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Published: January 19th 2012
Sinking into his chair, Haptu, a corpulent Chinese buddha looking Ethiopian, lifts his steaming cup of tea and smiles broadly. “What we do is go look at those people”. Haptu smelled opportunity. In Ethiopia, tourists follow the highland ‘historic circuit’ to Gondor, Axum, and Lalibela or go south to see the tribes of the Southern Peoples. Western Ethiopia, bereft of historical-mythical ties to Christianity, ancient architecture, or people with plates in their lips, has, so far, largely escaped attention. However, outside of Gambela, near the Sudanese border, there are villages inhabited by traditional tribes, the Anuak and the Nuer. We were going to look at them. Haptu’s company, Vast Ethiopia Tours (http://www.vastethiopiatours.com), would blaze the tourist trail west, but first, he needed to assemble the A-team. (cue music:
Nico, Jeff, and I were selected for the mission due to our exemplary whiteness. As ferenjis, we were tasked with identifying what ferenjis like. In addition, Haptu carefully selected Ethiopians from his groupie posse: Freddy Afro, a self-promoting hipster from Addis whose mouth seemed compelled to relate every thought that entered his head, and Beti, aka Grim-ass, who not only shared an unfortunate shapely resemblance to the McDonald’s character, but also
highlighted this fact with stretchy iridescent plum pants. These two would protect Haptu from the cultural challenges of dealing with three ferenjis and Ethiopian lowlanders. Lastly, Addisu, steely eyed and silent, would steer this ship of fools west.
The highway from the sordid megalopolis of Addis toward the equally unremarkable city of Jimma is spectacular. The highland plateau slopes into densely tree covered rolling hills and shady coffee plantations. Tiny villages of mud and corrugated tin sit nestled amongst family plots of glossy leaved coffee trees, their branches heavy with bright red berries. In front of the shanties, wooden platforms covered with black or red coffee beans dry in the hot sun. In Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, ninety percent of the coffee is still grown by small farmers, but only Lamu, the State industrial coffee plantation, does tours. Tourists need tours, so to Lamu we must go.
At the plantation, everything is done by hand: beans are picked, washed, sorted, dried, graded, and packaged. Most of this benefits the West’s insatiable thirst for coffee. Of the 6-700 quintals (1 quintal = 100kg) produced annually, only 20%, the low grade beans unsuitable for the export market, stays in
Ethiopia. The rest is exported as ‘rural-poverty-guaranteed, organic, shade grown, Ethiopian’ coffee for $15+/kilo. In 2010/11 coffee, Ethiopia’s top export earning commodity, accounted for 841.7 million dollars. Back on the plantation, the 300 seasonal laborers earn 13 birr a day, about 60 cents US; a bitter cup to swallow.
In addition to coffee, tourists also like nature. Although there is plenty out the window, we needed some that required getting out of the minibus. Luckily, a guidebook-approved waterfall just past the nondescript town of Metu would fulfill the nature quota. Turning off the highway, a wretched rutted road leads to a squalid village, where half the villagers wait to offer their ‘guide’ services. One of these drives off the swarming children and leads us across a vacant market and through the countryside until reaching 'park head quarters'. Here, a man waits in a shack armed with the unquestionable authority conferred by a book of generic receipts.
Such interactions with local 'authority’ are always well orchestrated dramas. Everyone must play a prescribed part, acting in turn, shocked, outraged, and then finally, relieved and grateful. Histrionic gesticulating, pointing, hand wringing, and emphatic displaying of the receipt book is usually required.
Nico and I have resident cards, which despite seals from the Foreign Ministry, are flatly dismissed, then scrutinized, questioned, and begrudgingly accepted. In the next act, the 'official' guide appears, who we must take . . . no should . . . can . . . ok . . . not necessary. Finally, having fulfilled our necessary roles, a probably not completely random ‘entrance fee’ is paid, a receipt produced, hands shaken, god invoked, and we can proceed down the trail.
At first dimly heard, the dull roaring of the waterfall slowly grows. Turning from the main path, a track where there has been a half assed effort to fashion stairs from the mud and undergrowth leads down a steep muddy slope. At the bottom, we stand in the rain storm of the falls’ spray for a few minutes before trudging back up the mud slide significantly wetter. At the top of the waterfall, it is much drier and rainbows arc in the mist. A tour keeper.
Back on the main highway, the road steeply switchbacks down to the lowlands and the savannah flatlands of far western Ethiopia. Here, the highway meets the Baro, a lazy brown river
that flows through Gambela and then out into Sudan to join the Nile in Khartoum. That night, we camp in a road construction crew camp where black smoke billows from a nearby tire fire blotting out the stars.
The villages of the Anuak and the Nuer tribes are close by. Both are upper Nilotic people (i.e. of the Nile river), tall, thin, angular, and purple black. Though many of their traditional beliefs and ways of life are threatened by missionaries, the military, and ‘modernity’, they cling precariously to their traditional ways of being: the Anuak are farmers; the Nuer are pastoralists. Consequently, they don’t like each other. And when their traditional lands get in the way of the Ethiopian government’s big business of leasing land to the Chinese and Indians so they can feed their populations, the Ethiopian government doesn’t like either of them. Tourism, however, could save the day. Tourists love ‘exotic’ people, vestiges of the ‘primitive’ past, encounters with the authentic ‘other’. Thankfully, the Nuer practice ritual scarification. Scar them and they will come.
Salivating at the untold future tourist riches, Haptu looks up triumphantly from the pile of injera and shiro wat (chick pea sauce)
and declares gleefully, “Tomorrow, after we see these people, what we do is buy a goat and eat it”!
The next morning, a local guide from Gambela takes us to the villages. Both are hot, dry, and comprised of picturesquely ‘primitive’ clusters of conical thatched roofed mud huts. Swarms of barely clothed children escort us through the villages. Although strangely empty of men, the women are busy making beer, smoking tobacco, selling each other fish and vegetables and generally going about the daily business of trying to stay out of the sun. They, like the laborers at the coffee plantation, cannot fathom what we are doing there, but tolerate the intrusion. We stare at them. They stare at us. Haptu, Freddy Afro, and Grim-Ass, unused to the weight of stares and the clouds of children, are uncomfortable. The ferenjis revel in their discomfort as this is the daily stuff of a ferenji’s life.
Having successfully gawked at the ‘exotic’ people and bought a few baubles, we begin the long drive back to Addis. True to his word, that evening we drive into a bustling market, igniting the familiar ferenji frenzy. A goat is found, bought, lashed to the
roof, driven to yet another road construction crew camp, killed, and butchered. Haptu scoops the last of the goat chunks into the oil in the skillet, the bottom fifth of a 50 gallon drum, sitting over the blazing fire. He adds some onion and wine and stirs it a bit with a long wooden spoon. Looking up over the vat of sizzling meat, he smiles contentedly. “This is gonna be a good tour.”
(Disclaimer: This is entirely meant to be an endorsement of Vast Ethiopia Tours http://www.vastethiopiatours.com/Gambella.html and the package ‘Tour to Gambela, Coffee and Culture’).
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