FACES OF ETHIOPIA


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December 11th 2011
Published: December 11th 2011
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FACES OF ETHIOPIA.

My interest in portrait photography started during travels in China and got serious in Tibet. I learnt a lot about sensibilities, effect and results. Not conversant with their languages...other than the odd line that would open doors...I developed a technique that I have used ever since...to encourage the subject to connect with the camera. I have taken photos of people surrepticiously or with consent. You can tell from your photos...portraits taken of someone who does not want to be photographed...they don't come out...not pleasing in the result. Then there are those that just look at you...and those that connect.

I love Ethiopia...the people...the cultures...the amazing history...the music ...the dancing...the vibe. I am conscious of what I must represent as a mizungu...a white man...with a camera...on their turf...not mine.

I unfortunately have that Aussie trait of "a fair go" and "justice for the underdog"... unfortunately...as it sometimes gets me into situations where others may not bother or fear to tread. Sometimes it is for the good...other times...not so sure.

The Ugly Tourist- Part One

We are in Lalibela for Timket...Day 2...time for lunch...pretty knackered.

Ermias gets us a table at a nice hotel in an area of two tables, overlooking the main eating area. There are six of us...four Aussies, Ermias (our guide) and Birara (the shoe-keeper). One of us is minding the table while the rest of us stand around. Another group comes in and commandeers our table...just pile their things on it...unconcerned one of us is sitting there. O.K...we move to the other table...only raising our eyebrows. Ermias goes off to order lunch...conversing with a waiter nearby.

A big white woman gets up from the table next to us...walks up to Ermias and the waiter...and pushes Ermias away and starts yelling at the waiter...demanding he attend at their table. I saw the push...I see Ermias's face twist with surprise...he speaks to her...she pushes, shoves him again...stands in front of him berating the waiter. I look to her companions at the next table...one shrugs...that shrug type smile...one twists his lip...men just sitting there...she really getting stuck into the waiter...seems she objects that the waiter is serving us first.

So I dance over there...up to the woman..."Shhhh"...finger in front of my lip. "Do not push our Guide." She turns...her stride broken..."Don't shhhh me"...her blood pressure rising...like those cartoons where smoke comes out of their ears..."Don't Shhhh me."

So I did it again. She went ballistic...waiter forgotten...me in her sights...mistakenly expecting me to crawl away. After a few "Shhhh"s...no other words required...she gives up on me...starts slinging off at my companions...sitting bemused at her tantrum.

For some reason our table was served first...Dashen for Mike...Bedele for me...tonic for Den & Ros...nice food...ending with coffee...served in small cups, black, strong, clean, one sugar...not muddy...pure Ethiopian.

And the other table...well they had to move...didn't they.? Gutless men led by the woman...like cows with rings in their noses...looking for service elsewhere.

Seeking Rhythm

After dinner that night at the Three Olives, Ermias leaves us to make our own way to our hotel...up the dark, friendly, cobbled streets.

Then I heard it. My body started to move...drawing us to a doorway of a painted shack...that unmistakable sound of music and people having a good time. A young man in dark green shorts and matching shirt both covered with silver studs greets us...inviting us within...others dressed likewise...from a village nearby.

Welcome to a local mead hall...small room actually...benches around the walls...bar down one end...pretty girl approaching us..."Four Meads please"...men finding space for us. Mead comes in three strengths...watery honey alcohol...tastes like burnt orange juice...served in bulbous narrow necked glass...great for dancing. And dancing we did...sometimes with women...and of course the men..!

There is the caller...a gorgeous women in white...calling and grabbing people to dance with her...a male musician with a one stringed guitar played with a bow...weaving his way through the dancers...another gorgeous girl pounding a large drum. She reaches out and takes my hands...leads me into the centre...the others hooting encouragement.

I had danced through Mali...men eager to dance with me...the rhythm of the camel...my footwork appreciated...but the rhythm in Ethiopia is very different...they dance to a different beat...and I couldn't do it. In Ethiopia they roll their shoulders...the rhythm is from the chest...and the legs move from there...the girl showing me...trying to get rhythm...Ethiopian style...like a new language I can't grasp.

Men would dance...usually in pairs...like dance battles...and boy could they dance... and the caller was up with the best of them. Every now and then an observer would place money on the foreheads of the players...in appreciation. We made sure we did likewise.

We had a late night...lost count of the meads...slept well...smile on my face.

The Ugly Tourist- Part two

Timket Day 3 touring Lalibels's Rock-Hewn Churches (see last blog) ...time to go for lunch, same hotel as yesterday...others ahead...me dawdling...enjoying the sunshine at 3,200 metres...walking down the centre of the cobbled expansive street...having a nice time.

Then I saw it. It stopped me in my tracks...I had to double-take...I can't believe what I'm seeing.

There was a white woman with a big camera in the face of a beggar woman...like one inch from the beggar's nose...taking a macro image of her face.

I recognised the beggar...seen her before...a hunch-back...walks bent over double...walking stick in her left hand...right hand held out expecting benevolence...head looking up...with a big camera nearly touching her nose. The woman laughs and comments to a friend behind...the camera swinging up in an arc.

I just stood there transfixed...and then the camera arcs back into the beggar's face...the woman standing over her. I have to say something...this should not be happening...we are guests in this wonderful country...not "ugly tourists".

So I danced over there.

"Excuse me you shouldn't put a camera in someone's face...it's the ultimate insult."

"I have no choice...its only a short lens."

"You shouldn't macro someone's face...its regarded as an insult in this culture." (in any culture actually)

"I have travelled all around the World. I can do what I like. It's none of your business."

I looked into the eyes of the beggar...slits glistening from a face as wrinkled as a prune left in the sun...there was no life in them...only pathetic confusion.

So I left then not to create a scene...as the camera arcs back into her face...the woman moving back a couple of inches...probably for my benefit. All I could say was "I hope you pay her well" as I departed.

I was troubled by this encounter...couldn't get the image out of my mind...even thinking what a great shot her photo must be...whether I will see it one day in National Geographic...then feeling "ghoulish" for thinking that.

Same position for lunch...same table as our encounter with yesterday's "ugly tourist"...reserved for us I am told. Told the others what I had just seen.

Then I saw her. I couldn't believe it...the woman who had been macroing the face of the beggar...sat down at the next table...with a nice American woman that had sought us out for chats throughout Timket.

I had to ask. "By the way how much did you pay the beggar woman you were photographing?"

"Nothing...I don't have to pay for photos...I can do what I like."

I spoke to her companion...asked her to tell her friend she should not put her camera in people's faces...she should stand back.

"I can't say that. I don't even know her."

They moved tables shortly after that...why do I have this effect on people?

Stuff it...someone has to do it. Unacceptable is unacceptable. Respect is a basic concept...not optional depending on the depth of your pockets.

I had difficulty sleeping that night...couldn't get the image of the confused expression of the hunch-back beggar out of my mind...with this woman leaning over her holding a big lens in her face.

Attaining Rhythm

At about 5pm Ermias took us to a more substantial mead hall...a traditional Ethiopian pub. It was only just opening so the caller and guitarist had to be summoned and the drummer had to change into her finery...so we drank mead as we waited...pretty well plastered before they were ready...then we danced...and drank more mead...and danced some more...wow...can that sylph like caller shake her booty.

After dinner at the Three Olives, I stay to pay the bill while the others back to our digs for an early night. As I walk up the cobbled streets I hear that sound...last night in Lalibela...better revisit our local pub...stick my head in...drawn within.

A man grabs a chair for me..."I have been waiting for you...I rang Ermias just then to find out where you were."

"How do you know Ermias?"

"He is my brother...everyone is Ermias's brother."

The caller and the drummer had changed places...different dance coach for this man who has attained enlightenment...now seeking rhythm... dance battles...shaking my booty.

We are now in Konso...just booked the Green Hotel (see my blog Ethiopia...the Beers)...go to a local market...Mike needs some shorts...zipper broken in his...finds a pair made in Ghana that fits...unusual as caste-offs in these markets usually from Western countries. Mike and Ros head back to the 4WD...Den and I lagging behind.

And then we heard it. Den approaches a window of a large shed...peeking in...then around the front...Konsos in orange crowding around...a woman takes Den's hand and leads her within. It was like a public or church hall...benches in rows crammed with locals...watching football on T.V...a mead bar down the front...Ethiopian dance music blaring out...a couple of dancers competing with the TV...so we had to join in...shaking our booty while others lined up to join in.
What's this at the door...boogieing down the aisle...its Ros...grin as big as can be...Mike dancing behind. "We heard some mizungus were dancing down the road...we knew it had to be you guys...so we had to join you."

Word had spread...some "dancing mizungus" ...entertaining the crowds...so many trying to dance with us...me concerned for those who prefer the TV.

We are in Addis Ababa...last night in Ethiopia...our plane back to Oz leaving at midnight...Mike & Ros to head off to trek in the Simien Mountains..then to the Danakil Depression...our amazing Mali & Ethiopia adventure together...ending...boo hoo hoo.

So Ermias takes us to an Habeesha Cultural show...front row as always...food...pure Ethiopian.
There was a traditional band...and six dancers...three men...three gorgeous women...bringing my Ethiopian dance education to a new level...rhythm from the chest and shoulders...footwork frenetic and fabulous...beer and wine flowing.

So we had to join in...they bringing each of us separately on stage...crowd hooting.

Nearly time to leave for the Airport...Den on stage...I hesitate...I'm going for it...walk up and onto the stage...walk to the prettiest dancer sitting watching...take her hand...rotating my shoulders...rhythm from my chest...legs pumping...going for it...crowd calling for encore...time to go...what a fabulous way to finish up...after all these years...I have attained rhythm...and its Ethiopian style.

We had met Mike & Ros for 3 days in the icy walled city of Pingyao in North Central China four years before...partied to 3 a.m...kept in touch...invited them to join us for the Festival au Desert in Mali...continued through Ethiopia...their introduction to Africa...the perfect travel companions...friends for life...thanks guys.

Prologue

And back in Oz...Den & I go dancing once a month...best Blues guitarist in Sydney...and I am known as Dancing Dave to the band...and do I dance..?

You bet I do...and young women approach me every time...shouldn't happen to someone my age...I don't mind though...after all...I now have rhythm...Ethiopian style..!

Relax & Enjoy,

Dancing Dave

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ERMIASERMIAS
ERMIAS

Footprints Ethiopia...our guide


11th December 2011

Who's the Ugliest of them all?
Oh Dave, your pictures mesmorize me as always, such a storyteller, and haven't we all encountered (but few of us will go toe to toe with) the "ugly tourist'. I'm glad you got away with balls in tact.
13th December 2011

THANK YOU ANDREA
Thank you for taking the time to comment...on both the story & the pics...stories that had to be told...pics I had kept for this blog...add to the portraits in my other Ethiopia blogs...Ethiopia is portrait paradise. Keep safe...looking forward to your next destination.
13th December 2011

Daredevil Dancer
Ah, Dave, I love your courage--choosing the prettiest one to dance with, getting up in front of everyone to dance even when you think you don't have the rhythm, capturing the essence of people on film (I can't even do that with friends), and speaking the truth to the unconscious. I'm sure Dancing Dave stories will long be told in Lalibela.
15th December 2011

THANKS TARA
Glad you connected to my rhythm...appreciate you taking the time to comment...keep safe.
13th December 2011

Beautifully narrated story :)
Dave, your story about the beggar woman brought tears to my eyes. This is one of the biggest problems in the world today, a total lack of respect for others. Many of us travel the world, treating those we meet as our equal or even elevating their status above ours when we are made privy to and gain an understanding of what they have to endure every day just to survive. Then comes ugly tourist woman who, in a moment of idiocy, destroys everything that people like us travellers have tried so hard to do in an attempt to build bridges between people of different colours, creeds and cultures. All I can say is that I admire your level headed attitude and sensitive approach to the situation, if it had of been me, several expletives would have flown. I pray every day for just a little more love, respect and tolerance in this world. Is it really too much to ask for? Maybe it is for ugly tourist woman!
13th December 2011

THANK YOU NICK
Your empathy for others is a wonderful trait...I had to tell the stories of the ugly tourists...yet difficult to find a blog to tell them without being a downer...both ugly tourists were equal in my book...but the photos & that I have found rhythm after all these years made it worthwhile. Thanks again for taking the time to comment...cheers the heart.
14th December 2011
HAMAR

A penny for his thoughts...
what a spectacular photo...what is he thinking?
14th December 2011
KARO

eyes are the window of the soul...
with those looks he could grace any fashion magazine's front cover & leave the rest for dead! i love the mostly direct gazes of the African people - they seem to be devoid of selfconsciousness , unaffected so refereshing!
3rd February 2012

Ugly Tourist
Howdy Dave, I'm a ferenj from South Africa who has spent much of the last 5 years in ET and have had my fair share of run-ins with this type...got my own back on one in Lalibela market by lending my camera to one of my habesha guwadegnas who followed the B...around taking snaps of her....amazing how p....off she got when she was on the other side of the lens.....but I think the penny finally dropped......when my friend offered her 2 birr if she could take another another picture. Great story and really great photos.
3rd February 2012

THANKS DEREK C
Wonderful comment...thanks for that...I'll know what to do in future...hope never to be in that position again though...but if I am...I'll have to take a picture...if I can overcome disgust or indignation. Your method does add a lighter side to counter the Ugly Tourist...I like it..!
9th September 2012
KARO

Congratulations!
This photograph was chosen as a Top Ten image in the Celebrate African Children Project photographic competition!
9th April 2016
TIMKET

wow
thanks for share
9th April 2016
TIMKET

Wow
Thank you Vikash. Ethiopia is a wonderfully diverse country with many friendly faces.

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