The ten hour car ride plunged us into a vivid collage of images the expectant traveler dreams he will see as he sits in the comforts of his first world home. Darkness veiled the dark continent an hour into our ride until a neon pink sunrise escaped behind an escarpment of tall thin trees and emerging Ethiopians. For the next few hours our weariness was postponed as we witnessed the experience of being in Africa for the first time. Amy and I looked at each other with side-long smiles, sharing the knowledge that we had finally made it to Ethiopia.
I feel that this trip waour way of testing the practice of remaining calm in the face of overwhelming challenge. It is incredibly easy to breath through a difficult situation when that situation takes place in your own country, city, and can be discussed in your own language. But six hours into our ride south, fatigue was taking its toll. (We had been traveling two days straight by air and then thrown into a vehicle for a 800+ kilometer trip.)
Perhaps because of the obvious lack of rest, I was not as conscious as I should have been of my deteriorating mental state. My external world was challenging the calmness inside me yet I was no longer aware that my beliefs were also in danger. The road that we took was less traveled by car than it was by foot and hoof. Thousands of cattle and goats combed the roads guided by their human counterparts. Every ten meters, we passed twenty Ethiopians. Our vehicle weaved with ease around this living obstacle course, though from this ferenji’s perspective it appeared far from simple. By day three I was impressed that we had only hit one cow.
Still driving south, we stopped to fix a flat tire in the middle of nowwhere. The reality, there is no middle of nowhere in Ethiopia. For as far as the eye can see there is at least one person in the distance, and behind that bush or bend there are 300 others. Alex and our driver got out to assess the situation. We had in fact stopped next to a woman standing on the side of the road, resting in transit from wherever she happened to be going. Beyond her was a child, beyond the child another child, and onward for 100 meters. It was the same in the opposite direction. Within five minutes there were twenty people within arms reach and children could be seen running top speed in our direction. The people spoke to each other but not to us nor we to them. In fact, it seemed odd that neither Alex nor our driver said as much as a hello to them. Being ignorant to this I extended smiles to the children (who outnumbered the adults 10-1) who in turn eyed me with curiosity and suspicion.
The tire being fixed, we got back into the truck and were encircled on all sides, peering into the car as one might do to a limo. Finally, it came. “Money?” They smiled at each other and then immediately mimicked, “Money, Money!”
There is a ferenji madness in Ethiopia. Massive tour operators have for years trucked out foreigners to the south to see tribes that are living on the brink of cultural extinction. Arriving, tourists take pictures of these painted people like they are animals on two legs with plates in their lips and scarred tattoos on their body. All the villages and people in-between that day long journey are nothing more than visual stimulation for the tourist on wheels. The locals reap nothing of the tourist’s 10 second stay and this brief cultural interaction is about all they experience from the white man. But every now and then a truck will break down along the way and a tourist will take pity on a shoeless child carrying a back-load of vegetables and give them some money. This child, not knowing what he did to deserve such good fortune, goes out and tells his friends that the ferenji gave him money for no good reason, who in turn tell everyone they possibly know. Because of this, ferenji madness grips the population with relentless intensity.
I would be willing to imagine that 9 out of 10 children that we passed on our 10 hour car ride ran after us – no matter how fast we were going.
(We arguably passed 50,000 children, and I would say that’s a low estimate.)
This leads us to this week’s topical video about education, on which I will elaborate more as the week evolves.
For those headed to Konso in southern Ethiopia, I would recommend staying at Strawberry Fields, a comfortable tourist eco-lodge which also teaches perma-culture to anyone interested for a fair price.