Ethiopia with Zoma and Juna Wallace

Hello Fellow World Travelers,

Below is a short story written by Juna Wallace of her and her sister’s (Zoma Wallace) trip to Ethiopia.  Enjoy!

My travels with my sister were in the interest of planning for and organizing a presentation given on behalf of the Zoma Contemporary Arts Center of Ethiopia, hosted by its foundress Mrs. Meskerem Assegued, a symposium entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?”. The idea was a brilliant one: Assegued summoned a hand-picked team of contemporary visual artists, architects, art historians and curators from all over the world to discuss the ways in which art is currently used worldwide and can be implemented to make and inspire bold social commentary on particularly significant and charged issues with a focus on the environment, the manner in which it has been/is being destroyed, and what can be done to encourage sustainability in order to “reverse the curse”. The website is a great resource for getting a broader idea of the ongoing mission and the various publications that are in production as a result of this symposium we attended and took part in.

Upon our arrival in Addis Ababa, we almost immediately boarded a regional flight to Dire Dawa, a slightly smaller, ‘sleepier’ city with its own rich history, having been a resort/vacation attraction town and thriving metropolis in its heyday. It is a comfortable, comparably quiet and peaceful place to spend time in and explore from the backseat of a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled, open-air motor scooter cab, extraordinarily easy to hail and wonderfully inexpensive way to travel, say from a filling traditional dinner at a nearby restaurant to one’s hotel. But the climate in Ethiopia is so agreeable, one may often find themselves more interested in taking to the streets on foot; in the day, the temperature reaches between 75 and 82 degrees F – no more and no less – with it dropping down to anywhere between 40 and 50 degrees at night. However, this is the landlocked horn of Africa, and while not stifling with humidity, it is very dry, so carrying several bottles of water during day trips is a must. And because water, fresh spring water in particular, is at such a premium, it is very common for people and young children to ‘pan handle’ for your bottled water, so it is recommended that you carry at least one extra bottle; when they do ask, give and give generously (more often than not, they will be sharing it with several other people and family members.

Once in Dire Dawa, we embarked on two separate day excursions to the rural village of Harla, the site for ZCAC’s most recent development in sustainable ancestral architecture, an artist compound, museum, and community center to be used at intervals for artist’s long-stay internships but left as a timeless and vital resource for the townspeople. Nestled between mountain ranges, Harla is a terraced farming village made up of families of goat herders, bead makers and artisans, farmers and construction workers who create and sun-bake the traditional mud bricks. The people there are incredibly kind, giving and curious, with children often wishing to practice the English they’ve learned in the town’s only school.

After just a few days in Dire Dawa, the entire group traveled by chartered vans to Harar for a home-stay experience and brainstorming retreat in what is termed a ‘typical’ Harare home. Its walls adorned with baskets and dishes of brilliant colors and specific origins and meanings; each level and area of the open common room is a sleeping nook, each nook is reserved for a different member of the family hierarchy from the grandparents/in-laws to the sons and daughters and occasional visitors. Harar and the in-laid province town of Jogol are magnificent to say the least; vibrant marketplaces, a great deal less crowded and aggressive as compared to those in the capitol of Addis, and home to some of the most amazing and best-kept-secret museums I think Ethiopia has to offer, particularly the former palace of His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, a breathtaking, picturesque location in and of itself but also home to the Harare Cultural Museum, teeming with art and artifacts and the nearby Arthur Rimbaud House, the French artist’s former home now kept as a museum and community center. It is also here in Harar where visitors can take part in an exciting, albeit unusual pastime, the feeding of the hyenas.

In Jogol, there is an elderly man who has served as ‘guardian’ of the hyenas for nearly his entire life. Having taken up this post from his father before him, he goes to the same place each night as the sun is setting, just outside of the gates of his small village. Taking with him a great basket of raw meat cuttings, he and all who watch and wait are soon joined by a throng of wild hyenas, at times as few as 5 and as many as 40. It is very important to say these hyenas are not in any way domesticated and do not belong to this family/community, but they have a sort of ‘understanding between them. Seated in the dust, he feeds them from his own hand when they approach and any who wish to experience it can do so as well..but with a special feeding stick provided; with these very wild predatory animals unaccustomed to strangers, it is best to keep a bit of distance between their mouths and one’s hands no matter how relaxed and tame they appear to be with the guardian.

I should mention that if traveling to different areas of Ethiopia, travelers should be mindful of the three predominant ethnic groups present in the country, the Amharas, the Oromos and the Tigres. The language of Amharic, for example, is spoken nearly everywhere in the country and especially in Addis Ababa, however in Harar the traditional and pervasive language is Oromia, farther south Tigrinye is spoken, so carrying several phrasebooks and/or one book with several translations is a great idea.

We were not long in Harar and after just two days, we were back in Addis Ababa for our last week of our trip. Unlike our small town experiences, Addis is a rather enormous, thriving, sometimes claustrophobic place (but in the best ways possible)! Again, there are countless museums and historic landmarks to explore. Much like my hometown of Washington, D.C., aptly placed statues are the focal points of the numerous roundabouts (traffic circles) honoring different political leaders and heroes of the brutal takeover attempts on the part of Europeans, most notably/memorably Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Marketplaces, especially at the foot of the Entoto Mountain and the Merkato, a former Italian-occupation neighborhood, are unmatched in their offerings – textiles and clothing, exquisite jewelry of pure gold and silver, books, hand-carved statues, fresh-picked fruits; they are simply incredible places to ‘get lost’ in..and practice bargaining in Amharic!
Addis is the place where one can enjoy a true nightlife experience, going out for dinner and dancing – eskiste (pronounced skis-STAH) or shoulder dancing is some of the best fun to be had, whether just watching the professionals in their mastery of it or jumping up and trying it for yourself. Usually there are performers at nearly every restaurant, dancing or singing, so live entertainment over dinner is commonplace. Dinners – most meals, for that matter – are shared in the traditional family-style one experiences at an Ethiopian restaurant in the States. Mounds of injera bread are served alongside a large round platter filled with various dishes of vegetable stews, yellow and red lentils, chicken, and lamb. The unmistakable draw and enjoyment of the food is not only in the incredible, complex, and rich flavors, it is absolutely in the freshness and quality of the product (my sister and I happily noticed within our first few days that our clothes were looser and certainly NOT for lack of eating!). Fruits, vegetables, and meats are all organic as opposed to in our country where often the origins are suspect; even a glass of orange juice at breakfast time in every restaurant is fresh-squeezed upon ordering, each fruit taken from a basket that has just been harvested that day..and it tastes that way with every sip! One of my favorites was a concoction called sprice juice, a layered smoothie of juiced oranges, mangoes, strawberries, papayas and avocados. And a cultural event within itself, the taking in of a coffee ceremony, is an experience not to be missed. Coffee is its own religion in Ethiopia with the utmost care being paid in every step of the process. It is not to be hurried or downed quickly once poured but quite literally, a sort of dance, with the roasting of beans, billowing of coal fires beneath the pot, or bunna, and calming enjoyment of the final product. The preparers take great pride in the process and presentation, so unlike the snatch-and-grab experience at the coffee pot at work, this is a time to relax, socialize, and tip well!

I have done my best to squeeze two weeks of travel into a summary that I hope is not too long or overwhelming, but I had to make sure my descriptions did justice to my life-changing experience. I say without restraint that Ethiopia is one of my favorite places on this earth and I cannot wait to go back; there is a time of year called the Meskel Season wherein the many mountain ranges are positively luminescent with the brilliant yellow color of the Meskel flower that blooms at the beginning of the rainy season. As an avid hiker, I anxiously await an opportunity to go back and take to those brightly-colored hills and relive some of these wonderful experiences.
Juna Wallace, presented to The Traveling Eye.
Juna and Zoma, On behalf of The Traveling Eye and our audience, hank you for sharing your personal story with us.  I t was truly a pleasure having you on our show and seeing Ethiopia through your eyes.
Ja’Vonne Harley
Co-Host, The traveling Eye
Owner, Advantage International, LLC