April 20, 2009

"I'll take the high road..." / Sur les routes rocailleuses du Nord de l'Ethiopie


General thoughts following the first half of Ethiopia: until the center. On the bus headed towards the border of Ethiopia, the man sitting adjacent to Eugénie was wearing multiple pairs of pants on top of each one another. Nearing the south, it was not for need of warm attire that he adorned such fashion, and I remembered a school-day of childhood when I had attempted to leave the house with every pair of both pants and sweaters that I owned, bulging from my body in excessively bundling layers (this was before my grandmother made me take them all off). My decision had been one not of need, or even fashion, but sprang to me as a solution to bypass my inability to make decisions. Just how does one cope with options in this world? An abrupt feeling of nervousness flashed, for myself as well as for the other wacko on the bus. How would life be on the side of the border which had no limits on ones choices; where vices were a famous commodity, and where both the religions and the government refuse to speak discouragingly of profit generators.

The bus pulled aside just before the bridge which exits Sudan at Gallabat. It was a painless exit procedure, especially for Sudan. There was one officer whom refused for few minutes to believe that I as not, in fact, a Chinese national, but nothing which prevented my departure. On the other side of the small metal bridge, we swiftly passed all procedurals with ease while admiring the young officers wall covered in large posters describing every beer in Ethiopia. We were officially out of Sudan, and it felt it.

IMG_5776 Metema is hardly a town, per say, but more akin to an frontiersman outpost in some African-western. As a border town, it had that eerie truck-stop feel to it. All booze, unlit bars, and prostitutes. After only three months of traveling through well-sheltered Muslim countries (in most of Sudan alcohol is prohibited), I felt a strange sense of danger in an alien place that first night. The presence of alcohol certainly changes how one need react to others. By only 7 pm, the streets were full of stumbling bodies. No one was smiling or, as in Sudan, exceptionally friendly. That first evening was a big readjustment; a reconsideration of our relationship with our surroundings.

Ethiopians have a number of identifiers for white foreigners which, before they are adopted into a habitual routine of interactions on the street, feel aggressive upon initial encounter. The crowds of children, families, or men pointing at you, gang-style, usually at first glimpse of your flaxen hair and creamy tones, whether far down the street or just behind you, fingers sharply directed shouting for all to turn and witness, voices high crying “You! Farang! You you you…(continues with the monotonous annoyance of a morning alarm clock whose snooze is out of reach)”. A “farangi,” generally signifying foreigner, though primarily used for white person, comes from a transliteration of “French” from the presence of the French whom had colonized Djibouti and built the most famous railway in Ethiopia. Though it is not intended in any derogatory manner, it’s racial significations are strongly echoed in the populations treatment of farangi’s as non-individualized entities for entertainment and presumed source of conversation whether appreciated or not. We’re not people, we are farangi’s. The seemingly rude “you you” is again a matter of direct translation, where in Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia) the word for “you” singular is also used as a cultural equivalent of “hey”, and again the assumption is that if you have a farangi’s attention, they will want to talk to you and possibly come home as your new pet. Needless to say, the identification verbally expressed at every corner wears on one quickly.

Steles of Axum / stèles d’Axum
IMG_5813 Almost all buses, excepting those which pass between closely neighboring towns, leave once a day at 5 am (11 pm Ethiopian time, since they count from sunrise up – 6 am is 12, 7 am is 1 am and so on). We arrive at the bus promptly at 4:30 am that first morning, headed towards Gonder, to find the bus abandoned, the street deserted but a few scattered bonfires and stray dogs. But once the people came, they came quickly and chaotically. Buses usually fill in the matter of minutes, leaving the less hostile old women huddled on the street to try again the following morning to get a place on the same bus.

The roads in Ethiopia are dangerous. Mostly weaving sandy paths along cliff sides of it’s vast mountains through dust clouds and dodging tumbling rocks from roadsides above them. We often pass piles of burnt buses piled on top of one another which flipped from the same cliffs as we. Sometimes we even find soda delivery trucks hanging tentatively from the cliffs, and the drivers sitting at the side of the road awaiting assistance. Caused by the road conditions, even relatively short distances can sometimes take 12 hours or more in unfettered heat. Ethiopians will pass the entire trip without a single sip of water.

The minimal palettes of Sudan’s long deserts no longer apply in this vast green, this diverse pastoral scenery. Baboons and macaques run alongside the buses with their kin hanging tightly to their backs. With such elevation brings the thousands of osprey to eye level, and the magnanimity of Caspar David Friedrich’s divine landscapes manifest themselves into your material surroundings. It is no wonder that the Orthodox Christians have made the high cliffs and caves of northern Ethiopia’s mountains their spiritual holy land since Ethiopia’s official conversion in the 4th century AD.

IMG_5644 Often called the “heart” of Ethiopia’s historical self and culture, home to the monasteries and castles of Gonder and Bahir Dar, the steles of Axum, the impossible churches of Lalibela and the harsh asceticism of the both priests and lay-peoples, this capital of the old Axumite kingdom continues to defy it’s harsh landscape.

Gonder is an El Greco-esque city twisted around jagged daring claws of rock collecting enough rain each year in it’s goblet valleys to supply the whole region year-round with clean water. The deep faith in holy water in Ethiopia is deeply attune with the miraculous conditions of it’s environment. Ethiopia’s motto is “13 months of sunshine” regarding it’s incredible growing seasons due to the altitude of the country, where crops grow higher than clouds can cover, but provide cool air ideal for grains (particularly teff and wheat). One of the reasons Ethiopia was never successfully colonized was due to the defensive nature of it’s impassable peaks, which acted also to protect the church from large scale historical conversions.

IMG_6324 Tigray (language=Tigranya) which is the most northern region bordering Ethiopia’s ex-patriot Eritrea, still bares the tense markers of the war, with it’s roadside abandoned tanks, it’s active minefields, it’s military checkpoints littered about, and it’s extreme poverty (and general lack of basic development such as clean water or electricity in many towns). The affects of the unemployment and socio-economic struggles have left the region with the countries highest HIV, prostitution, orphaned children, severely-malnourished persons, and illiterate statistics. We spent an enlightening week with a community working on progressive and future-focused solutions to Tigray (in Wukro) which helped greatly in providing the necessary background to organize our experiences into a clear political context as we continued our travels. Unfortunately, that is all I can say on this, as the work being done on our time in this community is still underway.

”If you are going to San Francisco Bahir Dar, be sure to wear a flower in your hair book yourself a fancy hotel if you want to actually see the lake!” In the last few years, the entire surrounding view of good’ol Lake Tana has been ‘re-appropriated’ by the regional government and given for the use of entirely private corporations. It is another sad example (as was Ismailia in Egypt) of a beautiful place taken away from those who actually inhabit it, and given to the passer-bys of commercial tourism. We spent a week with a family in Bahir Dar whose own property has been halved by the government who decided that they had twice as much space as was necessary for the sixteen residents of the home (father, 2 sons, three daughters, cousin, friend, two families in need, and two other renters). No one in Ethiopia actually owns their residential land, but rather leases it from the government. This makes it increasingly problematic to file legal complaints if there is a public sanitation concern affecting your residency, because officially, it isn’t your property to concern yourself with.

IMG_5661 Our experience in the north affirms a sense that all the genetic work ethic is passed between female chromosomes to their daughters, but nearly entirely skips the other gender(s). Women with 15-20 liter yellow plastic containers filled with water climb from mountain to mountain everyday to bring water back to their homes in order to cook for their families. Women do most of the farming, the construction work, the brick setting, the business generating, the housework and errands, as well as caring for the unaided children of each community. This often gets done while men watch Ethiopian music videos, demand their wives, sisters, daughters, neighbors to make them food, to bring them water, to clean, and to handle the income. I have had difficulty in my restraints from time to time. But as the great third world nutrition guru and entrepreneur Ato Belete Beyene explained to us when we interviewed him in Addis Ababa in early March, that the systematic depression of Ethiopians has led to a general “pacifism to work”. I would also suggest that Ato Beyene’s success is not necessarily the direct result of his extreme work ethic, but more importantly because of his rare ability to problem solve. Analytical thought is completely absent from all institutional education one can receive in Ethiopia (and for good reasons, since it has been students whom have most publicly spoken out against the policies of it’s government – a recent law made any negative remarks by Ethiopians to foreign press the equivalent to “foreign acts against the state” and has been used to dispel a number of prominent aid groups from the capital since the law went into effect in January).

Addis Ababa, “the new flower,” sits often disconnected from the lives of Ethiopians living in the vast regions of the country. Even here, the poverty of the country is visible from every corner, though the infrastructure to deal with the problems has more power to affect the local community than administrations in more remote regions. Water, electricity, medical care and addiction are still problems. Amharic is still difficult. The elevation is still high. I am still a farangi, and the community is still busy forming my impressions.

Un voisin de mini bus porte deux pantalons l’un sur l’autre, même si le véhicule s'apprête à rentrer en Ethiopie, pays certes montagneux, la tenue est définitivement inadéquate. La chaleur est dans le Sud du pays tout aussi intense. Nous quittons le Soudan à Gallabat, dernière ville avant la frontière. Jusqu'au bout les autorités soudanaises nous poursuivent. La rue principale est occupée par les bureaux de contrôle des passeports, des douanes et d'immigration qui nous accueillent successivement.

Juste derrière la barrière voici Metema, première ville d'Ethiopie. Nous nous sentons à présentIMG_5784 vraiment plus libres, libre de circuler et de ne pas   “se déclarer” tous les jours. Cette ville frontalière n'a pas grand intérêt. On y trouve essentiellement des bars, des clubs et leurs flots de prostituées ainsi qu’une station de bus. Après de longues semaines en terre musulmane où la consommation d'alcool est interdite, nous voici à présent dans la ville de tous les excès. A 19 heures des adolescents et des vieillards circulent le regard vide en titubant dans les ruelles. Un sentiment d'insécurité de dégage rapidement, ces gens sont peu souriants et vraiment moins accueillants, ils sont avant tout saouls, dans une ville frontalière sordide coincée entre le Soudan et l'Ethiopie.

Nous découvrons rapidement la mauvaise manie des éthiopiens de se retourner sur chaque étranger en criant “you, you, you”. Cela va probablement durer jusqu'à notre prochain passage de frontière... au Kenya.

IMG_5780 Le bus pour Gonder devrait potentiellement partir vers 5h du matin selon les quelques informations que nous avons réussies à soutirer dans le quartier. Une chose est sûre, le lendemain, à 4h30 la rue est vide. Quelques brasiers ont été allumés à coté des bus, seul moyen de trouver sa route. La plupart du temps un seul bus rallie quotidiennement chaque grande ville. Autrement dit, l’arrivée des passagers dans le véhicule tourne vite à l'émeute. Celui qui ne trouve pas de place a gagné le droit de revenir demain, un peu plus tôt cette fois. La route est chaotique, tout simplement. Nous avançons sur une piste parsemée de cailloux et de trous. Les éthiopiens n'ouvrent les fenêtres sous aucun prétexte, oh non, ils n’aiment pas le vent ! Quel plaisir collectif que celui de macérer au soleil, dans la chaleur pendant 10 h. Le désert soudanais est désormais un lointain souvenir, s'offrent à présent à nous les hautes montagnes vertes et rocailleuses du Nord du pays traversées par des routes dangereuses. Dans le parc national de Siemens, des carcasses de véhicules se balancent dans le vide. Un camion chargé de bouteilles consignées vient de manquer le virage, la cabine du véhicule flirte avec la falaise.

Frescos of Gonder / fresques d'un monastère de Gonder

IMG_5729 Le Nord du pays est considéré comme le cœur historique de l'Ethiopie. Les premiers chrétiens sont venus s’y installer au IV siècle après JC. La région est truffée d'églises et monastères perchés dans les montagnes. Les villes d'Axum et de Lalibela sont internationalement connues pour abriter quelques uns de ces trésors historiques. Axum vient de récupérer l'un de ses obélisques, symbole du puissant royaume axumite volé par Mussolini en 1935. Malgré un retour en fanfare salué par la communauté internationale, le monument est retenu par les câbles métalliques, en attendant d'être fixé … La ville est clairement touristique mais il y a très peu de touristes. Les sites sont remplis de sportifs éthiopiens venus pour une rencontre sportive, ce qui a définitivement plus de charme que le touriste grassouillet en short et chaussettes-sandales.

IMG_5692 - True A l'extrême Nord du pays se trouve la région du Tigré qui jouxte la frontière érythréenne. Sur la route la tension monte d'un cran, les contrôles de police sont plus fréquents et quelques carcasses de chars soviétiques rouillent sur le bord de la route. Un camp de réfugiés a été installé tout près d’ici. La région ne s'est pas encore remise d'une longue guerre terminée il y à peine quelques années, en 2000. Aujourd’hui à part un sérieux problème de mines, il n'y a plus vraiment de danger dans la région. Les difficultés actuelles sont liées à une situation socio-économique catastrophique, des taux de pauvreté et de chômage très élevés. Les familles ont été détruites par le conflit, les migrations et les méfaits qui s'en suivent (prostitution, VIH) n’ont fait qu’aggraver la situation. Nous sommes attendus à Wukro, au sein d'une communauté de Pères Blancs pour en savoir plus sur la région et le travail des ces missionnaires d’Afrique du XXIe siècle.

Notre prochaine étape est la ville de Bahir Dar, au bord du lac Tana. Voilà encore un triste exemple de lieu dont les mérites ont peut être été vantés à tord. En l’espace de cinq ans, l'intégralité des rives du lac ont été achetées par des entrepreneurs privés. IMG_5627Les lodges et bungalows poussent partout. Les cafés diffusant de la musique pop ont aussi investi les lieux. Il ne reste donc que ce petit parc difficilement trouvable et pas vraiment entretenu pour profiter du lac et surtout de ses adolescents qui font leur lessive tout en se baignant. La ville est parsemée de cafés internet, de bars et de salle de billard. L’ambiance reste vivante. La famille de notre amie nous offre heureusement tout le divertissement qu'il faut. Nous découvrons les plaisirs du machisme et de l'inefficacité des hommes. Cette manière méprisante de justifier “cette tradition” à l’aide d’un porte monnaie bien garni. Le frère dort, mange, et boit entre 8 et 10 bières par jours, heureusement, il n'est ici qu'en vacances. Les sœurs, travailleuses et dévouées se chargent de la maison, de leur vieux père, et de ce frère. La famille est aisée mais reste classique, dans le salon se trouve un réfrigérateur et une télévision couleur. Les deux chambres sont partagées entre les 9 membres de la famille. La cour, le robinet et les sanitaires avec le voisinage. Pour la douche il faut se rendre plus loin dans le quartier, à la “shower house”.

La route d’Addis Abeba est nettement plus agréable, le Japon a financé l’ouvrage du début jusqu’à la fin. Malgré tout, le trajet dure dix heures. Des drapeaux japonais fleurissent de temps en temps. Le paysage est balayé par les vents, les champs tout juste récoltés sont labourés par de beaux buffles. Les rivières sont toujours aussi sèches et les femmes, bidons d’eau sur le dos, encore plus nombreuses à s’enfoncer dans la montagne. Addis Abeba, “la nouvelle fleur” en amharique apparait alors dans le creux d’une montagne, elle se tient là, calme et rayonnante, éclairée par les derniers rayons du soleil.