The n-word, the g-word and the hidden perils of travel

n-word, Ice-TLiving in Spain, I get a lot of questions about the United States. One of the most common, and certainly the most disturbing, is if it’s OK to use the N-word.

Let me just say from the outset that I think the term “N-word” is silly. By using it you immediately think of the word I’m trying not to say so, in a sense, I’ve actually said it. On the other hand, if I actually used the word n—–, Gadling would fire my ass, and they’d be right to.

N—– is getting more and more common on American TV shows that get broadcast here. The Wire uses it in almost every scene. Most Spaniards realize it’s a bad word, but are confused to hear it used on TV by whites and blacks alike. I’ve had to explain on more than one occasion that it hasn’t become OK. At least it isn’t OK with this white boy. I don’t think it’s OK for black people to use either, but they’re probably not interested in my opinion.

Now anybody with two brain cells to rub together knows TV isn’t reality, but if you’ve never been to a country before, TV is probably the main way you know about it. The average European has spent far more time watching American TV than talking to actual Americans. Like the guy I met in a bar who was about to go to the U.S. for the first time and used n—— during our conversation. He wasn’t a racist, he just thought the word was OK now. I’m glad I got to talk to him before he got his butt kicked.

I had a similar experience when I spent two months living in Harar, Ethiopia. I was researching a book on Ethiopian history and kept coming across a name for a tribe called the G—-. This word appears in many English-language books about Ethiopia, including many modern ones. One day I was chewing qat with my friend Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com) a local guide and historian, in a small village near Harar. Casually I asked him, “Who are the G—-?”

Mohammed gave me a look like I had just farted in a mosque.”Where did you hear that word?” he asked in a low voice.

“It’s in a lot of books. Some mentioned that the G—- live around Harar.”

“We’re in an Oromo village!” he said, eyes wide.

“So?” I said, confused.

Mohammed shook his head and explained, “It’s an old term for Oromo given to them by the Emperor Menelik. Don’t use it. It’s very insulting. It’s the most insulting thing you can say.”

So insulting, in fact, that I’m not writing it here. Of course, Gadling wouldn’t fire me for using the G-word because the Oromo don’t have any political power in the United States, but respect is respect.

Menelik conquered Harar in 1887 and proceeded to starve the surrounding Oromo clans into submission. About half the population died. Needless to say, the Oromo don’t think very highly of Menelik, even though he’s a hero to many other Ethiopians because he smashed the Italian army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Different people see history differently because they experienced it differently. Something to remember the next time Black History Month rolls by.

So when preparing for a trip, it’s important to do your homework and understand the different ethnic groups in that country, otherwise you may inadvertently cause offense by saying something you heard on television, or in my case read in a bunch of history books written by people who should have known better!

If you’re going to Ethiopia and are worried about the G-word, drop me a line privately and I’ll fill you in on the word you can’t say. And if you write out the full word for n—– or G—- in the comments section, I’ll delete it as soon as I see it.

[Photo of Ice-T, who uses the n-word waaaaay too much, is courtesy Steve Rapport]

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!

Qat culture in Harar: East Africa’s favorite legal high

qat, Qat, qat chewing, qat market, Ethiopia, khat, Khat
Every afternoon in Harar, you see men walking along carrying plastic bags filled with leaves. Hararis aren’t big fans of salads; they’re chewing these leaves for a completely different reason. It gets them high.

Qat (pronounced “chat” in Harari, Amharic, and Somali) is a narcotic leaf from a fast-growing bush found all over the Horn of Africa and Yemen. It’s legal and hugely popular in this region.
In Harari culture it’s mostly the men who chew, although some women do as well. Many people have a regular birtcha (qat-chewing session) where they meet most afternoons to socialize and work.

I’m not going to be coy like some travel writers and talk about drugs in foreign countries while pretending I haven’t used them. When I’m in Harar I chew qat regularly. I attend a birtcha at the home of a man who works in one of the government bureaus. Birtchas usually attract people who have similar jobs, political views, or who are friends from childhood. My birtcha includes dictionary writers, government workers, and a public prosecutor. A birtcha gives people a chance to while away the afternoon in conversation.

Visitors to Harar will be invited to several birtchas. Going to them allows you to see the inside of Harari homes and meet people from all walks of life. I’ve been to birthcas in more than a dozen homes.

%Gallery-120576%When I mentioned I was writing this article, my birtcha got into a debate over whether qat is a drug or not. Some said that because it’s legal it’s not a drug, similar to some Americans I’ve known who insist alcohol and caffeine aren’t drugs. I don’t agree. Qat is a drug like alcohol, caffeine, or marijuana. Qat is a mild drug, though. Chewing a large bundle has less of an effect on my mind than three pints of beer.

In Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby describes having wild psychotic trips from some of the qat he chewed. Perhaps he chewed more or was more susceptible, but I’ve had nothing like the results he had. The effects on me, like most people, are slow in coming. You usually don’t feel anything for almost an hour, although by this time you’ve been having a nice conversation with friends in a traditional Harari home and feel relaxed anyway. Then you notice a deeper relaxation, mingled with a feeling of goodwill that can become euphoric if you chew enough. Food tastes better, cigarettes taste sweet (or so I’m told) and at least for me colors appear more vibrant.

The best effect of qat is that you end up in long, enthusiastic conversations that can last for hours. Unlike with booze or pot, you’ll actually remember these conversations later! After a time many people quieten down and start to work. Qat helps concentration and often people in a birtcha drop out of the conversation one by one and start writing or working on their laptops. Others return to their offices. Some students use it to help them study for exams. Manual laborers say it’s good for physical work too.

Like all substances, qat has side effects. Chewing too much can lead to sleeplessness and constipation. Long-term use can also lead to mental instability. In qat-chewing regions you’ll always see a few older guys with ragged clothes and wild eyes wandering the streets collecting discarded qat leaves that people have dropped onto the ground. Another downside is that farmers are growing qat instead of food. Most crops can only be harvested once or twice a year. A field of qat plants can be harvested every day by taking shoots from a few plants one day and different ones the next. Farmers like having the constant source of income but its lowering the region’s food production, a really bad idea in a country that sees periodic droughts.

All in all, I think the social effects of qat in Ethiopia are no worse than alcohol in Western countries. The number of qat addicts in Ethiopia’s streets is no greater than the number of winos on Western streets. Qat is a social lubricant that has bad effects for those who use it too much, but for the casual user it’s harmless.

I’m a bit worried about this article. It’s impossible to talk about Harari culture without talking about qat but I don’t want Harar to become a destination for drug tourism. Right now there’s a relaxed, friendly relationship between foreigners and Hararis. A bunch of wasted tourists would spoil that really quickly. I don’t think drug tourists would like Harar, though. Qat’s effects are mild and slow to start. Most drug tourists want to get blasted, and qat doesn’t do that. They also want other drugs, and all of them are illegal in Ethiopia. Despite being considered the Holy Land by Rastafaris, getting caught with marijuana in Ethiopia can get you two years in jail.

So please, if you come to Ethiopia, feel free to chew chat, but don’t try anything else. You don’t want to mess with the Ethiopian justice system. The public prosecutor at my birtcha opens Coke bottles with her teeth.

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

Coming up next: Visiting the Argobba, a little-known African tribe!

A visit to an African market

African market, market
One of Africa’s best attractions are its markets. Full of vibrant life and color, an African market always makes for a fascinating visit.

Harar has one big and several smaller markets. There used to be one at each of its five gates, but some have dwindled to barely half a dozen women selling tomatoes and potatoes. The only big gate markets now are at Assum Gate, where there’s a busy market for qat, Africa’s favorite narcotic leaf, and at Asmaddin Gate, which has a huge market–Harar’s biggest and some say the second biggest in Ethiopia, with only Addis Ababa’s famous Merkato being bigger. Merkato is unfair competition since it’s the biggest African market of all!

The markets are dominated by the Oromo, a different ethnic group than the Hararis. The Hararis live in town and the Oromo farm the surrounding countryside. Most sell fresh produce and you’ll see piles of fresh vegetables as well as sacks of grain. People also sell manufactured goods, mostly cheap Chinese imports such as shoes, blankets, radios, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

The Oromo have a strict segregation of the sexes at the market. Only women sell food, while men will often sell manufactured items. Men never sell qat. In his Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby tells a story of an Oromo man whose wife had died. Needing money, he went to the market with a bundle of qat. He was laughed out of town and even years later he was known as “the man who tried to sell qat.” Nobody could explain to me why this division of labor exists; it’s just the way it is.

%Gallery-119721%The markets start at daybreak and Oromo from the more distant villages set off from home well before dawn, sometimes carrying their produce for miles. The women balance amazingly heavy loads on their heads, keeping their backs perfectly straight and walking in neat lines along Harar’s narrow alleyways.

Prices for food are pretty much set, although you can always haggle a little bit. For manufactured goods expect a long struggle as you and the vendor clash over the price. It’s not a frantic as Arab markets but it’s still an amusing battle of wits.

Inside the walls of the old city are a few major streets lined with shops and one open-air market called Gidir Magala. It used to be the largest in town but now it’s only a few dozen covered stalls selling produce. Next to it is a firewood market and a meat market. Oromo women lead donkeys loaded with wood from this market to deliver to private homes. Women who can’t afford a donkey carry giant bundles of wood on their head. There’s also a huge blue water tank where people fill twenty-liter yellow plastic jugs. With Harar’s water shortage, porters are busy carting piles of these jugs on wheelbarrows to people’s houses.

Women also sit by the sides of the major streets and squares selling food. One cooks up delicious samosas. Several more sit behind piles of peanuts, selling packets of them for one birr (six cents) each. Others sell bananas. You don’t have to go far to find a snack.

Besides the markets, there are wandering vendors selling everything from posters to perfume. It’s a hard life, walking around all day trying to sell things people generally don’t want. These folks don’t make many sales but they manage to contribute a little to the family income. One guy who is a common sight in the Old City carrying the same three bottles of perfume should get an award for persistence. Every day for the past couple of weeks I’ve asked him if he’s made a sale, and every day he shakes his head sadly. Yesterday, though, he strode up to me, looking a foot taller, and announced that he had sold a bottle.

One item that does sell well are lottery tickets. I guess I’m not eligible to win because the lottery guys are the only street vendors who don’t try to sell to me. Everyone else keeps trying, even the perfume seller After a month in town, the shoeshine boys in front of my favorite café are still trying to shine my Gore-Tex hiking boots.

I hate shopping at home, but shopping is never dull in Africa!

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

Coming up next: Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization!

An interview with a traditional African healer

healer, traditional medicine, HararAt first glance, Alia Abdi doesn’t look like someone who can cure cancer with a simple recipe. A middle-aged wife and mother living in a typical home at the end of a rambling alley in Harar’s old city, she offers visitors hot coffee and a ready smile, like any other hostess in this hospitable town.

Alia gets a lot of visitors. She’s a traditional Ethiopian healer, with a variety of herbal recipes to cure everything from liver trouble to Hepatitis B to, she says, cancer.

I first heard about Alia through the Harari tour guide Nebil Shamshu Muhammed (nebilha20@ yahoo.com) who was suffering from jaundice. He felt ill and listless and his eyes and tongue had turned an unhealthy yellow. Nebil went to a regular hospital where he was given medicine and instructions about his diet. The medicine gave him a fever and the food he was supposed to eat made him ill.

Five days and a 1625 birr ($95) later, he stopped taking the medicine and decided to go to a traditional healer. Alia studied his symptoms and asked him questions about his appetite and how he felt. Healers don’t make a diagnosis of a particular disease; they look at the symptoms as a whole and brew up a medicine based on that. She presented him with an herbal concoction to take, saying “Pay me what you can. If you’re poor, don’t pay me at all.” Nebil gave her 300 birr ($18)

He took the mixture and proceeded to throw up for the entire day. That was part of the process, Alia assured him.

“After that I felt clean. My fever was gone,” Nebil said.

He looked better too. I have no medical training but I could see his yellow pallor had faded and he had more energy. I decided to visit Alia myself, taking along Helen Sepal, a senior in the pharmacy department at Haramaya University. Reclining on pillows on the floor of Alia’s living room as she burned incense and heated up coffee in a pot set atop glowing coals, she told us about her path to becoming a healer.”I learned from my mother-in-law,” she says, “I’ve been doing this for 14 years. Only one child of each generation is chosen to learn the secrets.”

And secrets they are. Each healer has his or her own cures and they don’t share them with anyone but their apprentice, not even other healers. Alia has 47 recipes, some of which cure more than one malady, but all she’ll say about them is that they’re made from mixtures of local plants.

“Why don’t you share this with us? It would be useful if all the healers pooled their knowledge,” Helen asks.

Alia shrugs and gives a noncommittal, “I’ll think about it.”

Unlike some practitioners of alternative medicine in the West, Alia respects modern medicine. She uses it herself sometimes, and if someone is already taking Western medicine, she won’t give them any of her own because the interaction of different medications could hurt them. Alia studies Western medicine from the sidelines, working as a janitor at a local hospital and asking patients what kind of treatments they’re getting. If she thinks she can help, she’ll give some advice of her own.

Alia also differs from some African healers in that she doesn’t claim to be able to treat HIV. Nebil says many are scared to.

“A healer in Kenya said he had a cure for AIDS and health professionals killed him. They were jealous. Other healers heard this and don’t reveal their secrets now. If they have a cure for AIDS they only use it for relatives.”

Whether this story is true or not is hard to say, but if the healers believe it, it’s stopped them from trying to treat one of Africa’s biggest health problems.

Alia wants to make it clear that she’s no witch. While she does pray to help her patients, there’s no sorcery involved. All her cures are based on herbal mixtures. She also shows a practical side, telling her patients to get proper rest, to take vitamins, and to eat well. Alia admits a certain placebo effect too.

“Sometimes when a person thinks they’ll be cured they get better,” she says with a smile.

After finishing our coffee we say goodbye. Nebil was already a believer in traditional medicine, as are most Ethiopians. Helen and I are impressed too. Helen repeats her comment that healers and Western-style doctors should work together. This is a refreshing change from the knee-jerk negative reaction to traditional medicine I’ve seen from some health professionals. After all, if a people have lived in a region for centuries, it makes sense that they’ve discovered the medicinal properties of the local plants. While I’m doubtful about some of the more grandiose claims like being able to cure cancer, considering that modern medicine hasn’t done a very good job at curing this disease either, it would be a good idea to check out what the healers are doing.

This probably won’t happen, though. Competitors rarely cooperate, and the doctors in the hospitals and the healers in the private homes will continue to treat their patients separately, even though these patients may benefit from both traditional and Western medicine getting together and sharing what they know.

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

Coming up next: A visit to an African market!