Omo Valley Part 6 – The Arbore, Grasslands & Flamingos

Leaving the Buska Lodge, we turned east to cross the rugged Humu Range. Our eventual destination in three days’ time was Addis Ababa, but today we had one last tribe to visit: the Arbore tribe, whose ancestral homeland extends to the Weito River and Lake Chew Bahir.

Not far from the lodge, the compacted dirt road deteriorated into a rock-strewn obstacle course, the result of a recent rockslide caused by torrential rains earlier in August.  We coined the phrase “rattled tourist syndrome” here – after a couple of hours on this road, we felt like we had suffered brain damage!  Rounding a bend, we got our first glimpse of Lake Chew in the distance, before the road descended to a dry riverbed which we followed out of a canyon to the flood plain along the western shore of the lake.

When the shallow lake is full, its water covers an area 40 miles long by 15 miles wide and extends into northern Kenya.  It’s been drying up slowly for more than a century, and today it is mostly a papyrus-filled marshland. Its fertile shoreland is now farmed, and the papyrus reeds are cut from it by the Arbore to construct their huts.  Plots of land along the lake are redistributed yearly by the elders of the tribe, so no one family always has the best parcel.  

A short while later, under a threatening gray sky, we entered a small village. Here and there, women were involved in daily chores. Off to the side some children were tasked with rounding up a few young goats scampering about, while the married women of the village were attending to various chores in front of their huts.

The young, unmarried women of the clan were recognizable by the black cloth, a symbol of virginity, they draped over their shaven heads to protect themselves from the sun. Cattle-centric like most of the Omo Valley tribes the Arbore, which means land of the bulls, add a new dimension to it with the men joining the names of their favorite cows to their wives’ names. 

The Arbore are well respected by the surrounding tribes, the result of an ancient enduring legend in which the tribe defeated the devil in a battle.  Consequently, they have a centuries’ old “don’t mess with us” reputation that ensures a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors and fosters inter-tribal marriages and sharing of grazing lands when there are droughts.  

With the onslaught of the expected rain we were invited into a tribeswoman’s hut.  It was larger than some made by other tribes, with a second room where two small children were asleep on goat skins.  The front was roomy enough to shelter three of us and five villagers, sitting and standing, from the downpour outside.  It was a dark but dry enclosure. The colorful beads the women wore were illuminated by the only light source, the short entryway to the hut.

There are not any convenient alternate routes between points in the Omo Valley which meant we backtracked on roads previously driven as we worked our way towards Konso and Arba Minch.  We arrived late in the day to the Paradise Lodge, and the view from their terrace was spectacular as the sunny sky brightened the verdant jungle that separated Lake Abaya from Lake Chamo in the distance.

“The next time you come, we will go to the Bridge of God. It’s on the peak of that mountain that separates the two lakes.  There is a wonderful track through the jungle that takes you there,” our guide promised.

In the morning we set north to Lake Awassa, and the route was humming with activity. Folks walking, charcoal and dried chili vendors, tuk-tuks, donkey carts, herds of cattle and buses all jostled peacefully for space on this artery of commerce.

Before spending the night in Awassa, we detoured into the Senkele Wildlife Sanctuary, a 13,000-acre reserve established to protect a herd of 700 Swayne’s hartebeests, an endangered antelope. 

At the ranger station we parked our truck next to a large acacia tree, where to our delight a colony of weaver birds were frantically darting to and fro, constructing their intricate hanging nests. 

The guide drove us deep into the surrounding grasslands until he spotted a herd, and then encouraged us to walk across the plain with him.  Just exiting the vehicle made a huge difference in our appreciation of this gently rolling, beautiful landscape. 

The air was fresh, and an earthy aroma rose from the ground.  Farther down the track the ranger turned a blind eye to a young herder quickly moving some cattle through the reserve.  And to everyone’s surprise we spotted a rare Ethiopian wolf, which was stealthily shadowing a dik-dik.

Our destination the next morning was the Hawassa fish market, next to Amora Gedel, the smallest national park in Ethiopia. The market is a daily open-air event where fishermen paddle anything that floats, in order to eke out a living from the over-fished lake and its dwindling stock of tilapia, catfish, and Nile perch.

It was a colorful, chaotic affair as the fishermen gutted and filleted the freshly caught fish on the ground as soon as the nets were emptied.  It attracted a huge number of birds ready to swoop in to scavenge the scraps when the activity died down. 

There were a large number of ugly marabou storks, with their peculiar scaly heads, but we also saw hamerkop, ibis, pelicans and cormorants waiting patiently.   Ringing the parking lot, there were food shacks that prepared fried fish and a fish soup that is popular locally for breakfast.

Afterwards we headed to Abidjatta-Shalla National Park, which is known for its two large alkaline lakes surrounded by hot springs and flocks of flamingos, as well as a vast variety of bird life that favors the encompassing savanna.  We hired a ranger at the main gate and followed him along an unmarked path through the open woodland.

Soon we spotted a go away bird, warthogs and our favorite blue-eared glossy starlings.  Farther on we crept slowly up to a dominant male ostrich watching over a small flock. Our guide wanted us to go home with spectacular photos, so he instructed my wife to give him her camera, and to approach the large ostrich.

“It will be good photo,” he said in his broken English. “Closer, closer, closer.” My wife eyed the massive claws and muscular legs of the beast, and uncomfortably crept closer to the ostrich than she thought wise to do, the guide motioning her on all the while. “Stop!” the guide suddenly whisper-screeched and began snapping. He was right – they were pretty dramatic photos. Seconds later the ostriches were spooked by an unexpected antelope bounding through, and trotted off.

Back in the truck, our ranger guided us across the park to the shore of Shala Lake where we observed lesser flamingos feeding on cyanobacteria, abundant in the lakes’ alkaline water. 

After cresting a small ridge, we were overlooking a hot spring that bubbled up through the earth in a gully several hundred yards from the lake shore.  Surprisingly, there was a good size makeshift camp around it, supporting folks doing laundry and cooking food in the hot water.  Farther downstream people were bathing in ever cooler pools before the water emptied into the lake.

After soaking our feet in a suitable pool, it was time to return to Addis Ababa for our own day of laundry and rest before the next part of our Ethiopian journey, the rock churches of Lalibela.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Omo Valley Part 5: The Devil’s Doorstep and Whipping Scars

Below us, down an extremely steep embankment, a dugout canoe waited to take us across the Omo River to visit the Dassanech tribe.  “If we trip, we are going for a swim,” I mentioned to our guide. “Don’t worry, the crocodiles are further downstream, closer to the delta,” he replied with his dry sense of humor, as several people helped us down to the water. 

Sitting low in the water, the dugout canoe was stable like a kayak and large enough for three of us. Standing on the stern, a tribesman poled us upstream for a distance before letting the current take us across the river to the equally steep, opposite bank. 

At the top of the riverbank freshly tilled fields, bordered with narrow irrigation canals, gave way to a flat dry landscape that extended to the horizon. The Dassanech are the southernmost tribe in the Omo valley, and their territory extends south to the Kenyan border at Lake Turkana and west to South Sudan.  Even with the river and lake nearby it’s a dry inhospitable terrain that has suffered from years of extended drought and climate change.  The temperature often exceeds 110°F. Consequently, as cross border tensions over diminishing grazing lands have increased, the Ethiopian government has discouraged the nomadic ways of the Dassanech.  In exchange for reducing the size of their cattle herds the government is helping them farm along the banks of the Omo River by providing resources and irrigation pumps.

We entered the village through an opening in the corral that encircled it. Roughly made of tree branches, it serves to keep cattle in and hyenas out at night. Low dome-shaped huts called miede constructed from foraged branches, twigs, river reeds and leaves used to be covered in cowhide for protection from dust storms and infrequent rains.  Now corrugated tin is used instead as there are fewer cattle to slaughter.

The huts must be roasting hot inside! Children hoop rolled an old bicycle tire along the irrigation canal while others played with empty water bottles tied to sticks as tribeswomen sat in the meager shade provided by huts.

The more plentiful shade of the few large, ancient trees still standing by the river is reserved for the men of the village and is off-limits to women and children.

This unforgiving environment created the atmosphere of a desolate refugee camp whose tribespeople were awaiting an unknown future.  To borrow a phrase, it felt like “the doorstep to hell.” I don’t say this to be derogatory, but to describe the intensely harsh environment. It’s remarkable that roughly 20,000 Dassanech can survive in such brutal, extreme conditions.  In such an environment, people wear very little clothing except when going to town. 

Visiting the Dassanech gave us a new understanding of the effects of climate change and the desire to migrate as a consequence of it. As we left the village, some of the tribeswomen had gathered to display their crafts. There is a social contract that, aside from paying for photos, tourists should purchase handcrafts from the villagers. It’s an additional way to help.

Back across the river, we stopped for a late lunch at a small place along the road, before heading to a Hamar village near Turmi. Outside the restaurant was a small collection box for the local church. 

Just a little aside: we had no intestinal issues with the food during our time in Ethiopia. The pit toilets, on the other hand, were truly frightening and we are convinced that they could only be mastered if you grew up with them. The privacy of a “bush toilet” behind a large termite mound was the more sanitary alternative.  And bring hand sanitizer!  (Surprisingly, after a year on the road, we only succumbed to food poisoning when we were back in Europe.)

A brief torrential rain dampened the dust and cleaned the air as we headed for the afternoon’s destination.

The golden hour was quickly descending when we arrived in the Hamar village and we only had a short time to work our way around the village before the sun disappeared behind a cloud bank. 

We were supposed to camp overnight in the village, an activity my adventuresome, good sport of a wife reluctantly agreed to when we planned this portion of our tour. “It will be fun!” I reassured her at the time. But seeing our pup tent set up in a small corral surrounded by dried cow dung and imagining how we would deal with a bush toilet in the darkness of the savanna, I had my doubts. I had imagined more of a glamping experience. Thinking of our aching backs in the morning from sleeping on the ground without any kind of padding, we asked our guide for plan B. 

Since the guides would have been participating in this camping adventure with us, they didn’t put up much argument about changing plans. This brought us to a comfortable room at the Buska Lodge, an eco-inn isolated in the thorn tree-studded savanna outside Turmi.  It was an oasis after a long and hot day. By the time we arrived the generator and water had been turned on.  At dinner we discussed returning to the Hamar village the next day, but early enough in the afternoon to give us enough time to enjoy the tribe and their village.

Early the next afternoon, before we entered Turmi, we crossed a dry riverbed where several teams of men were digging deep into the sand to find water. Towns without any water infrastructure rely on these hardworking and enterprising men to fill the ubiquitous yellow jerry cans with water and deliver them by donkey cart to people’s homes. It was another sign of climate change that reinforced its dire consequences.

The men of the village were still out with the cattle herds, but we were greeted by a throng of women and children.  The Hamar are known for their tradition of “bull jumping” or “bullah,” a purification and rite of passage ceremony for young tribesmen to prove their worthiness for marriage. It’s a complex ritual that culminates with the young man jumping over the backs of 10 bulls, which are smeared with dung to be slippery, four times without falling. If he falls he will have to wait a year until he’s allowed to try again.

We did not witness a bullah; what we did see were the results of the whipping ceremonies that precede the bull jumping. Displayed on the bare backs of the women of the village were large raised scars, which were inflicted by the men; the women receive the beatings as a show of loyalty.  Before the bull jumping, the sisters and other female relatives of the initiates from the surrounding villages gather, and with sorghum beer brewed for the occasion dance, sing and blow horns.  As the dancing intensifies the women are said to ask, beg, or provoke the maza, young men who bull jumped but haven’t married yet, to whip them with long birch branches called miceres.  This act of scarification is a visual reminder of the women’s loyalty to the young man about to bull jump and earns them the right to his help in the future should they ever need it.  “If your sisters, female cousins, or aunties need your assistance in the future your debt to them is sealed. You can’t ignore their requests, period. After all, they nearly died for you!” 

By western morals this is a brutal practice, but with the Hamar it’s an ancient ritual that has been performed for centuries. They have a saying, “Women with scars are as strong as lions!”

The Hamar tribeswomen are also very distinctive with their dress, wearing long goatskin garments adorned with cowry shells and beads.  The first wife of a tribesman wears an iron neck ring with a protruding knob on the front, called a binyere, that visually distinguishes her status as the first wife, above two esente, simple iron collars, that she has worn since her engagement.  The collars are permanently placed on the woman by the village blacksmith and only removed by her husband upon her death. Additional wives only wear simple metal necklaces to indicate their lower status.

We stayed late into the day, wandering through the village watching children play atop the cattle corrals while waiting for the herds to return and the sky slowly deepen to darkness.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Omo Valley Part 4: Headrests and Visiting Stools

Turning off the packed dirt road at Turmi, we headed into a xeric savanna along a sandy vein, barely visible on Google Map’s satellite view, our destination the Kara tribe’s village of Korcho.  Occasionally, we would pass a tree with pink flowers, called a Desert Rose (Adenium obesum), which brightly contrasted with its surroundings. 

Numerous red earthed termite mounds rose from the plain. “What do you think they look like?” our guide queried as we stopped to photograph a large, fluorescent blue agaminae lizard climbing one.  Not sure how to politely reply, we hesitated with a response.  “Dicks, they look like big dicks!” our normally reserved guide chuckled out before a round of laughter filled the truck.  Hey, we know how to have a good chuckle in the bush.  Obviously, we were traveling with the “Benny Hill” of Ethiopia.

Picking up on our interest in wildlife our driver, who was excellent at identifying birds, stopped every time he spotted something.  Thanks to his eagle eye, we were able to photograph red and yellow barbets, white crowned shrikes, guinea fowl, and red billed hornbills along with a dik-dik and an Arabian bustard.

The track ended in the Kara village of Korcho, located on a high embankment, above a curve in the Omo river – it was a stunning view. The Kara are the smallest tribe in the southern Omo Valley. Their population was decimated in the late 19th century during a sleeping sickness epidemic spread by the bite of the tsetse fly.

With an estimated 1500-3000 people left in three large villages, they are trying to keep their bloodline pure and have strict rules forbidding intermarriage with the surrounding tribes.  Traditionally pastoralists, they prefer goats over cattle, as their grazing lands have been reduced by conflicts with larger neighboring tribes; also, they now practice flood-retreat farming and fish in the Omo River. 

The Kara are also famous for their body painting.  Using designs inspired from nature, they apply local chalk and clay, iron ore, charcoal, and ground yellow mineral rock in intricate designs. They paint themselves or each other as there are no mirrors.  Done for beauty and ceremonial reasons, the body painting also helps to keep insects away and reduce sunburn. 

Men and women also make a single piercing below their lower lip and insert a single thorn or carved twig for decoration.  Scarification is practiced by the men to commemorate a courageous act, while women lash themselves because the raised welts are viewed as a sign of beauty on mature women.

Visiting stools called, borkotto, double as headrests and are carried by tribesmen wherever they go.  Courageous Kara tribesmen are entitled to wear a red and grey colored, clay hair cap which is decorated with a large feather. This symbol of honor can last up to six months and is ritually protected every night when sleeping by using the headrest to protect it from the ground. 

We were invited by a tribeswoman to have coffee in her hut. The Kara build relatively large huts, sturdily constructed of branches and thatch with a small low entrance.  We followed a small group, who dipped low and slid inside gracefully.  I, on the other hand, to the amusement of onlookers, resorted to crawling on all fours through the portal. The knees just don’t bend the way they used to.  Over an open fire our hostess was preparing a coffee beverage, more like a coffee tea, called buno which is made by steeping the dried husks of coffee beans in hot water.  The drink was passed around in a hollowed-out gourd which we all drank from.

Later that day we headed to visit part of the Nyangatom tribe living near the Omo River.  They are thought to have migrated into the Omo Valley region from Uganda in the mid-1800s.  The Nyangatom are semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists, though some members of their tribe that have lost their cattle now farm and fish along the Omo River.  Their permanent villages feature tall huts with a distinctive, pinnacled thatched roof.

Inland other clans drive large herds of zebu cattle, along with some goats and donkeys (as pack animals) through a large arid grazing area that extends west to the Sudanese border and north to the Suri territory. In times of drought they dig deep wells in the dry riverbeds so they and their animals can drink.

The Nyangatom name their generation groups. The oldest have names like the Tortoises, Mountains and Elephants.  The youngest generation is called the Buffaloes. Every fifty years the older generation steps aside for the younger one to rule. 

Nyangatom tribeswomen are recognized by the elaborate bundle of colorful necklaces they wear and never take off. The first strand of beads is given by a girl’s father. Every year after she adds another strand, mounding pounds of them up under her chin over her lifetime. 

Some traditions never change, but as we were leaving the village, we noticed a small solar panel atop one of the huts. Probably just powerful enough to recharge a cell phone or run a light bulb.  

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lalibela Part 3: Sacred Bees and Holy Beer

IMG_3424Walking, walking, walking! The countryside is full of folks out and about on their feet. There is a rural minibus network connecting larger villages once a day, and Lalibela has tuk-tuks, of course. But mostly, whether it’s due to lack of affordability or availability, people walk to and from everywhere. Sometimes it is necessary to travel great distances to accomplish simple, everyday tasks like gathering water, heading out to tend a remote field, going to market, or even farther to visit a doctor. IMG_5294In the rugged agrarian highlands surrounding Lalibela, all the fields are tilled by farmers walking behind teams of oxen, as it has been done for centuries, on farmland passed down through a communal hereditary system called rist.  IMG_5277

The land does not belong to an individual but to the descendants who can never sell, keeping the land in the family for perpetuity.  Without mechanization, planting, weeding and harvesting are done communally.  If the rains are good excess crops make it to a local market; if not, it’s subsistence farming until the drought ends.  Some NGOs are having an impact by drilling community wells for fresh water and remote irrigation.

We passed many individuals and groups walking as we made our way into the beautiful highlands surrounding Lalibela to visit St. Yemrehana Krestos Church, named for the king that commissioned its construction around 1100 AD.

It’s only 12 miles from Lalibela as the crow flies, and until the road was put in not too long ago, a two-day trek from town.  Now, twenty-six miles of dirt road and an hour and half later we were there, a world away from Lalibela.

The path to the church took us across a footbridge spanning a boulder-strewn stream where women were washing clothes in the rushing water below. They agilely jumped from rock to rock as they spread their laundry out to dry.  As we headed uphill, we stopped at the bottom of a set of stairs to wait for a group of church elders to cautiously descend.

Situated at 8500 ft above sea level, the altitude was catching up to us and we were glad to sit for a while in front of the church to admire its setting. St. Yemrehana Krestos is not a legendary rock church, but a cave church built at the mouth of a deep cavern, behind a tall slender waterfall.

It’s constructed in a distinctive pattern of horizontal stone block, followed by a recessed layer of timber in an architectural style copied from the Aksumite Kingdom that flourished from 400 BC until the 10th century AD. 

The cave is very spacious and actually contains two buildings. The second directly across from the church is thought to have been the king’s humble palace or treasury, according to our guide.  The door to it was open, but it appeared to be used mostly for storage now. The floor between the buildings is covered with reed mats that hide a substructure of large olive wood beams built over a shallow spring-fed pool that can be reached by a trapdoor in front of the church.

Behind the church are two tombs draped in fine cloth, to indicate their royal significance.  The larger tomb is thought to be the grave of King Yemrehana Krestos and the smaller one that of his slave, Ebna. Deeper into the cave there is a mass grave of several hundred now mummified bodies, which have been piled on top of each other for centuries, the corpses of pilgrims and monks who could go no further. 

It took our eyes awhile to adjust to the dim interior of the church as we worked our way through a columned interior, the tops crowned with wood and stone carved capitals.  Never restored, centuries of accumulated candle soot partially obscured an inlaid wooden ceiling with geometric designs and, on the walls, what are thought to be the oldest examples of mural paintings in Ethiopia.

Outside a local teenager was selling small clay figurines of animals. His rendering of a Walia ibex, native to the Ethiopian Semien Mountains, caught our eye and we made his day with a purchase.

Heading back, we passed Bilbala St. George Church, a rock church built in the 5th or 6th century AD by King Kaleb. It is legendary for its sacred bees that have lived in hives in the courtyard since its founding. Their honey is renowned for its healing properties, especially for the treatment of skin problems and psychological disorders.  We were crazy not to stop; in retrospect, we regret our decision.

Walking, walking, walking. Coming or going, people carrying umbrellas for shade traveling along with goats or chickens, for sale or for dinner – the road was crowded with activity as we drove through the village of Bilibala on its market day.

With no semblance of trying to attract tourists, we had a better chance of coming home with a donkey from the pre-owned animal auction lot than a souvenir.

Outside the village at the turn to our next stop, a magnificent ancient fig tree provided shade under its graceful canopy.

After walking briefly through a shady forest and crossing a narrow stream rock to rock we could see a large, what was once a turtle-shaped, monolithic rock rising from the ground before us, its front curve altered a millennium ago. The façade was chiseled smooth to be a high flat wall with an entry door centered in it.  This was the wall to the courtyard that surrounded the church; from the outside only a small section of the upper part of Bilbala Kirkos Church peaked above the wall.

Hearing us approach, the caretaker emerged from behind his home, swishing away pests with a cow tail fly-swatter as he approached, and told us that the church was locked because the priest was away in another village to attend a funeral, but we could go into the courtyard.

Shoes off, we crossed through an ancient threshold hewn in the 6th century AD into a spongy moss-lined trench that encircled the church on three sides and served as its courtyard. The eastern wall or back of the church was still attached to the living rock.  High arched windows were piled with stones to keep out birds and other critters.

Worn entry steps testified to centuries of use.  As we were getting ready to leave, the caretaker offered us tella, an Ethiopian home-brewed beer made from teff and sorghum grain and fermented with buckthorn. Out of concern for maintaining our good health, we passed on the offer, but our guide enjoyed it and shared that “tella is used for religious purposes when holy wine is not available.” Sacred bees and holy beer – we’re on to something here.

Cheers. Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lalibela Part 2: Holy Water and Thumbprints

There is not a definitive count, but it’s thought that there are nearly two hundred rock churches scattered about the remote northern highlands of Ethiopia. The highest concentration of eleven in one locale, collectively known as the “Rock Churches of Lalibela,” is the most famous. In the immediate rural area surrounding Lalibela there are several additional rock churches and ancient monasteries worth seeking out.  Asheten Mariam Monastery is perched at 11,500 ft on a lower ridge of Mount Abuna Yosef, (at 14,000 ft Ethiopia’s sixth highest mountain) and St. Na’akuto La’ab Monastery behind a waterfall, both located southeast of Lalibela. Farther afield, to the north of Lalibela, St. Yemrehana Krestos and Bilba Kirkos Church lie in remote farmlands.  All four required a little more physical effort to get to, but were well worth the effort.IMG_5573We started our day listening to bird calls and watching the morning clouds burn off from the valley below our hotel as the sun rose higher into the sky. The Mountain View Hotel Lalibela was the perfect spot on the outskirts of town, with extensive views and a wonderful variety of birdlife in the trees outside our room.  Farther along the ridgeline was an odd, futuristic structure that looked like it was a tower for a water ride in an amusement park.

The day before after touring the Lalibela churches, our guide suggested we hire a driver with an SUV to take us into the mountains. “We can drive to the end of the dirt track, but then it’s another forty-minute hike to the monastery,” Girma explained. “How difficult is the trek?” “It’s a gradual climb until the end and then there is a short steep section,” he replied. IMG_4869The shops were busy, and the roadside Ping-Pong games were in full swing as we departed Lalibela. The road into the mountains rose quickly from Lalibela into a semi-forested landscape. Too steep for crops, the land was used for cattle, which grazed on clumps of wild grasses on the hillside.  We stopped at one clearing for the view and noticed a herder gently nudging his cows away from recently planted tree seedlings.  “This is part of our government’s commitment to reverse deforestation and help mitigate climate change. It’s called the Green Legacy Initiative,” Girma shared. IMG_4923“On July 29th Ethiopians planted 350 million trees in a single day, a world record!” he proudly shared.  “The farmers know how important this is and help shoo the cattle away, but the government has also chosen a tree seedling that doesn’t taste good.” This annual Ethiopian project is part of the African Union’s Great Green Wall initiative to reclaim arid lands that border the Sahara Desert with a living wall of trees.  This belt of greenery will stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Aden. IMG_5198The road deteriorated after this, with deep mudded ruts tossing us from side to side regardless of how slowly we navigated through, over or around them. Our “rattled tourist syndrome” is the most appropriate way to describe the ride, while optimists might refer to it as an an “African deep tissue massage.” We were the only truck to park at the trailhead to the Asheten Mariam Monastery and were greeted with children selling handicrafts, and young men renting walking sticks and offering to accompany us on the hike.IMG_4883 Confident in our abilities we declined, but they tagged along anyway. This was a good thing. What our guide had forgotten to mention was that there was a short steep section at the beginning of the hike, before it leveled off. Within minutes, between the altitude and the terrain, our hearts were pumping and my wife, who struggles with asthma, was gasping for breath. We are unfortunately not the 7 second 0-60mph vroom, vroom of a 1964 Corvette anymore, but more like the putt-putt of a classic Citroën 2CV. We get there, eventually. So, our guide, forgetting his youth and our age, led the way from a distance, as if he was channeling Shambel Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia’s famous marathon runner. IMG_4983It was at this point that my wife spoke up. “Girma, you must think of me as the same age as your mother.” Instantly, his attitude became very solicitous, and he smilingly offered her a hand or other assistance at every opportunity. We marveled at the agility of the local kids. They nimbly scampered up and down the trail, easily outdistancing us, in order to set up their little trailside displays of carvings and beadednecklaces. When we didn’t purchase at first, they simply packed up and reappeared further up the trail. We had to reward such perseverance with a couple of purchases.IMG_4987Meanwhile, we regained our pace as the trail leveled off and tracked along the base of a cliff face that fell away to terraced farmland far below.  The incline of the trail continued to rise; the walking sticks were now invaluable in helping us steady our footing on the rough path.  Around a curve the trail abruptly narrowed at a sheer rock wall broken by a vertical chasm, slightly wider than our shoulders.

Occasionally we had to plaster ourselves to the rock wall to make room for descending parishioners to pass. It took a moment for our eyes to readjust to the brilliant sunlight after emerging from the darkness of the tunnel as we exited onto a plateau above the highlands. 

A young priest answered our knock, greeted us and led us into a small chamber lit only by the light of the open door. The priest proceeded to show us the treasures of the church: a large ebony cross, 900-year-old parchment manuscripts, elegant processional crosses and illuminated Bibles, as well as iconography. IMG_5069Imprinted at the bottom of a page in one ancient text were the thumbprints of the ten scribes who helped copy the book. Legend has it that it was the first church ordered built by King Lalibela during his reign in the twelfth century and that his successor, Na’akueto La’ab, who only ruled for a short time, is buried there.

The way the church is cut from the mountain made it difficult to get an overview as part of it is obscured by protective roofing. The real rewards of this endurance trek were the fantastic panoramic views over the Lalibela highlands.  Awareness of your surroundings are vital here as there are not any safety railings at the cliff edge. The walk back was slightly less difficult, but the young men who tagged along and assisted truly earned their payment. Back at the trailhead, parked next to our truck was a tiny blue, Fiat Panda, a sub-compact car with extremely low road clearance. How it managed to traverse the same rutted road we drove hours earlier remains a mystery to us.

Our guide suggested we lunch at Ben Abeba, a curious lunch spot that turned out to be that futuristic building visible from our hotel.  Its spiral ramps led to various dining platforms from which we watched raptors soaring along the updrafts of the ridge.  The food was exceptionally good. But there was a quirky feature of the restaurant that we found very amusing. The restrooms were something out of a science fiction movie, with cylindrical stalls that resembled cryogenic tubes. It was definitely a Lalibela oddity.

St. Na’akuto La’ab Monastery was closer to town. As with many rural communities, Lalibela included, the cluster of development ended abruptly, and we were instantly in the countryside. Villagers in robes walked purposefully to church along the road that bordered their fields, as we made our way to the hermitage. IMG_4722 Coming to the end of the road, we could see the monastery dramatically situated behind a small waterfall, in a long shallow cave at the bottom of a cliff.

It was an easy short walk, from where we parked, down a trail with noisy birdlife. The buildings behind the entrance wall to the cave are not particularly unique; it’s their location that’s inspiring. The oneness with the natural environment.IMG_4325Stone bowls smoothed from centuries of use sat in various places on the rough floor to collect the water seeping from the cave’s ceiling one drip at a time. It gets blessed by the priest and used as Holy water, continuing a tradition from the 12th century when King La’ab ordered the monastery’s creation.

“Miraculously the water has never stopped flowing since the monastery was built,” the priest shared as our guide interpreted. Outside doors to the monks’ cells lined the exterior wall as it narrowed into the cliff face.  IMG_4369In the learning area, layers of carpet attempted to smooth an uneven, rocky floor where the novitiates sit to learn the ways of the orthodox church. In the corner rested several large ceremonial drums used during worship services. Picking one up our guide beat out a rhythm that would normally accompany liturgical chanting, or Zema, by the young monks. We’ve noticed that the treasures of the Ethiopian churches are not determined by their monetary value and locked securely away, only to be used on religious holidays, but by their spiritual connection.  Precious, irreplaceable, ancient bibles and manuscripts, lovingly worn and torn as they are, continue to be used every day, as they have been for the last nine-hundred-years.IMG_4560 It is well worth the effort to visit these remote churches and monasteries. The physical strength required and hardships endured to build these remote churches as a testament of faith continues to be inspiring.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lalibela Part 1: A Twisting Tale of Time, Pilgrims and Shoe Guards

IMG_1969Often overshadowed in recent decades by its East African neighbors recognized for their safaris, Ethiopia has been known to Western culture for millennia. It was first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, around 1000 BC (3,000 years ago!), when the Queen of Sheba, hearing of “Solomon’s great wisdom and the glory of his kingdom,” journeyed from Ethiopia with a caravan of treasure as tribute.  Unbeknownst to Solomon their union produced a son, Menilek, (meaning son of the wise man).  Years later, wearing a signet ring given to him by his mother, Menilek visited Jerusalem to meet Solomon and stayed for several years to study Hebrew. When his son desired to return home, Solomon gifted the Ark of the Covenant to Menilek for safe keeping in Ethiopia, and to this day it is said to reside in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Aksum, where only a select few of the Ethiopian Orthodox church can see it.IMG_1662The story of the lost tribe of Israel or the Beta Israel (meaning House of Israel) begins with the 12,000 Israelites that Solomon sent to Ethiopia to help Menilek rule following biblical laws. According to legend, Menelik I founded the Solomonic dynasty that ruled Ethiopia with few interruptions for close to three thousand years. This ended 225 generations later, with the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.IMG_1754 Blasphemy, I know, but let’s not forget the Hollywood legend with Indiana Jones rescuing the arc from the Nazis, only to have it unceremoniously stored in an underground warehouse in the Nevada desert. That is an aside, but as the writer I’m allowed to digress.IMG_2177Around the same time that Ethiopia appears in the Hebrew Bible, the Greek writer Homer mentioned “Aethiopia” five times in the The Iliad and The Odyssey.  In the Histories written by Herodotus (440 BC,) the author describes traveling up the Nile River to the territory of “Aethiopia” which began at Elephantine, modern Aswan.

Ethiopian tradition credits the introduction of Christianity to an Ethiopian eunuch in 34 AD, who was baptized by Philip the Apostle. (Acts 8:26-39) He then preached near the palace in Aksum after returning from Israel.

Ethiopian ports on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were important stops along the trade route that brought spices from India, along with ivory and exotic animals from Africa to the Roman Empire. In the 4th century AD, Ethiopia’s first Christian king, Ezana of Aksum, sent ambassadors to Constantinople, a newly Christian Byzantine Empire, setting the stage for debates about which country – Armenia, Ethiopia (330AD) or Byzantium – was the first Christian state. Archaeologists point to Ethiopian coins minted in the 4th century bearing a cross and Ezana’s profile as solid proof.

After Ezana’s declaration of Ethiopia as a Christian country, civil war broke out between the Christian and Jewish populations, resulting in the creation of a separate Beta Israel kingdom in the Semien Mountains around Gondar that lasted from the 4th century to 1632. IMG_1657 With the Ethiopian Orthodox Church having a site in Jerusalem since the sixth century, Ethiopian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which took six months, were common until the route was blocked by Muslim conquests in 1100s and the journey became too hazardous. As it became surrounded further by Muslim territories, the country sank into isolation from Europe.  Ethiopia’s early history and its connection to Judaism and Christianity is a twisting tale, like caravan tracks across the desert, meeting then disappearing behind sand dunes, the story buried by the blowing sands of time.IMG_4066Distraught by this, King Lalibela commissioned eleven architecturally perfect churches, to be hewn from solid rock, to serve as a New Jerusalem complete with a River Jordan for pilgrims to visit. He based the designs on memories of holy sites from his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a young man.IMG_4015Considering the limited availability of tools in the 1100s, I can’t imagine what a daunting task this must have been. I’m sure the chief architect said, “you have to be kidding.”  It’s believed that 40,000 men, assisted by angels at night, labored for 24 years to create this testament to their faith.  Masons outlined the shape of these churches on top of monolithic rocks, then excavated straight down forty feet to create a courtyard around this solid block.  Doors would then be chiseled into the block and the creation of the church would continue from the inside, often in near total darkness.

European contact with Ethiopia was sporadic over these centuries, until the Portuguese circumnavigated the African continent in the late 1400s and began to establish trading ports along the East African coast.  Early in the 1500s the first European to visit the churches of Lalibela was Francisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest assigned to the Ethiopian court as an emissary.  He declared them a “wonder of the world,” penning “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more… I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth.” It would be almost four hundred years before the next European, Gerhard Rohlfs, a German cartographer, laid eyes on them in the late 1860s.

The magnificence of this accomplishment didn’t reveal itself subtly, like a vision slowly rising from the horizon, but smacked us in the face with a WOW! as we emerged single file from a deep and narrow moss-covered trench dug from the reddish volcanic rock.

“The setting was intentionally designed to give the pilgrims a ‘spiritual journey’ of ascending to heaven as the sky and the 40 ft tall façade of Bete Medhane Alem (Church of the Savior of the World), burst forth before them after exiting the darkness,” our guide explained.  The largest rock church in Lalibela and in the world is also significant because it’s believed “The hand of God touched one of its columns in a dream King Lalibela had,” our guide Girma Derbi shared as he explained the church’s columned façade that looks like it was inspired by the Parthenon.

Pilgrims in long white robes made their way through three doors that in all Ethiopian Orthodox churches face west, north and south. The nave is always on the east side of the building.  “All visitors must remove their shoes before entering the church and leave them outside.  You don’t have to, but it’s good if you hire a shoe guard to watch them. Unattended shoes have been known to disappear,” our guide advised.

Fatima, an official shoe guard registered with the historic site, accompanied us for the next two days as we explored the churches and passages. This kind woman helped us numerous times as we navigated treacherous footing and steep steps.  Our wisdom in hiring her was reinforced when we encountered a tourist sitting shoeless, outside a church, contemplating an uncomfortable walk ahead.IMG_1535-2Women worshippers traditionally enter through a separate door and pray apart from the men. Inside, thirty-eight stone columns form four aisles and support a stone ceiling that soars overhead. After walking for days or weeks to reach Lalibela, often fasting the entire time, the journey ends here for many pilgrims, in hopes of receiving a blessing or cure from touching the Lalibela Cross and offering prayers.

We spent the rest of the day following Orthodox nuns in yellow robes, and pilgrims carrying prayer staffs along narrow interconnecting passages, through tunnels and then portals to the other Northern Churches (churches located north of a stream renamed the Jordan River.) In many churches there are stacks of prayer staffs by the entrance.  These are for congregants to lean on, as there are no chairs in the churches and everyone must stand during the long worship services.

Beta Maryam (Church of Mary), Beta Masqal (Church of the Cross), Beta Danagel (Church of the Virgins), Beta Mika’el (Church of Michael), and Beta Golgotha (Church of Golgotha) all share common elements, yet they are all fascinatingly different in their various carved windows, uneven floors covered with carpets, decorated columns, frescoed walls and religious paintings. The high-banked courtyards around the churches contain caves where monks and hermits slept, or became the final resting spot of pilgrims who could go no further, their mummified remains still visible in certain places. The footpaths between churches double as drainage canals in the rainy season to whisk away water to the Jordan River.Karta_LalibelaWe ended our day at Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George). This stunning cross-shaped church was excavated over thirty feet deep into the top of a hill. It is the most widely recognized of the eleven rock churches and was easily viewed from a small bluff adjacent to it, its beautiful orange patina glowing in the afternoon sun.

It has weathered the centuries better than many of the other churches which have had protective coverings suspended above them, to shield the stone structures from deterioration caused by the effects of weather and climate change.IMG_1696The next morning, we completed our tour of the cluster of the southern of the rock churches: Beta Emmanuel (Church of Emmanuel), Beta Abba Libanos (Church of Father Libanos), Beta Merkurios (Church of Mercurius) and Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el (the twin churches of Gabriel and Raphael.)

We arrived at Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el after passing through a wide tunnel that lead to a slender bridge across a deep chasm.  It was silent outside, but as we opened the door to enter, the sound of chanting male voices filled the air. We were graciously welcomed into a cavernous room filled with men leaning on prayer staffs or raising them in rhythm, as they sang a liturgical chant, or Zema, accompanied by a drumbeat and the clatter of sistrum rattles. This form of worship has been a tradition in the Ethiopian church since the sixth century.  To hear their Zema, click here.IMG_3889It’s important to remember that this is not a museum with ancient artifacts and manuscripts in glass cases, but an active holy site where the ancient manuscripts are still used daily, and it is home to a large community of priests and nuns. It has been a destination for Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims in the northern highlands (elevation 8,200’) for the last 900 years and continues to be visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims annually.IMG_3852Leaving the churches behind, we walked through an area of ancient two story, round houses called Lasta Tukuls, or bee huts, built from local, quarried red stone.  Abandoned now for preservation, they looked sturdy, their stone construction distinctive from the other homes in the area that use an adobe method.IMG_1802Today roughly 100,000 foreign tourists, in addition to Ethiopian pilgrims, visit Lalibela annually, a far cry from its near obscurity 140 years ago. Located four hundred miles from Addis Ababa, it is still far enough off the usual tourist circuits to make it a unique and inspiring destination.

Our visit to Lalibela was the fulfillment of a long-held wish to see these incredible churches, which are an amazing testament to the faith of the Ethiopian people. The altitude challenged us, and it wasn’t always easy to reach the churches themselves, navigating narrow alleys with uneven footing and eroded steps, but we are so glad we persevered. It was a once in a lifetime experience that we will never forget.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

 

 

Omo Valley Part 3: Ancient Ways and Roadblocks

Our guide rousted us early for our drive to visit the agro-pastoralist Mursi tribe, in Mago National Park, only to have our trip delayed at the border to the region by a chain across the road.  There were only a few vehicles in front us, but two lines soon formed: tourist transports on the left, and on the right, trucks and buses hauling supplies and people to the cotton and sugar cane plantations.  “This hasn’t happened in a while. It means there is some sort of incident with the tribes that police need to resolve before we can go further,” Ephrem explained as he killed the engine.  As time wore on impatient drivers, guides, (ours included) and passengers began to walk through the lines of stalled traffic, searching for information.  Rumors of “soon,” floated by several times. Some groups turned around so they wouldn’t miss their flights to Addis Abba. IMG_3308 We would have been terribly dissappointed if this had happened to us and we missed visiting the Mursi tribe. (Note to self – don’t leave important events to the last day.) Curious children made their way amidst the tourist vehicles, looking through the windows and asking for soap, shampoo, pens, pencils, caramels, and empty water bottles. The kids would have been happy with anything anyone gave them. Some pointed to the clothes we were wearing, hoping we would donate them.  Folks make do with very little here and wear things until they are threadbare, out of necessity.  Often, we saw older children wearing infant onesies with the feet of the garment cut off.  We are not criticizing; it’s all they had.  It saddened us and we wished we had brought an extra suitcase of clothes along to donate to a village.  Eventually there was a burst of activity with rumbling engines at the front of the line and folks running back to their rides. IMG_2607We were the third car in a group of five that was being led by a pickup truck full of armed paramilitary policemen.  Many of the incidents that have occurred are related to the increase in truck and bus traffic roaring through Mursi territory on the way to new cotton and sugarcane plantations along the banks of the Omo River. IMG_3207 Cattle are very often herded down the roads and sometimes are struck and killed, along with their herders.  Often drivers do not stop to take responsibility.  In the eyes of the villagers, the local authorities have not resolved the situation.  As a result, tribespeople will set roadblocks to rob buses carrying plantation workers and extract revenge on truckers.  A while later we stopped and were assigned an armed escort, with an AK-47, who accompanied us for the duration of our visit. He was euphemistically called a scout.IMG_3060Turning off the dirt road, branches scratched against the side of the truck as we followed a narrow dirt track through the savanna to a clearing where a small group of thatched huts stood. Soon the women of the village stopped what they were doing to greet us.

Nowadays regarded as a sign of beauty and self-esteem, the tradition of lip-plates, debhinya, and ear-plugs with which the Mursi tribeswomen adorn themselves is thought by some anthropologists to have begun centuries ago to discourage slave traders from taking them captive. The Mursi have no oral history, however, to support this theory. It most likely signifies that a woman has reached puberty. Both men and women also practice scarification, which is accomplished when a wound, made with a thorn, is rubbed with ash and dirt so that it heals into a thick, raised scar. Today some of the young women of the tribe are choosing not to stretch their lower lips, instead keeping only the ear-plug. It’s a woman’s choice, though the older generation believes “the lip-plate serves to remind people of a woman’s commitment to her culture.”

Tourists have been coming in larger numbers every year to the Omo Valley since the 1970’s and income from posing for photos has become increasingly important in a drought-prone environment that necessitates visiting the local markets more frequently for supplies to survive.

As unique and interesting as the experience truly was and not to be cynical, there was an element of “dressing up for the tourists” revealed when we realized some of the tribeswomen were exchanging items among themselves or going into their huts for a wardrobe change, to create a different look in pursuit of more tourist dollars for additional photos.

We did admire their business acumen and thoroughly enjoyed visiting them. At the end of the day they still struggle to survive in a harsh environment. It was a win-win for everyone.

Leaving the Mursi, we headed to an Ari village closer to Jinka and were pleasantly startled when a dik-dik darted from the bush ahead of us. Chance encounters are the only way to see the smallest and consequently the most elusive antelope in Africa. Further along our guide spotted an Arabian bustard in the tall grass along the road.IMG_3491It was a steep walk up a trail through a forest of false banana, enset, to a well-kept sturdy hut with a medicinal herb garden. IMG_3710Outside two women were pinching clay into bowls and teapots that would later be sold at a weekly market.

Downhill from the hut a toolmaker was using a makeshift hand bellows to add oxygen to his fire.  Heating metal to a glow, he would hammer it out on a rock in front of him. As we sat watching him a small group of children gathered around us.  Intrigued by Donna’s short and straight black hair, the oldest girl of the group started to braid it into cornrows.  Silently communicating, they each enjoyed the experience. “That little girl had really strong fingers! I don’t know how she managed to braid such short hair,” Donna happily shared later.

Agriculturalists and craftspeople, the Ari people are the largest tribe in the Omo region and live in permanent villages across the vast highlands around Jinka.  Coffee and cardamom are grown as cash crops while subsistence crops of teff, wheat, barley, sorghum, maize, and a variety of root vegetables and false banana are grown for local markets and family use.  Working our way through the village we passed a basket maker who was creating a large woven reed granary.  Standing in the partially finished vessel, most of his body was obscured by its size. IMG_3879With sunlight shining through a canopy of giant enset leaves above her, a tribeswoman prepared kocho, a traditional Ethiopian flatbread, over an open smoky fire as we sat and watched. Behind us children giggled as they playfully rolled an old bicycle rim down the path.

The next morning, we headed to a local market in Jinka.  The city with a population of nearly 33,000 people has three permanent markets that are open daily.  Shops as well as street vendors offer everything imaginable to shoppers who come into town for the occasion. IMG_4033-2 There was a lively commotion of activity by the buses as porters brought over bundles to be tossed up onto the roofs and tied down before heading back to outlying villages. IMG_4149 Goats, cows and children were left to wander about freely while small piles of detritus burned slowly in the streets as vendors cleaned up at the end of the day. The earthy smell of dung and smoke lightly scented the air. It was chaotic.

There are continuing issues with tribal lands being seized for the expansion of the plantations along the Omo River, primarily the diversion of irrigation water from the Gibe lll dam to the plantations, which consequently ruins the livelihoods of tribes that practice ancient flood retreat farming downstream.  The international community is not sure how this situation will affect future tourism into the Omo Valley if it continues, but it is thought if the Mursi are denied access to their traditional farming area along the Omo River, they will not be able to survive without food aide to replace failed crops.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Omo Valley Part 2: Generation Poles and Dry Faucets

After getting some up-close shots of warthogs feeding on the lawn in front of our room, we loaded our bags into the Landcruiser and headed south to the Konso region with our guide and our driver. IMG_9593The highlands area is home to the Konso people who are renowned for their ringed hilltop villages, fortified with stone walls. They have developed terraced farming techniques to survive in a semi-arid, rock strewn and hilly territory for almost seven-hundred years.IMG_0083As we entered the town of Konso, bundles of candles miraculously appeared from under our guide’s seat and we stopped to donate them to a young man collecting offerings in front of his Ethiopian church.  This was the guide’s ritual when we changed territories and it continued throughout our trip. It was a common sight to see small groups of parishioners walking along the road holding up a picture of a beloved saint and umbrellas for shade.

The main street through town was lined with bustling shops. Their services and merchandise almost spilled into the street.  A rutted dirt field served as the bus depot and on the day we passed, a large crowd danced in undulating rhythm to see off newlyweds.  As remote as southern Ethiopia is, it has a rural minibus system that connects distant villages. The buses are always jammed full of folks, while their belongings are haphazardly tied to the roof.

The creative hand of man was clearly evident in the sculpted terracing we could see from the road leading to the Gamule Konso Cultural Village, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Staple crops of barley and wheat are grown along with crops of maize, chickpeas, beans, yams, taro, turnips, coffee, tobacco and cotton.  The terracing tames a once inhospitable terrain into productive farmland.IMG_1769As we walked to the center of the village young children following us jumped from rock to rock, along the tops of the tall walls built to protect the village, as we made our way along the path below.

Set on a hilltop the village, called a paleta, is ringed with six concentric, high stone walls.  Each ring was added as the population of the village expanded downhill. Within these defensive walls are fenced family compounds with pens for a small number of animals and sturdy huts and granaries constructed of tree branches, adobe and thatch along with moringa trees, from which the foliage is an important and delicous food source. IMG_9817Each ring also has a community area called a mora; this is a large thatched roof structure with an open lower level and an enclosed upper platform where the married men and bachelors of the village sleep.IMG_9868 More importantly it provides a shaded meeting place where men play gebeta.  It’s considered the oldest board game in the world and is played simply with stones, beans or seeds being moved around holes in a board with the goal to capture as many of your opponent’s pieces as possible.  Each village is also divided into two zones and a man born in one zone must always have his homestead in that zone.IMG_9767The Konso also erect generation poles, called olahita, which are raised every eighteen years. The olahita are made of cedar trees taken from the kala, a sacred forest. Gamule village had eighteen olahita which dates the village to be nearly 400 hundred years old.  Sadly, the oldest central poles have succumbed to termite damage and rot over the centuries. The oldest village in the Konso region is Dokatu which has 43 olahita. Near the olahita was the village ceremonial daga, a large rock, that teenage boys lift over their heads to prove their manhood and eligibility for marriage.  The Konso also carve waka, grave makers, in rough likeness of the deceased.  These were originally placed at the grave sites in the sacred forest, but have now all been brought back into the village to deter looting.  Each village is surrounded by a dina, or grove of trees, which acts as a buffer between the village and agricultural terraces. This buffer of trees was meant to inhibit attack on the village and provide an area close to the settlement where folks could forage for firewood. There are 36 paletas, with populations ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 in each village, scattered across the Konso territory.

Nearby outside the Konso village of Gesergiyo there is a unique landscape nicknamed “New York.” It’s a dramatic red sandstone canyon, that looks like it was violently carved from the earth, with deeply scarred walls and tall pinnacles created from millennium of erosion. Legend says Waga the Konso Sky God created these as he searched for a buried sacred drum. IMG_9980We didn’t really see the NYC comparison, but the landscape was interesting in that it contrasted sharply from the surrounding terrain.  And the encompassing territory is beautiful with vistas of rolling hills.  Driving away a group of young men were perched on a lone boulder, just passing time.IMG_0064We arrived late in the afternoon to the Konso Korebta Lodge, situated high on a hill. It was a relatively new complex with attractive, circular stone huts topped with steep thatched roofs and beautiful plantings of bougainvillea.  Desperately needing showers, we were flummoxed when the tap was dry and headed to reception to see what was up. Unbeknownst to us it’s common practice at hotels throughout the countryside to only turn on the electricity and water between 6:00 – 9:00 in the morning and 6:30 – 10:00 in the evening to conserve resources.IMG_9245 Thankfully, the staff called the owner to get permission to start the generator early for us. Back seat driver that I am I thought our driver drove fast, safely but fast to cover the great distances we had to travel.  So, we were surprised the next afternoon when he was tootling along very slowly to get back to the hotel.  Evidently the hotel owner made it very clear to our guide that he would not turn on the generator early again.

Later we traced the aroma of barbeque to a small garden area where the staff was grilling goat skewered on small tree branches over a fire pit dug into the ground.  It was in preparation for a wedding party that was due to arrive.  With military timing it seemed, suddenly the parking area in front of the hotel’s restaurant was full of honking minibuses discharging joyous celebrants.  It was a short indoor-outdoor event that climaxed with song, dance and well wishes for the couple.IMG_2028Market days are huge events in the rural areas and folks from various tribes travel for miles to attend them. IMG_2314Not just to buy or trade supplies; it’s also a cherished opportunity for men and women to socialize with friends and extended family from other villages, often in raucous beer halls which could be in a makeshift shed or more often a spot under a large shade tree that serves a local brew.

Many folks look and dress their best as it’s also a chance to find a future husband or wife.  The Alduba market was exceptionally large, spanning both sides of the main road, and it attracted folks from the Ari, Bena, Hammer and Tsemay tribes. Recently the government constructed a bricked wall corral at the market to show tribespeople that the government was interested in their wellbeing and that local folks are actually part of a greater Ethiopia.  And at the same time it started to collect taxes on every head of cattle sold.IMG_1956We were able to take many candid photos as we followed our guide through the market to its various parts. Ceramic pots, handmade tools, ropes and leather goods produced by different tribespeople were available as were pots, pans, cloth and sandals produced in China.

One older woman shared with our guide that she was in her seventies and walked six miles to the market to replace a ceramic cooking bowl that had recently broken.  Often, we would stop and ask a person if we could take their picture.IMG_2117 Many folks were very receptive to this and our guide would negotiate a fee.  And even though we paid for the privilege to take their photo, they seemed pleased that we admired their style. A few, however, angrily waved us away.

Later in the day we headed to Jinka, the largest town in the region, slowly getting closer to the Omo Valley with every move.  Traveling through a xeric landscape, we had a long stretch of dirt road to ourselves.  IMG_1803Pulling over occasionally to take photos from scenic overlooks along this isolated track, we were always surprised when, in the middle of nowhere, a young man selling souvenirs would emerge from the shade. Later we would come across an enterprising group of young stilt walkers urging tourists to stop for photos – and of course we did.IMG_4431Entering Jinka, we noticed signage for the International Airport (BCO, though we are pretty sure you can only fly in from Addis Abba.) We might have arranged our trip differently if we had known this previously as it would have eliminated two eight-hour drives from and to the capital. Note: if you fly into Ethiopia on a ticketed Ethiopian Airways flight you are able to purchase discounted domestic flights .  Our guide booked this discount for our us on our Addis Abba to Lalibela flights.

The Orit Hotel offered very basic accommodation, but it had a wonderful garden restaurant, good food and cold beers.

The next day we would head into Mago National Park to visit the Mursi tribe.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

 

 

Ethiopian Adventure Part 1 – Elephant Huts and Singing Wells

Background:

Why Ethiopia?  After 14 months of continuous, slow travel, spent mostly exploring cities, we were ready for a change of pace and a more raw or “authentic” experience, for lack of a better phrase. We had planned to visit Ethiopia originally just to see the hand-hewn rock churches of Lalibela.  But, with a tough spousal negotiation, we reached détente: three months in the land of her people, Italy, and for me, 12 days bouncing on backroads and possibly camping a night or two in a tribal village, and a cross country adventure through the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region which includes the Omo Valley. An exciting itinerary with Ephrem Girmachew of Southern Ethiopia Tours fit the bill and our budget.  I’m not sure who got the better deal, but somewhere along our journey we coined the phrase “shaken tourist syndrome” to reflect the road conditions we encountered for hours each day.  IMG_8498 The area in the northern part of the Greater Rift Valley, known today as the Omo Valley region of Ethiopia, has been at the crossroads of humankind for many millennia. In 1967 Dr. Leaky discovered fossil bone evidence, recently re-dated by scientists to be 195,000 years old, of early Homo sapiens near Kibish, Ethiopia, several miles west of the Omo River near where the borders of Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia meet.  The first migrations of early man out of Africa occurred 60,000 years ago as they followed the Omo River north through the Great Rift Valley to the Red Sea. At its narrowest point, where it meets the Gulf of Aden, they crossed to continue their migration through Arabia and eventually into Europe and Asia.  The region was once rich with African wildlife, and Arab towns along the northern East African coast of Somalia and Kenyan were sending hunting parties into the interior for elephant ivory, rhino horn and unfortunately slaves since around AD 1000.

It is thought that the Mursi and Suri tribes developed lip plates and scarification as a way to discourage Arab slavers from taking their women. The first European contact with the region is credited to Antonio Fernandes, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, who was sent by Ethiopian Emperor Susenyos in 1613 to find an inland route, that avoided all Islamic territories, to Malindi, a Portuguese port at the time, on the Indian Ocean.  The next reported western explorers to the region were Antonio Cecchi in the 1870’s and Vittorio Bottego in 1897. Bottego was the first European to follow the Omo River all the way to Lake Turkana, at a time when Italy was trying to become a colonial power and expand its Italian Eritrea territory into Ethiopia.  By the early 1900’s teams of cultural anthropologists from various Europeans countries were viewing the area as the “last frontier” and beginning to study the “cultural crossroads” aspect of the tribes of the Omo Valley.

A harsh, vast territory, the semi-arid Omo Valley is home to 13 indigenous groups that are seminomadic pastoralist. These tribes also practice flood retreat cultivation along the banks of the Omo River, to produce crops mostly for subsistence or occasional trading in the local markets.  Very remote and undeveloped, the area resisted Ethiopian Orthodox influence from the north of the country for centuries.  It wasn’t until the 1990’s, when a fledgling tourist industry began to emerge, and violent cross-border conflicts with various nomadic tribes looking for better grazing or to rustle cattle, that the government began to exert influence over the area.  Some nomadic tribes along the border were encouraged to settle down and farm and fish along the Omo River for their livelihood. Government interest in the area was intensified again when the decision to build two dams on the Gibe River, a tributary of the Omo River, were built to supply hydroelectric power to Ethiopia.  Later, the massisve Gibe lll dam, completed in 2016, was built to supply irrigation water to foreign owned sugar cane and cotton plantations on lands that were seized by the Ethiopian government from the indigenous tribes of the Omo Valley. Consequently, as the natural cycle of the river flooding was stopped, the centuries old practice of flood retreat farming is failing as there is not enough rainfall in the area to support crops. This has increased tensions amongst tribes already competing for limited grazing and fertile farming lands due to climate change. IMG_6730Things change, but the proud peoples that live in the Omo Valley are trying to retain their way of life amidst external influences they can’t control, as tourists and construction crews course across their territory.  Tempers flare when trucks and buses carrying supplies and workers to the agricultural plantations strike and kill cattle.  Drivers are required to stop and immediately pay the herder for his loss, but many never do.  Consequently, the local tribe will block the road and demand payment until the issue is resolved.

The Beginning:

It was immediately apparent as we were landing that Ethiopia was different. Addis Ababa is a thriving city of almost 5 million people, with gleaming skyscrapers, a new sprawling economic development zone, and high-speed rail line connecting the city to Djibouti. With no suburban transitional zone, the city was an island surrounded by an ocean of farmland. IMG_8308A good night’s sleep at the Jupiter International Hotel Bole (they have the best front desk staff we’ve encountered) made an early start bearable. Meeting us punctually, an amiable Ephrem introduced us to Gee and his trusty Toyota Landcruiser.  We could tell from the beginning that they were friends and had worked together for years.  Even before leaving the city limits, we met our first of the ubiquitous cattle herds, donkey carts and tuk-tuks slowing our passage.

Our first day would be the longest with over eight hours of driving to Arba Minch, that included a stop at the archaeological site of Tiya Stelae. Here a large field of stelae were adorned with carvings of spears; the number of spear heads on a stone is thought to represent the number of enemy killed. Other stones that dotted the landscape contained symbols that were more difficult to interpret. Nothing is really known about the people that created these monuments and there are no other sites in the area to help archeologists explain their mystery.

Further along, we stopped at an explosion of color and activity that represents an Ethiopian local market, our first of many. Coming from our last stop in parched Zimbabwe, this landscape was unexpectantly and refreshingly green.  We passed farmers plowing theirs fields with oxen, the way it has been done for centuries.IMG_6410 The 2019 rainy season was good; unfortunately, this is often not the case. There was no water infrastructure in most of the small towns and villages we passed through, forcing folks to gather water from local streams and rivers.IMG_8299 It was a constant sight: women carrying yellow water jugs along the side of the road back to their homes, or if they could afford it, having it delivered by donkey cart.  The terrain varied tremendously, with full rivers on one side of a mountain range and dry on the other side. These conditions forced people to dig into the riverbed in search of water.

Closer to Arba Minch workers piled just-cut bananas onto trucks, from plantations that lined the road.IMG_8266Since Ethiopia is close to the equator, the daylight hours do not vary seasonally.  The sun rises quickly in the morning and seems to drop from the sky at the end of the day.  By the time we reached the Paradise Lodge  in Arba Minch darkness was falling.  It was a long walk to our room, and signs along the path warned of baboons and warthogs.  A mosquito netted bed welcomed us under a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling.  A dramatic dawn the next morning through clearing storm clouds revealed the hotel’s placement on a cliff edge above a lush, dense forest that was part of Národní Park Nechisar that surrounds the perpetually brown Abaya Lake and Chamo Lake off in the distance below. IMG_9584At breakfast we watched thick-billed ravens in aerial combat as they rode the thermals just off the restaurant’s terrace.  Nearby a staff member stood ready to chase away baboons if they got too close to the customers’ tables.

After breakfast we headed into the highlands northwest of Arba Minch to visit the Gamo tribe in the Dorze village.  The Dorze, Doko and Ochello are the three clans that comprise the Gamo people. Rising slowly to an elevation of 8200ft, we traveled through heavily forested slopes that opened to patches of verdant farmland, and occasionally passed small groups of children dancing to earn spending money from passing tourists.IMG_9440 As we entered the village, compounds ringed with woven rattan walls held back tall Enset plants, better known as false banana, also called the “tree against hunger.” This plant is an important staple that is drought resistant and can be harvested year-round. Starch from the plant is scraped from its fibers and fermented in the ground for three months or longer and used to make kocho, a type of flat bread. IMG_9478Fibers from the plant are used to make rope or coffee bean bags, and the leaves are fed to farm animals.  We arrived on market day, and an entire hillside about the size of three football fields was covered with activity. From a distance it looked like an animated impressionistic painting, with undulating dots of color dancing under a blue sky. IMG_8996Sellers of charcoal, sugarcane, vegetables, and a multitude of other goods all had their wares spread out on cloths covering the ground.  Men played foosball or ping-pong under the few shade trees that ringed the field.

The Dorze are known for the family structures they build, called elephant huts, and the fine weavings that they create from the cotton they grow.  Constructed of hardwood poles, bamboo, thatch and enset, the huts get their name from the symmetrical vents at the top create a silhouette that resembles an elephant’s head. These towering huts can last eighty years, and when the bottom of the main poles become termite-infested they are cut off and the hut is then lifted up and moved to a different spot in the family compound.IMG_9211Men of the Dorze tribe traditionally do the weaving, while the women are responsible for spinning the cotton that the family grows and uses.   The colorful textiles they create are highly prized all over the country.IMG_9504-2Back in Arba Minch we stopped at the Lemlem restaurant for a lunch of local lake fish before checking out the crocodiles on Chamo Lake.  The lightly fried fish were served whole, while the sides were scored into squares which we picked off with our fingers. It was delicious.  Another side of the restaurant served freshly butchered, grilled meat.

The road south of Arba Minch cut through farmland.  Stately fish eagles and traditional Ethiopian honeybee hives dotted some of the trees along the road.  The elongated beehives are made from hollowed out logs and wrapped with woven bamboo strips, and then suspended in the trees.

It’s a dangerous livelihood, fishing the muddy waters of Chamo Lake, as attested to by the size of the Nile crocodile that swam alongside our tour boat.  He was frightfully as large as our 18ft vessel.  Crocodile hunting hasn’t been allowed in the lake since 1973, so there are many big old crocs in its waters. Every year fishermen are killed while standing in the lake casting their nets.  Those who can afford to, buy boats to fish.  Full immersion baptisms are performed by some churches in Chamo and Abaya Lakes, and tragically, in 2018 a Protestant pastor was snatched by a crocodile and killed in front of his congregation during a baptismal celebration.

“Tomorrow we drive to Kenya,” Ephrem offered. Really? That wasn’t expected! “We will stop before we actually get to the border to see a Singing Well of the Borena tribe, and then head to Chew Bet, an extinct volcanic crater lake where the tribe takes black salt from its water.”IMG_8449“Sorry for the late pick-up, but the road was full of tuk-tuks carrying families to the university stadium up the street for a graduation ceremony,” Ephrem offered as he bundled us into the Land Cruiser and handed us large bottles of water. “It’s hot where we are going today.”

Crossing a small mountain range as we headed south from Arba Minch, we left the green landscape behind us and descended into a semi-arid savanna of acacia trees and thorn scrub that held ostrich and huge termite mounds. Soon we encountered our first herd of camels being prodded along by young herders. In Yebelo we stopped to pick-up a local Borena guide who accompanied us for the rest of the day.  Now speeding toward the border, we passed isolated huts and folks seemingly in the middle of nowhere walking to unseen destinations.  We abruptly u-turned when our guide spotted the dirt track we needed to follow to the tula, a centuries-old deep well that continues to be dug deeper into the ground as the water table drops.IMG_0474We trailed a young Borena girl herding a small group of cattle down a slowly inclined, dusty trench deeper into the earth. It was impossible to avoid cow patties as we steered clear of an exiting herd.  Thirty feet below the surface, the trench ended in a bowl shape with a water trough where cattle were drinking.  Rhythmic voices emerged from a shallow cave behind the trough.  Climbing worn stone steps, we came to a narrow landing above the trough, where below us men sang to set a pace to their work. (Click the preceding link to see the video.) They lifted heavy buckets of water over their heads to others above them who then dumped the water into the trough for the cattle to drink.  The acoustics of the cave increased the sound of their songs.

This was the wide, higher part of the well. At the back of the cave there was a hole, only as wide as a man with a bucket, that descended straight down another sixty feet into the earth where more tribesmen worked in unison to lift water up from the bottom of the shaft.  Every day for centuries, teams of men have worked in thirteen tulas spread across the Borena territory to keep the tribe’s cattle alive in a harsh land where there is very little surface water.IMG_0884Imagine one of the most inhospitable places on earth and you might envision the village of Soda, located on the rim of the mile wide El Sod crater.  Aside from raising cattle, goats and camels, some Borena tribesmen have given up their pastoral life to dive into the depths of the El Sod Crater Lake to collect salt, which is then dried and traded or sold across southern Ethiopia from Somalia to Sudan and down into Kenya. It takes the salt divers an hour to descend the narrow track to the lake surface, 1100 ft below the crater’s rim. After scraping 50lbs of wet salt from the lake bottom, they bag it and load it on donkeys for the 1.5 hour walk out of the crater, only to turn around and do it again as many times a day as they can. Black and white salt along with crystals are gathered in the lake. Crystal salt is the most valuable, and black salt, used for animals, is the least.

Each diver works for himself and it is a tragically difficult livelihood. Many of the divers suffering from loss of hearing and sense of smell, tooth decay, eczema and blindness from spending years in the highly concentrated, corrosive salt water.  No eye protection is worn and nose and ear plugs are rudimentarily, made from plastic bags stuffed with dirt. At the crater rim the salt is sold to middlemen who dry it in slatted wooden shacks before reselling it. Trucks have now replaced legendary camel caravans which once crisscrossed the savanna to remote villages.

After lunch and our first Ethiopian coffee ceremony, we headed to the Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary, a 1600 square mile grassland preserve that is mostly home to Grevy’s and Burchell’s zebra.  Walking with our local scout, we were able to slowly approach a small herd of zebra.  Some of the females were heavy with calves soon to be born.IMG_1161A short drive away, our last stop of the day was a well-kept Borena village surrounded by an ochre landscape under a perfect blue sky.  Women do the heavy lifting in the villages, building the huts, tending children and crops, and spending a substantial amount of time foraging for firewood and gathering water from far off sources. While the men spend their days moving their cattle across different grazing lands.IMG_1234Women rule their homes and determine who can enter, even prohibiting spouses.  “If her husband comes back and finds another man’s spear stuck into the ground outside her house, he cannot go in,” our guide conveyed.

Away from the village as we headed back to Arba Minch we spotted both Grant’s and giraffe-necked Gerenuk gazelles.  The latter rises on its hind legs to feed on higher vegetation.

Old ways are changing as the Ethiopian government shows more interest in the south, and while Animism is still practiced, Christianity and Islam are making inroads into the region.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna