The African Toll Roads: Buses, Trains & Bajajs Part I

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Africa » Ethiopia » Harari Region » Harar
February 9th 2010
Published: February 9th 2010
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A little Harrari girl approached the five of us and to each one spoke the following: “Fish have no legs. Donkeys have four legs. Cows have four legs. And antelope have two horns. Now give me birr!” Her factual data and explicit demand caused me to think about the reasons of travel. We travel to absorb, to broaden the mind and expand our human consciousness. We move to progress, one hopes, in a forward direction, evolving with new skill sets and creative tools. We explore to simply discover the blossoms of unknown territories in mind, body and spirit.

All these are our hopes, what we dream for in the essence of travel. The faerie tale of imagination arrives with blue skies and dazzling African sunsets. It’s angelic for a moment, and then in the next it suddenly drops that burning ball upon your head, setting the whole damn scene ablaze. The hellish places a traveler ends up and the conniving spirits he meets help create the spectrum of an evolving consciousness. Here in Africa, this whole process is called The African Toll Roads, where all paths lead somewhere and often to lands undesirable.

Dark and early, our 4AM pick-up arrived on time to deliver our scrambling flock of pigeons to Selam Buses located on the southern edges of Addis Ababa. We were awake and animated, wound up like a Jack ‘n the Box with thoughts of adventure beyond the city of The New Flower. Three million people with diesel and congestion and gulches oozing scents of death, the countryside was our destination. By 5AM we were nestled in our seats; engines alight, the city smog disappearing.

An easy 10 hours thru rolling chat hills brought Lily, Ivy, Alazar, Henry and me to the far eastern corner of Ethiopia to the great walled city of Harrar. It was the afternoon and the sun shone amidst spotty clouds. As we disembarked, a kind young man calling himself Dawit appeared.

“Welcome to Harrar,” he said in soft English.

Harrar is history. Today it is an independent city-state within the Federal Republic and once was crowned the largest market in the Horn of Africa, uniting Indian, Middle Eastern and African merchants. It is unique. It welcomes literary and exploratory persons like the late French poet Arthur Rimbaud and British explorer Richard Burton. And its’ one square-kilometer interior is a maze of some 400 alleyways that hides 82 mosques contained within a 16th century wall. Besides, the nightly ritual involving the feeding of the local hyenas raises hairs.

We smiled at Dawit and at the wall towering before us. “Come,” he said. “I will show you your hotel.”

Settled behind the thick five-meter high barrier, we made camp in a traditional Adare guesthouse. Dawit naturally was hired as our guide. He was 17 ½ years young. Calm, quiet, spoke only when asked questions or had something of historical importance. “I go to Addis Ababa University in September and study Tourism. In one year,” he relayed, “I will have my license and be a guide all over Ethiopia. I want to travel and see my country.” With his kind, mild-natured mannerisms, it was hard not to accept Dawit into our adventure. “So 6PM I come and get you. Then, we walk to the hyenas.”

Questions gushed from our thoughts: How many will there be? Why do they come? How long has the ritual been occurring? Are they aggressive? Have travelers ever been mauled? Dawit informed us, but promised we had to wait and see.

The Night of the Dogs

Radiance rose from the horizon, encircling a glow of fleeting shadows. Appearing peacefully, but with assertive force, it lit a background of silhouettes. Wiry branches hung over us like timid ravens, and with each passing minute, colors transformed from yellows to creams to a crisp white as it climbed higher with patience. Eerie in the African night, the hyena feasting would be broadcasted below clear skies clutching a full moon.

Yussouf sat on his rock in the foreground, cradling a plastic jug full of sega (meat). He gave out a shout, then whistled, followed by more shouts as he called the individual names. We waited, watched with skepticism, curious among the unresolved facts. In the past, tourists and locals have been attacked. Hyenas live by their stomachs, and when stomachs talk, the animals feed at will.

In the distance an outline stirred. It approached cautiously, then quickly, before halting in dim light. Like a statue from the Serengeti, the spotted hyena was massive, resembling a common Great Dane but with muscles to flex, shortened hind beef-legs and an elongated neck as thick as a tree stump. Its’ eyes glowed green in the dark.

“That’s a female,” a white man said beside us. His name was Marcus and he was from Eastern Australia.

“Are you traveling?” I asked.

“No, actually. I’m on research.”

“Researching what?” Our attentions turned from the wild dog.

“Hyenas and their interactions with humans. I’ve been here for four months and have at least eight left.”

The five of us, including Dawit, listened closely as the first female and then the next approached from out of darkness. “Muslims have a special connection with hyenas. It’s believed they scare away gini (or evil spirits). To be a Muslim and to be attacked by a hyena is often not a bad thing, that is, if you survive with all your limbs.”

Marcus continued as we each stared at the beasts. They were huge and approximately 40 lived within the area, and only 15-20 feed each night. They lived in a forest around three kilometers from Harrar and you could tell their age by the presence of spots: the older one gets, the fewer spots it retains.

Yussouf, one of the few remaining feeders in Harrar, stabbed a piece of raw cow meat on the end of a 12-inch stick and held it out to the night. Slowly, the larger of the two drew nearer before snagging the flesh between its jaws. He knew each animal by name, and they each knew him. Yussouf fed them from this stick in his hand, from the stick in his mouth, from behind his back and to the sides and even teased them, provoking the hyenas to jump or draw close enough to stroke their meaty necks.

“Spotted hyenas don’t exist outside Sub-Saharan Africa and their numbers are declining as farmers widen their fences and protect their livestock.”

“How long do they live?” I posed.

“Well, in the wild maybe only 10-12 years.” Marcus paused as we each took turns feeding them with sticks: Ivy, Alazar and me with a stick in our hands; Lily with the stick in her mouth.

“But here in Harrar,” he added, “They can live anywhere from 17-23 years.”

Ferenji Feast

The following day we wound our way through the labyrinth of alleys. Dawit led us from site to site; exploring the six different gates, reaching Rimbaud’s palace, Ras Tafari’s honeymoon shrine, Ras Makonnen’s dingy abode, as well as Sheikh Abadir’s tomb who was one of the city’s greatest Islamic scholars.

Ferenji, ferenji!” we heard.

Everywhere, we were accosted. “Foreigner, foreigner,” they shouted. Kids, babies, parents, elders, beggars, people, and I swear even the donkeys. Wherever we went we had a following with humanity asking for money, food, our water and clothes. They wanted to show us around, lead us in this direction, take us here, show us there. They expected payment for the finger pointing. Exhaustion was the effect. It wiped us out, sent our eyes to the ground and our emotions soaring above and out of the walls. Eventually it caught up to us.

As we were resting in the main square of Feres Magala drawing a crowd as if we had fainted, a man grabbed Dawit by the neck and hauled him across the street to a barred courtyard.

“Where’s Dawit going?” Ivy asked.

Henry shrugged his shoulders. “Dawit looked back and frowned, but said nothing.”

Shortly, Ivy was at the gate holding her three-year old Ethiopian son Alazar whom she adopted over a year ago. “Why did you take our friend?”

“He has no ID card. He can’t be a guide. It is illegal in Harrar.” The man stood out of uniform before the local police yard. Two soldiers flanked his sides wielding AK-47s.

Now these police obviously don’t know much about Jewish culture. Ivy was raised strict Orthodox. Her facial features resemble it. Her gestures and speech are heavily accented. “Dawit is our friend,” she stated. “We’re taking him to lunch because we came here from Addis to visit Dawit, not have him as our guide.”

“No. Impossible,” the policeman demanded. “Dawit and others can’t walk with tourists without ID card as guide.”

“Because the color of our skin?” Lily was appalled. “Because we’re white, and he’s black… you’re saying we can’t be friends?”

“Yes, this is true.”

“Haven’t you heard of evolution?” she retorted.

Ivy chewed him and then she chewed him some more. Next she unleashed Alazar from her arms to retrieve Dawit while she continued chewing. Now, Alazar is habesha (he’s native Ethiopian—a.k.a. black). Due to Ivy and Alazar’s relationship we drew more attention then imaginable. So, as Alazar slipped by the guards and ran towards Dawit, Ivy chewed and spit out the policeman like a fly caught in the grill. Then she pointed to Alazar. “See, he is our FRIEND! Alazar, my three year old, knows this.”

At this stage Alazar was pulling on Dawit’s arm to come while guards pushed back the crowds with the butt of their rifles. We were drawing that attention, and the policeman wasn’t pleased. There was little choice as the Jewishness in Ivy persisted (I say this as a generalization and a stereotype of the Jewish individuals I know. Determined, confident and fully driven, this personality trait is a force of strength).

The Chat of Society

As the ferenji with the habesha son, along with the case of Dawit’s arrest and immediate release, might have been the chat of Harrar, the little shrubbery so well known in these parts was the real chat of the town. Some said the best Ethiopian chat came from the fields outside Harrar. Others said the north was where the sweetest and most pleasant chat existed. But it was no question within an Ethiopian’s mind that a rebellious goat near Harrar was the first to discover chat’s intoxicating effects.

Chat was everywhere, and everywhere were men shipping, moving, hustling, purchasing and chewing the bitter leaf. As we happened upon the miasmic little chat market outside the walls of Harrar we bumped into two well-versed youths.

“Ya man, you wanta chew the chat man. C’mon, ‘tis the Sunday, the day of the chat, and I invite you as friends.”

They looked ridiculous in their baggy clothes. They acted ridiculous with their melodramatic slurred speeches. Ridiculously crazed men whom chewed chat 24 hours a day, 7 days a week surrounded them. And one of their names was ridiculous.

“No. Just looking.”

“But no man, we chew chat. We have nice place to chew together.” He was pushy. “Don’t pussy out man. My name is Fajaja.”

Most of our group was not in the mood, yet others were certain. Fajaja and his Rasta-wannabe friend Dawit ended up escorting us with a bag of chat. What first matured into a chilled out rest within the cool confines of a local’s home transformed into two hours of chat, hookah and coffee ceremony until we were finally slapped with a slip of paper from the one and only Fajaja. “Read this ‘an pay man. Peace be with you, brotha.”

It was a bill. And they were asking for 250 birr.

Prior to this surprise, we questioned the two what they did in Harrar. “We’re hustlers, ya know.” Huge false smiles spread across their chat-full cheeks. “We make money however we can.”

Great. Good company.

“Now you pay and don’t be stupid,” they replied as we read the paper and tossed it to the ground.

“Ah no. We’re leaving. Chow!” Ivy brought out her best Jewish and before long there was an argument brewing. “You invited us as friends! And there was no indication we had to pay! And now you want 250! And you still call us friends! You don’t cheat friends like that!”

“Ya,” Fajaja puffed, “But the money is power, so pay up!”

“Yeah, and guess what buddy; we’ve got the money.”

Harrar was left with a bitter taste, one of chat and money-pinchers and beggars from the varying social ranks pulling at your limbs. In a society whose export was equal to an annual income of roughly $17.8 million in chat, it was no wonder the capital of this shrubbery brought the people to their knees pleading for help: Anything else to ease the pain will suffuse, after the ephemeral afternoon under the spell of chat wore off.

Tired, exhausted—we departed Harrar onward to Dire Dawa giving our little friend Dawit the best wishes. He said one thing before we paid him and that was this: “Some say Harrar is The Paradise of Donkeys. True there are many donkeys, but one can look at it from many ways.”

Fish have no legs. Donkeys have four legs. And antelope have two horns. Now give me birr! We were about to find out how many legs we had as The African Toll Roads continued to other tracks.

This blog will soon be discontinued. Cultural photographs and travel writing will continue at a new website which can be found at Travels thru E. Africa will proceed for six months as we connect with various individuals and organizations to document the change and progress occurring within the region. For more photographs, please visit:

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10th February 2010

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Wow Cameron and Lil-what an experience heh? I love reading your stories Cameron....I feel like I am there walking beside you both as I read.......very colorful words and lovely pictures! Thanks you so much for sharing your travels with us!

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