Monday, May 11, 2009

A Freek A (part 2)

When two tribes go to… err beg (it’s really bloody annoying you know)

Thank you lord for making me be born in a country with access to good support underwear.

Okay finally getting round to updating my blog on Africa. Several months late, but this is Prague and time is just a concept.
The people of Ethiopia are well known around the world as sad starving looking people with distended stomachs. It’s certainly fair to say that they have had their fair share of bad luck not helped by hapless rulers. Take for example Ras Tafarie who was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie ‘the chosen one of God’, which is a bit of a bugger of a name to try and fit on a business card.

He, apparently, lounged around enjoying fancy banquets while 200,000 peasants starved to death in the 1970’s famine. Thankfully Ras Tafarie was not a Rastafarian in the dreadlock and weed smoking sense. A good job too, having the munchies when there’s nothing left in your cupboard is too cruel to contemplate.

'gimme one bir, gimmie one bir gimmie one bir gimmie one bir.... and so on ad infinitum'

So anyway, several famines, a few occupations and the odd war or two have left a fairly fertile country not very rich. Praise be to Bob Geldof and U2 who introduced the concept of mass charity and handouts. Throughout Addis Ababa there are great tree lined boulevards. Each one hosts a luxurious villa with a swimming pool proclaiming to belong to some charity or other curing some affliction or other for the people of Ethiopia. I had no idea what some of these causes even were there were so many of them. I’m sure if you wanted to found a charity for ‘kids who dropped a marble that rolled under the settee one day that they were unable to reach without aid’ you probably could. Especially if you gave it a French name like ‘enfants ont ete incapables d’atteindre sans aide’.

The result of this is that even though they are not a poor staving country anymore, there is nothing an Ethiopian likes more than a good handout from a white person. Even though there are many aid agencies that pay good money to send children who have lost their marbles (or whatever) to school, families feel that, well, they’re just better off walking down the middle of a busy highway and begging. Okay maybe that's a bit simplistic. They are very poor. But not poor enough to warrant the amount of begging.

And if they are not begging they are trying to rip you off and charge you three times the price for something.

And it never stops. Ever. Taxi drivers are taxi drivers wherever you go, but when the hotel receptionist tries to demand 20 dollars for ordering you a taxi, you know that it has gone too far. At a small village I tried to buy a can of mango juice. The lady refused to sell me it until she had run down the street and found out how much the hostel was ripping me off for mango juice.

Children tug at your sleeve incessantly begging and demanding money on repeat loop. Their favourite trick is to follow you around pointing at things and then try to demand a ‘guides fee’. It's pretty tough to say no to people when you know they have far less than you, but it's advised not to by all the charitable organisations. In fact they say you shouldn't give them anything, not even a pen or an apple, as they'll only go and sell it. And after the 80th or 90th person feigns friendship and then demands money, you get tired of it to the point of being murderous.

One time we went to a village and 20 people mobbed our jeep before we’d even parked demanding money. We couldn’t actually get out of the car. We had to drive off. Groups of men accosted us in forests and tried to demand ‘forest entrance fee’s’ when it was clearly a public park. They are very persistent. It was only when I got so angry I was quite close to hitting one of them that they finally backed off accusing me of ‘using my power’ on them. Whatever that means. Well it was that time of month, I’d recently given up smoking and I hadn’t seen a glass of white wine for weeks. Perhaps they realised they were staring in the face of certain death.

Just your friendly neighbourhood mursi (above)

So anyway the tribes. To see the tribes you must travel far. We are talking some 20 hours of driving from the capital. You must have a driver, a guide and in some cases an armed scout. Also you must go to see the tribes early in the day before they get drunk. Tribesmen armed with Kalashnikovs who want your money drinking home brewed spirits is not always a great combination. Sometimes they kidnap your camera, sometimes they kidnap you.

Who's a pretty girl then?

We first went to Mago national park to see the Mursi tribe. I wasn’t in the best of moods having had food poisoning and spending the night before curled up in the foetal position on a filthy cold concrete floor making my acquaintance with the cockroaches. The mursi are known as the fiercest Ethiopian tribe. The women wear lip plates, this is said to be to stop white men taking them away as slaves. They would make very bad slaves. They were bastards.

They never stopped pushing, pinching and nipping. They wanted money for you to take their photos, which is fair enough. But having taken one the price would mysteriously double. It’s hard to argue with a toothless old hag brandishing a rifle. I was hot and sick and retired to the jeep where upon they surrounded it and started banging on the windows demanding money like some B rate horror movie.

The way back was beautiful. We bumped into some of the Karo tribe (see pics on part 1), who are mostly naked except for paint. Incidentally they are one of Africa’s most endangered tribes. I don’t know if it’s connected.

Our armed guard for the Mursi, didn't fancy his chances against a tribe of em.... This is a lawless land where tribes are still at war. The difference is that now they have guns rather than spears.

Our next stop was Turmi. Sort of near the Kenyan border in the malaria and tsetse hotspot. There weren’t really any roads. Accommodation was described as ‘bare bone budget at best’ This was where we encountered the cockroaches the size of hamsters. It’s also where food poisoning finally caught up with Pavel and Stefan.

The Hamer are agropastoralists. They grow tobacco, vegetables, millet and cotton and barter with it at markets. We went to a market. Some hassled us for photos but mostly they just weren’t bothered. They were quite nice. In the evening they spend everything they have made on Tej (a kind of honey wine) and get royally trashed. They must pay for the bill before they start drinking. We went to a bar after the market, which, unusually, had an electricity supply and a television on which was playing Ultimate Nonstop Wrestling. Imagine if you will, sitting in a mud hut with a group of mostly naked strangers who actually believe that the wrestling is for real. Luckily they didn’t have Kalashnikovs. But they were quite excited. One of them sold me his belt in exchange for booze.

The Hamer women have deep scars on their backs. This is because to show their love for a boy they must be whipped. The more they bleed the healthier they are purported to be and the more they love their man. Go figure.

Of course, with Pavel being the only Czech in the world with a Jamaican accent, we had to visit Shashemene, an area of Ethiopia given to the Rastafarians by Haile Selessie. The guidebook says it is known for its unfriendly treatment of foreigners. But there was supposed to be a museum so we thought we’d go and look.
The museum was closed but we were invited into the 12 tribes community centre. A sort of religious community centre. We had a beer and the Rastas got us good and stoned before trying to sell us all manner of crap polyester ‘knitted’ hats and other assorted fake junk that had been made in China. Pavel and Stefan indulged.

As we left the 12 tribes centre we found that a bunch of 12 year old kids had kidnapped our driver and our car and were now demanding money with menaces to let us out of the compound. I started getting angry again. Pavel gave them a dollar and they went away. I would have preferred to have given them a slap. And they could have kept the change. Anyway the ransom money for kidnapping experience was the only genuine Rasta thing that Pavel paid them for that day, so I suppose I should be happy for him.

We were quite happy when we got to Awasa, Ethiopias second largest city. It had white wine. And people only harassed us every 20 metres instead of every 2. But the monkeys did make a few attempts to break into my room. The UN were also based here, which meant there were decent restaurants, white wine and toilets. I was very happy. Ethiopia was great. But it was hard. I have never seen such amazing scenery in my life. But a couple of things let it down. The people and the price. I never met one genuine person who tried to help us or speak to us without demanding money. Facilities were filthy health hazards for huge amounts of money compared to other countries. But it’s an experience I will never forget and one that will soon be unrepeatable as a major highway construction connecting Addis Ababa to the south is underway. Once it is completed and this part of Ethiopia becomes more accessible, these people and their way of life will die out.

More images to be uploaded soon when I find the USB.....

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