Weekend Walks

Weekend walks
One thing VSO advised us to think about before we left the UK was how we’d spend our time when we can’t do the things we did at home? There are no leisure activities like cinema and theatre, no gyms, swimming pools, sports clubs, pub lunches, retail therapy or family to visit. We don’t have a vehicle, don’t drive, and it’s difficult to get about unless you are prepared to risk the vagaries of local transport on the unpredictable roads, or hire a car and driver (which we do when we have visitors – hooray!).
The weekend is the time when this comes home to us most.
One thing we can do is walk up the hill behind the house. It’s not a beautiful walk. The view over the sprawling, dusty industrial areas of Mekelle, amidst sparse, water-starved vegetation, isn’t exactly a breathtaking panorama. Nonetheless, it is a walk that we have come to enjoy.
Mekelle has become a big city. But we are on one edge of it, and it is only a 10 minute step from our house out of urban Ethiopia, past the churches and into the rural scenes of flat-roofed stone hidmo houses and traditional local life. Up the hill are rows of tiny, thatched, open-work huts, the dormitories of the seminary where the young priests train.
The houses disappear, and the track snakes its way upwards. First, we have our gym equivalent! The path is steep, so we start with an excellent cardio workout. It’s a good feeling to get to the top and look back over town. We’ve been here nearly two years and there are still a few landmarks we can’t identify.
From the top we have the choice of heading off across the plateau or taking an alternative route back to town. My favourite is across the plateau. There is usually a cool breeze, great after the heat of climbing the hill, and a feeling of openness and freedom.
Up on the plateau are hamlets and a path which takes you back in time. It’s used by the local people to get down to town, either on their own or with their animals. We can’t have proper conversations but they seem pleased to see us. Often it’s just a “kemay” or “dehan do” greeting, but sometimes a bit more. Last Sunday, a man stopped to speak. We could work out roughly what he said by the gestures but translation from an Ethiopian friend with us confirmed he wanted us to get him some new teeth, he’d clearly lost his front ones! Most Ethiopians have beautiful teeth. Instead of a toothbrush they chew a twig (eucalyptus for the basic, olive for the top of the range) which gives them perfectly white teeth and no need for a dentist, apparently for a lifetime. The next generation may not be so lucky, as sweets and soft drinks are creeping into the shops.
The area is agricultural, but there’s much evidence of its volcanic past, which makes farming difficult. The huge boulders would render machinery useless; the old ploughing methods with oxen are still best on this terrain. Although we have seen farm machinery in southern Ethiopia, the ox and the donkey are the tractors of Tigray. We see young girls heaving sacks, collecting cowpats for cooking fuel; the boys help herd the cattle and other animals and both help with the harvest . There are clusters of strongly built stone houses, some with sloping, corrugated iron roofs which, though less attractive than the traditional flat earth roof, are preferred for their greater resistance to the elements.

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Each walk is different, and that’s to do with time of year, what we see and whom we meet. Earlier in the year we were surprised to find a new waterhole for cattle, and nearby a pump for domestic water. Until then, the nearest water had been a shallow river a 2 mile round trip away. Now there was great activity and excitement around the pump, as the photos show. It means a shorter journey carrying the heavy containers and less passing bowls up from the remains of a mostly dried up stream.
Unfortunately, there was no activity by the pump last week (it was broken) so they were back to scooping water for themselves and their cattle from deep down in the waterhole. Much harder work. The heavy water containers are strapped to the backs of women and children or in panniers on the donkeys.
Last week, we saw an unusual and amusing sight. A woman had brought her two children to the waterhole in the donkey panniers, the local equivalent of a double buggy!
We ended up in a conversation of nods and smiles with her and shared some bananas we had brought. She then talked at length with our Ethiopian friend Micheale, who translated. One of their children had been taken for adoption. It was a complicated story of how but it seems that the child had been stolen initially rather than voluntarily given up. The result was that he had been adopted, initially without their knowledge, and was now living in the States. Whatever the facts, it must have been a partly legal adoption as they ran home to get a photograph of him with his “new”parents in the USA. They wanted to know if we recognised the family or could in any way let the boy know that he also has a family in Ethiopia. Yet again, it underlined the disparity in life experiences.
This week, we risked the start of the rainy season along with some other VSOs. We knew it was a bit of a gamble when we set out, and just as we were moving away from the town we were caught in a violent thunderstorm. We pressed ourselves against the wall of a small stone hut for shelter, and immediately, the woman inside ushered all five of us into a tiny room. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a hairdressers, though there was no sign of this from outside. There were two hairdryers squashed against a wall, a few posters of complicated Ethiopian hairdos on the walls, a handful of chairs around the side and a cooking pot steaming in the middle. It was the end of another (shorter) fasting period, and the family was about to eat its first meat in two weeks. There was barely room for us but she insisted we all sit down. With amazing hospitality, she offered tea and coffee and invited us to share their meal – a hugely generous offer, considering the family’s obviously modest means – we declined. People dropped in and out to look at us (!), three sons, the older two of whom spoke good English. After 15 -20 minutes it stopped raining and we continued our walk, all feeling quite humbled by the experience. We’ve since been able to call back and thank her – and pass on the photograph we took at the time.
Our walk up the hill kept pace with four boys also making their way to the top. They were carrying home-made whips – during the fortnight’s fasting period, the streets are full of boys cracking whips, though no one seems to be able to explain the origin of the tradition, though it is no doubt religious. The custom is to carry some home-made bread to a high place at the end of the fast, and whip it. Erm, go figure!
To finish, our last two walks have ended with more freely given hospitality. July is the height of the “beles” season. The fruits of the prickly cactus plants we’ve seen on walks throughout the seasons are ready to eat now. We were offered them in the hotel where we often collapse at the end of the walks and also from a roadside stall as we made our way back. They’re best eaten when someone else is prepared to risk their fingers on the thorns, but delicious!

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1 Comment

  1. Will the walk from Pangbourne to Goring ever compare…


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