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.

16 thoughts on “Faces of the Oromo

  1. Ali Buchan January 21, 2009 / 6:45 pm

    Happy New Year!
    Great to see you are continuing on your wonderful adventure. I love returning to EG and catching up on your blogs- as always informative and thought provoking. This next section will be very interesting as you travel down the opposite side of Africa, it wil be interesting to note the similarities and also the differences from here on the west.
    Take care and watch out for the lions!

  2. Ben Kilpela January 21, 2009 / 8:15 pm

    Wonderful photos, Kev. You did very well, as well as you could with any medium-good camera. “The Prisoner” was a very well made show, it’s true. I haven’t seen it on DVD yet.

    Kippis, Ben

  3. DAD January 22, 2009 / 3:52 pm

    Dirt poor people but the kids are smiling and look happy. We here have never had it so good. I DIG YOUR WAITRESES—WATCH OUT–DAD

  4. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. January 22, 2009 / 5:02 pm

    Kevin: I was beginning to get worried as the days passed without a new blog post so I am relieved today. Your pictures are great and I am amazed at the colorful clothes they are wearing. It is interesting that color plays such an important part oftheir otherwise pretty monochromatic surroundings. Maiken Ehlers, who owned the Harbor Haus restaurant in Copper Harbor and who spent the war years in Leipzig, said that her childhood was “colorless, even down to the food.” It left an indelible impression on her and she always wanted to be surrounded by colorful things.

    This week we are celebrating the presidency of Barack Obama here in the states. Even with your political bent ( i.e. Libertarian), my friend, you too must be proud that we have finally realized MLK’s “dream.” I wept throughout the inauguration oath and speech. I am beyond happy!

    Your dad is in Costa Rica playing with, I assume, Alvaro’s horses. He sent numerous pictures WITHOUT captions. Typical Steve.

    Keep up the good work and keep your eyes open. I must say that I am encouraged that your acquaintance, Lockie, has been on the road for five years without serious harm. I feel much better.

  5. Kevin Koski January 24, 2009 / 6:09 am


    I wrote that post a week before I was able to upload it. The internet connections in Ethiopia are excruciatingly slow, when they work at all. I was also in a remote area where I camped for three days so no facilities.

    I did manage to see Obama’s speech. It was quite moving. In Kenya, where I am currently, they obviously love him. Every TV was tuned to CNN the day of the inauguration. People told me, “you should be in America today.” Everyone asks me if I voted for him. Of course the answer is always, “yes!”

  6. Greg Snell January 28, 2009 / 3:51 am

    Kevin: My name is Greg Snell and have been going over to Isle Royale to the family cabin in Tobin Harbor for 51 years. Your uncle Don gave me your site. I live in Nairobi and am building a home in Naivasha. When you are in my area give me a call and we will connect! 0721-836767

  7. Greg Snell January 28, 2009 / 2:27 pm

    Kevin: One more comment. I have seen your photo and you look a lot like me (sorry!). I am pretty well known in Kenya and people, especially kids, might call you by my African name, MUZUNGU. Just smile, wave and keep riding. Really, I dont owe anyone money here. Greg Snell.

  8. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. January 29, 2009 / 3:51 pm

    Hi Kevin,

    Greg Snell, who apparently is stationed in Nairobi, contacted both me and then you after I gave him your blog URL. He would like to see you. He is one of the Snell family that still have a cabin on Isle Royale National Park, one of the last life leasees.

    Hope you get to see him.


  9. Kim January 30, 2009 / 10:26 pm

    Hey Land lord! 🙂

    I found time to view your site and took time to download almost every photo (I hope it was ok.)

    Thank you for bring real life to me in Ethiopia. Boy! In these faces, I see me, my grandmother, my godmother, former American slaves, current ethnically mixed families all around the globe AND quite PURE blooded “blacks.” I see the rainbow…you and your Aussie (?) friend rounding out the ‘bow. -smile.

    I am thinking of a way to share your blog with my students…really, I feel this is invaluable. I see life hundreds of years ago in these pictures. You did good with your captions…I find myself wondering about the conversations you had with the English speakers on your way…I am waiting for the book….perhaps then I’ll write the screenplay. 🙂

  10. Kevin Koski February 7, 2009 / 8:39 am

    Greg, Hi I expect to be in Nairobi around the middle of February. I will give you a call. I am familiar with the term muzungu, which apparently means “white person” in Swahili. It doen’t seem to be pejorative and I call myself that to many of the locals. It always gets a laugh.

    Kim–thanks. It is challenging here but fascinating. It gets better in Kenya. Real bush people.

  11. Gary Willis February 8, 2009 / 2:22 pm

    Hi Kevin,
    I first learned about your trek from Steve S. Your insights and photographs have opened a door for me especially with regard to the children of Africa. I’m beginning to see why missionaries devote their lives to serving these people.
    God bless,

  12. Kevin Koski February 9, 2009 / 3:30 pm

    Hi Gary,
    Thanks, I met a retired guy who spends half the year helping out orphans and other children in Kenya. It is an amazing story that I will describe in my next post. But if you want a preview check out http://www.kindfund.com.

  13. Aldinah March 10, 2009 / 8:27 pm

    Thank You!!! For the Gorgeous pics of my Oromo People.

    I now live in Canada, and I can understand why North Americans use so many adjectives to describe lifestyles that are different than theirs(dirt poor etc..). I invite you to look at it like another reality. If one is born and raised under those conditions, that is all they know! That is their reality, and believe me having lived on both sides, the essence of the Human struggle is the same. The need to belong to a Tribe is the same. We do have our Pop culture here dictated by tv etc…

    The problem arises when we need to fix others before truly fixing ourselves.

    Enjoy your Journey in Self-Discovery and Self Actualization,



  14. Gemechu April 3, 2009 / 3:09 pm

    Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for your dedications..it takes good heart to travel in all these villages and take see how people in other parts of the world live. I was born ang grew up Southern Ethiopia. like few years ago, I was just like one of these people. I was walking without shoes until age of forteen. My parents were so poor. I used to eat once a day. When I read what you wrote and see all the pictures; truly I was crying, because i know how it feels to be hungry and look upto people for help. Currently I am living in New York. Everyday, I think about how oromo people are suffering..please post more pictures. God bless You……please email I want work with You and make a difference in these people life. Here is my email. Freedom12325@gmail.com

  15. Stunny Pharouk January 22, 2011 / 12:19 pm

    Hello Kevin, great blog and I appreciate your delivery of images from Ethiopia. As you know I am a member of the international Marrakh movement and therefore this is a word that is feared in Ethiopia. You are right when you say that the governments in Central Africa have not understood what a currency value is and that we need to create our own. They are subsisting on export and have not much to buy because they have no self sustained system that protects its people. The waste land that you see was not there in the 19th century. I have old photos. The forests were traded down for lokomotives and trains in the West and till 1961 to rebuild schools after the 2nd WW here in Germany. The same goes for other parts of Europe after the war. Christmas ovens and the like! You must learn to comment on the reasons for the waste. Pictures of poverty help nobody if we don’t grasp WHY! RAIN depends on forests that bring rains. WHAT is your currency worth? Colonialism was a sin and Obama is a tiny developement. I met a German who was employed in 1960 for deforestry in Ethiopia and Somalia. I’m famous. He died last year in the street. Thats what its for.

  16. caalaa February 29, 2012 / 1:37 am

    Love it. Thanks man.

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