A Passage to Ethopia
On the road

We had two days to complete a three day trip to the border so when the bus arrived at Gedaref we decided to press on to the border town of Gallabat. We boarded the truck and set off once more along the swirling, twirling, lumpy, bumpy dirt-track road. Surrounded by a dozen men in gallabeyahs and head scarves, we forged seats out of assorted goods (flourescent light bulbs, soap and corrugated iron) and settled in for a long trip.

We stopped for the night at the village of Kunana but with no accomodation, we had to spend the night at the police station. The tumble-down shack was infested with assorted creepy-crawlies so we quickly elected to take our wood strung beds out under the stars. As we lay there in the darkness, a spectacular lighting storm blazed across the sky bringing with it driving rain and ferocious winds. We charged for the station, oblivious to the native bug population. Lightning and thunder like gunfire surrounded us and the room flared with every flash. Even with our bags and bodies pressed against them, doors and windows crashed open in the howling wind and torrents of rain battered the corrugated roof. It was fantastic.

We arrived at the border early and just in the nick of time – our visas expired that same day. We cleared border control and crossed a tiny bridge separating Gallabat from Metema, Sudan from Ethiopia. So much changed in twenty paces. New food. New language. New religion. New landscape. New climate. New people. But we’d made it and here we are. Recent election violence (thirty six students were shot dead by police at a series of demonstrations) has forced us to move quickly and alter plans to visit an Irish Government run project (DCI) in Mekelle. We spent some time recuperating in Gondar and travelled North for a few days before coming at great speed south to the capital of Addis Ababa. Results are scheduled to be announced on July 8th and more violence is expected. We must decide if we will move East and seek refuge in Djibouti or if we will press South as fast as possible and cross into Kenya. But in the meantime, let me tell you about Ethiopia.

A Brief History of Ethiopia

Ethiopia is one of two African counties to have escaped colonization during the great ‘scramble’ and Ethiopians are rightly proud of this fact. Nevertheless, Italy did occupy the country during the second World War and the evidence of their presence is still visible. Ethiopia is known as the “cradle of humanity” – six million year old hominid fossils have been found here and the oldest hominid of them all is a three million year old girl called Lucy, discovered here in 1974. The Ethiopian calendar consists of thirteen months (“Thirteen months of sunshine”, their posters proclaim) and the year is 1997. One o’clock is one hour after sunrise so the Ethiopian clock is six hours ahead of everyone else in this timezone. The climate and landscape are similar to our own. The temperature is a comfortable twenty-something (we are over two thousand meters above sea level) and it rains frequently, often in the evening. The land is lush and green and beautiful – the hills and mountains of the highlands are spectacular. The countryside is speckled with rectangular houses made of wood, their shiny tin roofs sparkling in the sunlight. The towns display a strong European influence: buildings in particular display a strong Italian flavour. Roads are paved, buildings are multistorey, taxis and minibusses whizz about town. I sometimes forget that I am in Africa at all, in one of the world’s poorest countries. But I remember where I am when I am approached by beggars on the street, the blind and the deformed and the sick, and when I come across a colourful merkato (market) and inspect clay pottery and exotic spices.

The majority are Orthodox Catholics – we see images of Jesus Christ in every vehicle, a cross lies around every neck and Sunday is the day of worship (rather than Friday). This is quite a shock after two months in Islamic countries. There are three major languages corresponding to the country’s three major ethnic groups: Amharic, Tigrinya and Oromo. Men of all ages wear tiny green shorts and t-shirts and are draped in dark, heavy blankets. They carry long sticks wherever they go. Women wear lighter, whiter blankets with brightly coloured ends over skirts and dresses. Their hair is often tightly braided and sculpted into stunning patterns: furrows, boxes or zig-zags. Babies cling to mothers’necks as they secure them to their backs with leather satchels tied about the waist. Bare footed children in rags run up to us on the street to ask for one birr. “Give me money!”, they say. Others approach selling chewing gum, cigarettes and tissues neatly arranged in little cardboard boxes. Those who’ve been clever enough to learn English offer to take us on tours of the towns. I often wonder how many children go to school when so many ply the streets.

First Impressions

The music here is beautiful and lyrical and extremely catchy. Tewodros is the current pop star. His music can be heard everywhere we go and in no time at all, we find ourselves singing along with him. In traditional pubs (another shock after a month in a country where alcohol is illegal), men sing and play stringed instruments called massinkos, often accompanied by drums. Women in traditional white dresses sing and dance with them. Lyrics are improvised and mischievous. They are often delivered with cheeky grins and smiling eyes. Customers will request favourite songs and will rise to join the dance, shoulders shuddering, hips and necks gyrating. They offer tips to the musicians when they finish. If you do not get up to dance you will be instructed to do so. “Relax and Enjoy!” they say, as they drag us from our seats.

The national food of Ethiopia is challenging. We were warned to “Eat Up!” while we were in Sudan and now I see why. The staple is called ‘injera’ and it rather resembles a dirty dishcloth. It is served primarily with overly-spiced dishes and always without vegetables unless you order fasting food (Ethiopians fast from meat every Wednesday and Friday). It is eaten morning, noon and night. The only dish which we find palatable is a lamb dish called ‘tibs’. With limited nutritional value we supplement our diet with spaghetti, lasagne and other ‘faranji’ or foreigner food as well as with delicious fruit juices – blends of avocado, banana, papaya, mango and pineapple juice. But if the food is a challenge, then the coffee is to die for. It’s Ethiopia’s number one export and it’s easy to see why. We order delicious machiatos – a creamy layer of milk beneath a layer of dark coffee covered in a layer of chocolatey froth. I’m sipping one right now as I say to you farewell, see you next time, ciao.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People

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