Adventures in Abyssinia

A few years ago I travelled across Ethiopia, for no other reason than I could. Almost a decade later It still remains one of the most visually and culturally captivating places I have ever seen.

To many, Ethiopia today is a country without hope. Nothing more than a famine-ridden dust bowl languishing on the eastern edge of Africa. Yet this is home to one of the oldest Christian civilisations on earth, with a cultural pedigree that can match anything in antiquity. This is a country that witnessed the rise and fall of great empires whilst our ancestors were still running around in animal skins and woad mascara. This is the cradle of humanity for God’s sake!

I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t given Ethiopia much thought of late, that was until a friend of mine came back from there earlier this year. Listening to her talking about the place brought back memories of sharing a rickety old bus with a man and his Kalashnikov, passing the skeletal remains of burnt out tanks and the imposing majesty of imperial castles as I made my way into the religious heartlands of the interior.

One of the places that left a particular impression on me was a town called Harar, situated in the foothills of the Chercher Mountains, some 150 kilometres from the Somalian border. This was a town of conflict and contrast, a microcosm of African life, where Muslims and Christians had brokered an uneasy truce and the streets and alleyways positively screamed with noise and colour. Once a staunch Muslim stronghold, until the latter part of the 19th century Harar was completely closed to Christians. Birthplace of Ras Tafari Makonnen, better known to most as the emperor Haile Selassie, this was a city like no other I had come across in Ethiopia. It was more vibrant than the towns of the Central Highlands and felt more Arab than African. There was also an underlying feeling of tension wherever I went. Christians were tolerated here, but only just.

For all its initial aggression though I liked Harar. From my hotel room I watched the chat sellers doing a brisk trade in their seemingly inexhaustible supply of the region’s main cash crop. Chat is a mildly intoxicating and perfectly legal stimulant that has been cultivated in Ethiopia for centuries and from my elevated vantage point it also appeared to be the prime preserve of the adult male population of Harar. Walking through the streets later that day I came across countless men resting up in the late afternoon sun, their eyes glazed and their teeth green from chewing bags of the stupefying leaves.

Harar’s network of narrow lanes crisscross the city, passing markets overflowing with spices and vegetables and crossing streets filled to overflowing with barber’s shops, tailors and lepers. I wandered past tiny mosques and Catholic schools, visited the house of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who spent 16 years of his life here and, in a back street of almost overwhelming obscurity, came upon the house were Haile Selassie grew up. It had been taken over by a local family and a passing holy man, whose lofty claims to be able to cure everything from sexually transmitted diseases to cancer were somewhat tempered by the appalling stench and overwhelming sense of decay that assailed you as you entered the yard. It was more open sewer than health centre and I remember beating a hasty retreat back out into the warren of alleyways, looking for more pleasant sights and smells.

One of Harar’s more famous spectacles is the nightly hyena feeding that takes place outside the city walls. Very much a tourist attraction these days, it nonetheless has its origins in a ceremony that stretches back hundreds of years and, in spite of its potential for crass commercialism, it does present something of a unique experience. Calling them in from the surrounding darkness the “Hyena man” feeds these wild dogs from a basket of offal, sometimes placing the tempting morsels between his teeth and allowing the more adventurous of the pack to snatch it, quite literally, from his waiting jaws. I counted upwards of 20 of them emerge from the trees and walk cautiously towards us, a somewhat disconcerting sight given that they could have torn us to pieces very easily had they been inclined. They seemed content to go with the easy option though, just as well given that our “armed” escort seemed to be holding his gun the wrong way round!

As the food ran out and the rains began, I recall the Hyenas vanishing into the darkness like ghosts, their retreat being calmly watched over by a mangy cat who seemed to take the entire spectacle in its stride. I should have gone with them. As it was, I spent my last night in Harar stood on a rooftop, in the midst of a storm of almost biblical proportions, trying to talk sense into an evangelising and very drunk American. He had climbed onto the roof to preach a sermon to the poor benighted souls below, offering them comfort and solace from the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels. This was not good. For centuries this town had been a crossroads, an entrepôt of commercial trade from Africa, India and the Middle East. It was from here that the Muslim armies of Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi had swept forth in a holy jihad against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This was a town with attitude, which still had a xenophobic mistrust of foreigners and the largest chat market in Ethiopia. This was not a town for drunken American evangelists…


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