Today Pushkin Square has no Pushkin statue, and it never was much of a square anyway. The place is now a tangle of underpasses with roads darting off towards the Addis Ababa slaughterhouse to the east (qera), Mekanisa to the south, Mexico Square to the north – also a traffic circle, never a square ! – and Old Airport – also known as Bisrat Gabriel ! – to the west. Of course, Addis Abebans always knew the intersection as plain Sar Bet, or, House of Straw, a name taken from the modern tukuls with thatch roofs that lie nearby, and which were built back in the seventies, when the town south of Mexico only existed as a rurban settlement of eucalyptus groves, streams and fields full of cattle and tiny countryside villas. The map to Pushkin would have us driving from the airport down Africa Avenue, through Meskal Square and on to Mekonnen Street, and from there down Roosevelt to our destination… but if you were to ask a taxi driver to take you to Roosevelt Street, and then down to Pushkin you would draw a blank. But say you wanted to drive down Bole, past Stadium and from there towards Sar Bet, and you would indeed reach that intersection where a bust of the great Russian poet once stood in the middle of a traffic circle. Alexander Pushkin traced his ancestry back to an African slave named Abram Gannibal, who was bought to Moscow by a Russian prince and himself rose into the aristocracy. Harking from Ethiopia has long seemed to be the romantic thing to do, but more recent research points to the Lake Chad area as being the origin of Pushkin’s African forbears. Be it what it may, a bust of the poet seemed the apposite thing to do to somebody in the Russian embassy in Ethiopia, where Russia is mostly remembered for its billion dollar weapon assistance to the Derg military regime, and Pushkin graced the small traffic circle for a few years before making way for the underpass. It is now difficult to ascertain if Pushkin Square is still called Pushkin. The question, no doubt in order to not ruffle feathers at the Russian embassy, has been left shrouded in mystery and car exhaust fumes. Nobody has been able to trace the statue either – a Russian from the embassy wistfully told me that it had perhaps been sent off to Chad – but that may just have been poetic license, similar to the story of the poet’s lineage originating in Ethiopia.
Here is the third part for the end of the game series, about Ethiopia’s wildlife and environment. You can read the first one, about the elephants of the Babile near Harar in Ethiopia’s east here and the second one, about ‘moving mountains’ here.
The tree where man was born, according to Peter Matthiessen’s eponymous narrative, still lay to the east of the country of the Nuer less than a generation ago. But for me, it all started with Yohannes Dernersesian, my Armenian mechanic.
Back then, my forty year old Volkswagen beetle was blue. Yohannes Dernersesian was a hunter, besides being an avowed beetle specialist, and the smoke of his Old Holborn tobacco curled up around his gnarled hands towards a mounted buffalo head. Discarded engine shafts nuzzled up to gun barrels and an elephant trunk stuck out of the chimney of the ramshackle wooden house that served him as base for his mechanical tasks. Yohannes was the son of one of the forty Armenians adopted by the King of Kings Haile Selassie and his arm had been mauled from a lion attack in the Danakil. He told me tall stories of giants on the banks of the Nile, while discussing how to put my curio back on the road. When he’d be done with my car, I could drive it all the way to Gambela if I liked, was his parting shot on that first day.
Gambela was the little wedge on the western side of Ethiopia, jutting out towards the plains of Sudan. Here was Ethiopia’s claim to a part of the White Nile Basin. The Baro, on whose upper reaches the British had been granted a concession, is Ethiopia’s only navigable river. Starting in 1907, steamships would come up from Khartoum in the rain season, pulling behind them barges to be filled with coffee beans from the close crisp heights of Illubabor and Kafa and elephant tusks from the mountain forests of Tepi and Matu. Once full, the barges would be cut loose and drift gently down the swollen river, into the Sudan and its interior sea, the Sudd.
The plains between the Bahr Al Gazal, the Sudd, and the Baro and Akobo rivers were bigger than Kenya and Uganda combined and vast herds roamed them, or so Yohannes said, puffing away on the imported tobacco he’d taken to making me buy. Higher up, along the border, there were even elephant tracks that went from Sudan into Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. By now, Yohannes had been holding onto my car for more than six months. For sure, he seemed to be doing a good job, if only a painstakingly long one. It was a far way to Gambela, a very far way, he would tell me, when I’d pay him my weekly visit to enquire about advances on the body, the brakes, the suspension, the paint work and the engine. That, and supplying him with his Old Holborn. By now my car had been painted green.
Wisps of smoke would curl around the elephant trunk and slowly rise until the amputated pachyderm seemed to be smoking from behind a screen, silently bearing witness to the endless stream of Yohannes Dernersesian’s stories and ideas of mechanical improvements to be brought to my car. ‘I ask just one thing’ Yohannes had said, right at the beginning of our relationship, ‘I will treat your car just as I would mine, but don’t be asking me about dates or deadlines.’ I’d willingly agreed and at first said nothing when he’d disappear for days on end. I’d come to the garage for my weekly visit and would discover that my car hadn’t been touched. There’d be a lingering odor of Old Holborn gone stale and the buffalo would steadily eye me while I stood looking at one of the maps on the wall.
But Yohannes did finish the car, after a year and some and I drove away knowing a little more of the art of Volkswagen maintenance and of the geography of one of Africa’s last unexploited hinterlands. Stories stuck to Yohannes Dernersesian like the improbable smoke rings coming out of the truncated elephant in his garage. Mauled by a lion in the Danakil, hunting from his bicycle at thirteen, an elephant tracker in Gambela and the Omo, Yohannes told tall stories that were undoubtedly true. He was a son of one of the forty Armenian orphans of the King of Kings, and elephants did roam the vast plains where temperatures soared to unheard heights and the men and women were giants themselves.
A year later, I was in the south of France when the news fell: an aerial survey had been conducted for the first time in 25 years in South Sudan, over the Sudd, the Jonglei and the Boma areas. The raging civil war had ended, a peace accord had been signed and there was a rush for oil in the Sudan. In Juba, a tent for the night cost $200, refugees were trickling back and the biggest country in Africa was whetting the appetites of the largest corporations and NGOs in the world. The aerial survey revealed that, incredibly, wildlife had thrived in many parts of the south, and that a migration of close to a million and a half animals –mostly tiang and white-eared kob antelopes- occurred every year. The migration, comparable in size to the herd movements of the Serengeti, took place seasonally between the highlands close to the Ugandan border, moving down into the huge plains under the White Nile as the rain season marshes and lakes dried up after January. On the map of the press release, they showed the migration as it moved down from the south towards the grassy plains. The northern limit of the migration would be the Baro River in Gambela. The balmy air of southern France smelt all of sudden rather like Old Holborn. The truncated elephant was blowing smoke rings again and we were back on the road.
In Ethiopia, half of Yohannes’ garage had been taken away by a flood but he was up-beat and talking of going down to the Sudan border. He suggested we fix aluminum plates under my Volkswagen and motor there. I drove out of the garage of the son of one of the forty Armenian orphans and decided to go myself to the place called Gambela. My car was blue again by now and entering her forty first year and she wasn’t going to take me there. I decided to fly and confided my beetle to Aldo, my new –Italian- mechanic, for a week long revision while I was away. Aldo says that when he’s finished with her, I’ll be able to drive all the way to the Rift Valley. So it goes.
On the road to Matar, down on the Baro River near where it crosses into Sudan and becomes the Sobat, I saw the vanguard of the great herds of white-eared kob that had stumbled onto the plains between the rivers. The long grasses had just been burnt and everywhere the charred earth was being covered in the green sprouts of new grasses. The peoples of these plains –Nuer, Anuak and Dinka- were indeed giants and even the women stood two heads above me. In Matar, I ate ‘Doro Fanta,’ which meant ‘cooked like a chicken;’ but the bones were big, the meat purple and I later found a severed kob’s head as I walked around the village. A storm erupted and a herd of the animals broke into a nervous gallop as we drove past. The vistas were beautiful and they stretched –I knew from the maps in Yohannes’ garage- all the way to Juba, where a night in a tent cost $200, down to the Sudd where 10 000 elephants had been spotted last year and all the way up to the Ugandan border where these kobs would be moving back at the beginning of the new rain season.
This expanse of wilderness inhabited by herds as big as anything you can see on earth is exciting interest: oil but also controversial biofuel crops; roads are being opened as fast as possible and rivers being dammed. Environmentalists are also on the move and the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York is establishing what it’s calling the Boma-Jonglei Landscape. There is even talk of joining up the Omo and Gambela parks of Ethiopia to this project, together with a sliver of northern Kenya, creating one of the vastest managed ecosystems in Africa.
And that’s how a week later I found myself flying to the Omo Valley in an ultra light aircraft, a Zen Air CH701. It weighed in at 260 kg and on the tarmac of the Addis Ababa airport, an Ethiopian Airlines pilot ambled over and asked with a grin if it could actually fly. With its 100 horsepower engine, it felt rather like my Volkswagen beetle, with wings. But fly it could and some five hours later, Ian Stevenson –the pilot and current manager of the National Park- brought us swooping in over the Omo River and onto the park’s plains. There were thousands of tiang, buffalo and eland and it felt, for all my motion sickness that we had flown out of Ethiopia and into Africa.
The Omo region and park exemplify the troubles and potentialities of the region. Up stream, huge dams are being erected on the headwaters of the river. What effects this will have on the flood retreat agriculture practiced all along the banks of the river and at its mouth as it flows into Lake Turkana, nobody knows. ‘Ethnic tourism’ is practiced in a predatory way detrimental to both the tourists and the indigenous people, with money exchanged for pictures and people stripping for show. Oil is being earnestly sought by international consortiums, roads and bridges are laid out with little forward planning and tsetse eradication programs seek to open up the last preserved areas to still more cattle. In the Omo Valley, ethnic groups that have lived in one of the last remote corners of the world are seeing the double edged sword of civilization poised above their land. For good, for bad, the area is opening up.
The Out of Africa theory sees early humankind streaming out of the East African savannas and into the rest of the globe, and there is still something primal and untouched about this whole region. It is the last frontier of Africa. Managing this cross border area –Omo-North Kenya-South Sudan-Gambela- as an interlocked complex of peoples, wildlife and different land uses and interests, is a daunting challenge and one we should meet. Back up in the skies on my last day in Omo with Ian, we spotted eight elephants to the west of the Washa Plains. The elephants seemed to be headed for a valley due west, towards the hills that marked the Sudan border. Just to the east of where man was born.
Here is the second instalment on the ‘Elephant in the Room’ in Ethiopia: the country’s environment.
You can read here a first post (with a picture of a leopard taken just 25 km from Addis Ababa!) and read here an account of tracking elephants themselves just 30 km west of Harar. Also, a video interview with Tsegaye Taddesse from Farm Africa, about how community managed forests in Ethiopia are preserving and increasing forest coverage (link to video in today’s Guardian here and link to accompanying article here). Also, about community tourism and forest conservation, a post we wrote here a while back about the new community tourism project in the Rift Valley initiated by ESTA for which Equus Ethiopia gave training: It takes a village?
Everybody, but just everybody, knows where Mount Entoto – also known as the Entoto Hills, or just plain Entoto, is, right? But I’d bet that you don’t! Or rather, that the mountain was moved from beneath your very nose… but how is that possible?! – It all happened in another age of course, when kings reigned supreme and the hills were still young – but more about this later!
We are told that Emperor Menelik first set his sights on the mountain top of Entoto, seeking a more permanent – and central – position for his roving capital. Entoto, easily defendable, at the center of the new trade routes from the Red Sea and strategically placed between the newly conquered west and south and the old Abyssinian north territories, was perfect – as long as there was plentiful wood – soon cut down – and water – which soon ran dry. His consort, Taitu, who was want to soothe her rheumatic feet in the springs of Filwuha, is credited with dragging her husband down the mountain – and christening the new town after the yellow blooms of the Mimosa trees that grew between the springs. True or not, the story provided sturdy roots for an ever vivacious flower – and the tents and bath shacks of Filwuha have bloomed and bloomed to become the 4 million metropolis of Addis Ababa we know today.
But by the beginning of the 20th century, what we now call environmental degradation had taken its toll, and Menelik set about building a new capital, the aptly named Addis Alem – or New World – near the plentiful forests of Ginchi – and had it not been for the import of the Tree-From-Beyond-The-Seas, or Bahar Zaf – the Eucalypt, move the capital would certainly have done.
But today’s Addis Ababa, with its new ring roads and condominiums, still lives in the shadow of the Entotos Hills, and of this heritage of environmental degradation – and the question of what to do with this heritage and how to improve it, has never been more pressing. Look up from anywhere in Addis and you will see mountains – to the north the Entoto chain itself, to the west, Mount Wechacha, to the south Yerer, and, further away, but well visible on a clear day, the volcanic cone of Zuqwala rising above the plains and the Rift Valley. Zuqwala even features on Fra Mauro’s map of the world from 1450! These mountains, with their balmy climate and the safety and wood and water they provided year long, have long made the larger Addis Ababa site sought after – the rock churches of Washa Mikael and Adadi Maryam, the ruins on Mount Yerer and the medieval capital of the Abyssinian kings pointed out in the Zorzi Itineraries, all show conclusively how important the area has been throughout Ethiopian history.
And never has this been truer in today’s Ethiopia and contemporary Addis Ababa, moving forward quickly and confidently it now seems – albeit with a backwards glance at those hills – those disappearing forests! Those drying up springs! That loss of wildlife! Even a flower of cement needs all the water and clean air it can get… The Entoto Hills, the lung of Addis Ababa, is visible from all over the city. And like all visible things, sometimes forgotten and taken for granted. But the Entotos are now the focus of economic and environmental efforts – projects such as the Gulele Botanical Gardens and the Ethiopian Heritage Site seek to replenish the forests with indigenous species and attract visitors. It seems like a new era is dawning for Addis Ababa and its surroundings – a now vibrant city which would use – responsibly – the green hills and magnificent scenery it is crowned with. Entoto can become a ‘brand,’ a city forest that would add to Addis Ababa’s economy in tourist dollars, but also provide environmental security (clean water and clean air) and something intangible called quality of life for the increasing numbers of what is now a big and ever growing city.
Back in the 15th century, the Emperor Zara Yacob forbade all logging in the forests of ‘Menagesha,’ and is said to have brought seedlings to replenish the forest from far away Wof Washa in Ancobar. This makes Menagesha Suba Forest (on the western flancs of Mount Wuchacha) the ‘oldest conservation area in Africa…’ True or not, it certainly makes for a good story of Ethiopian conservation by Ethiopians. And of course, back in those days who is to say what was meant by Menagesha Forest? For all we know, it was probably a name that applied at the time to all of the hills around what we now call Addis Ababa, and which were at the time all covered in the Junipers and Kosso of montane forests teeming with animals.
But back to that old, but more recent – 19th century – Mountain moving episode… What few people know is that Menelik first set up his roving capital not to the north but to the west of what is now Addis Ababa, on Mount Wuchacha, in a place that was then called… Entoto! A few years later, having cut down all the trees, he upped sticks and set up on the hill range to the north. His first act as a king in his new capital? He told everyone he didn’t much fancy changing names and that henceforth the ‘new’ mountain would be also known as Entoto! Which it still is. Today, we can no longer move mountain ranges and their forests at will. All the more reason to take care of those we have.
Here is an article I wrote some years ago, about the elephants of the Babille Elephant Reserve in Harar. It’s part of a series I am entitling The End of the Game in Ethiopia about wildlife and the environment. For more update information about elephants in Ethiopia, please have a look at Yirmed Demeke’s site here.
Last month five elephants were equipped with satellite transmitting collars in the Elephant Sanctuary of Babille, a first for Ethiopia. This successful operation opens the possibility of developing the sanctuary and initiating elephant tourism. This will benefit both the local human population and the elephants themselves.
The Babille Elephant Sanctuary is a good example of Ethiopia’s untapped tourism potential. The sanctuary, established by decree back in the early 1970’s, covers three valleys running parallel to the road from Harar to Babille. After the sanctuary’s creation however, the sanctuary’s elephants fell into oblivion to the point where to speak of the ‘Babille Elephants’ today rises people’s eyebrows –even in nearby Harar.
But well-known facts and arched eyebrows can be flattened. I came upon an article by Yirmed Demeke, Ethiopia’s foremost elephant researcher. In his article, Yirmed declared that not only were there elephants in the Babille Sanctuary, but that they were thriving. These were, in Yirmed’s words, the last remaining population of elephants in the Eastern Horn, quite possibly a loxodenta sub-species. Yirmed’s aim was to publicize ‘his’ elephants, and by making them known ensure their survival –in other words, his article aimed to attract tourists, thus money, thus preserve the sanctuary and implement the existing legislation. And if the local people couldn’t be kept out, then involve them in the tourism industry – as guides, scouts, providers of wood to tourist camps. ‘This was,’ Yirmed concluded, ‘the only way forward if such elephants were to be preserved.’
I pinned down Yirmed Demeke at the Institute of Biodiversity, in Addis Ababa. In his office, there was a poster written in English, Somali and Oromo, about the importance of preserving the heritage of Babille. On the poster, there was a close-up of a dead elephant, killed in retaliation for a crop raiding two years ago. ‘But since then, there hasn’t been a single killing’ Yirmed told me. ‘These people are not hunters and they just don’t believe in killing wild animals.’ Yirmed Demeke was doing his PhD at the University of Melbourne, on elephants, of course. He sat and showed me a PowerPoint presentation on his laptop. It had lots of photos of elephants –all taken in the Babille Sanctuary. So it was true, there actually were elephants
Yirmed’s presentation, besides the photos, provided an outline of Ethiopia titled ‘Elephant Distribution Map.’ On the upper right hand side there was a code, with different colors, indicating the presence of elephants in different areas of the country. From 1772 to the 1900’s (light gray), from 1901 to 1944 (gray), from 1945 to 1990 (dark gray), and for the year 2006 (black). The map showed the gray, as it retreated all over the map, shriveling up like the skin on a pan of simmering milk. Looking carefully, you could see that only a few specks of black remained of the vast gray territories of 1772 –in Gambella, on the Sudanese borders; on the Ethio-Eritrian border; somewhere down in the Omo and Mago National Parks; on the Kenyan-Ethopian border, in Borana and in Babille, where there were, ‘up to three hundred individuals!’ Yirmed declared with unmistaken pride and concern in his voice, ‘making it the biggest single elephant population in Ethiopia.’ He laughed, and then looked at me in earnest: ‘You see, we used to have a continent, but now, these little black spots, we call them Elephant Islands.’
‘Elephants,’ Kifle Argaw, the team leader from the Ethiopian Conservation Department explained to me, ‘are a keystone species; this means that if you preserve them you preserve their habitat. And if you do that, you preserve all the rest that goes with it.’ Back at the Institute for Biodiversity, Yirmed Demeke had told me what he wanted to do. ‘The elephants are thriving; the problem is that people are slowly moving into the park.’ He’d clicked a button on his PowerPoint presentation and shown me the new villages that were appearing in the sanctuary. ‘We need to do something about this, perhaps move the boundaries of the park a little; if we don’t control the population movement the elephants are finished. Already, there is a lot of conflict, with the elephants raiding farmer’s crops.’ Yirmed was fired up and thought the cause worthwhile. ‘The only way to save the elephants is to make them profitable; the only way to make the elephants profitable is to bring people in to see them, and the only way to do that is to know where the elephants are so that we can actually find them. We are going to put satellite collars on the elephants with GPS receivers. Like that, we can study them, know how to manage the sanctuary and bring people in to watch them.’
Down in the Babille Sanctuary the elephant collaring team walked up and down massive valleys and through dry forests teeming with life –we saw giant Leopard tortoises, Menelik’s Bushbuck, Lesser Kudu and the tracks of both leopard and black manned lion. The local villagers were smiley and welcoming, the girls decked out in colorful dresses and amber necklaces, and the children had painted flowers on their faces.
We set up camp under a big Shola tree that provided shade to us and squawky refuge to electric blue Superb Starlings. When we finally found the elephants –finding an elephant in Babille could be a local translation of the English finding a needle in a haystack- we also rejoiced under this great tree, the crew trading stories of their close encounters of the day. Yirmed was happy: from now on nothing would be easier than finding an elephant in Babille. Not quite as easy as finding a cow in the English countryside –but still, a near guaranteed sighting for the tourists who will soon be coming to Babille.
Once again bowing to the pressures of our numerous Uthiopian fan clubs in Sekela, Gojjam (thanks for all the likes Afewerk Wondemagegn Haile-Ghiorghis!), Uthiopia wishes to present a few of our most popular posts in Gojjam and Illubabor.
First, a link to our first six month round-up, which contains such classics as the true story of Kaldi and the Dancing Goats as well as Confessions of an English Chatt Eater and all of the secrets of the Language of the Birds, as well as the Abyssinian Dreamscapes of the photographer Nicolas Henri.
Members only: the untold condom story, or how the origin of an Ethiopian condom stretches the imagination.
Aytewekem, or how not to get served a beer in a certain beer hall.
The North Koreans’ stealth attempt at stealing the Abyssinian unicorn (and you thought we only had to worry about thermonuclear war?!)
Kebele, or the revolution’s only child?
My Kingdom for a mule: pictures of Equus’ foray into mule territory in Menz
Play the Piano like an Ethiopian: a very secret post about the secret sect of Ethiophiles.
A Shibboleth on the Barbary Coast, or how spelling mistakes spread from Israel to Ethiopia.
Mafaqia: give me a lever and a fulcrum and I shall open your mouth.
The revolution of 1974 brought down a two thousand year palace and erected in its stead the kebele. By the people, and for the people, the kebele office is to this day the smallest administrative unit in the city. It delivers official papers, sells goods below market price, flies a flag and, sometimes, boasts a taekwondo club. Back in 74, when the balabat – or owners – were the enemy, and tomorrows were full of singing sunrises and bumper teff harvests, the management of all rental houses below the price of a hundred birr was signed over to this embodiment of the proletariat. And to this day, when it’s difficult to get even a humble coffee for less than three birr, kebeles rake in the tremendous sums of ten, twelve birr in monthly rent, from poor but fortunate tenants.
In these more enlightened times, when to enrich oneself is glorious, and the proletariat is a distant memory best kept alive in Soviet Union posters and their Derg era carbon copies, the kebele is a place where you can escape Starbucks look-alikes. The coffee still only costs a couple of birr, the kai wot is very red and the underpaid waiting staff drag their feet to bring you the cheep tapped beer.
Ah, bliss: no happy smiles, no canned musak; but the earnest voice of ETV, reverberating around a dimly lit hall. Aster’s lyrics spool out for the twentieth time of the day as ancient gentlemen sporting flat caps of the kind last seen in Workers’ Clubs in the UK in the seventies count their sixty five cents change. A cent after all is a cent! Outside, the city is a riot, with a new establishment popping up every minute – cocktail bars, meat only restaurants and gym halls where you can lose weight and gain gravitas watching CNN. But in the kebele, the light remains dim and the prices the same. Who would have thought that the revolution’s child would become a bastion of conservatism?
Life is a piece of rubber. Just like one of those little elastic bands you can buy in a ‘Gurague souk’ for a couple of centimes. Elastic and fantastic, life is forever expanding and contracting into the weirdest places.
But let me tell you about Phil Harvey. Phil Harvey runs a business called ‘Adam and Eve’ that operates out of a warehouse in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. ‘Adam and Eve’ is the world’s biggest catalogue of all things kinky that the Americans buy to spice up their private lives. Anything you may want to imagine, or may not want to imagine, is on the catalogue. You order it, put in a payment and three weeks later an innocuous looking package arrives on your doorstep. This very profitable business earns Phil Harvey millions of dollars.
But Harvey had other ideas: why not apply marketing to family planning as well he thought? Push contraceptives on the market as if they were Coca-Cola or chewing-gum. Make the product attractive, ‘sexy;’ transform it into an article of fashion. In short, no more boring posters warning of the dangers of unprotected sex but flashy pictures and funny tongue in cheek adverts which would appeal to young people – ‘Members only…’ is the current one in Addis
And that is how ‘DKT’ – the NGO founded on the profits of ‘Adam and Eve’- became the first provider of ኮንዶም (condoms) in a number of countries, of which Ethiopia.
But maybe you think you don’t know ‘DKT’? But I’ll vouch that all of the readers of this column know ‘Sensation,’ which is the brand name of the condoms marketed by ‘DKT’ in Ethiopia. A packet of ‘Sensation’ costs just three birr. A price anyone can afford. Somewhere out in Texas an American’s mail order made that price possible.
As I drove down from Arat Kilo to Ambassador last week, by way of the short-cut of ‘Aroge Kera,’ I witnessed first-hand the profound changes under way throughout old Addis Ababa. The unkempt neighbourhood underneath Arat Kilo and the palace – a dishevelled mess of mud, sticks and tin and round boulders and little red lights hanging in narrow doorways, is no more – a bald wasteland lies in its place, already punctuated by the spiky high rises that seem to define the new style of the city with its straight combed avenues. Mud and stick wall elements still rise here and there, with yellowing newspaper wallpaper and wrinkled photographs that wouldn’t come unstuck from the mud. This neighbourhood had grown up wild around the palace’s perimeter and its mud and stick shacks were amongst the oldest houses in Addis Ababa. Little more than an urban midden run wild perhaps, and certainly a mess in need of some trimming, nevertheless, I felt a sense of loss as the old neighbourhood faded away in my rear mirror.
Here are a few words about a barber’s I used to go to at the top of the area, near the taxi stand for Mexico Square. The barber was called Setota – which can be translated as present, or gift, in Amharic. Now that his cupboard sized hairdresser salon has been shorn away, only memories remain, which soon like so much snipped hair, will be swept into the rubbish, as the shape of the city that was shimmers in the mirrors and fog of our memories, a map of ever more blurred contours.
“If the mirrors of the Tsegur Betoch – hairdressers – of Addis Ababa could talk, they would tell of the marvellous anecdotes they had witnessed. They reflect daily on white lies, tall stories and bizarre confessions.
At ‘Tasaw’s salon,’ where Ato Setota the barber works, there are mirrors on either side of the room. These mirrors have seen students, anxious before a first date, stressed office workers in for an after work shave and wheezing traffic policemen, stopping to get a trim after a day of whistle blowing.
Ato Setota the hairdresser is himself meticulously groomed and as reserved as an English – should I say Abyssinian? – butler. His own crown is shiny and in no need of scissors, and when the young men whose hair he cuts move out of the chair, he stands on tiptoe to brush their shoulders.
A snippet from the scissors, a whir and burr from the electric clippers, and worries fall to the ground like so much shorn hair – ‘She is insisting on seeing me’ – ‘The minister only trusts me with this report.’ The customers deliver their tall tales to the men in white, eyes locked on themselves, in the mirror of tall tales.
The hairdressers, in their white smocks, have heard it all before. Their ears are even more dexterous than their fingers, and they never look in the mirror to see the truth – it’s against their work ethic. Ears agog, they egg on and corroborate. The hairdressers of the Tsegur Betoch of Addis Ababa are like mirrors: they reflect and judge not. Ato Setota and his brethren, in countless little parlours over town, keep people’s hair and worries under control. The salons are sometimes little bigger than shoe boxes, but they always have a mirror of tall tales, which expands the tiny salons and make them bigger than life. It’s the barbers’ daily present to the city.”
I went to have a beer the other day, at a brewery that has just been sold to an international conglomerate. A fact one can’t fail to notice from the notices on hand at the gate informing you of the ‘Number of days without accidents at the brewery’ – it was a quite high number too – followed up by more notices all around the drinking hall, informing punters to ‘drink responsibly,’ and that ‘under 18s are not allowed to drink’ – heavens! What next in Ethiopia? Breath analyzers?!
My, my, my… responsibility (modernity) comes to Ethiopia I thought, as I finally managed to get the eye of a waitress and ordered a beer. ‘There isn’t any’ she said, yellem – the most common answer in any bar in Ethiopia, including upmarket ones. So far so good, I thought, we’re back in familiar territory. In all honesty, I should point out that the guards at the entrance to the park had informed us of this beer yelem situation before issuing us tickets. But I thought, this is a brewery, of course they’ll have a couple of bottled beer on hand. But no, yelem is yelem is yelem.
But how could a brewery run out of beer? I asked. When the answer came, among the health and security warnings that surrounded us, it was so quintessentially Ethiopian that I felt immediately refreshed – ‘አይታወቅም’ the waitress demurely told me (Aytawekem or, ‘It is not known’)
This answer fits every purpose imaginable, from knowing – or rather not knowing – if it shall rain or shine tomorrow, or if the bank manager you’ve been trying to reach for days will come back next week – or ever for that matter. This It-Is-Not-Known is both a barricade against despotism (you can always invoke the But-I-Didn’t-Say-Anything-Defense) in a hierarchical society, and also a surrender to higher fates – for who really knows anything except for Him?! How long this answer will pass muster in a rapidly developing and more open and modern Ethiopia (one where the health warnings are written on the wall) is anybody’s guess. Still, I would recommend the brewery. It’s a lovely place. But I can’t tell you if you can drink a beer or not. It is not known.
The North Koreans are lying claim to the unicorn, an unequivocally Uthiopian beast if ever there was one!
Uthiopia would like to parry this clumsy – should we say one pronged?! – attempt at stealing Ethiopia’s thunder, and depriving the Horn of Africa of its bestiary.
Cosmas Indicopleustes, from the sixth century, said he saw four unicorns in the place of the King in Axum in brass statues. Cosmas add that
“it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.”
Later on, Job Ludolf, Ethiopia’s first historian, will write in the 18th century that:
“The unicorn is found in the mountains of high Ethiopia. It is of an ash colour and resembles a colt of two years old, excepting that it has the head of a goat, and in the middle of its Morehead a horn three feet long, which is smooth and white like ivory, and has yellow streaks running along from top to bottom.
“This horn is an antidote against poison, and it is reported that other animals delay drinking till it has soaked its horn in the water to purify it. This animal is so nimble that it can neither be killed nor taken. But it casts its horn like a stag, and the hunters find it in the deserts. But the truth of this is called in question by some authors.”
I myself have seen many an unicorn in my travels throughout Abyssinia… and met many who have seen them too! For now, I fear to not be able to reveal their dwelling places as they are shy beasts that thrive best in forest glades… but enough said, lest I reveal the true lair of the true Abyssinian unicorn! North Koreans may attempt some illegal kidnapping if I speak more, and bundle the dainty beast off to the land of one name fits all rulers, the one pronged Kims!
“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”
Jorge Luis Borges
“The best place in the world is on the back of a horse, and the best thing to do in time is to read a book”
Tells us the, allegedly, Arabic proverb – and who am I to disagree, especially with the second part? Even Abraham Lincoln, with a true spirit of American betterment, seems to have put into practise this mobile equine library conceit.
Proverbs about horses are legion, in a world that once depended on them, for transport, war and pleasure. Here is an Ethiopian one that I can vouch for:
“A horse shall take you to the battlefield, but will not win the fight for you.”
But what on earth does it mean? Perhaps we should look for the gold hidden inside the wax…
But enough said about horses, because in Ethiopia of course, until very recently, it was the mule that was put above everything. Indeed, the first photographic pictures and films of Ethiopian rulers invariably put the leader on a mule, and not on a horse. Since time immemorial, notables travelled – be it to the battlefield – on mules, and would only switch to a horse to enter the battle fray itself, or play equestrian games. These two circumstances, that require speed, were the only fields in which a horse would be reckoned superior to the donkey – horse hybrid. The mule had more stamina, could carry heavier burdens while eating less, and was surer of foot in the mountain passes. English readers need look no further than Dervla Murphy‘s much celebrated jaunt, back in the 60s, from Asmara to Addis Ababa, on a mule of course. More recently, we have had Andrew Marsden’s The Chains of Heaven, in which he travels from Lalibela to Axum, also with a pack mule.
Equus just came back from Menz, the table top mountain which figured so famously in Donald Levine‘s 60′s opus Wax and Gold, in which the typically Ethiopian – for Levine – figure of speech in which the hidden meaning – the gold – is hidden behind the obvious meaning – the molten wax, which will fall away – figured so centrally, providing the Ethiopianist with a motif through which to understand Ethiopian society.
Menz has moved forward since the 60′s – and the traditional society that Levine studied is bursting at the seams and carrying mobile phones. Equus Ethiopia was hired to put a new sheen on an old practise however, as we went in to train the mule handlers of Guassa’ community tourism project, set up interestingly on the basis of a traditional ‘conservation’ system, by the Frankfurt Zoological Society.
Indeed, Equus hardly saw any evidence of cattle in the Guassa grasslands – a noteworthy fact, when you have seen Ethiopia’s greatest parks of Semien and Bale overrun by herds and even human settlements. Of course, that is exactly the difference between the two models. The Guassa grassland is based on a strong local practise that is subscribed to by the locals, while the Bale and Semien National Parks were imposed from above – in an era when there was much less population pressure. In Guassa, not a cow in sight, all that could be seen were hoar-frost prairies on which one morning, to our delight, a six strong pack of Ethiopian wolves came to play and pursue each other…
In these changing times, Ethiopia would like to reconcile growing numbers of people and their ever growing desires, the environment, and development – and tourism in all its declinations: eco/community/inclusive/fair… etc. Whether this is possible in the country, or whether these attempts will fall by the wayside, like so much molten wax, only time will tell. In the meanwhile, Equus would like to share some pictures of its foray into mule country, where the wolves play in the hoar-frost, and heartily recommend the hybrid beasts of Menz: your correspondent in Uthiopia found them to be far superior to most horses in the country, and as we rode up and down the legs of the Menz table mountain, we felt secure and enjoyed the company of these perhaps slightly irascible beasts, and admired their ability to walk along mountain ledges and straight up mountain sides that would surely have vanquished lesser equines.
As Ethiopian emperors have long known, if they should survey – or give up! – their kingdom, it surely should only be from/for a mule. For a horse will never win your battles for you… and so it is that when exploring Ethiopia the best place to be may just be in Menz, on a mule that is.
More pictures from Menz on Equus Ethiopia’s Facebook page.
A French friend of mine recently went to the dentist’s for a check-up and was advised to not only brush but also ‘floss’ his teeth. Now flossing is something that my French friend sees as being quintessentially American. The French see dental floss as somewhat of an oddity, something bizarre that overly obsessed Americans indulge in. Nevertheless, doctor’s orders, my friend went in search of dental floss on the streets of Addis Ababa.
Now, roaming from pharmacy to pharmacy, my friend could not find floss anywhere – and when he finally did, it was in one of the grandest hotels of the town and the price of a piece of waxed string set him back considerably. Not being able to wait, he tried it out in the bathroom of the hotel, laboriously winding the string around his fingers until they swelled up with this improvised tourniquet. It was all a little impossible and he ended up having to ask the concierge to untangle him from his waxed thread. Quite humiliating and not efficient at all – besides being very expensive. The concierge beamed mockingly at him – with beautiful white teeth.
It was only the next day, and walking through overcrowded Mexico Square that my friend finally understood that beautiful white smile. He bought a መፋቂያ (mefaqia) – a wooden ‘toothbrush’- from a street vendor for 50 cents and he has not looked back since. Cheap, efficient, locally made – and it does not make you look like an idiot in public.
Next week, the 18th International Conference on Ethiopian Studies opens in Dire Dawa, on the 29th of October. Now we all know that Ethiopianists inhabit a broad church that only shares one common trait : Ethiophilism (and no, Ethiopianists are not piano playing Ethiopians). In fact, their church is so large that your servitor has been called upon to present a paper on Ethiopian horses and markets, a summary of which follows. So to the facetious definition above of the Ethiophile as piano player, we can now add that in fact their church is so broad that it can even contain a stable.
This paper presents some elements towards an attempt to understand Ethiopia, using horses as a vehicle of understanding. Ethiopia is experiencing rapid change at ever increased speed, with globalization, modernization, and economic and population growth converging with increased communications abilities and an opening onto the world and the African continent of a long ‘remote’ land. We propose that the country’s long standing equine culture and the continued use of horses (and mules and donkeys) for transport, and the dissemination of horses along ancestral trade routes such as the ‘Wollo Road’ linking the north-western region to the capital Addis Ababa, together with other routes, linking donkey, horse and mule producing areas to other regions in need of animal power, can be ways to penetrate and understand Ethiopian culture.
Ethiopia had seemingly changed little over the centuries, with a feudal society based on agriculture and caravan taxation. Ethiopia’s unchanged nature has been a common trope at least since Gibbon – ‘Aethiopia slept for a thousand years…’ – and has been perhaps overused. Nevertheless, in such a country the irruption of modernity in all of its forms is provoking change that sometimes seems to happen too quickly to even be recorded. In ‘traditional’ markets, you can observe side by side the Isuzu trucks loading grain for the city and cattle for the booming export market, and mules and horses covered in silver harnesses and red pompoms which are tied up outside mud hut bars where their riders are drinking their gains. Yesterday – a couple of years ago, that is to say aeons ago – they drank home brewed ale and mead, today they guzzle bottled beer, watching satellite TV programs from the Arabic Gulf and pause to answer their mobile phones. The mobile phone that earlier enabled them to know the town price of the grain they were selling.
The Ethiopian space is experiencing a complete social and economic upheaval, and has changed more in twenty years than in twenty centuries – perhaps Gibbon had got something right about the country’s long sleep. Life styles, ways of transport and the understanding of a country long divided by difficult or impossible travel during long periods of the year, the aspirations and desires of the country’s inhabitants: no tradition is left unturned by modernity’s restless foray into Ethiopia. The rapidity of the change is so tremendous that it can be seen with a ‘naked eye,’ as if a fast forward film was being played out in front of us. Eternal Ethiopia – legendary Ethiopia – that was believed to be unchangeable and classical, is no more, and a new country and people are being born. The country of the queen of Sheba – but with highways, tenement housing allotments in all regional capitals and hydroelectric dams to produce surpluses to sell to neighboring countries. A country that sometimes seems to be one huge building site. A ‘Chinese’ development model, very far indeed from the images – now also legendary – of the ‘biblical’ like famines of the 70s and 80s.
And then, there is the other Ethiopia of course, the one where people continue to live ‘as before,’ like their forbears. This is a deeply rural world – in a country where agriculture still provides 80 % of the population with a livelihood – in which people’s lives continue to be rhymed by seasons and religious festivals. This is a land one could believe to be immutable. But in reality there is only one country of course, and this rural world is changing too : chemical fertilizers distributed by peasant associations, schools and health centres that are built including in the most remote areas. If the oxen continue to plough a furrow that goes all the way back to the civilization of Axum, it would be foolish to believe that the man who cracks the whips is not different, if only in the new aspirations born from the wave of modernization engulfing the table top mountain. In the flotsam and jetsam of this globalizing tsunami, there are mobile phone masts and television networks and fast changing mores.
Donald Levine’s Wax and Gold, published more than fifty years ago, is a study of a popular culture in Menz, and posited that the wax and gold form of speech in which people say one thing and mean another (from the lost wax technique of molding jewelry, in which the wax form is melted away to reveal the golden jewel underneath), was a central and revealing figure not just of speech but underpinned the inner working of society at large. He used the wax and gold trope to try to understand what he came to see as an inherently conservative society which valued form over content, secrecy over openness and was fussy and obsessed with protocol, rather than with essence. Indeed, Levine went on to say that Ethiopian ‘culture’ – or at the least, the Ethiopian culture he had chosen to study and took to represent the whole – was by its very nature antithetical to modernity, with its stress on openness, a level playing field and adaptability and constant change. Perhaps this was true back in the 60s, and part wishful thinking on the part of Levine, a self-professed ‘ethiophile,’ a group for whom Eternal Ethiopia is often a gabi clad traditionalist gripping the handle of a plough for eternity, and then some. It rests that Levine’s cultural analysis was, and still is, relevant, even in today’s Ethiopia with its mobile masts and fast roads.
(A relevant aside here would be the story of starting a horse riding enterprise in Ethiopia, the bureaucratic struggles inherent to this process and the daily conundrum of working with people who indeed may display an immoderate use of the famed wax and gold figure of speech. Form is paramount and forms will indeed be filled, for every purpose possible and imaginable – I remember once having to fill in a form in order to remove horse manure from my own stable yard. And so it sometimes seems that working in Ethiopia, with its clash of old and new, traditional and innovative, amounts to cleaning the Augean stables everyday…).
Ethiopia has a million and a half of horses and mules. From time immemorial, horses – and mules – have been both prestige and power symbols, as well as one of the main actors in the conquests, wars and comings and goings inside the Ethiopian theatre. One cannot imagine an Ethiopian culture, civilization, without equines. Marco Polo evokes the famed horsemen of the king of Ethiopia, and Prester John’s missive to the Pope in the 12th century not only tells of the Prester’s 100 000 strong cavalry, ready to storm Jerusalem and give the Turk a lesson, but also sears the imagination with the figure of the unicorn… thus squarely placing the horse in the realm of other extravagant tales coming out of the mythical land which also harboured Herodotus’s troglodytes, headless men and the aquatic monster. Cetus, which would be defeated by Theseus. The Portuguese traveller Alvarez relates in the 16th century that the horse of Ethiopia are as innumerable as they are poor – the good ones being imported from heathen lands – and later on, at the end of 18th century, the Scot James Bruce will mention that the ‘black’ cavalrymen of Gondar are the best read men in the realm… Nevertheless, this equestrian culture remains an unknown dimension of the country, even and more so today, when just two generations ago, a ruling dynasty and an aristocracy that saw itself as having held the reins of power by god granted fiat for millennia was rudely taken down from its high horse and deposed. The horse, long a preserve of the military and of the aristocracy and of tantamount importance in a country of little roads and frequent uprisings – until well into the second half of the twentieth century – suddenly becomes an object of backwardness. Motor worthy roads, become the development mantra and the economic – and symbolic – worth of equines starts a long decline. If Theodoros, Yohannes, Menelik, and even Haile Selassie, all have horse names, to sing their praises, one cannot imagine except as a facetious joke to give a Mengistu Haile Mariam or a Meles Zenawi a horse name. The imperial stables, once full of Lipizzaner and Arab stallions are now so ill kept one could see sabotage rather than animal husbandry, and horses now acquire the pungent smell of the country bumpkin who ride them. The horse, and even more so the mule and the donkey have now been relegated in the imagination of the country to the very lowest rung of society.
However, if new ribbons of asphalt now festoon the land, and if monumental dams are being erected on all rivers, it nevertheless remains that huge swathes of the population go on foot, on horseback, by mule, and if they use chemical fertilizers to increase the production of their fields, the bags will have made it from the brand new Isuzu parked at the local market to the field on the back of their animals.
And it is these markets and the trade routes that link them, that interest me. To buy horses for my stables, I had to visit these Showan markets – Gimbichu, Guddu, Jidda, Kottu. I would buy horses and ride them back over several days, following the routes that link the markets to other regions that don’t produce equines. I met there horse traders, mobile traders that take these Showan mounts over several hundred kilometers, to the west, to the north, and this on foot, or perched precariously on their wooden saddles. They are following trade routes that I imagine to be well established tracks, of trade, transhumance and conquest.
This equestrian culture has been very strong in Ethiopia, and this until very recently. There are poems dedicated to horses, legends and stories, and, as noted earlier, men of valor were known under the name of their best horse – Aba Tatek for example for Emperor Theodoros, Aba Dagna for Menelik. D’Abbadie – the famous French explorer of the 19th century – speaks of horses only fed from the hand of their master, ‘as in thee Hejjaz,’ and Theodoros, having rhetorically asked ‘where is the horse’s country found?’ goes on to answer : ‘in the eye of his master!’ that is to say loved, protected and esteemed. And in the widespread Zar possession cult, let us not forget that the possessed are said to be the horses of the demon that rides them.
In the time of Emperor Haile Selassie, the imperial stables are full of beautiful mounts, the princely gifts to the negus from world rulers. The stable master is an Armenian captain in the Ethiopian army and the parades are sumptuous. The Emperor holds the country on a tight rein and the aristocratic and feudal system, with its regional courts, and its balabat land owners live in luxury. They have a plethora of footservants – while the lord rides high on his horse, or better still, as in the first propaganda pictures of the twentieth century, on the back of a richly decked mule – the first pictures of Haile Selassier on a horse only posed a decade later. They show him on a white horse and are a piece of propaganda aimed at westerners and show that ‘globalization’ started a long time ago. Where an European would have seen a conquering monarch, one of Levine’s peasants from Menz would have exclaimed ‘Where is the man’s mule?!’
The 1974 revolution takes the emperor down from his pedestal and unseats the aristocracy. A bizarre ‘Marxist’ hybrid is produced, progress is the order of the day and the horse, the mule and the humble donkey become contradictory symbols : they represent both the backward aristocracy and the bumpkin peasant. Not a good time for equines – not a good time for people either, in an Animal Farm kind of communist revolution. A rich equestrian tradition is just about lost in one generation, and horse breeding – now deprived it its aristocratic patrons – becomes a poor man’s pursuit. Breeding programs are abandoned, the horses of the imperial stables allowed to go to seed. The copper and aluminum plated tack of yesteryear no longer shine and martial equestrian games are seen at best as useless pastimes at worst as counter revolutionary activities. This happens at a time of rapid population growth and the extension of cultivated areas over grasslands and an increase in motor transport that renders going to town cheaper and easier. In a couple of generations, a millennia old equestrian tradition is nearly lost.
I want to attempt to rediscover this rich equestrian past, by collecting testimonials from people who experienced the pre revolutionary times and exploring and following the routes that link the horse, mule and donkey markets to each other and to other regions. These routes are of special interest as they must be characterized by traditions and traditional bylaws to ensure their function. There must be pasturing rights, ‘hostels’ for the drovers, and ‘stables’ for the animals as they cross the high plateau for several weeks. What are the traditions still present here? And for how long – as motor roads expand at lightening speed, and Isuzus take over, and young men no longer desire to run along for ten hours a day to ferry donkeys and mules from one end of the country to the other.
In June 2012 I took a trip on horseback, from Ankober (120 kilometers north east of Addis Ababa) to Solulta (just behind Addis Ababa and the Entoto Hills). The trip then continued from Solulta to the forest of Menegesha Suba, 40 kilometers to the west of the capital, on the flanks of Mount Wuchacha. This trip had two objectives in mind: the first was to establish a highland equine trekking route between the eastern escarpment forest of Wof Washa near Ankober and the montane forest of Suba. Not only are these two forests some of the only indigenous montane forests left standing in central Ethiopia, but they are also linked by a strong indigenous story of conservation as the early 15th century emperor Zara Yacob is said to have not just forbidden the further clearing of the forest of Suba, but also to have brought seedlings to restore it from the forest of Wof Washa in Ankober. The new equestrian trekking route, baptized of course the Zara Yacob Trail, crosses the highlands north of Addis Ababa, running west from Debre Berhan into the grasslands found between the Entoto Hills and the gorge of the Jemma River. These grasslands were the second objective of the June exploratory trip. The area forms a vast triangle with a base of some 100 kilometers running along the Jemma gorge, from Debre Libanos to Debre Berhan, and the point found some 70 kilometers to the south, just behind Addis Ababa and the Entoto Hills. There are only two roads in this vast area – and a few mobile phone masts! – and not only is the horse one the main ways of locomotion – the main form of transport rests of course, like in most of Ethiopia, walking – this has also long been a main center for horse, donkey and mule breeding and possesses many markets. Sirti (on Thursdays), Rob (on Wednesdays as its name in indicates), Arb (on a Saturday unlike what its name indicates as Arb means Friday), and just outside of the boundaries of our triangle, Gimbichu, Kottu, and further afield, Guddu. All of these markets are ‘horse’ markets, and do a brisk trade in equines, cattle, and all also have a market place for a broad basket of goods, from the teff cereal required to make injera to mobile phone batteries. People sell donkeys, drink mead and bottled beer, watch satellite TV, recharge their phones and have their pictures taken by itinerant photographers. There is life here, and an exchange of ideas is fermenting like never before in ‘eternal Ethiopia.’ One can remember and contrast this ferment and this colour with the drab and bleached pictures from Levine’s Wax and Gold of markets in Menz in the 60s, where everyone is dressed in grey and sits in front of a colourless and tiny heap of the surplus they are selling. It is as if, in today’s Ethiopia, colour photography had finally made it to market. As I progressed from the Jemma gorge between these market villages, asking my way as I went, peasants would wave me to the south. They kept saying ‘just keep to the Wollo Road and you’ll be fine…’ ‘The Wollo Road lies behind that hill, follow it.’ Although I had no time to stop here to enquire further as the rains were coming, and we had to make it to Addis Ababa, their talk greatly excited me as it seemed to confirm the hypothesis I had made of a constellation of trade routes linking the country’s different regions to one and other. And behind the hill, indeed a ‘traditional’ route lay, making its way straight through the fields and sometimes delimitated by rocks, sometimes not. It ran, the farmers and traders told me, all the way from the cattle producing areas of the north eastern region of Wollo, to the markets of Addis Ababa. From here, near Addis Ababa, they would walk mules, donkeys and horses north. How long did it take? Weeks, they opined vaguely. Where did it run? Yonder, and behind that hill they muttered…
The coming year will enable me to get a better grasp of these ideas that are necessarily embedded in the land itself and take the time to explore what exactly lies ‘yonder.’ What already seems to be sure, is that this large theme of horses and the equine markets of northern Showa, and the routes that link them to each other and to outlying regions of the country, could well be a vehicle for a better understanding of the change that Ethiopia has experienced and continues to experience, in the last forty years, from a country with millennia old ‘traditions’ into something else than no one yet seems to quite understand. If modernity was a zar, we would say that it was riding the country at a quick gallop towards fast receding and as yet undefined new horizons.
Textes et photographies de Hugues Fontaine avec un texte de Yves-Marie Stranger et des photographies de Pierre Javelot et Matthieu Germain Lambert. Ed. CFEE/Shama Books.
312 pages, 480 photographies, 100 documents et cartes postales. Édition bilingue français-anglais, relié carton.
Madame Kiki tient le buffet de la gare d’Aouache où plus un train ne passe depuis 2008. Elle y a accueilli Haïlé Sélassié, le Général de Gaulle, Tito, le roi de Grèce… et servi des milliers de voyageurs qui s’y restauraient en attendant que se croisent les trains montant ou descendant, d’Addis ou de Djibouti, sur cette ligne à voie unique.
Assise dans la pénombre de la terrasse, elle raconte à Yves-Marie Stranger l’histoire de sa vie et de ce train qui fut la gloire de l’Abyssinie. Le train aujourd’hui, c’est elle. (Read more about the book here and about the emperor’s carriage here)
A shibboleth, is both a manner of speech by which groups of people can be distinguished from one another, and a custom, or particular more to which people become inordinately attached. Look for example at the distinction between ‘was’ and ‘were’ in English – as in ‘I wish I was dark haired…’ The few people left today who would point out that you should really say ‘I wish I were dark haired (more beautiful, richer), say they are standing for ‘good language/grammar,’ but language moves with the times, and what these good people standing for good language are doing really, is calling upon a shibboleth known to them, which distinguishes a correct from a barbaric use of the language – But I for one, have always wished I was a better Amharic speaker (and had beautiful black hair!)!
A ‘barbery’ is, if I am to believe the numerous English shop signs I see while coasting the thoroughfares of Addis Ababa, a place where you get your hair cut and your whiskers trimmed. And why not call the ‘proper’ English barber a barbery? We after all go to the grocery for our vegetables, after having bought a fresh roll at the bakery so why not, indeed, a barbery?
A barber or hairdresser – ጸጉር : አስተካካይ (tsegur astekakai) – works in a ጸጉር : በት (tsegur bet) (which I am tempted to say translates as ‘a house of hair’ but which can be rendered perhaps less hairyly by ‘hair house,’ that is to say a place where they trim your beard or ጺም (tsim) and crop your ጸጉር. And trim and snip your beard and hair the ጸጉር: አስተካካይ do – but rather than trim the moniker of their profession (barber), they have, quite naturally, chosen to render it into the bouffant – and conform to rule! – barbery.
This truly barbarous use of English makes sense, and even if the origin of the word barber (from the French barbe – or beard) is in no way related to the word barbarian (from the Greek, and relating to anyone incapable of speaking their language) one would feel justified in saying that the hair dresser’s of Addis have turned the exception on its (hairy) head and made good use of an English rule, barber seeming to be little more than a shibboleth in this day and age when you can buy your groceries not at the local grocery but on the global internet.
Interestingly, the nature of a grocery itself is a beautiful Addis Ababa shibboleth and will enable anyone to be tested on how well he/she knows his/her capital. What’s a grocery? A place where you buy some groceries (milk, cheese, a loaf of bread)? Perhaps in New York and Colchester, but inexplicably and locally, a grocery in Addis Ababa is a place to go and enjoy spirits with your friends. So next time somebody says I wish I was (were?!) sitting in a grocery right now, perhaps you’ll understand we are not talking of buying tomatoes but rather downing some shots.
Deutsche Welle this week invited several strangers inhabiting strange lands (geographical or linguistical) to share their experience of being in several places and various languages at once:
* An Algerian thinking in/of Russian
* A Chadian talking about Arabic
* A Russian/Benin women just at ease in French, English and Russian
* A ‘Franco-British transplant in Ethiopia…’ (at minute 13 for those of you in a hurry, and IN FRENCH only for those of you not that way inclined).
You can listen to the whole podcast ‘L’apprentissage des langues, un richesse, un défi.’
Our Stranger in Ethiopia pedantically mentions the German sociologist Georg Simmel and his concept of the stranger (first used in his 1908 essay “Exkurs über den Fremden”), as being ‘in the group, but not of the group.’ You can read more about that idea here and here.
NB: The Bradt guide to Ethiopia is mentioned in this post which is about guides and maps in general. This is an opinion piece and is in no way intended as criticism of that particular guide book which remains the best of its kind on Ethiopia, and by far. I use it myself quite often. Sometimes using someone else’s legwork to get you where you need to go is really quite useful! I am after all, a visitor myself.
Reading a guide book about your own country is an informative, funny and sometimes infuriating activity. You will find this kind of blandishment in it: ‘Ethiopia is an enchanting place… full of smiles and varied lands. Lucy, our ancestor the Australopithecus, was found here and… they also do a nice coffee ceremony.’ A guide book is a map for visitors to another country. You don’t need a map for your own country; you think you know it so well that you could walk it blindfolded.
Let’s pick up the Bradt guide to Ethiopia. The writer of this book is opinionated, and also funny. He is also of course informative. The guide is, after all, giving instructions to visitors. Do you know where the birthplace of Lucy is? What I mean is the actual place where she was found. The Bradt guide introduces the subject of Lucy’s whereabouts by inserting the letter of an adventurous visitor who thinks he may have got there:
‘I discovered there is some confusion about the location of Haddar, arising from a map which shows a representation of Lucy covering hundreds of kms to the north of Serdo.’
Our man on the map finds some wheels and a guide in Kombolcha, who claims to have worked for eight years with the archeologists who discovered Lucy. They arrive at a spot with many bones but seemingly untouched by any digs and our man in Haddar is perplexed by this absence: ‘It crossed my mind that I was the victim of a hoax, but the site did look like it does in the few pictures I’d seen [italics mine], so I guess I give it the benefit of the doubt. In any event I enjoyed the excursion.’
Have you ever taken the time to examine attentively a map of the world? Do it again some time. Europe is smack in the center and everything else, including Ethiopia, is pushed out to the sides. Like a fat man wearing a small T-shirt, only the letterings in the middle are the right size. France is right in the middle and very big indeed. But how big is Ethiopia? Ethiopia, if I am to believe the Bradt guide, is 1 104 300 square kilometers, that is to say, roughly two and a half times the size of France. But not so on the map, where France is visibly twice the size of Ethiopia.
Why is this? The map makers faced a problem; they had to fit onto a flat surface what was a sphere. This they couldn’t do, without stretching the proportions of the world, giving maps the Europe centered bias they have conserved till today. The fat man of Europe pulled the bedclothes to himself, leaving the others out in the cold. On this representation of the world, with which you probably learnt your geography lessons, you will have discovered, like our visitor to Haddar, that there is indeed some confusion as to the whereabouts of Lucy’s discovery place and that Ethiopia is not quite what she should be.
The Portuguese were the first to circumnavigate the world, making it round, a little smaller and starting what we now call globalization. That was 500 years ago. But the Portuguese had been looking for something else. As they fumbled up the coast of Africa, writing the map into existence as they went, boldly going where no visitor had gone before, they had only one question for the peoples they encountered. ‘Do you know of the whereabouts of the Prester John, King of Ethiopia?’
The story of Prester John had taken hold in Europe in the early Middle-Ages. A letter –probably a fake- was received by the Pope of the time. It offered an alliance between the King of Ethiopia –the Prester John- and Europe, to beat the common foe, the Muslim. Europe feared the Turks and still remembered the Crusades to ‘liberate’ Jerusalem. The myth of Prester John become a potent reason to go out and explore far afield, until in that search –they were never very sure of the location of the fabulous kingdom, placing it sometimes as far as India- they stumbled, step by step into the darkness of the seas and discovered the rotundity of our planet. The Portuguese, in their search for Ethiopia, had become the first tour-ists of our globe, round and not flat after all.
But the map of Ethiopia had always been on the mind of the Occident; ever since the Greeks. It was a distant land, where the Gods went to play, and the mighty Nile took its source somewhere there, behind the mountains of the Moon. Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the known world in his time and a little more, adding to the map, had really dreamt of discovering the source of the Nile. Instead, he would reach the Indus. The map, back in those times had a blurred and fantastic allure. Sea serpents abounded, the Gods played in Ethiopia and the Nile was fed by an inland sea – a somewhat exaggerated Lake Tana.
When the Portuguese did reach Ethiopia, they beat Emir Ahmed Gragn for Lebna Dengel, built a few bridges, learnt Geez and meddled in local theology before getting thrown out by Emperor Fassilides in 1632. They had come, seen and not conquered. But they did get around a bit. And it was a Portuguese, Father Lobo, who finally reached the spring of the Blue Nile, accomplishing what so many had dreamt of, from Cyrus King of the Persians, to Alexander the Macedonian.
When the Portuguese were kicked out by the righteous Fassilides, they had not found the Prester John they first sought, but they carried in their luggage and in their mind’s eye, something more precious perhaps, the first maps of the kingdom of Ethiopia that placed it where it has been ever since.
What’s in a map? A whole lot of things actually. The hexagonal shape of France is immediately recognizable and looks like an animal skin pegged out to dry. Italy’s boot searching to kick Sicily further out to sea –a country predestined for football obviously- also draws instant recognition. But as we saw earlier, our map of the world is Euro-centric. What American, what European would recognize the shape of Sudan, Ethiopia or even that mammoth of a country, China? Ethiopia, seen with the bird’s eye view the map gives us, looks like a horn inside the Horn, thrusting out towards the Cap Gardafui for eternity.
What’s in a map? A lot of things. Unlike the rest of Africa, carved up to the whims of colonial administrators sitting in the Quai d’Orsay and Whitehall, the map of Ethiopia was not set by visitors but by its own people. The history of Ethiopia can be seen in its successive maps. It is one long drift from its beginnings around Axum, towards the Red Sea, to the great South. Flip though the pages of these maps quickly and you’ll see Ethiopia growing that horn slowly but surely.
Maps are tricky things and sometimes are drawn very differently in different places –we call this geopolitics. The basin of the Nile –that mighty river Alexander dreamed of discovering- was divided by treaties dependant on the geographical influences of the few. There’s a lot in a map, sometimes life and death, water or desert. The map of Ethiopia was fixed in the late 19th century by Menelik the second, as the whereabouts of the mythical kingdom of the Prester John had been fixed by Menelik the first in the Kebre Negast. The Kebre Negast was the geopolitical road map that was to accompany Ethiopia’s long expansion southward. An Abyssinian manifest destiny. What’s in a map? History, fate and chance and a few individuals –real or imaginary.
So how big is Ethiopia? If one it to look at the classic Mercator projection –the one you learnt with at school; the one you’ll see if you open the map part of your dictionary- France is twice the size of Ethiopia –those administrators in the Quai d’Orsay still have the world see itself as they see fit. But we know, because we’ve measured it, that it is Ethiopia which is twice the size of France.
But in a way, it is indeed France which is bigger. Maps are representations of space, they are not in any sense ‘real.’ But even ‘real’ space –the distance it takes you to walk to the nearest cafe, say, on Bole- is not the same for everyone. Try walking on a hot day at noon from Mexico Square to Arat Kilo after a strenuous morning’s work, then do the same on a agreeably cool day when you feel you need a little exercise. Was the distance the same? Yes. Did it feel the same? No.
For Alexander, the world was too little, a straightjacket to his dreams, for the Greek philosopher Diogenes, the walls of a barrel were space sufficient and infinite. France is bigger than Ethiopia in the sense that you can go anywhere you like, anytime you want. This is not true in Ethiopia where space is restricted because of lack of infrastructure. There are restricted areas –deserts, high mountains- and also the patchwork of nations to contend with. Can one imagine a Shoa peasant taking up and deciding to live in the midst of the Afar desert as a camel herder? Can a Somali from the Ogaden become a plower in Gojjam? The cities are safe areas, but the spaces in between these cities are peopled by one people and often no other. So it is as if the map of Ethiopia is full of blanks, of terra incognita to its own citizens. In this sense, France is indeed bigger. Globalization has not quite reached Ethiopia yet, or only in little spots, Bole Avenue, Piassa, the Mercato, the cities in general.
‘The Mercato is the biggest open air market in Africa’ the guides like to say, so often, that Ethiopians themselves began to say it. I first came to Addis Ababa to write a guide on the city for the ever sprawling map that the World Wide Web was becoming. When I arrived, I checked into a hotel in Piassa and bravely set about to chart the city’s bogs and night spots. But where to start? How do you chart a capital city where there are no address;’ where city street names change every so often? How to find anything in such a city, and more importantly to my endeavor, how to tell a visitor how to find it, which is the purpose of any guide, any map.
Does the Addis Abeban need a map to go to the Mercato, does he or she need to be told where to go to have a good time? Like the weary traveler in search of a water hole in the midst of the desert and who will die for lack of a local guide, the visitor needs to be told, to be escorted to safe havens where he will be able to perform the basics of human life –drink a cold beer (go to Peacock, on Bole, facing the Bole Printing Press), sleep (Hilton for the riche, Baro in Piassa, for those on a shoe-string budget) or dance the night away (try the Buffet de la Gare for African dancing; next to the train station).
But how do you actually get to these places? You can look at the map, and learn that there are places called Africa Avenue and Algeria street, but if you then ask an Addis Abeban the way to these places, you will only draw a blank stare. The map wasn’t exact here either. I soon found that the only way to know where to go was to go there, and that place was a tautology where I often got lost. And it’s by getting lost many times that I found my way. I no longer needed instructions for visitors; I had –like those distant first tourists, the Portuguese- walked the map into existence.
So where is Lucy? Lucy lies in the crypt of the museum, next to Arat Kilo. You can find her easily, just walk up from the main square with the obelisque and keep to your right till you hit the museum. Actually… but don’t tell anyone I told you this, the Lucy down in the crypt is a fake, a representation of the real one they keep in some lab. She is a map, a representation for visitors. If you want to know a place, set out on your two feet -throw away the map and write a new one.
It’s the pitter-patter of the rain on the tin roof that wakes Léopold that morning; that and the muezzin’s call to prayer from the Abadir mosque. Why, why, do they have to use loud-speakers, he wonders? Continue reading
And old friend has just sent me an exegesis of a series of four vignettes on page 40 of my beloved Tintin in Ethiopia. The Byzantine – should I say Abyssinian? – intricacy of the analysis, which certainly makes up for its lack of orthodoxy, has me place it here for your perusal without more ado:
“I’ve just had a look at another old favourite of yours —first published in English some ten years later in 1966 — ቲንቲን in Æthiopia.
It was indeed delightful to revisit those iconic scenes in the Semiens where Tintin and Mamoush, disguised as Bleeding Heart Baboons, in the middle of a one thousand strong pack, are pretending to graze on grass and roots when suddenly one of the Baboons shuffles up carrying a bottle, and turns out to be Captain Haddock, likewise disguised:
— Billions of Blistering Baboons! Plus two more!
— Captain Haddock we presume! — chorus Tintin and Mamoush.
—I’m under some kind of Ærial Surveillance by a Pestilential Stoolpigeon!— whispers Haddock.
As a Bearded Vulture hovers above with a baboon skeleton dangling from its talons, Mamoush expounds:
—Captain, that’s not a Pigeon with a stool, that’s a Vulture with a load of bones, looking for somewhere to drop them, to crack them open. It can even do the same with live tortoises…
—Ten Thousand Tormented Tortoises! Boneheads! Numbskulls! We need a bomb shelter! Remember how Æschylus was killed back in 455 BC by a falling tortoise, dropped on his bald pate by an irruptive Hirundo æthiopica… or was it a gyrating Gypaetus barbatus?
—A bird is a bird is a bird, my friends— shrugs Tintin nonchalantly.
High above, the hovering Bearded Vulture now gives the reader a bird’s-eye view of what it may mean, in an æthereal and platonic vision, to be in Æthiopia, as it drops, with an unerring aim, its ballistic load of retributive bones on their heads:
—It’s a Boeing B-52!
—Body-Snatcher! Duck-Billed Diplodocus! Guano-Gatherer! Misguided Missle! Syllabaric Barbarian! Buggy Abugida!
Their cover is blown. Exit persued by Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine Baboons.