Ethiopian (Re)definition

There are vacations and then there are vacations. Most vacations are about simply hitting the [pause] button , drinking a few pina coladas, and then gently easing your way back into your normal 9-to-5 grind. However, every once in a while you get a vacation, a journey that dramatically changes the way you view the world. We just returned from such a trip – a 3 week outing to Ethiopia and Kenya (photos here). The Kenya portion, a rather pampered animal safari, was fun but is not what I want to talk about. Ethiopia on the other hand…

While I was growing up, the Ethiopia famine was making world headlines. Unfortunately that’s about all they make headlines for (here in America), so those images of a dry, dessicated land formed my concept of the country for most of my life. A concept that turns out to have been completely wrong. While watching a recent episode of the The Amazing Race, my wife and I saw a side of the country we never expected (never let it be said that reality television is without merit!). It portrayed a profoundly beautiful and culturally rich country. The impression it made was so profound that we decided that would be our next trip.

Ethiopia is not an easy vacation by any means. Getting there involves arranging visas, a rather unpleasant series of innoculations and, finally, 20+ hrs of flying. Nor is it an easy country to travel in once you are there. The country’s infrastructure truely is 3rd-world. So, not for the faint of heart, but if you’re willing to suffer a tad it will reward you immensely.

A detailed description of the trip would take up more time/space than I like to alot to these blog entries. However, some highlights/impressions:

  • The drive from the Mogo national park back to the capital takes you through 3,000 years of human civilization… in about a week.
  • Going to see “Lucy”, one of the great discoveries of modern anthropology. Expecting to find her kept in some vacuum-sealed chamber behind bulletproof glass when in fact she is in a rather flimsy plexiglass box that looks like it was built in someone’s garage.
  • Discovering what 3rd-world living conditions are really about. The people are beautiful, when they aren’t disfigured by some horrible disease or injury. Open, infected, wounds are commonplace, and blindness from eye infection is a very real risk.
  • Being one of the few white people in a country of black people… you notice it the first few hours you are there, and then it’s pretty much not an issue. Not that you fit in, you are still a tourist and your skin marks you as such, but there is none of the racial tension that exists in America. It really drives home just how dysfunctional race relations in our country are.
  • Learning that the context for a person’s living conditions, and their attitude, are what really differentiates the quality of their life. It is possible to be happy, or completely miserable, (usually both, however) living in mud and stick huts and living off the land. Rural Ethiopians do not live in poverty as we know it – they are subsistance living.
  • Seeing assault rifles everywhere. They are used, too, either on animals or people. Ethiopians pay about as much attention to them as we do cell phones.
  • Observing the strength of family and community bonds. Ethiopians are to be envied unequivically for this. Such social ties are disappearing or no longer exist in America.
  • The physical sensations of the country are amazing. The roads are an unending swirl of bumps, diesel fumes, dust, bugs… the entire country has a unique sticky-sweet smell. Some treacly combination of sweat, vegitation, excrement, and millenia of biota all living, feasting, and dying on top of eachother.
  • Plastic bottles, pens, razor blades… these are the currency of the southern tribes
  • There is so much life in Ethiopia, animal and human, and the rural lifestyle means families have lots of children. Yet their is also a high mortality rate. ‘Makes one wonder if life is valued less because of this. (Or, conversely, do we Americans overrate the value of life for the exact opposite reasons?)
  • Favorite unexpected tidbit of knowledge: Ethiopians have developed a special handshake they use while eating (touch wrists instead of hands). This is because ethiopian cuisine is traditionally eaten with the right hand, but keeping your hands clean at other times is nearly impossible. You really don’t want to touch someone’s hand and and then put something in your mouth!

That’s [more than] enough for now. All of these could bear further discussion, I’m sure. I just wanted to jot these down. Hopefully I’ll get around to elaborating on some of these points some day.

One response to “Ethiopian (Re)definition”

  1. Hey Robert. Thanks for sharing this. What a great trip. Of course since everything makes me think of a movie, I have to mention a couple. Your comment about the “plastic bottles, pens, razor blades” being a form of currency reminds me of the old movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, which I haven’t seen in ages. A Coke bottle (glass, of course) figures prominently, and I remember a funny bit with a truck on a hill.

    Also, new on DVD, is a movie called ABC Africa. It’s about the AIDS situation in Uganda and therefore about the children of Uganda, of which there are many. (“‘Makes you wonder if life is valued less because of [the high mortality rate].” Or is it all the more precious because it’s fleeting, despite the number of kids, too many to know and care for?)

    ABC Africa was made by a well-known Iranian filmmaker who sees Uganda through an outsider’s eyes. The movie is fractured and loose and unexpectedly playful. And it’s haunting in spots, when it catches you off-guard.

    Also, there’s this French dude named Jean Rouch who spent most of his life filming (and inspiring filmmakers) in Africa, mostly Nairobi, I believe. Unfortunately none of his stuff is available on DVD, but he had this odd outsider-who-stayed perspective on things. His very collaborative approach to “documenting” life there produced just the kind of unexpected results that you get when cultures cross-polinate.

    Outsider views of Africa. Hmm. It’s so seldom that we get an African’s view of Africa in the Western world. There’s a guy (one more … one more …) named Ousmane Sembene who’s been making movies for like 50 years, and one of his earliest films, Black Girl, reversed the situation. His character goes to work as a maid in the south of France and her view of the West is stark and disturbing, all the more so for being justified. Rouch also made a “man on the street” movie once where one of his African friends filmed people in Paris, stopping them on the sidewalk to ask them about their teeth — for science! for an ethnographic study! — to find out how many cavities they have. So curious, cavities. “We don’t have them,” he’d explain.

    Rambling. Sorry. Thanks again.