To Jimma and Back Again


Last week I returned to Jimma after an epic cross-Ethiopia road trip with the family.  The early 90’s Jeep with a rebuilt Toyota engine and our stoic driver Ashenefe got us there and back with only a few close call breakdowns.  While we got what was widely respected as a pretty great rate on the daily rental fee, in retrospect I would choose reliability of vehicle over price.  At one point after having just passed through the Gibe river gorge, a road at whose beginning is marked with a sign emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and the words “Dangerous Road Ahead”, we had to stop because the car overheated.  Another time Ashenefe literally removed the stick shift (who knew this was possible?), knocked on it a bit and then plunged it back into the gear shaft and we continued on our merry way.  It was a real treat to see Ethiopia by road though.  The dramatic changes in landscape in leaving the great rift valley, ascending into the highlands and then back down again into the lush, mountainous lowlands surrounding Jimma.  What a beautiful place this is!


highlands outside of Butajira

Jimma.  What can I say?  It still feels like home in Ethiopia to me.  A poorer, grittier town than Hawassa for sure.  As we had been warned, the major roads in town had been completely torn up and were being re-done.  Many roads were completely blocked off with no clear detours indicated.  One evening I walked from our hotel, over the Aweytu river and to the old Italian quarter of town called “Ferenj Arada” (foreigner’s quarter).  Heavy roadwork machinery scooped and dumped dirt as throngs of pedestrians wove around them, crossing ditches on rickety bridges made of sticks.  The downtown has completely changed in the 9 years since I last laid eyes on Jimma mushrooming with new highrises lining the main road.  Many of our old friends had moved to Addis Ababa but we visited with some of those who had stayed behind including my former Amharic teacher.

We took the kids to lake Boye where we used to walk early in the morning to go bird and hippo watching.  The hippos were gone, surrounding forest clear cut, the lake dried up to a grassy marsh and a new housing development coming right down to the very edge.  The next morning while Dan tracked down his old friends and research subjects, I took the kids up to Jiren, a small town in the mountains above Jimma where the palace of a King Abba Jiffar who ruled the Kaffa kingdom during the late 1800’s lived.  The Kaffa region incidentally is the birthplace of coffee and the word “coffee” supposedly derives from it.

Dan is still widely recognized in Jimma (he’s been going there on a close to yearly basis for the last 11 years) and I even got a few “wife of Danny”‘s shouted out at me.  I completely understand why Dan chose it as his primary research site.  People are much more likely to approach you and start talking to you, asking you about yourself and why you are visiting Jimma.  I rarely get that in Hawassa.  There are way fewer foreigners in Jimma.

It even rained one of the nights we were there.  A welcome relief after Hawassa’s endless dusty, bright white sun in hot blue sky days.  The soil in Jimma is red and clay-ey and the mud, oh the mud.  Brought back the memories for me.  The clatter of vultures on the tin roof of our hotel was also a real flashback to my time there in 2004-2005.

On the way there and back we stopped one night in the town of Woliso about an hour SW of Addis Ababa in the highlands.  There was an old government hotel that had been privatized and refurbished.  There was lots of wildlife roaming the grounds including a little deer called a duiker.  It also had a swimming pool fed by natural hot springs. I basically wish I could just travel around Ethiopia staying at privatized, refurbished former government and upmarket “eco” lodges.  Now, we just need a reliable vehicle and a 3 year old who doesn’t get carsick.  Then I’ll be all set.


a duiker who is clearly not afraid of people.

I’ve been having some issues loading photos.  I’ll upload them in a separate post.

4 thoughts on “To Jimma and Back Again

  1. Dear Alise, this is the first time I’ve seen how to send a comment to you. I’ve so enjoyed your blog. The photos and your excellent writing are expanding my little universe!

  2. Hi, thanks for your writing.
    We lived in Jimma 1998-2001 and will be visiting a few days next month.
    To bad that you were in the middle of construction, I suppose that’s inevitable.
    Worse, that the building boom has driven the hippo’s from Boyle. It would have been nice to show my kid. Still, some 2015 travel blogger found a lot of birds and plants, including rare ones, so probably still worth a visit.
    Is the town good visible from Jiren/Abu Jifar or has modernity brought smog into the equation?

    • Hi, thanks for reading!
      After we had left someone told me the hippos were still there. So maybe you will see them if you look a little harder. You will be shocked by all the new construction though. The birds are always magnificent.
      I feel like there was a definite haze of wood smoke over the town but still not enough cars for a real smog layer. Enjoy your return to Jimma…

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