Downhill

The first time I ever met Ethiopians* was when I was volunteering in the Soetwater refugee camp in May 2008, a couple of days after an outbreak of xenophobic violence across South Africa had caused an exodus of immigrants from townships. A group of young men had come to the camp management to complain about the system of hastily erected tents which grouped people by country: Zimbabweans, Congolese, Somalians etc. Their leader, who was smouldering with rage, asserted indignantly “We are not Ethiopian. We are Oromo!”

Up until that point I had never heard the word, despite the Oromo people being the largest ethnic group in the second most populous country on the continent. The young men had left Ethiopia because of the heavy discrimination Oromos (34% of the population) were suffering under the ruling Tigrayan minority (6%) back then. There are over 35 million Oromos, compared to an estimated 12 million Zulus. Imagine how Zulu people would react if the Venda were in charge for nearly 30 years and only hired their own people?

During his conquest of the Oromo in the 1880s, Menelik II’s army carried out atrocities including mass mutilation, mass killings and large-scale slavery, apparently in retaliation for the Zemene Mesafint, the period when a succession of Yejju Oromo feudal rulers dominated the highlanders. Under Emperor Haile Selassie, the Oromo language and culture were sidelined by the Amharic elite. I battle to understand the complexities of modern Ethiopian ethnic federalism but it seems tit-for-tat patterns of tribal repression and retribution have been going on for centuries.

A Brief History of Ethiopia part 7

From the fall of the Derg in 1991, Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan at the head of the EPRDF coalition, was in power (and increasingly autocratic) until his death in 2012. When the next Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned after three years of anti-government protests, Abiy Ahmed Ali succeeded him on 2nd April 2018, the first Oromo ever to take the role.

In 2016, 100 peaceful protestors against a government plan to seize land had been killed by government gunfire in the Oromo and Amhara regions. In 2017, Oromo–Somali clashes led to around 400,000 being displaced. In 2018, Gedeo-Guji clashes in the south of the country led to Ethiopia having the largest number of people in the world to flee their homes: 1.4 million displaced.

In September 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a historic peace agreement, ending 16 years of hostility between the two countries (the ‘no war, no peace’ stalemate). As a result, Abiy Ahmed received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. However the great promise of his first months in power (that we were there to witness), when he preached peace and reform, released political prisoners and unbanned opposition groups, has been heavily overshadowed by recent events.

On 29th June 2020, following the assassination of Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa, composer of the anthem Maalan Jira (about the eviction of Oromo farmers in the expansion of Addis Ababa), protests broke out across Ethiopia, leading to the deaths of 239 people. Since then there has been an escalation of ethnic violence.

The federal government requested that the National Election Board of Ethiopia cancel elections for 2020, citing health and safety concerns about COVID-19 and promising to set a date for the next election once a vaccine was developed. The Tigrayan ruling party, the TPLF, opposed the cancellation and proceeded to hold elections anyway on 9th September 2020.

Relations between the federal government and the Tigray regional government deteriorated after the election. On 4th November 2020, in response to TPLF attacks on army units stationed there, Abiy began a military offensive involving Eritrean and Amharan troops, causing 11000 refugees to flee to neighbouring Sudan and triggering the Tigray War. Between 600-1100 civilians may have been killed in a massacre in the town of Mai Kadra on 9th November 2020. 110 civilians were killed in the city of Axum on November 27th and 28th.

Ethiopians finally go to the polls today, Monday 21st June 2021, amidst allegations of hunger and rape being used as a weapons of war in Tigray. I recommend the final ‘Start Here’ video in this Al Jazeera election overview as excellent background.

Meanwhile, the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (which began construction in 2011) also escalated in 2020. Egypt opposes the dam, fearing that it will reduce the amount of water it receives from the Nile; Ethiopia contends it will help regulate floods and reduce evaporation. The GERD-reservoir, once filled, will have a total water volume of 74 km3, 3 times the volume of Ethiopia’s largest lake, Lake Tana, and provide 6000MW hydroelectric power. Filling it will take at least 5 years.

In October 2019, just after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Prime Minister Abiy warned that “No force can stop Ethiopia from building a dam. If there is need to go to war, we could get millions readied.”

* * *

On the road south out of Addis into Oromia, Big Reg chugged past the impressive African Union headquarters and the enormous Meskel Square, site of so many protests, before passing through Shashamene, the ‘promised land’ granted by Haile Selassie to the Rastafari community.

The day after we left Addis, I woke feeling so much better. We’d dropped from 2500m to 1600m on the terrible road out of the city – it had to be the altitude that had caused all my weediness. It was the first night I didn’t need a sleeping bag and the increase in warmth was giving me a huge increase in energy. My goodness, the ease of getting up was like a gift! Especially compared to the day before feeling so deathly at the Mercedes garage Orbis Trading where they’d kindly checked Big Reg over and ‘greased his nipples’ before we set off. Many thanks to Orbis GM Rolf Gautschi and manager Mr Haile Mariam.

Zola on the other hand was feeling worse. He had puked again during the night after having awful sulphurous burps the whole day yesterday. That could mean only one thing: giardia, so we started him on a course of metronidazole. He slept most of day as we drove south through the increasingly green land.

PJ was proving herself the ultimate Truck Cat on this rough road – no matter how bad it got, with the bumps throwing her body around, she never woke, just resettled herself comfortably on her pillow next to the passenger seat. Once the truck banged down so hard a container on the roof split and caused a major oil spillage; Sampson had to stop and mop up.

The extra energy meant I finally felt strong enough to talk to my husband without getting tearful. I waited until he’d calmed down and was able to focus and screwed up my courage to ask quietly, “Are we done?”

He knew immediately what I meant.

For two days previously, he’d been utterly vile to me. Looking back, it’s obvious Sampson was patently not coping with my encroaching disability and had gone from denial to anger, but at the time I just felt completely at the mercy of his self-pitying melodrama. It didn’t matter what time we drove across the city to the garage, but wasting my energy arguing about it and then doing what I’d first suggested anyway was ridiculous and, because I was at such a very low ebb to start with, dangerous.

He’d told his future sister-in-law to go ahead with booking his flight to their UK wedding without discussing any of the ramifications with me. When he interrupted Maths to shout at us, accusing someone of stealing the last pair of clean socks he needed to drive I decided: Enough. I cannot live like this – even if I have to abandon the trip. It was turning me into a gibbering wreck.

At Jo’s house I’d realised I have Peace without him. Even if it would be physically hard to cope alone, even weak and ill, it would be better to be calm and collected, to be able to pace with no emotional bombs thrown. I’d started thinking about the practicalities of going home and either living in Fish Hoek or the Eastern Cape for the next 3 years until Zola finished high school.

We managed to have a composed conversation discussing separation like adults. I said it would have to be after his brother’s wedding and Ruby’s next visit, but either way I can’t go on like this and won’t because it’s not good for Zola to witness. I only once stalked off to the loo after he said “When you thanked me yesterday for changing the bin it meant a lot because you never notice that everything I do, I do for you” leaving him with “In all these years you’ve never once thanked me for teaching. Think on that till I come back”.

He was doing a good job pretending to be fine with it all. But after kicking out at the cat again, I shouted at him: “If you don’t stop, I will kick you every time you kick her”. Finally I had the strength to stand up for us.

I made supper at the same time as lunch then lay down in the back for the afternoon drive because I’d done more than enough both physically and mentally. But I was quite chuffed to find myself feeling better: it meant my body agreed this has to be the way forward. We arrived at the Wabi Shebelle community resort at Lake Langano in the mid afternoon. On Jo’s recommendation, we’d decided it would be the perfect place to park off for a couple of days to let us all recover a bit.

Sampson negotiated 300Br for the night and parked Big Reg in the grass. I opened the sidedoor and was surprised by birds. It was like a nature programme, dozens of iridescent cobalt blue, copper and yellow fellers flocking round a tree in front of us plus a giant white and brown one with huge head and tail feathers. The following day I even saw an owl! Sampson took these – I wasn’t up to holding the camera up for that long:

Zola stayed in bed while Hub and I walked down to the lake. We were shocked to find it choppy and the colour of builders’ tea.

The sun was fierce and there was a boat-shaped empty building acting as a windbreak so I had a gentle swim – my first since France – in the silky silty water, then basked in the shelter of the steps, feeling blessed. We had a lovely evening, Zola was feeling a bit better and enjoying Six Feet Under.

The next day, despite PEM, I was enjoying writing and jollied a sullen Zola through French to get us both down to the lake for a perfect 3pm dip. He swam right out to the middle, much to the consternation of a schoolbusful of shrieking teens at the shore. Sampson was reading his birthday book Barbarian Days and I had Romola – we shared happiness seeing our son frolicking in water once again. All was calm and blissful and supper was already cooked; another lovely evening seemed assured.

How did a huge row erupt over tomato paste? How did my husband end up threatening me with his own mental breakdown? Suddenly he was revving up the truck, trying to pull off the grass with a loose pan of sauce bubbling on stove. But worst of all, after we’d agreed – he’d promised – that nothing was to be mentioned to the kids until after Ruby’s visit, in front of Zola he said “Yes, let’s just go quick to Mombasa then I can go and stay a month in UK. It will be good to be apart like you said”.

I packed everything away. I lay on the bed feeling completely numb while he moved the truck. I only cried later thinking of Ruby. I played her Cobblepot voicenote twice to cheer me. The unnecessary drama continued when some guys came knocking asking for money and Sampson decided to mention he had a (non-existent) gun?

So instead of a lovely calm evening and an early night, a great sleep and a golden morning walk by the lake, I woke feeling like a ragdoll that had been shaken violently the whole night. After all the upset and crying, my brainstem was battling more inflammation than when we arrived at the lake to spend a couple of days calming it down.

Before Big Reg continued on the horribly bouncy highway south past Wendo, I took 200mg Ibuprofen. It gave me one hour without pain, wedged in with my purple flight pillow on the bed in the back, as Sampson careered around dozens of tuktuks driving like dodgems around the animals and people wandering across the road. I was so dizzy to start off with, it felt like I spent the whole day on a rollercoaster.

At 1pm I had to use my emergency whistle to get Sampson’s attention to stop driving like a lunatic and eat lunch. After another 400mg Ibuprofen, I sat strapped in the front – I’d missed the transition from thorn trees and sand to rich red earth, coffee and banana trees. I figured I was going to feel terrible either way, so I might as well enjoy a view of more than the sky.

Wanting to make the post-painkilling-pills kidney ache worthwhile, I tucked into a bag of cherry flavour chews. The road got harder with long unsealed sections making it very slow going and relentlessly rough. My dizziness got so intense, I was trying to teach without turning my head back to Zola sitting on the bench behind us.

It was getting late and we were beginning to despair of finding a relatively empty place to pull over and park in this most populous province in Africa without constant “You-you-you” and “Money, money” demands, when I spotted a school sign on a gate with a big grassy expanse behind it and suggested we ask for shelter.

It was a brilliant solution: the caretakers were gentle and welcoming. The only problem was that when I got up from my seat to fetch the press file to show them, the world started spinning wildly – WILDLY. Not just my usual got-up-too-quick just-stepped-off-a-fairground-ride feeling but STILL ON IT AND SPINNING.

The vertigo was so extreme I couldn’t walk down the corridor. It was very frightening but Zola was panicking about being seen by strangers so refused to come down out of the nose cone to help me. I was sorely missing Ruby’s instinctive care – she would’ve had me on the bed in a trice and the kettle on. But Sampson made a big effort that evening, making his signature pizza potatoes with Ethiopian Gouda cheese ‘made the Dutch way’ to accompany the last Six Feet Under.

We passed a peaceful night, although twice I woke to find the ceiling still swooping circles around me in the dark. In the morning, as the kids of the Church of Christ Mission School For The Deaf lined up with their hands on each others’ shoulders singing, we chatted with director Mr Kebde Urkaso and the driver who had arrived with a new batch of trainee preachers. Samuel Birra told us of the Mission’s great work – he’d personally sunk the well in the compound, one of 260 sunk in Southern Ethiopia thanks to their US funding. The school had been running for 50 years despite pressure from successive governments and constant corruption.

Samuel was so lovely, he insisted on trying to help Sampson get data. When he found he couldn’t – because foreigners were not allowed individual access to the internet – he gave him an old iPhone that was registered in his name, but put our SIM in the other cradle. We were online! For the first time since we’d arrived in Ethiopia 6 weeks before! While lying inside the truck, without having to sit up in a hotel lobby! It was life-changing. And all Samuel said was “Mail it back to me when you get to the border”.

Can you imagine a total stranger offering to do that for you in Europe?

Our friend Samuel is the man in green at the back on the far right of the group pics above.

Sampson did a magic show for kids during their breaktime. Zola didn’t set foot out of the truck, but was doggedly progressing through some challenging geometry. I was getting ready to cook when Sampson handed me my laptop with my emails finally downloaded – and there was one from my best friend from uni describing the latest Greece blog as “beautifully written and an important untold story”. I was so touched I found myself sobbing. It was a shock to realise how much I was craving creative validation from peers, having been so isolated for so long. I spent an hour writing a grateful reply and started dreaming about visiting my friends in Scotland.

Meanwhile Sampson was dismayed to receive an email from his brother who, overwhelmed by wedding stress and unable to cope with the extra challenge of booking a flight from Africa, was suggesting perhaps he shouldn’t bother coming. I managed to head off a potentially fatal mutual sulk. It seemed ironic that Sampson was showing zero empathy for his brother, although he knows he doesn’t cope any better than he himself with stressful situations, when he was constantly demanding sympathy from me. I said “You can’t get upset with him! You’ve got to go help! It’s going to be wonderful for both of you.”

(I do appreciate that accusing my husband of ‘self-pitying melodrama’ is doubly ironic seeing how that’s what this entire blog has turned into, but I have to tell myself I’m doing this, exposing our failings, to comfort others with chronic illness battling to get loved ones to understand. ‘In sickness and in health’ was never meant to encompass permanent sickness in conjunction with fragile mental health. Bear with us, we get better at being kinder.)

Our afternoon drive was so relentlessly bumpy, I missed the following photos: a shot left down into a subsistence economy village market packed with people piling in with produce from bananas to goats; a boy carrying dozens of plastic bottles wrapped round his head like a hedgehog; a woman balanced backwards on the back of a motorbike holding a chunky cathode ray tube TV.

We stopped on the side of the half-built highway in the middle of nowhere under a mountain slope opposite the abodes of the extended family of Mr Aish. The next morning, a woman took advantage of the truck’s shade to wash a cotton wrap with loads of soap in muddy water on a banana leaf. It looked like the future of water-compromised Africa to me.

As usual, as we approached the border, the road became predictably more hellish, although we’d reached a happier equilibrium ourselves. Big Reg was averaging about 20kmh. I sat upright in the cab for an hour just to get a feel of the new greener scenery; people were significantly poorer, more Muslim, more colourfully dressed (orange, pink and red combos were suddenly in). There were many women, and even little girls, labouring under loads of straw twice their size. And dozens of women carrying heavy packs of folded banana leaves, while dozens of men and boys stood around gaping at the truck. Women are always far too busy to stand and look.

After lunch, I again had to take Ibuprofen and lie in the back with only a view of the sky and blurred treetops out of the window as Big Reg swayed around the Chinese Caterpillar excavators working on the road. The bumps got so violent, the wardrobe door sprang open three times. I spent the whole afternoon trying to stay online long enough to post this May 12th selfie as part of #MillionsMissing 2018.

I had a growing awareness of how lucky I was to be in the truck, my ‘room on the road’. Not as isolated as if I was marooned upstairs at the back of a house. I’m in bed but it’s in the middle of the kitchen, in the middle of the living room, in the middle of the classroom. I can inhabit all those places relatively easily, and not have to hike to get there, as it felt like at Jo’s house.

The road improved and Sampson found a great place to pull off just before Finchawa, but it turned out to be next to a bus stop and was soon swarming with lads. Zola made the best dahl ever for supper – his cooking skills were becoming legendary – but the crowd outside didn’t dissipate by supper time and the constant haranguing and leering faces at the windows spoiled it somewhat. Sampson was fantasising about fixing up a hose to spray sewage or setting up a dogbarking stereo system even though we knew any response would just escalate attention. So we just sat in the dark waiting for them to get bored, give up and go home. Finally we were able to watch a silly fun episode of Misfits before bed – I love it when Zola laughs out loud.

The next day PJ was out at dawn, and I got up at 7am and came out as reinforcements for Sampson, who was surrounded while his morning stretching. The demanding early morning crowd was led by a boy on a motorbike who looked way too young to be driving. He was much cleaner and sharper dressed than the rest, in a Michael Jacksonesque jacket and a high perched cap.

I played the crowd like the pedagogue I am, first ignoring him and concentrating on greeting the girls, then gently mocking his attempts to also stand firm on one leg when invited, then praising his efforts. I told my husband that the most annoying boys are always the ones with the most potential. If he was born here, he would have been the bolshy one shouting.

In the end Mini Michael became my translator and aide, explaining who we were to new arrivals and shushing those who pitched up blaring music from a tinny speaker just as he had! He was so gutted when we left, I think he was half hoping I’d take him with us as ‘we must have done’ with Zola. I was a little heartbroken myself and so happy when he followed us a little way on his bike so I got a chance to ask to take a photo of him. He was a kindred spirit and I could have loved him like a son.

His name was Gamatcha

*The first time I ever heard about Ethiopia was thanks to Bob Geldof in 1984 – I urge those with warm fuzzy memories of Live Aid to read the brutal truth about his collusion with the Mengistu government-engineered famine and resettlement programmes here and here.

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