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Ethiopian Retrospective

After five long days of traveling throughout southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya, the CLP group and I arrived in Nairobi. It was a bitter-sweet transition. On the one hand, it’s such a relief to arrive in such a vibrant city and country. Nairobi is lined with green trees and flowers juxtaposed to its glass skyscrapers, small shops and restaurants. Despite the excitement of finally reporting in Kenya, there are so many things I’m sure I’ll miss about Ethiopia, many which I might not fully realize except in retrospect. Thus, I’ve compiled a “top five” list of reasons to fall in love with Ethiopia:

1. Coffee

fresh coffee

During our first few weeks in Ethiopia, Ernest and I were invited to a coffee ceremony with our friend Zuray’s family. They live on the outskirts of Addis, in a small quiet compound surrounded by green coffee groves and jacaranda trees. We were sitting down, watching Ethiopian TV (ETV) and looking through photo albums. Zuray’s sister arrived with a plate of green coffee beans, just picked off of the trees and smelling of a slightly unrecognizable, fresh fragrance. In a small clay pot she roasted the beans, the awakening rich smell of coffee saturating the air. Minty grass spread in a circle on the floor. In the center – a tray full of small white macchiatto cups. The freshest cup of coffee ever tasted. For those who know me, you can imagine how amazing this was for me – coffee possibly being my biggest weakness.

Ethiopia is the land for coffee lovers. In fact, the country is considered the “birthplace of coffee”, where according to legend, a goat herder named Kaldi discovered that his goats were chewing on mysterious berries and dancing with reckless abandon. Kaldi then informed the local monks who then began making drinks with the berries and discovered that it kept them awake at night. Ever so slowly knowledge of the energizing effects of the berries began to spread. Now coffee is found in local coffee shops like Donkey in my town of Athens, Starbucks across the world and traditional coffee ceremonies in homes across Ethiopia.

2. Dance

Let these amazing shoulders speak for themselves:

3. Food:

I will share with you an embarrassing secret – the first time I tried injera in D.C. four years ago, I thought that the flat, sponge-like bread was a napkin. Soon I saw people eating the napkin, savoring every bite of the seemingly inedible substance as if it were an addictive drug. It was dumbfounding. Even after I tried it, I was still surprised by its sour, strange taste. I’m not a picky eater in the least bit. I have tried fried bugs in Thailand, chicken feet soup in Bolivia. But Inera, which is crepe that is made from tef, a sour-wheat-like grain that is mixed with water yeast and then fermented, has a taste that never leaves you. In Ethiopia, people are so crazy about injera that they will eat injera with injera on injera. They will scramble injera in a dish called firfir, and then scoop it up and eat it with more injera. I have not met one Ethiopian person who did not love the stuff.

The injera and the spices eventually began to grow on me. But it was the familiar, delicious Italian influence, as well as the abundance of organic produce, that made my group’s taste buds water. The fascist Italian regime occupied Ethiopia during WWII – the only European occupation Ethiopia had ever encountered. The fascists fortunately fizzled, and while the country was happy to purge the militant control, it was blessed by the lasting presence of Italy’s taggliatelli, homemade ravioli, marinera sauce, romano cheese and endless cups of cafe macchiato.

4. The Compound:

When living abroad on a small budget, the living situation cannot be perfect. In our case, rent was rather expensive, water was frequently missing, cockroaches invaded the fridge and fleas infested the coaches. Despite all that, the place was rather quaint, located in a great part of town, and was accompanied by a family and group of amazing people.


Phil_Obi

We spent a lot of time with our landlord’s kids – 10-year-old OB (top right), who was extraordinarily intelligent and acted as our interpreter in the house, and 8-year-old Phillman, (bottom left) who asked to be our bodyguard and claimed to be from the future. The kids also had a puppy named Suki. I’ve never had a dog before, it was really fun to have Suki around – even though she piddled in our house every time she saw us.
Here are poems OB and Phillman gave us before we left:

“Julia – standing on the tree like a bumblebee. She is looking at the stars like an angel from afar.” – OB

“Dear Julia,
She is very sad and she is very sweet and sweet.
Her office looks like a tree and is shaped like a Veee!!
– Your friend, Phillman of the Future.

tanane1.jpg
I also grew close to Tanene, a woman who worked around the compound making spices, injera and bread from scratch. She didn’t speak any English but we’d still find things to joke about as I struggled with my broken Amharic. We’d stand in the kitchen and make Chai. She’d braid my hair in the afternoon.

To say the least, it was hard to say goodbye to the people and the compound.

5. Lucy:

Ethiopia is one of the few African countries to escape colonialism, and is one of the oldest civilizations, dating back at least 2,000 years. In fact, Ethiopia is renowned for being named the “birthplace of civilization” after a team of anthropologists discovered the remains of the world’s oldest human ancestor, who was predicted to have lived approximately 3.2 million years ago.

about_field1.jpg Technically, she was known as AL-288. But during the celebration of her discovery, the one of my favorite Beatles’ songs, the acid-inspired “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was played over and over. The name just stuck, and her discovery continues to influence our understanding of evolution to this day.

Also, check out the recently published Ethiopian Fact Sheet on the Common Language Project Web site.

Surfing in the Desert

“I will never, never take water for granted again.”

I repeat this mantra to myself as I stand in the shower, somewhat awkwardly. Shampoo is still lathered in my hair and is slowly dripping into my eyes. The water has stopped pouring from the spout again. It just ran out. It does that here. The irony of course is that the CLP came here to report on water scarcity issues, some of which we are experiencing first hand.

Talk about immersion journalism. Sarah walked for 2 miles with a woman from the remote village of Dillo just to fetch water for her community. Now, I’m learning to anticipate such situations, and more than ever before, have begun to appreciate the true value of water. Who ever thought water was a luxury? For many in Ethiopia, it is just that, and it’s still taking me time to fully understand how such an essential resource has become as much a source of conflict and hardship as oil. Water should be a basic human right.

Woman washing clothes
In Addis Ababa, this women walks miles from her home along with hundreds of others to bathe and wash clothes at the springs at the top of Mt. Entoto, where the Italians had left water points during WWII.
A few hours later, I repeat another mantra I’ve grown used to repeating:

“I will never, never take internet for granted again.”

I’m sitting at the internet cafe hoping to connect with family and friends. But the blog-page has frozen, e-mail won’t send, and the photos are too large to upload. This hasn’t been the first time, so I brought a book to keep me busy while the pages load. There’s a couple interesting reasons for the dragging internet. One – the Ethiopian government holds a monopoly on internet by owning the only internet service provider in the entire country. Lack of competition and restricted freedoms (it’s impossible to start a blog from Ethiopia. They have them blocked), have made internet a rare commodity limited to the rich. And two – just a few weeks ago an underwater break in the fiber optic cables caused an “internet blackout” that swept Eastern and Northern Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

Thus, the lack of working internet has been an issue for the CLP group since we arrived here. But this comes with the terrain when you are an international journalist, especially when you’re dealing with online, multimedia journalism.

The circumstances have been a blessing and a curse. We have learned to live spontaneously, to expect the unexpected, to go days without a shower or e-mail, and to revel in the chaos of a city like Addis Ababa, or the fragility of the remote villages of Oromia. It is frustrating, but frankly, sometimes I love it. Every day has brought something new, and despite the failing internet or the lack of water infrastructure, I will miss this country desperately when I leave. But before I return, please do me a favor. Take a warm shower. Surf the speedy internet. Revel in its rare luxury, it’s blessed comfort. Don’t take it for granted. Although I’ll miss Africa, I’m relieved it will be waiting for me when I return.

Internet_Ernest

My colleague Ernest and our interpreter Ali visit an internet cafe in the town of Awassa during our 3-day long journey to Kenya. Ernest said the internet was so slow we couldn’t open e-mail, so we decided to hit the road.

More Photos

My apologies for disappearing for a while. Trying to upload photographs to the web in Ethiopia is not an easy task. I am beginning to work on an in-depth photo essay on the city of Addis Ababa that will explore such themes as the incredible Rastafarian culture, coffee ceremonies, traditional dance, orthodox rituals and the city’s mission to emerge as a modern metropolis, as well as the city’s on-going struggles with poverty and democracy. Let me know what you think of the photos I’m posting so far, and I’ll make sure to post the essay when it’s finished!
woman behind gateLittle kid smoking??Faces of Addis

Jessica PartnowJessica Partnow is one of those talented audiofiles who pays attention to every intricate detail and small flicker of sound. That’s one reason I’m glad to have her as an audio production mentor here in eastern Africa. As you can tell by her photo on the left, she takes her job very seriously.

To complete the CLP’s five-part series “Heading South” Jessica produced an audio blog reminiscing on the “challenges of reporting on the impoverished southern Ethiopian community of Dillo. Especially while Celine Dion is blasting in the background.” To listen to Jessica’s audio piece, visit her Common Language Project blog page .

Also, check out these cool photos of the “Water Walk” by Alex Stonehill:

The Water Walk

© 2008 The Common Language Project

Sarah StutevilleBy Sarah Stuteville

The word travel traces back to the Middle-English word travailen, meaning to journey, labor, strive and most importantly, to torment.

Much of traveling does feel a little like torment and as the strange bug bites, desperate trips to the bathroom and embarrassing cultural misunderstandings mount (who knew that blowing raspberries was one of the rudest things you can do in traditional Ethiopian culture?) I often wonder how I’ve found myself so far away from home.Outside of Dill town

I would say that the last four days my colleagues described fall firmly in the category of travailen and those stories of flat tires, sleepless nights avoiding lions in the bush and meals of curdled milk are the type that most often make their way back home as proof of true intrepid grit.

Which is why I’m embarrassed to admit that by the time I joined them in southern Ethiopia, they had figured out most of the hard stuff, allowing me to be absorbed by the overwhelming beauty of the place and the quiet hospitality of the people.

Youyouyouyouyou! Shout tiny little kids at our beat-up land rover as it races down the arrow-straight road from Yabello, slowing occasionally for dust devils and herds of annoyed camels.

We’re on our way to Dillo, to report on some of the most extreme water scarcity problems in the country. I’m trying to focus on my notes, all of the interviews and statistics I’ll need to contextualize the interviews we have set up and the long-distance water walk we’ll be participating in the following morning.

Problem is there are too many distractions.

The teardrop nests of Weaver birds hang like crude little ornaments from umbrella trees, pairs of mammoth-black Abyssynian hornbills amble together along the side of the road, occasionally I glimpse a frightened antelope or kudu with delicate white stripes sprinting in a warbling silhouette through far-off heat waves.

Bright, metallic blue flashes of swooping birds sporadically streak past the car windows, a shocking breath of color in a dry monochromatic landscape.

As the day and the heat wear on, we turn off at a local camel market onto a dusty road and begin picking up hitchhikers, nomadic Borena people returning to their small semi-permanent villages after adventures selling tea in the nearest town or cutting hay up in the hills.

Hitchhiker on the way to Dillo (photo by Alex Stonehill)First we meet an older Borena couple, the man clutching his kalashi (many of the pastoralists here are armed with ancient Kalashnikovs, to protect precious cattle from hyenas and occasionally other tribes) and his joking wife who compares her homemade metal jewelry with mine and wonders at our blaring pop music.

Next two Borena women, in loose scarf dresses flag us down. They’ve been cutting grain and looking for water all day, and are relieved to tie their huge bundles to the top of the car and drink our cool bottled water while they discuss the diminishing rain through our good-natured (and Celine Dion loving) translator Ali.

We reach Dillo, a one road town 40 miles from the Kenyan border as the sun is fading. The Assistant Administrator examines our paperwork and greets us heartily by saying with an enthusiastic smile “You are welcome, you are welcome, we have no place for you to stay!”

n our excitement to reach far-flung Dillo (and for the scoop, of course) we’d neglected to take into account how few Ramada Inns there are in the area. Shrugging our shoulders, we say we’ll all five sleep in the car, already knowing that the friendly administrator and the crowd of curious onlookers we’ve attracted will never allow it.A team of young men borrow worn mattresses from around town and drag them to the marginal shelter of a partially constructed health center on the edge of Dillo (despite our uber-polite Seattle-style protests “no please, we’re fine in the car, really”).

We head for a small hut on the main road that serves as a restaurant, tea shop and general gathering spot as our accommodations are arranged.

As we wait Ali tells me the story of his family’s hardships during the years of Ethiopia’s oppressive communist government (referred to as the Derg) over impossibly sweet, scalding hot tea served in little thimble glasses.

Jessica hears the faint singing of kids down the road and heads off her microphone swinging.

Alex, after scaring the kids of Dillo half to death by trying to take pictures of them, has now attracted them all back. At least two dozen clamor for a spot around him, begging him to endlessly continue scrolling through his photos on the little play back screen.

He squats in the middle of the road, a big bearded guy being climbed by a mob of kids. At least six are sitting in his lap at once and the faint blue light of the screen softly illuminates all of their faces.Night in Dillo Town

I hear Jessica from the dark beyond the teashop. “Sarah you’ve got to see this.”

It sounds urgent and I step quickly out into the now deep night.

“Look,” she says pointing upwards.

Alex comes too, the kids drop away disappointed.

As I look up I almost fall backwards.

There is a riot of stars swimming in inky black.

There’s no city for hundreds of miles in any direction and the sky is a crowd of constellations. I’m so dizzy I feel like they’re moving towards us.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Alex whispers.

“Stars!” he shouts pointing above his head.

The few remaining kids follow his gaze, look back at us confused, and point in turn at the camera in his hand.

Ali laughs at us and says our rooms are ready.

As we head to the health center a big lopsided moon is rising fast on the dead flat horizon. We’re not used to such big empty spaces and the jaundiced light spooks us with the strange midnight shadows it creates.

We’re headed for bed. There’s some travailen ahead of us as we follow the story in the morning, in retrospect I know there’s much more hard traveling beyond that–but it hardly seems worth mentioning now.

Photos by Alex Stonehill

© 2008 The Common Language Project


Doing the video thing at the Dubluck wells. By Julia Marino

The white Toyota Hilux glowed as it pulled up in the middle of the unrecognizable night to what was the small, destined village of Arero. In my comatose daze, I was astounded by the reality of our arrival, our minds and bodies unscathed, curious, and ready for a warm bed and an Aspirin. At that moment, I realized that part of me believed we would navigate the nebulous, jarring road forever, the truck jerking to and fro rapturously, repeatedly, sending our bags up in the air before stopping urgently to change another bald tire. Such an experience erases all consciousness of time, all understanding of place. Yet, once the moment sinks in, its unfamiliarity can create a sense of peace even amid chaos.

Outside of Arero (photo by Alex Stonehill)In the darkness, I was led to a place where I could sleep. The room was a shadow cast by a single candle that dripped wax onto a makeshift chair wobbling on the dirt. Dawn must have been approaching, for as I finally began to fall back into sleep, the first beams of sunrise streamed through the holes of the wooden door, casting fingers of thin light onto the walls. Outside, a rooster called steadily. Dogs howled, and the hum of insects harmonized with the abrupt sound of men as they yelled in their native language of Oromifa.

I gave up on the prospect of sleep as the orchestra of sounds invaded my consciousness.

Unrefreshed, I found Ernest, Alex and Salihu in a similar room across the compound. We began an early breakfast of roasted goat tibs in a broth over a coal-fed fire. It was then time to talk about our goals, our ethics and our hopes as researchers, storytellers and journalists.

Salihu had been immensely helpful to us, and I respected his knowledge, compassion and eagerness to assist us in our work. Without his generosity, we all knew we wouldn’t be traversing the remote villages of Borena. He had led us to invaluable information and insight, helping us gain access to others who could inform us further. But after hundreds of kilometers from Addis, and many adventures lived already, we knew it was time to seek out the best location to do our reporting on our own. So, it was decided we would have to part ways so we could travel to Yabello, a central location for researching the lives of pastoralists and water-walkers.

Traveling Through the Bush and the Brave Borena Woman

Before we left for Yabello, we set up a spot in the dirt pathway to interview Habiba Boru Gutu, an internally displaced Borena woman the Red Cross truck had picked up in Negele. While we roamed the rocky road to Arero the previous day, I joined her in the back of the truck, at the protest of Salihu who couldn’t understand why I would possibly give up my warm seat in the back of the truck.

Habiba Boru Guto (photo by Julia Marino)

“But it might be too cold! You’ll be more comfortable up front!”

I insisted that it would be fun, that I wanted to get to know the lone woman, and wanted to feel the cold wind on my face.

He eventually relented, and I found a spot on top of the dusty, green tarp covering our many bags next to Habiba, who like many Borena women, wore a brightly colored scarf around her hair that draped onto her shoulders. The truck took off on the road and jerked us toward the back of the cab as the sunset began to set, the trail behind us narrowing until it disappeared into the horizon.

Despite a rather large language barrier, Habiba and I communicated with hand gestures and facial expressions, her unidentifiable locution lingering in the air. She spoke several dialects of Oromifa, as well as Kiswahili and Amharic. I, on the other hand, only knew only a couple words in Amharic: Sulamn, ishi, ah may say ganalo.

I later discovered that she had lived in Nairobi for a few months, and so could distinguish a Kenyan any day. She and Ernest soon struck up a connection, where he learned details about her life I couldn’t grasp in the back of the truck.

Now in the dirt hallway of the humble inn, Alex and I set up and handled the video camera while Ernest interviewed her in his native tongue. Ernest explained how she had to flee her home once the Guji people massacred her village, mainly made up of Borena people, because of conflict over resource scarcity. I learned that she had once a very productive business, and was able to afford to fly her children from Kenya to Ethiopia. After the massacre, she said that she lost everything – all her wealth, the basic necessities she needed to help support her family, and her home.

Despite being internally displaced and dealing with the harsh consequences of such conflict, Habiba spoke calmly, as if the experience had forced her to strengthen and placidly overcome the challenges around her. I knew at that moment, that I had a lot to learn from her bravery.

Mirages and the Governor’s Clothes

Outside of Dubluck (photo by Alex Stonehill)After we interviewed Habiba we said our goodbyes. We promised to see Salihu again in Addis, and he and Habiba gave us warm hugs. We hopped in the back of a Red Cross Ambulance, another Borena woman sat in the back next to us, offering us a sip of the cursed, curdled milk that we tried the other other night.

As we drove, we came across tiny villages with thatched huts. The women wore distinct, ebony braid, and children carried large sticks, spears, sometimes even guns to help protect their cattle. Dust whirled into clouds as we passed the staring natives. The truck drove precariously in a gust, infinity ahead of us.

And just when we thought our flat-tire days were over, the truck came to a sudden stop again. Our sixth stop in the middle of the bush; the scene appeared to us like a mirage. After all, the earth stretched as far as the eye could see on all sides, the sun coating our every breath. Only dust, a couple thorn bushes and two trees were within sight. All speculations aside though, we were all happy to know we had a functioning spare tire. We learned the hard way that you can never have enough spare tires in southern Ethiopia.

The changing of the tires was now clockwork, and before we knew it we were on the road again. Not too long afterward, what seemed to be another pseudo-mirage approached us. It was a paved road! The bumpy surface we were so used to bearing was now a calm, smooth pathway leading to Yabello. But about six feet before the truck hit the pavement, the car thumped again, and we were almost sure we had lost another tire, despite our relief. At that moment, we held our breath so tight that as soon as we made it across the paved road, we all let out a sigh so immense, the truck almost tipped over.

Next stop would be finding the Provincial Commissioner for all of Oromia- Abdulqadir Abdii.

“PCs in Africa have so much power,” Ernest said, matter-of-factly. Our driver stepped out of the car asking random people if they knew where Abduliqadir was – that’s how small of a town Yabello was.

We finally found his home and sat down on small wooden stools near his front yard. We discussed our plans for the next day, where he agreed to help us find a driver and translator to take us to the town of Dubluck, a small pastoralist village famous for its singing wells about 70 km away. Another area we were planning on reporting in was an even smaller village around 200 km away named Dillo, an area with the most dire water scarcity in the entire region.

The Motel and The Buzzing Commissioner

Singing Well at Leh (photo by Sarah Stuteville)After being stranded in the middle of the elusive bush, and experiencing the morning nap in the dusty room in Arero, we were all fantasizing about a clean bed, and more importantly — a shower. Hot, warm, frozen, it wouldn’t matter. At the advice of our handy Lonely Planet, we pulled into the Yabello Motel, a place the book described as “clean and comfortable.” Although the toilet and the shower were outside, it was nice to finally find a place to unpack and unwind.

The next day, we had a scheduled meeting with the Province Commissioner to discuss plans to visit pastoralists in Dubluck and women who carry water long distances around the area of Dillo. He picked us up at the motel, sunglasses glistening, shoes polished, his face with a serious look that meant business. As the PC approached our table, the waiters stared, the manager gawked, the birds chirped curiously from the tree branches, and the receptionist from that day forward became mysteriously more polite.

We entered Abduliqadir’s office to find it adorned in polished wood, shiny leather, and an assortment of documents stacked in his bookcase. The room smelled of cleaner and cologne. We sat in the conference area, his overstuffed, black leather chair asserting the head of the table. The ironical juxtaposition of his luxurious office to the thatched huts and outdoor toilets in the town made me a little dizzy. Although Abduliqadir was a generous man, this dichotomy showed the extreme gap between the wealthy and the poor, those with power and those without.

Between different phone calls, the PC would hang up his phone and then assertively press a giant button on his desk.

“buzz. buzz.”

The sound was piercing.

His secretary would then peak her head in the doorway, nod her head as he spoke and close the door again.

Two minutes passed. “Buzz, buzz.” The secretary peaked her head in again, nodded, closed the door. “Buzz, buzz.” The same would repeat.

He told us he would find us a driver and interpreter to help us in our reporting in the region. However, finding an interpreter might not be an easy task, he said.

“English is a problem in Ethiopia, not like in Kenya,” he said smiling at Ernest. Ernest let out a loud guffaw, the kind of laugh he makes when he’s both amused and speculative at the same time.

But at the last buzz, we were on our way out, accompanied by the PC’s personal assistant Atanach Tolcha, who would interpret for us in the pastoralist village of Dubluck.

Cattle, Camels and Pebbles In My Sandals

The drive to Dubluck was rather short in comparison to our other treks, the truck letting out a large puff of dust with every bump in the earth.

As we approached the village, we observed a wide dirt road lined with mud homes serving as the center. As we opened the doors to the truck, little kids with no pants and snotty noses approached us wildly, pointing their fingers at my face and exclaiming, “you, you, you, you, you, you!”

We found the deputy chief Galgalo Dida at this center, and he guided us to the desert-like pastures and singing wells.

The ground was as dry and expansive as a deserted planet, with layered sand stretching for miles on all sides. A thin layer of dust grazed the surface of the ground as hundreds of cattle, goats and camels dotted the landscape. Cattle were being herded toward us and behind us and by our side toward a trough for a drink of water, or toward the horizon to graze or to the town to make fresh milk.

After a short interview, the chief led us to one of the traditional wells — its deep walls resonating with the low chanting of men, their beaming baritone steadily bouncing off of the well walls an into ears with each approaching step. The men’s singing is a ritual dating back centuries that helps them endure hours of long, laborious work under the scorching sky. The singing men bent down and then reached forward with such ease and steady deliberation, never missing a beat or a refrain.

At the “hauuuyauuuh!” of a pastoralist, the cattle stampeded down toward the well to drink water, scattering the ground with dung and mud at every step of their hooves. Women and men rotated buckets back and forth as they poured fresh water from the earth into a canal of water.

As Alex and I handled the video cameras, taking turns experimenting with new shots and angles, Ernest worked his interviewer-magic. The chief and a dozen pastoralists surrounded us as he asked about the struggles of the community to maintain a healthy livestock and livelihood in such a resource-scarce region. They talked about the importance of the wells in order for the cattle and the people to survive, especially during the dry season when it would cease to rain.

I began to imagine harmonizing with them in a hand-dug well, strengthening every muscle as I scooped out more cold, refreshing water. I tried to picture myself exerting hours of labor each day just to receive enough water for my family to live on. Of course, it was somewhat a difficult task to fully realize a life lived in a village in Dubluck – a place so distant from my own sprinkler-running, Aquafina-drinking environment. But now that I have come to know the beauty and struggle of these pastoralists, I am certain that water will never again taste the same.

With the approaching sound of the next cattle stampede, I was snapped me out of my thoughts and motioned back toward the truck. As I walked away from the well, I could hear the distant echo of the men singing, the water splashing, the pastoralist shouting, and the cattle mooing – its distinct rhythm and unfamiliar pattern, somehow, resembling a peaceful chaos.

Photos by Alex Stonehill, Sarah Stuteville and Julia Marino

© 2008 The Common Language Project

Ernest Waititu with traveling companion and Salihu SultanBy Ernest Waititu

When our four-wheel-drive Toyota Hilux vroomed off the town of Negele I knew I was in for a giant adventure. Well, I must quickly clarify that I was not here for adventure; Negele is of course not one of those places you go site-seeing. I was here to work, following stories on water scarcity and how it had impacted the people of Southern Ethiopia.

But work or no work, I had to steal some moments and have some fun. For how could I close my eyes, ears and soul to the beauty of Africa? How could I possibly not be moved by the expansive fields and the distant hills of Negele, which carried me back to my childhood as I took care of my family’s cattle in the plains of Kieni in Kenya? While drier, this part of Ethiopia had more similarities with Kieni – the place where I grew up — than any other place I had been.

I was compelled by this alikeness to take a psychological journey back to my boyhood. In the small, bare-footed, parched-faced boys who were following dozens of their cattle, I revisited my childhood. I saw myself in every one of these boys. My eyes opened up to the wild, to the large birds I had trapped for food, to the deer I had hunted with my dog Simba and to the joy of carrying loads of wild meat in the evening when I accompanied my family’s cattle home for milking.

These experiences had brought me to a dreamy sense of being and completely banished from me the troubles of the journey — the bumpy and rugged roads that had completely exhausted us on our first day of travel and made our 600 km journey from Addis Ababa to Negele a 24-hour nightmare.The Road to Hudet

I was jolted from my reverie by a round burst underneath the car. The devil himself had visited terror on us again. By this time, the fifth time we had heard this sound, it was unmistakable — we had another flat tire to fix. But the most depressing thing about this experience was not changing the tire but the fact that we had exhausted all the spare tires we had. When we had left Negele we had decided to take a risk, bringing one spare tire and hoping the road would be better. Until this time, 150 km into the trip, it had worked okay.

But now there was no chance of finding a tire. The Red Cross chief of the Borena zone who had hosted us for the tour, Salihu Sultan, observed that we were now deep into the lion country and that the tire-changing exercise had better be done fast.

Curdled Milk

Ernest helps to change the tire.We quickly and nervously changed the tire and hopped back into the car. A few miles down the road we came to a small town called Hudet — a village of mud-walled houses lined in each side of the street where our host unsuccessfully sought ways and means of getting a new spare tire. While we could not secure a tire from here, we were able to get some food: a piece of the delicious Ethiopia bread, a cup of tea and glass of curdled milk made the Borena way.

Having eaten, we were ready to get started again. Immediately after hitting the road, a lump tightened in my stomach perhaps as a result of the fear of losing another tire and spending the night in the bush. Judging from the past day, we needed nothing short of divine intervention to protect all the four tires from the jagged rocks that dotted the road.

And still, the lump in my stomach tightened. I am usually not given to premonitions but something deep down in my tummy felt terribly amiss. But still I hung on to hope, we had covered more than 200 kilometers. We had less than 40 to go. We could do it. We surely could.

When it came, the bursting of the tire sounded just like the previous five: a loud puff and then a stream of gushing air. In unison, as if premeditated, we all muttered a muffled gasp of despair and rolled out of the car.

Some silence followed, and then rather foolishly I decided to enquire about the status of the lions to from a Borena man we had picked and given a ride from Hudet – our last town. The man, having grown up in the area and being well versed with the terrain was the best person to consult on such matters. The lion was not exactly here, he said matter of factly, but it would be found a little further, perhaps a kilometer or so up the road. Good Heavens, I have never been more scared in my life!

The Fire

Some more silence, and then a refreshing thought came to my mind. “How about making some fire?” I asked. The Borena man made a quick cracking fire from the dry woods that littered the bush nearby. While growing up, I had been taught that fire was a good way to scare away wild animals. I hoped to myself that the wisdom of my people would ring true even here in the bush of Ethiopia.Ernest Waititu with traveling companion and Salihu Sultan

The fire was a good idea but in our tiredness we soon got fed up with it, and some of my colleagues retired to sleep in the car. We were right in the middle of the bush – more than 30 kilometers each side to the nearest town. There was no way anyone was going to walk to seek help. Our one hope, Salihu told us, was a vehicle coming from the direction we had come, which could help us ferry the tire to Arero for repair. In Arero, we could get a Red Cross ambulance to ferry the tire back to where we had been trapped. For a long time we kept looking up the bushes for signs of beams of light from an oncoming car.

Presently, our Borena friend being more in tune with the bush way of life started clearing up a spot on the ground and conveniently retired for the night. Unlike me, he was a seasoned bush traveler who had chosen to be more practical in the face of the current realities.

In the back of my mind the thought of the lion showing up when I slept would not leave. In a split of a second, I thought the whole attack through, even picturing what the headlines in the Kenyan newspapers would say: Kenyan Reporter Killed in Ethiopian Bush, or even better: Kenyan Journalist Mauled by Lion.

Buffalion Dream

We looked for ways to get ourselves comfortable in the bed of the truck, foregoing the security of the enclosed cab, which came along with tremendous discomfort. At this time, after having slept a maximum of three hours the previous night and after being out in a turbulent car most of the day, not even the fear of the lion could stop me from falling asleep. I was tired. Soon after getting at the back of the open truck, I fell fast asleep.

And then, the buffalo came. It looked more like a lion than a buffalo: mid-sized, brownish and aggressive. Alex and I jumped of the back of the car and broke twigs from the dry branches as we desperately tried to repulse the buffalion. It was such a scary task, we had to do it to survive. Our desperate and frantic attacks from both ends seemed to bear fruit momentarily. With his long swinging hands, Alex was doing a better job of attacking the monster than I was. I had to try harder. The beast would retreat fleetingly before charging. And just in one of those moments when I was huffing and puffing from the charging beast, Alex shook me from my sleep. It was just one of those rare dreams that brings you as close to reality as you can ever get. It was 3:30 in the morning. We were still sprawled in the bed of the truck. But our driver had just returned with the mended tire.

Finally, we were set to begin the last leg of the journey to Arero.

Fifteen hours, 250 miles, and two flat tires after Negele, we arrived in Arero. Salihu booked us what was supposed to be the best hotel in town – a line of mud-walled rooms each with a bed at the edge. Its state not withstanding, my bed that morning was the one bed I had appreciated most in my life. It was 6.am. and I had to make maximum use of the precious bed. In two-hours time, Salihu would be waking us up to start our next trip through the wilderness.

Photos by Alex Stonehill

© 2008 The Common Language Project