Exploring Ethiopia: Novelties abound in the cradle of mankind on horn of Africa

Rural Taxi, Ethiopia.

By Damien Enright

There are 862 bird species in Ethiopia: we have approx 300 in Ireland and Britain. I’ve seen about 30 of them, but will see more when I go to Lake Tana in the mountains but will steer clear of bad-humoured hippos, the most dangerous animals in Africa.

My best snapshot was of a hornbill, a bird straight from a fantasy comic book with a horn bigger than that of a buffalo mounted on its formidable bill. I’d like to attach the photo to this column but internet in Ethiopia is on-off, mostly off, totally unreliable; it could spoil one’s holiday if one let it.

I’ll see if I can send a picture of rural people, still living in a pre-internet world. Photos of hornbills will be available on the internet.

Some natural history statistics of this vast, diverse tract of the Horn of Africa make the mind boggle. I’d suggest to adventurous readers that possibly nowhere on earth has a richer fauna.

In addition to the birds (16 species endemic, 19 shared only with Eritrea), there are 279 mammals, 201 reptiles, 63 amphibians, 150 fish and who knows how many butterflies, dragonflies etc, flora species and so on.

There are 80 ethnic human groups, ranging from fierce, desert-living nomads, the Afar/Danakil in the north, to peaceful Neur herdsmen in the south west. Besides seeing the skeletons of the “mothers of all mankind”, the tiny “Lucy” and “Ardi”, hominoid young women who lived in the Rift Valley 3.2 million years ago, I found the Ethnological Museum with its exhibits of life and customs of the tribes most interesting, exhibiting the strange rites of marriage, rites of passage to adulthood and so on.

Hamar youths must run naked along the backs of 30 bulls not falling between them but jumping one to the other at full ‘pelt’, and repeat the process three times.

Travelling reveals novelties. After we leave the couple of hundred kms of the new Chinese built Expressway east to Djibouti, the French speaking independent enclave on the Gulf of Aden, we encounter small boys sharing a shovel to fill potholes on the old road, and asking passing drivers for a tip. Last week I said there was no begging: in the cities, there is.

Driving is hazardous. City drivers negotiate through gaps in the dense traffic of roundabouts and junctions. Find a gap, nose through and drive on regardless! Taxis are swarms of ancient blue Toyotas and Soviet-built Ladas, welded and panel-beaten: the taxi that carried us 6 km for a few euro was a 1978 Lada.

In the rural areas, small horse carts (a single wooden seat with driver and three passengers) are the public transport, with licence plates on the back.

These little carts, belting along the straight, empty country roads at a lively pace, or negotiating between huge trucks, mad minibuses and occasional 21st century 4x4s near towns, are eye-catching, the small horses caparisoned with a few bright rags, the women passengers in brightly coloured headdresses or shawls, the driver, now and then, wearing a cowboy hat. Dark people, bright colours, golden and brown plains with distant blue mountains.

Overturned trucks are an occasional feature, and burnt-out buses in one area where Turkish investment has built huge factories on farmland in some Government deal. Farmers, under-compensated, got very angry and, stopping the buses carrying workers, ordered them out and torched the transport.

These people were Omoro, the majority tribe. They and Somalis are Cushite-speaking, the second largest group Amhara and Tigray, ethnically Semitic: Amharic is the national language.

Religion is a major preoccupation: many Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians, with special veneration of the Virgin Mary, and St George, the national patron. They fast 250 days a year. Just now, Lent has started. One meal a day for 50 days.

One sees youths, women young and old, making the rounds of churches, pausing to kiss sacred stones and pray. Churches are everywhere in Ethiopia, from cathedrals carved into cliff faces, to island monasteries, to Coptic chapels.

God is black, and, often, in portraits (worn as necklaces by pretty young girls, hanging on taxi rear-view mirrors) Mary is very dark-skinned. Why not? She was Semitic, like the Ethiopians themselves.

The hotel we stayed when in Addis, the Itigue Taitu, is the oldest in Ethiopia, inexpensive, with charming staff and predicatable eccentricities. Over the two weeks of come and go, we met locals, and travellers and expatriates from all over Europe, from Yemen, Congo, USA. Most nights, we gathered around a table in the garden, drank beers, exchanged information, and told traveller’s tales beneath the Ethiop moon. (IE)


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