Saturday, 25 October 2014

Ethiopia and Somaliland 2015


The (mis)adventures of the A-Team (Paul Stewart and Brent Hargreaves) in East Affffrica.
Some highlights of the positive and negative experiences

Surrounded by Predators

From the moment they spotted us they began circling, edging gradually closer, their eyes glinting, testing us for weakness. This, at a bus stop in the middle of town!
We're in the town of Harar in eastern Ethiopia, breaking our journey to Somaliland in an ancient place famous for its city walls and as the birthplace of the mass murderer Mengistu.
From the evidence before our eyes, the women of Ethiopia do all the work and the men either lounge around doing nothing all day or (and here they come) they prey on innocent visitors. In his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates coined the phrase 'friction free capitalism', predicting that the newfangled internet, liberating information, would make purchase decisions easier. Scavengers with mobile phones, the street hucksters now surrounding us will, under the pretence of being helpful, attempt to exploit our ignorance and ensure that we pay top dollar for drinks, food, accommodation and onward transport. If we're dumb enough to let 'em, that is......

Harar is the furthest we could get from the capital, Addis Ababa, in a single hop. It was a ten-hour bus ride. From here to the border with Somaliland we need to find transport. But first, we need beer. Shaking off the gaggle of hucksters, and very alert to theft, we stroll off to find a bar. There's one down a sidestreet. Paul and I chill out, taking our time to orient ourselves (is there a bus station?) and hand out token gifts to children across the road.

Colourful women and timid children in Harar, Ethiopia

We decide to hire a private taxi for the remaining 100 miles to the border, and after much haggling agree on a price of $120, leaving tomorrow morning. Now, where are we to sleep? Shunning all advice, we decide to head off in a direction of our own choice in a dead straight line until we find a suitable campsite. Masters of our own fate, with iron resolve, we will not deviate to left or right until we can say: "This is a nice spot".

Our chosen direction takes us through the ancient walled city - through one gate, out the other side, laughing and joking with women heading in the same direction, some driving donkeys with the shopping on, some carrying baskets or sacks on their heads (haha, missus! D'you reckon this rucksack would be better on me head?). The crowds thin out. We pass the smelly municipal rubbish dump and, now very tired, find a nice spot. Suddenly there are dark clouds and lightning flashes. Double-quick, we pitch our tents but the expected downpour doesn't happen.

I go off in search of firewood. There are some funny looking trees. Underneath them one or two green spheres: haha! These are mango trees! and for the next day the song from Dr. No is stuck in my head - Underneath de Mango Tree. Also underneath de mango tree is a hyena: furtive, sly, shifty. It slinks off when I throw a mango at him. By the time I get back to camp he is tagging along behind. "Hey Paul, I've made a friend!" Paul rummages in his rucksack and comes out with the world's biggest Bowie knife to defend us.  

As dusk arrives, three or four other hyenas join the first one. We throw stones at them to no effect. They laugh at us! It's a filthy corrupt sound. When it's fully dark we don our headlamps and, from the reflections in their eyes, we realise that we are surrounded at all points of the compass by at least eight hyenas. It's time for a risk assessment. Can we just ignore them and hope they lack the courage to come through the canvas? Shall we take it in turns to sleep with one of us standing guard? Or must we accept that these are unpredictable wild animals; that we have no experience to guide us; that the only sensible course is to break camp and retreat to the town. We do the sensible thing and pack up. A horrible sweaty night follows, in a double bed, listening to barking dogs, swatting mosquitos (Paul is a brilliant shot) and discovering condoms on top of the wardrobe.
In the morning, the private taxi is just big enough for us and our packs. The huckster who arranged this thinks he is squeezing in with us. We politely tell him to go to hell. The trip to Togo Wuchale on the border is great fun, and we tell the driver to pull over when we spot baboons or Lot's Wife or giant phalli (is that the plural of phallus?) en route.
Baboons, Willy Canyon, Paul irrigating an acacia tree, Lot's Wife sheltering under an acacia tree.

Dumber and Dumber

Paul and I had long conversations on "openness", and figured that we would strike the best balance between the two extremes of (a) Being so cautious that it disbarred us from exchanges with genuine people and (b) Believing like gullible fools that everybody was our friend. Could we strike the "happy medium"? Why, shoor.
On a long walk through the diesel fumes of Addis Ababa, a couple of friendly guys fall into step with us. "Hello! How are you? Where are you guys from?" and so on. They tell us all about the bus station; about the new railway; about the sports stadium; about the embassies. And, as afternoon turns into night, they ask us if we would like to experience a Tej Bar. Tej is mead, or honey wine, flavoured with a unique local shrub, once reserved only for kings. It's an unmissable experience.
We confer, and decide that we can easily afford to treat a couple of ne'er-do-wells to a couple of rounds of drink. We think we are being "open".
They take us through dark rubble-strewn streets to a bustling place, with every seat taken. Grinning our stupid tourist grins at the many blank faces turned towards us, we are led through the throng, down a corridor, into a narrow back room where - pleasant surprise! - there is just enough room for the four of us at the end of this cul de sac.
The Tej is rather nice.  Another round? Yeah, sure! Oh, it's traditional to drink three times. Yeah, sure!
And then the bill comes. It's quite high. I forget just how much, but it's maybe twenty or thirty quid. We start to protest. The hard-faced barman, who has been filling these flasks from a big enamel kettle with great dexterity, is not batting an eyelid. He wants paying. We ask other drinkers what price they are paying per shot. They write down exactly the sum of money that our companions tell them - maybe two quid a shot. Paul and I confer. Have we fallen into a trap? Yes we have. Can we afford this? Yes we can. Can we extract ourselves from this without unpleasantness? I want my mummy.
When we get out into the fresh air, breathing sighs of relief, but cursing ourselves for letting our guard down, these two bastards are still at our sides. In an effort to salvage some self-respect, I thank the one of them for a useful, if expensive, education. They propose a meal. We say, "Great idea! How about this pizza place over the road. You're buying, then? It's your round!" They vanish at a speed which suggests teleportation or genies going back into a kettle of Tej.
There's a postscript. The following day, as he sits typing in an internet café, Paul looks up to see one of these petty criminals next to him. He's full of himself, gloating at his successful sting. He boasts to Paul that with the proceeds of the scam he has bought a set of new clothes and a pair of shoes. Paul tells him, vividly and vigorously, to go away.   
Another day, another dummy


Unusual in Africa, unsual in muslim countries, Somaliland is a democracy. They change government by election, with the outgoing President handing over without a fight.

Not to be confused with the dangerous Somalia, Somaliland was once a British colony. Thanks to us Brits, they write in a-b-c rather than wiggly squiggly. In 1960, we Brits and the colonial masters of Italian Somalia coordinated our departure and left 'em to it. After a period of calm and oppression, Somaliland broke away. There was terrible loss of life. Today, Somaliland is proudly independent. In the capital, Hargeisa, they celebrate this liberation every 18 May with much waving of their green-white-red national colours. This year was the 24th anniversary.  

Paul and I timed our visit to witness the big parade, hoping to see the famous lions. We were not disappointed.

Wrapped in the flag  - Hand-made Hatband - Hairstyle - Ladies join in 

Paul had a bout of food-poisoning, and was confined to the hotel room on the day before the Big Day. I went walkabout. Walking along Independence Road, I hear a song being played from Tannoys, sounding like Manca Manca Manca. Its tune strongly resembles the French song Alouette. I happen upon a Russian-made MiG bomber on a pedestal and, snapping away, draw a crowd of locals.

Independence from Britain, on 24 June 1960 (or 26th according to the above pedestal) (the guy with the hairstyle says it was the 24th) was then supplanted by the 18 May 1991 independence from Somalia.

Paul and I were dubious about the Mig having been shot down whilst bombing Hargeisa. It turns out that, having bombed civilians in 1991, later engine failure at takeoff left it stranded at Hargeisa airport, hence its good condition to this day.

I asked my crowd of locals about the song. A couple of them gave me the lyrics:

Manta manta manta
Wa ma'alin wee'le manta
Manta manta manta

Today today today
Today is a big day
Today today today.

This was a big hit for a lady called Halimo Khalif Mogol in 1960. On this Big Day in 2015, we sometimes attracted crowds of curious locals, snapping photos of us in our green-white-red, who were very pleased to hear us sing the song.

The temperatures were very high, and I was wearing shorts. The sight of legs attracted some dubious looks, but only when a tall austere guy in a muslim hat pushed through the crowd and accused me of a lack of respect did I change my wayward ways and skedaddle to the hotel room to re-attach the bottom half. When in Rome.....

Watching the procession on the Big Day, a policeman calls us forward. "Come with me", he says. We follow obediently. He makes his way to the steps of a bank where a bunch of top brass are receiving salutes from the passing military. Next thing we know, we are among the local dignitaries, being saluted at. Such fun!

Kalashnikovs. Don't like Kalashnikovs.
Did we see the lions? Yes we did!

Lion and hat. "Equal justice under the law"? I'll drink to that!

Not-so-smiley faces                                        Slootin sojers

Sadly, we failed to make contact with a former workmate, Mustafa, who was back home in Somaliland at the same time as us. It would have been great to have had an entrée into local society.

A word about the hat: one evening my adventurous hat with its lovely hatband was whipped off my head by a bunch of youths who yahoo'ed away into the darkness. I yelled, "Oh, no!", but declined to go rugby tackling 'em. Paul and I were immediately surrounded by apologetic adults, ashamed of the offence. One of them offered me the above trilby, which I gratefully accepted. And I got my hat back. Kids, eh?!

The Red Terror

It so happens that Ethiopia is Christian, with a history going back to the 4th century. It is the only African country to have escaped European colonialism. From 1930 its emperor was the famous Haile Selassie. Before becoming emperor his name was Tafari Makonnen, later "Ras" (head) Tafari. For reasons beyond me, a religious movement in Jamaica adopted him as a figure of respect (or higher), and called themselves the Rastafarians. 

Walking around Addis Ababa we would sometimes see a bewildered guy in dreadlocks muttering to himself or singing in a demented way. Go figure.

In 1973 I recall seeing a Sunday Times magazine item entitled "Ethiopia: the Lion Grows Old". The following year Haile Selassie was deposed in a military coup. For the next fifteen years a monster called Mengistu, with Soviet support, set about murdering hundreds of thousands of his opponents with special emphasis on the young. Today, a superb museum in Addis commemorates these dark days. The staff lived through those times. Mengistu lives on, given sanctuary by the lovely Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

I try to avoid political comment on my travels, but let the following photos give their own comment:

A street huckster had latched onto us as we walked around the streets looking for a bus station and also the Red Terror Museum. At a certain point, he was pounced upon by a young man who gave him a right pummelling, ending in a pebble the size of a conker being thrown at his head with an audible "thwock". It was only that evening that we discovered the identity of the attacker: he was a huckster from outside our hotel, some miles away from where the assault took place, by the name of Dawyd. Seconds before beating up the other fellow Dawydd had said to me, "OMG! Fancy meeting you here!", but he had clearly been tracking us every step of the way and considered us his turkeys ready for plucking.

This is not nice. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have made greater efforts to get out into the countryside; out of the big bad cities with their hard people.

Border Control Problems

Without wishing to dwell unduly on the problems Paul and I encountered, our unwitting errors caused us great anxiety. Firstly, upon crossing from Ethiopia to Somaliland at the land border, we appear to have strolled right past the Ethiopian exit point without noticing it.

Our second unwitting error was to lack understanding of the visa system. It seems that, unlike on trips to France, there are single-entry and multiple-entry visas. Upon flying back to Addis Ababa after Somaliland, and without the requisite exit stamp, we were attempting an illegal entry after an illegal exit (their words).

Quiz question: can you see my surname somewehere in the above mess?

They confiscated our passports and, in daily sessions at the Department of Immigration, we were subjected to severe questioning, with a silent fellow examining our body language. At one stage, questioned separately from Paul, my inquisitor put it to me that I had failed to spot the Border Control because I "didn't want to see it". (In fact, in their crappy country it's hard to tell the difference between a Border Control and a shithouse.) He went on to tell me that I would have to go on trial, and asked "do you have a lawyer?" I replied "I want the British Consul", which seemed to quieten him down. A later precautionary visit to the British Consulate yielded a phone call which may have helped.

During our daily visits to the Ministry we stayed in a nearby hotel. One evening a stranger sits near Paul and engages him in conversation. Paul is pretty sure that he was working for the Ministry, sent in to observe us up close. He told Paul a story about some Dutch tourists who had strayed into a conflict area and got imprisoned for five years. Gulp.

In the end, they let us off, although Paul had great anxiety at the airport. The passports were missing, and arrived only minutes before his flight closed.

I draw the following conclusion: Ethiopia has no concept of easing international travel; its officialdom, used to lording it over a cowed populace, feels entitled to lord it over visitors. It is a country best avoided by the tourist and probably by the business visitor as well. I for one will not be going back, and consider that I have had a lucky escape.

Last Minute Trouble

Paul flew home the day before I did. I used the  remaining day to walk up into the Entoto Mountains, north of Addis, reaching an altitude of 3000m (just 300m lower than the summit of Etna). Addis, at 2500m, is the third highest capital in the world. I became ill on the 2nd or 3rd day - we believe from altitude sickness. At 3000m (I am amazed to discover) a third of the air is missing!
The celebrated athlete Haile Gabreselassie should be renamed Very Highly Gabreselassie.

I stopped off at villages to play with the kiddies and give away some plastic spiders and bubbles and stuff.

Forever blowing bubbles. No unkind references to Michael Jackson, please.

In one of them, I later found, one of the taller boys had managed to unzip a side-pocket of my rucksack as I departed, stealing my torches, six or eight items in total. Upon discovering this, I went back down the slope and made a right old stink: "RIGHT, YOU LITTLE BASTARDS! ON PARADE! WHO HAS STOLEN MY STUFF?!" The adults of the village made an appearance, placated me, and organized the recovery of most of the stuff. Once honour was satisfied, the woman who kindly took the lead shook my hand, bumping shoulders in the Ethiopian manner.

Firewood-carrying women of the Dhorzay tribe. The men just watch...

At the top, not far from a village, I pitched my tent. The next morning, tribeswomen took an interest, and mentioned my presence to local soldiers who (no surprises any more) came along with their silly Kalashnikovs to annoy me. Eventually my "case" reached a high enough level in the chain of command and an officer let me go. Phew!

The Cradle of Humanity

Mankind originated in Ethiopia. A close cousin of Homo - Australopithecus Afarensis - walked upright. We know this from the discovery of a fossilised specimen, named Lucy. She was given this nickname because Richard Leakey's team of archeologists were playing a tape of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds when the great discovery was made.
Australopithecus Afarensis ("Lucy") and Homo Stewartis ("Paul")
Not far from the Somaliland capital Hargeisa we visited some ancient cave paintings, some dated as early as 3000BC. Whilst this is a long time after Lucy, it is still some of the earliest art known.
Las Geel ("Watering place of the camels")
Stop Press 28 May 2015 A 'new species' discovered in Ethiopia: Australopithecus deyiremeda (Hyperlink)


We met many people chewing the narcotic leaf called chat, khat or qat. Even in the very muslim city of Hargeisa it was very big business
Chat users and sellers.
Based on our very brief observations I would say that chat makes people cocky and insensitive, and boggle-eyed. It is also the most revolting sight to see inside the mouth of a man who has been chewing the stuff for a long time.

Chat user

In the minibus from the border to Hargeisa, a big guy sat next to me worked his way through a bunch of chat. He would pluck out the tenderest shoots, flick them with his middle finger and gleefully stuff them in his mouth. He seemed most amused at my disapproval, waving the stuff in front of me.
I wonder if the mullahs will declare this substance as bad as alcohol and ban it...

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  1. Sounds like fun. Have a good one!

  2. WOW, You were very lucky, but on the end there will be something to remember for many, many years... Rafal

  3. Continue writing like this, very informative content, nice way to write, a real pleasur to read you !

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Yeah! Great content to read.