Africa is waking

By Michael de Laine, 29 March 2017

Behind the wheel – an occasional series

In Ethiopia, the days starts before dawn, but the country is not without charm and challenges.

The early morning bus drives gingerly down the road from Lalibela.

It’s almost 6.30 in the morning, five or six minutes before sunrise. Down on the undulating plains to the east, south and west – plains that form valleys stretching to the next ranges of high hills, which we in western Europe might term mountains – cocks are crowing, farmers are moving to their smallholdings and families are getting ready for their daily tasks.

In fact, there are many people outside already, in the fields, walking the roads, moving about the villages – with their tukuls, huts, shanties and few stone buildings – below us. I can see five people and a handful of goats moving along the road in one direction, and a solitary man and a few cows going in the other direction.

The sun has hardly risen before the farmers start walking to their smallholdings.

Another man is carrying a wooden contraption that could be a simple plough across his shoulders, while a woman is scurrying towards the village bearing two large bags horizontally on her back and shoulders – it may be straw for her family’s livestock, or kindling for their open fire. Whatever, the lower, larger of the two bags is as big as she is. She’s come along the road, having passed the bend behind the hill a couple of kilometres away half an hour ago. She pauses once in a while before continuing. Where has she come from? It’s unlikely to be far, perhaps from a neighbouring village, as the road has no lighting apart from the few vehicles that may run at night.

The early morning bus from Lalibela passes farmers en route to their smallholdings.

The first bus of the day from Lalibela, 23 km away, creeps around the same bend as the bag woman and drives downhill towards the village southeast of us. From where I’m standing, the road looks good, metalled, with easy bends. Hidden by the hill I’m standing on, the road takes a sharp, narrow turn to the right.

We took that road yesterday in a Land Rover Defender 110 – no longer the ubiquitous vehicle here in Ethiopia that the manufacturers would probably like, but far more suitable than the buses, Chinese heavy trucks and bajaj taxis that slave, grind and pop their way along this road. The road’s surface is compacted stone and earth, with rainwater grooves – some small and shallow, others almost ditches – crossing it quite frequently and often filled with loose stones.

The road from Lalibela implies careful driving. 

The numerous Chinese heavy trucks and construction vehicles, which carry material for the many China-supported road and bridge development projects, leave their own ruts along the road where the surface is soft, and spread the small stones in bends. It rained a couple of nights ago, so – although the sun baked down yesterday and dried some of the water in the rivulets running down the steep slopes towards the road – there are patches of water, sometimes deep puddles, on the road.

The corners themselves can be treacherous – loose earth and small stones at the outside, and larger stones but a harder surface in the middle mean the driver must pick his route with care, and if he is surprised by an oncoming Chinese truck, which should have been (fore)seen, he may have to brake heavily, risk skidding on the loose surface and perhaps come dangerously close to the unprotected road edge. The drop can be steep and long, with few trees, numerous bushes, and large rocks.

You don’t think about that as a possibility, and you don’t want to imagine the consequences.

The road from Lalibela runs down to the plains at times.

There are many steep hills, some with hairpin bends, on this road from Lalibela, and this also implies driving carefully. Not every vehicle going downhill gives way to vehicles going uphill, so sometimes the heavy-laden trucks must stop and wait, then start their journey again in the lowest of their many gears and grind and growl their way upwards, loudly farting thick plumes of diesel onto the plants, animals and humans surrounding them.

All this means that the average speed for the nimblest vehicles coming from Lalibela is 30 km an hour, so that first bus from town left at 5.30, as the sky started getting lighter in the east.

Now, at 6.38, the disc of the sun, hidden still by the night’s mist, is above the ridge of the mountains in the south east; you can feel the temperature is rising, and in the time it takes to read these words the sun will have burned that mist away.

In the past half hour, the cocks and the livestock have started their crowing, braying and mooing. The people have started to open their doors.

Africa is waking.

The hill where the Genet Mariam community tukuls are located doesn’t seem to be a problematic climb.

We’ve also been awake now for about half an hour. But we weren’t woken by the rising sun or the noises in the valleys, nor by our hosts and neighbours here at our group of tukuls.

We woke through a natural process of having slept our usual six or seven hours since ‘lights out’ last night. As there’s no electricity in the five tukuls here, lighting is by a candle, which stands in a pool of candle-wax by the head of one of the beds.

The Genet Mariam community tukuls lie on a hilltop.

The door is closed and locked by a simple push-rod, you undress and then crawl under the top blanket and lie on the bottom blanket, which, because it is spread over a concrete block forming the bed, can be regarded as a mattress. The pillow may feel high and hard, but you don’t notice that very long. There’s no heating in the huts, and, initially, the air feels cold – a situation exacerbated by the roaring wind outside. But you’re kept warm by your body heat, and, despite an almost full moon that makes gaps in the wooden planking of the door and window-shutters visible, the inside of the tukul is soothingly dark and sleep comes easily. The candle burns out after four or five hours.

Unless you need to go to the toilet during the night (ill-advised if you don’t have a torch, the moon is shining, or your candle is still burning), you sleep soundly and don’t feel the otherwise harsh concrete bed. But the height of the bed is wrong when you want to put on and bind your shoes – reaching the floor can be a problem.

The village below the Genet Mariam community tukuls.

The morning toilet visit is, well: amazing. The toilet is also in a (smaller) tukul, but quite close by. (The group of tukuls is arranged so you can’t see directly into another one from your own hut door, providing a degree of privacy.) Having wedged the toilet door closed with a stone, you walk around the toilet – it seems to be an old tea chest, measuring about a yard by a yard by a yard, with a removable lid.

When you’ve placed the lid beside the tea chest, you take your position sitting on the top of the tea chest, over the round hole. For modesty, should someone enter this tukul, your back is now facing the door, and you look out of the large unglazed hole in the wall in front of you, looking down onto the valley plain below you, looking towards the west. An amazing view.

This is somewhere to spend all day, if you desire, although that could make life difficult for the other people here. In due course, you rip toilet paper off the roll standing precariously on the window-ledge, use it with your left hand and throw it in a bucket beside the tea chest (and nowhere else) to your left. It’s now you realise that there’s no water – running or still – in the toilet-tukul. What do you do, as breakfast is approaching?

The Lalibela road includes new sections constructed with Chinese aid.

The previous evening was a candle-lit dinner – with the addition of an open fire that gave both light and heat to the larger tukul forming the mess-room of this little community. There’s a rudimentary bar and a small kitchen, benches for the guests to sit on and small movable tables on which plates of food are placed. We can see people in the small kitchen and the glow of a wood-fired stove.

But before anything is served, one of the women whose task is preparing and serving the food, and clearing away and washing up afterwards, approaches each guest with a plastic basin and a jug of warm water. This is for the ritual hand-washing ceremony that precedes all eating here: the hands are held over the basin, warm water is poured over the hands, a touch of soap is used if desired; the hands are rubbed together and rinsed with more water, then shaken dry.

Then the food is served. Each guest gets a bowl and a spoon, then one of the women comes in with a large casserole and a ladle. She serves a piping-hot lentil-and-meat soup. This tastes good and is obviously a source of warmth.

Next comes a plate onto which are heaped spaghetti and a spicy meat sauce.

Alternatively, a very large plate could be placed on one of the moveable tables. It holds a serving of injera, Ethiopia’s best-known staple food, made from the indigenous cereal, tef, and a spicy meat or vegetable sauce, plus some injera rolls – which you use the fingers of your right hand to tear off in small pieces and wrap them around a meat or veg tidbit and sauce, which you then eat.

Eating with your fingers, rather than a knife or spoon and fork, as with the spaghetti dish, may be messier, but is more authentically rural and indigenous.

This evening meal was served from about 7 pm – with the guests being called to the mess-room tukul by the clanging of a handbell. We had almost to be dragged in. At 6.33 pm, we’d been waiting for and watching the sun go down over the jagged tops of the hills some way to the west, the rays catching on a few clouds.

Sunset as seen from the Genet Mariam community tukuls.

Because Ethiopia’s so close to the Equator, there’s little variation in the times of sunrise and sunset; the earliest summer sunrise is 5.58 am in late May and early June in Lalibela, while the latest sunrise is 6.49 am on about 21 January. The length of the day is almost 12 hours and 50 minutes in mid-June and marginally more than 11 hours and 25 minutes in mid-December.

Traditionally, the time of day has been reckoned from dawn, given as 6.00 am, so 7.00 am is one o’clock in the morning, while 7.00 pm is one o’clock in the evening.

What can be more confusing is the Ethiopian calendar, which takes the Coptic calendar at its basis. There are 12 months with 30 days each, and a 13th month with five days, but lengthened to six days every fourth year without exception, even when the western (Gregorian) calendar says there is no leap year… Consequently, Ethiopia’s calendar is seven-and-a-half years behind the western calendar. Dates and times that are essential travel information must be checked thoroughly.

The temperature starts to fall as the sun goes down at this little hill-top camp near Lalibela. As a biting wind picks up at the same time, the fall in temperature is noticeable, but watching the darkness fall over these hills and valleys as the noises of nature also fall silent is strangely impressive. Moving lights from torches or smartphones show where people are making their way home on the road or paths.

A red air traffic warning light comes on at the top of a nearby tower that provides cell phone service and microwave links – and lights come on in a stone-built shed in the fenced-in tower complex, as though someone, a guard perhaps, has broken through the fence and is spending the night there, sheltering from the wind.

The roof of the Genet Mariam church, almost hidden below ground level.

The evening meal was welcome, not least because the day had been interesting, exciting and physically trying.

Not only had we driven from Lalibela to a lay-by beneath a steep path up to this tukul camp, and walked up this path, we’d also walked to a church: Genet Mariam, built about 1270 and known for its 20 massive, rectangular pillars and a number of now-faded paintings. This church, one of the many we visited in Addis Ababa, Lalibela and Axum, was worth the energy and time we used on the walk along footpaths and across fields – including a field being ploughed slowly and with some difficulty by two cows drawing a simple plough and guided by an elderly man. At one place we passed by an old fig tree, gnarled and with blotched bark on its trunks and branches, and minute figs; this apparently serves as a meeting place for some of the people living in the area.

Although this route was undulating and the footpaths a mixture of earth, grass and often loose stones, it was no way near as strenuous as the morning’s walk from the Land Rover up to the tukuls.

The walk up the hill – rising 200 m vertically – was on a footpath that was never level, and often quite steep, and whose surface was also a mixture of earth and grass, as well as numerous stones of varying sizes. Some of the stones were deeply rooted and immobile, others were loose on the surface, and others still seemed deeply rooted but often loosened when trodden on.

A loss of balance and missed footing, and the resulting possibility of slipping or falling – with the potential of falling some way down the open hill – was exacerbated by climbing this path in baking sunshine and at a temperature of about 30°C, in the thin atmosphere of 2,250 m above sea level.

Maereg Tefere and his baggage-carrying aid helped us.

Both Maereg Tefere, our guide on this visit to the community at Genet Mariam, and his baggage-carrying aid helped us (especially me) at such times, and very thankful we were for that. I am sure that we took far longer than planned on that hill, both up to and down from the tukuls. With memories of very high blood pressure, high pulse rates and physical weakness when I had my brain haemorrhage five years ago, I hoped and prayed this footpath would not lead to a relapse – I wasn’t sure about being able to get the necessary treatment within two hours, preferably at a hospital with knowledge of treating thrombosis.

On arrival at the tukul camp we were met by two women who would be our caterers. The younger of the two – attractive and shy – carried a baby in a papoose on her back. After we had rested, these two performed the coffee ceremony for us.

Ethiopia is the world’s seventh-largest producer of coffee. About 60% of the country’s foreign income derives from coffee and 15 million Ethiopians rely on coffee production for their livelihood. In fact, the Coffea arabica coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, and some Ethiopians claim that the region named Kefa gave rise to the word ‘coffee’, while others say the term is derived from the Arabic word ‘kahwa’.

The coffee ceremony is nevertheless considered as being typical of Ethiopian hospitality. The coffee beans, which are green, are roasted in a dry pan over an open charcoal fire. You should wave the smoke from this process towards you and inhale it deeply and praise the hostess for the delicious – ‘lovely’ – aroma.

The beans, now brown, are ground fairly finely using a pestle and mortar and transferred to a pot, and brewed in boiling water. When it’s ready, the coffee is served in small china cups with three or four spoonfuls of sugar (or, perhaps, tasty Ethiopian honey). To accept a third cup of coffee in this ceremony is seen as bestowing a blessing. Popcorn may also be served.

While this coffee ceremony was a delightful and tasty part of our stay at the tukul camp, Maereg invited us to another coffee ceremony at his aunt’s modest home in Lalibela two days later. Because of the private nature of this event, it was an honour that we were happy to accept – and enjoy.

When, on leaving our overnight stay at the Genet Mariam community, and after we’d painstakingly woven our way downhill and had arrived at the bottom of the footpath, to wait for the Land Rover, we found that a handful of young teenagers on their way to the village school had stopped to watch us.

Relieved from the journey downhill, I crossed the road and asked, “Anyone speak English?” – knowing full well that these youngsters, like their compatriots in Addis Ababa and Lalibela, started learning English quite early in school. But unlike their compatriots in the large towns and cities, this group (most of whom were girls) seemed to have little experience of actual confrontations of even the friendliest type with a white person of genuine English birth. Their response was stillness, giggles and shy looks among themselves. Then the Land Rover came and they lost their chance of conversing in real English…

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