I once wrote about a lone Bedouin I happened across in the Judean desert. I was impressed by the simplicity of his existence. His lonely days in the desert had rendered him free of the personality pollutants that afflict the rest of us. It’s no accident that our major religions have their origins in the desert, a place whose emptiness forces our minds inward. That they later became burdened with ritual and dogma is another issue.
It was a long drive from the ancient city of Axum to the Simien highlands, and we passed through many villages whose names probably don’t even appear on maps. Places with names like Indaabaguna, Adigebru and Indamadri. The poverty in these villages is unfathomable for most of us. It was in one of these villages that I first saw real hunger in Ethiopia. We had stopped in one of them for something to eat, but my driver was ill and could only eat a portion of his plate. A couple of passing kids motioned that they were hungry, and I told my driver that he might as well give them his leftovers. Within about two seconds the food was completely gone, and the kids were extremely grateful. It’s one thing to theorize, and pontificate, about hunger in the third world from the comfort of one’s home – but seeing it up close arouses all kinds of emotions. I think if it doesn’t, then there’s something wrong with you.
We stopped at another such village for some coffee and to stretch out. This was Amhara territory, and the vast majority of these people are Christian. At the coffee shop sat a young man with a fez. Apparently, he was a priest and he had no problem with my taking his photo. After I took his photo, he asked to see it, and wondered if I could send him a copy. Unfortunately, his town had no postal service or internet provider, so I didn’t think this was possible. When I showed him the zoom function of my camera, he was filled with wonder. In a way, this man reminded me of the Bedouin in the desert.
The people of this town were clearly not accustomed to having “farenjis” (white people/tourists) stop by, and all eyes were upon me. There was no hostility, just curiosity – especially from one little girl, who stood nearby and couldn’t take her eyes off me. She partially hid herself behind a tank, and had clearly never been this close to a farenji. I snapped a couple of photos of her and then motioned to her to come look at them. Cautiously, as if I might bite, she approached and saw her photos. Giggling, she flitted away and resumed her post behind the tank.
In other parts of Ethiopia, where tourists are common, the natives demand money to have their photos taken. Sometimes, if they feel they’re owed money and it’s not forthcoming, they’ll throw rocks. In some places, they’ll distort their own traditions in order to attract more attention from tourists, which translates into more photos and more money. But these Amhara villages of the high country are as yet unspoiled.
I hope these rural Amhara can improve their lot in life, and I hope they don’t lose their traditions and humanity in the process.