Streams of conscience in Bahar Dar
Lake Tana can accommodate Luxembourg with room to spare.
Photo: ©2005 Katleen Maes
Floating on the surface of the massive Lake Tana, I felt tempted to shower Bob Geldof – who, as he greys, is looking more and more like the high wizard of charity pop pretending to conjure away world poverty with his celebrity wand – with expletives, exposing him to the tirades he regularly directs at the world. Although he portrays himself as some foulmouthed angel, or messiah, as Katleen would put it, and he has done a lot of good in his time, the man does not tread water and his record is decidedly mixed.
Personally, I have major reservations about his backing of the recent G8 plan spearheaded by Gordon Brown – and his sitting on the Commission for Africa – because he is helping sanctify what amounts to business as usual. The news of the so-called new?! debt relief plan broke after my return from Ethiopia and I was a little revolted by the sight of all those fat cat politicians and pop stars from the rich world patting themselves smugly on the back for the great things they were doing for those poor wretches in Africa.
But what have they done? Debt relief for the HIPCs (or highly indebted poor countries, as they’re known) has been on the cards since the Jubilee 2000 campaign (remember that, the one led by Bono), the money they will use to finance the latest round – years too late – will come from existing development budgets. Ingenious that, give money with the right hand, take it back with the left, and make it look like you’re doing someone a favour – loan sharks take note.
Gordon Brown’s pet project to allow poor countries to borrow on financial markets against future pledges of aid looks no better either and it is mired with potential pitfalls. It amounts to little more than a financial optical illusion that would make future generations – in rich and poor countries – pay for whatever extra money developing countries receive now. Brown fails to mention why his children should pay for his largesse and not him, nor does he mention where their peers in the developing world will get aid from if they, too, need it. And what happens if rich countries don’t honour the aid pledges upon which the borrowing system would be based?
In addition, I have evolved this knee-jerk distrust of pop stars (ageing or otherwise) who line up for charity does. When I see a studio bursting not necessarily with talent but with enough net worth to keep an African country or three afloat for a few years, I wonder to myself why these mega-rich celebrities don’t put their money where their mouths are.
Imagine what a difference to Africa that would make if the music and film community dug deep into their pockets and gave away 1% of their combined individual wealth. Being so rich, they’d barely feel it and it would make a world of difference, particularly if it were pumped into long-term projects rather than relief programmes.
Back to Bob, Geldof has helped perpetuate a myth about Ethiopia that is far from true. In the Band Aid hit he penned (Feed the world), he claims that Ethiopia is a place “where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow”. And, as a demonstration of the power of pop, a lot of people I know admitted that this is just the image they had of Ethiopia.
Age-old papyrus boats on Lake Tana.
Photo: © 2005 Khaled Diab
If only they could see this, we thought, as our boat glided through the equine waters of the lake with no end in sight. There’s plenty of water in Ethiopia (the problem is its distribution). Lake Tana, for instance, could comfortably house a small European country. It is bigger than Luxembourg, we reflected.
The lake was so still that barely a ripple disturbed its surface beyond the short trail of waves kicked up by our boat. All manner of colourful birds which we could not name jostled for our attention. Olympic butterflies raced and overtook our boat kilometres away from the safe sanctuary of dry land. Jumbo pelicans flew low enough overhead on the way to their colonies to make us consider the consequence of one falling on our boat! But we didn’t see any of the hippos the lake is famous for. We passed beautiful and lush secluded islands, and people rowing timeless papyrus boats.
Of course, as the cliché started by Herodotus tells us, Egypt is the gift of the Nile. More than three-quarters of the river’s water flows through the Blue Nile, which is fed by Lake Tana. It felt strange to be floating on the source of sustenance for untold generations of my people. Prior to my departure, I had joked with my Uncle Mahmoud on the telephone that I would drop a Lotus flower or something into the lake and he would wait at Cairo’s Qasr el-Nil bridge to retrieve it!
On the edge of a peninsula, we trampled up to an old 17th century church – one of the few open to women on the island. We didn’t bother to go to the other churches and monasteries for this reason. The walls of the church are constructed of mud and straw which left me wondering how it has stood for so many centuries (perhaps they refresh the walls periodically?).
The small church is circular in design and is decorated with richly coloured biblical scenes. Its round design intrigued us and Katleen and I came up with different theories. Hers was the straightforward explanation that the church simply followed traditional building practices. I came up with the more exotic tawaf theory, that the church was round so that everyone could face the holy of holies and circle it kind of like pilgrims do in Mecca. The guide came down on the side of Katleen.
The man in bright yellow is our shepherd.
Photo: ©2005 Khaled Diab
Outside, an intense priest in bright yellow garb gave us piercing glances as he crouched in apparent contemplation. On the way back to the boat, a little girl sold me a rattle-like contraption similar to the ones used in church ceremonies and instead of bells in small rural communities.
Bahar Dar (which means corner of the lake) lies exactly where its name suggests. It was where we’d arrived that morning after a ridiculously early start (4.30 am). The town is quieter and more pleasant than Addis, and feels better off than the capital.
Our hotel, the Ghion, commands a beautiful and strategic location on Lake Tana, where it is pleasant to sit at any time of day or night. The rooms are clean and functional but – like so many other structures in Ethiopia – have seen better days.
During our stay there, we met a number of interesting characters, including a group of retired people who were doing volunteer work in Ethiopia, and a Swede who had planned to cycle round the world but had abandoned his scheme after being attacked by rock-hurling kids in an Ethiopian village. We also ran into an annoying and boastful American whose alias was Geekeasy. He said he was planning to travel around the world overland. It had already taken him a year to cover two countries. “Interesting project, too bad about the guy,” Katleen said pointedly.
Once we escaped the cloying clutches of the various hotel lookouts who were waiting to cut us off at every pass and sell us an excursion, a walk through the town was proved a pleasant experience. Bahar Dar struck us as a more prosperous and laid-back town than Addis.
The town’s market is large and well-stocked and well worth exploring. All the multicoloured wares are laid out on canvass or plastic sheets. However, there is one major distraction that makes browsing difficult: the crowds – and I don’t mean shoppers. From the moment we got within a 500m radius of the market, we became the souq’s main attraction, drawing curious crowds, particularly of children and young people.
At one point, it felt like we were some sort of enchanted pied pipers – minus the music – leading the village’s children deeper and deeper into the market. Our entourage – which went through three major changing of the guards – ranged from the silently curious to the brashly pushy minority.
One youngster at a time would try to nominate himself as our guide and negotiator with the vendors. Although we were interested in some of the goods on display, we wound up buying nothing because of the pressure, confusion and havoc. We decided to come back the next day, but didn’t manage to make it.
Market mania in Bahar Dar.
Photo: ©2005 Katleen Maes
In the market, some of the pushier people whose pitches we ignored would react in a way we thought was unfair and designed to intimidate us into doing what they wanted. They would point to their skin and ours and say: “We’re black. You’re white. But we’re all the same colour on the inside.” Absolutely, we would agree, that’s why we don’t deserve any more attention than a passing Ethiopian.
Our identity was a constant source of curiosity and amusement. In the eyes of many people, we seemed like a strange mix – pale woman with blue-eyes with darker man – and that might explain why we were regularly mistaken for Israelis. For some Ethiopians, however, we looked as white as each other, and we were from those pale lands somewhere to the north. I found that to be something of an interesting twist.
The Ancient Greeks knew Ethiopia (which means the land of people with burnt faces) as some vague notion of the land that lay south of the first cataract in Egypt. I found it curious that not a single person during our stay in the country guessed for themselves that I was Egyptian, Arab or even African – I got plenty of Spanish, Italian and Israeli (and even African American!). In fact, many people found it quite novel that I, too, was an African like them.
The next morning, we decided to make our own way to the Tis Abay (smoking water) falls using public transport. We’d had enough of the nanny attitude of our hotel and wanted to explore more independently.
Just before we managed to slip away, one of the hotel’s trip organisers intercepted us and offered us a place on their trip at two-thirds of the previous day’s price. Despite the discount, our aversion to organised tours meant that we were still keen on our normal modus operandi. We were only willing to entertain the notion of joining the trip organised by the hotel, if we missed the once-daily bus that went to the falls.
Fortunately, we found the bus station and our bus – packed as it was – just before it left. We sat on the raised platform beside the gear stick for the entire duration of the journey. The landscape was spectacular, if a little parched at the end of the long dry season: rolling hills, trees I associated with wildlife documentaries shot in the savannah, pitch black cows with wizened throats grazing on drying fields. I tried to imagine how the area would look after the deluge of the rainy season, with all the bone-dry streams and riverbeds gushing with water.
On the bus, we got to know two Dutch travellers, Martien, and his mother, Kori. That placed us in the bizarre situation of chatting with two strangers in Dutch on a provincial Ethiopian bus. In fact, my Dutch was to get quite a lot of exercise during our holiday.
We also got to know Michael, an Ethiopian who’d befriended Martien and Kori and offered to reserve them (and, eventually, us) a place on the bus for the only return journey. Michael gave the impression of being a brightly intelligent lad and he carried himself with certain intellectual airs – he was like a scruffy street thinker of common-sense philosophies.
His story – at least, the version of it he told me – was touching and frustrating, and spoke volumes of Ethiopia’s uncomfortable relationship with Eritrea. He claimed that his deceased father was an Eritrean by birth but had lived in Bahar Dar for three decades. His late mother was an Ethiopian. During the war, his father was deported to his so-called homeland which he barely knew, and both his parents died without seeing each other some years later. Now, he eked out a living as an unrecognised person. Although he was an Ethiopian to all intents and purposes, he had no official papers because his paternal line was Eritrean.
He claims that he could’ve received identity papers had he signed a certain document swearing allegiance, but he found it insulting that his patriotism should be so called into question and so he didn’t turn up. “I am proud of my Ethiopian identity,” he said with quiet vehemence.
Early into our walk up towards the falls we came across a large funeral. The mourners were all dressed in dazzling white with the colourful hems of their scarves turned inwards as a sign of grief and respect.
Photo: ©2005 Katleen Maes
We eventually arrived at the Portuguese bridge which locals believed was built with lime, eggshells and milk. It looked like plain old-fashioned stone to me! The red-tinged water flow deep below the bridge looked weaker than one would expect but it was still a sight to behold.
The waterfall itself was spectacular but a tad disappointing. With a name like smoking water, one expected a gushing, whirling mass of water giving off a spray hundreds of metres high. But the reality was a little more modest, what with it being the dry season and the hydroelectric dam holding back the flow. In addition, as Katleen noted, photographic trickery in the cinema had raised our expectations of what waterfalls should be like.
Our self-appointed guide suggested that the dam was 40 years old but I found this hard to believe considering that I had long read that Ethiopia had no dams until recently when it built a couple of small ones – developments which are watched carefully downstream in Egypt.
Thomas, a friendly hustler on the street who had tried to interest us in everything from a trip to the falls to bicycles or a tour of the market, gave the more reasonable figure of three years. He also told us proudly tat the plant now allowed Ethiopia to export electricity to Sudan.
Although the waterfall might no live entirely up to its name, it was a spectacular sight. On one bank of the main pool where the water collected was a patch of grass of a lush and dark green that stood in contrast to the drier surroundings. A herd of clever – if miniature-looking – cows grazed casually and unhurriedly on this fertile ground, as the tempestuous water rushed and gushed past.
Cows in Europe are docile bulks of breathing beef that chew cud all day. However, their bovine cousins in Ethiopia are more active and often run between one patch of sparse grazing land and the next.
Michael spent the return journey in silent contemplation – well, actually, in a chat-induced stupor. His eyes were bloodshot and a little manic-looking. When we probed him on why he chewed the bitter leaves, he said that it was good for sharpening the senses, and he only consumed it once a week. When we suggested that it was a fairly potent narcotic, his rebuttal was fierce: “Chat is not a drug. It’s just a leaf,” he insisted.
Back at the hotel, we had barely been in our room for five minutes to rest and freshen up when we heard a knock on our door. One of the hotel staff had come, yet again, to try to sell us an excursion to the waterfall.
When Katleen explained to him that we’d just been he seemed shocked by her response and didn’t seem entirely convinced. Later in the afternoon, we decided to rent bikes and cycle down to Haille Selassie’s abandoned palace. But that simple task turned out to be more easily said than done.
We saw Mohamed standing by a row of bicycles. I asked him if we could rent a couple and he said okay, before proceeding to launch into a new pitch – he obviously had bigger fish to fry! He wanted to sell us places on a minibus the hotel had organised for other guests to take them to Gondar. We explained that we were flying to the former Ethiopian capital. Nevertheless, he inexplicably persisted. When he found this wasn’t working, he tried to sell us a hotel in Gondar and a trip to the Simien mountains, at which point I lost my patience.
We complained about the hotels pressure-selling tactics and I told him: “All we came to you for were some bikes, please give them to us and we’ll be on our way.” When he explained that the hotel didn’t own any and he had sent out for some, I told him we didn’t want them anymore and we headed out to find our own bikes.
After a short delay, we found our ride and pedalled up to the palace. The ride was refreshing, particularly once we got on to the secluded, tree-lined country lanes which were almost completely deserted. They had obviously been surfaced originally for the former negus’s pleasure. Just before you reach the palace, there is a building that is painted in the red-yellow-green of the Ethiopian flag. Unfortunately, the palace is not open to the public but there are other sights in the vicinity.
Despite the rocky ride and the steep and unpaved final approach, the view of the lake and the surrounding valley from our vantage point was worth every breath the uphill ride had snatched from our lungs, particularly in the last light of day. We managed to get back to town just as it was getting dark.
We decided to go to dinner again at the Inkotatash. However, Katleen got distracted by a sweet little tissue seller and we took a wrong turn on one of the back streets. Luckily, the little lemon seller whom we’d given some change earlier decided to return our good turn. She dashed up to us and grabbed my hand before I noticed her presence. We mentioned the name of the restaurant and she nodded knowingly with a big smile on her face. We asked the people at the restaurant to give her a soft drink and she sat happily sipping away at her Miranda while we went into another room to have dinner.
We had decided to return to the restaurant partly because the food was so good and the service so friendly. The main reason, however, was because we wanted to find out why Assafa had not come to see us at the hotel as promised. It seemed he had but we’d just missed him.
Assafa, 18, is an energetic and enthusiastic young man whose entire existence was taken up by running. He is an aspiring middle distance runner who wants to emulate the success of his idol, the Ethiopian long-distance champion Haille Salisse. He also raced around the restaurant in his eagerness to do his job. His words sometimes tripped over one another in their keenness to leave his mouth and it wasn’t always clear whether the sharp gasp he sometimes inhaled was the regular Ethiopian gesture of interest in what you were saying or sheer breathlessness.
He rises early in the morning to squeeze in a serious session of running before he rushes to school or work. He also regularly runs in local and regional championships at which he was won a number of gold medals. And, like many Ethiopians, he has to run hard on the spot just to keep still in the struggle of daily existence.
Assafa’s driving ambition – which is of the benign sort, i.e. he is not willing to step on anyone on his way up – is perhaps fuelled by the fact that he is an orphan. When his parents died a couple of years ago, the kind restaurant owners agreed to take him in and help fund his schooling, housing and training. In return, he worked in the restaurant.
The evening before our interest had prompted him to suggest that he come round our hotel to show us his medals and certificates. Since we had missed him in the afternoon, we suggested that he come round that evening. He got permission from the proprietor of the restaurant to knock off early and sprinted off into the darkness to fetch his prized possessions.
At the hotel, Assafa hesitatingly accepted our offer of a drink on the lakeside terrace. But, once settled, he got into the excited swing of telling us about his passion for his sport and the medals and certificates he had won. He even brought along his school report to show that he was doing well there, too. We made appreciative noises and told him that we looked forward to seeing him at the Olympics in a few years. He promised to come back in the morning to say goodbye and we hugged in the Ethiopian way – by knocking right shoulder against right, and left against left.
Early the next morning, I already found Assafa sitting patiently waiting on the terrace when I stepped out to collect a bottle of pure Nile source water from the lake to take to my mother, as Martien had suggested. I was surprised to find that the young lad had brought us a present of a traditional Ethiopian basket, which was both touching and embarrassing.
Back in the room, we searched through our bags to see if we had anything appropriate to give him. Katleen volunteered her sunglasses which fitted him well and actually suited him. However, in his naiveté of modern wares, he thought they were vision glasses and he could use them to see the blackboard better in class. We had to explain to him that these were to protect his eyes from the sun and he could wear them while he was out on his training runs.
ã2005 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.