In 2012 I spent two weeks visiting the north of Ethiopia, and in comparison to the last four weeks it felt hurried and staged. This journey – from Moyale on the border with Kenya, to Metema on the border with Sudan – was more spontaneous and as such gave us (Adriaan Kroon and myself) a more authentic window into Ethiopian culture and the lives of ordinary Ethiopians. Like I did in 2012, we visited the main tourist sites such as Lalibela and Axum, but due to the large distances we also saw “the places in between”, which was equally fascinating.
Rather than give a chronological account of our journey, I have focused on the Ethiopian people, and described our visit to Ethiopia through that lens. After a few weeks of traveling around Ethiopia and observing the ways of the Ethiopian people, I came to the conclusion that the locals are:
- Straight like the Germans,
- Reliable like the Swiss,
- Alcoholics like the British,
- Gastronomers like the Italians,
- Warm like the Spanish, and
- Proud like the French.
Of course, these observations have to be taken with a pinch of salt and have to be seen in the context of my earlier travels to Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda but I dare to say there is some truth to it.
After having experienced the extreme corruption of the Kenyans and the Tanzanians either through first-hand experience, or by simply reading the news, Ethiopia was a breath of fresh air. The border crossing at Moyale in the south was transparent though not particularly fast (the electricity had gone off so we had to wait for two hours until it came back on in order to operate the fingerprint machines), and required no unexpected and outrageous extra fees as I had experienced at many previous border crossings. Ethiopians produce receipts for every product or service they sell, to a point. When we were in the Bale Mountains we passed the entrance gate of the national park, and the guard refused to let us pay because he did not have a receipt for us!
Making a promise, and then delivering upon it is another character trait that we observed, most notably in Addis Ababa. The Land Rover, as usual, had some issue (the gearbox has started leaking again), which we discovered right before we were about to head north to visit Lalibela. Thanks to an Ethiopian friend, we were put in touch with Sevag, a fifth generation Armenian who had set up a car workshop in Addis Ababa and also happened to be a Land Rover fanatic. We sent the vehicle for a diagnosis and after the test drive, the manager, the senior mechanic and the mechanic discussed the problem for about 5 minutes, gave us a reasonable offer of 100 USD and a time estimate of 8 hours. 100 USD and exactly 8 hours later, the problem was fixed. This in contrast to my mechanic in Kenya, who promised he would fix the gearbox quickly, and eventually took more than 5 days to complete a job that could have been done in 2 days.
Wherever we were in Ethiopia, by the end of the day the locals were drinking, either locally brewed beer or stronger liquor. But they were always drinking, and in large quantities. One night, around midnight, a massive fight erupted at a bar next to the guesthouse where we were staying. I couldn’t see what was going on, but I was convinced murder had taken place. The next morning, when we met an Ethiopian friend and asked about the incident, he responded, unfazed: “This happens all the time. It’s just fighting, no guns.” What a relief.
When I claim that Ethiopians are gastronomers like the Italians, I would soften that to say that their cuisine relative to their neighbours is sophisticated. Nevertheless, I’m still not a fan and that may be my biggest gripe about Africa, the (lack of) quality of the food. At least the Ethiopian cuisine is varied, even though injera with goat meat seems to be on every menu, whether it’s 6 am in the morning or 10 pm in the evening. Besides injera, you’ll usually find a plate of “pasta bologna” on the menu, which is a generally spaghetti with tomato sauce, with or without minced meat, and tends to be very very spicy. In some cases you’ll find a “pissa margarita” or a “meat sandwich”, which is the equivalent of a hamburger. I would say it’s edible, and not more. The hard part is that Ethiopians raved about their cuisine in every conversation we’ve had with them, and I usually played along, hoping that my wry smile wouldn’t give away my true feelings. Nevertheless, sweet tea or coffee with a warm croissant for breakfast in the morning, as we had in Addis Ababa, always goes down well.
Once you learn a few phrases in Amharic and make an effort to get to know them, the locals are extremely warm and friendly. Besides Rwanda, Ethiopia was the only country where we were invited into people’s homes as complete strangers. In Mekele, we were pulled into the Commercial Bank’s annual party, after we were seen to be taking out money from the ATM at the bank on a Sunday. We were fed beers and injera, and then the most beautiful single female bank employees were pushed in our direction and made to dance with us, to the amusement of the rest. “Enjoy her!” said the bank manager.
We experienced more evidence of Ethiopian hospitality in Mekele when we visited Healing Hands of Joy, an impressive NGO set up by Allison Shigo and working to end fistula in Ethiopia. During a traditional coffee ceremony, we heard the stories of fistula survivors, young women who had often been married at a young age and were then divorced by their husbands when they learned about their wives’ fistula.
The only time we had a rather hostile but amusing encounter was with a young boy that approached us when we made a stop on the road to Addis Ababa. Locals always gather round when they see ‘farenji’, as did the boy. As he approached us, he picked up a medium-sized rock and then demanded money from us. The rock obviously felt like a threat so I went after the boy to disarm him, but he was too fast. So I pulled out some money, hoping to lure him in my direction, and then disarm him. However, he understood my cunning plan, and demanded that I deposit the money in the grass right in the middle between him and myself. It was almost like a prisoner exchange! Two older Ethiopians then passed by and as soon as they observed this comical situation they berated the young boy, upon which he dropped the rock from his hands and then looked at us with an innocent and conciliatory smile. All was forgiven.
Not only are the Ethiopians proud about their food, but also about their history, and rightly so. Ethiopia claims to be the cradle of civilisation, as the country is home to Lucy, one of the oldest known Homo Sapiens, dated 3.2 million years ago and known as the “Grandmother of Humanity”. Not only is Ethiopia home to Lucy, it is also one of the birthplaces of Christianity, which dates back to the first century AD. The north of Ethiopia features fascinating rock-hewn churches, such as those found in Lalibela and the Gueralta mountains, where they still practice their orthodox christian religion. In addition, Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never colonised, even though it was occupied by Italy during WWII. Nevertheless, in terms of leadership, just like many other African nations, Ethiopia has gone through its share of violent or incompetent leaders, including the infamous Haile Selassie, who many Ethiopians still idolise, as do the Jamaicans, who believe he was the reincarnation of the messiah. Emperor Selassie himself was always ambivalent about the topic, but when in the 1960’s he visited Jamaica and it started to rain upon his arrival after years of drought, the Jamaicans were no longer to be persuaded otherwise.
Where Ethiopia is lacking, perhaps, is in nature and wildlife conservation. More than 95% of its indigenous forest has been eradicated, leaving much of its land barren and prone to erosion. When we were in Arba Minch in the south of Ethiopia, we visited Nechisar national park, which has been poorly managed and therefore has little to no wildlife left and even though there is a prominent sign at the entrance saying: “Leave nothing behind except footsteps”, hordes of locals walk out unhindered with bundles of firewood on their backs or their heads. Most recently, scientists from Oxford discovered 140-200 lions in Altatish national park on the border of Sudan. The Ethiopians didn’t even know they had them! The borders of the Bale Mountains national park, home to the Abyssinian wolf, exist on paper, but they are not enforced, which in practice means that human populations encroach on the park’s land, but nothing is done about it. The only reason that the Abyssinian wolf has survived is because it lives high up on the Sanetti platteau, which is generally too cold for humans to live on.
Two exceptions to Ethiopia’s dilapidated state of its nature and wildlife are the Simian Mountains and the Danakil Depression. The Simian Mountains I visited in 2012 and are a stunning mountain range with jagged peaks over 4,000m, waterfalls and the fascinating gelada baboon. The Danakil Depression, which is home to the Erte Ale volcano, the sulphur plains of Dallol and the salt plains, are another natural wonder. Right on the border of Eritrea, volcanoes rise out above the desert, which lies more than 100m below sea level and is characterised by extreme heat reaching up to 50’C. With a tour operator based out of Mekele we went on a 4 day excursion to the Danakil Depression with the Land Rover and experienced one of the highlights of the journey. After seven hours of driving in extreme heat through the desert and over lava fields, we hiked 5 hours under the moonlit sky to reach the crater rim of the active Erte Ale volcano, where we were allowed to stand right on the rim to see blobs of magma at 1500’C bubbling to the surface. The sulphur plains of Dassol, which we visited the day after, we saw a patch of multicoloured minerals in the desert, including yellow sulphur, orange copper and green acid ponds. The visit to the Afar and Tigray workers on the salt plains was impressive, especially seeing them carve out blocks of salt in unbearable temperatures under the scorching sun, loading them onto their camels and then walking five days to the nearest market, all for the meagre sum of 4 bir (0.20 USD) per block of salt. This experience certainly put my own life into perspective.
We spent over a month in Ethiopia, and it was an unexpected highlight of the journey. Not only did we visit in the low season, but on the whole there were very few tourists, making for a unique experience.