INTO THE ABYSS (Part 4)
The official language of Ethiopia is Amharic—an ancient Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. The problem is that fewer than one in seven Ethiopians speak their national language. The rest speak one of more than 80 languages, many of which are based only on oral traditions with no written roots.
That makes Ethiopia one of the most diverse and fractured countries in the world, and many of its people among the most culturally isolated.
Mussolini discovered this when he unsuccessfully tried to colonize Ethiopia. Its entrenched disorganization made colonization impossible. The country remains intensely proud of the fact that it is the only African nation to escape colonization.
Ethiopia is about twice the size of Texas and, with nearly 70 million people, has about three times Texas’ population.
It is comprised of nine states divided loosely along ethnic lines. Our destination was located in the state generally known by the initials SNNPR, which stand for Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region. Located in the south-central part of the country, it is the nation’s most ethnically diverse and socially isolated state.
It is a happy coincidence that Ethiopia straddles the Great Rift Valley.
Named after the geologic phenomenon that formed it—rifting, the Great Rift Valley is a 900-mile long, 50-mile-wide depression in the earth caused by the widening of faults in the earth’s crust.
The loose soil that has washed into this depression has provided an excellent medium to preserve, yet make accessible, the remains of prehistoric man. It was in Ethiopia that Lucy, the three million-year old hominid being—one of the oldest ever discovered—was found.
Ethiopians call her Dinkenesh, which roughly translates to “thou art wonderful.” Her remains are proudly preserved in the Ethiopian National Museum in Addis.
The Great Rift Valley also provides fertile farming soil. But the combination of Ethiopia’s monsoonal climate and 15th Century farming techniques, renders the country “chronically food insecure,” as world development experts call it.
Contributing greatly to this problem is a line of governments that have been ineffective at best and criminally stupid at worst. The best example of the latter was the forced evacuation of famine-stricken areas into areas of merely poor food supplies, which turned bad famines into catastrophic ones.
The government’s contribution to Ethiopia’s food insecurity continues with land policies that allow families to pass down farming rights, but withholds actual land ownership, making it impossible to use land as capital to buy quality seed stock and equipment.
When the annual rains come, food is plentiful. The country’s favorite food is enjera, a bread made with the wheat-like teff plant. This pancake-like bread, used in nearly every meal, is the most protein-rich bread made anywhere.
When the rains fail to come, hunger results.
The vast majority of Ethiopians then fill their bellies with the roots and stems of the native ensete, or false-banana plant, which fills them up but has practically no nutritional value.
Ethiopia is a nation of meateaters, but its animal husbandry and primitive markets provide little relief from famine. Most of its cows are zebu breeds, which tolerate drought, heat and insects well, but produce little milk and poor meat. They are used to pull plows. Goat meat is the most common available, but with little income—the average annual family income is less than $100—most families cannot afford to buy goats in numbers adequate to feed their families for a year or more.
Instead, the majority of Ethiopian families live on what they grow on the land their country lends them. The average family plot is a little less than an acre and a half. With virtually no irrigation, machinery or enhanced-yield seed stock, their subsistence farming provides a razor-thin existence that alternately swings from just-enough to hunger.
The drive out of Addis is fascinating. Traffic is heavy so our drivers are restrained. We have an opportunity to gaze at the sights, which include beautiful blood-red cliffs and rounded hills marked with white grave stones.
As we get farther down the mountain toward the floor of the valley, the traffic thins, our drivers gear up, and our hearts start pounding again.
The sun is setting and people and animals are moving on and beside the highway.
We are travelling in a caravan of three Toyota Landcruisers.
For hours, despite hundreds of people and animals on the road, our speed never goes below 80 kph (about 50 miles per hour) except for one instance:
Near the border of a small town, a rock barrier is built out across half the highway. A battered red stop sign is wedged into the rocks.
The drivers have to slow down to move out into the oncoming traffic to get around the barrier.
“Were we supposed to stop there?” someone asks. The driver smiles and says the people who built the barrier did so in the hopes someone will stop and pay the toll they demand.
In no time, we’re pushing 70 mph again. The green hills have been replaced by acacia plains, behind which the sun is drooping.
At least, I think to myself, they will have to slow down when it gets dark.
As Africa has consistently shown, reality turns out to be the exact opposite of what I expect.
MORE TO COME