Faces of the Oromo

Wow. That’s about all I can say about the past week. As I rode south to the Kenyan border I was at first besieged by crowds again. In every village kids would see me and shriek with excitement. Faranji!! They would run to the side of the road and wave, yelling “heyyyyyyy!” Not just kids either– teenagers, old men, women with babies under their arms—everyone would come out to cheer me on. I felt like I was a one man parade. I’m not usually one to seek the spotlight, but I must admit I started to enjoy the attention. Of course I also got plenty of, “you! Give me money!”  or “give me the pen.” (they like to get pens for some reason). I varied my response from, “no, you give me money,” to goofy Spanish, “lo siento, no tengo dinero.” By then I had ridden away.

The road was constantly occupied by people walking. Sometimes with bags or bundles on their heads, sometimes carrying sticks of wood or large plastic containers of water on their backs, sometimes herding their cattle, sometimes leading a donkey or two. I was never alone. Even trying to take a pee was a challenge. The moment I stopped someone would see me and come over for a closer look.

Then, abruptly, it changed. I went over a high mountain pass (2400 m or 7200 feet) and on the other side the climate was very dry so the land could not support the high population. Suddenly I had the road all to my self. There were few vehicles and fewer people. It was great cycling. The road was in good shape, the weather was nice, and the scenery pastoral. I even got a chance to camp a couple nights in the African bush under incredibly starry skies. The camping was great—only me, birds, a few squirrels and some small deer. It was peaceful and quiet. I could not help but imagine our ancestors millions of years ago camping under the same sky in the same conditions (except they didn’t have an REI tent or sleeping bag).

But what really made the week memorable was the people that I saw. I went nuts with my camera. I was not in a big hurry so whenever I saw someone interesting I would stop. We would try to have a conversation but mainly we just stared at each other. I can speak a couple words in Amharic and Oromic which usually made them laugh. Then I would ask to take their photo. Usually it was OK, sometimes they wanted a few cents. The biggest problem was the lighting. The sun is so bright it casts harsh shadows over their dark faces. I tried various exposure settings on my cheap digital camera but I had a lot of trouble getting it right. I tried using a fill in flash but that drowned out the colors. It’s the first time I wish I had a decent camera with me.

I have posted a lot of photos this time so bear with me while I narrate them.

Most of the following people are from the Oromo ethnic group, making up 40% of Ethiopia’s population. Some of the other ethnic groups are the Amhara, Tigrayan, Sidama, Somali, Afar, Gurage, and Harari. It’s an incredibly diverse place.

The Oromo live mainly in the southern part of the country. They settled there after migrating from Kenya in the mid-16th century. At that time they were skilled warrior horsemen who struck fear into the local population. Now most are sedentary, ekeing out a living as farmers or cattle breeders. They are dependent on the rains which bring life to their crops and the grasses to sustain their cattle and goats. If the rains don’t come, the crops die, then the animals die, then they die. It is a tough existence since there is no welfare system, no safety net or backup plan. If there is a drought, it’s a disaster, which you soon watch on CNN and read about in Newsweek magazine.

Aid groups such are CARE and USAID have built wells in some places to bring water to the population. But I wonder if such well-meaning programs do more harm than good, as it only encourages people to remain in an area where, really, they oughtn’t be. The land and climate just can’t sustain life. In addition, it creates a sense of dependency on faranji, so that any time they see a white person they expect a handout. I’ll address the issue of giving aid to poor countries in a future post.

To the pix. These are in chronological order.

This is the first in the “mothers with babies” series. The kids are so cute.

This girl’s skin was so dark that her features became obscured. I had to use a fill in flash to bring them out, but then the deep purple color of her dress got washed out. Can’t win.

Typical scene of a young boy carrying, probably, a sack of grain or plants.

I had stopped for a rest and this girl came up to me, not shy at all. She had a real personality, even though we could not speak to each other.

Woman in doorway. I liked the colors and composition.

A typical street in an Ethiopian village. Dirty, smelly and full of activity.

Another mother with baby.

Kids smiling at me as I strolled through a village.

A typical view of the road in southern Ethiopia. You can see the people wandering the road. It never stops. The hills can be pretty steep as well.

The Ethiopian version of Ma and Pa Kettle. You can see they are of different ethnicities. He is very dark while she is more brown in color.

When I stop for lunch in a village kids swarm all over me. I look for restaurants where I have some protection. Here, a number of kids hung around the outside of the restaurant watching me eat.

Another kid squeezing his face through the bars to look at me.

One time when I stopped for a drink I was again surrounded. All the kids wanted their photo taken. When I show them the digital image they are amazed and squeal with delight. I noticed one shy little girl who stayed in the back of the crowd. I coaxed her forward and managed to get this great shot. Notice her crusty hands and filthy dress. Most kids are dressed in rags and without shoes.

I love this one. I titled it, “Snotty-nosed girl with camera-shy baby”. Every time I pointed my camera the baby would turn away and begin to cry. The girl is adorable. I gave her a tissue to wipe her nose.

Here’s another cute little girl in a nice dress. She was also shy but I got her to come forward for this photo.

A typical grass and mud hut and one of the inhabitants.

Another big sister and baby shot.

In one town these people were gathered around a television. It must have been one of the few in town. They were engrossed watching the National Geographic channel—in English!

A shop in a small village. Note the Amharic script at the bottom and right.

The Ethiopians love football (soccer) and have a particular penchant for the English teams. As the FA cup is underway, you can always find a bar that is showing the game. I was at a restaurant watching Manchester United play Chelsea and noticed the young waitress intently watching the game. I asked her which team she was rooting for. She said neither—she was an Arsenal fan!

If they can’t play football or watch it, the next best thing is foosball. You can find one these in an small village.

I did not eat here, but this is a typical hole in the wall restaurant in a small town. Note the kettle heating on the fire.

Here’s how many people transport their things.

This guy spoke English and showed me around one little town.

As I said, a white person stands out in Africa. It’s not all bad. In one restaurant all the waitresses wanted a photo with me.

Oromo woman on the road. She does not look too happy.

This guy was herding goats and came over when I stopped for a drink of water. He is Oromo, but from a branch called the Borana (yes it gets complicated; within the Oromo there are several sub-tribes, each with their own dialect.)

I liked the colored necklaces on this woman. As I traveled I noticed the dress change. Since I could not speak with these people I assumed I had passed from one Oromo sub-tribe to another.

This woman was interesting. She flagged me down and chatted away to me in Oromic, which of course I did not understand. She wanted one dollar for a photo. I negotiated $2 if she would take me to her hut and let me see inside.

Here is a shot of her family in her hut. It was just a dirt floor, mud-walled hut with a small fire going in the middle and a bed.

This is a great shot of a guy who runs a restaurant. He spoke English so we had a little conversation. He is shown here with his baby daughter.

Another Oromo girl but dressed differently. Again, I assume she is from a different branch of the Oromo.

I came across this guy near the Kenyan border. Just so you know there are bicycle tourists out there who are even more extreme than I am, I present to you Lockie, from Australia. He was heading north to Sudan. He has been cycling around the world for-–get this—five years. To date he has racked up 86,000 km. Makes my paltry 19,000 km look like a jaunt through the neighborhood.

Another cute kid photo. She looks Muslim and may have been Somali—many Somalis have come over the border to Ethiopia and Kenya.

I was told people who live in remote villages well away from the road must travel 15 km or more to get water. If they are lucky, like these ones, they have donkeys to help them. But many must carry the water on their backs. We’re talking maybe five to ten gallon containers, on their back, in 90 degree heat, for fifteen kilometers. That’s a tough life. I asked why they don’t move closer to civilization. Apparently they stay far away because grazing is better for their cattle and goats.

Colorful Borana tribespeople.

I came across some really poor people who lived in these dilapidated huts.

Another Muslim woman, probably Somali.

Well that’s it for now. I am at the Kenyan border and will cross over on January 17. Lockie told me the road was not paved for the first few hundred kilometers so it will be slow going. He also warned me that camping was risky. When he told some local people he had camped out they were shocked—apparently lions had been roaming the area. Hmmmm. Should be an interesting week again.

On a completely different subject…

Sadly, I must report that Patrick McGoohan, star of the 1960s television series “The Prisoner”, died on January 13, aged 80 years. If you haven’t seen this series, you should. It is one of the most enigmatic and riveting spy series ever made. Click here for more info.

Be seeing you.