Ten (more) random observations about Ethiopia

Ethiopia, Harar

When writing last year’s Ethiopia travel series, I collected twelve random observations about Ethiopia. These were interesting bits of information that didn’t fit in any of my articles. While writing my Harar travel series, I collected ten more.

1. The standard traveler’s money belt that hangs from your neck and is tucked under your shirt is very amusing to Ethiopians because Oromo women wear them. You’ll often see them digging them out in the market to get change. The above photo shows them being made.

2. The banknotes smell spicy. This is because Ethiopians eat with their hands and then handle money in order to pay for their meal. A few years of this treatment makes Ethiopian money smell like a spice stall in the market. Crisp, odorless banknotes fresh from the bank don’t seem real!

3. The currency is called birr, which means “silver.” Before coins became common, people used more practical objects as currency, such as bullets and slabs of salt.

4. Ethiopians have a unique dance called the uuzkista in which you jiggle your shoulders back and forth. Check out the video to see how it’s done.

5. I noticed that many crosses people wear are all the same bright green color. I wondered about this until one night I was walking down a dark street with an Ethiopian friend and noticed her cross was glowing in the dark. Soon I was seeing glowing Crucifixions everywhere.

6. Since most streets lack lighting, many cell phones come equipped with a mini flashlight.

7. To get a waiter’s attention, snap your fingers or clap your hands. What’s rude in one culture is normal in another. I saw a guy get kicked out of a restaurant in New York for doing this because in the West it’s the ultimate in low-class boorishness. Here in Ethiopia it’s completely acceptable, but it took me a long time before I could bring myself to clap at a waiter.

8. There’s a shortage of postcards in Ethiopia. Ethiopians aren’t in the habit of sending postcards and the fledgling tourism industry hasn’t printed many. Some entrepreneurs have taken matters into their own hands. In Gondar a local photographer wanders around the castles selling images he’s taken. It isn’t a proper postcard, but the post office accepts them.

9. When Ethiopians shake hands, they bump each other’s shoulder. If your hand is dirty because you’ve been eating, keep your hand closed and your arm straight down to signal that you can’t shake hands. Instead the other person grabs the forearm and does the shoulder bump. If both people’s hands are dirty, you touch forearms and still do the shoulder bump. Don’t forget the shoulder bump!

10. Farmers often carry water in gourds. Now some entrepreneur has come up with the modern equivalent-plastic gourds in bright colors! Some fashionable farmers are carrying these instead of bothering to prepare their own natural gourds.

This wraps up my series Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints. Thanks for joining me on my adventure through the Horn of Africa!

Tomoca: the best little coffee house in Africa

coffee, Coffee
Ethiopia has a lot of great attractions–castles, medieval cities, even werehyenas–yet the thing visitors rave about the most is the coffee.

And why not? Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia. Legend has it that long ago a boy was tending his flock and saw his goats eating unfamiliar berries off a bush. Soon they were dancing around and looking happy. The boy brought some of the berries home to his mother and the rest, as they say, is history. The same story is told about the discovery of the narcotic plant qat.

Most people arrive in the capital Addis Ababa first, and this is the place to try Ethiopian cafe culture at its best. There are hundreds of cafes throughout town, from chic Italian-style places to little roadside stands. In Ethiopian markets you’ll often see women carrying around a thermos and a few battered cups, selling a shot of coffee for two birr (12 cents). No matter where you buy it, Ethiopian coffee is always rich and strong. If you’re lucky, you’ll get invited to a private home and be treated to an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

My personal favorite cafe in Addis, and the favorite of many locals, is Tomoca. They’ve been serving it up since 1953. Many Ethiopian businessmen from nearby Churchill Avenue come here for a pick-me-up, and more relaxed patrons will read a newspaper or watch BBC News on the TV. It’s certainly on the tourist map, so if you want to pretend you’re the only foreigner in town, this place isn’t for you. The coffee is great, though, and they sell vacuum-sealed bags of beans, both ground and unground, for you to take home. Any time I’m in Addis I load up on a couple of kilos.

Tomoca, like most Ethiopian cafes, has a friendly atmosphere and is a good place to meet Ethiopians and practice a bit of Amharic. To get you started: buna means “coffee”, buna bet means “cafe”, and betam konjo means “very good”! You’ll be saying that last phrase a lot.

So give Tomoca and the other cafes in Addis a try, and if you want to explore something stronger, check out this post on Ethiopian alcohol.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints.

Coming up next: Ten (more) Random Observations about Ethiopia!

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The worst zoo I ever saw

zoo, Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Lion ZooI feel sorry for my Harari friends.

During my stay in Harar, Ethiopia, they were so hospitable, so eager to ensure I had a 100% positive impression of their city and country. For the most part I did, and I left for the capital Addis Ababa with lots of great things to say about Ethiopia.

They should have warned me not to visit the Lion Zoo in Addis Ababa.

It’s billed as a natural wonder, where you can see rare Ethiopian black-maned lions descended from the pride that was kept in Haile Selassie’s palace. In reality, it’s a sad display of animal cruelty and neglect.

The lions, primates, and other animals are kept in undersized cages with bare concrete floors. They look bored, flabby, resigned. Several of them look sick. Visitors shout at the listless animals or even throw pebbles to get them to move. Some toss packets of chocolate or potato chips to the monkeys and laugh as they tear the packages apart to get to the food inside.

The worst are the lions, proud carnivores, kings of the wilderness, reduced to trapped objects of amusement for bored city dwellers who don’t give a shit about nature. The lions lie around most of the time, doing nothing. Occasionally one will get its feet, shake its dirty mane, take a few steps before realizing there’s nowhere to go, and then sit down with an air of defeat.

The whole place made me feel ill, yet I can’t feel morally superior. I come from a country where people freak out if someone beats a dog but cheer when a Third World country gets carpet bombed. Where a zoo like this would be a national scandal but people eat meat raised on factory farms that make Ethiopia’s Lion Zoo look like a nature reserve. Only vegans can talk about animal cruelty from any moral high ground, and I’m not a vegan. Meat tastes too good.

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But a travesty like this zoo is totally unnecessary. Ethiopia is anxious to promote itself as a tourist destination, a friendly, civilized country where Westerners can feel at home. Well, if it wants to do that, it better do something about the Lion Zoo.

Like shut it down.

So to my Harari friends, I’m sorry. You came close to getting a 100% positive series (well, except for my bumbling around Ethiopia’s Somali region) but it was not to be. I understand Ethiopia has bigger priorities than a few animals in a zoo in Addis Ababa, but if you want to make a positive impression on Western visitors, this place has got to go.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints.

Coming up next: Tomoca: the best little coffeehouse in Africa!

The hyena man of Harar: a unique relationship between beast and man

Harar, harar, hyena, hyena man
The hyenas come just after dusk. We’ve been sitting in Yusuf’s modest farmhouse on the outskirts of Harar talking about them when we hear their familiar yipping laugh. Yusuf picks up a big bucket of mule and camel meat, shoos away his well-fed cat, and strolls outside to meet them.

Yusuf is Harar’s biggest celebrity, the famous “hyena man” whom everyone who has heard anything about Harar has heard about. He’s not Harari, though, his parents were Oromo and Somali, and he lives outside Harar’s medieval walls next to the town dump, a favorite hangout for hyenas.

Yusuf calls out into the darkness, and I spot a few hulking, dark shapes beyond the clearing in front of his house. He sets the meat down and whistles, like you’d do with a pet dog. One by one, the hyenas emerge from the shadows, giant canine shapes like Rottweilers on steroids. At first they seem uncertain, creeping closer and backing away again as Yusuf pulls out ribbons of raw flesh from the bucket.

I sit down to watch.

I’ve come with Marcus Baynes-Rock, an Australian graduate student who’s doing his Ph.D. thesis on the interaction between people and hyenas in Harar, and keeps a fascinating blog about Harar hyenas. As Yusuf puts a strip of meat on the end of a stick and holds it out to the lead hyena, Marcus tells me about the strange and unique coexistence that’s sprung up between humans and hyenas in this region of East Africa.

%Gallery-120767%Hyenas are deeply rooted in Harari and Ethiopian folklore. Blacksmiths and the Argobba people and supposed to be werehyenas, turning into the animals at night. The Jews do too, but most of them left for Israel during the last civil war. Hyenas are also supposed to gobble up djinn, evil spirits, and so are useful to have around.

“I met one young guy from Djibouti who had been possessed by djinn and came all the way to Harar to feed the hyenas and have them take the djinn away,” Marcus tells me.

It’s not just the Hararis who have stories about hyenas. The Somalis tell a tale of the Habercha’alow clan, which tried to drive the hyenas out of their territory by killing a bunch of them. The hyenas took revenge, picking off lone Habercha’alow.

“If a Habercha’alow and two men from other clans were sleeping by a fire, they’d take the Habercha’alow and leave the others untouched,” a Somali friend told me.

After suffering heavy losses, the Habercha’alow wanted to make peace. As mediators they hired the Idagalle, a clan well-known for their ability to talk with hyenas. They met in the desert. Delegates from the Habercha’alow sat to one side, delegates from the hyenas sat to the other, and the Idagalle mediators sat in the middle. They communicated, so I’m told, by mental telepathy. The Habercha’alow agreed to pay blood money to the hyenas in the form of a large number of slaughtered camels. And thus the war stopped.

Despite their size, hyenas are timid creatures, as I can see by the amount of coaxing Yusuf has to do to get the first hyenas of the evening to feed from his hand.

“They’re really scared of people,” Marcus says, “Dogs too. They don’t realize their jaws can break us in two.”

As if to emphasize his point a loud snap cuts through the night. A hyena has taken some meat. Yusuf fishes in his bucket for another piece as the hyenas, more confident now, crowd around.

Yusuf tells me he learned from his uncle, a farmer who started feeding the hyenas back in the 1950s. His uncle started feeding the hyenas partially to keep them away from his livestock, and partially because he liked them. While many cultures hate the hyenas and try to kill them, or shut their doors in fear, the Hararis are at peace with them. Low doorways in the city wall allow them to come and go at night, eating garbage and taking away djinn. When a Harari passes one in an alleyway, he’ll often greet it by saying darmasheikh (“young wise man”). I tried this myself one night and the hyena looked at me curiously for a moment before padding into the darkness.

But it’s not all peaceful. Yusuf’s feeding is not just out of friendliness, but also to placate the hyenas. As scavengers, they’ll sometimes root out freshly buried corpses and even snatch away small children. A beggar woman sleeping outside Selassie church had her baby taken from her one night a couple of years ago, and there have been other incidents too. When this happens the Hararis say the hyena was rabid or not from Harar. Yusuf himself was bitten by one when he was two years old.

“At that time I didn’t know the difference between a hyena and a dog so I never developed a fear,” he explains.

Yusuf has a large group of hyenas around him now. More come out of the shadows. Fights break out between the powerful beasts for the best scraps, and Yusuf shouts at them and even shoves one away like a misbehaving dog. One wanders into his compound to look around his house.

“Yusuf feeds them inside sometimes,” Marcus says.

Yusuf hands me the stick with a strip of meat hanging from the end. A moment later it’s nearly torn from my grasp as powerful jaws clamp down on it.

By now some tourists have shown up. Yusuf is a celebrity, after all. These are Ethiopian tourists, a middle-class family from Addis Ababa. One man holds his toddler son and I eye them nervously. Yusuf greets them and hands the stick to the most nervous one in the group. As a hyena hurries forward to get the meat this guy literally falls on his ass trying to get away. I think I catch a mischievous gleam in Yusuf’s eye. The man’s wife, unimpressed by her husband’s performance, offers to go next. She feeds it several times and even pets it.

“Not bad,” I say to Marcus, “Maybe you can use her as an assistant.”

Marcus likes to pet the hyenas, even though it means all the dogs in town can smell hyena on him and bark as he passes by. Not that’s he’s out in the daytime much. Usually he only comes out at night to follow the hyenas around town to see where they go.

We’re sitting on a low step in front of a Muslim shrine. Yusuf is next to me, the stick in his teeth as he feeds the hyenas from mouth to mouth. Suddenly a big furry form pushes between us. A hyena has gotten onto the platform behind us and reaches over our shoulders. He grabs a strip of camel meat and jerks it off the stick, slapping me across the face with it as he runs off.

“Would you like some toilet paper?” Yusuf asks, again with that gleam in his eye.

“No thanks, I brought some,” I say as I wipe my face.

It’s just another night feeding the hyenas.

To see the hyena man in action, check out the video below. It’s not mine, unfortunately. Upload a video on Ethiopian dialup? Yeah, right!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints.

Coming up next: The worst zoo I’ve ever seen!

The Argobba: visiting a little-known African tribe

Argobba, argobba
Ethiopia is home to dozens of different ethnic groups and tribes. Some have populations numbering in the millions, while others have only a few thousand. One of the smallest tribes is the Argobba, a Muslim people scattered in villages across eastern Ethiopia. The Argobba number only about 10,000, yet they’re determined to be counted in Ethiopia´s government and are fighting to preserve their heritage.

The closest Argobba village to Harar is Koromi, and is one of the easiest and most enjoyable day trips from Harar. This village of about 700 people is an hour’s drive through rugged mountains south of Harar. I went with Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com), a local historian and guide who wrote a government report on the Argobba back in 1997. Each ethnic group and tribe is guaranteed a seat in the Ethiopian legislature, but before Mohammed’s report the Argobba were lumped in with the Harari and had no separate representation. His report proved they were a distinct culture and ensured them a seat in the legislature.

It’s easy to understand the government’s mistake, however. The Argobba and the Hararis share a lot of culture and history, as I was to learn when I visited Koromi.

We set out in a Landcruiser early in the morning, taking the road towards Ethiopia’s Somali region before heading onto a dirt track leading uphill. As we trundle along we pass villages of the Oromo, the region´s largest ethnic group, and big fields of qat plants the size of trees. Qat and groundnuts are the main sources of income for Argobba farmers. They’re especially good at growing qat and make lots of money selling it to qat-loving Hararis. We passed several lines of women walking to market. Considering that a trip from Harari to Koromi takes an hour by car, these women must walk most of the day.

%Gallery-120765%We continue up the dirt road, constantly gaining altitude and getting sweeping views of the surrounding countryside as we pass herds of donkeys and camels bringing water in bright yellow plastic jugs from the area’s rare springs to distant villages.

A good stop on the way is Aw Sofi, an important shrine to a Muslim saint. Shrines to Muslim saints dot the countryside around Harar and there are dozens within the walled city. Legend says Sofi was one of the 44 original saints who founded Harar. While others developed the city and its unique way of life, Sofi stayed in the countryside teaching Islam and founded the first madrasa of Harar. The shrine is within a walled enclosure and is a tall, whitewashed dome gleaming in the sun.

Koromi is about a half hour further along the road atop a narrow ridge surrounded by terraced farmland. The low, flat-topped houses blend into the pale brown of the rock and only the brightly colored front doors stand out.

As we pull into town our vehicle is immediately surrounded by a crowd of children. The men are all out in the fields working and the village is left to the women, children, and one old man. As we walk down the main street, a dusty trail between clusters of houses, we’re followed by almost fifty kids and a couple of curious women. Most women keep an aloof distance, looking at us with only mild interest or ignoring us completely.

Nobody speaks English so it’s up to Mohammed to translate for me. The Argobba say they arrived in Ethiopia more than a thousand years ago, just about the same time Harar was being founded. They originally lived well to the north, where some Argobba villages remain, but when the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes tried to force them to convert to Christianity in the 17th century, most fled to the Muslim enclave of Harar and its surrounding countryside.

This is the Argobba version of events. Scholars differ as to where they came from. Some say they were simply rural Harari whose ways changed over time from the city dwellers. Others say the Argobba are more recent arrivals. In fact, nobody knows, and the Argobba’s own story is probably the most accurate.

We are invited into a home and I immediately feel like I’m back in Harar. Once my eyes adjust from the glare of the sun to the dim interior I see it looks like a traditional Harari home. Only the colorful baskets that adorn Harari walls are missing; stainless steel cookware hang from the walls instead.

This blend of cultures is typical of the Argobba. The women wear traditional Argobba jewelry but otherwise dress like the Oromo, the main ethnic group in this region. Also, while the Argobba have gained political representation, they’re still struggling to preserve their language. Most of those who live near Harar speak Oromo, yet in Koromi they speak Harari mixed with a bit of Amharic, the national language. Only a few villages in the north still speak the Argobba language. Hopefully the Argobba will fight to preserve their heritage and keep their language from going extinct.

As we continue to explore the village I feel a bit frustrated. The children are too excited to have a serious conversation, and most of the women get shy after a few questions. This is not how I like to travel. I prefer what I have back in town–hanging out with Hararis all day getting into deep conversations about their history and culture. Here in the village I feel like both visitor and locals are on display. I’m wandering around taking pictures while being an object of entertainment and fascination for all the local kids. Fun, but not too informative.

What I do learn, though, is that Ethiopia is more than just the main ethnic groups that get represented in the media. The Amhara, Oromo, Tigrinya, Harari, and Somali that I and other visitors spend most of the time with are only a fraction of the rich diversity of Ethiopia. After four months I’ve only scratched the surface of what this county has to offer.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Hyenas in Harar: a strange relationship between beast and man!