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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

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