Way to the South of Ethiopia

To The South
Thursday 20 March 2008 – Friday 21 March 2008
With Henok, I set off from Addis at 6am. 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 regime 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 is strangely shaped like a contorted pistol which almost totally surrounds Addis.
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?
After 12 hours driving from Addis, we reached Abra Minch, a dusty lakeside city that hosts an university. I stayed at the town's Tourist Hotel, which has a wonderful vista over two lakes, both part of the African Great Rift Valley System.
The next morning, we drove another six hours southwards to Jinka, capital of the South Omo Zone. 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.
I would be told more about the exploits of these tribes. 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 Dafur today. I am told they don't do that across the Ethiopian border these days. "Our tribes are too powerful for them," claimed a Jinka local.
It was about 5pm by the time we reached Jinka.