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Adventures in prehistory 21.II.2009 08:29
I stand before a mountainside dotted with pictures of men and of animals that represent the very beginnings of human symbolic thought. Herds of cattle and men at prayer, crudely but beautifully rendered, some of the first instances of self-representation, truly representing the origins of humanity as we know it. I am at Laas Gaal, one of the least-visited historical sites in the world, and one of its most impressive collections of neolithic paintings: unvisited because it is in Somaliland, in the picturesque plains of the countryside north of Hargeisa. The story of my how I arrived here, however, is almost as interesting as the place itself. It is the one place in this country which I desperately wanted to visit, so you can imagine my despair at being told that it would cost $170 - you needed an armed escort, a guide, and a 4x4 to travel there; an approach by public transit is - and all sources are unanimous on this - impossible. But I was determined; 'Impossible is nothing,' I thought, the traveller's spirit within me stirring - or perhaps it was an Adidas commercial. Regardless, I set myself a goal and wasn't going to leave without accomplishing it.

The first step was getting permission to travel on the roads at all. Because of an isolated incident some six years ago, when aid workers were kidnapped by Somali militants, the government here is paranoid about tourists travelling alone, and requires a second car and armed escort to accompany them outside of Hargeisa. So, on the advice of my friends Arne and Yoshi, I decided to seek out the one man who could grant this permission: the general of the police. Getting to police headquarters is a touch tricky - you have to cross a riverbed under a bridge being built, and you wind up in what are really the outskirts of town. Arriving at police headquarters, I was greeted by a man speaking perfect English - not just perfect but subtle and refined, a kind of English that has died out completely among my generation and can only be the product of the colonial era. I am informed that the general will see me shortly; he is a kindly old man, small-framed, bearded and bespectacled, not at all the imposing African strongman I was expecting to see at the head of such an organisation - though his voice carries an obvious authority that befits his station. He greets me, and asks where I am going. 'To Berbera,' I say, half-lying - the road to Berbera takes me past Laas Gaal, and this is no problem; I get my permission within 15 minutes, with a nice official stamp and the general's signature. I'm on my way.

Unfortunately, because everyone's agreed that getting to Laas Gaal by public transport is impossible, and there is genuinely no transport directly to the site itself, there was not even any information about how to approach it - so I went to the best source of information in town, Mr. Saidi at the Oriental Hotel, who informed me that I needed to go to the village of Dhubato, on the road to Berbera and about five kilometres from the site. He was sceptical of the whole endeavour, especially since it was already 11AM and I would need to hitchhike back - he said I'd have to do this at night, but I didn't believe him - I had a full eight hours until sunset, after all. So I headed down to the shared taxi station and booked the $5 seat to Berbera; after this, we needed to wait for the car to fill; there were six people and the car needed ten. 'An hour or two,' I thought to myself, Berbera being the country's second city. Alas, there was a truth about Africa that my mind, in its enthusiasm, had ignored: you will wait. You will wait a long time, and then your car will go, drive 300m, and then you will wait again. The continent simply cannot conceptualise the idea of being in a hurry, and the concept of scheduling is completely absent; it's a kind of fatalism really: things take as long as they take, period. People you thought were part of your care were really just the driver's friends having a chat; so despite having begun at 11:15, it was already 3PM when I left. Time was short, and I couldn't help but think I'd made a mistake not waiting until the next day.

This impression was strongly reinforced by the confusion that erupted at the police checkpoint when I gave them the general's letter. In the many hours of waiting, I had told my fellow travellers - or at least, those who spoke English - that I was going to Laas Gaal, and of course they felt that they should be the one's to explain things to the police, not me. The locals always believe this, that because they speak the language and you're a helpless tourist you need to just stand aside and let them sort it out for you, but it really doesn't work - they are very afraid of authority here, and besides, sometimes the comprehension gap leads the officer to just get frustrated and wave you through. So, as soon as they said the words 'Laas Gaal,' I had the letter shoved back at me with a dismissing wave of the hand: I wasn't going anywhere. I had to go back. I was getting ready to start hinting about bribes, but this didn't seem like a place they'd be receptive, so I tried a different tack: I started shouting (over everyone that was speaking for me) that I was just going to Dhubato, and that I had sorted out my escort there (untrue). This wasn't really what the letter gave me permission either, but after some back-and-forth between the soldiers and policemen and security men - all these checkpoints are staffed by men in various uniforms and some without who have no leader among them - I was finally let through. Another hurdle cleared.

We arrived in Dhubato, and I must say, I expected the place to be a bit bigger - it can't have had more than a hundred or so people, in a few houses that stretched along the road. Here, again, the locals insisted they knew best, and before I had a choice they snatched my letter and went right to the local police with it - the one thing I had wanted not to do. 'He'll go alone,' they said, 'he says it's no problem,' somehow not realising that I was not the one who would have a problem with that. Instantly, I was told it was impossible - 'there are nomads,' I was told, nomadic being a byword in many parts of the Arab world. I thought I was done, but someone called the chief of the local police to come, and he rolled up in a 4x4 and, after some confusion and a bit of negotiating over price, he would allow me to go with a guide but without a soldier. The price wound up being $30, which is very expensive, and I think I could have got it down to $20, but it was getting late and I was a bit ecstatic at the idea of accomplishing my mission at all, so I decided to take it.

I'm glad I did, because the site is truly amazing. It's a six kilometre walk from the village, which is quite long, and I realised I'd be walking back at sunset - Mr. Saidi had been right in saying I should wait until the morning. The mountain rises from what is an otherwise flat plane, and it is no mystery that the locals chose it as the place of their mystical paintings. The guide led me up to an alcove, and I was greeted by an amazing site - dozens of figures, of men and of cows and of the moon and stars painted across the wall, in shades of red and black. These, not partial skeletons like Lucy at the Addis Ababa museum, are the true origins of man, the marks of homo sapiens, not merely erectus and habilis but creans and sciens and locutus. These are the beginnings of thought, the first creations of what Aristotle would have called our rational mind, the one that distinguishes us from all the other creatures of the land, air and sea. It is also, in a sense, one of mankind's first stabs at permanence, at immortality: a representation of themselves that would survive the flesh that made it. It is these small, crudely-drawn men, arms raised in worship, that impressed me the most, for they represent the eye turned inward, drawing not what you see but what others might, and leaving it for the sight of others. The artwork is genuinely beautiful in and of itself, but it is this feeling of contact with nascent human thought that is truly awe-inspiring.

The view from here is amazing too, the African plains stretching for miles interrupted only by a few other mountains rising in the distance, islands in a desert sea. It was getting, dark though, and my guide was getting impatient, so we began the long trek back. At one point, we see a man walking down, wearing the usual attire of the nomads - a skirt-like garment around his legs and an AK-47 across his shoulder, and I am glad I didn't go alone. My guide spoke no English and only a little Arabic, and I never could determine whether the nomad was sent by someone to meet us, or might have robbed us given half the chance - my guide seemed tense and would not look him in the eye, though he was a gruff old man who might have talked that way to everyone. A few miles on we encountered a soldier as well, and meeting a series of armed men as darkness encroaches, when you are still a half-hours walk from the nearest settlement, is a bit nerve-wracking. Nevertheless, my guide talked to him a little, not breaking his stride, and we pressed on back to Dhubato.

Although humanity has made great strides since the neolithic era, we remain at the mercy of our fragile bodies, afraid when alone because we could be felled so easily by a club or, now, a bullet. I was reminded of my lack of control in another way, when my body decided, in the middle of the field, that its bowels needed to be emptied immediately. I considered trying to press on, but that could only have ended in disaster, so I gestured to my stomach, looked at my guide and said 'ana marid' - I'm sick. He smiled slightly, but understood, and so there I was, with only a few semi-tall shrubs to use as a bathroom. Unfortunately, this was one of only two or three times during the trip when I had not had the chance to replenish the supply of that most important travel essential, toilet paper, and my choice came down to my photocopy of a Lonely Planet, and the leaves of some mysterious plant. Evolution being what it is, however, the plant's leaves were designed to retain water at all costs in this arid landscape, and I was forced to use the former. Oh well, I wasn't going to Burcao or Sheex anyway.

We made it back to Dhubato, and I didn't even have to hitch a ride - the police commander had a car going back to Hargeisa at 8PM and I could get that, though when we got there they tried to charge me $10, of course. I paid $5, so in the end the entire excursion cost me $40, which isn't bad for a site of Laas Gaal's remoteness and magnificence; I'm very glad I did it, and it was much less than the $170 I had been quoted. My Somali adventures weren't over yet though: there still remained the matter of getting out of the country, a long trek by a rough road to the Djibouti border. I arranged this through the Oriental Hotel, partly because they had already helped me a lot and I hadn't given the any money, and I wasn't even a guessed - I was staying in a the Geed Debre Hotel, which was only 10,000 shillings - $1.60! - a night and therefore far more inside my budget, though if you can spare $15 the Oriental is a great value. So at two the next afternoon, the hotel cook took me down to the meeting point for cars to Djibouti, which I'd been told leave around four - they always drive overnight because in the summer, when temperatures near the coast routinely pass the 40°C mark, daytime driving would be torture. So, this being Africa, we began to wait.

The wait turned out, unsurprisingly, to be five hours long, and the only thing that made it bearable was the semi-narcotic plant that the whole region was addicted to qat. Qat, in addition to being a powerful force on the Scrabble board, is a stimulant, ingested by chewing the leaves and squeezing out the juice. This is an activity that all men (and some women) from Yemen to Ethiopia practice, and when I say all, I mean all: the cities pretty much shut down between noon and four as everyone goes to chew the weed. It's a scourge on productivity, and reading about it, I never understood how a stimulant could lower that, but I do now: for the principle effect of qat is to make nothing bearable. In addition to making your mind more active, it produces a state of mild euphoria, so although my eyes were darting around and there was an edge to my voice, I was never annoyed or frustrated or bored; for five hours, as I sat chewing, everything seemed perfectly fine and I wasn't particularly bothered about when the car would arrive. I had tried it twice before, with no effect, but then I had been in the middle of trips when my mind would have been quite active anyway; it would be like drinking a cup of coffee when you're already very busy, no discernible effect. Waiting, though, normally makes me incredibly impatient, to the point where I hate even putting in the effort to talk to people whose English isn't great, but this time everything was no problem. It saved me on the rough sixteen hours through the mountains and desert to Djibouti too - sleep was impossible because you would be woken up within minutes by your head hitting the ceiling or dashboard, depending on your position. Thanks to qat, though, sleep wasn't a problem, and I arrived without incident the next morning.

Et quelle surprise - Djibouti, c'est vraiment un pays francophone. Ici, c'est pas comme les colonies angliases, où l'anglais et une langue connue seulement par l'élite - ici, tout le monde parle français. Le problème, c'est que mon français et très pauvre, et il y a beaucoup des mots que je ne connais pas ou j'ai oublié, alors c'est très difficile pour moi comprendre les gens - je dois vraiment habiter en France pour apprendre ce langue. Aussi, Djibouti et très, très cher; dans la Ville de Djibouti, un chambre dans un hôtel coût au moins €20! Alors, je suis venu à la petit village Ali Sabieh, presque de la frontière Éthiopienne, et c'est mieux ici. La vie et les prix, c'est plus comme à Somalie ou à l'Éthiopie - mon chambre coût seulement 1500Fr, ou €6. Je veux partir demain, inchallah par bâteau mais peut-être par avion, à Yemen, et après ça ma voyage et finie et je dois travailler, presque certainement à Caïre. Mais pour aujourd'hui je vais rélaxer, boire de la thé et pratiquer mon français avec les Djiboutiens. À bientôt!

Ali Sabieh, Djibouti Dj

In a failed state 17.II.2009 06:16
He wore an AK-47 with a rainbow strap. That's the kind of image you never forget, something straight out of Full Metal Jacket only 30 years later - though, in the Horn of Africa, there are conflicting signs of which decade you're in. He was a guard at a military checkpoint and demanded where I was going; 'Hargeisa' was my response which, if you look at your map, is in Somalia. Somalia: the very word conjures up images of violence and chaos, of beggars and orphans and amputees, of a country-side strewn with landmines and mobs of angry men rampaging down the streets. Somalia, a by-word for anarchy and disorder, the most failed of failed states. Yet, when I look out my hotel window I see none of these things; I see paved, busy streets and market stalls and electronics shops and dozens of other signs of normal daily life; the road here to Hargeisa was strewn with checkpoints, but here there are fewer armed men than in Cairo or Tehran, not to mention Jerusalem. How is this possible? It is because I'm not in Somalia at all, but in Somaliland.

The difference, though seemingly small, is crucial. Somaliland is a breakaway republic in the north of Somalia - it is the part that was once British Somaliland, in contrast to its French counterpart, which became Djibouti, and its Italian counterpart, which is Somalia proper. Somaliland not only has law and order, but parliamentary elections and a functioning (if impoverished) economy; it issues its own visas and prints its own currency, and people are even starting to come back from places like Canada and the United States. Even though there is still the occasional terrorist incident by Somalians seeking to discredit the viability of Somaliland as an independent state: the Ethiopian embassy was bombed last month but (luckily for my friend Jean-Claude, who had no ongoing visas) re-opened today. Nevertheless it's no more dangerous than, say, Tripoli in Lebanon, and the streets are very safe with almost no crime at all, much as in every Muslim country I've visited. Somaliland is a stable, peaceful and democratic state in a region terribly bereft of such places - even Ethiopia, which is Christian and an ally and therefore enjoys a good reputation, is consistently ranked as one of the least politically free countries in Africa. The West should be holding Somaliland up as a sign of hope for the continent, but instead, not a single country recognises it formally, and only Ethiopia maintains any relations at all, through a 'trade office' that serves as a de facto embassy. Why?

There is an unspoken rule at the United Nations, and an explicit one at the African Union: 'don't mess with the borders.' The colonial frontiers, imaginary lines through the jungles or the plains or the sands drawn with no regard for the local people during the so-called 'Scramble for Africa,' are sacrosanct. For the United Nations, it threatens to become a Pandora's box many times greater than the difficulty of recognising, say, Kosovo and not South Ossetia, with thousands of Liberations Fronts and the like suddenly demanding recognition; for the African Union, well, every member has a province somewhere on his own territory that might like to follow in Somaliland's footsteps. So, on the map, this remains, for the foreseeable future, even though for the residents, or for visitors like me, it is anything but.

I think the greatest tragedy for Africa was the arbitrary way in which it was partitioned, and the saddest fact about it is that it cannot be undone: the simple separation of, say, the Lingala from the 'Democratic Republic' of Congo would create not a viable state but merely another frontier with border disputes, and probably another, smaller liberation front within them. As a consequence, the dirtiest word in all such disputes is 'Balkanisation,' which, in some cases, such as Slovenia or Montenegro, has not been terrible at all. I don't know why we remain so averse to the separation of countries, as if our existing list of nations were somehow the natural order of things, rather than what it really is, an attempt to fit complicated realities into the simple, comprehensible construct of the nation-state. We want every place in the world to have a flag, a country code, a dialling number and an Olympic team, so that we can easily organise the world; governments, moreover, want to have a single entity to deal with 'officially,' which is why the utterly hapless Somali 'government' nevertheless receives large amounts of funding and enjoys international recognition, while the Somaliland government, which actually governs, does not.

Somalia is actually the second 'failed state' I've visitied; the first was, of course, Sudan, which does not fit the definition either. Once again, we hear the word 'state' and picture cohesion, but of course it has anything but: Sudan is a successful (though repressive) oil state in its Muslim northeast, which runs two failed client states in the south and Darfur. In fact, in addition to the Somaliland Liaison Office, Addis Ababa's Bole Road boasts an Office of the Government of South Sudan as well, highlighting the plight of that much-less-viable breakaway republic. When we hear about violence in Sudan or Somalia, we take it as a general statement of the characteristics of the country or its people, with little regard for the complexities of the realities on the ground. It's just easier that way; as The Onion reminds us, stereotypes are a real time-saver. But everywhere I've been, the conditions of violence have been more complex, and their territory more circumscribed, than the media had led me to imagine. I've nothing to be afraid of here, except the government forbidding me to visit other cities out of paranoia; but I've been taught to be petrified of being in Somalia or Sudan my whole life.

The most common thing people tell me while I'm here is this: tell people about Somaliland. Although they conceptualise 'Somalia' as including Somalia proper, Somaliland, and parts of Ethiopia, they consider this government (the only viable one) the true one, and hope its reach will spread. It should be a great place for tourism, with its unspoilt Red Sea beaches, its friendly people, and the incredible neolithic paintings and the Las Gaal caves; I highly recommend for anyone who is in Ethiopia to come here at least for a few days, to see the sites and to help this fledgling country. I'm really glad I did so, and not just for the cachet of being one of only a handful of tourists here as I think some do. It really is, at the moment, a part of Africa that isn't geared towards extracting money from foreigners, and a fascinating look at daily life in one of the poorest places in the world.

And that's one thing that has to be remembered: although its roads are paved and full of cars, the country remains extremely poor, and that is far from it's only problem. Although on the map, the border of the region is clear, a man explained it to me like this: 'in Hargeisa, the government has a strong grip, but the further east you go...' and he trailed off, his hand slowly opening until it was clear there was no control at all. Moreover, in this heavily Islamic country, radical Islamism has its place as well, and there's one street near my hotel where the kids throw stones at foreigners - they're all wearing neat white shirts, so I think they are from one of the local Islamic schools. The last time this happened, though, there was instantly a crowd of dozens of people apologising, and a policeman explaining to me that this was a bad part of town - anti-Western feelings are very widespread.

In addition to these serious problems, the country has a lot of little quirks. The first is the money, the Somaliland Shilling, which is a normalcurrency in every respect except the denominations in which it comes: the largest is 500 shillings, which is approximately 16 cents, and when you change even ten dollars you get a brick worth 50,000 shillings and then another ten or fifteen thousand in a wad of bills, which inevitably bulges out of your pocket. The streets where the money-changers work are lined with walls of such stacks that look like small paper fortifications around their stalls. There are also the cars, which are all imported directly from Japan, many of them still carrying the names of companies or even kindergartens in Osaka or Nagoya. This would all be fine if it weren't for the fact that, even though the country drives on the right, Japan drives on the left; as a consequence, every single car has its steering wheel on the wrong side, and I have no idea what possible solution there could be for this. There's also the fact that half the time, when I admit that I'm single, the girls all giggle and someone mentions I need a Somali wife and is only half-joking. And finally, the African paranoia about taking pictures is so great here that photographing anything is met with an instant interrogation or shouts of anger, except for the town's war memorial - a MiG jet from the 1988 civil war with gruesome scenes of suffering painted on the side - which gets you an instant history lesson about the country.

So, I've visited a failed state and it has turned out not to be failed at all, and perhaps better off than Ethiopia and far less repressive than a place like Eritrea, a success story in the Horn of Africa. It's cheap here too, even though the Lonely Planet, with increasing paranoia, lists only hotels at $15 or more and says a military escort is unavoidable, which it isn't. I'm going to spend a few more days here and then head northward to French Somaliland; or rather, the of the Territory of the Afars and the Issa; or rather, as it is now known, Djibouti, which promises to be phenomenally expensive. I would have sent postcards from here, but there is no postal system and everybody uses FedEx, but I did find broadband internet which was quite a shock. And, once again, I'm faced with a dilemma for the end of the piece - should it have a Somali flag, or that of Somaliland. For me, a place that issues its own currency, visas, and license plates, to the total exclusion of those of the country that the United Nations recognises, is as close as it gets to nationhood. I'd have loved to use Somalia's sky-blue pennant as a break from the endless reds, blacks and greens of the Arab-speaking countries but alas, I cannot in good conscience do so, and so this is my post from Somaliland.

Hargeisa, Somaliland Som

Ethiopian cultural blog post 14.II.2009 07:57
In many countries, certain English phrases take root and spread throughout the population to become ubiquitous. In Ethiopia, in addition to the inadvertantly rude greeting 'you!' and the perplexingly incorrect question 'where are you go?', one word that has done so is 'cultural'. Anything even remotely Ethiopian gets pointed out to you. At a restaurant, your fellow patrons will proudly point out that you are eating Ethiopian cultural food, drinking Ethiopian cultural beer, and listening to Ethiopian cultural music - in fact, I have a picture of three adjacent shops all of which are signed 'Ethiopian cultural clothes shop,' with no other name to distinguish them. Ethiopians are proud of their heritage, and have preserved it against western influence better than almost any country I've seen - the youth here embrace more traditional culture than, say, their Tibetan counterparts; the constant repetition of the phrase, however, leaves one yearning for synonyms.

The main problem, though, is with how shallow a concept of culture the visitor is presented. Everyone's description of what they are so proud of in Ethiopia comes down to food, drink, music, language, clothes and dancing - especially dancing, which you will be pressured into trying, and, since its foundation is a fiendishly difficult movement of the shoulders, you will make a fool of yourself. Whenever I've asked about the differences between regions, after the standard religious answer I've often just got a description of the clothes - 'oh, we are in Wollo now; here people wear all white on Sundays,' or a comment about the cuisine. It's not that the culture isn't rich and deep as any other, of course - it is, after all, a millennia-old civilisation - but these things you have to discover for yourself by making the effort to establish deeper, perhaps longer-term connections with the locals.

Except in the cases of a few people I've got to know well, my conversations with English-speaking Ethiopians have been phenomenally shallow and tediously repetitive. They ask you if you've seen Gonder, Aksum, Lalibela and Bahir Dar, and they tell you some simple facts, and a few rote-learned boasts about their country - 85 tribes, 54 (or lately, more) languages, 2000 years of history. When I was there on Timkat, I was told that this was an 'Ethiopian cultural festival' dozens of times, but rarely more than that - only when we spent the day with the priests in Shehedi did we learn more. I thought perhaps it would change in Harar, which is supposed to be radically different from the rest of the country, but it really is the same. It takes a fair bit of foreplay to get the conversation to a level where you're getting information beyond the kind that any even minimally informed tourist would have.

I think, however, that I know the reason for this: most tourists here aren't even minimally informed. They come in their 4x4s and their truck-mounted hotels (seriously: it's called a Rotel, or Rolling Hotel) and keep themselves completely isolated from the culture or its people. Even most independent travellers stick to whatever facts and sights happen to be mentioned in the Lonely Planet - the 'faranji Bible,' as one of the Hararis perceptively called it. Of course, even reading the guidebooks gives more information than most of my conversations have, so it's not a bad start, but I think the middle-aged package tourists, out on 'adventures' with their water packs and massive Hummers are the kind of people the guides are looking for; they'll listen and nod happily along, and go back to England and tell their friends how amazing this tribe is - they wear plates in their lips! Of course, the tribes, not being idiots, play up to these impulses so that more tourists come to visit - a friend of mine who had studied the Dogon in Mali said that everything that used to be part of the culture has been turned into a part of the tourist industry, and several friends have complained of how ostentatious and artificial the Omo valley tribes seem, because the culture on display isn't the true rich and deep one but one rooted entirely in shallow trappings and shibboleths like robes and chants and dishes, at root from the same mentality as Homer Simpson's on his first taste of Indian cinema: 'It's funny! Their clothes are different from my clothes!'

Another interesting, but disparate part of Ethiopian culture, and one which I've never actually heard a native Ethiopian discuss, are the Rastafarians, who believe Emperor Haile Selassie (born Ras Tafari) is an incarnation of God and who have therefore come to his homeland as a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. Ethiopians seem to be partly mystified and partly appalled by this, and no Rastafari immigrant has yet been given Ethiopian citizenship, nor have their children, even if they were born here. The rastas claim they have the right to smoke marijuana legally, and they try to sell you some at every opportunity, with one guy in Addis bothering me constantly and in the end hating me for not buying any. It's strange, though, how isolated they still seem from mainstream Ethiopia, and it's not really a wonder: imagine if suddenly thousands of people started coming from, say, Papua New Guinea, proclaiming Prince Charles to be the messiah come to Earth; a genuine Christian (or monarchist) wouldn't know how to react.

Another aspect that the rastas have brought over the Atlantic is the famous Caribbean homophobia, of which I was somewhat unexpectedly, almost a victim on an Addis street. After six months of travelling my hair has grown pretty long, and although I'd like to cut it I'm reluctant to do so in a country where every single man has curly hair; I should have done it in Cairo. Moreover, I don't really care about dressing in a way that tries oh-so-hard to live up to some ideal of masculinity. So a fairly drunk guy comes up to me on the street and just out of nowhere yells, 'why do you act like a girl? In Ethiopia, you have to act like a man!' which is just the beginning of a fairly long tirade which just left me staring at him bemused. His friend took me aside and apologised, but explained that when I am in another country I need to respect its culture. How did I disrespect it? By not wearing low-slung jeans, having long hair, and generally not trying to look like a gangster. That, to him, was the culture, just the same way as the shallowest of people oppose school uniforms because it would rob them of their individuality, as if that amounted only to what one was wearing. I don't really put much effort into seeming straight or gay and honestly, the stereotypes associated with gay men are generally more positive than those of heterosexuals, but having grown up in Canada I never though I'd be at any kind of risk because some idiot on the street thought I was a faggot. And this was just from seeing me on the street - I can't imagine what he'd have done if he'd known I like poetry and Kylie Minogue.

Though, I've been quite negative about Ethiopian 'culture' here, I don't mean to disparage it, but only the way the locals describe it to outsiders. It is, of course, rich in subtlety, and the art is quite beautiful in addition to being old; one just wishes that the Ethiopians didn't focus so much on trumped-up and dubious claims about their country - the same goes for their government, whose incredibly propagandistic tourist information pamphlets just come across as laughable. Ras Dashen is emphatically not the fourth-highest peak in Africa, and the true Ark of the Covenant isn't behind some curtain at a church in Aksum, guarded by blind men and not allowed to be seen. I've enjoyed some aspects of Ethiopia, but it's been a struggle to see past the greedy guides and the presentation of the country as if everything about it could be captured in a ten-page tourist pamphlet. Now I head for Jijiga, in Ethiopia's Wild East frontier, but after that it's out and away from this interesting, but sometimes frustrating, Ethiopian cultural land.

Harar, Ethiopia Et

The land is the blood 07.II.2009 07:16
Travelling in Ethiopia, you will never cease to be reminded of the country's cultural diversity - '85 languages,' anyone who speaks even a bit of English will tell you, 'more than 90 ethnic groups.' Underlying this, however, is a preoccupation with heritage that's quite prominent in both Africa and the Middle East, a belief that a person's ancestors an define him in a way that is quite at odds with modern Western individualism. I hae mentioned before my Turkish friend Omer from Cairo, who would never be Egyptian despite his family's having lived there for generation; they always marry within the community, and so the blood is kept both pure and separate from the society in which they live, never to be accepted by it. One people learn that I was born in Poland, and that my parents are Polish, I'm never really Canadian to them - my heritage precludes it. Although I've felt this feeling many times before - harrassed by children in Shiraz, I was told, 'they're Afghans, of course' - it had never been put into such sharp focus as it has in the Sudan and Ethiopia.

Since the mid-nineties, Ethiopia has been divided into regions based on ethnicity; there is a region for the Amhara, who have traditionally ruled and whose language is the country's official one, despite not being the most numerous; there is a region for the Oromo, who are the most numerous ethnic group but have never held power; there is a region for the 'Southern Tribal Peoples,' a catch-all for the largely animist or Protestant tribes of southern Ethiopia and who now perform roughly the same role as zoo animals would for passing tourists; and so on for the Tigray, the Afar, the Somali, etc. Of course, the words 'Africa' and 'tribalism' are so closely associated in our minds that there hardly seems need to prove the point, but Ethiopia has delineated tribal divisions so openly that it can't be ignored, and although it offends my liberal Western instincts, I can't decide whether it really is a good policy or not, regional identity being quite strong in the population - though the national unity posters in celebration of the Ethiopian Millennium, proclaiming the brotherhood of all tribes, remind me strongly of China's attempts to proclaim the glory of Tibet (the Autonomous Region) and the artificial creation that is Qinghai province.

In Ethiopia, though, the ethnic identity often mixes with history; the emperors have traditionally been Amhara, as were the communist dissidents who would take Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, imprisno, and kill him, and who would become the monstrous Derg regime which held Ethopia in an iron grip for two decades. They were in turn overthrown by those who make up the current, less (though not un-) oppressive government - but these men were not Amhara, but Tigrayan, and had their roots in the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which ends in the two words so common when reading about political change in Africa. Travelling through the Tigray region after having spent a week and a half in the Amhara one, one can't help but notice that the lights were a bit brighter, the roads smoother, and the power outages rarer, as though, for some unknown reason, a little bit more government funding came to these parts than others. Ethiopians I've talked to seem to be ambivalent about their government - some proclaim that there is no freedom and no work, which is true, but others say Ethiopia is making progress, and are extremely proud that the African Union summit is currently being held here. I couldn't help but notice, though, that the complaints I heard came in the Amhara and Oromo regions - never in the Tigray.

Human identity, though, defines itself most often in terms of whom it excludes and the Habesha, as the Ethiopians call themselves, Amhara and Tigray alike, consider themselves superior to other sub-Saharan Africans, even as they feel a kinship with them. 'The only imperial power in Black Africa,' the information pamphlet on Aksum proudly proclaims, so presumably the rulers of Songhay and Zimbabwe were merely glorified chieftains. Ge'ez, the Ethiopians' native script, is often cited as the only native African writing system, when it is in fact adapted from the Sabaean of Arabia. When you ask Ethiopians what distinguishes their country in Africa, the most common answer is an abstract, spoken as though capitalised - 'Culture' or 'Civilisation.' Moreover, Ethiopia was the only place left uncolonised during the 19th-century 'Scramble for Africa,' a fact of which Ethiopians are extremely proud - despite several years of occupation by Mussolini which have left a simultaneous hatred and reverence for the occupiers' culture typical of post-colonial countries, which is why the country is full of piazzas and macchiatos, and an old man on the street greeted me with buongiorno, as he must have seen his parents do to foreigners when he was young.

Identity works in concentric circles, radiating out from the self into more diffuse and inclusive self-designations until it becomes all-inclusive and therefore meaningless, as light radiates out into the black vaccuum of space until there is nothing in the emptiness to illuminate. First, we identify with our family, then with our ethnicity or clan, then with our country, then with our civilisation (in the Huntingtonian sense), and only then, potentially, with all of humanity, though this is rare if not wholly non-existent. You can see this in the way we stereotype people locally - people from Mississauga are boring suburbanites, people from Queen West are pretentious dicks, etc. - and group unfamiliar people into larger groups - all Muslims are violent. This is because our identity as, say, an Annex resident is defined against other neighbourhoods, and ours as a Westerner against the other worlds that we instictively perceive as homogenous - in fact, we reduce our own civilisation to a kind of homogeneity when we assert our identity as part of it, as I did when I referred to my 'liberal Western instincts' a few paragraphs ago. In Ethiopia, both riven by and united despite divisions into regions and sub-regions and clans, the nature of identity is easily visible. When I was involved in a dispute with several of the 'guides' over their payment, they tried to make me angry, and they thought they had an infallible strategy - 'I thought Canadians were good people,' they said, 'but I see they are greedy, just like Americans.' They simply could not imagine that an insult on my country would not be deeply personal - especially drawing in the country against which Canadians define themselves, showing a bit of astuteness on their part - because a similar comment about Ethiopians would have been very insulting, which is why I took care to contrast their behaviour to others' I'd met. They assume that this instinct prevails in all people - to defend their identity groups in the face of others, and to take generalisations about them as statements about themselves. This is, of course, patriotism, exactly the same kind displayed in so many political speeches, from the United States to Iraq to North Korea, a feeling taken for granted as a virtue by people all over the world.

In my opinion, however, patriotism is one of the worst things in existence. It is the adaptation of tribalism to the age of the city-state, and like its mother philosophy it comes down to this: that when two lives are weighed in the balance, the scale is tipped by considerations of geography. It is the belief that a place is superior simply because you were born there - proved to be my grandmother with her constant assertions that Polish yoghurts and meats are much better than Western ones, and by a policeman in Poland who told my father to 'go back to Canada and your plastic ham!' on being given an Ontario driver's license. It's easy to understand why patriotism exists from an evolutionary perspective - in social animals, gene survive most often with groups as well as with individuals, and groups which helped one another against other groups were more thus more likely to survive. Such behaviour reaches its apotheosis among certain tribes of Papua New Guinea, who kill anyone they encounter unless he is a recognised member of their in-group, but the modern manifestations of this are everywhere. I'm far from free of them myself - I still feel a strong pride whenever Toronto achieves something or is in the news, and I feel the classic tribal feeling when watching the Leafs or TFC, because sports is, of course, war transposed onto the more civilised plane of the ice rink or the football pitch. Nevertheless, I would never work to the detriment of other human beings simply because they did not share my ethnicity, and I am now travelling in a land where this is not just common but assumed as inevitable - as it probably is the world over.

It is certainly the case in the United States, where the prominence of 'American interests,' and the President's serving of them, is taken as a given. This is particularly interesting considering the excitement Barack Obama has inspired among Africans - I've eaten at the Obama Restaurant in Bahir Dar and used the internet at the Obama Business Centre in Mekelle, and Kenya declared the day of his inauguration a national holiday. There are 'Yes We Can' t-shirts everywhere here, bilingual in English and Amharic, and every Ethiopian to whom I've spoken on the subject thinks he's 'a good man' who will definitely be 'good for Africa.' Why? Because he's African - he has African blood. The fact that Obama himself identifies as African-American with a heavy emphasis on the latter does not enter their calculations: he will help Africans more than others because he shares their blood more than others', just as the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, in trying to raise Ethiopia raises Tigray just a little bit more. This is human nature, instinctual and irrevocable, and I have no doubt that even if Barack Obama is a great president he will be a huge disappointment for Africa.

Ultimately, the jins, the Arabic word for tribe, remains one of the primary units of self-identity in Africa, though it is not as bad in Ethiopia as in some places whose 'national identity' exists only in the football stadium. That is why people here have such trouble comprehending the nature of my dual citizenships - they cannot believe that I could betray my blood so wholly and serve that of another nation; I don't serve Canada in any meaningful sense, of course, but that's another issue. Similarly, a nationalist Russian I met in a Beirut hostel insisted on talking to me in his native language, straining my grasp of it to the breaking point, asserting that Westerners, though they acted like my friends, could never really be because they did not have Slavic blood like he and I did. The notion of bloodlines, of fate and nature determined by birthright is inescapable here, and there is quite a strong undercurrent of it even among the secular humanists of the Western world. I hope such a feeling might lessen as the march of civilisation, if it exists, moves forward, but I fear that the survival instincts honed by evolution in the African savannah and beyond, will be insuperable.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Et

In Africa 31.I.2009 07:56
When I was in Cairo, there were a few days when everyone's eyes were fixed on their television screens because al-Ahly, Egypt's premier football team, were playing in the World Club Championship as African champions. Although the vagaries of geography do indeed make this an accurate designation, I can state categorically that Egypt, like all the Arab countries along the Mediterranean coast, is a different world. Geographically speaking, I've been on the continent for over a month, but only a week ago, in the Ethiopian border town of Metema, did I really enter it. The backpackers' refrain here is TIA - 'This Is Africa,' first coined in a movie I believe - used in all the situations in which you have no recourse but to shrug your shoulders or shut your eyes and put up with something that any normal Westerner would consider unthinkable, the mosquitoes, or the bathrooms, or the total absence of the concept of scheduling. I had never had much of an interest in sub-Saharan Africa before I came here, but Libyan visa regulations have brought me here and it's certainly been a fascinating experience.

In Khartoum, I had met Jerry and Peter, who were on a Cairo-to-Cape Town trip, and we soon found ourselves heading as fast as possible towards the border so that we could be in Gonder for Timkat, Ethiopia's national holiday which coincides with the celebration of Epiphany. We did in fact make it across the border in time, but not to Gonder - instead, we wound up in the town of Shehedi, about halfway to our destination, which at first didn't please me one bit but in the end I was quite happy about, because it was a much more authentic Ethiopian experience than any I've gotten so far. We met two priests, who were also teachers at the primary school there, and they showed us around everything and were quite open about the problems they faced - one of them said he hated living in the north (especially the food: more about that later), but the centralised system of job allotment made it impossible for him to teach in his hometown. The school was really cool though, and one kid - my favourite so far - could point to all African countries and all other major ones on the world map, beaming with justified satisfaction.

The other thing that impressed us in Shehedi was our first taste of Ethiopian coffee. I cannot overstate what it feels like, after five months of uninterrupted Nescafe, how good it feels to drink a proper cappuccino - or rather, macchiato, which we've learned was the drink of choice around these parts. We'd been afraid that Ethiopia, despite being a great coffee-growing country, would not be a great coffee-drinking one, but oh were we wrong - and, at 2 birr (20 cents) each, it's almost impossible to say no to another. I can honestly say I've had more than is strictly consistent with a healthy lifestyle. Combine that with draft beer at 3 birr a pint and you've got a recipe for a culture of just sitting down, relaxing and drinking that the Middle East - with the possible exception of Cairo's ahwas - just can't match.

The flip side of the drinks, however, is the food, about which I'm of two minds. The staple - and by staple I mean 'only' - dish around here is injeera, a barley-based bread that has earned the nickname 'towel' for its appearance, consistency, and, to some, taste. I actually rather like it - it's particularly good with tibs, slices of lamb served with the wonderful and ubiquitous Ethiopian spice berbere - but I have to admit it wreaks havoc on the digestive system. Combine a stomach full of that with some of the bumpiest roads in the world and buses for which 'shock absorption' is but a distant dream and you have the recipe for one angry stomach, as my friend Matthias discovered the other day on the twelve (twelve!) hour bus ride from Gonder to Aksum, so much so that he and his girlfriend are flying rather than busing out. I was all right, but I certainly can't describe it as pleasant. Of course, there's nothing you can do - TIA.

Although Ethiopia, unusually in sub-Saharan Africa, has a number of historical attractions, there are two main reasons people come here - the people and the natural beauty. Unfortunately, I have to say that in Ethiopia, my experience with the former has been largely unpleasant. This is particularly hard because many Ethiopians I've interacted with - like, I think, people everywhere - are very welcoming and helpful to guests. Unfortunately, here in the more-touristed north, every city is crawling with 'guides' - English-speaking guys in their late teens or twenties who stick like glue to any faranji (foreigner) who happens to arrive, 'helping' them with anything they might need, cheating them at every opportunity and then demanding outrageous 'service' fees. The Western instinct to be nice, polite and inoffensive is a huge disadvantage when dealing with these people, and I've been involved in several disputes, one of which resulted in around six teenage boys threatening to stab me to death as I slept over 20 birr ($2).

In one incident, a guide (Abebe from Bahir Dar) had a friend come up to my floor while he and I argued over a minibus I hadn't asked for, a friend of his (who I thought was a hotel guest) borrowed my mobile to talk to his brother - I shouldn't have given it to him, but I did, because I was so focused on the argument. Then, while the guide distracted me, the guy simply walked away with my phone. Of course, I figured everything out pretty quickly - it wasn't what you'd call sophisticated - and immediately accused him quite loudly of being a thief and demanded he come with me as the hotel manager led us to the nearest police station. Of course, the police knew him and believed me very quickly, but he still refused to admit his guilt, although at points he was near tears in the face of the 4-6 year jail term he was facing, and he eventually agreed to call the guy (his best friend, turns out) and give me my phone back. (Here, I have to pause a second to extend a big thank you to the staff of the Tana Pension in Bahir Dar, and to the local police department, especially Haile, who is a great guy and helped me quite a lot). What I can't understand is why he went to the police in the first place when I had told him that if he just got my phone back we could forget the whole thing - but all of them have this teenage boy's pride (and lack of foresight) that must cause them no end of problems. That's why two guides and their friends threatened to kill me in Gonder - they felt that spending three minutes leading me to a hotel where my friends were staying (I hadn't asked them to) was worth 20 birr when I had offerred them two. They knew they were cheating me, but just couldn't let go; they had convinced themselves that they were being cheated themselves, claimed that they could make 100 birr in five minutes and didn't need my money (the Bahir Dar guy similarly claimed he could 'buy 20 cell phones any time'), and then proceeded to spend the next four hours following my friends and me around town and giving threatening looks - in which time, by their estimation, the idiots could have made $480. Of course they didn't do anything - the police are everywhere and could absolutely destroy anyone who hurts a tourist - but it was pathetic to watch the display of menace they tried to put on over absolutely nothing. But that's what happens when you see people as mere vehicles of making money, and I've never been treated with less dignity or respect than by Ethiopian guides.

The problem is that in Ethiopia, it's not just the touts and guides - there's a huge culture of begging (and entitlement) pervading the country. Now I understand that the country is extremely poor, but here, every child talks to you in the hopes of gaining money - some as blatantly as opening with the phrase 'give me money!', though others are quite cute about it and have pretty good English. Restaurants here have faranji menus with double prices, and we've had at least five disputes with bars and pool halls over how much we drank or payed. Every thing has to be carefully counted, and every birr argued over, because almost any business owner has no qualms whatsoever about cheating you - minibuses, in the Arab world a haven of scrupulous honesty, were the first place we got scammed here, charged double becaue they thought we didn't know any better. Actually, the guy charged triple, but the bus station owner said we were lucky to get him to give us half back and said arguing further 'just wasn't worth the effort.' They won't even let you take your own bags off the bus - they hand it to someone on the ground beside you who hands it to you, so that they can charge you a service fee, and one of my attempts to avoid this got me a loud lecture on my responsibilities as a bourgeois towards the proletariat (it's still pretty socialist here). I understand all this, of course - in Egypt, I paid baksheesh with much less resentment than many - but here it's so completely all-pervasive, happening at every turn, and also done with such a total lack of respect that I find it maddening. I can't blame them - the desperately poor do desperate things, although the guides have more money than many - but having to be constantly suspicious of everyone, and having to open all new encounters with 'no money, sorry,' is hardly a pleasant experience.

Now, I admit that all Ethiopia is almost certainly not like this, and these experiences are entirely from those parts of the country where package tourists, protected from anything authentically African by Hummers, portable toilets and, in one case, an entire truck-mounted hotel throw money around with no concept of fairness or damage to society at rewarding begging, which even the government here knows is huge - I never give to children because it mostly makes them drop out of school. But the other mitigating factor - the one that makes every TIA moment here and in other countries worthwhile - is the stunning natural beauty. I spent three days trekking in the Simien mountains, and I simply cannot describe, nor convey in photographs, the otherworldly splendour of the landscapes. There is no plateau here, and the highest peaks are so far above the ground that you look down on other mountains, and the paths are so close to sheer cliffs that you feel you may walk off at any moment. I was here with a group of five others: the two guys from Khartoum, Marta and Ingunn, two of their friends who are Scandinavian but actually study in Warsaw, and Jurgen, a pretty eccentric German guy we'd met in Gonder. Everyone in the bunch had a different passport (I'm on my Polish at the moment), and it was a truly European group - between us, we had about six or seven different languages at least a pair of us could speak. The three days we spent trekking were arduous, since it's not really something I'd done before and we'd decided to go hardcore and carry our own packs, but the amazing views, and the ability to come face to face with hundreds of gelada baboons, was absolutely worth it, and I can definitely see why companies use such experiences for 'team-building' - though I think if I'd been forced to do it it would've been absolutely miserable. The group of us parted in Bahir Dar a few days later, and it was really a sad moment for me, even though we'd only known each other for about a week. That's one of the great and difficult things about travelling - you meet and grow close to a lot of amazing people, but at some point your paths always diverge, and you can only stay in touch with some, though I definitely hope these guys will be among them; I've promised I'll visit Marta and Ingunn in Warsaw.

Anyway, those are just a few of the many things I meant to write about Ethiopia - one interesting one I'm just going to throw into the last paragraph here is that of a phenomenon I thought no longer existed: the village idiot. This is a guy, possibly with a mild mental disability, who dances around, yells at people, rolls in mud with a huge goofy grin on his face, and sometimes gets angry for no reason, all for the amusement of onlookers who give him a few birr for his trouble; I think it goes without saying that I felt very uncomfortable in these situations. Now I'm in Aksum, a historically important (though visually unimpressive) town, and steeling myself for four days of bus rides through Lalibela to Addis that I believe my friends Matthias and Kari have decided they're not prepared for. The internet in Ethiopia being what it is - terrible even for Africa, I'm told - photos won't be going up until I'm back in the Arab world, but I'll try to get in a blog post or two. In the meantime, dehna hunu - be well.

Aksum, Ethiopia Et

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