We explore a nation that amazes the senses but troubles the soul
Venture a few miles outside Addis Ababa and you’ll start to suspect that Ethiopia hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years; travel down to the Omo Valley and you can make that 150. This is a mixed blessing – it’s strangely revitalising to do without the omnipresent, invisible pressure of modern media and communication, particularly when they’re replaced by startling, glorious nature. But this trip isn’t for the faint-hearted – creature comforts are the sacrifice you’ll make for the chance to visit such a unique region and, chances are, you’ll be confronted with a few moral dilemmas too.
Unless you’re an experienced off-road driver with an uncanny sense of direction and a working knowledge of various arcane regional dialects, you’ll probably need to undertake this trip as part of a touring party – our G Adventures group numbered 11 people, plus a well-informed and engaging guide and a trio of unfussily excellent drivers.
What is immediately clear is that Africa is coming up fast. Parts of rural Ethiopia look half built, others half destroyed, but the country radiates energy, even if, at this stage, it is mostly directed towards day-to-day survival. Given an enlightened central government and decent infrastructure, the potential is vast. However, in the meantime, many Ethiopians survive on the hustle, so don’t be surprised if the charming, shoeless child you’ve just photographed insists on being paid. It’s part of the deal.
Visit any of the sprawling markets: if you’re going down south we’d particularly recommend the market in Turmi, where many of the various people of the Rift Valley gather to sell their wares, though you’ll have to haggle hard.
African holidays are synonymous with nature trails, and while southern Ethiopia largely bucks the trend in this respect, Lake Chamo is well worth a visit. For a start, it’s beautiful in the early morning light. More excitingly, it also contains hippos and crocodiles so self-parodically large and fierce-looking that, as they bask on the bank, you might suspect them to be stuffed animals, placed beside the lake to prevent tourist disappointment. Certainly, we were beginning to wonder, until a couple of them slithered into the water and appeared to make a beeline for our boat.
Lake Chamo is essentially a diversion, though. Southern Ethiopia represents a chance to truly engage with modes of living that are as old as humanity itself. Jacob Bronowski began his legendary TV essay The Ascent of Man in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. This, he suggested, was the home of the first creatures who could be regarded as definitively human.
Visiting parts of the Omo is an experience akin to time travel. We eased ourselves in by travelling up into the Guge mountains, occupied by the Dorze tribe: the Dorze have located a nicely calibrated balance between ancient tradition and concessions to modernity. Certainly, like most Ethiopian tribal people, they’re not unaware of their marketability in tourist terms. Our time in the village involved a long hike climaxing in an almost gratuitously spectacular view, but back in the village there were pottery exhibitions, displays of traditional dancing and brightly coloured shawls and blankets for sale. Clearly, parties of Westerners are anticipated and well catered for – and why not?
Still, a major part of the delight of a visit to the Dorze is an insight into the eternal accommodations made between nature and the tribe. For example, the area is riddled with termites, so much so that their presence is factored into the village architecture. The Dorze build their huts at double height in the knowledge that they will gradually be consumed from beneath – after a decade or so of shrinkage, another hut is built. Then there’s the false banana. These plants without the fruit are the unlikely lifeblood of the tribe. Indeed, the Dorze have made exploiting the surprising versatility of false bananas into something approaching an art form. The pulp is scraped away, fermented and then turned into delicious bread, best eaten with chilli sauce and the local honey. The stringy remains are used to make baskets. Best of all, the plant is also used to conjure up the fiery local tipple, areke, which resembles Irish poteen in both taste and potency.
Passing through the market town of Jinka – an ideal staging post containing banks, restaurants and an excellent museum documenting some of the tribes of the region – we made our way to the Debub Omo region inhabited by the Mursi tribe. The Mursi are a perfect example of the kind of cultural ambiguity that characterises state attitudes towards some of these remote micro-civilisations. Making far fewer concessions to conventional notions of progress, the Mursi way of life stands threatened by industry – an encounter with an army patrol on our way to the village suggested an official secrecy about a prospective dam, which potentially jeopardises areas of traditionally Mursi land. Indeed, there’s a slightly melancholy sense of managed decline about the tribe which may, in time, be edged aside by a combination of the desire of big business and government to explore some of Ethiopia’s untapped natural resources – and a squeamishness towards specific cultural practices.
There was evidence of a queasy symbiosis between the Mursi and groups of tourists, which manifested itself in both the tribe’s knowing self-commodification and members of our party’s willingness to treat their hosts as an instantly photo-friendly tourist attraction. The Mursi are photogenic and they know it; the women wear large lip plates whose origins lie in a male desire to mark their female chattels as a statement towards predatory tribes nearby. However, despite being on semi-permanent war footing with various neighbours – AK47s were a fairly common sight – as soon as the cameras disappeared, the Mursi were fantastic company, sharing food and dragging us into dances.
Patriarchy is a common theme among the tribes of southern Ethiopia. If lip plates express male control within the Mursi, the Hamer and the Dasanech tribes take male dominion to an uncomfortable new level. The neck rings worn by the Hamer women look unsettlingly like prison irons. But it’s when confronted with scarification (the Hamer) and female genital mutilation (the Dasanech) that Western liberal desires to see ancient ways of life protected truly come face to face with qualms about fundamental aspects of tribal life. Apparently the female scarifying is intended to show that women can bear their share of life’s burden.
What constitutes a male share of the burden – beyond farming the land – is never quite made clear. The Dasanech – as visited by Bruce Parry in his series ‘Tribe’ – were also hospitable and eager to explain their traditions, but no amount of cultural relativism can really justify the horrors (not to mention the very real medical risks) of genital mutilation.
All of this is part of the puzzle of southern Ethiopia. Charm, strength and an extraordinary ingenuity cohabit uncomfortably with what to outsiders’ eyes seem like backward, almost prehistoric, social attitudes that the world could probably afford to do without – and it’s a dilemma you’ll find yourself pondering throughout your time there. A companion piece to these qualms surrounds the ‘progress’ represented by the industrial projects that seem to threaten tribal land. Might millions of Ethiopians be pulled out of poverty by such enterprises? Or would the country simply become another homogenised exploitation opportunity for Western corporate predators? This is a country that asks serious questions of visitors, and not just physical ones.
Still, the physical questions can be tough enough. Visit the Omo Valley and you’ll sleep under canvas, fight a losing battle with mosquitos, hike through hills and tramp around markets. Fortunately, Ethiopia has a couple of naturally occurring cures for fatigue: take the ferocious coffee. Almost everywhere you stop, a café can fix you up with a hot cup of the most famous national export. Ethiopia’s coffee is routinely excellent, but true coffee nirvana was achieved at our last destination, the beautiful Aregash Lodge in Irgalem. A coffee ceremony revealed a duration of roughly one hour between tree and cup with the beans roasted, crushed, ground and eventually introduced to hot water. The ceremony suggested that, in all honesty, making your own every day probably isn’t worth the bother. But if someone does it for you while a campfire burns, monkeys rustle in the trees above and the sun sets over an impossibly picturesque valley, it’s a lovely thing all the same.
It’s also the kind of moment Ethiopia does best. Among the country’s various challenges, expect to find the odd oasis of calm, unfussy revelation; a reminder that, sometimes, the old ways really are worth sticking with. G Adventures (0844 272 2040) offers a 12-day Ethiopia Discovery package. Prices start from Dhs7,846 per person (excluding flights) for departures between June and December 2012. FlyDubai flies direct from Dubai to Addis; return tickets start from Dhs1,410 (www.flydubai.com).
Dubai to Ethiopia
Flight time: Four hours to Addis Ababa Time difference: One hour behind Dubai Dhs1 = 4.7 Ethiopian birr