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Notes from My Ethiopian Journey
PostPosted: Sun Sep 29, 2019 1:36 am Reply with quote
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Notes from My Ethiopian Journey

By Amir Baharun*

The following story is based on my trip, September/October 2017, to Harar.

What a big change. The country has drastically changed, in both positive and negative ways. Stores selling imported food and goods are everywhere. People speak into their cell phones rather loudly, as if they are addressing deaf people. The country has produced many self-made millionaires and billionaires in the local currency. Well, it seems that communism is gone for good and superseded by a market economy. Everywhere I went in Addis Ababa, I could see buildings; some have been completed brand new and some uncompleted with wooden scaffolding still clinging to their sides, and packs of cement around them. Satellite dishes are everywhere, and people can watch CNN, BBC, France24, Arabic channels, Chinese channels, and Turkish channels with soap operas dubbed into Amharic, the official language of the country. For the people with money, the markets have everything to offer.

The day I arrived in Ethiopia, there were reports about ethnic tension in the eastern part of the country - the region of my destination. That was what I kept hearing, but I had no idea how serious the tension was. There was also a rumor that a coach bus belonging to the pro-ruling party’s company had been torched by ethnic Oromos. After remaining in Addis for a few days, I booked my flight to Dire Dawa. Dire Dawa was a bustling and calm city without ethnic tension. To travel to Harar, the historical walled city and one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in Ethiopia, I took a minibus. I sat a row behind the driver with two others, squeezed on seats meant for two passengers. Other passengers followed fighting their way to the back of the minibus. The driver’s assistant, who was ushering people into the minibus, chewed addictive fresh green leaves choosing the soft part carefully like a goat selecting buds from shrubs. The green leaves are called Chat in Ethiopia, Qat in Yemen, Khat in some other places. Everyone around me chewed as well. One of the men offered me some, but I declined. I talked to no one and no one talked to me. It was the right time to say nothing, as a slip of the tongue could lead someone to an unknown destination. The minibus was over-crowded, and at one of the back seats a baby cried some, but the mother was able to get her to sleep by breastfeeding. As we left the city limits, the air inside the minibus was filled with cigarette smoke and the nauseating stench became overwhelming. No choice, I stayed.

A passenger, who sat beside me was more aggressive and vengeful against Somalis. “We’ve to kill each and everyone of them,” he said, to a person behind him. He started to talk about how some of the residents of Awaday, a small farming village close to the city of Harar, killed Somali residents. The man’s descriptions were gruesome and graphic; repulsive to a person who has settled in a part of the world where reason always prevails and solving problems through compromise and consensus is more common than using brute force.

When I arrived at Awaday, it was unbelievable how a small farming village has developed. The image I kept in my mind was, Awaday with scattered clusters of thatched huts, domestic animals and naked or half-naked children playing around. It used to be a village nearly without nothing. There was a single two-lane asphalt road, in the middle of the village that ran straight from Harar to Dire Dawa, with a few automobiles. The automobiles were outnumbered by overloaded donkeys and women carrying firewood. This time it has become a town in its own right, thanks to mass Chat leaves export. No one would ever have imagined the change I had witnessed within a quarter of a century. Armed soldiers in the backs of pickup trucks were everywhere in Awaday, just like the people with bundles of Chat leaves - Chat that looked genetically modified. I arrived in Harar at lunch time. I did not witness any tension inside the city, but still the armed soldiers were visible.

The next day, first thing in the morning, I decided to visit the city centre. I walked along a cobbled alleyway. The neighbourhood stray dogs came and tried to sniff my legs, as though greeting me in their own way. I shooed them away, as gently as I could manage. The man behind me, who was talking to himself, kicked one of the dogs in the stomach and made it yelp. In the street, the smells and noises made my long forgotten memories come to life. In the old city where everyone knows everyone, everyone is somehow related to everyone, I exchanged greetings with the people I met. I recognized some faces but forgot their names and vice versa. The city of Harar has too overgrown, beyond my imagination, not inside the old walled part of the city where I have stayed, but outside of it. Among unrecognizable landscapes of the city is the Aw Hakim hill. It became thick with little villas, green shuttered, colorful roofed houses, apartment buildings and roads. In the alleyway, I met my childhood friend and after a brief chat, I put a few hundred banknotes in his jacket pocket.

“You’re blessed to give than to receive, my good friend. Money is not worth what it used to be, you’ve no idea how the prices gone up,” he said, without even counting how much I had given him, as though he were telling me to be more generous. “In the past, ten birrs used to keep me going for a week.”

Even regular beggars seemed irritated when someone tossed down coins to them. My friend has a limp and I was struck at how old he has grown. I have aged too, for he did not recognize me. As I left my friend, the neighbourhood young men turned and watched me go. I thought they were poking fun at me, winking and jabbing their elbows in one another. I have never given ageing any thought before. The words of my friend kept going around and around in my head. Then I began to hear the pleas of beggars. Beggars are everywhere; as well as mentally disabled people walking completely naked, as if they are in a city-wide nudists’ party. Among them a tall man wearing a suit jacket without a shirt or undershirt, and nothing on the lower part of his body. Then I met my first downpour and took refuge inside a nearby store. After a few minutes it stopped raining leaving the smell of sprinkled ground, the whiff I had enjoyed as a child.

The centre of the city used to be called Faras Magalla, the horse market, but its current name is Chellenqo Square. When I was a child, there were few taxicabs and horse-driven carts there and in the First Street. At the First Street, there were also shoddy bars with girls. Now the city streets are crowded with three wheeled bajaj. Everywhere I went, I saw those auto-rickshaws also known as tuk-tuk in India or bajaj in Ethiopia - the most pollutant types of cheap vehicles with their clouds of dark exhaust. The drivers decorate their bajaj according their taste or faith.

At Chelenqo Square, I looked for Aba Usamne, a horse-driven cart driver, to spend a morning with him. As a kid when we tried to ride on the back of his cart, he used to crack his whip at us in a nasty way. Much to my surprise, I could not find a single horse-driven cart let alone Aba Usmane. Maybe he had already met his maker; I hope he had gone to a better place. It was a time for a melancholy sigh. Then I kept walking to Botega neighbourhood, where I saw people sitting on a terrace outside a restaurant eating raw meat and drinking beer. Mind you, it was just around ten before noon.

The next day, a cousin, who also happened to be a friend of mine, made me visit his house construction that was under way. I had spent a good portion of my morning with him, and finally he made me meet my grade school teacher, who used to hit our knuckles with a ruler when we forgot to do our homework.

“I’m still Amhara,” my grade teacher said, “but some of my former friends aren’t. When it suits them, they say they’re Oromo, they’re both and neither.”

After a brief chat, I left my old teacher to visit a friend who lived down the alleyway. On my way to her house, I saw a group of young men standing with their backs against uncemented wall, beside an open sewer. When a young girl crossed her way, one of them began to heckle her with obscenities. The others whistled and roared with laughter.

“What is wrong with you? Can’t a young girl walk in peace?” I yelled. I was hurt by what the young man said to her.

They were not hostile or angry towards me, but they stared at me as if they had not understood a word I had said. In Canada, gender focused heckling is called ‘sexual harassment’, but I do not know about its proper term in Ethiopia.

“You should have slapped them hard across their faces,” a man said, who appeared from one of the neighbourhood houses, “they are useless bums.” Hearing the man’s voice they dispersed like dust from grain. Thanking the man, I left.

When I knocked, the yard gate was answered by a young girl. My friend came out of her kitchen to welcome me as she wiped her hands on her dress. She changed a lot, like everyone in the city, but still a pleasant-faced. In her courtyard a man in his thirties, with a pair of many pocketed safari pants, was standing.

“He is my son,” my friend said, “he came from Sweden to visit us. He’s a naturalized citizen of that country.”

“Hur ar det?” I said to the man.

“Do you speak Swidish?” he said, with a surprise.

“Yes, I do speak a little bit.”

Then a young man appeared, mid-twenties, with baggy pants, spiky hair and sleepless-looking eyes. “He is my other son,” the woman added, frowning at him, “say hello to Uncle, he came from Canada.”

“Hi,” he said, without glancing at me, as if he were a child forced to say something to an elderly person.

I wondered if he had spent the whole night chewing green addictive leaves and watching Turkish soap operas. Addictive leaves are the ancestral burden that still follows Harari people into generations.

“The Chief Administrator of our region is the person who is addicted more than any one else in our city and cannot move or open his eyes without gurgling two or three times in the morning, as if the green leaves were a sort of medication. Absolutely unbelievable! Another interesting one is, a radio show producer with hundreds of listeners around the world through his social media pages every week - my Swedish son is one of them. He’s another bad example to the point. He is young and portraying himself as a ‘Social Critique’. But if you see him smiling, rarely smiles in public, all his teeth are gone dark and none of them are even brown. He doesn’t only chew and gurgle, but chew the leaves with love, piece by piece. Because of the cursed green leave, people’s brain destroyed and their teeth have fallen one by one. These leaves are a big curse to our people, we should never have consumed,” she said with anger and frustration, “our society is in crisis from every angle. The diaspora returnees are the worst. I don’t know about you.”

“I do not chew the leaves at all and I never did,” I said. Concerning leaves, I felt like her. The sad reality is, everyone in the city seems to have fallen captive to the addictive leaves. They chew everyday, as if they have nothing better to do with their time.

“Good for you, bro, for not consuming the cursed leaves. It’s very bad for our people and our kids. You saw him, this boy of mine, he’s a college graduate, instead of looking for a job, he consumes the green leaves everyday. My kids’s father quitted chewing leaves and smoking a couple of years ago, but this strong headed boy didn’t follow him.”

“I tried, but unable to rid myself of the habit of chewing leaves,” her son said. The sound of his voice was like an appeal for help.

She is a college educated and one of well articulated persons I met in the town. She told me about her concern, regarding Harari society, with friendly ease of manner when we had a cup of tea together.

After exchanging interesting words, I left her house. To my surprise, there were fewer people in the alleyways and most of them younger children, elderly women and stray dogs, tongues lolling, looking for shaded spots from the midday sun. Then I saw a woman who was talking to someone as she walked. Something about her seemed familiar to me. She resembled my grade school mate and I followed her and caught her up at the turning of the steep road up to the Jami mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the Horn of Africa region. I was right, she was the person I had known as a child. She was with her granddaughter, a beautiful little girl, neatly braided and pinned tightly with matching ribbons, tear stains in her face. The girl smelled like urine and soil, but only when I bent down to kiss her.

“See, it is funny. Now I remember not the mothers, but the grandmothers when they were girls in my grade school.”

“You’re right, we’re all aging. Unlike us, you still look young,” she said, with a polite bow.

“This little girl looks like you. What grade are you in, little girl?”

“Grade ten,” the preschool girl said, that made us laugh.

“While you’re here, I would like to ask you a question. Do you remember a boy, probably middle-aged by now, he used to live five gates from here?”

“I’ve no idea what became of him. You know all of us are dispersed, or he probably dead by now. Even some people whom we had believed dead would make a sudden reappearance coming from somewhere. I hope he is somewhere abroad and will reappear one day,” she said, and added, “you know, our generation inside the city is now on the wane.”

I wondered what became of him and even if I saw him, how could I recognize him with his comical old puffy wrinkled face. To satisfy my curiosity, for one last time, I asked a woman at one of the neighbourhood gates.

“How can a newcomer to the neighbourhood like me have heard about the people you mentioned,” she said in a rude way, “ask the old man inside the house.”

At that moment, I gave up and left.

The days were passing unbelievably fast, it was already Friday. After many years, it was my first Friday prayer at the Jami Mosque. At the entrance, men’s shoes lined up on the old wooden shelves. Inside the mosque, Khatib, the prayer leader, delivered the sermon in three languages: Arabic, Amharic and Harari. The week that followed Amahric was replaced by Oromo. It is a new way of delivering the weekly sermon; when I was a child the sermon was only in Arabic and the Khatib read the same text every Friday. After prayers, the gate of the mosque became crowded. Many beggars came in a rush, and among them badly crippled men and women stretching their fingerless hands. They came from the late French born, Fransican priest, Dr. Ferron’s leper colony - weekdays they survive begging for crusts of bread.

The day that followed, on my way to the city center, I saw a man, probably a former refugee turned diaspora like myself, a camera slung around his neck. He looked at me and we exchanged smiles without uttering a word. Then we walked together, as if we were two friends out on the town. At the city center, we both went our separate ways. I went to visit Rimbaud’s Museum, not in Charleville-Mezieres, but in my hometown, Harar. Once I read an article in Le Monde, a French newspaper about the curator of Rimbaud’s Museum. He is the uncle of my childhood friend. During my visit, when I asked about him, they told me he had developed some complications and had passed away. After my visit, I went to his house to pay my respect to the deceased and offer my condolences to his family. In his official address, no wife or children were present. I saw only a colony of cats and kittens. I left wondering if he is survived by thirty plus cats and kittens.

Every morning after my regular walk, I stayed in my childhood friend’s store where I met the people I knew and listened to local gossip. Harar is as always with full of gossip. His store is located in front of a cooperative warehouse, where cooking oil, sugar and other daily necessities distributed at a cheap affordable price to the residents of the area. The line was always long and chaotic, as the customers were arguing, interrupting each other and trading insults with obscene gestures. Even once two young men started to exchange blows, and street urchins, shoe shiners, and curious passersby gathered to watch the fight. The good thing, two police officers appeared and stopped the fight.

That same day, I met a woman I knew when she stopped after her shopping to exchange words with my friend. “I heard that you’re in town, please do come and have a tea in my place,” she said. She was in a hurry to be off and I followed her.

“My family has enough to eat, healthy children, and a place to live. No one could ask for more than that. We have what we need,” she said. Her life is hard, but she did not think of it as hard. After walking a few blocks, we were at her abode. She pushed open the heavy gate.

“I have a dog. Don’t worry, it’s chained,” she said, walking into the dirt courtyard.

When I heard her warning about her chained dog, I became hesitant. Once inside, I looked at her dog carefully. It opened its right eye lazily, as if it were too tired to get up and bark at me - at least I would have considered its bark as a welcoming and friendly noise. She has a small traditional house, inherited from her parents. Two young children were playing in the courtyard, she called them to talk to me, and then, “make yourself at home,” she said and started to boil water over a wood flame.

“My husband worked very hard to live since he was young. He had no hope of ever being rich enough to live a month without income, but he was always happy, and thanked Allah to let us all healthy,” she said, sitting to show me a black and white photograph, so faded that I couldn’t see my own image. The picture was a young boy with a police uniform, a pistol at his hip. Then she offered me a milk tea with cardamom, before I even sipped I saw a dead fly was floating on the surface of my tea cup.

To a person who has settled in a country where everyone has enough to eat, live decently in a clean house or apartment with a kitchen, and even has a car; it is sad to see a person who struggles just to survive. She even behaved like a person who has no wish or dream to change her lot, as if she were content to be poor. For people like her, nothing seemed to have changed, everything is the same. Although miserable life has never been in short supply in the city of Harar, but at this moment in time poverty is worse reducing the people to the humiliating state of abject poverty.

For some others a big change in the city of Harar; cars, flat screen televisions, luxurious lifestyles, big houses and new neighbourhoods - hajis tujar, new rich, nouveaux riches neighbourhood. As I left the woman’s house with sad feeling about the unfair nature of this world, I met a group of children coming towards me.

“Let him alone,” the woman shouted at them, as she stood watching me go. I gave them the spare changes I had in my pocket.

On my way home, I went Gidir Magalla, the central market of the old part of the city. It is not the same Gidir Magalla I had known as a child. Now it has become a quiet place. I noticed the spot of a terribly old pathetic woman with a sharp tongue was empty. She was selling fresh vegetables. At the same spot I saw a lone European tourist standing, as if he were wondering which way to go.

“These alleyways are like a maze from which I could find no exit,” he said with a smile. He was like a man took a stroll in a strange city and to be lost in the maze.

On the morning of the following day, I met a childhood classmate that I’ve lost track of him at Chellenqo Square Cafe, where I had my coffee. He told me that he has settled in the States, and the same morning, he was interviewed by the local Harari TV channel for their program called ‘kufut gar,’ open house. He became U.S. based professional Harari singer. Weeks later I saw him boogieing, from video sharing site, surrounded by colorfully dressed friendly female audience.

The same day, I saw an old man standing near a convenience store leaning on his walking cane. When I approached, I recognized his face. He was a city-wide bully, whenever he was around life was hell for everyone. He would hit, steal things, and puncture children’s rubber balls. A rubber ball costed seventy-five cents, a fortune for young kids. He picked on everyone and he always made fun of others.

“Hello,” I said.

“Amir, is that you I’m seeing? The one with sleek hair?” he said. “Amir, you’ve a face to be remembered. ”

He barely sees, and I wondered how he recognized me. He walked as if each step was painful. He lost his sight and teeth as a result of diabetes, the common disease in the city after high blood pressure. He was excited seeing me, like I was doing him a favour. I was also pleased to see his mischievous old face.

In the final days of my stay, whenever I went my friend’s store, some people did talk about the situation around the city and the unrest in the country with interest. It was like waiting for something to happen without knowing when or what. Each day followed on much like the one day or two before. The tense situation started to surface and the house speaker of the country resigned. The peasants were forced to stop supplying fruit and vegetables to the city. The power outage and disruption of water supply became common and people started to beg water from their neighbours.

Three days before my departure, I met an elderly woman whom I had known a long time ago. “I’m happy to see you decently dressed,” she said. When I visited her on my last trip she wept loudly, as a mother might for her son, but not this time. “Few months ago, one of my relatives came from somewhere in the white people’s land with his family and paid me a visit with his young daughter. He gave me money too, but you would not believe me if I tell you the way his young daughter was dressed. She dressed in a faded pair of pants that was ripped, patched, and too tight to be her size. Can you imagine a young girl dressed like that? I gave him his money back and told him to buy proper clothes for her. He laughed and told me it is the culture of the country where he came from. But our country is here, Gey, Harar. Am I right or not?”

I smiled with affirmative nod.

“I refused to accept his money. If families can afford to travel to see relatives in their country of origin, then they should have dressed their children properly. I was honestly distressed, when I saw the young girl in that situation.”

When I left the elderly woman, I saw young and the not so young locals with faded ratty jeans like her relative from ‘somewhere.’

Then I visited an old neighbour, he was sitting with a group of men. They all sat cross-legged against the wall, in front of them fresh Chat leaves, waiting for the oldman’s blessing words to start chewing. The old man was waiting impatiently for his green leaves to be crushed and pounded in a wooden mortar.

“Where do you live?” the old man said, touching his excessively untrimmed hair from his ear.

“Canada, do you know where Canada is?”

“What? Germany?” he asked with a mumbling toothless voice.


“Oh, you live alone.”

“With my family.”


“I live with my own family.”

“Are you married?”



“I said, yes.”

“Do you’ve kids?”

“I told you already, yes,” I said as loud as I could, after inserting some banknotes in his front shirt pocket.

“Then why are you screaming at me? I heard you clearly,” he said. His face wore a frown and his eyebrows pulled together. His angry face reminded me of his cry when I was a child. At that time he was a professional farmer and had an ill-tempered old donkey. The day it died, he cried like a child who lost his favorite toy.

He is one of the oldest people living in the neighbourhood, still healthy despite his hearing disorder. His youngest son was two grades below me, when we were in grade school, and he lives somewhere in Germany. At the old man’s yard gate, I met one of his friends coming wrapped in the traditional cotton sheet. When I shook his hand, each of the man’s eye was staring in a different direction. What I found interesting was neither was looking at me.
As I hurried out of the old man’s house, in the alleyway, light wind blew ruffling my grey hair and with the blowing wind a bug flew into my right eye. I wondered if the old man’s some kind of spell had been casted on me because of my screaming noise. While I was struggling to remove the bug from my eye, I saw a woman in her late sixties walking unevenly. She stood in the middle of the alleyway, hands planted on her hips, waiting to talk to me. She was a sister of one of my grade school friends. She had been the most sought-after girl of her youth, with years I barely recognized her.

“My plot of farmland is taken over by my former employee, who used to share the crop with me. We lived together as a family and never had an issue. I know his parents and siblings as well,” the woman said, tears of sadness stream down her cheeks, and as she talked her mouth went dry. “Now I’ve nothing, as the land was my only source of income.” A few meters away, the stray dogs started fighting over a piece of bone. “See, the people in this city too behave just like these dogs.”

A woman with bunches of dandelions and basil leaves stuck behind her ears joined us and seconded the woman.

“We’re all victims of harassment and aggression, as they made our life intolerable. We all have some painful stories to share about our sufferings, as if being a Harari is a kind of crime in our own ancestral city. You must have spent a fortune to come and visit us here, thinking that here is your land of origin. The sad reality is, war is being waged on us and swords are sharpened and painted all red; although we never have done them wrong. There are marked and unmarked houses, ours are marked. There are targeted and untargeted lands. They have their own land and we have our own, why do they look ours? I’ll leave the answers for you. It is becoming more than we can bear, robbing our land means robbing our identity. There are wicked people making up lies and inventing stories to create trouble. Everytime I hear a knock at my gate, I feel my heart starts tightening. Everytime the yard gate opens, I’m scared. They made our life unbearable and it is like a prison we choose to live inside,” the elderly woman said, flashing her kohled-eyes at me, with a gesture of spitting like no to invite bad luck. Witnessing despair on her face, I was unable to think of anything to say.

I had lived in Harar in one of its troubled times, but twenty-seventeen was not better, even it became worse, as Harari people have faced the prospect of ethnic cleansing from their next-door neighbours. Harar is the city where I was born and had not been there for decades. Within a few weeks I had grown tired of its poverty and hopelessness, the aggressive beggars and the thugs. It is a friendly city with friendly and helpful residents. It meant more to me than just about any other place. But I was saddened to leave the city again in its one of the hardest times.

The formidable elderly lady with bunches of dandelions and basil leaves has reached an age where she has a right to rest, but scared of forced eviction in her own ancestral home and any knock at her gate could be turned into a nightmare. It is depressing to hear the story of survival, fear and insecurity. The same afternoon, I visited my grade school playground and the spot where I played cops and robbers with my friends. What a wonderful place it is! It had stirred up on me many old memories about the school that had seen happier days. I remembered my classmates, schoolmates, and teachers, some of them left us for good. When I glanced up, I saw a fence of a nearby house that was crowned with broken bottles as it was in my childhood years. I felt that the people who stayed in Harar have a feeling, like if they were surrounded by broken bottles.

The day I left Harar, the smell of fear was everywhere. It was a reasonable fear, as I shared and felt it. I even forgot about making fun of the odd characters I had met. Once I arrived in Canada, I started to follow the news from a safe distance without fear or anxiety.

*Amir Baharun is a Montreal based author and bilingual freelance writer.

~ If not us, who? If not now, when? ~
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Notes from My Ethiopian Journey
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