In Ethiopia, people greet by grasping right hands before leaning their right shoulders to touch each other. ‘Leaning in’ is exactly how you need to approach the country and its people. It’s not for the fainthearted, but very rewarding if you embrace the experience.
Ethiopia is the second most populous African country after Nigeria and its total population grew from 38 million in 1983 to 110 million in 2018 when we were there. There are over 80 different ethnic groups. According to the Ethiopian national census of 2007, the Oromo are the largest with 34.4% of the nation’s population, the Amhara represent 27.0%, while Somalis and Tigrayans represent 6.2% and 6.1% of the population, respectively.
A Brief History of Ethiopia part 2
Ethiopians believe that the Queen of Sheba (or Sabea), also known as Queen Makeda, ruled over swathes of Egypt, Kush, Axum and across to Yemen around 1000 BCE. Her famous visit to the Israelite King Solomon (first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible) resulted in a son Menelik I, the first of 237 monarchs to claim descent from their union.
The legend was created to legitimise the Solomonic dynasty and written down in the 14th century national epic the Kebra Nagast. Menelik is said to have returned from a visit to his father in Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant, leaving a forgery behind. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims that the original, in which lie the Tablets of Stone upon which the Ten Commandments are inscribed, is kept under guard in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum to this day.
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Ruby had less than 2 weeks left with us. I was sad to have come all the way to Gondar and miss the spectacular Debre Berhan Selassie church but Sampson said we didn’t have time to trek to see it – it was too high, and with the risk of the truck overheating we would have needed a tuk-tuk to get up there.
On the windy windy road through the mountains from Gondar to Lalibela, two things stood out: the vivid green of the spectacular scenery and the wretched poverty of the rural towns.
Green seemed to be Ethiopia’s favourite colour. Tall herdsmen carrying sticks with a cotton shawl either wrapped round them against the morning cold or piled on their head against the midday heat were usually in shorts, their thin legs sporting lime green jelly bean sandals. Women wore more sober dark green and blue print dresses, while girls preferred clashing colours – a skirt of thick stripes of turquoise, green and yellow with a faded pink and red floral wrap and a Burberry check scarf tied around the head for example. It worked because the clothes were all so faded the patterns pulled together somehow. They were so beautiful, they looked like Vogue cover girls whatever. Old women draped with embroidered sashes displayed an undeniable grandeur, even when barefoot. Red, gold and green pride was evident everywhere from churches to football tops to café décor.
Our first evening we started watching This Is Us a family drama that Sampson had downloaded without knowing it featured an adopted brother and a fat-shamed sister – the kids absolutely loved it. As usual, Ruby was most eager to chat at bedtime, expressing her indignation on a wide range of issues from bullying at primary school to the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ micro aggressions of high school. We came up with the idea of documenting Everyday Racism at WGHS – such as how her history teacher corrected a Xhosa learner’s pronunciation of her own name – in the same way the Everyday Sexism project does. (Cambridge University subsequently did just that in 2020.)
The next day the exhaust brake got stuck on, and Sampson had me sitting in the driver’s seat pressing and releasing the plunger with my heel over and over while he was underneath tightening the spring. It wrecked my calf muscle. Half a kilometre later, the brake got stuck on again next to a transport hub. A huge crowd gathered to watch Sampson and Zola take it off, clean the carbonate by sanding, and replace it with the brand new joint (gasket) Papi had sourced us in France.
Big Reg finally set off, trundling through the pleasant town of Debre Tabor, full of university residences and pop up cafes with very popular pool tables. In one of the rougher towns, we saw an older guy with a stick beating off some young boys; Sampson stopped for eggs and paid double because he felt so sorry for the woman surrounded by dodgy-looking men.
We were so hot and tired, when we pulled over in a relatively empty spot between villages around 3.30 it felt like 5pm. I was glad Zola came to hold my arm on a brief walk on this last bit of relative flat before the big mountain range.
A group of about 20 kids gathered with the usual demand for attention, the machine gun repetition of “You you you”. Despite our dismal lack of Amharic and their lack of English, as we were staying overnight, I made an effort and got the family photo out of our roadblock kit in an attempt to explain who we were and where we were from. I hoped that would sate their interest and diffuse the relentless haranguing. But as more teenagers arrived, it got worse; they started banging on the side of the truck. So instead of showering we all went outside to greet again – the crowd numbered about 50 by now.
Ruby was out of practice with being the centre of such persistent attention and Zola was hating the Lord of the Flies vibe, so I stepped forward to brave the most in-your-face prodding. I demonstrated how unimpressed I was with Rudeness by giving the spotlight of my regard to the bright boy and group of quiet girls at the back. When we went back inside it started to get nasty – a knot of kids behind the truck began untying water containers, rattling the surf locker door handles and trying to get the bikes off the bike rack. (This was impossible because of thick chains wrapped round them, but they did slash the tarpaulins.)
Next came the rock-throwing.
This was the last straw for Sampson, who went out to check the bikes holding the machete we keep on hand for recalcitrant tree branches and coconuts, which just riled the teens (and me) further. I decided to rather open the door and challenge the ringleader directly. I called him forward, inviting him closer, reminding him “we just talked!” and shaming him for his lack of courtesy. Thankfully the rain came down, allowing me an excuse to get in the shower at last. Most of the crowd left but enough remained to make it unsettling as night fell.
We ate supper and were snuggled up watching the next episode of This Is Us on the laptop hanging from the cupboard when there was a BANG BANG BANG on the sidedoor. Sampson looked through the tinted window to see two guys. Neither were in uniform, so we ignored them. They carried on banging and shouting “Ethiopian police… go city… thief thief” Whatever. BANG BANG BANG. “We are sleeping” I retorted eventually “We’ll go tomorrow”.
Half an hour later the whole rigmarole was repeated. We decided to carry on ignoring them. If they were the police, it was way too late to move now and we felt safe enough here. If it wasn’t the police, it was a good idea to keep the door shut.
All through the night, a group of guys sitting outside in the dark (whether watchful police or vengeful teens) kept up a bizarre round of singing or chanting every hour or so. Was it to remind us they were there? To keep us safe? To keep us awake? Or both? Sampson put his earphones in and slept. I felt I was the only one left responsible for family safety. To be on the alert was exhausting enough without the cold: I was in jamas plus socks in my sleeping bag under the patchwork quilt, thankfully with PJ snuggled down inside with me like a hot water bottle.
What was most disturbing was that I couldn’t work out what we had done to offend them.
Horror stories about travelling through Ethiopia are common, especially from cyclists, mostly involving kids throwing stones or aggressive behavior of some sort. We had had similar experiences in Morocco and Egypt, but the level of malevolence was more intense here – this wasn’t just naughty boys having a laugh, this felt personal.
Latterly I have come to the conclusion that perhaps Ethiopia is the only country in Africa where your knapsack of white privilege has been so deftly pickpocketed, you don’t realise you’ve lost it until the harsh reality of being exposed to life without it hits you.
Everywhere else on the continent, we had been cushioned by wearing the skin of former colonisers and consequently being treated with undue deference or at least respect. But Ethiopians have a long history of battling to maintain their sovereignty and long memories. Here in the rural areas, it felt like we were seen as descendants of the enemy. Well, we were.
On top of this upsetting experience, that night – just as we reached that point in the mountains when hot meals and hot water had become vital again – we ran out of gas. That Wed 4th April was the coldest day of year so far (14˚C at 6.30am). I couldn’t cope with stripping to wash in icy water so we decided to lock down and get going.
The road climbed steeply and by 10am, we were at 3000m. Big Reg seemed to be crawling along the edge of the world. As the truck chugged higher and higher, swinging round precipice after precipice, we were more and more astounded by the vastness of the vistas dropping away before us, down slopes of arable terraces glimpsed between the thin trees whipping past – it was so IMAX movie-like, it hardly seemed real.
The Big Green Truck crawled through Nefas Meewcha, Debre Zebit and Arbit to Gashena before taking the left turn to Lalibela. The gravelly dirt road was so narrow and rocky we wondered if this were the right route to this top tourist destination. Check the junction out on Google maps to understand how the next 50km took nearly 3 hours as our speed reduced to about 15kmph around hairpin bends up the mountainside. (Later, we realised most of the tourists fly in.)
We saw an occasional Chinese overseer in orange overalls and a big sun hat with an Ethiopian work team excavating the road – it will be a lot better when it’s graded. But for now, it was full of holes that had the Big Green Truck swaying about all over the place and so ridged, it produced a bone-rattling vibration the likes of which we hadn’t endured since entering the Sahara on the west side. I decided to “get my retaliation in first” as my Dad says, and took an Ibuprofen in an attempt to ward off the inevitable brain stem inflammation. Then I braced my feet against the dashboard and just hung on tight as Big Reg inched along bravely up to 3000m, down across a valley around 2000m, then back up again.
Meanwhile Zola was staging a silent protest. It began as a way to show his anger about being forced to get out of the truck yesterday and greet the crowd with the rest of the family – he loathes the limelight at the best of times. Ruby – never the diplomat – made it very clear she was not impressed by his sulking, as a result of which he defiantly stayed in his bedroom and didn’t come down for breakfast or lunch. On the bright side, he must have had the best view of all out of the nose cone windows above us; it would have been like a fairground ride!
When it started getting hot in the afternoon, we stopped so I could walk about a bit to ease my constricted ‘aeroplane legs’, drink pineapple juice and eat some peanuts and raisins as an energy boost. It was a good opportunity to invite Zola to come have a nibble and sheepishly the hungry lad allowed himself to join us.
Soon Big Reg started overheating and Sampson started panicking. He stopped twice to spray the engine with water, then pointblank refused to go any further although it was only another 8km to Lalibela. Without gas to cook, Ruby and I would rather have gone on to eat in town but Sampson said he was too tired.
He then got out and entertained the kids of this tiny hamlet with a range of magic, which the little ones so enjoyed, he ended up pulling silly faces and doing his full range of animal noises for them. Over the next hour, the crowd grew from 8 kids to 30. They were absolutely delighted and I couldn’t help loving him for it until he came back in and whinged about how exhausted he was. I tried to take some pics through the window (despite how dirty it was) just to remember how much friendlier the vibe was compared to the previous evening.
Our host Abraham is the smiley guy on the right:
I wish I’d got out to take a photo of the kids hooting with laughter against the stunning mountain backdrop that surrounded us, but I couldn’t have got down the ladder. I washed in cold water, collapsed onto the bed and ate a bowl of leftover cold rice mashed with tinned sardines and tomatoes dished up by my daughter. Rather than admitting he’d overdone it and made our evening very late, Sampson thought we should be more impressed he’d “made the effort” to win over the kids “for us”. The tears were beginning to squeeze out of my eyes when Ruby took charge and refused to let him strop. So insightful and kind, she saved me from the costly effort it usually takes to dispute his version of events. It was such a relief to remain silent out of the firing line.
I lay awake from 2-4am and in the morning was shocked by disorientating pain – why did my arms feel like I’d been hanging off a cliff all night? The sockets felt particularly wrenched. As I surfaced, I realised that clinging onto the arms of the passenger seat all day yesterday had left me feeling like I’d been on the rack. But worse than the PEM was the head-rattledness and nausea. My balance was completely off. When my husband hugged me it was too much, I felt too fragile. Everything hurt. It took me half an hour to come round, another hour to get up.
I came out to do T’ai Chi just as he finished stretching for the crowd. I think I gained a little respect from Abraham when I explained this gentle martial art was first practiced by monks in mountain monasteries who wanted to defend themselves without aggression. He was thrilled to be given 2 bidons, but I think the genuine clasp-to-shoulder hug goodbye he gave to Sampson wasn’t from gratitude but rather respect for his driving skills. Even me and the kids were marvelling – when Dad had forgotten to put the truck in 4×4, how on earth did he manage to get Big Reg’s 10 tonnes up that short 50˚angle slope then turn sharply back onto the narrow road without falling into the ditch?
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