Ethiopia Jewel of Africa

In April 2020, CNBC headlined it: “It’s one of the harshest places on Earth — and travelers love it.”. But long before that, one of Malaysia’s foremost adventurers, Yusuf Hashim had already visited the length and breath of the country several times. He recounts his fascinating journey here …

Text & Photography by Yusuf Hashim

A camel caravan leaving the salt fields of the Danakil Depression, carrying blocks of Rock Salt mined by the Afars in the inhospitable Danakil Depression of Ethiopia.

Rich in history, wildlife, and cultural traditions, the relative obscurity of Ethiopia, surprises those who are brave enough to travel in that country. Every place you go, rewards you with a sense of adventure and discovery.

The landscape in the north is littered with rock hewn churches, mighty castles, and isolated monasteries. Lalibela, a pilgrimage destination for Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia, was built 1,000 years ago, to be a replica of Jerusalem.

In Ethiopia, there are deserts and desolate volcanic regions where the inhospitable landscape is almost Martian-like. Yet the Afars live here, mining salt, and sending the salt out on camel caravans of hundreds of camels at a time, and they’ve been doing this for hundreds of years.

The daytime temperature in the Danakil Depression is often 52°C, and at night, it falls to 47°C! That’s extremely baking hot. There is no drinking water here, so the natives condense the steam escaping from volcanic fissures in the ground for drinking water. It has been described as the cruellest place on earth.

Food abundant

The Bale Mountains, in the Oromia Region of southeast Ethiopia, is the last sanctuary of the nearly extinct Abyssinian wolves. There are fewer than 500 of these endangered wolves left, which hunt rodents for food.

Driving down the Bale mountains, you might think you are in Europe. There are vast rolling landscapes of farmland cultivated with grain. Teff is the most common cereal crop grown here. It’s a magical grain. Teff is a tiny, round, khaki-coloured grain closely resembling millet, and its name comes from “Teffa”, the Amharic word for “lost”.

Inducing milk production

It is so named because of its small size which makes it easily blown away by the wind. It is the smallest grain in the world (about 100 seeds of teff are the size of a kernel of wheat), but a 1/4 cup serving provides 7 grams of protein, vitamin K, iron, calcium, fibre and zinc. It has eight essential amino acids, and is the main ingredient in Injera, the staple Ethiopian bread. It is said that if an Ethiopian does not get to eat his Injera bread for three days, he would go mad.

There is plenty of food in Ethiopia, and Ethiopia has the highest number of cattle per capita, in Africa. So, Ethiopia certainly isn’t a region of famine and poverty as many might imagine.

MursiWoman with a Lip Plate. The larger the plate, the higher will be her marriage dowry

And in the Kaffe region, there are huge tracts of land covered with coffee plants. Ethiopia is the only place in the world where coffee grows wild, and where all the world’s coffee plants initially came from. Ethiopian coffee is much sought after by coffee connoisseurs. And the drinking of coffee after meals in many Ethiopian restaurants, is often a fascinating ritual, where coffee ladies roast the coffee beans right in front of you, and then grind, and carefully and lovingly brew the coffee. The first cup is always offered to the oldest, or most respected person in the group.

Tribal customs

Whipping scars on Hamer women

If you venture further south into Ethiopia’s South-western underbelly, you will discover more than 80 different tribes, who are still living life much like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, herding cattle, and engaging in tribal customs which will shock you.

They occasionally steal each other’s cattle, and this ends in skirmishes in which people are killed. Which is why many Ethiopian tribes people as young as 12, carry rifles, their favourite being the AK-47 Widow Maker.

Then again, the Suri often kill each other in a violent sport they call Donga Stick fighting, which the government has banned, but which still goes on. You will know it’s happening when you hear gunshots in the distance.

Foreigners are not allowed to witness it but you can still get to see these fights if you have the right connections…

My friends in Ethiopia informed me that if I am still keen, they can get me to see and photograph a Donga stick fight. Me keen? I’d risk my life to go and witness a real Donga fight.

At the end of the fight, it can get quite unruly as supporters of both winner and loser have a habit of shooting into the air with their AK47s.

Other interesting facts – Suri men walk around stark naked. Their womenfolk are mostly topless, although they cover their bottom half. Women wear plates in their lower lips, while men wear them in their ear lobes. Both men and women scar their bodies, as scarification is regarded as beautiful and are acts of courage.

A 12 year old Mursi Boy with his AK 47 Rifle, which he uses to protect his family’s cattle herds. He probably got this rifle as part of his sister’s dowry when she got married.

During the coming-of-age ceremonies of young Hamer men, the men jump over cows fully naked. Meanwhile, their womenfolk encourage “professional” whippers to whip them till they bleed, in order to prove their love and loyalty to their men.
Fresh cow dung mixed with ash, is often rubbed over the body and face, as a beauty aid. And hands are often washed in fresh cow urine before milking. They regularly drink the blood of their cows, often mixing the fresh blood with milk.

The photo on the right illustrates how Nuer people stimulate their cows to yield more milk. This young Nuer lady plants her entire face into the vagina of the cow, and blows inside it, while caressing the udder area of the cow.

It seems, cows with calves, will usually constrict the flow of milk, to conserve some for their offspring. Doing what this girl is doing seems to fool the cows into releasing more milk. A strange custom; perhaps milk cattle farm owners in Australia, might want to emulate.

The Hyena Man of Harar

There is also one tribe, deep in the underbelly of Ethiopia, that often rob graves to eat the corpses.

See those welts on the backs of those ladies in Fig. 5? They taunt men to whip them, at the coming-of-age, bull jumping ceremony, of their young male relatives. The women don’t even flinch or scream. The more scars they have from these whippings, the prouder they are. The welts are supposed to prove that they love their menfolk.

The writer, Yusuf Hashim, in the Crater of the Dalol Volcano

There is a family in Harar, a town on the far eastern side of Ethiopia, where for hundreds of years, the men have been feeding wild hyenas, mouth to mouth, with offal and meat. According to legend, a long time ago, the hyenas used to terrorise the village, killing, and eating not only livestock, but also children.

The villagers made a pact with the hyenas, that they will feed them every evening. And in return, the hyenas promised that they will not harm the villagers or their livestock. Since then, if you visit Harar, just before sunset, the males in the family will feed hyenas, mouth to mouth. It is not a show for tourists, but they tolerate a small number of tourists in return for money to buy meat and offal for the hyenas.

Hottest Destination

The Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, apart from being about 120 meters below sea level, is also a zone of intense volcanic activity where the Horn of Africa is slowly splitting away from Africa. If you are brave enough, you can actually climb to the rim of the gurgling crater of Mt. Erta Ale, which is Africa’s most active volcano.

The picture in Fig 7, is the author, Yusuf Hashim, in the sulphuric acid, and sulphur-laden crater of the Dalol Volcano. The yellow stuff is sulphur. The greenish patches, are pools of concentrated sulphuric acid.

The author relaxing in 47°C, at the Danakilk Hilton, waiting for sundown, prior to climbing the Erta Ale Volcano.

There are numerous hot springs and geysers in the Dalol crater discharging brine and concentrated sulphuric acid. The Dalol volcano, on the main rift axis of the Danakil Depression, is an active basaltic volcano. The depression on the top of Dalol mountain is the collapsed crater of the volcano. This crater is 45 meters below the level of the Red Sea.

To visit some of the wildest parts of Ethiopia, you have to be prepared to stay in hotels of a million stars, like the Danakil Hilton, in Fig 8.

Go and visit Ethiopia. It is the jewel of Africa.

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