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!

Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region

Somali, Somali region, camels, Ethiopia
It’s the dream of every adventure traveler–to explore a region that gets virtually no tourism, to see a culture with little contact with the outside world, to be among the first to visit the sights. It can be a thrill, an amazing rush that gives you valuable insights into a foreign culture and its history.

It can also be a major pain in the ass.

To the east of Harar lies Ethiopia’s Somali Region, a vast lowland spreading out east to Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia. Home to only 4.3 million, it’s Ethiopia’s most sparsely populated region, where many Somalis still live a traditional pastoral life.

To visit the Somali Region I hired a driver with a Landcruiser (the transport of choice in Africa) and Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com) a Harar tour guide who is Somali and lived for many years in the region. “Dake”, as everybody calls him, may be Somali, but he’s lived in Harar and speaks fluent Harari, so he’s accepted as Harari. Nebil Shamshu, who introduced me to a traditional African healer, came along too.

We set out in the early morning, climbing up and over several large hills to the east of Harar and passing through the Valley of Marvels, a beautiful geological wonder of strange rock formations and towering pinnacles that reminds me of some parts of the Arizona wilderness. I ask our driver, Azeze, to stop so I can take pictures but he refuses. “”A few weeks ago bandits stopped a minibus here,” he says. “They killed nine men and kidnapped and raped six women.” Suddenly I don’t feel like taking pictures anymore. While Ethiopia is generally safe (I haven’t had any problems in four months travel all over the country) there are bandits in some parts of the countryside.

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Now this section of the road is quiet. After the attack the army launched a huge manhunt but the bandits slipped away into the rough terrain or disappeared into the local population. Soldiers are everywhere now, so the bandits will have to find another road for their ambushes.

After climbing a last steep hill the road winds down to a dusty plain. I remember this road from my trip to Somaliland last year. Men lead strings of camels along the side of the highway. Low domed structures called aqal somali dot the landscape. Covered with mats and bits of cloth, they look like patchwork quilts. Muhammed Dake perks up, looking around eagerly and singing along to Somali songs on the radio. He also knows the words to every Johnny Cash song. Dake is a man of the world.

Our first stop is Jijiga, a rambling town of low concrete buildings that is the region’s capital. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is here, conspicuous by the large aqal somali in its front yard. Nearby are the foundations of the new regional museum, to be opened. . .sometime. We’ve come here looking for information about the castle of Ahmed Guray, the Somali conqueror who 500 years ago brought the great Abyssinian Empire to its knees. I’d heard his castle still stands at Chinaksen just north of Jijiga. Dake hadn’t heard of this, and the Ministry had little information about their own region, just one leaflet in nearly incomprehensible English and a promotional video in Amharic that included nothing about the castle. The officials believe it’s at Darbi, close to Chinaksen, so we head there.

The road from Jijiga to Darbi is what’s locally referred to as “improved.” That is, a steamroller has squashed a strip of ground flat and it’s used as a road. It’s not a smooth as asphalt, but it’s far better than some African roads I’ve been on. The only problem is the steady stream of dust blowing through the window and caking our hands and faces. It’s far too hot to close the window, so we just sit and deal with it.

We get to Darbi and find nothing but a village–no castle, no city walls, and nobody who knows what we’re talking about. We head to our original goal of Chinaksen and find the same thing. Confused and frustrated, we sit down to a lunch of spaghetti (eaten in traditional Somali fashion with our hands) while Dake makes a few calls to local officials. After a long wait we meet up with them only to learn that they’ve never heard of a castle here, but there’s a mosque from Guray’s time not far off. We decide to head there and one official insists on being our guide, his eyes lighting up with dollar signs.

I am not at all surprised when he gets us lost within the first fifteen minutes. He soon has us driving across farmers’ fields, insisting it’s the right way. Azeze is about to go on strike, I’m wishing I’d learned some swear words in Somali, and Dake finally gives up on the guy and grabs a local guy to give us directions.

The local, of course, knows exactly where to go and soon we make it to a strange rectangular stone building that doesn’t really look like a mosque at all. There’s no courtyard or minaret like you usually see. Another local farmer comes up to us and a long discussion in Amharic ensues. The farmer gives me a few angry looks and Nebil talks to him in soothing tones. I understand just enough to know that the guy doesn’t want me to go in and Nebil is explaining that since everyone else is Muslim, that there’s no harm in it.

Eventually the farmer relents. We take our shoes off at the nearby wall and hop across sizzling flagstones to enter the cool interior. In the narrow front hall stand long wooden boards used by religious students for memorizing verses of the Koran. They can be found all over the Muslim world. These look old, stained nearly black from generations of handling. Further on we come to the main room, a long rectangular room painted with blue crescent moons and abstract decorations. Everything emanates an air of antiquity, and I wonder if Ahmed Guray himself ever prayed here before going off to battle.

Nebil must be wondering the same thing, because he looks around with wonder and declared that he wants to pray here. The farmer is making more nasty comments and Dake is getting nervous. “No, we need to go now. Sean, stop taking pictures.” We head out and the farmer is almost shouting now. The official flashes his badge and that shuts him up. After a final poisonous look at me, he stalks off.

“What was all that about?” I ask.

“He was saying that he smashes people’s cameras if they try to take pictures in there,” Dake replies.

“Nice.” I say. “I’ve taken pictures in mosques all around the world with no problem.”

Dake merely shrugs. On the way back the official asks me for a tip. I give him 20 birr ($1.20, a day’s wage for many working class jobs).

“Only 20 birr!” he freaks out.

“How many times did he get us lost?” Azeze asks me in English so he can’t understand.

“Exactly! But he helped out by waving his badge. I’ll give him 20 birr for waving a badge,” I reply.

As we head back to Harar I try to look at the trip philosophically. I didn’t find the castle of Ahmed Guray. Maybe it isn’t there. But maybe it is. It could have stood just a kilometer away from where we were, its battlements gleaming in the sun like some Somali Camelot, but the local tourism officials wouldn’t have known a thing about it. I did get some insights into life in the Somali region, however, and there does seem to be potential here that I’ll talk about in my next post. As I shrug off my day as a fairly expensive yet educational failure, a herd of camels passes by, their tan skin turned golden by the setting sun. A little further on we spot three families of baboons crossing the road.

There are things to see in the Somali region, just not what I set out to see.

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

Coming up next: Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?

Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization

Harla, harla, Ethiopia, archaeology, Harar
Eastern Ethiopia’s history is shrouded in mystery. Most archaeologists investigate early hominids like Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, or study the great civilizations of the north like Gondar and Axum. The east, though, is virtually unknown, and only enigmatic ruins and strange legends remain.

Scattered around eastern Ethiopia all the way to Somaliland and the Red Sea are the ruins of towns with large stone buildings unlike anything made by the modern Oromo and Somali peoples. These are the remnants of the little-known Harla civilization. Wanting to learn more, I contacted archaeologist, author, and Harar tour guide Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com). “Dake”, as everybody here calls him, helped me travel to Somaliland last year and is an invaluable resource for local culture and history. He knows everybody and he’s excavated Harla graves in Ethiopia’s Somali region and in Somaliland.

They were a race of giants, people say, and immensely strong. They’d perform amazing feats of strength like playing with balls made from the entire hide of a goat. A schoolkid we gave a lift to told us the Harla were three meters tall! This rumor probably came about because of their unusual graves. They’re long and thin, sometimes three or four meters long, although the skeletons in them aren’t unusually tall. The graves are usually covered with a layer of ash (probably from burnt offerings), the skeleton of a sacrificed cow, and below that a stone slab sealing the tomb.

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Harla skeletons are often buried with pots resting above their head. Inside the pots are black sand (why? nobody knows), necklaces of gemstones, and silver coins that are slightly smaller than a dime. There seems to be writing or designs on the coins but they’re old and poorly minted, and if they ever once said anything, they’re unreadable now. The necklaces are usually agate, but also ruby and amber. The style of the pots, coins, and jewelry are the same both in the mountains around Harar and in the Somali lowlands all the way to the Red Sea. This has convinced Muhammed Dake that the sites all belong to the same culture.

Legends say the center of this civilization was around Harar, which makes sense since it has the best land in the region. The kings of Harla were wizards who boasted about their powers. One said he’d make a river of milk between two mountains; another bragged he could make a sorghum plant that could be laid down and be used as a highway all the way to the Awash River, 150 miles away. Allah got angry at all this and destroyed them. A few Harla survived and fled to Kush in the Sudan, the site of another great civilization.

The Hararis are believed to be descended from the Harla. The closest Harla site to Harar is at the Oromo village of Harla, from which the civilization gets its name. We have no idea what the Harla called themselves. When Allah destroyed the civilization and the survivors fled to Kush, one woman stayed behind to found the modern town of Harla. With a population of about 2800, it’s a half-hour drive from Harar on a winding mountain road that offers sweeping views of the lowlands to the north.

When we arrived at the modern Harla I saw the Oromo there looked and dressed a bit different than other Oromo I’d met. The women didn’t wear the usual Western-style striped shirt that’s almost a uniform for Oromo women in this region. Was this a remnant of their different origins? It’s hard to say, but the modern residents of Harla say they’re of different origins than the rest of the Oromo. Over the years they’ve taken on Oromo customs and the Oromo language, but still consider themselves a distinct people.

Like everywhere else, Muhammed Dake seems to know everyone in Harla. Some of the villagers showed us the ruins. There are thick walls of stone cemented together with a type of plaster that’s still strong after centuries of weathering. Some remain standing above the height of a man, and one field is filled with a network of walls, showing the ancient town was a cluster of closely built structures. In one spot, a tree has grown up through a wall. Plants may be slow, but are almost unstoppable. This tree cracked through the tough Harla plaster and grew around the ancient stones, lifting them into the air as the tree grew. Now the building looks like it’s frozen in the middle of an explosion, its stones suspended several feet above the ground. The local kids love to climb this tree, using the Harla stones embedded in the wood as footholds.

Muhammed Dake believes the Harla people were pagan, judging from how they built their graves. They don’t look either Muslim or Christian. But the Harla village presents another mystery. At one ruin that looks constructed in the Harla style, a villager pulls away some bushes along one wall to reveal a niche. To confirm my suspicions he raises his hands and says “Allahu akbar” (God is Great). It’s a miqrab, the niche in a mosque that points the way to Mecca. And it does point the right direction. Is this mosque from the Harla times? If so, the Harla were the first Muslims in the region, predating the Harari people who can trace their roots back to the tenth century.

Or perhaps it’s a later ruin. So little is known about the Harla, and so little archaeological research has been done here, that for the time being all we have are legends of a race of giants who once ruled the land.

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

Coming up next: Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region!

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!