Two Women, Two Tribes, and a Journey of a Lifetime is a 9-part series penned by Lim Ka Ea about her one year stint in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she accompanied her husband on his 9th humanitarian mission. No stranger to travel and humanitarian missions herself, she learned that Ethiopia is not really Africa and Africa is not really all about national parks or long distance-runners. She also learned that being a “tai-tai” is so overrated unless there is another “tai-tai” to get into mischief with. This 9-parter tells the story of how two “tai-tais””explored Ethiopia and discovered their life as both an individual and a woman. This weekly series started with Part I: My first encounter with Africa, Part II: The faces, sounds and smell of Addis Ababa and Part III: The gift of a kindred spirit.
A short distance away from the industrial areas of Addis Ababa, we passed acres of green houses in Debre Zeyit, erected to accommodate the blooming flower industry of Ethiopia, soon overtaking Kenya as the biggest flower producer in Africa. Vertically stacked chopped-up eucalyptus trees lined both sides of the roads neatly. They are valued commodities, serving locals with many purposes; construction of houses, fencing, scaffolding and firewood.
We could start to breathe more easily due to lower altitudes and less air pollution although trucks ahead of us often blurred our frontal visions by leaving behind thick trails of dust which seemed to linger for more than 100 metres at a stretch, especially on unpaved roads.
The landscape varied intermittently from flat arid fields to luscious green and fertile highlands often with layers of man-made terraces to accommodate small agricultural crops. Acacia trees shaped like giant bonsai with their trunks and branches twisted on their own will, aloes and euphorbias were seen spreading sparsely in arid fields. Many acacia trees are used by birds to support their nests and men to hang their traditional cylindrical bee hives made of barks and dung to collect mar or honey.
What is Africa without its bastion of wild animals? We were constantly fascinated by the vast species of birds and animals flying and roaming freely in their undisturbed milieu. I wonder how long would it take before the white pelicans, helmeted guineafowls, vultures, falcons, marabou storks, camels, baboons and dik-diks begin to disappear in order to give way to homo sapiens’ insatiable appetite for development and eventually destruction.
Against a constant background of volcanic hills and the Arsi, Fike and Guge Mountains which seem to stretch for an eternity, clear blue sky invaded by fluffy white clouds, it was definitely a quiet and soothing retreat from the madding crowd of Addis Ababa.
Otherwise a landlocked and mountainous country, which often provides a sense of claustrophobia, the ubiquitous images of the Rift Valley lakes serve as a temporary soothing alternative.
With elevations varying from 450m to 1,700m, the temperature was inevitably erratic. It could rise as high as 40 degrees Celsius, as experienced in Mago National Park and Omorate, to as low as 20 degrees Celsius in higher grounds such as Wolayta and Jinka.
Between Arsi Negele and Shashemene, the landscape changed from the small deciduous leaves of acacia trees on barren soil to thicker foliages thriving on green carpets. We were delighted at the sights of luscious fuchsia-coloured bougainvillaea and crimson red poinsettia trees. Hedges comprised of small yellow-coloured daisies, locally known as Meskal Flower, lined both sides of the road.
“Blue donkeys” were replaced by herds of cows, goats and sheep under the watchful eyes of les petites shepherds. Occasionally, we saw young boys balancing their lean bodies effortlessly on flimsy-looking rubber-wheeled carts pulled by horses along the sides of narrow roads. It did provide an impression of an African version of Roman chariot racers.
In bigger towns like Shashemene and Wolayta, red or blue tuk-tuks, similar to those seen in India and Thailand, and horse drawn carriages serve as public transportations.
A beautiful and rather big tukul found in the village of Aje with paintings of the Lion of Judah.
Big concrete buildings are being substituted by tukuls, traditional round huts made from clay with conical grass thatched roofs. The tukuls are often small and low, which made me wondered how many people it could actually accommodate. While I was concerned with the issue of space, Irada was occupied with a rather different thought, perhaps less grave but definitely more humourous in nature.
She turned to me and said solemnly, “It’s amazing that the cows are not eating the roof.“
Shashemene, about 179km from Addis Ababa, is a busy and crowded town, a place where Rastafarians pay homage to. Although deeply disappointed by the absence of men with dreadlocks and marijuana plants, we were still charmed by the sound of bells dangling around the horses’ necks as they galloped along with their attached carriages filled with passengers. It sounded exactly like the sleighing bells of reindeers as often portrayed during the Yuletide season.
A few kilometres after Shashemene, we passed the village of Aje. The tukuls are now much bigger with some beautifully painted with drawings of the Lion of Judah, a revered imperial symbol representing the Emperors’ direct lineage of the Israelite tribes, both according to local legend and Rastafarian belief. There are others wearing some sort of locally made ornaments on top of their roofs.
Local men were seen wearing tall straw hats with orange, red and green horizontal stripes. We were told by Jalalem that these were Oromo men in their traditional hats.
After travelling for almost six hours, the asphalt roads finally ended as soon as we reached the town of Alaba Kulito.
No pain, no gain
While I struggled to take notes during the remaining bumpy journey, my writings were reduced to illegible child-like scribbles. Irada, on the other hand, was faced with a much harder and frustrating task at hand. Due to the influx of tourists over the years, local tribes have begun to take advantage of the benefits of tourism by charging 2Birrs (10Birr is equivalent to roughly 1USD) for each photo taken of them. Prior to our travel, we had been advised to agree on the terms of payment before taking any picture of the local people.
As a bona fide photographer, Irada aspires to capture her subjects in their natural state of being and environment, none of these artificial poses, thank you very much! However, as human beings begin to understand the power and ability of the camera to immortalise images, we also learn to limit the potential of appearing vulnerable and ugly by posing. As such, the locals often looked into the camera with sterile smiles imprinted on their faces.
In order to minimise such monotonous images, Irada often tried to take spontaneous snapshots surreptitiously in order not to alert the people. Unfortunately, unless you are a magician, it was impossible to hide a 24-70mm zooming lens. As soon as the locals saw her with her camera, they rushed towards her demanding for payment or worse, insisting her to take pictures of them so that they could earn some money. It didn’t really matter how far her subjects were because they would often run after her, shouting “2Birr! 2Birr!”
It didn’t matter either whether she had taken a picture of them or not because by having a camera automatically entitled them to assume that she had. Very often, our frustration and patience were taken to a new height when many locals insisted on being paid in fresh new notes.
There was an incident which created much discomfort in me although it didn’t affect Irada’s photographic instinct. As we were passing through a village, a Tsemay boy, dressed in his traditional best, attracted our attention from a distance. He was strolling along the road with a machete in his hand. Many of the local men and boys tend to carry spear-like weapons and AK-47s, as a form of protection against wild animals.
As our car moved slowly towards him, Irada started to take pictures of him. The boy started waving his machete in a fury as soon as he realised that a farenji woman was taking his pictures. Irada, completely unperturbed asked the driver to stop by the boy so that she could take a close up portrait of him. Meantime, the boy continued to wave his machete in front of Irada, obviously very upset judging from his verbal conduct and frantic gestures. Although I was sitting at the other side of the car, I was stricken with fear that the boy might just slash Irada with his machete.
Thankfully, nothing happened as soon as we drove away and left behind a rather angry and upset boy.
Next: Part V – Hardships and Friendship
Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife in Ethiopia and Cambodia but failed miserably. Now, she works with lawyers and human rights activists by day and watches Discovery Travel & Living by night. She writes for The Malaysian Insider during her dwindling free time. She longs for the day when someone would pay her to travel, eat and write.
Irada Humbatova was born in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on 12 July 1974. She trained and worked as a midwife from 1994 to 1997, later assisting the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent with maternal health work by training and supporting traditional birth attendants in rural areas. Since then she has followed her husband on Red Cross missions around the world, developing her love for photography into a passion and profession. Inspired by Africa’s immense beauty and its people’s suffering she moved from art photography to photojournalism. She has since grown to become Reuters’ stringer for Ethiopia and work on assignments for other news outlets and magazines. Irada is currently back in Baku continuing her work with Reuters. She contributes most of the photographs in this series.