Somali murals: funky advertising in the Horn of Africa

SomaliOne of the fun parts of travel is discovering the street art of a new place. Whether it’s the elaborate graffiti of New York or Madrid, the political murals of Mexico, or the current craze of Yarn Bombing, there’s always something cool happening on the street.

In the Horn of Africa, street art takes the form of murals. I believe this is a Somali development, because I’ve seen it much more in Somaliland and the Somali region of Ethiopia than I have anywhere else. There’s a fair number of murals in Harar, Ethiopia, but that has always had close trade connections with the Somali region.

Some are simple, like this ad for a dentist in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. I don’t know why this guy jumped into the frame and bared his teeth but hey, it made for a better picture so I’m not complaining.

Then there’s this mural inside a bakery in Harar. It shows the founder, an Greek expat who opened the most modern bakery in town. One day I met his aged widow, who still presides over the family business. She treated me to tea and regaled me with tales of the old days. She was very proud of the mural and in fact that’s what drew me inside in the first place. Another example of art bringing people together.

Check out the gallery below for more images from Ethiopia and Somaliland.

What kind of street art did you discover in your last trip? Tell us about it in the comments section!

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Travel Read: The Coffee Story

coffeeAs a writer, I read many books by authors I know. As a traveler, I read lots of books set in places I’ve been. The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon gave me the rare chance to read a book about a place I love written by someone I met there.

For the record, I don’t review books by friends because that’s both unprofessional and unwise. Peter isn’t a friend except in the Facebook sense of “I got drunk with this guy once and have his email address”.

I met Peter while I was living in Harar, Ethiopia. Peter’s novel is set in Harar in the 1930s and just weeks before it was published he visited for the first time. That’s right, he visited Harar after he wrote the book.

To 99.9% of his readership that doesn’t matter since they’ve never been to Harar. I have and it did. The book is laden with mistakes. For example, Peter has Harar surrounded by jungle when in fact it’s surrounded by rocky hills and cultivated fields, and where the hell did the Jain community come from? He also uses the G-word for the Oromo. While I suppose this epithet would have been in common usage among whites living in Ethiopia in the 1930s, it will do nothing to endear him to Ethiopian readers.

But this isn’t really a story about Harar, or indeed about coffee. These are simply backdrops with which to tell the story of Theodore Everett, heir to a huge coffee business, now dying of cancer. Most of the action takes place 70 years before, when he’s a kid on his father’s plantation in Harar, where the best coffee in the world comes from. Ignored by his greedy and abusive father, Theodore falls under the sway of an Ethiopian Marxist and other locals, as well as a mysterious white girl who emerges from the jungle one day.

Theodore tells us right off that he’s “not given to suspense” and a terrible showdown is inevitable between the Marxist and his father. To steal the title of a wonderful film, there will be blood. It’s a tribute to Salmon’s excellent storytelling that the final showdown, when it comes, is nevertheless laden with suspense. We have an inkling of what’s going to happen all along, but like two cars veering towards a head-on collision, it’s terrible to see them hit.

While there’s no sense of place beyond a stereotypical “deepest, darkest Africa” worthy of some old Tarzan flick, most characters are brilliantly drawn and often hilarious, and the prose loops and curls in on itself. Like many old men, Theodore repeats himself constantly. This gets a bit irritating but the characters and narrative tension kept me turning pages. The prose is rich (bonus points for using “flibbertigibbet”) and the characters spring to life the first sentence they’re introduced.

I give this book three out of five stars. Sorry Peter, I know it’s my round, but while you’re an excellent stylist and a sharp wit, the whole thing veers a wee bit too close to neocolonialism. You put Harar in a jungle because Africa’s all jungle, right? The Ethiopians all sound like Europeans with a bit of earthy spiritualism thrown in for color, and the only female Ethiopian character is oversexed and two-dimensional. Although she’s sleeping with the underaged protagonist, Theodore’s One True Love is the only white girl he meets in Africa. And the blackface scene made me embarrassed even though I wasn’t the one who wrote it.

There’s an old adage among writers: stick with what you know. Set your next novel in England or Australia and you’ll write a masterpiece.

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]

Photo of the day: Donkey traffic jam

Photo of the day
Regardless of how transportation evolves, sometimes the old ways are still the best ways. New York and London have some of the oldest public transit systems in the world and while they’ve made a few upgrades in the last century, the original tunnels are still in use. Many parts of the world disregard modern vehicles all together, like these men with their drove* of donkeys. Donkeys are cheap to run, easy to park, and make far more interesting sounds than cars, though the clean-up might be less fun. Flickr user fdortort ran into these donkeys in Debark, Ethiopia, far north of Harar where Gadling’s Sean McLachlan spent two months this spring.

Share your favorite travel pix with us – bonus points for collectives of animals – in the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use one for a future Photo of the Day.

*Herd and pace can also be used to describe a group of donkeys.

The Obama pen: weirdest African souvenir ever?

Obama, Ethiopia
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]

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