We are beginning a trip to the north of Ethiopia, and today we are on an 8-hour road trip to the town of Bahir Dar. Although I’m not a lover of long trips in the car, seeing what is happening in the countryside from the car window does give you a very different perspective from when one keeps to the major cities and thoroughfares. There is a surprising amount of food traffic on the side of the road, even when the nearest town is several kms away. Where are all these people going, with the heavy loads, their walking sticks, and heads and bodies swaddled in cloth? This constant stream of people carrying meager crops, sticks, or hay says a lot about the country’s poverty, lack of transportation infrastructure, and the general level of substitence in its rural areas. There are too many children herding livestock instead of attending school, too many children and adults in ragged clothing, barefoot, walking the rocky road, and too little prosperity in general.
There are young children and the not-so-young dressed in school uniforms walking or, many times, trotting/jogging to school. As I see so many people spontaneously break into a jog, I wonder about the connection from the casual easy running I see and the Ethiopian domination of long distance track events. It’s an incredibly easy natural gait that certainly looks effortless, but who knows?
I see women carrying all manner of things on their backs in huge baskets: sticks, eucalyptus branches, water, laundry, and things I cannot imagine. There are men wearing the multi-layered white gauzy cotton, carrying “church” umbrellas, and some people, only a few, carrying nothing, but walking purposefully somewhere. Almost all the men sport a herding stick, sometimes being used for its original intention, but often used as something to wrap their arms around, or to carry a load with. There are children and boys carrying loads of hay so huge th They are followed by the happy clean up crew of a few cattle. I’m often struck by how young and ill clad many of the children are that herd groups of cattle, goats, or donkeys down the road.at only their skinny legs are visible as they trot in groups of 2, 3 or 4 down the road to take the load of hay somewhere.
Sometimes the children seem to have the dual tasks of trotting to school and moving goats or cattle or sometimes donkeys somewhere to graze. This shepherding is usually facilitated by a long stick, or a shorter stick with a rope-like end for reminding the beasts who is in charge. There are donkeys, alone and in groups, being ridden and going solo, carrying enormous loads of hay, or long eucalyptus branches/trunks, and enormous baskets.
If you extend your view off the road, you can see a beautiful countryside with small plattes of hay, golden blocks ready for harvest alternating with green new shoots. Look closer and you see the golden hay being harvested using the ancient tool of a scythe, with both women and men squatting, kneeling or sitting to get as low as possible. Nowhere in view is there any machinery, but occasionally there is a circle of cattle stamping on already cut hay as children or sometimes adults pick it up and throw it back in the air for further stomping, using in a centuries-old technique to further process the hay. Someone recently told me over 90% of Ethiopians still subsist on agriculture, and that’s easy to believe when you see the activity on the countryside.Our feathered friends are frequent as well, with golden eagles cleaning up road kill, blue and white herons populating the hay fields, and an occasional kingfisher and white and black ibis, who remind me we are on another continent.
Sometimes the topography reminds one of our crew of Kenya, another part is reminiscent of rural Peru to another, but everyone agrees it’s quite educational to observe the parade passing by. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves as we manage the jostling and dust of Ethiopia’s roads. PICTURES on FLICKR HERE.