Sunday, April 20, 2014

Arba Minch Has All

Our two dear friends recently came to visit us in Ethiopia, so we decided to take a road trip down south, an area we had not yet explored. While Northern Ethiopia is better equipped to handle tourism, Southern Ethiopia is more….umm….’authentic.’ There is, however, a satisfying mixture of cultures, wildlife, and scenery.

After an all-day drive on unfinished roads, we arrived at the aptly-named Paradise Lodge in Arba Minch.  The view was gorgeous. Overlooking lakes Chamo and Abaya, as well as Nechisar National Park. This is one of the few areas in Ethiopia where you can still spot huge crocodiles, hippopotamus, zebra, dik-dik, kudu, gazelle, and a huge variety of bird life.

For about $15 per person, we took a boat tour across the lake, then a walking safari in the national park, complete with an armed guard. Despite the glaring heat, it was incredible to walk alongside herds of zebra, who paused occasionally to stare at us, staring at them.

We hired a local guide, an honest-to-goodness Rastafarian, to show us the cultural aspect of the area. He took us outside of Arba Minch, high up on a mountain, where the Dorze tribe lives. Famous for their weaving skills, the women spin the cotton by hand, then the men weave, using a foot-powered, complicated-looking loom. Most still live in their traditional beehive-shaped huts, which sometimes have the face of an elephant.

At the village, we sampled bread made from false banana roots, chased it with locally-made arake moonshine, and haggled for colorful handmade scarves. Our Rastafarian guide even proposed to our friend, hours after meeting her. “My brother has a fereji (foreign) wife,” he cajoled.

So, we can say with confidence that Arba Minch truly has it all: endangered animals, gorgeous views, unique cultures, and convincing marriage proposals.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

“Are you sure these handicapped people can learn?”

Several months ago – too many to count – we spoke with the Dean of the local Technical-Vocational Training College. When we asked if he could accommodate a short-term training for adults with disabilities, he readily obliged, saying that Ethiopians with disabilities are his brothers and his sisters.

Weeks later, when we were ready to start the training, we talked to the teachers, who were clueless about everything. We told them that the dean of the college had already approved the idea, and that conducting a training for their fellow community members was the right thing to do. After all, people with disabilities in Ethiopia face so many struggles.

“Are you sure these handicapped people can learn?” asked the teachers.

“Yes, of course they can learn. Most of them use a crutch to walk, but they can stand, they can use their hands to work with wood or metal, and they can definitely learn,” we replied.

“Well, OK. We will write a lesson plan. Come back next week,” the teachers said.

We returned the next week, only to have the exact same conversation. Maybe they had forgotten everything we said? We planned to return the next week, to give them time to prepare the lesson plan.

We return the next week, only to have THE EXACT SAME CONVERSATION. Again, we planned to return the next week, to give them time to prepare the lesson plan.

We return the next week, and the next week, and the next week, and…well, you get the idea. 

Three months later, the training began, although the teachers decided that it should be held at the old campus, about 2 miles outside of town. Eight brave people with various physical disabilities joined the training. Some were amputees (with and without prostheses), some had polio or cerebral palsy or uncorrected clubfoot. 

All of them walked (or crutched) the 2+ miles to the training every day for over 2 months.

We were the only ones to complain about the distance.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Top 5 Things To Do in Harar, Ethiopia

We’re only posting the top 5 things to do in Harar because, well, there aren’t many more things to do. Here it goes:

1.      Feed the hyenas
The so-called ‘Hyena Man’ calls the hyenas just outside the walls of the city at dusk. It is worth the trip just to hear him call the creatures. He yells the hyena’s names (yes, he has given them names) at the top of his lungs, in Amharic, “Tiny, Tiny, won’t you come here, Tiny?” Finally, ‘Tiny’ shows up, and is a large, skittish hyena with a fat, round belly. Clearly, she comes for the feeding every single night. For 50 birr per person (about $2.60), you can feed the hyenas some raw meat using a stick – which, in my opinion, should be a longer stick, considering the strength of the hyena’s jaw. They can crunch through bones with that jaw! Hyena Man may even encourage you to place the stick in your mouth, and let the monstrous ‘Tiny’ eat from there.

2.       ‘Tour’ the Harar Coffee Factory. 
Admittedly, this isn’t much of a ‘tour,’ per se, but you can walk into a tiny building to see and smell where the world-renowned Harar coffee is roasted, ground, and packaged, all while wondering if the employees wash their hands. You know you’re close to the factory when you see a big mosque and the smell of the coffee overwhelms all other senses.

3.       Feed Avoid the hawks. 
For 10 birr (.50 cents), one of the camel meat vendors will let you feed scraps to the hawks, who are patiently waiting for any opportunity. I’m not sure if hawks can see color, but they sure seem to perk up when the foolish ferenji (foreigners) show up. Their eyesight and accuracy is truly amazing – just missing people’s head by a few centimeters as they swoop down aggressively towards their small chunk of camel meat.

4.       Forgive someone in the Street of Reconciliation. Although all the streets of Harar are narrow, this one beats them all. It is so narrow that if you try to pass someone you are quarreling with, you can’t do it without reconciling your differences.

5.       Get busy in a traditional Adare house. 

There are still many traditional-style decorated houses within the walls of the city. The main rooms have plenty of seating (on the floor) so visitors can lounge and chew chat, a stimulant that comes in the form of fresh, foul-tasting leaves. The walls are jam-packed with colorful bowls, baskets, and other useful kitchenware. Just off the main room lies the ‘honeymoon room,’ a tiny, dark space…wonder what they do there?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

City of Peace: Harar, Ethiopia

One of over 80 mosques in the walled city
Back in the 1500’s, the walled city of Harar was established. Until 1850, the city remained the most important trading post in the area, with merchants interacting from India, Arabia, and amazing feat, considering that they aren't even close to the ocean or a port. In the 1700s, Islam was introduced and the city became the most prominent Muslim city in the area. In fact, the city was closed to Christians until 1854, when the famous explorer Richard Burton visited the city for 10 days and subsequently wrote about it in First Footsteps in East Africa:
“Its heat is not hot, nor its cold, cold.”
160 years later - still true. 

Narrow streets of Harar: No cars allowed!
Today, Harar is a sort of city-state in Ethiopia, and is considered the 4th holiest city of Islam. The city was recently awarded UNESCO’s ‘City of Peace’ Prize, due to their religious and cultural tolerance.
“Harar must be understood within the larger context of Ethiopia where scholars have long noted the historically peaceful interaction of Muslims and Christians. Orthodox Christianity, related to the Egyptian Coptic Church, has been the state religion since the fourth century CE. The Orthodox emperor welcomed the first Islamic refugees sent by the Prophet Mohammed himself, seeking peace and safety.” (Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace)
At the center of the city, which covers only 1 square kilometer, you can find a Catholic church, an Orthodox Christian church, and a grand Islamic Mosque. Harar has a history of peace, despite the odds: in 1887 the Christian Ethiopian Empire destroyed the central mosque and built an Orthodox church on top of it.

Still, no violence began.

During Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign, Muslims were suppressed: unable to celebrate religious holidays, unable to own land, unable to participate in the military or politics. 
Street of Reconciliation

However, Muslim saints continued to welcome anyone to pray, including Haile Selassie himself.

Today, Muslims and Christians continue to live peacefully together, in this overcrowded city with narrow streets. In fact, there is one street in Harar called the ‘Street of Reconciliation.’ It is so narrow that if you tried to walk by a person you have a conflict with, you couldn’t pass without reconciling your differences.
“Muslim and Christian neighbors invite each other for weddings, funerals, feasts, and holidays by cooking separate meat and paying attention to each other’s ritual prohibitions.” (Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace)
How does she do it? Baby, wood, bag.

Even the goats are friendly in Harar

Monday, February 17, 2014

Timkat: A Celebration of Epiphany

Choir kids
Every year, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, AKA the Epiphany or Timkat. In Ambo, the celebrations begin in the morning, with everyone gathering around the fountain and waiting for their blessing of holy water from the priest, meant to symbolize the renewal of their baptism vows. There are drummers beating their huge leather traditional drums and kids in their choir uniforms, singing. All the Orthodox followers clap, sing, and chat.

Frantically unrolling the carpet
Then, around lunchtime, a parade-type procession begins down the main street. The Ark of the Covenant is coming…the actual Ten Commandments written by God in stone. Well, at least a replica of that is coming. The head priest carries the Ark of the Covenant on his head, while his helpers shade him with rich velvet umbrellas. Red carpet, strewn with grass, is rolled out in front of them, and the men unrolling the carpet struggle to unroll the carpet in front of the procession, and roll up the carpet in back of the procession. Looking exhausted, they do this for miles, constantly running back to front, pushing the crowd out of the way. Meanwhile, the priests walk slowly and methodically down the carpet.
Carrying the carpet

All around, crowds of Orthodox followers walk as near to the Ark as possible. Some clap, some sing, and some bend down to kiss the carpet that held up the Ark for a brief moment.

To avoid the crowds, we perched ourselves on our favorite 2nd-story restaurant, overlooking the street. We were joined by our friend Beenya - a 24-year-old shoe shiner with an 8th grade education - who spotted us from down below.

“How do you say Timkat in English?” he asked.

Procession down the main road

“Well, I think it is called the Epiphany,” we replied.

“Do you celebrate Timkat in America?” he asked.

We were stumped. “Maybe the Catholics? Or the Greek Orthodox? I don’t know.”

The Ark of the Covenant?

Kissing the carpet

Tired from all the walking

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How To Build an Herb Spiral

Since the weather in Minnesota is frightfully cold right now, we will take a moment to gloat about our year-round gardening potential in sunny Ethiopia.

We recently took an ‘herbal training’ from a 3rd-year Peace Corps Volunteer, Emily. She taught us how to make an herb spiral garden, which, like the name implies, is a circular garden of herbs designed to use gravity, sun position, and drainage in a limited space. The design allows water to drain slowly from the top center toward the outer bottom. The top is dry and sunny, while the bottom is moister. So, herbs which like well-drained soil are placed near the top, while herbs needing more water are placed at the bottom. Herbs that like sun are placed in the south, and so on.

To build an herb spiral, you will need:
  • Dirt
  • Sand
  • Compost
  • Large rocks, bricks, wine bottles, whatever you have
  • Herb seedlings or seeds
Step by Step:

Select a sunny location and mark off a 2 meter x 2 meter area. Then lay the large rocks (or bricks or bottles), starting in the center and spiraling out in an elliptical shape.

Fill in the areas with dirt and compost, then repeat the process, building the spiral upwards. If your soil is sticky and clay-like, add some sand for better drainage.
The center should get to be about 3 feet tall and gradually slope downwards from the top to the bottom. 

Plant the herbs according to their preferred climate. Consider the height of neighboring herbs, the position within the spiral, and the moisture level. Here is some guidance:

Dry: Borage, Chamomile, Chicory, Cilantro, Cumin, Fennel, French marigold, Garlic chives, Hops, Hyssop, Lavender, Marjoram, Nasturtium, Oregano, Rosemary, Saffron, Sage, Sweet basil, Tansy, Tarragon.

In-between: Basil, Bergamot, Borage, Calendula, Catnip, Chamomile, Chives, Cilantro, Dandelion, Dill, Ginger, Lavender, Lemon grass, Sage, Spring onions, Parsley.

Moist: Chamomile, Comfrey, Lemon balm, Mint, Parsley, Watercress. 

After planting the herbs and seeds, water everything well.  When you are finished, marvel at the beauty!

For additional reading about herb spirals, check out:

After 1 month


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Diversity Visa Party

Last year, over 12 million people applied for a Diversity Visa to live in the U.S. Out of that, 55,000 people actually received a Diversity Visa, 3,500 of whom were Ethiopians. Before coming to Ethiopia, we had never even heard of this type of immigration. Almost every qualified adult we know in Ambo applied for a DV for 2014. They want to go to ‘America,’ thinking that life will be better and easier and that they will become rich.

To qualify, applicants must have completed high school (or equivalent) OR must have worked at least 2 out of the past 5 years in a job that requires college-level skills. Other than the basic qualifications, it is simply a lottery system. Every October, applicants go online to apply. If chosen, Ethiopians immigrants (and their family, if applicable) must have a ‘sponsor’ who will vouch for them for the first 6 months.
“The visas are distributed among six geographic regions globally, with a greater number of visas going to regions with lower rates of immigration, and with no visas going to nationals of countries sending more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States over the past five years.  Within each region, no single country may receive more than seven percent of the available Diversity Visas in any one year.“ (

Despite the odds, our counterpart’s sister-in-law won the DV this year. She, her husband, and their two young sons will move to Washington State next week. To celebrate, her family killed a cow and prepared a feast, inviting neighbors, relatives, and friends.

“It was just a small cow,” our counterpart insisted, “Of course, we used the entire thing.”

There were discussions about the availability of injera in America, and discussions about who knew whom that had already won the DV and was currently living in America. Two older women had recently visited their families in the U.S. and said they didn’t like it, that it was easier for younger people to adapt to the language, the culture, and the weather. Blessings were offered from the elders to the family in hopes of a successful life in America. Josh even gave a blessing in Afan Oromo that went something like:

“It makes me happy. We want only good for you in America.”

We left the party by saying to the family in Afan Oromo,
“Later, we will see each other in America.”