“Your jacket looks as if you bought if from a camel herder!”, the woman sang directly in front of me. The beat of the drum, accompanying her rattling off a rhythm, echoed the laughter around the room. “I can see your shoes are a treasured family heirloom!” More bursts of laughter followed that of the drum. I sat, tinged with embarrassment from all the attention, not knowing what she was singing about me until my friend shouted a translation into my ear. The crowded bar crackled with clapping hands, and the minstrel and her drummer moved on to their next victim, their shoulders propelling them on as they shrugged back and forward.
The night wore on, the heckles and cheers grew louder, and as I sat with my 3rd or 4th beer, I finally realised after only days of travelling here, just what it was that made it stand out from other East African countries I’d visited so far. Pride. Pride in their country’s ancient traditions and heritage. Pride in their history, in a nation that stood against a colonial power and defeated them in battle. Pride in a land of diversity and difference, in a cuisine pined for by their diaspora around the world, in music and dance unlike any other. Elsewhere in Africa, ‘Westerners’ are often automatically greeted with polite deference, reinforcing the attitudes of superiority that they can bring with them. It was supremely satisfying to come across a tradition where everyone, local or foreigner, rich or poor, could be laughed at, dressed down through song, to the enjoyment of everyone else.
Africa is a continent of abundant diversity, yet Ethiopia does seem to stand alone. Sandwiched between Africa and Arabia, its personality is a mix of both. Hyenas wander through ancient walled cities, Bantu tribes perform age-old coffee ceremonies. The deserts and ruins of the north tower high above the lush river plains further south. It is this depth of character that makes visiting Ethiopia such a unique experience, and gives the feeling that when you depart you know less than before.
Nowhere (excuse the pun) do you get a better taste of Ethiopia than through eating. As in elsewhere on the continent, the food is communal, and everyone sits down together around the plate to share. That is where the similarities with nsima or posho end however in Ethiopia the plate is the food. The size of a small rug and made from a native grain known as teff, injera is the staple, which frames the rest of the meal. Small helpings of spiced vegetables, stewed lamb and other treats are laid on top, and the injera is then torn away from the edge in and used to scoop up the delicacies in the middle. It is wonderfully messy, though slightly disconcerting to find locals at the end of the meal with spotlessly clean hands, while often mine looked as though I had just eaten spaghetti Bolognese without any utensils. And if you are lucky, and you have really made good friends with somebody, you may be given a gursha. Used as a sign of affection between friends or lovers, this seductive-sounding ritual is where someone takes a small scoop of injera, fills it with topping, and shoves it directly in your mouth. There is no better sign of acceptance, or better way to overcome your fear over hygiene in a shared food experience…
A tantalizing kaleidoscope of music awaits in Ethiopia too. From the traditional one-stringed masenqos and drums, piped from every street vendor and tourist stall to the modern Ethio-jazz, melodies and rhythms fly through the air and jar the body into action. Again, in difference to the hip-swinging and gyration on dance-floors further to the south in Africa, it is little surprise that the country’s moves have developed alongside the throbbing musical style and consist of placing the hands on the hips and throwing your shoulders forward and back in time. The best practitioners almost seem to dislocate their shoulder blades completely, which coincidentally, is the most common cause of dance-related tourist accidents that are reported in Ethiopian hospitals.
Ethiopia is not so much steeped in history as pressure-boiled in a pot and left all day to cook. There are no less than the ruins of two ancient civilisations in the north, including the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, supposedly stolen by the Queen of Sheba after a flirtatious visit to the Pharoah. The famous churches of Tigray, built atop impassable cliff-faces or hewn from the rock itself, are scattered everywhere, and the churches of Lalibela, a wonder of the ancient world by any reckoning, are sculpted out of the bare rock underneath your feet, literally turning the notion of a church on its head.
And yet this is not a buried history, dusty and forgotten with no link to the modern day. The historical sites are living centres of frenetic energy, where trade and tourism, construction and religion all combine. Priests hold vigils in their churches even as tourist groups watch on. Local weddings are celebrated under old monuments, where guests and visitors can mingle. In fact, visiting some of the many churches in Ethiopia is anything but dull. It is actually more like a sort of medieval adventure sport, which involves stumbling through dimly-lit tunnels or clambering up sheer cliff-faces using a yarn rope with a harness of woven cowhide for protection.
It is such history that probably contributes most to Ethiopians’ strong sense of self. They were never colonised, apart from a brief spell by the Italians, which was more of an occupation, though the introduction of pasta and sparkling water has shown remarkable endurance. Ethiopia developed the plough over 3,000 years ago, well before any of its neighbours, or most people in Europe for that matter. Its monuments are a testament to the magnificence of its past. Coupled with the relative isolation of the country for many years, it is little wonder that Ethiopia’s history has taught it to stick out its chin in defiance.
Of course this pride sometimes manifests itself in a sort of indifference or even contempt, when faced with the bumbling banter of a tourist, and it is not uncommon to be dispatched with in an attitude similar to that of a balding 55 year-old French maître-de serving a table full of tourists requesting gluten-free baguette.
I find this strangely encouraging however. As a guest here, I am happy to suffer the odd po-faced rudeness as evidence of the confidence held by its people. It helps bring down the cultural barriers we think are in place, and which are all too easily adhered to when visiting other places. It reminds us that we are not different, and certainly no better, than someone from the other side of the globe. It lets us get to know the local people, no longer seeing them as exotic natives, but as people with as fascinating a culture and history as our own, as strong a sense of identity within the modern world, and as much right to laugh at tourists as anyone.
Words: Malcolm Turner
Pictures: Kristina Low
Malcolm and Kristina are active members of the Nkwichi Lodge Team whether on the Lake’s Shore in Mozambique or back home in Scotland. They joined the #TuesdayTravelStory community after meeting Daréll Lourens when she filmed one of the very first #GoodHolidayVideos and learnt about the Singing Sands for the first time.
Manda Wilderness Community Trust (MWCT) is the Community Development leg of Nkwichi and was established as a UK Charity in 2004.