I have a farm in Ethiopia, not far from the foot of the Entoto hills. The farm lies close to 2600 meters high. In the daytime the air shimmies in the light of the equatorial sun, but mornings and evenings are crisp and clear and the nights full of frost.
A sentence, like a musical sing song, can fill your head and take possession of your heart. Karen Blixen’s opening sentence for her opus Out of Africa, “I had a farm inAfrica, at the foot of the Ngong Hills” is just such a sentence, which once heard, rests in the pit of your stomach, to never again fully take its leave.
Such a sentence can become a leitmotiv, an embodiment of a place, a country, a mood. And it is so with “I had a farm in Africa,” that is forever a banner gaily flapping in a morning highland breeze: through thick flying goggles one sees champagne picnics on emerald lawns and two winged flying apparatuses dancing in cerulean skies. And come what may, history’s realities or another day’s political certainties, this gay banner never quite ceases to flutter in the currents of our mind’s eye.
The same can be said of the negative undertones a name can take on and pull miserably after it, forever coupled, like a poor man’s horse and cart.Ethiopia. When I first came to Ethiopia, the country’s flag hung listless as in mourning and in the world’s imagination had become a byword for hungry scorched lands. And yet the world’s most populated mountain contains nearly all of Africa’s highlands, the fountain heads of many a great river, endemic grass grazing monkeys and forests of giant juniper wood. On mount Amhara, did not an Abyssinian maid on her dulcimer play? That was the soft song Coleridge had left us, in his Kubla Khan.
When you strike out north from Addis Ababa towards Gojjam and the Mountain of Lebanon you must first pass the Entotos, a slight chain of hills hemming in the capital city from the north. Slight and yet these hills covered in bluish gum tree rise to close to 3000 meters. After this natural boundary, you stumble out onto a landscape quite unlike anything else on earth. For hundreds of kilometers, until you reach the Blue Nile Gorge’s deep slot, under a light, light blue sky, sheens of green, cut by the rich red and brown of oxen ploughed fields, stretch out to horizon’s limit. In the crisp air there are the rasping exhortations of ploughmen and the cracking reports of whips unfurled by shepherd children. Sluggish streams full of chocolate brown silt curl lazily on these flat lands, till they reach the escarpments, from which they will cascade in earthy mist, before rushing off on their voyage to Egypt.
If you happen on this landscape in late September you will receive the added blessing of a vision of yellow blooms bursting up to slightly above the height of a traveler’s waist riding on an Abyssinian Pony. Ethiopia. When I first drove down from the Entotos ten years ago, I will always remember, as if emblazoned on a merry flag, the two horsemen galloping in the lush flower strewn valley that ran parallel to the road’s blue ribbon. The riders leaned intently forward, their horses bedecked with red wool pompoms; the clear dusk air carried the muffled sound of their shouts of excitement and the yellow flowers reached up to above the horses’ backs. Riding a horse, riding a horse, I’m riding a horse through the yellow flowers of the Ethiopian highlands… A song, as soft as any played by Abyssinian maids, had taken possession of my heart
For Ethiopia is a land of the horse and Ethiopians have long been a nation of horsemen. Where do the horses come from? We should say that we do not know, and that their origin is lost in the dust kicked up by the cavalcade of time. The medieval writer Ibn Fadl Allah Al-Omari, in his work on the Muslim kingdoms of Abyssinia Masalik El Absar Fi Mamalik El Amsar, tells us that that the ruler of Ifat –the location of which is uncertain and now the name of the area north-east of Addis Ababa- could put fifteen thousand riders in the field, and that these mounts were ridden with just a goat’s skin thrown on their backs. And Al-Omari adds, “they are Arab horses.” Marco Polo himself reports that in the “Provinces of Abash (Abyssinia) there are excellent soldiers and many horsemen.” The Scot James Bruce, a little more believable since he actually visited the country, tells us that the Ethiopians were excellent riders and that they went to war, two per horse.
In Kenya, settlers such as Karen Blixen often used hardy ponies that were interchangeably called ‘Somali’ or ‘Abyssinian.’ The breed was well acclimatized to the maladies of Africa, survived on little and had no problems with the high altitudes. In Ethiopia herself, you will often see ponies ridden at close to four thousand meters high and it would be interesting to do a blood test to count their red cells. Just think what these athletes could do if, like their human counterparts, we could fly them off to endurance races around the world?! Perhaps, we’ll be able to trace the origin of the Abyssinian Pony more exactly one day. Presently there all sorts of builds, heights and colors to be found in all parts of the country which receive enough rain to provide fodder and are not beset by chronic illnesses. In Somalia and the Danakil desert, what may have once been a true Somali Pony, has disappeared under the conjoined attack of years of drought and the versatile combustion engine, although there are rumors of a feral herd down on the borders of Somaliland, that a reptile catcher swears he sees regularly, galloping off into the desert as he traps lizards under the baking sun.
For of course, in Ethiopia as elsewhere, asphalt and modern transport ring the knell of the true horse culture. It’s just that here it is happening much later and much slower: this is still a country where you measure distances in hours covered on two, or four legs. In countless markets over the highlands, horses –and donkeys and mules- are the only transport available. On the green horizon you see a figure bobbing up and down, the light dancing around the spindly legs of the pony with the fat rider. A farmer, his felt hat perched on his close cropped skull, a gabardine tightly buttoned up, and wearing blue jodhpurs, goes to market. And in timely fashion, when asked about the prices, the weather and his health, answers with a sly smile that he himself remembers better days. It is only when asked about his horse that he can’t help but sing its praises: ‘so fast, so strong… really, he is as swift as the wind.’
Ah, the jodhpurs… Emperor Menelik, in a fit of modernization, once ordered that all men should wear them, some hundred years ago. Abba Dagnew himself, mostly preferred to ride a mule, like all self respecting Ethiopian aristocrats. The horse –even the emperor’s favorite horse Dagnew –or ‘Judge’ in English- from which Menelik derived his horse name Abba Dagnew or, Lord of the Judge, would have been a parade animal, a war machine, but certainly not a traveling companion. Blattengeta Mahteme-Selassie, in his book Chie Belew –Spur on your Horse- recounts how Emperor Theodoros once asked rhetorically “Where is the country of the horse?” answering himself that, “The country of the horse is in the eyes of his master.” And of course, Abba Tatek –as Theodoros was reverently known, after his favorite warhorse, would have rode his steed in his best finery with silver plated tack, trimmings of silk and only the best embossed buffalo hide shield. The horse was still the symbol of his rich master’s power and wealth, just as it still is for the astute farmer, on his way to market, that we met earlier on the high plateau. What was the name of that good portly gentleman, riding to market in his best jodhpurs? Could it have been Abba Nebro –Lord of the Tiger? Or perhaps Abba Mebrak –Lord of Lightening?
Today, these pretty shields of buffalo hide fill the souvenir shops of Churchill Avenue–and they are often fake, made of clay with a black leathery substance painted atop of them. Hummers driving up the avenue shine a thousand lights under the equatorial sun, their chromes lovingly buffed and polished by their owners, reflecting the clear cerulean skies. Jodhpurs are not eternal signs of modernity, whatever Abba Dagnew thought and you now have to go a little further afield to find the Lords of the horses. But not much: roads are still, whatever it may seem, few and far apart in Ethiopia and all over the land, a spear’s throw from the new asphalt thoroughfares of the fast changing country, you will see a horse and his rider, going to market, off to a wedding, or just whooping with excitement as he eggs his horse on through a lush valley, yellow flowers parting in front of his mount. Riding a horse, riding a horse, I’m riding a horse through the yellow flowers of the Ethiopian highlands… A sentence, like a musical sing song, can fill your head and take possession of your heart.