Obama is big in Africa. There are Obama shops, Obama hotels, Obama t-shirts, even Obama: The Musical. A craze of naming babies Obama hit the continent when he was elected. Even better, the proud parents could fill out the birth certificate with an Obama ballpoint pen.
I came across these in a shop in Harar, Ethiopia. A friend of mine worked for his campaign, so it seemed the perfect gift. The box proudly proclaims the virtues of “Quality+Econmy”, promises “maximum writing pleasure and comfort”, and offers a one-year money-back guarantee. How CAN´T you buy this amazing item?
So why is Obama so big in Africa? There’s more to the craze than the fact that his father is African. Many Africans told me they see him as an inspiration, that no matter where your family is from you can make it big. Some also see his election as a hopeful sign that the U.S. is getting beyond its racist past. There was some serious Obamamania in Africa when he got elected but, like in the U.S., that initial enthusiasm has cooled off somewhat. Now Africans are questioning his policies, asking why he hasn’t created closer ties with Africa and why he’s helped some Muslim nations in their struggle for democracy and not others.
It looks like no president’s honeymoon lasts forever.
[Note for the easily offended: the crack about the birth certificate was a joke. I am not a birther. You can tell because all the words in this post are spelled correctly]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!