Ethiopia: Letters Home 2

Hi again,

I just returned from a second round of data collection, this time in the Southern Nations and Nationalities People’s Region, specifically the Humbo district.  This area is home to about 45 different ethnic groups, so there are a huge variety of languages spoken. In the area where we stayed, Walaytanga (of the Walaita tribe) is the main language spoken.  Because Amharic is not the native language, many people have trouble with it, primarily because, like Chinese, the same word said with different inflections has different meanings.  For example, my translator asked a woman at our hotel to sit at our table with us, and in her attempt to say “I will not sit”, she said “I will not be amputated” (cracking the translator up). Another example is the word “Afelegalo”, which means “I need”, and is used to order food. But, I learned the hard way that, pronounced with the wrong inflection, it also has a vulgar meaning that nobody will actually specify for me, so now I stick to stating only the name of the food I want and hoping that that’s what comes out.

The people here are wonderful. Especially the old men. Many of the men I am interviewing are probably in their sixties, and spending time with them makes me want to devote my life to this kind of work.  They are all thin and fragile looking, with incredibly kind, intelligent eyes that pierce your soul when you talk to them.  And despite their work in the fields, or jobs requiring other types of manual labor, they all wear three-piece suits every day; ancient garments that are some shade of army green or plaid, and many sizes too big. But they wear them so proudly, fiercely determined to put their best foot forward each day. The contrast between this appearance and the lack of resources in these communities nearly breaks my heart.

For the first interview, we took the car up a mountain that I would bet money had never been traveled on by a motor vehicle.  Incredibly, there were neighborhoods beyond neighborhoods, and a constant flow of people up and down the mountain on foot and donkey.  Every time we passed a child aged one or above, they would see me in the window and immediately scream “Ferengee!!!” (foreigner) over and over, then chase the car.  I felt like the pied piper.  The health worker at the top of the mountain told us that in this district there are 39 villages, each one home to about 5,000 people.  She said that every single day she, and each of the other 38 villages see 50 malaria cases (39×50 each day!!!), and that because the treatment is free at the health post, they have been out of it for a month now.  This means that if a person wants medication, they have to pay at the pharmacy.  Less than half of the people can afford this, and in untreated cases, 75% are fatal.  It’s so hard to think about.

After driving down the mountain, we stopped on the side of the road for a coffee break under a small canopy, amidst some trees and raw meat restaurants.  I love these coffee ladies! They always burn incense, roast and grind their own beans, and become overjoyed when I tell them it’s “konjo” (beautiful) coffee.  In mid-sip, I thought someone had started throwing rocks at us, but it turns out it was a mass of avocados falling off the tree above me!  They gave me one as a gift.

Lunch today was an experience. Yesterday we stopped for lunch at a traditional restaurant that looks like a huge straw hut and has great tribal decorations all over the walls.  The custom is for everyone to share a large plate of food, each using their own injera to dig into to the piles of meat and beans. Feeding guests is a sign of hospitality, and it makes everyone very happy to see me eat. My problem has been that when I eat quickly it makes everyone happy, but if I finish my food then my colleagues will keep ordering dishes for me to eat, and I end up eating way too much and feeling uncomfortably full. Recently, I’ve tried a new strategy of eating slowly, hoping that others will eat more of the food and I’ll have an ideal portion for me. However, this has resulted in someone ordering me my own special dish each time, in addition to the group dish, because they think I don’t like the group dish enough, with the guilt trip of “but we ordered this only for you! You must eat!” and then I am obligated to eat it too. So this happened yesterday, and when we were nearing the end of the shared dish the owner came out and said she makes her own pasta, and it’s delicious, and she’ll bring me some! I had already told them I was full during the very first dish, and that it would be very difficult to also eat pasta, so I said I would try it tomorrow.  So today, we went back with the intention of ordering the pasta.  However, the owner wasn’t there, and because she’s in charge of pasta, there was no pasta. I told the staff that traditional food was completely fine, but apparently they felt so bad about not having the pasta that they decided they should butcher a fresh sheep right then and cook it for me.  After many attempts to convince them this was not necessary, I thought I had succeeded. Two other dishes came out pretty quickly that I took to be our meal. But as we were enjoying them, a waiter came out and told us that they were indeed specially butchering a sheep for a special dish for me.  And sure enough, five minutes later, literally an entire flock of sheep, herded by some skilled children, passed behind me and walked into the front door of the restaurant. Half an hour later a plate of very fresh roasted meat was delivered in front of me…

On our final night we stopped in Hawassah, a town on a huge lake just southeast of Addis.  It was dark when we arrived, so we decided to wait and check out the lake in the morning before heading back to Addis.  We got up early and drove to the lake as soon as it was light. As we stepped out of the car, a mass of men surrounded us, trying to convince us to take a boat ride across the lake.  It seemed like a pretty good idea, so we chose a motorboat and our captain headed out to sea.  Lucky for us it was early, and a weekday, so we were the first on the lake.  As we neared the other side I saw some bumps in the water that looked like large rocks.  Then they started moving.  Then we got reeeeaalllyy close (maybe too close for comfort), and our guide turned off the motor, and they turned out to be about 10 hippos (Gumari)!!!! They are gigantic!!! I had no idea they even lived in this country!  It was like having a herd of elephants with much larger mouths all around the boat.  Terrifying and so exciting. They also make incredibly loud sounds as if they are going to eat you, which they might have done if we had angered them.  Luckily, we stayed still and none of them got mad and approached.  As we left, (I’m not sure if I was more relieved or regretful) our guide told us about how he had also been attacked by a python in this lake, and showed us a scar on his forehead from its tail.

I will be north in Debre Berhan for the weekend and then back to Addis for the duration of my work. But in TWO WEEKS Chris comes and we will take a tour of the North for 10 days. Can’t wait!




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