full of mattresses for the long journey to the border.

Phil was right, we travelled for 36 hours in the truck through desolate landscape – no bandits and hardly any people except the odd village populated by northern Kenyans and Somali refugees. Unfortunately, our poor driver, Abdubar, had to pay for this privilege at each of the fifteen police stops between Nairobi and the border. “No bandits – but the police are the same” he commented dejectedly as he shelled out another few Kenyan shillings.

I didn’t get much sleep on the journey as I was attempting to stay awake and (very discreetly) stare at Abdubar to make sure he did the same. Abdubar miraculously remained alert for the whole journey despite only stopping for three hours sleep in two nights – unlike a friend of his who recently crashed into a tree when he fell asleep at the wheel.

We made it to Ethiopia without any problems and began another long journey to the South Omo region. After turning down the opportunity to see dancing pygmies in Uganda because of the ‘human-safari’ factor, the first thing we did when we got to Ethiopia was to sign up for a human-safari. Ignoring our inconsistency, we were pretty excited that we had the opportunity to see some of the tribes in South Omo whose lifestyles, we were informed, had not changed much in the last few hundred years.

So, that is how we came to spend several days in dusty vehicles over several hundred kilometers and shell out a large amount of money . . . to find tribes practicing the purest form of capitalism imaginable. We wanted to take their photos and they wanted money. As a result our interaction with the villagers mainly consisted of them yelling “Photo, 2 Bir” and us trying to bargain for a better price. Nothing wrong with them getting money for their images, but the end result is a fairly soulless experience for us and, no doubt, for them too. One lump sum payment from tourists would have been more lucrative for them and more enjoyable for us, but that is not the way these visits are organized.

Despite being somewhat disillusioned with South Omo there were certainly some interesting moments that made the trip worthwhile. We won’t forget our visit to the Karo people where topless women with roof nails through the bottom of their lips were visibly shocked and horrified at my pierced belly-button. And I certainly won’t forget the two elderly Karo men who, while I was negotiating to take a photo of them, decided to use the opportunity to give my breasts a good squeeze before I yelped and scared them off.

Breasts were a bit of an obsession. When we visited a Mursi village a few days later I had several women (famous for their large lip plates) peeking down my top - I assume for comparative purposes but who knows.

Probably the most memorable occasion was our visit to the Hamer people, where we were lucky enough to see a ‘Bull Jumping’ ceremony. I was suspicious that the Hamer were putting on the ceremony for the benefit of tourists, but as soon as we arrived it was clear that was not the case.

The ceremony is an initiation ceremony performed by men before they marry. The star of the occasion is the ‘jumper’ who can be identified by his hairstyle. His afro is frizzed up so it appears something like a halo around his head. The main event of the day is when the jumper, stark naked, attempts to run over several bulls lined up in a row, while the people of the village yell in support.

The jumper is successful and is permitted to marry if he manages to run over the bulls four times without falling off. A fairly impressive feat given that the bulls often have butter smeared on their backs to make it all the more difficult. Although our jumper stumbled once, he was deemed a success and then I am sure the real celebrations began as we were herded out with the other tourists at lightening speed.

Prior to the jumping, the other ‘event’ is the whipping of women. And I don’t mean a tongue lashing, I mean actual whipping with long, thin, flexible branches. Although the thorns are removed before the whipping takes place, by the end of the day backs are severely slashed and bloody.

The meaning of all this was explained to us as follows . . . The men doing the whipping are previous successful ‘jumpers’ who have, therefore, graduated to be to be ‘beaters’. The women being whipped are not randomly chosen, they are the female relatives of the jumper (sisters, nieces, cousins, aunts, mother). The more they are whipped, the more pain they suffer for him and the more he feels their pain. The jumper will never forget the whipping of his female relatives and so he will never forget them, particularly those who were whipped until they bled and will carry the scars for the rest of their lives. For the Hamer woman - the more she is whipped, the more she shows her love for the ‘jumper’.

We saw women begging men to whip them and crying when the men refused or did not whip them hard enough to draw blood. The whipping was brutal and not easy to watch.

As I said, we certainly won’t forget South Omo.

After South Omo we started the long journey to Addis Ababa, stopping at Arba Minch on the way to see a couple of lakes. It was amazing to see how the country changed from visiting the tribes in Omo to our arrival in the city of Addis. We went from desert tribes to Italian food and wine in two days. Even the weather is different. It was hot and dry in Omo, but is raining daily here in Addis. The only constant was the greeting we got from the Ethiopian children.

Throughout Africa children have called out various things to us. They have chanted: “How are you? I am fine. How are you? I am fine.” They have yelled: “Mzungu! Mzungu!” They have demanded: “Give me money/pen/book.” They have asked: “What is my name?” (How the hell should I know, I thought, until I realized they meant: “What is your name?”) The Ethiopian children were truly unique, although perhaps not creative, and we were followed by the chant: “You! You!” . . . everywhere we went. This was sometimes interspersed with the odd “faranji” which is ‘foreigner’ in Amharic.

Despite the abrupt greeting from the kids, and some of the adults, we have found the Ethiopians to be some of the nicest most helpful people we have encountered on this trip. So, it is perhaps ironic, as well as really really annoying, that Ethiopia (specifically the market in Addis Ababa) is where Phil’s backpack was slashed and we were robbed of the tanzanite and diamond ring we bought in Tanzania.

We have spent some time at the police station reporting the theft to police. These visits have been very interesting. The police have been very helpful to us but not particularly kind to those they apprehend. One tip for travellers: If you don’t want a beating, don’t get arrested in Ethiopia.

That about gets you up to date. Sorry for the delay in posting but internet services in Ethiopia aren’t quite what they were in the rest of Africa. Phone services leave a bit to be desired as well and we haven’t been able to get an Ethiopian cell number. We are using Phil’s UK number again: +44 7733 268 304. Text is probably best.

We’re heading north tomorrow to Lalibela, Ethiopia’s ‘must see’ destination. I’m not sure when the next installment will be – it depends whether we can find a computer that allows us to post entries on the website. Phil is currently trying to post more photos without much success so it might not be for a while . . .