Ethiopia: You, you, you

by Kate on August 2, 2010

Title: Moyale to Awash

Dates: 12th to 21st July GPS:

Distance: 884km Total Distance: 19,844km

Roads: Rainy, overcast mostly

Weather: Tarmac, mountains, generally hilly

After all the problems we had securing our Ethiopian visas, entering our 19th country was a doddle. Getting through immigration was simple and while customs were more particular, there were no major difficulties. It was back to cycling on the right hand side of the road. All the former British colonies which we had been travelling through in east Africa had all left-hand side driving. 1a. Italian fort near MegaCrossing the border, there was immediate changes in climate and people. It is the wet season in Ethiopia, but I couldn’t have imagined that we would have crossed from dry desert to drizzly, sometimes heavy rail. People shouted you, you, you almost constantly. It is their way of saying white person, especially in the southern regions. The landscape opened up and it was open plains all the way to Mega. That is where the climbing started again. Our first night in Ethiopia was spent camping beside the ruins of an old Italian fort 3km north of Mega. Ethiopia was never successfully colonised like all other African nations. The Italians tried in the late 1800s, and then from 1936-1941 they occupied the country which emperor Menelik unified by force.

2a. Salt crater lakeI was pretty tired and so took it easier for the first couple of days to Yavello, most likely fall out from pushing so hard across the shocking north Kenyan roads, and the last gastro. The landscape was stunning; dry scraggy mountains with spectacular rock formations and Sahel-type dryland vegetation. Fifteen kilometres north of Mega we made a short diversion to visit a salt mine and crater lake. The crater is about 600m deep. At the bottom a black-looking lake provides the villagers with an income.

2b. Donkeys descending from salt stores to the lakeThey traditionally use donkeys to transport the heavy burden up the impossibly steep track. The journey takes two hours each way. There are four types of salt; black salt used for animals, fine white salt, crystallised and rock salt. Traders came from far and wide to buy the salts, but these days the villagers gain a substantial income from tourism. They sure know how the take advantage and the village certainly looks like it has all the basics; electricity, school, health centre, etc.

2c. On thew way to harvest some salt

3a Friendly faceCommunications in Ethiopia, away from Addis Ababa and a couple of the main towns is impossible. The only mobile phone company is run by the state and only Ethiopian nationals are permitted to have a phone. Therefore, until we reached Addis Ababa, where a friend was able to set us up with a sim card, I had no phone to use. Internet is non-existent, or at least never working. Setting up and coordinating details for the finish of the expedition, now just five weeks away was made very difficult.

Ethiopia, and specifically the Rift Valley is well known as being the home of coffee – where coffee plant were first cultivated. Small cafes sell very good coffee just about everywhere – there is no instant coffee. The Rift Valley in Ethiopia and Kenya is also generally considered to be where humankind originates. Therefore this might explain why so many people in the world don’t feel human until they have had their coffee in the morning!!! From Yavello I cycled up and up (actually up, down, up, down,up…) to about 2500m. It was really tough work, though not unexpected. I didn’t mind the climbing, but unfortunately it was the kids which were a serious problem.

The adults could not be more friendly, and I welcome enthusiasm, but my days cycling up the Ethiopian Rift Valley, all the way to Addis Ababa and then later to Harar were perhaps the most stressful and unpleasant of the whole journey. At every opportunity children would run at me, often in mobs shouting you, you, you…money, money, money; give me money.

Of course struggling up the steepest of inclines, I could only manage about eight kilometres an hour and so could not outpace the kids. They would grab on to my bike, throw stones, swipe at me with sticks, try to strike me with whips, they would spit and beg – nonstop. If I did the usual friendly thing and say hello, wave and acknowledge their presence, this only encouraged them. It was better for my own safety that I ignored them completely, which was totally against my instincts. This was not an isolated incident, the responses were constant, like in a relay. Even if I managed to burn off a group of attackers, there would be another wave swarming just down the road.

Many children were plain enthusiastic and it was difficult to give them all a fair hearing and a positive response when others were trying to dislodge me from my bike or throwing stones when I did not give them money. If I stopped and confronted them, they would run away. I did two nine hour days taking this abuse, trying to get through this part of the journey as fast as possible. The hassles really clouded my enjoyment. I was disappointed because I had really been looking forward to travelling through this country. The scenery was actually stunning much of the time, although being the rainy season, it was not very conducive to photography. For this reason, but mostly because of the kids swamping me everywhere, I did not take many photos.

There are a couple of reasons as the why this is such a problem – or why I think it is such a problem. Firstly Ethiopia’s population has exploded from 30 million to 74 million in 35 years. The Rift Valley is one of the most populous regions where I don’t believe they all have access to education. The mobs of children probably don’t go to school. I learned from a German woman who had been living in Ethiopia for eleven years deciphering languages so that students could learn in their own languages, that both the Christian Orthodox and Muslim churches teach their children to beg…What is your name; give me money… As soon as they see a white person, doesn’t matter if like me they are struggling up a mountain, or in a vehicle, there is a terrible culture of wanting to be given something for nothing.

The other main problem is that Ethiopia has been the victim of so many years of hand outs from the international community. A generation of Ethiopians, especially since the droughts of the seventies and on, have grown up receiving the wrong type of aid, lacking in community development, skills transfer and empowerment. Money has just been poured into a bottomless pit. Therefore every time they see a white person, they believe they are owed money, that they should give the shirt off their backs, whatever they own.

While there are some good things happening, handouts are still an issue. Money desperately needs to be spent on their ‘ABCs’ rather than teaching children to beg (meaning literacy and population control – ABC = Abstinence, Be faithful, Condoms).

I reached Awasa in good time but then came down with a violent gastro. Something did not agree with me and my body simply pressed the eject button. I could only lie in bed and sip rehydration salts all day. I did seem to recover well though from gastro number 5 and was able to continue after a wipe-out day. I caught up time, even in heavy rain.

I didn’t need to cycle to Addis Ababa as it is 70km off the route I had chosen, so after staying the night in Debre Zeit, just south of the capital, we drove in. This was an opportunity to meet up with some friends – those who had worked hard to help us get our Ethiopian visas – while catching up on the usual admin bits and pieces in readiness for the next stage. About ten years ago I did a walking holiday in Ladakh, northern India. It was the leader of that trek, Suzie Grant and her Ethiopian travel industry colleagues who had fought for us so hard with the immigration department. It was great to meet Suzie again and say thank you to Gebre and Misgane for their efforts. Suzie has been battling with Ethiopian authorities to build her dream guest house in a beautiful part of northern Ethiopia. After initial encouragement, the bureaucracy of trying to set up a culturally sensitive establishment has taken its toll. In short, we were both fed up for different reasons.

One of the big plusses about Ethiopia is the cuisine. Other than good coffee, they have a distinctive cuisine which we sampled when Misgane took Suzie and me to dinner. Over dinner he confirmed what we both had been thinking about development in Ethiopia. They don’t need hand outs, they want education and they want to take control of their own development. He found most of the Western aid responses patronising. He says that when they see westerners driving around in LandCruisers and staying in expensive hotels when they are meant to be directing aid to where it is needed most – the people, it sends all the wrong messages. Misgane has his own very successful travel business and, having lived in Europe for ten years, can see both sides of the story.

I restarted the journey at Mojo, the village at the turn off to Addis Ababa, cycling east towards Awash, direction Somaliland. Before heading for the border, there was one very important project to visit in the Afar Region (Ethiopian desert lowlands). From Awash I made a big diversion 320km north to Mille and Logia to meet Valerie Browning, her husband Ishmael and learn about the NGO they have set up called the Afar Pastoralists’ Development Association. If I have been rather negative and upset about development in Ethiopia in this blog, then the next story is a great counter balance.

3c. Attracting an inquisitive crowd whenevre we stopped

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Muse Tegegne August 2, 2010 at 4:10 pm

We thank you for your beautiful report on Ethiopia. I admire your courage to cross in certain risky areas , where you would have put your life in danger. We need more people like you.
Ethiopians we need to learn how to empower our selves rather than establish a society of bagger not to the strict sens of St. Francois Assisi ..

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