Making friends in Ethiopia

By Vicki Virtue

Southern Ethiopia is home to some of the world's oldest tribes who, due to their isolation, have retained many of their traditions, writes Vicki Virtue.

A Karo girl shows off the long nail protruding through her lower lip, which seems to be the standard adornment for females in Ethiopia. Photo / Vicki Virtue
A Karo girl shows off the long nail protruding through her lower lip, which seems to be the standard adornment for females in Ethiopia. Photo / Vicki Virtue

I was unconscious when I made my first friends in Ethiopia. Fainting in the street is an unusual method of getting to know people, but it worked for me, proving the ideal way of learning about this intriguing country.

The place where I collapsed was the town of Jinka in the Omo Valley, in southern Ethiopia, home to some of Africa's most fascinating tribes.

Like many towns in the region, Jinka is a busy mix of children playing in the streets, colourfully dressed women fetching water from the well, shopkeepers selling goods from their mud huts and a distinct lack of cars on the muddy streets.

I was exploring the back streets when I suddenly ended up in a crumpled heap on the ground. When I came to, I found myself surrounded by a group of concerned looking Ethiopians.

They ushered me into the nearest house, and frantic shouts of, "A white woman has collapsed" brought the local doctor running.

Then, after consuming spoonfuls of sugar, and assuring everyone I was merely the victim of strong malaria tablets, I found I had acquired some new friends.

The home I had been taken to was quite fancy by rural Ethiopian standards. The concrete floor was covered with lino, the decor and furnishings were a throwback to the 70s, with floral sofas and lace doilies on the wooden sideboards. It even had the luxury of electricity, which is uncommon outside the capital.

The owner was the head teacher at the local school who quickly took advantage of my unexpected visit to seek my assistance. Since funding for schools is not readily available in Ethiopia, one book can be shared by up to 40 students, and luxuries such as computers are unheard of.

It did seem a little callous hitting me up for sponsorship money when I was lying prostrate on her sofa, but many people in Ethiopia live in poverty, and when you are that desperate, pride and consideration have to take a back seat.

Tourists are inevitably seen as a source of much needed cash and many Ethiopians have no compunction about asking for help.

In an interesting turn of fate I had the opportunity to repay the kindness shown to me in Jinka a few days later, in the tiny village of Karo, on the banks of the Omo River.

In what must be one of the most remote places on earth, the Karo tribe continues to live as they have for thousands of years.

Their village is perched on a cliff top overlooking the lush, green Omo Valley dramatically dissected by the crocodile infested Omo River.

The village consists of small round huts made from tree branches. The hut interiors are just as basic with goatskin mats and a few cooking implements near the open fire.

Life here is hard. The women kneel outside their huts grinding sorghum, a type of grain, on flat stones. The sorghum is then mixed with water and leaves to make porridge, a staple in their simple diet. Collecting water involves a treacherous climb down the cliff to the river, followed by hauling the heavy containers back up.

Goatskin is the basis of the Karo wardrobe. And like their counterparts worldwide, the women go to great lengths to decorate themselves.

A long nail protruding through the lower lip seems to be the standard adornment for females. Scarification is another - a knife or razor is used to cut the skin, ash is rubbed into the wound to create an infection, and as the skin heals it develops a raised scar in the design they have chosen. I could only wonder at the infection rate from these procedures.

In fact disease is a problem throughout the country, with basic sanitation and medical care unavailable to many.

In Karo, I met a mother holding her sick child. She was desperate to see if I had any medicine that might help, but the youngster needed more than the Panadol I had in my backpack. Through my guide I ascertained that the family had no means of getting to the nearest hospital or paying the costs once there.

As our journey would take us through a town that had medical facilities I suggested we give them a lift. After further discussions with the father, we figured out that the equivalent of $50 would be sufficient to cover the hospital costs, a night's accommodation in town and the return journey. While this small amount was easy for me to part with it was beyond the reach of anyone in the village.

The extraordinary look of gratitude in the father's eyes as I gave him the money was enough to tell me that without my help he may have had to sit and watch his son die.

As we pulled out of the village his wife came running towards us with a bottle of water for them to drink on the journey. I looked at the yellow river water and realised that while we may have saved the child this time, another illness was probably not far away.

It is sadly this extreme poverty that makes Ethiopia such a fascinating place to visit. The lack of resources and isolation of the tribes in the Omo Valley have helped them retain the rich traditions they have practiced for thousands of years.

As I walked along a dry riverbed in Turmi, trying to spot the elusive colobus monkey, I came across a group from the Hamer tribe.

Dressed in goatskin with shell decorations, the women were digging a hole in the riverbed to find water while the men were cooking a goat over an open fire. In what could easily have been a scene from prehistoric times, this was daily life in the Omo Valley.

The industrial revolution is yet to reach this part of southern Ethiopia. Roads are generally muddy tracks through bush, dotted with small, basic villages. Cooking is done over an open fire, water is taken from streams or rivers and a donkey is transport for the wealthy. Such a lack of industry though, has helped to retain the beautiful green countryside with its thriving banana and coffee plantations.

While their lack of money has prevented material advances in their lifestyle, the tribes have been quick to latch on to tourism as a source of vital income. Quite correctly they have identified their appearance and lifestyle as a major draw for tourists.

If you want to take their photo, then you must pay. And they're sharp enough to notice how often you press the shutter, the price of course increasing the more prolific a photographer you are.

To many visitors this seems a little Disneyesque, but the tribes see it as their right. In many parts of the world, traditional tribal rituals have long since been forgotten. By charging for their traditions perhaps the tribes of Ethiopia can retain theirs a little longer.

The Mursi tribe is probably the most photographed in the country. The women are famous for their large lip plates - at a young age they cut the bottom lip and insert a small plate, and as the women grow so does the size of the lip plate. Some women have plates up to 10cm in diameter protruding from their lower lips.

Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder - to an outsider they look a little grotesque, but within the tribe they are considered highly attractive and desirable.

The alternative means of earning a living for many Mursi is to make a two-day walk, with produce strapped to their back, to the nearest town for market day. There they can sell or trade honey, goats and maize - so it's easy to understand their mercenary attitude towards tourists with cameras.

That aside, Ethiopians are generally a friendly bunch. It is hard to walk down the street without encountering someone keen to engage you in conversation, or invite you home for coffee.

Be warned though, an invitation to coffee will involve a considerable amount of time. In a country that grows some of the world's best coffee Ethiopians take it very seriously. The roasting and brewing takes a long time, but the results are well worth the wait. And the experience is a good way of getting to know your hosts.

Although one of the poorest countries on earth it is certainly rich in traditions, landscapes, history and friendliness.


Visas: New Zealand passport holders can get a visa at Addis Ababa airport on arrival. Make sure you carry US dollars or euros as you can't pay for your visa in any other currency and the bank at the airport is not always open.

Currency: Ethiopia's currency is the birr. Credit cards are not widely accepted so it is best to carry cash in a major currency such as US dollars. There is an ATM machine at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa that will give a cash advance on a Visa card but it is best not to rely on it.

Tipping: A small tip is always appreciated in Ethiopia as wages are low. In establishments used to tourists 10 per cent is usually appropriate. It pays to carry a stock of small cash, especially for photographs which cost 2-3 birr each.

Getting there: Emirates flies to Dubai from New Zealand and from there you can get a connecting flight to Addis Ababa.

Getting around: Travelling around Ethiopia is best done with an experienced tour operator as many of the roads are difficult and it is important to understand protocol when approaching villages.

Ethiopian Airways offer regular flights to the north of the country but they can be unreliable in the south. Roads are not good so even short distances can take longer than expected.

There are many good tour operators in Ethiopia. I used Red Jackal Tours who proved to be highly experienced with good vehicles.

Further information: Lonely Planet's Ethiopia & Eritrea is an excellent book to plan your trip. The organised tours section has a list of good tour operators in the country.

Vicki Virtue paid her own way to Ethiopia.

- NZ Herald

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