“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.