There is something otherworldly about Ethiopia. It isn’t just the fact that Ethiopians are living seven years and three months behind our calendar or count 7am as 1 o’clock. Or that their churches hewn from solid rock in medieval times look like something from a graphic novel. It isn’t even because driving through the country from the border to the highlands to the capital is like going from Middle-earth through Mordor to Wakanda.
It’s because Ethiopia is simply and utterly unique: the only ancient country in Africa to resist colonialism.
A Brief History of Ethiopia part 1:
Around 10th century BCE, a kingdom known as Dʿmt was established in Tigray in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, which spoke the ancient Semitic language Ge’ez. In the first century CE, the Kingdom of Axum emerged. According to the medieval Book of Axum, the kingdom’s first capital was built by Itiyopis, son of the biblical Cush. Axum would later extend its rule as far as Meroe in Kush and Yemen on the other side of the Red Sea. During the 3rd century, the Persian prophet Mani listed Axum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his era.
Around 316 AD, Syrian Frumentius and his brother Edesius from Tyre (modern Lebanon) accompanied their uncle on a voyage to Ethiopia. When the vessel stopped at a Red Sea port, the natives killed all the travellers except the two boys, who were taken to the court as slaves. As adults, they were freed and given positions of trust by the monarch. Frumentius became the first bishop of Axum and converted the Emperor Ezana. A coin dated to 324 shows that Ethiopia was the second country to officially adopt Christianity, after Armenia in 301.
Orthodox, Pentay and Catholic Christians make up 63% of the population today, with Muslims at 34%.
The pride and determined self sufficiency of Ethiopians was apparent from the outset. Back in Sudan, the Ethiopian embassy impressed us both with its superbly modern and efficient visa process and with the adjacent beautiful gardens and tea room. The whole staff came to visit us on their way out of work – it was such a lovely introduction to the country!
I had been looking forward to visiting Ethiopia since meeting a charming guy called Israel Abate at the Soetwater refugee camp, escaping the South African xenophobic violence of 2008. Israel was simultaneously such a bold and twinkly character, I was fascinated to find out what circumstances could have moulded him. Tragically, he ended up contracting TB in his spine due to HIV infection, and died before we could visit him in his homeland.
* * *
On Wednesday 21st March, the 13th day of our fortnight of typhoid meds and our last day parked outside Vision Radio, it was insanely hot in Khartoum – but it was Ruby in Cape Town that had a meltdown. She phoned me sobbing hysterically in the middle of a drama rehearsal a week before the end of term, having found a letter from my Mom slipped in her bag.
I’m not going to go into the details of the row because it was a private matter between them, but suffice to say when these two Leos go head to head there is little prospect of a swift peace and I immediately started looking into flights. Ruby’s upset seemed perhaps disproportionate to what had happened, but Grade 11 was proving much harder going than Grade 10 and I thought it would do her good to get away anyway. She wasn’t supposed to be coming to us for the short Easter break – I’d just booked flights for her to Kenya for the longer June-July holiday – but BudgetAir.com options were relatively cheap via Air Ethiopia (under R5000) and probably much less costly than a complete family fallout.
On the drive out of the Sudanese capital, I finally managed to stay online long enough to book them. We had one week to get to Addis Ababa to collect her, 1300km away. That didn’t seem unreasonable, even for us slowcoaches.
Sights on the road to and from Khartoum 1: so many old Bedfords, mostly blue ones
We never had any aggro from Sudanese police in their whiter than white uniforms. There were always 4 or 5 guys at road blocks, all so friendly and jocular, eager to shake hands and beaming. Today a chubby feller who hinted “I like money” was waived away by a dignified taller mate. He was only one in the entire country who even implied bribery. We bloody loved Sudan.
Sights on the road to and from Khartoum 2: so much litter, like it was blossom on bushes
It was delicious to be out of the city and back in the cooler desert nights – my heat rash calmed down completely and I even found a breeze in which to do T’ai Chi in the morning. But when we set off on bumpy road from Rifaa after school around noon, it was 50˚C outside.
In the passenger seat it felt like the raging fires of purgatory were blowing hell’s breath through the window. Our mouths kept drying out and I was constantly feeding cold water from the fridge to Sampson. We cooled PJ down 4 or 5 times by dousing her with the water spray, which we had been using to train her not to jump on the table. But unlike Lucky, she didn’t seem to care about the heat – she saved her complaints for when she didn’t have company.
On the road between Wad Madani and Al Qadarif, I was on my bed in the back when I noticed the return of clouds. They had never seemed more beautiful or more welcome.
(I’d just like to squeeze in an homage to my son’s cat-like ability to squeeze into a space smaller than the width of his shoulders, in order to kitten-proof his bedroom!)
I had started to write up Greece when we arrived in town and I received an email notification of cancellation of booking. Aaaarrggh. As I struggled to find out why – was it something to do with Trump’s travel ban blocking bookings made in Sudan? – Big Reg bounced from side to side on his way up a slope Sampson had pulled off to buy oranges and bananas, and hey presto, the cab cracked again: breakdown number 18.
Do you remember breakdown number 12 on the other side of continent? On the relentless Road to Foulamori in Guinea, trying to make it to the Guinea Bissau Carnival? When we were on a mad dash to the border and ‘Monsieur Tolier’ Mohamed Konteh did a brilliant job welding the crack in the cab while wearing sunglasses?
Shoo. The next morning, Sat 24th March, felt a bit like Groundhog Day as Mr Mohamed Hamed came to the rescue on this mad dash to another border, doing some swift re-welding in his shades. He took just 2 hours and cost 200SDG per hour (twice Farbest Autos’ rate) so a total of $15 with 50SDG for the services of kind translator/driver Mr Saleh Mohamed. What a bargain.
I’d spent those two sweaty hours struggling to connect for long enough to book Ruby’s flights again. I’d got up at 6 – it was still feeling amazing to be able to do that – keen to do T’ai Chi in the truckers carpark before it got too hot (31˚C at 7am) but an old feller came over to quiz me and before I knew it, I was surrounded by a huge group of men and boys keen to know more. I usually explain where we come from and what we’re up to by tracing our route around the Africa on the big logo on the side of the truck. But although the elder was eager to engage, this didn’t work this time because he had no idea how to read a map.
While pondering how to explain the concept of compass points when you don’t have a common language, I was struck with an important idea: when Sampson finally does the completed Africa Clockwise trek show, we must turn the continent on the logo upside down so that Upper Egypt is above (where the Ancients and Nubians conceptualised it) and Lower Egypt at the bottom, where the Nile arrives at the sea. Using a Global South-centred map orientation suddenly seemed so obvious, especially as it puts Cape Town, where we left, at 12 o’clock. (Check out this article including bonus West Wing clips of CJ getting freaked out by the new perspective this brings. )
It seems so radical, yet some of the first known world maps put south at the top as a matter of course. In 1154 Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi drew a south-up map of Europe, Asia and northern Africa for his book the Tabula Rogeriana.
My triumph at managing to book was short-lived; I received another cancellation email just before we finally set off on a smaller road to the border which was much more potholey. The slaloming cut Big Reg’s speed by half. Suddenly there were rondavels and cows everywhere – it was very Eastern Cape.
Zola saw the first baobab just before the border. We’d gone from the Sahara this morning to savannah. Though it didn’t feel as ferocious as the inferno of yesterday – the cat didn’t need squirting down – our mouths were still so dry, we were getting through a bottle of water every 30 mins between 12-4pm. A bag of tiny boiled sweets like barley sugar really hit the spot at the critical 3pm.
PJ spent most of day slumped across my lap – just what I needed in this weather, a fur muff across my muff! Zola was reluctant to do school and finally crashed out completely, as did the overheated iPod: no more music. The heat was so intense, my camera was whiting out while loading. But I was so happy: my fast reactions were back, I could snatch quick snaps and colours were looking clear; the veil had lifted.
That day, I wrote in my diary:
“There was a point where I feared I would never get back to ‘mild’. It feels spectacular.”
* * *
At the border town of Gallabat, Sampson drew a crowd of hustlers off with a feint to the market, to allow me to slip inside with our docs. We cruised through the Sudanese side just before 5pm – a lovely young bloke was so delighted to discover Zola was adopted, he called me “my mother” and invited us to tea.
The Ethiopian side in Metema was much busier but we’d timed it brilliantly: the two guys at customs about to walk out of the door as I entered turned round and processed us chop chop. Sampson thanked them with some magic tricks as I crossed the road to the final passport control to find a staff meeting in progress. We were ready to wait in no man’s land till next day, but young Ferezer Tsegoye offered to sign us in.
As night fell there was a power cut, so he ended up completing the triplicate carbon paper by the light of his cell phone. It was super detailed, demanding everything from details of our valuables to which border post we planned to exit by; I had no idea it would take the poor guy so long – apologies Ferezer!
Meanwhile I was struck by the vibe of his female colleague – her head was uncovered, she was wearing baggy pants and a T shirt, puffing in the heat and pulling it about in a way a Sudanese woman just wouldn’t. It was so invigorating to be around dynamic female agency again; it made me realise how I had adjusted my own demeanour to be more acceptable in the Sudanese context.
First impressions of country number 23 combined feisty women with attitude and the surprising noise of a Saturday night disco. On the continent, Ethiopia’s population is second only to Nigeria’s, and there was a return to Naija’s in your face/in your space style. We experienced a characteristic start on Sunday morning when a Shouty Man who thumped on the side of the truck bellowing “Why are you still here?” proved to be very obliging. When I told him I’d left my glasses in the office, he sprang to help and called Ferezer out of church, bless him.
As we pulled into Ethiopia, we were offered a classic view up the road. Two or three times busier than Sudanese side, it was crammed full of blue tuktuks painted with Christian iconography, and so many more people – noticeably more women, with heads uncovered half the time. The white turbans of the men of Sudan had transformed into vibrant headwraps of deep red or yellow. There were no communal water pots here but donkeys carrying customised carriers made from 2 drums lashed together. The most striking change was that there seemed to be green trees and wood everywhere: piles of logs, kraals and even rondavels with walls of tree trunks.
I was delighted and beguiled. As we drove through the village of Kokit, we saw a large crowd of people pouring out of church, all in white or cream coloured raw cotton wraps with marks of ashes on their foreheads. Older women were wearing sashes with red, green and gold trim, while younger women sported Little House on the Prairie dresses and umbrellas. I’d never seen anything quite like it and was struck by how although it seemed like a scene from an historical movie, it was a perfectly rational now, evidence of authentic tradition unravaged by conquest and dominion.
Meanwhile Sampson was suffering a vicious post-meds downer.
With the stress of Ruby’s still unbooked flight hanging over me, I was trying not to let his negativity ruin our first exposure to the most anticipated country of all. On the ridiculously bouncy road from the border, he was driving far too fast; in the back, we were getting slammed over bumps so hard that all the remaining eggs in the fridge cracked.
The road through the mountains from Maganan to Aykel climbed steeply. After the first ascent from 400m to 1000m, the engine was showing 110˚ and Sampson was unable to pull over because of back-to-back hairpin bends. He was convinced we were about to cook the engine when passing taxi drivers started flashing us. The second one pulled over to say we were leaking fuel – a pipe from the biodiesel tank had come loose on the kangaroo road from the border and the exhaust pipe had melted a hole in it. There were only a few litres of diesel remaining, but Sampson was just relieved the engine was not finished.
In a way, the engine overheating was the best thing that could have happened. As the road continued to climb to 1800m, Sampson had to jump in and out every 10-15 mins and use the cat’s water spray to cool the engine with a mist over the radiator. He must have done it 5 or 6 times and the effort and adrenaline got his endorphins going and sweated out his depression.
On one of those occasions, while Big Reg was sat cooling by the side of the road, a full minibus piled past with smiling faces at the open windows unleashing the greeting “OOooooOOOOoooooeeee Welcome welcome welcome!!!!”
That night was not hot for the first time – it was so lovely to snuggle down under a coverlet with no sweat. In the morning, PJ was in heaven jumping amongst the crispy leaves and grasses. She was much more trouble now she wasn’t knocked out by heat – leaping all about the cab and trying to get out of the window. Sampson was also much happier as Big Reg was much cooler driving at 8am; we arrived in the picturesque city of Gondar around 10.
But there was no time for sightseeing today. It was Monday 26th March and Ruby’s school broke up mid week. After experiencing the roads in Ethiopia so far, we knew it was madness to think we could drive to Addis in a day or two. Our only hope was to get her to fly to us.
The litany of how I managed this is going to make this blog way too long, but I’ve decided to leave it in for two reasons. 1) One day my daughter will get round to reading this and I want her to know the lengths I was prepared to go to and 2) I want this evidence of my sheer dogged determination to forever banish any bullshit implication that people with vrai ME just don’t have a positive enough ‘can-do’ attitude to overcome their condition.
In 2018, foreigners were not allowed to buy data in Ethiopia – the fear of alien agents provocateurs inspiring insurrection seems to be ingrained – so I spent the day trogging between queues in the Ethiopian Airlines office and three wifi cafés. An additional challenge was that internet connection was so weak, I couldn’t send emails to Ruby’s travel agent in Fish Hoek or load any airline websites. I could only communicate via Whatsapp.
Many lemon teas later, after my dear friend Sue phoned Sure Giltedge Travel directly to explain the situation, a return flight to Addis (now more than R9000) was provisionally booked but, as our usual agent was on leave, someone else entered Ruby’s surname as Pearce. She was then unable to change it and there were no more seats on the flight. I was in the middle of asking her to try booking for the following day when there was a power cut…
Meanwhile Sampson had been missioning about with a guy called Abraham who’d turned up at the garage and helped him register SIMs, but then another tout persuaded him to drive Big Reg up to the Taye Belay Hotel because the “wifi better up there”.
After the kindly concierge Jacob Melkamu installed a VPN app on my phone to help Whatsapp run more efficiently, I finally got back through to Jenny Nelson at Sure Giltedge, who generously went onto her home computer and rebooked Ruby on the Wednesday afternoon flight. It was now 8.30pm.
Within the next hour I’d appealed for and received: euros for her entry visa from Dad; tickets to be delivered by Pierrot; a lift to the airport from Rumbi and collection on return by Clare. I will never forget their kindness and how swiftly the virtual village came together to help my traumatised teen in our hour of need. I climbed down the steep steps of the hotel back into the truck at 9.30pm feeling like a limp rag, damp and sweaty. Sampson and Zola couldn’t believe I’d pulled it off. I ate and collapsed into bed. One leg down, one to go.
Tuesday I was up at 7, pushing through the PEM pain, and down at the Ethiopian Airlines office by 8am. Within 10 mins, I’d bought Ruby’s connecting flight from Addis to Gondar for 1800 Birr (about R700) – a darn sight cheaper than the R4800 quoted by the travel agency. Now I could relax a bit. All there was left to do was a couple of hours’ form filling and letter writing to provide documentation for our unaccompanied minor. Luckily this was the third time Ruby had travelled to us alone and I had the procedure waxed by now.
It took two sessions, in and out of the hotel around eating lunch, to download copies of her chaperones’ IDs and get all the information I needed. But when I came back with everything ready to send – there was another power cut. I took some very deep breaths. By now we knew African travel is never straightforward. But to be so near and yet so far from having my daughter in my arms… I didn’t know how much more of this limbo she or I could take.
Power was finally restored about 6pm and it took another hour to email all the low res docs one agonisingly slow page at a time to fairy godmother Clare Wilson, who printed them off and drove round to drop them at hostel for Ruby to fly with the following day. The relief was HUGE. Sampson had cooked, Zola gave my locked shoulders a massage. I was so shattered I fell asleep without putting up my mossie net. I woke myself up slapping one dead on the bridge of my nose.
The next morning, Wednesday 28th March, here amongst the mountains it was too chilly to get up, so I gratefully lay in bed and typed out last things for Ruby: emergency contacts of embassy and friendly donating hotels in Addis in case she got delayed and couldn’t make the connecting flight. I had to climb the stairs to the hotel to send the Whatsapp and was amazed I wasn’t more stiff – it was the first time I had proof that a massage from Zola worked like a miracle. Good news from Rumbi was that, despite Pierrot being late, Ruby was finally on her way to the airport. Supremely relieved, I came back for lunch and a chat with the Frenchies in the truck next door whom Sampson had been hanging out with for days already.
Olivier and Olivia had been on the road for several years in JoJo Da Snail and were hardened travellers. They’d been out ‘shoulder dancing’ with their Ethiopian friends Tedi and Bettie till 4am – check out examples of Eskista dancing here, here and here. I felt a bit wistful at the thought I could have blown my energy on that instead of mountainous piles of paperwork…
I’d hoped to check out the Royal Enclosure but Sampson, too busy chatting out the window, managed to pull down a low hanging telephone wire on the way out. The fixer Abraham materialised out of nowhere, asserting that the locals were complaining and we needed to pay damages, but I could see the face of a woman whose green velvet dress I’d complimented earlier, and she wasn’t moaning. Zola and Sampson cable-tied the wire back up and we ignored Abraham’s trouble making.
It was getting late now, so we set off towards the airport. Sampson stopped to buy bananas, small mangoes and green apricots and was amazed to find fruit was four times cheaper than when he was with Abraham. Hmmm….
We only drove a few kilometres out of town, but suddenly the countryside was deserted. The truck was not allowed to stay inside the airport overnight, but after chats to police and taxi drivers, as night fell we parked off next to the checkpoint outside.
Somehow, while pulling the roadblock kit out of the wardrobe in a hurry, I managed to get my wrist caught on the door catch and rip a hole in it – it bled horribly. It was like the stress finally caught up with me and tripped me up. The tear took a surprisingly long time to heal, and the scar continues to remind me of the need to stay calm till the very end, not get flustered and lose focus when the goal is in sight.
But still I was elated to be there. The dramatic stormy skies seemed to reflect our expectation. Despite flashes of lightening and thunder, I took a 5 minute walk up the road in the rain, feeling a rush of freedom and excitement. It had all been worth it. After all the challenges – the push to the border, the cab welding, the truck overheating, the painfully slow internet and the power cuts – exactly a week since she found the letter in her bag, my daughter was on her way.