An introduction

February 15, 2009

I recently spent a month in Ethiopia. It was my first time there–and, besides an overnight stay in Ceuta following an aborted trip to Morocco during college, it was my first time in Africa–and I didn’t know shit about the place before going. My friend Tyler, a linguistics grad student at Stanford, asked me to go with him while he spent three weeks in a little village in southwestern Ethiopia called Yeri cataloguing an endangered language called Shabo (more info on Shabo here, plus a map of other endangered languages in Africa, and then more info about Africa in general linguistically here). Lacking a full-time job but excited more and more by the idea–Ethiopia!!!–I said yes.

The upshot of the trip: I loved what I saw of the country and want/plan to go back.

This is a blog with some pictures and some words of/about Ethiopia. I’ve set it up to be read sequentially, so just move on down the screen to get the chronological order of the trip correct.

But before all that, here are some things you may not have known about the country (much thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC, EthioBlog, and the CIA’s World Factbook).

1. It is one of the oldest countries in the world, having been independent, with the exception of a five-year occupation by Italy under Mussolini, for over two thousand years.

2. It is land-locked, a bit less than twice the size of Texas, and is bordered by Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and Sudan.

3. The Blue Nile–which joins the White Nile in Sudan and, as the Nile, flows north through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea–starts at Lake Tana in Ethiopia.

4. Coffee originated in the country and remains one of its most important exports.

5. Much of Ethiopia is on a number of high-altitude plateaus and so is cooler and lusher than one might think. The capital, Addis Ababa, lies at over 7500 feet above sea level.

6. There are over 80 indigenous languages spoken in the country.

7. It ranks #7 in the world, with 38 million cows, on a list of countries with the most cattle.

8. Ethiopia is majority Christian (62.8%), followed by Muslim (33.9%). The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the largest Christian denomination. Orthodox Christianity has existed in Ethiopia since the first century.

9. The country has its own calendar, which is seven to eight years behind our Gregorian calendar (which means that the current year according to the Ethiopian calendar is 2001). New year, per the Ethiopian calendar, falls on September 11 or 12 on our calendar.

10. Teddy Afro is one of the most popular singers in the country. Listen to some of his music here or here, or to an NPR program about him and his music. Or, even better, check out some of the live videos of his concerts.

11. The Ethiopian currency is the birr. For the current US-dollar exchange rate, go here.

Addis Ababa

January 13, 2009

This is the first picture I took (well, technically Tyler took it, but okay) in Ethiopia. It’s in Addis Ababa (“New Flower” in Amharic), the capital, outside what appears to be an office-supply store. The poster itself refers to the United States’ Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (DV), which is a lottery administered by the State Department that makes 50,000 permanent resident visas available to people from countries with historically low immigration rates to the US (thanks, Wikipedia).

I didn’t know at the time that that’s what the poster was advertising–I just really liked that there was a picture of Barak Obama–but we ended up seeing a lot of these in Addis and in other, smaller cities.

(Incidentally, Obama was all over Addis: sidewalk booksellers hawked copies of both books; many guys on the street offered an issue of Newsweek with him on the cover; his face stared back at us from computer-display wallpaper in the Internet cafes;  and I had a number of limited-English/-Amharic conversations with cabbies/waiters/fellow pedestrians about our president-elect. They loved him.)


We stayed at the Hotel Central Shoa. The Hotel Axel Buenos Aires it was not, but it served its purpose.



We ate a good lunch of “national food” one day in a restaurant at the top of a hotel. Some pretty good views of the Addis skyline.






After a couple of days in Addis spent acclimating to the 11-hour time difference and recovering from the crazy-long flight(s), we set off on the three-day trip to Yeri. Addis was a chaotic city with pretty poor air quality that was confusing the first time around, but the 70+-degree days and bright sunlight were a welcome change from chilly San Francisco.

Tyler says goodbye to the hotel, and I meet Indelk, our driver.



On the way out of town, I snapped some pictures of the streetscape, as seen from the front seat. The blue minibus taxis are ubiquitous and cheap (like 30 cents).







The way to Yeri village

January 12, 2009

Yeri lies in the southwestern part of Ethiopia. To get there, we had a 6-hour drive on a nicely paved road; then a night in Jimma; another 6-hour drive, this time on an unpaved road; then a night in Tepi; a 2-hour (unpaved) drive through the country’s second-largest coffee plantation and on to the village. Yeri lies, more or less, at the red circle at the end of the long, shaky line that roughly signifies our route.


Throughout the drive, we passed through towns whose centers were the two-lane road itself. There were often many people walking along the road, doing their daily thing of going to/coming from school, selling stuff, riding bicycles, drying peppers or walking (often two or three abreast) on the small shoulder, or herding cattle or goats (sometimes in or across the road). Stops were frequent, in deference to the many obstacles that popped up in the road. Here are some pictures from the drive.

A man makes the most of his hay-carrying donkey.


A mosque.


As we got further south, the landscape became greener and more lush–but not before we passed through a drier landscape that was a patchwork of fields and grazing land.


A large valley we traversed added to the dramatics of the view.




The hotel in Jimma was similarly un-cush, but it did the job. Seeing a UN vehicle in the parking lot at 6AM the next morning was kind of cool and lifted the spirits after a dead-cold dribble of a shower a few minutes before.




The second day of the drive brought us some more pretty countryside on the way to Tepi.



Breakfast came in the town of Bonga. It consisted of tibs, which is sauteed meat and chilis, and injera, the slightly sour, crepe-like bread that is both eaten and used as a utensil, and is served with most meals in much of Ethiopia. Apart from the three weeks of no meat we had in Yeri, tibs and injera (and shiro, the tasty dish with the consistency of hummus made from ground dried chickpeas and onions) is really common. I also had my first bunna, Ethiopian coffee, here: awesome.

(A few words about coffee. It originated in Ethiopia over 1000 years ago. The word “coffee” is thought maybe to derive from the Kingdom of Kaffa–where the plant originated–which, hundreds of years ago, had Bonga as its capital.)

Tyler posing next to the car.


The (not-so-)mean streets of Bonga.


A couple of kids who asked me to take their picture. And a couple of strange birds who didn’t ask, but whose picture I took anyway.



After Bonga, things got greener, and we passed tea growing in an amphitheater shape.


We arrived at the hotel in Tepi (seven bucks a night); met Girma (yellow arrow), our translator, and Gatacho (red arrow), our friend-in-the-government; were harassed by groups of children (more on that later) and went to the town market to get supplies.





Tepi was also the first time I experienced the “faranji” phenomenon. “Faranji” is the word for “foreigner,” and little kids in this town and some other towns we passed through loved to follow us yelling “faranji! faranji! faranji!” (or, alternately, “you! you! you!”). If you’ve ever hated feeling like a freak show when looking different in a foreign country, Tepi could be your personal hell in this respect. I never really got used to it, and only learned a retort late in the game (“Habesha!”–the word for “Ethiopian”) that would stop most of the kids dead in their tracks. Yeri and Addis were largely devoid of the faranji phenomenon, thank god.

Another early-morning wake-up in Tepi, and then we were on the road through the plantation to Yeri. Even though I’m not a big fan of coffee, seeing it growing was neat. The banana trees you see growing along the road have been planted to distract the monkeys from eating the coffee beans.






Coffee drying on raised racks–just before we get to Yeri.


We arrive in Yeri

January 10, 2009

Our arrival in Yeri was quite the spectacle.

There we are, seven of us–Indelk, the driver; Avi, his friend; Gatacho, our friend-in-the-government; Girma, the translator; Hirut, the cook; Tyler and me–and all of our–Girma’s, Hirut’s, Tyler’s and my–stuff for three weeks packed into an older Toyota Land Cruiser.

That’s three weeks’ worth of food, diesel fuel for cooking, a tent, sleeping bags and pads, a single-burner stove, clothes, a bunch of books, all of Tyler’s audio-recording equipment that he’ll use for his research, and sundry other supplies crammed into and on top of a large four-by-four that lumbers into a small Ethiopian village that does not have phone service, electricity or running water, or (I was later to learn, after seeing only one car and one motorcycle come into the village in the three weeks we were there) get much in the way of vehicle traffic.

Sure, Tyler had visited Yeri for an afternoon the year before and had been invited by the mayor (who, by the time we got there in November, had been thrown in jail for illegally selling land to outsiders that was then deforested–again, illegally–to make way for maize cultivation) to return to the village to study the Shabo language, but the date was left undetermined and so, the upshot being, no one is expecting us when we show up.

Gatacho takes the lead in talking to the new mayor, Ephraim, and it is quickly decided that we will inhabit a house in the main part of the village for the three weeks that follow. Tyler and I understand that the house is unoccupied, but we later learn that it is in fact owned and inhabited by a guy who has voluntarily moved in with friends so that we don’t have to stay outside in a tent. (That the guy, Dagim, would do something so generous is not really surprising, we subsequently learn once he starts working with Tyler as a “consultant” and we get to know him better, as he’s a super nice guy.)

Here are a couple of pictures of Dagim:

(with unidentified child)


(later working with Tyler and Girma, in the house we stayed in, on the Shabo-cataloguing)


It is nice to have a roof over our heads. The corrugated metal shields us from the hot morning and early-afternoon sunlight and nicely amplifies the patter of the late-afternoon showers. The floors are hard-packed dirt that Hirut sprinkles with water to keep the dust down–I enjoy watching the ants of different sizes clean up the crumbs dropped during a meal. I remember, growing up, when ants would appear in the kitchen during hot weather and there would be a commotion and a can of Raid brandished; I like how the ants here serve a positive function and are ignored. The walls have not been finished with mud, so orange tarp has been hung up in the meantime. Hirut and Girma each get their own small room, and Tyler and I set up our tent in the main room, which is where Hirut cooks and the four of us eat.

Girma eats a meal of shiro (the brown goop) and k’ojo (the hard tack-looking stuff on the platter made from the root of the enset, or false banana, plant; this is more common than injera in the southwestern part of the country).


A couple of the younger guys in the village pose beneath the Arsenal poster that hangs on a wall in the main room.



Some of the guys work together to trim the grass in the middle of the village using machetes.



Here is what it looks like when they’re done.


Here’s the house that we stayed in.


A bunch of the guys sit playing cards in front of the house.


Some more pictures of the immediate vicinity of our house in the center of the village.







January 9, 2009

Many of my late afternoons were spent playing soccer.



The village had a team that played against teams from other villages in the district, and had gotten second place the year before. Given the lack of telephones, games were scheduled by mail. The season had yet to begin, and the players ranged from 12 to 40 years old–a spread in ages that turned out to be pretty fun.


The field itself was grassy and in good condition, and had goals made of stripped tree trunks. The view to the north was often one of approaching thunder clouds coming in from the mountains in the distance, though rain rarely stayed for long and so did nothing more than pause the game while we took shelter. To the south of the field was a sharp drop down to a stream, and then a sharply sloping hillside dotted with lowing cattle.

A view of the field from the south.



It paid to keep an eye on the ground while playing, so as to avoid slipping in the cowpats left by the field’s usual (four-legged) inhabitants.

Nearly everyone had an Arsenal jersey, each in one of varying states of repair. Near the end of our time in Yeri, Tyler conceived of a way to meld linguistics and sport in the form of a socio-linguistic map of the soccer team. I first took a picture of each of the guys (some of which are below) and then Tyler (with Girma’s translation skills) got useful information like their name, age, the langauge(s) they spoke, the language(s) their family members spoke and the two or three other players on the team with whom they spoke the most and in which languages. We’re going to send copies of the pictures to say thanks.

Though a cliché, soccer (or football, I guess) could, in fact, be “the international language”, seeing as, in this situation, we all only knew one another’s names, as well as “yes” in my language and “here” and “yes” and how to count in theirs. But, more importantly, some good and enjoyable soccer was played by all.

















Yuda, the best player in Yeri.





Ephraim, the mayor.


Day-to-day life

January 7, 2009

The first couple of days in Yeri are sort of overwhelming. Though far from the “faranji phenomenon” of “you! you! you!” fame, Tyler and I are the objects of some intense interest. For some reason, the stares indicative of this interest make me want to hide in the tent; Tyler handles this much better. Everyone wants to shake hands with us, and I see that grabbing your right forearm with your left hand as you shake with the right and give a small bow is a sign of respect.

We soon fall into a rhythm of waking up to the sound of barking dogs and mooing cows and those fucking roosters that crow madly just outside the house, but all is well when we hear the clank of pots and the staccato of onion-chopping and soon here is Hirut saying, “Miles, Tyler, Girma, k’oors (breakfast)!” At night we brush our teeth and check the satellite phone for text messages–thanks much to everyone who said hello and sent updates–and then read a bit before drifting off to sleep, with the sound of Girma’s radio and the sound of crickets chirping and, if we’re unlucky, woosha (dogs) barking madly at a jib (hyena) or two somewhere off in the distance.

Early on I learn a card game–“cartas”–from Hirut and Girma, which we then play in a group on the benches in front of our house with a lot of the guys from the village. Many hours are spent playing cards. Not only does this help all of us get to know one another some, I also quickly learn how to count to 100 in Amharic, as well as words like “alleh” (there is/are), “yelum” (there isn’t/aren’t), “ishee” (okay), and “bizoo” (more). I realize that since almost everyone we play with/against is Majangir (the main ethnic group, along with the Shabo, that is from this area) and so speak Majang–which Tyler, Girma, Hirut nor I speak–along with Amharic, they could easily cheat if they wanted to.

A random picture of Girma–who normally, when not spending three weeks in a random village with two faranji dorks, works for the Ethiopian government promoting and managing rural agricultural development–looking pretty suave.


Hirut, with Abbebish’s daughter, looking like a babe.


I also quickly learn that the men have it a lot better than the women. The women, on a daily basis, take care of cooking, cleaning the clothes, raising the kids, getting water from the spring (which is quite a hike) and sometimes making pottery to sell on Yeri’s Market Day, which happens every Friday (more on Market Day later). The men tend to the crops, hunt and, in some cases, practice beekeeping.

Here is Hirut cooking a meal and also prepping bread dough and then wrapping it in banana (or false-banana, enset) leaves for cooking/baking.




According to Girma, a lot of men in the village have two wives, contrary to Ethiopian law, including Ephraim, the mayor. Things are sometimes different in the villages.  He posits, though, that, contrary to what we might think, a wife might like for her husband to have a second wife, if only because it would decrease the amount of work she would have to do.

All told, the men seem to have a lot more leisure time than the women, and spend much of their days while we are there playing cards and soccer. We don’t really have much contact with the women of the village, with the exception of Abbebish, who becomes friends with Hirut (they are both of the Amhara ethnic group, long politically dominant in Ethiopia, and so both speak the same language, Amharic) and is at our house a lot.

Here is Abbebish, her husband, and their daughter and infant son.


Here is Abbebish’s brother-in-law–who said he’d soon be leaving for university in Axum (in the north) to study mass communications–along with her daughter.


Much of the village is Protestant, and the sound of singing during services often drifts out over the darkened town. Click here to hear a recording. We sometimes hear the raised voice of the preacher shouting at his flock, who answer “Amen!” in unison.

One interesting part of the village are the little houses where kids, male and female, go to live when they turn 18 and move out of their parents’ house. (Sounds like a recipe for a lot of late-night fun, if you know what I mean, but that’s just me.) They remain in their own little “studio” until they get married and then build themselves and their new family a house.




Most of my days are spent reading and writing,


going on afternoon walks into the bush with Tyler





(one time accompanied by a group of smaller kids who motion for us to turn around when the sky grows especially ominous),


playing soccer and cards, and helping Tyler a bit with his language studies (he has decided to catalogue Majang, Shekkacho, as well as his original focus, Shabo).

Tyler takes a couple of walks on his own and, on one, comes upon a few of the guys I play soccer with installing in a tree canister-like bee pods(?) in which bees will eventually produce honey.




On the same walk Tyler also runs across a mass of butterflies clustered on some charred pieces of wood. Strange and beautiful.



I also go down to the spring


to get water with a jerry can (which we use a pump to purify, plus a UV-emitting SteriPEN, just to be safe),


wash my clothes on the rocks (and we are the only men who do laundry, I notice),


and take showers–standing on a rock and using a cut-in-half plastic water bottle–behind the plants a bit further downstream.


The only differentiation among the days of the week comes on Sunday and Thursday (church) and then Friday’s Market Day (d-r-u-n-k). Market Day is an interesting experience the first time, in that we are completely unprepared for the alcohol-powered furor that breaks out and fills most of the day/night; we imagined that it would be a little local commerce and nothing more.

Many people come into town from the surrounding bush to buy/sell bunna (coffee), maize, peppers and other foodstuffs, but also to snag some t’ej (honey wine) or a stronger grain alcohol that looks like muddy water and tastes like shit. The first Market Day we experience is marked by the large number of shit-faced women making tons of racket–singing, dancing, yelling, quarreling–late into the night. (Interestingly, hardly a peep from the drunk menfolk–seems they were reprimanded recently, setting the stage for the women to go apeshit en masse.)

Tyler and I are yelled at by an inebriated old woman who demands that Girma tell us to give her one birr. Girma talks her out of it, and he and Hirut get a kick out of our discomfort. The Queen of Yeri, as the four of us take to calling her, is quite fond of the drink, it seems, and we see/hear her each succeeding Market Day tottering through the village and singing at high volume, in one instance working “Let’s dance, faranji!” into her lyrics.

The nights in Yeri are fantastic. Fireflies flicker in the air amidst the smell of fires burning inside the slumbering houses. A headlamp occasionally bobs down the path and it is impossible to make out who it is that passes. Silent flashes of lightning sometimes escape from clouds stacked up on the horizon. On a few nights, the moon (“ayen” in Majang) hangs over the dark outline of a tall tree in the near distance, and a triangle of planets/stars (“marion” in Majang) beside the moon somehow evokes for me a biblical scene–the three wise men visiting Jesus, perhaps. Stargazing is a fruitful exercise here, given the dearth of light pollution on basically the entire continent.


Tyler walking on the path from the center of the village to the soccer fields.


Tyler expounding on Structuralism while pausing among the maize.


Sunset over the outskirts of the village.




A cute picture of Dagim and a kid from Yeri–with Girma on the left–holding hands.


A socio-linguistic map of Yeri…

January 6, 2009

…yields many pictures of the place and people.

Given that there a good number of different ethnic groups–and so languages spoken–in Yeri, Tyler wants to get a picture of what is being spoken, by who and to whom. To that end, he, Girma (translating to Amharic and Shekkacho), Dagim (translating to Majang and Shabo), Israel (another of Tyler’s “consultants”), Kedmael (Dagim’s younger brother) and I (in my capacity as photographer) go around from house to house and interview the inhabitants and then I take their picture–which we will send back to them once we get to the States–mostly as a way to say thanks for working with us. Everyone is very nice and helpful, and almost universally enthusiastic about the whole picture-taking thing.

Here are some of the pictures we took as part of this project.

An accidental picture yields cool fruit.


I eat some sugar cane that a man offers us when we visit his house. He is gone a minute or two before returning with a 6-foot stalk, which he then quickly chops into manageable pieces with his machete. All the visitors enjoy the sweet, watery goodness.


A family in front of their traditional-to-the-area house. Red peppers dry on a tarp on the ground.




Girma, Tyler and Dagim head north across a stream to another section of the village.


A tree that was struck by lightning stands above the path.


We pass a couple of smoking houses. (No, they’re not burning; the smoke is from the fire burning for cooking and heat inside.)




This kid has fashioned some bad-ass eyeglass frames from a plant. I don’t know how or why, but they are awesome!


An Amhara or Kaffa family.




Yakob, another of Tyler’s language “consultants”, stands in front of his house.



Metal-roofed houses are typical of the Kaffa and Amhara newcomers to the area.


A Majangir and/or Shabo woman and her children.



Yuda (center), Dagim (right) and other dude in what appears to be a boy-band pose.


A Majangir and/or Shabo woman and kid.


Best smile in Yeri.