The Swiss man on Banda Island said we would encounter a landscape like that of his home.
The European theme continued as the driver played Abba on his tape deck, putting a strange spin on the film of children waving, which played through the car window.
King Dom helpfully pointed out that if we got on a bus one in ten of the passengers was likely to be a murderer. Other than genocide, Rwanda is known for its gorillas and we did not have the budget for them, so it was with a wariness of seeing everything with ghoulish hue that we entered Kigali.
Somewhere between the border and the hotel Stuart’s second camera went walkabout – hence the lack of photos.
The city spread over the surrounding hills, a hotchpotch of mostly new construction linked by wide tarmaced roads, the likes of which we had not seen since Tripoli. It was even greener than Tripoli, although in Kigali’s case the green came from papyrus, banana and other trees and bushes that lined the roads, not patriotic fervour.
And as odd as it may have been for such a picturesque city, it was the Kigali Memorial Centre that it was known for. It tracked the run up to, and the results of, the genocide graphically and effectively. In 100 days more than 1,000,000 people were murdered for their ethnicity, which was actually more based on a class system created by Belgian colonials. It was valuable to learn about the events but we do not want this to be the focus of our description of Rwanda. If you want to know more about it we recommend that you visit www.kigalimemorialcentre.org.
However, when we ate great Italian food in Papyrus, listened to good jazz in Republica and pulled shapes in Planet, images from the Memorial Centre lingered. There were moments of forgetting but those simple questions we wanted to ask in order to make standard conversation with locals in our stilted French sounded loaded. For ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘What is your name?’ read ‘Which tribe are you?’
Between the hilltops, clustered with red-roofed buildings which looked distinctly Mediterranean from a distance, were papyrus swamps and huge swathes of banana palms. People left the wide boulevards, patrolled by bent-back women with grass brooms, onto dirt tracks to their homes. As a whole, the city just seemed better organised than other capitals we had visited. When we got on the back of a bodaboda in the city, not only did they have crash helmets, they insisted that the passenger wore one, and in some cases made sure it was properly done up. What caused this difference is difficult to speculate about.
The four-hour bus journey sharing Bombay mix with an Indian gentlemen working for the UN in DRC validated Rwanda’s pseudonym, Pays des Mille Collines (Land of a Thousand Hills).
We passed through some of the most tenderly beautiful country either of us had ever seen. Steep, terraced hills and valleys cupping lakes of tea of a green so potent, as if every leaf were a perfect little prism. Then there were the banana palms heaving with lascivious deep bruise-purple flowers and the little villages of cottages with terracotta tile roofs, tucked away in the jungle with their front gardens bright with flowers.
We took our time ambling down to Lake Kivu along the Rwandan Riviera. The imposing buildings looked down onto the sandy beach and the calm waters, then onto the double horizon of the ironically named, Democratic Republic of Congo with its two ominous mountain chains, those in the background as light as clouds but impossibly massive. They spoke of a mysterious and fearsome country of cannibals and diamond cartels, and what was, in the eighties, the world’s largest consumer of Champagne.
The road from Gisenyi was terrible and the minibus was useless so we spent eight hours in a state of mild agony covering a distance of 86km (52 miles).
The town was in two parts – that on the top of the hill was a generic, dusty collection of brightly painted shacks selling staples and Chinese tat. At the base of the hill stood the mainly church-funded hotels, which looked out onto Lake Kivu and the outcrops of jungle that cut into it.
Riding pillion on a motorbike taxi, heavy with our luggage between the driver’s legs we coasted down the high hill with the engine off. It was the perfect way to see Lake Kivu sparkle in the early evening.
Our hotel offered us the first salad since Uganda and the evening’s excitement was a wet dog on the beach putting its stink on Stuart’s hands.
In the morning we scrabbled down a track between the tumbledown houses and their prerequisite wide-eyed children holding the younger siblings up against their hips and on to the bus station.
The exotically named Cyangugu was on the road to the unfortunately named Bugarama.
Our hotel was next to the DRC border post on a small bridge across the water. Toby asked the man in the shed-sized office how much it would cost to cross over for the afternoon. ‘You cannot take photographs’ he replied without eye contact. ‘But how much will it cost?’ ‘It is impossible’ he replied. Presumably this was the point at which some monetary persuasion was expected but it hardly seemed worth the effort. It was probably the vain part of bravado tempting us over the bridge anyway.
In an attempt to change some dollars we came across a building with ‘Bureau de Change’ in large red letters above the door. Inside sat a group of women going through sacks of dried beans, giggling at our confusion.
The next morning we were bundled into a minibus by wily teenagers who spoke their French with a devil may care drawl. The individual who joked about the beggar leaning against his home made crutch, who was pleading with us for money, was wearing women’s Nike trainers.
The bus to Butare took us through an extraordinary forest, home to a large number of chimpanzees.
Either side of the road was thick with ferns and creepers and vast old trees stretching out for miles that became, in the distance, a uniform swathe of dark green with the contours of a ruffled tablecloth.
The limited amount of time we had in the town of Butare perhaps unfairly gave us the impression of yet another unpaved, dust bowl on the way to somewhere else, which for us would be Burundi the following morning.
A boy in the town who showed us around in exchange for our email addresses took us to a bureau de change. We were taken down an alley where an ancient man was sewing with an ancient Singer. We were introduced to a Muslim lady who gave us a good rate but managed to make the whole thing seem quite sordid.
On our walk back to the town centre our guide told us that his mother was a Burundian and that he regularly visited her in Bujumbura, the capital. When asked his opinion on the place he replied, ‘Rwanda is more nice because the security is one hundred per cent’. On one hand, Nairobi was painted for us as an anarchic hellhole and it turned out to be fine. On the other, it was only a few weeks ago that the Hutu rebels signed a peace agreement in Bujumbura. We researched the place as best we could, but there was still a very big element of the unknown which we were both avoiding talking about in the hope that our motivation was not the bad Congo bravado.
It was a relatively simple process getting into Burundi except for the fact we were only allowed three days at the border and were told we would have to get an extension in Bujumbura.
As it was already Saturday afternoon and we were a few hours from ‘Buj’ we had a matter of hours to get our visas extended or find transport to Tanzania. In the end we left it and got the extension.
The waves of the children we had seen in Rwanda were inverted to calls for alms. Did they expect us to stop the public bus in order to give them money? Burundi was clearly far poorer than Rwanda, partly because its political situation was far less stable. Rebel groups have only recently signed the ceasefire so were not long ago still wreaking havoc in large parts of the country, including those we were travelling through and on the outskirts of Buj.
As we passed through one of the countless valleys we were confronted by a large swathe of land divided up into small allotments which were being worked by entire families. Up the next hill a brook poured from the mountainside next to the road. Women sat with the fruits and vegetables which were being continually splashed with water, glistening appealingly in the harsh sunlight.
We were welcomed into the city by the painted concrete remnants of a monument on a roundabout. Along the sides of the long road into the city were unkempt shacks with their living room, kitchen and bar as the street corner. It was a distilled version of what we had seen in so many other scenes of urban poverty. However, the context here was different. Underneath it all there was a decent infrastructure.
As we got off the bus a man speaking crazed French asked us if we needed help getting to our hotel. He tried to get into a taxi with us. We passed through the alien streets. It was hard to put a finger on what exactly the place was and it was unsettling. The Hotel le Doyen was built during the Belgian occupation and it seemed as if the management were expecting them back. Nothing had been changed by any hand but time’s. Great leaves of paint had heaved themselves from the concrete. The bakelite phone in reception was coloured like bone by sunlight, its cord to the wall long since frayed and disconnected. The board of lights which once, in more affluent days, had lit up to alert staff to the whims of guests who needed lobster and champagne at four in the morning, now lay on its side, covered in dust.
Upon moaning about the lack of hot water Toby was granted access to the bathroom of the Presidential suite. In the squat football stadium which it looked over, a second division match took place with enthusiastic support. It sounded eerie from inside the vaulted bathroom with its cracked bath.
Buj market was like a Victorian circus with horribly deformed babies on display and their mothers begging beside them. The only thing human in the massive misshapen head of one toddler was her scared little eyes.
Inside there was a vast maze of stalls in a building like an aircraft hanger. Many stalls sold second-hand clothes shipped from the First World in tight bundles and exchanged with ferocious haggling. It was a good opportunity for us to smarten ourselves up a bit, the hand washing and harsh sun leaving much of our clothing in a state.
The food was very tasty – the chips and mayonnaise were Belgian and the legendary one litre brown bottle with the simple white stamp of the Primus beer, washed them down nicely.
On the shores of Lake Tanganyika sat several bars where we could eat. At one a local wedding was taking place for someone evidently quite important. We were privileged enough to hear and see the tribal drumming performance put on for the wedding party’s benefit. Five toddler tall drums topped with animal skins were beaten with crude wooden sticks with an accompaniment of rhythmic chants and yelps. The rhythms were very complex and contained a perfect mix of the unexpected and intuition, making a whole that was trance inducing.
Further down the beach was a classy colonial club named Cirque Nautique, which had beautiful views of the lake and the DRC. However, it did suffer from the irritation of mosquitoes and the incessant ribbiting of randy frogs.
This was incongruous with the huge BINUB (United Nations Integrated Office in Burundi) base – floodlit and encircled with barbed wire and right next to the beach where people were gallivanting about on the sand.
We made friends with a couple of Congolese who took us to infamous Bwazaria bar on the edge of the city. It definitely had an edgier feel to it but even the drunks arguing with their prostitutes were very courteous. The music clearly catered for a hard-core African crowd, the galloping rhythms were a challenge to dance to and the DJ refused our requests.
It was by talking to one of the hotel staff that we got to learn more about the Hutu / Tutsi conflict which afflicts Burundi as it does Rwanda. We had read the Burundian approach to the problem is to discuss it openly, whereas in Rwanda discussing ethnicity is frowned upon. He highlighted the ludicrousness of the situation. Many years ago the Tutsi came south to Burundi with many cattle and because of this were rich. The native Hutu would then end up working for a Tutsi. When the colonials came they decided that everyone should have ID cards, identifying them as either Hutu or Tutsi. With many years of cross breeding they decided the best way to do this was to check the number of cattle owned by each person. This of course meant that it was not done along racial lines really but more class lines because of course some ancestral Hutus then owned many cattle and vice versa. The colonials then essentially used these Tutsi to be the ruling elite, which laid the seeds of resentment that grew into war and genocide. There are certain stereotypes that are supposed to distinguish the two groups. Tutsi are supposed to be tall, slim and have long noses. Hutus short, squat, with flat noses. The ridiculousness of the system was clearly demonstrated by the staff member who was Tutsi and pointing at his flat know said ‘I must be a Hutu’.
Our last view of Burundi was the bus ride to the border with Tanzania at Manyovu. We saw fishing villages against the lake edge, their waters filled with old wooden boats. Coconut palm plantations stretched for miles. There was a general sense of there being a lot to offer amongst the squalor.
Manyovu was grim. As we bartered with a taxi driver to take us the last few miles to the border post we were given an audience of twenty or so, all craning their necks, goggle-eyed. There was clearly not much going on.
We drove through the tall eucalyptus forests on the pot-holed road, dotted with lone figures carrying wood upon their heads. We passed fenced enclaves and squat military posts. With a cloudy sky overhead it all looked very unpromising. These were the Burundian refugees chucked out of Tanzania after the declaration of peace. Tanzania claims they are crossing the border and sacking Tanzanian villages. The Burundians say that they are still unsafe in Burundi. A border official asked us to change money with him, at a very unfavourable rate. We asked the bus driver who would take us to the next town in Tanzania if we could pay him upon entry and he said it would be fine. The border official did his best to disrupt the situation for us. Fixed smiles, loud voices and just getting on the bus did the trick. It was one of the most uncomfortable rides in Africa thus far, quite an achievement. In the small Toyota minibus designed for fourteen passengers there were twenty and two clinging onto the outside. People had to get out as we went up hill. We came to Kigoma in a bad mood.
Monday, 8 September 2008
Sunday, 17 August 2008
Bus ride from Nairobi to Kampala
We made the decision to upgrade our tickets from ‘executive’ to ‘royal’ for a fiver, which was relatively luxurious with the semi-paved roads and everything very Britishly punctual.
The hiccup came at the border where an official, whose bulbous chin followed the movements of his head unenthusiastically, stamped our three month visas and wrote on them in biro, informing us that we could stay in Uganda for two weeks. When asked why, he replied that we needed to go to the immigration office in Kampala. He seemed a little confused between cause and consequence.
From the smeared bus windows we noticed the mobile phone adverts dominating the street scenes as if they were rival political parties. We were told about the alleged backhanders government officials in Kenya received from Vodaphone’s Safaricom network. The African elite are buying into these companies in a big way. Almost everyone has a mobile: Africans like to talk. Now it is possible to move money using mobile phones. Credit can be sent from one phone to another and the credit can then be exchanged for cash. Most people do not have bank accounts and many live out of easy reach of a bank. People can get their wages by phone and can send money to their families. The mobile’s power is also being tapped into by the politicians who spend vast sums of money sending voice and SMS messages to voters. These are the same voters who can be mobilised into a riot in a matter of hours in the same way.
18/06/08 – 22/06/08
We came into the city in style: riding pillion on bodabodas – a taxi motorbike.
Enterprising Ugandans taking advantage of Kampala’s bizarre road system, the heart of which is a minibus park which crawled, beeping, up the hill into town and from town into the country. The motorbike ruled the gridlocked city; on the wrong side of the road, on the pavement, over potholes, in front of buses. Before even making the commitment to cross the road, engaging with Kampala’s traffic is an extreme act. Animals, men pushing / pulling huge carts and wheelbarrows, pedestrians with preposterous loads balanced on their heads (handbags and wheelie luggage being some of the most curious looking, but by no means the largest), motorbikes, minibuses, coaches and lorries all push each other around the pavement and road.
When we stopped to ask a man for directions he confirmed the wild generalisation made of Ugandans – very friendly. He phoned his friend because he did not know the place we were talking about and negotiated a good price for us with a bodaboda.
The metropolitan skyline of Nairobi was pared down in Kampala. There were still the high rise buildings but not on the same scale and they are mainly 70’s dinosaurs. Many of the streets were in a state of disrepair, but somehow it had the air of somewhere less foreign. Perhaps it is because the violence against Ugandans at the hands of Idi Amin was far enough in the past (as opposed to the continuing post-election violence of Kenya). We spent one morning with a Swede on a wild goose chase, searching for an underground train station built by Amin, which never saw a train; it may have been a myth.
We stayed in a Lonely Planet recommendation, the Red Chilli Hideaway - annoying accents, high-tech trousers and boring stories about the ‘ultimate’ experience and getting an ‘amazing’ price and having an ‘incredible’ time that is far from credible, and the privileged NGO oiks with little real desire to understand the world - before relocating ourselves to the centre of town where they don’t triple the cost that everything should be.
During an evening we went to one of Kampala’s more salubrious night clubs: Ange Noir. We paid the extra pound for the privilege of going to the VIP area. The UV light was not kind to the shirts we were wearing. We had washed them ourselves and evidently not done a particularly good job. The dance floor was slightly lowered and enclosed by a metal rail upon which extras from a budget hip hop video nodded in agreement.
Kenyan and Ethiopian dancing had been risqué but this looked like a tribal fertility dance. On the TV screens around the club they played Ultimate Fighting footage. The VIP veneer was cracked only by the prostitute who clearly had some horrendous story to tell, poorly masked by a fixed grin and a series of robotic chat up lines. What was striking was that she was another Ugandan to have the very specific speech impediment that we had noticed elsewhere. ‘L’ as ‘W’ as in ‘Pwese buy me drink’. We were told later by a man called Livingston that there is an eastern Ugandan tribe without the letter ‘L’. It was reminiscent of Good Morning Vietnam.
We were lucky enough to meet Yunasi again, at Kampala’s first international music festival, which they were headlining in the absence of the Congolese superstar Papa Wemba. The performers throughout the evening were all fairly unmemorable, some plaintive acoustic guitar sing-alongs about saving the world, an awkward fashion show and so on. Before Yunasi came onto the stage, there was only one stand out group who somehow fused frantic African dance music with prog-rock breaks. There was a theme of bizarre abstraction – the speeches they gave and their onstage demeanours were learnt and strangely accentuated in a panto fashion and were as such, very entertaining.
The relatively small crowd had been unresponsive other than a lone Rasta on a tricycle riding in circles, tooting his bicycle pump-operated fog horn. Yunasi had everyone by the stage and dancing in no time. They were so obviously happy and charismatic it was very easy to get carried along by them. During their performance they invited audience members to come onstage for a dance-off. One of the group rushed into the crowd and pulled Toby onstage to partake in a well-intentioned act of ritual humiliation in order to confirm the muzungu’s inability to ‘shake their booty’. The winner was chosen by the cheers of the crowd. Toby came in a very respectable second. It was mainly a sympathy vote but the Rasta was so impressed he offered to dreadlock Toby’s hair.
‘Backstage’ or more accurately, behind some scaffolding we congratulated them on their performance.
We spent our days exploring Kampala’s sweaty crevices. As it is perched upon several hills the rewards of walking downhill are always short lived, but as they are topped with strange Bahai and Jain temples it makes a reasonable skyline.
After passing through a vegetable market towards a ticking hum we came upon the haberdashers. They sat upon a stage-like platform in rows under the high shade of corrugated iron. Around them lay women on piles of material, scraps and rolls. Everything looked perfectly enough placed for one of them to burst into song and for them to jump onto their Singers and dance in synchrony.
We ate lunch in a one table café looking out onto the hat sellers. Mashed plantain (matoke) was earthy, like swede and tangy, like banana and it sat in the stomach like concrete, which is an advantage when you do not know when your next meal is coming.
23/06/08 – 24/06/08
Four hours on the bus from Kampala brought us to the science-fiction inspired Fort Portal in the west of the country.
Unfortunately it did not offer other worlds, an air conditioned supermarket would have been enough, rather it was the same mess of shops displaying the precisely painted names of rival mobile phone companies as any homogenous Ugandan or Kenyan town does.
In Fort Portal we met the pastor who ran the campsite we planned to visit. He drove us down to Lake Nkuruba Community campsite on the same grounds as the orphanage that it funded, on the lip of Lake Nkuruba. We were told by a friend that it was infected with bilharzias so we did not swim, but sitting on the rocks on its shore in the early evening as the monkeys shook the branches of the thick jungle all around and the light gently played on the undersides of the leaves of an avocado tree was a salve to city sores. The Colobus monkeys seemed unthreatened by our presence and cast surly glances down at us as we competed skimming stones across the glassy surface of the lake with two boys who had come there to watch. Thirteen was the record.
The following day we took a walk with Livingstone, a staff member from the campsite down to a waterfall. We took to the road at the same time of the morning that children from all around were making their way to school. Livingstone’s insistence that one particular group who followed us for quite some distance would be late if they continued to follow at our pace was not heeded. They seemed willing to suffer a clip round the ear in order for the opportunity to listen to our mysterious monotone mumblings.
We passed through a hilly landscape interspersed with sheer sided lakes all covered by lush jungle. Its green all the more green with the flamboyant flowers and birds dotting it. We came to a banana plantation and strolled past the neatly kept villages without views of the horizon, just endless banana palms. We took a Livingstonian ‘power shower’ under the waterfall with butterflies like bright leaves in a playful wind and vines creeping down from the past in the crisp, wet air. We chafed our way back to the campsite to be served beer, and food with too much salt in it.
30/06/08 – 2/07/08
We stayed in safari tents, ate good food, were warned about feeding the warthogs and the dangers of hippos in the night, blah blah blah.
That was the less inspiring side of Murchison Falls in the north of the country. The prospect of spending three days with fellow tortoises did not appeal greatly but we were lucky enough to be sharing our time with a group of Austrians on their way to their friends wedding (to a Ugandan) and a Brit working in a school outside Kampala.
So, the good bit: standing in the open-topped minibus speeding along the dirt track, stopping to watch the seemingly carefully arranged zoo animals. As we passed other vehicles our driver swapped animal knowledge with the other drivers in Lugandan and so we came upon a family of elephants which was striking, but not an image as indelible as seeing them from the boat. We also saw many other animals although the park’s lions eluded us.
Our boat chugged up the Nile to a few metres away from the point of impact between Murchison Falls and its river, while the captain chatted on his mobile. Three metre crocodiles basked open mouthed in the sun of the dry banks, all heaped on top of each other and very un-lifelike. Lumbering hippos, mysterious and powerful with eyes, ears and nostrils protruding from the water announced their presence with a fine spray of water into the air. When they heaved themselves up through the reeds and onto the riverbank to swing their heads at the grass like a blunt hoe, they became at once flabby and preposterous, making it far easier to imagine them enacting their hierarchical ritual of spraying their own excrement onto the heads of those hippos of greater import. A press cutting at the campsite warned of the dangers of Africa’s deadliest animal, showing a man being chased down the road like Buster Keaton by one at full pelt.
Then we saw a family of elephants drinking at the water’s edge. Two bulls, one cow, two calves and one immature male mucked around like they were on holiday. The dominant male was impossibly regal. All his features were individually ludicrous but together handsome and dignified. In this setting, perched between the bars of the moving blue of the Victoria Nile and the living green of the lilies, papyrus, then wet meadowland and into dense jungle then out into the serene yellows of the grasslands - they looked like a royal family.
Return to Kampala
We returned to Kampala to make our way to Banda Island on Lake Victoria, south of Kampala and to go to the Austrian bride’s hen party.
During the journey the British lady on the bus told us about the circumcision gangs that roam Kampala, carrying out the act they believe should have been done in childhood, forcibly and on the street. This was either the product of a very twisted imagination or terrifying.
We met the Austrian hen party in Fat Boyz in a classier part of town and were assigned, by the bridesmaids we met in Murchison, the task of putting a vase of flowers and poster in the men’s toilets. The poster instructed those who washed their hands that Patricia in the photo was to be married and they should give her one of the flowers.
Her table had been drinking shots like Eastern Europeans and they were beginning to show the sexual decorum of builders, whooping with excitement as a stream of mock-suitors handed the bride-to-be flowers. The Austrian sing-alongs were good and rousing but the African animal charades were perhaps a little too European. At the end of the evening the mother of the bride invited us to the wedding.
This was the first opportunity we had to put on our ties and a clear case of mother knows best. The general sense of ludicrousness as we took a bodaboda to the Papaya Palm was heightened by the fact that we were both wearing worn out jeans, trainers, blue shirt and blue tie, purely because these were the smart clothes we both happened to pack. Luckily it was a very laissez-faire affair. The Austrian traffic planner / musician with the Thundercats symbol tattooed on his calf filmed us as we stood like lemons, with a grin on his face. Men were wearing earrings and undone waistcoats on top of t-shirts and women in trousers. It was all very progressive.
After two hours they gave up waiting for many of the Ugandan guests to turn up and the procession walked to the steps of the garden to the sound of a Scottish girl playing the violin and a Ugandan man playing the piano. The priest ranted fire and brimstone about divorce, then it was time to eat. The Ugandans piled vast portions on their plates and everyone nattered away.
Next were the speeches which were tearful and did not go on too long. One of the bridesmaids told a fairy story which stole the show. The father of the bride’s speech focused upon a bowl he made from the wood of a tree by a river in Austria. The DJ’s attempts to find a musical compromise for his audience resulted in a bizarre mix of Mozart, The Birdie Song (which is Austrian apparently), 70’s disco and frantic East African dance music, but everyone danced like they should, with the bride’s newly adopted daughters demanding piggybacks from the guests. We were invited to paint on a communal canvas for the happy couple and given blank postcards to make designs on and send on specific dates throughout the year. It was good to get the opportunity to sit with the father of the bride and be in the presence of someone with such a pure sense of pride. What united the Austrian and Ugandan cultures was their unsuppressible sense of hospitality and it all worked to act as a definite end of a chapter in our travels. Tomorrow we would be on Banda Island and it was hard to imagine what we would find there.
14/07/08 – 17/07/08
Maybe King Dom was a sexist, sadistic racist. It was difficult to know what was real on Banda Island.
It was difficult to know where fantasy ended and the truth began with the habitual recreational drug-using, semi-alcoholic ‘Keenyan’. As he held court at the ritualistic concrete slab table looking out onto his beach and the vast expanse of Lake Victoria beyond he made wild and terrifying claims about his childhood with his own personal African army, his years as a Benedictine monk, being a scab during the Thatcherite miner strikes and smuggling diamonds from Congo.
A friend had lived on Banda Island and recommended that we visit the place, and gave us Dom’s number. It was sold to us like Garland’s Beach.
When Dom’s carpenter misunderstood his instructions on how to cut the Congolese hardwood to construct a boat, Dom told us that he was going to break all the man’s fingers. If he did, it was after we left. It is clear there was something amiss as we found out that apparently he runs an orphanage (but he does not like to tell people about that).
Banda is one of the Sesse Islands dotted around a lake that is a third of the UK in size. There was a child-like glee in the fact that he clearly had what he wanted – he was living in a castle he had built, on a tropical island he owned.
Part of the kitchen garden was a pineapple plantation set up by Dom’s Minister for Internal Affairs – a slightly too skinny German with photosensitive glasses that always remained slightly too dark. His logic produced fruit that made the mouth wet itself uncontrollably. Dom’s other resident was a Swiss alcoholic who sneaked off with bottles of ‘Bananarama’: a banana based hooch, the alcohol content of which was demonstrated to us by setting it alight and it producing a purplish flame which, apparently, meant it was just about safe. When the Swiss man blinked he tended to re-open his eyes a little too wide. He was one of many old, lonely ex-pats who enter into a second spring before their final winter, and fall energetically in love with an African teenager who is definitely different from all the rest.
We came to the island from the frantic, stinking port of Kasenyi where we were hoisted onto the shoulders of men who waded out into the water and dumped us into a fifteen metre wooden boat full of people and produce which chugged through the water with the babies crying.
We arrived on the island at dark to the sight of a dramatic bonfire on the beach where Dom and his dogs sat waiting for us. We handed over the supplies he asked us to get in Kampala and we sat down to eat with the British couple who took the trip with us and were the island’s only other guests. Throughout our stay we ate like foreign dignitaries at court. It was hard to imagine how Dom’s enterprise was sustainable as it was so cheap. Dom had brilliant stories to tell and without Dom’s presence the Swiss man’s story-telling would have been far more impressive. He told us about the renegade monkey with a drink habit who terrorised guests on a neighbouring island. His descriptions of his attempts to kill it with a giant catapult were made all the more enthralling by his curious grammar.
As we stood in the clear waters (which Dom told us at a later date were probably bilharzias infected) there was nothing to do but watch an army helicopter circle overhead. Apparently they were looking for the Norwegian sunbathers who were there a few weeks ago. We were told that the islands are fairly lawless. There are two policemen on Kalangalabut, their stationing there is penance for them as there are only two grotty nightclubs to choose from and for many Ugandans the water does not act as a lure, as many cannot swim. This includes the majority of the fishermen. They spend their days staring down the end of a beer bottle.
During the night a motorway of lights appeared, made up of hundreds of small boats attracting flying insects with lights. The insects then fell into the water and attracted fish which could be scooped up with fishing nets. Dom claimed this ‘environmental rape’ did not occur within his waters because he threw explosives at their boats from his shore.
Sailing away from the island the ‘Keenyan’, German, Swede and the dogs and their six or seven staff in the distance, milling about the kitchen, looked like a dysfunctional family.
We took the bus back to Kampala and the following morning got on a coach for Kabale in the South-West near the border with Rwanda.
After five monotonous hours on a bus it was a case of find some food then jump on the back of a bicycle taxi to our hotel.
18/07/08 – 19/07/08
The following morning we hired a bodaboda and its driver for the day.
Luckily our driver was on his holidays from studying tourism and his bike was just about powerful enough to carry our combined weight up the hills. He was a good guide and repeated verbatim his textbook spiel on Lake Bunyoni. There was the Punishment Island where unfaithful women were left to starve to death (which looked to be only a few hundred metres away from the shore). There was the bamboo forest where the Pygmies hide. There were caves in which blacksmiths forge pangas (machetes). There was a village of renowned witchdoctors frequented by the Ugandan elite.
The lush, steep sides of the lake were terraced and its islands’ plucky hills were invariably topped with a disproportionately large church further adding to the air of gentle fiction.
Our driver stopped a small man without shoes, wearing a sun bleached suit several sizes too large for him who was herding goats across the road. ‘He is Pygmy’ our driver announced and the Pygmy smiled enthusiastically. Pygmies are the original tribe of large parts of East Africa but are a generally subjugated people. They are often a minority and their practices (living in the forest, tribal dances, refusal to plant crops, hunting for meat) often earn them contempt.
That afternoon we took the short shared taxi ride to the Rwandan border where we filled in yet more useless trivia about ourselves and took another shared taxi to the Rwandan capital – Kigali.
Monday, 7 July 2008
Nairobi, Naivasha and Hells Gate National Park
3/6/2008 – 19/6/2008
Architectural wigs and an ominous air
First impressions of Nairobi were of a modern and Western metropolis, beggarless and lined with the first litterbins we’d seen since we went through France. Well-heeled businessmen and women hurriedly marched about in marginally out-of-date suits. The notable differences were; far more aggressive driving, louder voices, the occasional traditional dress - vibrantly coloured with over-sized patterns, and the proliferation of highly implausible but eye-catching, architectural wigs on the heads of women. As the sun set it became far more rowdy. Below our hotel room we could see street children glue-sniffing and staggering into a heap in an alley to a night chorus of hundreds of car alarms. The streets felt edgy, whether this is because we were expecting them to be dangerous (thanks to the many warnings about ‘Nairobbery’ from fellow tortoises) or because they genuinely were is impossible to tell.
As we had an ex-pat friend in Nairobi (Tom) and he was kind enough to help us out, we ended up spending much of our time within this community. The world in which they, and therefore we occupied was in many ways dissociated from the black Nairobi and surreally Western. What united the ex-pats and the black Nairobians was their disgust with and their propensity to talk about politics.
We were told that over 22.5% of the country’s GDP is spent on the running of the government.
Before meeting Tom we were staying downtown in the ironically named ‘Secure Rest Lodge’ which is probably where Stuart’s camera was stolen from (hence the inauthentic photos of South Ethiopia and most of Kenya). While we stayed in this part of the city a student was shot by indiscriminate police gunfire. We only knew when reading the papers the next day. A similar experience was relayed to us by many Nairobians regarding the post-election violence. It was felt that the Western media’s portrayal of events gave the impression of something not only citywide, but engulfing the whole country, and this had irreparably damaged the country’s tourist trade. We met seemingly lost tour guides who offered their services to us free of charge as part of government initiative to change the country’s image. Tourism accounts for 54% of Kenya’s GDP.
One evening Tom, our man in Nairobi, took us to a very exclusive country club. We made our way past the stuffed lions to the billiards room to play snooker with the political attaché to the British High Commission. As he was introduced to Toby, Toby was not entirely prepared for the jolly good, ‘rah!’ hand throttling. He stared down at the awkwardly embracing hands and looked up with raised eyebrows, holding Toby’s eye, then Stuart’s, probably looking as he does when he is in hostage negotiation situations.
The owner of the country club went to L.S.E. with Mugabe. After we sat in the bar and discussed African politics with the political attaché, specifically the state of Zimbabwe and how they should scrap their currency in favour of the South African Rand (as inflation has become so ludicrous – a loaf of bread costs 1 billion Zimbabwean Dollars at the time of writing and only three years ago three zeros were knocked off the currency). As we talked an old gent tutted and cupped his ears to hear the BBC better, he had said he had come for his lunch and it was then around nine in the evening.
While staying downtown, we wanted to find out if the guard which we had put up was valid. We had heard our fair share of horror stories so we cautiously braved a bar near our hotel. After one beer in Zanze Bar we could take the staring no longer and yomped back. The staring was mainly out of surprise at seeing two mwzungus (Swahili for ‘white man’ but better translated as ‘man with no smell’). What was off-putting was, not knowing whether they were surprised because we were very likely to be robbed and therefore either mad or stupid, or just because the bars in the area were not frequented by mwzungus because they had been told horror stories by other mwzungus.
We took a trip to Hell’s Gate National Park with Tom and Charles and their families. The excitement began as evil and organised baboons stole the bread as we picnicked. Next we walked through the high-walled gorge, the enthusiastic charisma of the children was infectious as we helped them clamber through the more difficult parts. We came to hot springs and washed off the mud. Chinese geothermal engineers in brightly coloured boiler suits chain-smoked ahead of us. When we caught up with them they grabbed one of the children to take photos of one another with her. It was hard work prizing her away, but the engineers seemed very pleased with themselves and helped lift the other children up a ledge as their parents caught up. We drove around the park leaning out of the top of the land rover engulfed in the flow of pillow warm air, trailing a cloud of red dust behind us.
The families left Hell’s Gate to get to work and school the next day while we stayed in the luxury of Camp Carnellys, just outside Naivasha. The showers were the best so far in Africa (they were outdoors but felt like take a bath) and they served delicious crayfish. The campsite stretched out onto Lake Naivasha, rimed by a squat electric fence to keep the hippos out.
The following day we hired bikes and returned to Hell’s Gate. We were lucky enough to come face to face (so to speak) with many Maasai giraffes as we cycled through. They were beautifully serene as they took the time to eye us down, and all at once, like a puppet operated by a mad puppeteer, they took flight. We were also lucky enough not to get gored by a buffalo that charged at us while we ate our lunch. It thought better of it and ran into the bushes. On the return trip the sun was low and the air was cool so the park was far busier with animals, but not tourists. Zebras, Maasai ostriches, Thompson gazelle, bushbuck, Kirk’s dikdik, common duiker, Grant’s gazelle, white bearded gnu, Coke’s hartebeest, iimpala, klipspringer, Bohor reedbuck, Chanler’s mountain reedbuck, steinbok, defassa waterbuck stretched out for miles. Well, that’s probably what we saw. We definitely saw ostrich, gazelle and the bizarre rock hyrax – it looked something like a large rat and apparently it is the elephant’s closest living relative and it has the ability to secrete a substance from its feet which allows it to climb rocks at improbable gradients. Besides all the safari one-upmanship, gliding silently along the road with gazelles darting across in the near distance with tens of buffalo following us with a shared gaze was an indelible image. The otherworldly nature of the place was compounded by the high cliffs that made it feel as though we had sneaked into an enclosure.
The following day we took a matatu (the small Toyota minibuses called ‘taxis’ in Ethiopia) to Charles’ house. Our bus driver was an unlikeable eccentric. He kept a photo of himself wearing aviator sunglasses in the sun visor above where he sat and tried to extort money from us in exchange for the directions to get to Charles’s.
Charles’s family had owned the farm on and off for over a hundred years and he was born there to English parents. His beautiful house looked out across a bright garden onto the turkey pens and grassland on which his cattle grazed. He was suffering after the post-election violence regarding the disputed triumph of Mwai Kibaki over Raila Odinga because it had destroyed the country’s tourist trade and resorts were his main clients. We saw evidence in Naivasha where a large IDP camp had been setup in an attempt to protect the migrant workers who come to work on the flower plantations. However, this camp was so poorly located that hardly anyone had ever gone there. It was strange to see the reality of these workers and the strange thought that many of the flowers they were picking were destined for Britain.
We took Charles’ huge dogs to walk around the grounds, respectfully greeted by the families of those who worked on the farm. For dinner we ate a beautifully prepared meal in a very English style. As we waited for it to be cooked Charles showed us some of his father’s photographs, which he took while serving as the commissioner responsible for most of south and west Sudan. He was clearly a great photographer and it was a real privilege to peek into a lost world of men with gramophones shooting lions, and pet cheetahs sat in front of typewriters.
Having a maid come to clear the plates at the ring of a silver bell after dining was alien. Undoubtedly if one were to grow up with it, it would be different. Speaking to different ex-pats on the subject there seemed to be a consistent theme – I need their help and they need some money. If I was not paying them to cook or clean or look after the children or act as a gardener or driver or watchman, they would be working harder for less money doing something else with less job security.
One night when we were having a drink with Tom we were introduced to manager of Kenya’s number one band – Yunasi. Simon or ‘E.P’. – ‘El Presidente’, as he was known by the band, was kind enough to offer us a place to stay and we headed to the nicer part of Nairobi after helping Charles carry some frozen turkeys to an old people’s home.
Simon’s house was also very impressive, built by an eccentric Indian architect who placed verandas, light switches, bathrooms and a secret passage behind the bookcase in seemingly random places. Sitting on the veranda during the evening watching his jungle of a garden alive with movement and sound was therapeutic.
We were taken to a local bar after doing a day of work and drank too much before dinner with an interesting set of characters with different perspectives and filmic stories of Kenya.
The following day Simon lent us his car and Matisu the driver and we took a day out or a ‘jolly’ as people seemed to refer to it. We visited the elephant sanctuary and ‘Giraffe Manor’ then continued up to the house for which Simon had made a bridge, crossing over the wide gorge. It was owned by an eccentric old artiste who had constructed herself a mad house stretching along the escarpment, made up of Gaudi-like buildings with strange turrets. Unfortunately the rope bridge was occupied by a party of forty of so people who were crossing painfully slowly so we had to head back to help prepare for a barbeque. Compensation came in being allowed to drive the Land Rover off road on the way back.
At the barbeque that evening we met with a big group of Simon and his wife Katie’s friends and Yunasi themselves. They invited us to come and see them perform in Kampala, where we heading anyway. Toby from the band was delighted to meet a fellow Toby and even happier to hear that he played guitar. When it got late and most people had left they began to sing. They had amazing voices and beautiful harmonies punctuated by high ‘yiyiyiyi’s, low ‘ommmmm’s, sharp ‘shhhhhh’s and soft ‘hhhhhhrrrrr’s. The garden was full of wildlife, and with the background sounds of bush babies, bats and crickets it felt as if we were in the Masai Mara.
After the luxury of ex-pat Kenya, and with little understanding of wider Kenya we headed on the bus for Kampala, leaving from a bus stop that could have been in the CBD of any major Western city in mid-summer.
Sunday, 29 June 2008
Addis – Awassa (9 hours - minibus)
22/5/08 – 25/5/08
A town ruled by scab-faced storks
We dined at Lewi’s, which by the looks of the fleet of white land cruisers in the car park was the favoured haunt of the NGOs. Their menu was wildly ambitious and their food tasted good but it seemed as if there had been some misunderstandings between the reading of a recipe and the production of the dish itself, which was a little embarrassing when being introduced to the chef. Beer battered fish was fish inside a doughnut and beef with spinach and cheese was deep-fried beef Wellington.
The town sat on the shore of the beautiful Lake Awassa stretching out for miles of perfect stillness, with hardly a boat on it, only reeds, mountains and birds. Walking along the path that followed its lip was Bill Oddie’s wet dream. As non-ornithologists all we knew was that the waders, kingfishers and raptors were, typically of Africans, far more flamboyant than their British counterparts.
Walking back into the town we passed a fish restaurant where the cooks and customers squatted under a tarpaulin set up at the waters edge. Outside stood a guard of huge and hideous storks that looked like Terry Gilliam monsters and lumbered unwillingly out of our way as we passed up onto the road.
Awasa-Arba Minch (9 hours – big bus)
26/5/2008 – 27/5/2008
Avoiding the crocodile market
We found the decision to charge double for farangis to stay at the aptly titled ‘Tourist Hotel’ too hard to swallow so ended up in the even better titled, ‘Hallelujah Pension’ next door.
A man on the bus had recommended a place in Arba Minch called ‘Paradise’ so we set up the hill to find it. The view down in the valley of the silver-domed church glinting in the light creeping out from behind the rain clouds was spectacular. It was good to look at, less good to listen to. Apparently the locals regularly make complaints about the church sound system which is unwillingly turned down but always creeps back up to the ludicrous level we heard. From three in the morning onwards a tag team of shouty-voiced Orthodox Christians whinge in Amharic. It was loud enough that when we had a drink in the evening in a bar several hundred metres away, it was making the music unlistenable. It hard to imagine even their God was enjoying it.
At the top of the hill we came to the dirt track leading to ‘Paradise’ – this road was clearly only ever taken by farangis in 4x4s because the local children were frantic with excitement to see us. A gaggle followed us, occasionally holding our hands. We asked for directions to ‘Paradise’ and one called out to ‘Jesus’ – saviour complexes well and truly established. When we eventually reached ‘Paradise’ it was a new hotel still under construction but the terrace offered superb views of the two lakes Chamo and Abaya separated by the bridge of God.
All the guides in the town had mercana (Amharic for the specific high achieved with ch’at, when it was described to us it was consistently described as something one ‘has’, as if it were enlightenment) because they had not yet encouraged us to visit the mysteriously titled, ‘crocodile market’. After a little investigation it turned out that it was an area of the river where the crocodiles basked and would have been very expensive. ‘Market’ was a shrewd misnomer.
We heard on the grapevine that there would be a market in a village a few hours down the road in Chencha. Having already clocked up a serious number of land miles in the past few days and with more to come, a two-hour bus ride is just like doing stretches.
On the bus which went up and up the mountain a policeman got onboard, presumably to moan about the people squatting in the aisles. When we arrived in Chencha he got into a ruck with the ticket collector who rather embarrassingly knocked the policeman’s hat and received a hard boot to the thigh and a sharp punch to the head. There were no twitching net curtains, everyone crowded round, the shorter ones pulling themselves up on taller shoulders. It seemed to be settled amicably with only two grumpy faces to be seen in the beaming horde.
The bus took us through the post–apocalypse Paradise of the Watch Tower magazine. Everything was in a vibrant green, dotted with bright flowers and fruit. Outside thatched huts sat men and women weaving on wooden looms on the toy-town grass hillocks, kept childlike by cattle. Outside most houses were allotments, dominated by the vast leaves of the false banana, the roots of which we were to discover, form the staple in the region.
A local guide took us across the town’s football pitch which was inhabited by teams of cow, goat and sheep all tied to separate stakes, industriously forming mown circles and continued up to a high point where locals get married. We were surrounded by sea-green mountains and meadowland.
The market had a similar ambience and look to a music festival. People spread out, sitting on a grassed area busily making chaos. Different areas of the market catered for different needs. In the water pipe zone people took it turns to buy a dollop of tobacco and shared it round. In the staple zone women mashed false banana into a pulp with their hands. In fabric zone a man with a wooden spindle demonstrated his craftiness to us with a toothy grin. Our guide told us that the people of this village made the distinctive cloth which the Masai of Kenya wear, but it was hard to know whether or not to believe him.
Arba Minch – Jinka (9 hours – big bus)
There was a man in a miniskirt next to me on the bus
As it was the thirty-year anniversary of the fall of the Derg (the Communist group which overthrew Haile Selassie) the restaurants and bars of the town were full of old-timers taking the opportunity to reminisce and not so idly talk politics.
It was easy to understand why northern Ethiopians were in favour of the current Prime Minister. His impact was tangible, the roads had improved under his management and there had not been the flagrant violence seen after the last election in which the streets of Addis were awash with blood. As we travelled further south opinion was not so positive. He is of the northern Tigray tribe and it was believed that he favoured his own, to the detriment of the south. Most people believed that he was not a bad person but was operating in a corrupt and biased government. Many of the older generation still clutched to what was perhaps, a rose-tinted nostalgia for the Communist Derg, under which the roads that are now in disrepair were originally built. It is very difficult to know how dissent was forming into rebellion, as the press was so filled with disinformation regarding Somali, Eritrean and Sudanese rebels. What was clear was that in the desperate face of famine that there is a valid fear of an uprising.
A few hours before, on the last part of the journey to Jinka, a member of the Bana tribe got on the bus. His upper biceps were tightly constrained by brass copper bands. His hair was shaved at the front and plaited at the back. He wore a miniskirt and a sports vest. On his wrists he wore bright beading in sky blue, black and red and he carried with him nothing but a wooden perch. It is hard to look dignified in a fifty-year-old bus doing breakneck speeds on 4x4 terrain but he managed it. When the ticket collector asked for his fare he broke from our previously held National Geographic image of the stoical tribesman. He released a one liner presumably regarding the price of the bus ticket, so powerful it brought the previously silent bus into hysterics. He grinned then returned to his world of serenity.
Our original intention had been to travel back seven hours the following day to the town of Konso, which we had already passed through. Unfortunately the road that would take us from Konso to Moyale, the border town with Kenya, was closed due to fighting between rival tribes. This put us in an awkward position: we had to reach Moyale by 1st June because our visas would run out. We decided to head for Key Afar two hours back in the right direction as they had a market on and this was the best chance we had of seeing something of the south. We spent the rest of the day in the ‘Oromo District Research Centre’, which catalogued the peculiarities of the tribes in the area, including lip plates, bull jumping, female circumcision, polygamy, scarring, and soothsaying with goat entrails. They had a collection of wooden perches as we had on the bus. They were stylishly carved in accordance with specific tribal designs. We saw them in use in the area, waiting for buses and general milling about as an uncomfortable looking stool which, apparently, doubled up as a pillow, much like that used by geishas.
Jinka – Key Afar (2 hours-big bus)
Hustlers with feathers in their hair
Before coming to the Oromo region we were warned by fellow tortoises that much of what we saw in the Rift Valley would not be ‘real’. When local tribes-people get wind of the arrival of farangis they would prepare costumes of brighter colours and more intricacy, to outdo their rival tribes-people and to win the 2 Birr reward normally expected in exchange for taking their photograph. These over-the-top costumes were without cultural significance. From one perspective, who can blame them? Their tribal practices are really none of the tourist’s business. If they are wearing an inauthentic costume, the tourist’s photo may look more spectacular and the tribes-person gets some cash. On the other hand it all sounds a bit sordid. The concept of going to an area to have a ‘real’ experience ‘man’ is more irritating than accepting your position on the other side of the camera lens. What is positive, perhaps, is that a startlingly large proportion of their culture is intact despite being given the opportunity to change.
We can only assume that we went to the right village and the right market and the right tribe because we were the only tourists in the market place and money was only mentioned when we asked prices. It was a mutually starey situation, but more of a giraffe stare than a hyena or crocodile stare. They thought we were dressed oddly and we thought the same of them. The significance of the different elements of the costumes of people in the market was explained to us by a local boy. The women who had thin dreadlocks moulded into shape with red clay were married. Those with a huge metal necklace were the first wife of a husband and therefore important. Men with their hair sculpted and coloured and topped with a feather, making them look startlingly alien with their elongated red, white or blue heads with valve like attachments, indicated that they had recently killed an impressive animal. Those with their hair white at the back had lost their father recently and were still in mourning. Those men with extra beads and tall feathers in their hair were on the look out for a wife. It was an amazing social system that allowed them to cut out a great deal of needless chitchat.
Much of the jewellery was recycled. Many earrings were produced from white plastic packaging and necklaces were made from the broken watchstraps of metal Casios. The choice of materials was indiscriminately focused upon looking good.
During the evening we walked out to one of the clusters of huts on the outskirts of the village as the sun was setting over the maize fields. We were introduced to a family who performed a dance for us. It was a fairly mercenary experience, the dance was for our entertainment. However, after we alighted from the ‘real’ high horse it was clear to see that as they leapt around and mock shoulder barged one another, they were enjoying themselves and it suited the moment perfectly as they rhythmically ‘hummmm’ed and their jewellery clattered as they came back to earth, dust rising from their feet. We drank tea made from the husks of coffee beans and tried to persuade the grandmother that it was OK that the smaller children who were clearly terrified of us, did not have to come and shake hands with us, we did not want anyone wetting themselves.
Key Afar – Sodo (12 hours – big bus, minibus, landcruiser)
As tribal fighting was blocking our intended route and we had only two days left on our visas, we had to retrace our steps sharpish before our visas finished, right back up to near Awasa in order to get onto the road running from Addis Ababa to Moyale. Leg one should have taken us back to Arba Minch but the bus broke down less than half way there, just before a village made up of not much more than a hotel. We walked along the road in the mid-day sun with tribes-people and business men and were lucky enough to hitch a ride in the cab of a lorry a few kilometres down the road, while meeting the disapproving glares of our fellow bus riders, still tramping along in the heat. From the hotel we smarmed a lift with Catholic missionaries the rest of the way, much to the indignation of bus riders who felt we were getting preferential treatment – finally! Before reaching Arba Minch we stopped for lunch in Konso, home of the perma-culture ecolodge Brits we met in Addis. We asked the waiter if he knew them and he replied that they had been there just the night before and he promised to pass on our best wishes. From Arba Minch we found a bus that took us the three hours down the road to Sodo. By the time we reached the town everyone was tired and hungry. When the driver stopped for petrol a couple of minutes from the bus station there was a very real possibility of a rebellion. We scouted around the dingy Sodo for somewhere to stay, everywhere half decent was fully booked so we ended up in a brothel perched above a bad disco.
Sodo – Dila
In the morning we woke at 5.00 once again to fight for a seat on the 6.00 bus – departure time is dictated by the government in an attempt to prevent night driving and move Ethiopia off the top-spot for worldwide road fatality rates. We arrived in Awasa in the afternoon and took a minibus to a rainy Dila where we stayed over. By this point we had passed the stage of hysteria and were well and truly in a state of grumpy confusion. Now as we tried to sleep on the bus, if we went over a dramatic bump and banged our head against something, it was no longer chance, but part of some sadistic joke.
During the evening in Dila a woman selling baskets invited us into her shop for a coffee ceremony. Her blind grandfather sat in the corner going through his prayer beads and periodically praying. They told us about the local language and how they learned English from a flat-screen TV donated to them by Germans, all while we ate delicious popcorn and drank delicious coffee and a tailor a few doors down repaired Toby’s bag with his leg-powered sewing machine. The following morning it was Dila to Moyale and the beginning of a whole new type of strangeness.
Escape to Kenya
Young cats prowled across the flat concrete roofs, the ‘city’ behind them, creeping up the hillside, lit up and squat. The pregnant quietness of the Kenyan side of the town only became noticeable when manic allah akhbar’s began to sound from the mosque. A stark contrast from the typically rowdy Ethiopian side of town.
Moyale had the now familiar unfamiliarity of a border town, on the frontier of something more than another country but not discernable. People passed through and left a gaggle of chancers whose lives were dictated by the movements of a fickle river. The river being made up of stray tourists, downtrodden businessmen, people visiting family, trucks full of cargo and lonely and frustrated men in search of Ethiopian ‘company’. They picked up what is left on the shoreline – in this case, two not so shiny new mwzungus (Swahili for white man, literally translated as ‘man without smell’) staring at their bowls of stew in the ‘Baghdad Restaurant II’, wondering how to eat it without cutlery.
The border between Ethiopia and Kenya was a metal pole weighed down by some rocks and a rusted wheel rim. As we re-entered Ethiopia after sorting out a hotel in Kenya and a bus to Nairobi for the following day, passport control called us over. We were under strict instructions to be back before six because they would be clocking off.
Moyale to Nairobi (26 hours – big bus, minibus)
2/6/2008 – 3/6/2008
After this period of waking up before the sun, spending a day sitting on a bus, arriving in a town eating anything and collapsing anywhere, what did we need? A twenty-six hour bus journey of course! The bus was just like the geriatric boneshakers of Ethiopia but with, much to Stuart’s knee’s delight, slightly more legroom. We were told beforehand that the big bus is safer than the trucks because shifters (armed bandits who extort money) were generally local and therefore much more likely to hit one of their relatives if the spray a big bus with bullets. However, the addition of an armed guard was there to offer reassurance. After two police checks within the first half hour we made bets as to how many there would be before we reached Nairobi, the winning figure being nine. When we stopped for dinner the bus’ mechanic introduced himself to us. Apparently we could rest easy because he was now on board as the police had decided to release him from prison, where he languished on charges of cannabis possession. Charges he was very pleased were true. Another member of the bus team, whose role we could not entirely discern, was a Somali. He proudly told us how he had made his money as a member of Dog Crew in Cardiff for whom he sold smack and cocaine. Brilliant! The scenery was almost enough of a distraction. We passed through a very British looking landscape, other than the mighty presence of Mount Kenya, rising incongruously from the horizon. The next morning we were still chugging along with few enough passengers to lie down on the spare seats when the bus broke down. From here on we took a pimped out minibus or matatu as it is know in Swahili right into heaving central Nairobi.
Somaliland and its bid for international recognition
The revelries of 18th May 2008 as the Somalilanders rightly celebrated the seventeenth anniversary of their democratic republic fell upon deaf ears amongst the international community.
Somaliland is a small country located in the northern part of the Horn of Africa with Djibouti to its northwest, Ethiopia to the south and west and Puntland (another separatist part of old Somalia) to its east. The capital of Somalia is further south in Mogadishu.
After declaring its independence the country was levelled by the Mogadishu based dictator, Siyad Barre. Since then the Somalilanders have built themselves a country based upon the greatest ideals of democracy, with the zeal of people in search of personal safety, education, free speech, healthcare and food.
But Somaliland is running three-legged in a race where the other competitors run unimpeded.
International non-recognition ties Somaliland to Somalia and is thus preventing it from becoming a model for African democracy.
Somaliland is being asked to give up its democracy and stability and join with a war-torn country in a state of collapse. This entails Somaliland’s great potential for investment, its rich mineral, coal and oil reserves remaining unutilised. Somaliland’s ability to import and export goods is being seriously impeded as the insurance costs set by Lloyds of London is extremely high for any ship which uses the port of Berbera. The country’s merchants, whose main exports are camels, frankincense and myrrh see the situation as far from wise.
But as the long-time Somaliland supporter, Tony Worthington, ex- MP for Clydebank and Milngavie explained in his 2004 House of Commons speech on the matter of Somaliland’s independence,
- Somalilanders are caught in a vicious Catch-22 position. They are being told, “Destroy your nation by joining the destroyer in the south, and we will recognize you. Stay outside, with stability and democracy, and we will ignore you.”
The ignorance on the part of governments is voluntary but for the average citizen of the international community it is mainly down to being ill informed. In his speech he went on to explain why it is imperative that action is taken now (now in this case being four years ago),
- The longer the world ignores the achievements of Somaliland in creating stability and democratic institutions, the greater the risk that wilder elements will take over, and the longer Somaliland is left to fend for itself without resources for schools, for example, the more willing will radical elements be to step in.
With the recent spate of Somali pirating and kidnapping the case for action is ever pressing. In the face of such adversity the Somalilanders have a national pride that comes of seeing the horrific repercussions of political instability. They are quick to welcome strangers with open arms in order to show them what they have achieved. The reverence one is shown as a foreigner gives some indication of the Somaliland people’s collective desperation for international recognition.
One hurdle which Somaliland is successfully tackling, which is going some way to keeping Somalia in the political Dark Ages is the knowledge of ancestry peculiar to the region. From a young age Somalis / Somalilanders / Puntlanders are expected to know their paternal lineage for ten to twenty generations as writ. Many Somalilanders we met knew theirs for more than forty.
This puts all citizens in sub-sub-clan divisions with a complex system of allegiances. Of the five major clans, Isaaq is dominant in Somaliland. However, the government has included a section of its constitution to ensure that clan based discrimination which plagues Somalia is minimized. There is now a multi-party democracy with district councils contested by six parties. It seems that Somaliland is keeping a close eye on Somalia and learning from its mistakes.
A history of the bloody tip of Africa’s Horn
After the Greeks, Egyptians and the Ottomans the Colonialists came to the Horn of Africa and divided what was then Somalia along typically uncompromising lines.
1880’s: In the far north the French occupied French Somaliland for Djibouti’s capacity as a port.
The British attained a protectorate over northern Somaliland in 1886 in order to provide the garrison in Aden (Yemen) with meat.
The Italians were permitted to occupy Somalia with Mogadishu as its capital after their siding with the Allies in WWI.
Southern Somalia was incorporated into British Kenya.
Ethiopia took the western deserts.
1900: The ‘Mad Mullah’, Mohamed Abdalla Hassan began to sow the seeds of a struggle for a reunited Somalia with his failed attacks against the British.
1920’s: Britain got a firm grasp of the region after a series of ‘pacification campaigns’ which decisively formed the borders of what is now Somaliland.
1940’s: During World War II the Italians in Somalia attacked the British garrisoned in Somaliland which resulted in Britain taking Somalia from Italian rule and forming Greater Somaliland. During WWII 9,000 Somaliland troops from the Somaliland Scouts and Somaliland Camel Corps fought with the British against the Italians, holding back an army of 291,000 Italian and local troops.
1950’s: Britain began to prepare Somaliland for its independence, holding meetings between different clans in order to broker stability after their departure.
1960’s: On April 6th 1960 Somalilanders voted for independence from Britain and to unite with Italian Somalia. From the 2nd to the 7th of June Somaliland was independent before the formation of the Somalia Republic with Italian Somalia. The union was disastrous, the mainly Issaq Somalilanders were not represented fairly by the Somalia National League party of central government. In the face of further Italianisation the Somalilanders unsuccessfully attempted a coup in 1962. The centralised government system inherited from Italy and Britain was unsuccessful in dealing with de-centralised pastoral peoples without the Colonial resources and the situation became anarchic, returning Somalis to their pre-Colonial days.
1969: General Siyad Barre took control of the Republic of Somalia in a military coup. Barre strove for reunification of its five states immortalized by the five-pointed star of the Somali flag. The Soviet Union was happy to oblige Barre’s gung-ho intentions by supplying him with arms, he then further ingratiated himself with them by declaring the Republic of Somalia a Marxist state, thus heightening Soviet involvement.
"When I came to Mogadishu...[t]here was one road built by the Italians. If you try to force me to stand down, I will leave the city as I found it. I came to power with a gun; only the gun can make me go."
1977: As Ethiopia fought a war with Eritrea to its south Somalia seized the moment and regained its western lands in the Ogaden War. Unfortunately for Barre the Soviet Union changed allegiances, supporting the greater power of Mengistu, the Marxist leader of Ethiopia who deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in a military coup. As a result arms stopped flowing into Somalia and with the help of the Soviets and Cubans, Somalia was crushed back into the shape Ethiopia dictated.
The bottom of Barre’s internal support dropped out and internal power struggles began in earnest, leaving Somalia in a clan based chaos.
1980’s: The sour taste of communism, left after the Soviet Union’s flip-flop, was sweetened by the arms of American and Italian democracy, as both countries were keen to prop those with anti-red sentiments and to gain a foothold in the Horn of Africa with its strategic importance as a neighbour to the Middle East.
As the Somali Salvation Democratic Front formed Puntland, the Somali National Movement attempted to establish Somaliland on its 1960’s borders. During the chaos Barre began his vindictive campaign against the Somalilanders. During the air strikes on Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, in which planes took off from the city’s airport one of Barre’s closest aides recalled Barre considering himself to be, ‘a Darod chief who had totally annihilated an enemy clan.’
1982: Students rioted in Hargeisa, in response to Barre’s policies under which systematic human rights abuses prevailed.
1988: The Somalia Civil War began and the mainly Darod clans of the Somalia region commenced a campaign of destruction against the mainly Isaaq Somaliland region. Barre’s preoccupation with the Somaliland region saw his opposition in Somalia grow in strength and non-humanitarian aid stopped flowing into the country.
1990: At the end of the year Barre fled Mogadishu in the face of a military attack from a rival clan member, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, who placed Ali Mahdi Mohamed in power. This left Somalia without a foreseeable future of peace.
1991: Somaliland declared its independence and established an interim government made up of representatives of clans who elected a President, beginning on the road to what should logically be international recognition by putting in place the institutions required for democracy to prevail.
2003: Dahir Riyad Kahin is the first democratically elected President of Somaliland with a winning margin of only 0.008%. The votes are counted by students and the military leave their arms in the barracks for the day.
Somaliland as it stands today
The treasure of the three wise men – Somaliland as seen from the ground
As we travelled through Somaliland we were constantly asked, without malice, why had Britain, with such strong connections to Somaliland, forgotten them in their hour of need. Ethiopia has already stated that it was willing to be the second country to acknowledge Somaliland and with them, the African Union is likely to follow. The United Nations will be a harder nut to crack but with the support of various EU countries including the UK, already present if not written, all that is required is a bold step forward by a significant world player.
In 1960 Macmillan addressed the House of Commons as follows:
- I should like to say, however, that it is Her Majesty's Government's hope that whatever may be the constitutional future of the Protectorate, the friendship which has been built up between its people and those of the United Kingdom for so many years will continue and indeed flourish.
It is easy to understand why the Somalilanders feel betrayed.
During Barre’s campaign 200,000 Somalis were brought to the UK, many settling in London and Wales. The small Somaliland government, as we were informed by the Minister for Trade and Industry (who used to work for Bristol City Council) has seven members who are British citizens. He also told us of the country’s energy crisis. The price currently stands at $1/kwh – the highest charge in the world. He then suggested we meet with ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency – an NGO) to find out more on the subject of how they were going to run the country on renewable energy alone.
With so little investment Somaliland’s current main source of income is its loyal Diaspora of over a million, who are evidently determined to rebuild the country and are savvy enough to be wary of making the same mistakes as many other African countries.
The Parliament and President’s Palace, as they were proudly described to us by Hargeisan’s, were very humble. Many wanted it to stay that way, fearful of the prospect of Machiavellian machinations that will come with the might of the World Bank. They are very clued up.
The Somalilanders are rightly proud of their democracy - during the election period the police and army go to work unarmed and the votes are counted by students.
Somalilander’s generally have a murky view of the UN. The officer responsible for Somaliland is stationed in Nairobi. It seems that the UN is concerned about the threat of ‘Balkanisation’ of the Horn of Africa. It is perceived that an independent Somaliland will jeopardize the potential for peace in the region as this peace is envisaged as a united Somalia, drawn up along the pre-Colonial borders. This view does not appear to have evolved as the situation has, and now devolution seems the only plausible solution.
Somaliland remains a graveyard for international dabbling. We were shown the NASA landing strip by the beach, the tennis courts of the British Protectorate’s summer retreat in the cool of the mountains, the North Korean crates in the abandoned cement factory in the desert, the Ottoman hilltop fort, the shell of one of Barre’s Soviet tanks outside the village of Hamas, the Bulgarian medical equipment in Sheik’s decimated hospital. All acted as monuments to international involvement which have passed into a distant memory.
In Berbera we met with the Community Concern Group, a local NGO. Solomon, the director of the port and Dictor Jama (he was a doctor but this was how he was introduced), a one man Somaliland restoration whirlwind compered the evening. We were told about the various projects they had undertaken and were undertaking, building schools, planting trees and so on. They were keen to know our view on Somaliland’s bid for international recognition. It was announced that we were from then on partners of the CCG and plans were made for our appearance on national television the following evening to state as much and air our opinions on Somaliland’s independence.
A meeting was scheduled in a plush hotel lobby where we were met by two effervescent Kenyans from the ADRA whom we were put in touch with by the Minister of Trade and Industry. During the meeting it became clear that ADRA was one of the few NGO’s working in Somaliland. A theme that ran throughout was of the possibility of making a great country. It is practically being built from scratch and there is the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other countries - skip out the less savoury stages of development and become a beacon for hope.
There is a widespread fear that Somaliland’s current opposition to fundamentalism may begin to lose its strength if the international community continues to turn its back on them.
The international think tank Senlis compiled a report in April of this year on the failures of America’s ‘War on Terror’
- Those bombings and sponsorship of a proxy Christian army – Ethiopia –to fight in Mogadishu have provided militant Islamists with abundant propaganda material
An embattled population found the resolve to reconstruct itself, establishing functioning organs of government without little upheaval – a rarity in post-conflict reconstruction. Its drive to create multi-party democracy upon a backdrop of relative peace and security has been impressive, if not without flaw.
Of all the states in the Horn of Africa it is the self-declared yet internationally unrecognised aspirant state of Somaliland that offers President Bush with his most viable opportunity to claim an Africa success story.
A 2006 report compiled by the international NGO, concerned with compiling independent reports on politically unstable and humanitarian situation, Crisis Group, called for the urgent action in the Somaliland debate, pointing out that,
- A multi-party political system and successive competitive elections have established Somaliland as a rarity in the Horn of Africa and the Muslim world. However, the Somalia Transitional Federal Government continues strongly to oppose Somaliland independence.
Despite fears that recognition would lead to the fragmentation of Somalia or other AU member states, an AU fact-finding mission in 2005 concluded the situation was sufficiently “unique and self-justified in African political history” that “the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a pandora’s box’”. It recommended that the AU “should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case” at the earliest possible date. On 16 May 2006, Rayale met with the AU Commission Chairperson, Alpha Oumar Konare, to discuss Somaliland’s application for membership.
All evidence leans towards a need to reward Somaliland and not to consider it merely as part of a potentially fractious Africa movement of ‘Balkanisation’.
In March of 2006 a speaker of the Somaliland parliament was invited to speak before the National Assembly for Wales and rightly or wrongly took is as recognition of his country. It is a baby step but it is in the right direction.
Saturday, 28 June 2008
The following is a description of our travels in Somaliland. During our time in the country we became very interested in the country’s history and its ongoing bid for international recognition. The article above which follows this travel log contains the hard facts, and is not as easy a read but please give it a go
19/4/2008 - 20/4/2008
Addis Ababa to Jijiga
The road to Somaliland
We headed east from Addis taking an overnight minibus to Harar. Squashed into the minibus the driver sped through the night stopping only occasionally in small villages where trucks lined the roadside making their way to or from the ports in Djibouti or Somaliland. The driver would stock up on food or ch’at, the mild amphetamines which seemed to do a good job of keeping him awake and psyched up for the treacherous drive. Arriving at Harar at first light we jumped straight on the next bus to take us closer to the Somaliland border, in the town the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office ‘advise against all travel to’, the relatively respectable Jijiga.
Jijiga to Hargeisa
Walking across the dirt track border
After overnighting in Jijiga we were glad to be on the bus to Wajaale. It wasn’t a case of the place feeling unsafe, more of it feeling like a town at the end of the Earth. Entering Somaliland was blissfully simple and after stamping our passport the official exclaimed, “Welcome British Protectorate!”
As we waited for the sixth passenger to get into the car that would take us from the border town to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, a middle-aged man popped his head through the window to welcome us to a peaceful Somaliland where we could be assured of our safety, and to enquire as to how Ealing was since his repatriation. Self-conscious patriotism was a repeating theme.
A passenger in the car told us how he, as a Somalilander, differed from a Somali. If he saw us in trouble on the street he would be willing to die for us in order to protect our safety as we represented a step towards international recognition. If a Somali saw us in trouble they would join in. On a cramped two hour drive it was difficult to know how to handle this kind of hyperbole with anything other than ‘thanks’.
After two hours and numerous passport checks we arrived in Hargeisa driving past the presidential home and the parliamentary building. To say they were not elaborate would be an understatement but for a fledgling African nation it was a refreshingly humble sight to see.
The capital of an unrecognised country
Wandering round Hargeisa brought into relief quite how other-worldly the place is. Moneychangers lined the streets, sitting behind walls of money. One British Pound is equivalent to 11,800 Somaliland Shillings and as the largest note they have is 500 Shillings, changing $100 gave us both very satisfying bagfuls of money. What was notable though was that there was no fear of anyone stealing from us, there was something in the air. When the call to prayer came over the loud speakers these same money changers and those squatting on the street side selling gold all strolled up to the mosque, leaving their livelihoods unattended on the street. Although the country does operate under sharia law, which can account for some degree of the population’s propensity to abide the law, they are relatively progressive, allowing women many of the same roles as men. Many of the women we met, like the headmistress of the Berbera Maritime University wore a headscarf but were far from submissive. She drove us round in her jeep and it was hard to get a word in edgeways.
At one end of the ‘high street’ is the Somalilanders war monument: a Soviet MIG shot down during the war for independence against the Mogadishu based Siyad Barre. Its concrete base was adorned with bright coloured murals depicting the horrors that were committed against the Somalilanders and their more recent successes. This was Hargeisa’s closest approximation to a conventional tourist attraction.
Hargeisa - Berbera
A trip to the seaside with an armed guard
To travel outside Hargeisa the government stipulates that you must take a driver and armed guard. Our experiences made it seem an over-zealous policy, but Somaliland is so desperate for international recognition that if those few tourists who do visit them come a cropper, this will scupper their chances as it will be seen as an indication of their failure to control the security situation. On the other hand our guard, Mr. Mohammed was nice enough and looked very professional in his full military outfit. The only gripe we had with him was that whenever our driver left the car (normally to pour water on the engine) he turned our tape off and switched the stereo onto Somaliland radio. We were not in a position to argue with him even though the shouty din over atonal stringed instruments was fairly irritating.
Our driver / guide / presidential hopeful Abdullah showed us around his country, pointing out the success of democracy as a guide in North Korea might with Communism.
It was possible to put the independence conflict out of mind because the destruction was generally out of sight: the city had been levelled and everything was new. As we left the city we could see that progress had been slower. On the road to Berbera we passed crumbling buildings, the gutted remains of Soviet tanks and a group of women who had been raped and had had their eyes gouged out with bayonets. But it was as if there had been a forest fire and now life could start again, new construction springing up all around, full of hope.
We went to Berbera’s best restaurant, in the heart of its bullet-riddled Colonial ruins and ate fish caught a few hours previously, drank fresh tamarind juice and discussed the future of Somaliland with a motley crew of businessmen and teenagers.
Abdullah took us to a pristine beach on the sapphire waters of the Red Sea where we met a group of boys who had caught a fish with their bare hands and an elder who had dyed his extensive beard bright orange with henna, as is the custom with Somalis.
On the beach, framed by the mountains in which he had fought, sat our guard in full military uniform, keeping an eye on our bag full of money.
On the drive back to our hotel Abdullah snapped from his cheery mood and took us to a vast graveyard with bits of wood, metal and rock for headstones. We stopped by a lorry axle protruding from the sand and he told us how his brother had been killed in front of him. While trying to stop Barre’s soldiers from burning the family car his brother had had his throat cut. He laughed about it with a glazed look on his face as if it were too absurd to have happened.
That evening we chewed ch’at, a green leaf containing a mild amphetamine, favoured in the region as a legal social drug and Abdullah announced that that evening there was a meeting scheduled for us with the Community Concerned Group (CCG) who would tell us about all the good work they were doing.
Ghostly city by the sea
Dictor Jama, the one man Somaliland restoration project, from CCG decided to give us a guided tour of Berbera which was slightly bizarre at points and in around 40oC and extremely high humidity quite testing. We first toured the port, the port director, before being taken to meet with the governor of the region and then touring the abandoned cement plant, then on to see the salt factory (which turned out to be a small concreted area they put sea water into and let it evaporate) and then along to Berbera lighthouse. We were shown an area of land which had been bought by Dictor Jama and Abdullah out near the old iron lighthouse for a hotel they were planning. They offered us part of their beach so we could build our own houses on it. Stood on an endless, empty beach watching the sun set over the calm sea it seemed a tempting offer. But there were still ghosts around. The area of scrub between us and the NASA landing strip now used as Berbera’s airport in which dark-eyed camels looked out over the sea was the same stretch Dictor Jama and Abdullah had sprinted across as they fought together against Siyad Barre’s troops and people presumably bled into the sand.
In the evening we were set in front of the national press. It soon became clear that the purpose of the broadcasts (three channels, including on satellite and the national newspaper) were to be political. We were asked how the Somaliland we saw differed from the one we had envisaged. At the end of the broadcast the reporter from Somaliland Times asked us if we could send him pills for his stomach ulcer when we returned to England.
Hargeisa – Sheekh – Las Geel – Hargeisa
Into the mountains and caves
We visited the mountain top town of Sheekh, the summer retreat for the British Governor when the stifling heat of Berbera, down on the coast became too much. The house was in ruins but the tennis courts and swimming pool could still be made out and locals had left the baths and window frames, for which they had no use. This was in stark contrast to the botched together nomadic huts which now surrounded it. We continued into Sheekh to see the hospital which had all but been destroyed in the war. It still smelt like a hospital and much of the Bulgarian medical equipment was still in place but the walls were covered in graffiti and the only sound we could hear was of the children playing football outside and the birds flying from ward to ward.
We then went back through Berbera on our way to Hargeisa, as we cruised through the desert in the left hand drive car on the right side of the road (a typically absurd Colonial reminder) Abdullah pointed out the mountains which he had hidden amongst and the straights across which he had run with Mr. Mohammed, our guard, when they fought together. Mr. Mohammed remained stony faced even in the face of the Libyan trance reggae tape we put on which Abdullah was very taken by.
On the last leg of the trip back to Hargeisa we were taken to the most spectacular site in Somaliland, the Neolithic cave paintings of Las Geel, which are regarded widely as some of the best if not the best rock art in Africa. The caves are located in a beautiful area of the country high up on a hillside looking over the vast expanse of scrubland and desert where a river once ran. It is thought that the paintings were produced 4000 years ago and yet they are still in stunning condition. The subject matter mainly revolves around images of different types of cows but also of men, dogs, giraffes and other animals. There is clearly a hugely complex symbolic subtext to the works which archaeologists are still trying to piece together. The area is in fact still being catalogued as it was only discovered by a French team in 2002. Upon seeing Las Geel we had to agree that the only reason it is not a World Heritage site is because it is in Somaliland.
Meetings with the ministers
On returning to Hargeisa we met with the Minister of Trade and Industry to discuss the country’s potential and his interest in promoting clean development. It was strange chatting to a man who used to work for Bristol City Council and was so proud to be a British Citizen, as were seven other members of the cabinet. They came with the tens of thousands of Somalilanders brought to Britain during the war who are now flooding back to rebuild their country.
Later we also met ADRA the only NGO doing serious work in Somaliland and discussed the huge potential in the country. They also added to the bizarre picture we were building up of the country by telling us it is the most hooked up (in terms of electrical coverage per head) country in the whole of Africa.
Hargeisa – Harer (Ethiopia)
Turning down the Vice -President
In the morning we were supposed to meet with the Vice President of Somaliland, but the meeting was rearranged for the afternoon, and unfortunately we had to leave, meaning that we missed out on the opportunity. We had a long day of travelling back into Ethiopia, all the way to Harer.
28/4/2008 – 29/4/2008
City circled by hyenas
We wandered round the high, narrow streets of the old windy city of Harar, escorted by a local guide without whom we were guaranteed to get lost in the labyrinthine mess of markets, houses, churches and shrines. Without him we would never have found our way past the unassuming gates which led to Rimbault’s old house, nor would we have thought anything of the run down wooden building in which Haile Selassie was born.
During the evening we went to witness the surreal tradition of hyena feeding. It is thought, or more likely, was thought, that if the hyenas were not fed the crops would fail. There is undoubtedly an inverted logic to the feeding of the hyenas and the community’s general prosperity as the well-fed beasts were less likely to kill livestock. Now the affair is far more touristy. There is warm up act of a man who calls to the hyenas down in the valley with a strange moan. Then, like a circus performer a man puts bits of meat on sticks to give to the tourists to feed to the stinking animals. Unfortunately we came the day after Ethiopians celebrate Easter and their vegetarian fasting ends. The hyenas were clearly pogged after the previous days off-cuts so their performance lacked its normal verve. Still, it was quite impressive and in terms of a touristy show there was only one other tourist there. The next morning we returned to Addis by minibus and were lucky not to have ended up in the hyena man’s basket after we collided with a rock in the road. The conductor handed out some ch’at and repaired whatever had broken with a mix of black paint and superglue.