We are just back from an upmarket “eco” resort! Glad to have something concrete and travel bloggy to write about again. I hadn’t been out of Hawassa since our last trip to Addis back in October. Anyway, I was very eager to experience a break from the old routine and see some more of Southern Ethiopia. As anyone who lives with small children knows, there is a certain sameness to the days which borders on drudgery at times. Needless to say, Bishangari Lodge (http://bishangari.com) definitely helped put the awesome back in Africa for me. Located on the remote southwestern edge of Lake Lagano, 55 km north of Hawassa in the Great Rift Valley, the Lodge is 20 km off the main road on a very dusty, rutted and stomach jolting dirt road. Lake Langano lacks the parasite Schistosoma mansoni which allows one to safely swim in its murky brown waters (Lake Hawassa has schisto). There are many resorts on the lake and it’s a popular weekend destination for Addis Abbabans. Bishangari markets itself to foreigners and caters to organized group birding tours. One of these tours was just leaving the Lodge as we arrived. These folks were serious, carrying huge lensed cameras, boom microphones for recording bird calls and wearing the ubiquitous I’m-going-to-Africa-on-safari tan colored sport pants that have a zipper around the knees. My question is, has anyone who has ever worn them zipped off at the knee? My guess that its more fashion over form in the case of those pants. In any case, anyone who comes to Africa over the age of 50 seems to be wearing those particular style of pants. I could dedicate an entire blog post to those pants, but I digress. We checked into our cute little bungalow and made our way down to the sandy beach where we were greeted by the sight of a family of warthogs (with 6 baby warthogs!) grazing in the grass along the lakeshore. At dinner in the open air restaurant the resident troop of baboons came wandering through. We went horseback riding the next morning and explored the surrounding old growth forest with huge ficus and podocarpus (?) trees. Tons of birds, colobus monkeys, baboons galore and the highlight for me was seeing flamingoes in the wild. Best of all was just relaxing lakeside while the kids happily occupied themselves digging in the sand and playing in the water while I watched birds and spaced out staring at the pinky-brown waters with otherworldly white limestone rock formations lining the shore. I finished reading Dune there and the shores of Lake Langano provided the perfect backdrop. The food wasn’t as good as at Aregash Lodge and it was WAY overpriced but, hey, I didn’t have to cook it or wash the dishes which made it totally worth it. We were the only people staying there and had the place completely to ourselves. Well, us and the baboons that is. I’ll let these photos tell the rest of the story.
The beach at Bishangari
Our little godjo. DHaddee is Oromo for porcupine.
watchin’ warthogs. This is so much cooler than the zoo!
Here come the baboons
limestone rock formations. Perfect setting for finishing the sci-fi classic Dune
watching flamingoes while horseback riding with acacia trees in the distance
hiking through big trees
view from the open air restaurant
those whitish pink things are flamingoes
Leaving Bishangari. Its beginning to look a lot like Arrakis…
fetching water by jerry can and donkey.
So, what is Ethiopia really like? It’s hard to sum up in words. Photos might be an easier way of getting some things across but I feel uncomfortable whipping out the camera and recording every day happenings walking down the street. Which is a pity. I have this idea that I really want to start a Hawassa Street Style blog and document the beautiful Ethiopian men and women in their amazing, creative fashions (I saw a guy in a suit made entirely out of velvet today!). But Ethiopians are acutely sensitive to how they are portrayed by the media. In an earlier post I included a picture of my local butcher at work. I had asked and obtained his permission to photograph him beforehand but as soon as I brought out my camera another man instantly swooped in and started asking me why I was taking his photograph and what the purpose of the photograph was, etc. After much smoothing of ruffled feathers I was able to get out of there with my ¼ kilo of meat and his concerns addressed. Let’s be honest. Ethiopia and associations of famine & drought go hand in hand (especially if you grew up in the 80’s). Remember the photo of the vulture hanging over the emaciated African child? Who can blame them? So I’d sort of like to show Africans, just you know, hanging out being Africans. Not necessarily hacking each other’s limbs off or what have you. But it would also be negligent to ignore the fact that harsh scenes of extreme poverty are part of my daily existence here. Beggars with limbs twisted and crippled by polio or rubbed raw from uncomfortable-looking metal braces. Street children sleeping in piles on the medians of the busiest intersections in town. Emaciated horses and donkeys with open sores from the crude harnesses used in pulling carts and buggies. The visibly mentally ill dressed in rags and muttering to themselves walking barefoot down the middle of the road. People living on the side of the road in literally a collection of plastic bags and tarps hung along a fence or a bush.
Of course there’s poor folks in the U.S. too but the homeless family sleeping in their car in the Wal-Mart parking lot isn’t as in your face as the images of poverty here.
The cost of living gives some indication of what people can afford. A kilo of tomatoes costs 14 birr (that’s 70 cents). A machiatto at the fanciest place in town is 12 birr. A low-skilled day laborer might make 30 birr (a little over a dollar) a day. A university professor makes 5,000 birr/month ($263). So while prices are low, so are wages. Even the poorest American is going to be doing pretty well by Ethiopian standards.
horse drawn carts
Basic public services are sorely lacking as I’ve mentioned in the past. I write this post by candlelight as the power is currently out. No running water today either. There is no organized solid waste disposal. Boys dressed in rags with a donkey cart go from compound to compound and pick up trash for a few birr. I really don’t know where they take it. A common practice is to simply burn trash. For the most part this works out ok as its mostly biodegradable stuff. However, thin plastic bags called festals are ubiquitous and, depending on which way the wind is blowing, the stench of burning plastic can be overwhelming at times.
I think you get the idea.
But Ethiopians are very proud. And they have a lot to be proud of. They have one of the fastest growing economies in the world with a burgeoning middle class. They have an ancient cultural history that is unique and distinctive. They fought and won a battle against invading Italian forces in 1896 (the battle of Adwa) and remained the only country on the African continent to have avoided colonization by a European power (Ethiopia was occupied by Italy between 1936-1941). They have a rich and ancient culture. Kingdoms such as the Axumite dynasty (1st to 7th century AD), the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela dating to the 12th century, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Animist faiths have existed here in relative harmony for thousands of years. Considering its bordered by South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Kenya, its also one of the more stable countries in the region.
Beta Giorgis rock hewn church, Lalibela (photo from my trip there in 2005)
The dominant theme of my time in Ethiopia (4 months!) has not been so much about adjusting to life in Africa as it has been learning to be with my children… all day long…every day. I’ve certainly entertained thoughts of infanticide (toddlercide?) at times. I am recognizing that I need breaks from my children in order to appreciate them (and not kill them) and so we are experimenting with having our seretegna (literally, “worker” or servant) who now washes our clothes by hand and cleans our house 3 mornings/week to come in the afternoon one day/week to watch the kids so I can get away for a few hours. I’ve also met some other ex-pat stay at home parents and have been participating in play dates which has helped my mental health immensely. The fact that my 3 year old still pronounces (and uses) the word “fabulous” as “faboolus” is also endearing enough to encourage me to keep him around a little longer.
One thing I will say about kids in Ethiopia. They know how to play. The compound kids (including mine) are completely captivated by torn up Styrofoam containers or other bits of trash (different pieces of which become guns, shields, cat bed decor, etc.). Right now they are running around outside with homemade squirt guns…a plastic water bottle with a small hole drilled into the cap. Who needs legos when you’ve got a plastic water bottle to play with anyway?
I’ve also just recently experienced a breakthrough with my Amharic. I feel like I’ve been living as a deaf-mute the past 4 months but just this past week I am suddenly understanding so much more and more importantly can actually communicate with a complexity beyond shop keeper or bajaj driver interactions. I’ve been taking private lessons weekly and have 6 months of fairly intensive study under my belt from my time in Jimma though that seems like ancient history now. This time around, I have been learning the Amharic alphabet containing over 200 individual characters. It’s a beautiful language but very complex and many words I find incredibly difficult to pronounce (“abariralehu” = I will choose). Amharic is in the Semitic language branch (along with Hebrew and Arabic). It relies on prepositions and suffixes to change the meaning of words. And of course, there are different verb conjugations based on whether you are addressing a male, female, someone of higher status (polite form), you (plural), you (plural, polite form) etc. Amharic is just one of perhaps 100+ languages spoken in Ethiopia. The Amhara ethnic group lives in northern Ethiopia and came to dominate the other ethnic groups to the south, east and west. Oromo speakers actually outnumber Amhara in Ethiopia. Oromo is a completely different language, in the Cushitic branch, and uses the Roman (English) alphabet. There will often be roadside signs written in 2 or three languages (Amharic, Oromo, English) depending on the part of the country you are in. Ethiopia is divided into different “states” based loosely along ethnic lines. Jimma was in Oromia or the predominantly Oromo-speaking area. Hawassa is in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) which encompasses many small ethnic groups including those you might find gracing the pages of a 1960’s National Geographic. These include the Mursi (whose women traditionally put large plates in their lower lips), Turmi, Dinka and Hamer.
A billboard in the center of Hawassa advertising the varied peoples of SNNPR. I like that there is a coffee tree intermingling with the different faces.
The area around Hawassa is predominantly Sidamo which is also a Cushitic language and hearing it spoken sounds completely different than Amharic. Most of the people in our compound speak Sidamo in addition to Amharic. Its been fun learning the characters and I now try to practice whenever I am out and about, decoding the Amharic characters into the Amharic word and then into the English meaning. Luckily, many signs are translated into English. This makes it easier to guess the meaning of the characters if I also happen to know the word in spoken Amharic.