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!

Harar tour: a walk around one of Africa’s most unique cities

Harar, harar, Ethiopia, ethiopiaAfter a few days in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa and a long Ethiopian bus trip, I’ve made it to Harar, my home for the next two months. I’ll be exploring the culture and history of this unique city and making road trips to nearby points of interest.

Harar is a medieval walled city in eastern Ethiopia between the central highlands to the west and the Somali desert to the east. It’s been a center of trade for at least a thousand years. The majority of Hararis are Muslim (I’ve met only three Harari Christians) and Harar is laid out on Muslim lines. The are five old gates corresponding with the five pillars of Islam, and there used to be 99 mosques corresponding with the 99 names of God. Time has eroded the symbolism somewhat. The Emperor Haile Selassie created a sixth gate and made a wide avenue leading to a big square called Feres Magala (Horse Market). Also, some of the mosques have disappeared. I get different answers as to how many are left, but there seems to be a few more than 80. There’s talk about rebuilding the missing ones but that hasn’t happened yet.

Feres Megala is a good place to start a tour of Harar. It’s the main entryway into the walled city. This noisy square is filled with people and bejaj, the blue three-wheeled motor rickshaws that are everywhere in Ethiopia. Dominating the square is Medhanialem Church (“Savior of the World”) an Ethiopian Orthodox church erected after the Emperor Menelik II captured the city in 1887, ending its days as an independent city-state. A mosque used to stand on this spot but the Christian emperor destroyed it to show his power.

Streets head off to the left and right. The right slopes down Mekina Girgir (“Tailor’s Street”). “Girgir” is the sound sewing machines make. Tailors set up their machines on the street, doing piecework for the shops on either side. You can often find me here hanging out with Binyam, a tailor who speaks good English and looks a bit European thanks to his Greek grandfather. While the tailors and shopkeepers are Harari, many of their customers are Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. The Oromo own most of the farmland around the city. The land used to be Harari but was taken from them during the Communist Derg regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974-1991.

Continuing down the street you find out why so many Oromo are around. The street opens up into a large market filled with Oromo women selling fruit, firewood, colorful baskets, incense, and a thousand other things. The men work in the fields or as laborers. Not far off is the meat market offering everything from cow to camel. The market is in a long courtyard surrounded by high walls. Eagles line the ramparts looking to grab a freebie. Hararis don’t like sending their kids to do the meat shopping because if an eagle sees a child carrying meat it will get bold, swoop down, and take it out of the kid’s hands!

%Gallery-118876%From the market the way breaks into innumerable little alleys that twist and turn around gated compounds of two or more houses. The walls of the compounds create the alleys. Like the medieval cities of Europe, Harar has seen very little urban planning and grew spontaneously as the population grew. Many alleys are so narrow you can stretch out your arms and brush both sides with your fingertips. Wandering this maze you’ll inevitably get lost but don’t worry, Harar is too small to stay lost for long. Besides, what could be more fun than being lost in a foreign city? If you do need to find someplace, everyone will help you, especially the school kids who will tag along practicing their English.

My favorite alley is Meger Wa Wiger Uga, “the Street of Peace and Quarrel”. It’s Harar’s narrowest, and if you pass by someone you’re arguing with here, you have to speak nicely to them!

At the heart of Harari identity are the more than 300 shrines to Muslim saints, including about 40 female saints. Some are sizable monuments while others are simply special areas known only to the people of that neighborhood. Each neighborhood makes sure the shrines are properly cared for and the proper rituals are conducted. One of the most important shrines is for Emir Nur, Harar’s ruler from 1551-1568. He led a long war against the Oromo and decided to build a wall around the city. Not knowing how to go about it, he prayed for help. Two expert masons in Mecca heard his prayers and crossed the Red Sea and Somali Desert to build the wall that preserves Harari identity to this day.

Harar is alive with tradition and change, a meeting place for a half dozen ethnic groups and an increasing number of foreigners drawn to its deep heritage. In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, UNESCO also awarded it a commendation for religious tolerance. Harar is small, you can walk around it in an hour, but there’s enough here to explore for a lifetime. To learn more, check out Harar: A Cultural Guide, and follow me as I learn more about my temporary home in Ethiopia.

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

Coming up next: The Arab revolution: the reaction of one Muslim town