Djibouti Now; Ethiopia: Mad Max, Freak Show, Nude Photography & Visiting Great Grandma

Djibouti Now; Ethiopia: Mad Max, Freak Show, Nude Photography & Visiting Great Grandma
Now in the small port city state of Djibouti, at the strategic southern entrance of the Red Sea, just opposite Aden in Yemen. Given its aspiration to be a trading hub, Djibouti sometimes calls itself the "Singapore of the Red Sea" or "Singapore of Africa". As in Yemen, many people here chew qat, a narcotic herb, the whole day long. This is one major difference with Singapore. We do not chew narcotics as a past time.
Djibouti is a place where a popular art house movie, Beau Travail, was filmed. Beau Travail is a movie about the complicated formal as well as unspoken relationship about men in the Foreign Legion. Bursting with underlying sexual tensions and emotional undertones, its mostly speechless characters are often depicted half nude doing yoga stunts and rigorous exercises in bleak desert landscapes coupled with blue ocean views. Indeed, I shared my cab from the airport with a muscular Legionaire on his way back to France's largest overseas military base from home leave. With blue tattoos of exotic tropical scene on his bulky arm, he definitely reminded me of characters in Beau Travail.
In the downtown cafes by the Grande Marche, off duty French marines and legionaires enjoyed Ethiopian coffee next to visiting relatives of the many French expats in Djibouti and the assorted Japanese backpacker. Dazed Djibouti men chew qat on mats laid out on the ground. Nearby was a row of souvenir shops that sell apart from carvings and typical Africa- and animal-themed souvenirs that are made from wood and plastics, ivory ones as well. If these are indeed made from ivory, they are probably illegal under CITES rules. Yes, Yemen is not too far away and I recalled seeing daggers made of ivory too.
Over the last 2 weeks, I have been travelling around the southern part of Ethiopia, visiting the amazing tribes of the South Omo Valley, where isolation has long insulated the tribes from external religions and influences. Many of the tribes here continue to have splendid body decorations that involve macabre self-scarification and mutilation, or elaborate body paintings. Across the region, I also visited national parks and had encounters with huge six meter-long crocodiles, hippos, pelicans and enormous marabot storks. In Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian federal capital, I also visited Lucy, an ancestor of modern mankind.
Ethiopia – this name is almost synonymous with famine in the second half of the 20th century. As a result of natural disasters coupled with bureaucratic inefficiency and indifference and deliberate political strategies, hundreds of thousands of people were allowed to starve to death in widely publicized famines in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Images of bone-thin bodies and beriberi affected, malnourished children with huge bellies crowded TV screens in those years.
But Ethiopia is more than famines and disasters. Ethiopia is one of the world's oldest civilizations. Ethiopian traditions had it the Queen of Sheba, who also ruled Yemen, reigned over Ethiopia as well. According to the Ethiopians, the legendary Queen, who was said to be wise and wealthy in the Bible, was tricked onto bed by King Solomon of Israel. The sexual encounter produced a bright young man, Menelik, who later stole the Ark of Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem, brought it to Ethiopia and founded the first Ethiopian kingdom, in a dynastic line that was supposed to have lasted till 1974, when Emperor Haile Selassie I, whose titles included King of Kings and Lion of Judah, was overthrown in a communist revolution.
Ethiopia was also one of the earliest kingdoms to convert to Christianity. In the 5th century, when Celtic Britons were still practicing human sacrifices and when barbarian armies besieged Rome, Ethiopian monarchs built stone cathedrals and monasteries in their territories, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christian monks devoted time to the production of magnificent illuminated bibles, written in Ethiopia's unique alphabet. The wealth and glory of the Ethiopian emperors gave rise to the legends of Pester John, the powerful Christian monarch in the East, which prompt European explorers to search high and low for this king in their early maritime expeditions to the East.
It was in Ethiopia that coffee was first discovered and used as a stimulant drink. Ethiopia was also the only African nation that had defended itself successfully against colonialism. Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's enigmatic emperor in the 20th century, was regarded by a god-king by a Caribbean religious cult known as the Rastafarians. The imagery of the emperor can be found across the African diaspora, from Brooklyn to Kingston, Jamaica, and from South London to the coast of Ghana.
Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, is also the headquarters of the African Union and an important diplomatic capital. It is a surprisingly modern city with a number of tall buildings, clean wide streets and huge shopping malls – mostly new ones plus some under construction, plus lots of English signboards. The Bole Road area is emerging as a new CBD with a number of skyscrapers, fancy hotels and modern shopping malls. In short, a very nice area guaranteed to be popular with expats and the middle class. This area, as well as the flashy new ring road around Addis with the flyovers, are all being developed by the Chinese. In fact, the design of many buildings in Addis and surrounding areas seem to have come straight from China, with a kind of standardized look common among commercial or office buildings five to six storeys tall common in Chinese suburban areas. There are a lot of new construction going on. Addis looks like it is booming big time, perhaps from natural gas exports to China. Many people here speak English and most Ethiopians are polite and reserved compared to West Africa where I spent 2 months prior to coming here. This was all a bit surprising considering I grew up with image of an Ethiopia with starving people in rags.
I arrived here from Bamako, Mali, on a very bad note. In fact, that was a day of disaster. I had to pay a bribe to corrupt police at Bamako Airport who wouldn't return my passport without a bribe, and when I arrived at Addis Ababa Airport, my luggage couldn't be found. I waited for 2 hours for the luggage and then gave up at almost 11pm. I couldn't find my hotel pickup – I thought that they might have given up waiting for me. I got on my own taxi to the hotel where they apologized that their driver had met with an accident on the way to the airport, hence the reason why nobody was there for me. What a day!
On the following day, however, not only has the airline found my luggage, I also managed to get 2 visas in one day, but also arranged a 4WD tour to the South Omo region of Ethiopia over the next 7 days, booked 6 air tickets for various Ethiopian/East African destinations.
I walked into a bookshop in Addis. Bought a few magazines and newspapers, a coffeetable book called "Under Ethiopian Skies", printed in Singapore. Think about it – I would be bringing this book back to where its own odyssey started. Also bought an amazing 84-page brochure published in 1953 by the Imperial Ethiopian Government's Press and Information Department called "Eritrea Hails Her Sovereign". It's a propaganda publication published half a century ago on Eritrea's annexation by Ethiopia and of how the territory welcomes the first official visit by Emperor Haile Selassie. I bought this antique piece at only Birr 35. The bookshop is one of those places in many Third World countries which continues to stock outdated stuff and sell them at original prices, without due consideration to inflation. I recall buying twenty year old books for US$2 or 3 in a nice bookshop in remote Assam State of India.
Ethiopia uses the Julian Calendar which the Western World abandoned over 500 years ago. That means that the country has 13 months and is over 7 years behind everybody else. Late last year, Ethiopia celebrates the year 2000. We are still in Ethiopian year 2000, and there are posters and billboards everywhere celebrating the "Ethiopian Millennium".
Ethiopia even uses a different time from everybody else. They are always 6 hours from everybody else. When it's 6am ("European time"), the Ethiopian say it's 12 o'clock. When it's 7am, the Ethiopians say it's one o'clock after sunrise. Ethiopians will always use Ethiopian date and time. To be sure, I always have to ask them again and again what it is in European time.
There are many types of Ethiopian faces. In Addis, I could not help but noticed brown faces, black faces, faces with flatter Asiatic features and those with roundish Bantu features, whatever. Ethiopia has over 80 ethnic groups. Two of its major groups, the Amharas (whose language is the national language) and Tigres who are closely linked to each other, are Semitic languages whose closest cousins are Arabic and Hebrew.
Some Amharas and Tigre people have distinctively very un-African features, while others look totally African. It is sometimes said that some Amharas regard themselves as "Whites" in contrast to other Ethiopian ethnic groups. I recall the story recounted by an Ukrainian classmate from London Business School. He served in the Soviet Army during his national service as an English interpreter. In those days, USSR was an ally and close supporter of the Mengistu Marxist dictatorial regime of Ethiopia which ruled from the overthrow of the autocratic monarchy of Haile Selassie in 1973 to the Marxists' defeat by ethnic rebels in 1991. As ethnic rebel groups rose in across the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviets sent many military advisers to Ethiopia and my friend served as an interpreter for Soviet generals.
He recalled some racist Ethiopian generals, Marxist they might have claimed to be, denounced the ethnic rebels as "niggers". This shocked the Soviets, not just because the comments were racist, but also because these Amhara generals looked as black in complexion as the ethnic rebels they were fighting. Soviet aid eventually dried up with the collapse of the USSR, which ultimately led to the victory of the rebels. Eritrea became independent and now-sealess Ethiopia fell under the control of largely Tigre-based leaders some of whom still run Ethiopia today.
I wanted to ask an Addis taxi driver whether people still respect and revere the legacy of late Haile Selassie today. I made the mistake of using the word "worship". He said, "No, the Ethiopians do not worship him. Only the Jamaicans do and many Ethiopians like neither these Rastafarians nor the emperor. The Rastafarian movement began in the 1920s when a group of Jamaicans decided to reject the Christian churches and sought to "return" to their African roots by embracing Africa's only independent, non-colonised state at that time (- they ignored Liberia properly because it had strong American influence).
The Rastas saw Haile Selassie as a god-king of sorts and some even undertook pilgrimages to Ethiopia. To many Ethiopians, however, even after taking into account his campaign to liberate the country from Fascist Italy during WWII, Haile Selassie's over half-century rule was autocratic and backward, and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands from famine. The Rastas, with their marijuana habits, braid-hair, rejection of anything Western and blurry, easygoing ways, are an embarrassment to some Ethiopians and sometimes despised by others. A group even settled in the town of Shashemene, south of Addis, which I passed on my way southwards to the Omo valley.
The Ethiopian staple is Injera, a sour pancake made from a grain called tef. The injera is very flat and always laid out in a huge pan. Various dishes are poured onto the injera so that one would tear a piece of injera and use that to grab the food poured onto the injera. Some travelers love it so much and eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, like the Ethiopians do. To be very frank, I got quite sick of it after a few days. The Ethiopians also go vegetarian during various religious festivals. Outside of Addis, I sometimes feel desperate over inability to find meat and having to eat pasta and injera day after day.
With Henok, a 23 year old driver engaged from Nomadic Ethiopia Tours, I set off for the South Omo region from Addis at 6am one day. We drove southwards and before long began descending from the Highlands where Addis was located. From the cool plateau with mountains in the foreground, we found ourselves in the flattish, dry savannah of the Federal Region of Oromiya, one of the twelve ethnic regions set up by the current government which renamed the country Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Oromiya, with its tree-in-the-middle-strip flag, is the "nation-state" founded for the Oromos, a previously nomadic group partially Muslim and partially Orthodox Christian. Depending on who does the counting, the Oromos are either the largest or second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and Oromiya is strangely shaped like a contorted pistol which almost totally surrounds Addis.
The federalization of Ethiopia, advocated by the coalition of Tigre-dominated former rebel groups, is meant to end the oppression of ethnic minorities by the historically dominant Amharas. All federal states have the theoretical right to secede from the federation. Even then, various insurgency groups have since appeared, ranging from those representing the Oromos and Afars, to the more dangerous Somali separatist group that murdered nine Chinese petroleum engineers in 2007. Dissatisfaction came to a head in 2005, when elections in 2005 led to government crackdown on the opposition. It was also since then that SMS has been banned, as the government fear opposition mobilization through mobile media.
After a few hours in Oromiya, we entered the SNNPRS, the most badly named federal state with a bizarrely long and socialistic sounding name that betrays the former Marxist leanings of the country's leaders. SNNPRS means Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Regional State, a region meant to represent over 40 ethnic groups that live in this small southwest corner of Ethiopia. More than half of all Ethiopian ethnic groups live here, and 16 of them concentrated in the South Omo Zone of SNNPRS (zone is the next level administrative unit in Ethiopia). Many of the ethnic groups here have historically little contact with their outside world and still live in semi-primitive conditions. Some have incredible self-mutilations on their faces and bodies as decoration, and have become subject of "cultural safaris" hosted for foreign tourists.
This is a region of varied landscapes, from dense tropical forests to arid savannah plains and rolling hill country. As we drove through the region, my driver would point out the tribes living here, be it the Ari, the Bena, the Gurage, the Konso, the Dorashe and the Dorze. The Dorashe tribe is famous for huts with pots on the top, sometimes even with a cross on the pot. Some of the other tribes are famous for their dances. When our car passed through Dorze villages, their kids, who had seen our car approaching from afar, would stood by the road side to dance in their traditional way, which looked a bit hip-hoppish to me, though my driver denied strongly that this has anything to do with hip hop. Inevitably, they stretched their palms to ask for money for their haphazard dance of dubious origins. In fact, as we drove southwards across the tribal zones, people by the roadside villages always stretch out their palms for money. I have no idea why had they expected handouts for doing nothing except being common users of the same road. Have they being spoilt by the NGOs or international aid? Have they no shame or sense of self-worth at all?
As we drove further south, the good sealed road from Addis became steadily potholed and then disintegrated into mud track after a while. We crossed many dried river beds and some not-so-dry ones. The rainy season has begun. Although the rain has been short, mini flash flood quickly forms and many a times, we crossed rapid flows of muddy water. There was one occasion our 4WD was stuck and it took us a bit of pushing before the vehicle could get out of the little muddy stream.
Nearby is the historical province of Kaffa, where coffee bean was first used by mankind as a drink. It was said that it was here that a herder boy first found his goat lively and energetic after chewing the berries of a previously unknown plant. He tried the berry himself and found it effective in keeping him awake. This secret was later revealed to nearby monks and then spread throughout the world. This miraculous plant became known as Kaffa, after the province where it was discovered, and the word later became "coffee" in the English language.
We also passed by groups of Bana nomads and their herds of cattle. These proud nomads wore colourful blue and red bead necklaces, and often wore nothing else except for a pairs of shorts, or even a sarong or blanket slung over the shoulders, plus a rifle. The Bana, as well as many of the pastoral tribes in this region on the border with South Sudan and Northern Kenya have little possessions except their cattle and goats. Like their ethnic cousins across the border, they love their cattle and often sing poems and songs praising the beauty of their cattle and of their close relationship. Exotic these tribes may seem, I hesitated taking pot shots using my camera. I have been warned about the sharpness of the tribesmen's shooting skills. I won't want real bullets coming my way in response to my digital shots. One has to ask for permission to shoot and one usually has to pay a small sum for each photo taken.
Over a week, I would be told more about the exploits of these tribes. Today, they continue to fight with each other and occasionally, with the national governments of Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan. They often launch cattle raids on each other and have little respect for national borders. I was told that in recent years, Ethiopian tribes have shot down two Kenyan helicopters when the Kenyan state tried to restrict their cross-border activities. For centuries, Sudanese Arab slave traders had also come here to raid for slaves, which they continued to do in South Sudan till the recent peace agreement a few years ago, and still continue to do in Dhafur, West Sudan today. I am told they don't do that across the Ethiopian border these days. "Our tribes are too powerful for them," claimed a local.
Jinka is the sort of town one sees in movies. Not the sort flanked by snowcapped Alpine mountains where Bollywood stars and their entourage swing their hips with wild abandon, but the dirty, dusty godforsaken oversized village where one would prefer to get out once the necessary things have been done. In the middle of town is a rectangular grass patch the size of two football fields. During the high tourist season, four flights land here in one week. For most of the rest of the year, this becomes an occasional football field, or alternatively a downtown grazing spot for cows. I have it seen it performing all three functions during the two days I stayed in Jinka.
There is only one internet café in Jinka, and it has only one pathetic terminal. It is a painfully slow dialup that operates from sometime in the afternoon (at anytime the cybercafé operator feels like coming to work), to 7pm. It charges foreigners US$13/hour and the locals one quarter that amount. Half the time, one couldn't dial through to the internet provider. Even then, there is normally a long queue and one often has to wait between half an hour to one hour plus for one's turn.
I put up at GOH Hotel – I'm told that GOH means "the first" or "earliest" in Amharic, a basic place where water and power gets cut off at certain times of the day. The hotel management claimed that the cuts are town-wide and I suppose that was probably at least partially true. Here I also met tourists from many countries and we exchanged travel notes about this remote part of the world. The average tourist to Ethiopia is fairly well-travelled and has a fair share of unusual places in their travelers CV. I asked a guide if he had seen any Singaporean traveler. Yes, but not many. He brought a Singapore girl to the tribes last year.
Many of the 16 tribes that live in the South Omo Zone of which Jinka is capital are animists, though some have in recent decades converted to either Orthodox Christianity, Protestant/Evangelical denominations or Islam. Sometime after 4am every morning, one gets waken up by loudspeakers calling for prayers from both the Orthodox Churches and the Mosques. And I met missionaries from Jehovah Witness on the streets. Remote this town may be but it is the battleground of faiths and a competing arena for souls.
There is not a lot to do in town if you don't watch Mexican dramas badly dubbed into English or cultural dances on Ethiopian TV. I saw large crowds of locals watching a small plane taking off at the downtown airport. Once a week, market is held here and the surrounding tribes come to town. This is the sort of place I am reminded of Mad Max or the Wild, Wild West.
The Mursis are one of the most famous tribes living in the South Omo region. Not only do they have fearsome reputation of their battle prowess and aggressiveness, they are renowned for the bizarre or even macabre body decorations – Upon puberty, their women poked holes into their lips and begin placing small clay discs in them. They massaged the holes daily, enlarging it and placing larger and larger discs into them. They see the discs as not only symbols of their tribal identity but also attractive fashion accessories. Mursi women must wear the discs when they serve meals to their husbands, brothers or guests. Only widows stop wearing the discs. Whenever the discs are removed, their artificially elongated lips stooped downwards.
According to anthropologists' studies (as noted in exhibits in the excellent South Omo Museum in Jinka), the Ethiopian state is not in favour of such drastic deformity of one's lips which often make Mursi women the laughing stock of other peoples. Within Mursi society, people are also debating on whether to continue such a tradition that turn their people into virtual human zoo exhibits.
The drive to the Mursi village in the Mago National Park was a bumpy 2 hour ride across hilly terrain and then an arid savannah plain. One has to be escorted by an armed national park ranger in case of problems that can emerge whenever the heavily armed Mursis get drunk (which is normally the case in the afternoon). Once we reached the park, we were immediately mobbed by the Mursis who wanted their photos taken. One has to be calm and not rush into taking pictures, as advised by the guide, or the situation gets out of hand.
It was only after the guide had carefully done a tour of the village and had small talk with the village elders that I began to select the photo "subjects". There is a standard rate for photos here – 2 birrs for an adult and 1 birr for a child. The Mursis are so used to tourists that they dress themselves in slightly different styles so that the tourists can take photos of more people. They even pose in ways the tourist prefers. No matter how much one tries to be calm and take it slowly, Mursis who were not selected would pester the tourist aggressively for their photos to be taken. It is such a freakshow! Regrettably, but true.
We drove 6 hours across very difficult terrain to Turmi to the west. It rained and the roads became exceedingly muddy. When we reached Turmi, I was appalled by the state of accommodation in this even more godforsaken place. I was first brought to a 50 birr (US$5) per room place with a very dirty common toilet with flush that didn't work. I needed to charge my camera battery but none of the rooms had power sockets.
I protested and the driver brought me to an eco-lodge whose spacious 350 birr rooms have attached bathrooms. It certainly looked like a higher end place and the tourists who stay there appear to be elderly and affluent Italian and German tourists seeking an "eco-friendly" place. I was so tired that I had a quick lunch, paid the 350 birr charge and then had a nap. When I woke up, I was horrified to find that neither the shower nor toilet flush worked. I protested to the hotel manager who explained that the water system and the power generator were down. They were waiting for technicians from Addis. This was ridiculous as I have paid for seven times the price of the cheaper place precisely I thought they had those things which I discovered to be non-functioning! Outrageous!
I was brought on a walking tour of a village of the Hamar tribe near Turmi. The Hamars are another proud pastoral tribe. They are the most beautiful nomadic tribe I have seen so far in the South Omo. They were not pushy for photos and were polite and courteous. I took many photos here, including a few of a young warrior with elaborate body scars deliberately made to commemorate his slaying of many enemies. I took so many photos of pretty young Hamar women in their topless tribal wear that I suddenly realized that I might be mistaken for a soft porn photographer.
On the way back to Addis from the south, we stopped by in the beautiful city of Abra Minch, straddled between Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo, both part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches from the Sinai Peninsula to Mozambique in southern Africa. On a boat tour of Lake Chamo, we saw ten meter long Nile crocodiles, a tribe of hippopotamus and a whole host of pelicans.
Back in Addis, I visited two major museums: The Ethnological Museum at the Addis Ababa University and the National Museum. The first museum was very good and had excellent exhibits and display panels on Ethiopia's many diverse cultures. One can easily spend many hours there. The museum is located in what used to be Haile Selassie's palace and the whole complex, built in European neo-classical style, was quite grand. In 1960, reformist army officers and officials staged an attempted coup against the emperor, during which they declared the crown prince a constitutional monarch. The coup collapsed and the ring leaders and those ministers who prematurely declared their support for the coup were rounded up, locked in the palace's halls, and then taken out to be shot. The emperor probably decided he could no longer stay in a palace where so many died, moved out and gave the buildings to the university instead.
The National Museum is where Lucy, one of the oldest fossilized remains of hominid, i.e., early humans, is usually kept. In other words, Lucy is one of our – yes, you and me - possible great-great-great-thousand-times grandmothers! Lucy was so named because the Beetles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing throughout the archaeological dig during which Lucy was found. The real Lucy is on a tour of Europe and a replica is displayed at the National Museum. On a few occasions when Ethiopians asked where I'm from, I told them, "I'm Ethiopian," as all mankind is descended from the early human beings originated in the arid Afar desert of northeast Ethiopia.
In a few hours' time, I would be flying to Asmara, capital of the neighbouring Republic of Eritrea. A few days there and I will be flying to a very interesting and exciting country, the identity of which I will keep a secret for the time being. You will certainly hear from me before too long.
Take care and best wishes!
Wee Cheng


Unknown said…
Interesting story keep up .
Unknown said…
Very nice blog, post more photos plz. Got me thinking of taking a trip to Ethiopia this summer man. Like it