Spiritual travels in Ethiopia’s old town Harar
Spiritual travels in Ethiopia’s old town Harar
Antonius will be your name, the fragile Sister Angelica with the watery eyes said to me as we parted ways, visibly pleased in her belief that she was doing the work of God by attempting to convert me to Christianity.
By account of this little old lady’s soft hands, with their gentle touch, one could hardly imagine her having any crusader-like ambitions. Seconds later, outside the St Mary Catholic Church grounds located in the old walled town Harar, a historical Islamic stronghold in eastern Ethiopia, I was approached by a young woman with enlivened eyes. She wanted to know my name. Antonius will be your name, the fragile Sister Angelica with the watery eyes said to me as we parted ways, visibly pleased in her belief that she was doing the work of God by attempting to convert me to Christianity.
By account of this little old lady’s soft hands, with their gentle touch, one could hardly imagine her having any crusader-like ambitions. Seconds later, outside the St Mary Catholic Church grounds located in the old walled town Harar, a historical Islamic stronghold in eastern Ethiopia, I was approached by a young woman with enlivened eyes. She wanted to know my name.
The tour guide, Tewdros Getahun a.k.a. Tedy, did the introductions. Tedy seemed to know every girl in Harar, which isn’t impossible when you’re 19 and grew up surrounded by the rest of your small town’s estimated 91,000 residents. Our chatter was small-town-pleasant; we took some photos and then passed the Jamia Mosque, set slightly opposite the nun’s sanctuary.
From the lively yet tranquil mosque, the road winded towards the centre of town where locals were getting drunk at less-than-favourable bars while the sun was making way for the night sky. All these moments in less than an hour, I thought, wondering how this town became infested with scores of tangible contradictions. Perhaps that’s what makes Harar feel different to most places.
This is a rare part of our world; here it seems time forgot to exist and as if Ethiopian authorities abandoned this former trade centre. Widespread poverty on the streets is blinding and everything seems to be standing still. Yet in its heyday, when Harar was under Islamic leadership and independent from the rest of Ethiopia between 969 and 1886, it was a trade magnet. Its first leader and spiritual guide was the Emir Abadir from Arabia. Lying near the Red Sea resulted in the settlement of nearby Yemenites who inter-married with the Ethiopian population.
Harar established trade links with nations like India and China long before there was an Indian restaurant and Chinatown in every major world city. Its reputation also grew as a base for Islamic teaching in this part of Africa. Bearing testimony are the 88 mosques inside the one-square-kilometre walled town. Some have even called Harar the fourth holiest Islamic town, after the Middle Eastern centres of worship in Saudi Arabia, and Jerusalem which houses the Dome of the Rock.
By the mid-1500s the Muslim leadership built walls around Harar to keep out expanding tribes from other parts of Ethiopia and to fend off possible conflicts. But come 1887, Ethiopia swallowed Harar under its Emperor Menelik. The town’s walls weren’t destroyed but opening up saw an influx of new influences and around it sprawled what is remains referred to as the ‘new town’. Despite this, Harar’s old town still displays untouched alleyways, totaling 386, leading one on a visually enriching and time tripping route.
French poet Arthur Rimbaud spent some of the last months of his life in Harar before being buried in 1891. It’s easy to see why he made Harar his home. This place grows somewhat somberly silent after sunset and has a way of infiltrating under one’s skin. Culturally, it’s a treasure chest with inhabitants as easygoing as late Sunday afternoons. Despite what might seem like a hole for the world’s forgotten, Harar elicits no shortage of inspiration for those who seek nourishment of the soul instead of simply the senses.
The three-storey wooden house where Rimbaud supposedly resided is now a museum, following intervention from the Ethiopian government to renovate it. “Eight families lived here,” spoke the museum’s guide in heavy tobacco-stained perfect English. “It opened as a museum in 2000. The guest house is for French students who visit for two weeks every year.”
Harar has a sister-city agreement with Charleville in France where Rimbaud was born in 1845. Small, colourful glass has been inserted into the museum’s wooden window panes. The walls were painted breezy blues. One the top floor, which offers 360 views of Harar, murals showcase Ethiopian faces.
When I visited, the first floor exhibited the work of a French photographer, capturing evocative scenes from the sister-cities. This floor also has a mostly French-language exhibition about Rimbaud and photos from the early 1900s of Harar. They’re evidence that not much has changed inside the old town.
Back downstairs on ground floor the museum guide opened a glass door that revealed a library of books about Rimbaud as well as Harar. Two hours after browsing the tiny museum I was ready for yet more history lessons. As Tedy and I traversed through the old market-place my eye caught three small girls seeking shade under a black umbrella. They were selling red onions. I doubted if they’d say yes to being photographed and Tedy suggested that I purchase lollipops for a bribe.
Two of the girls didn’t mind being photographed. They would gladly accept the lollipops. But one of the girls forcefully opposed. She took to her feet and closed the umbrella. She had been told that foreigners with cameras would most likely sell their photos to magazines or newspapers. And so she had also learnt to demand cash if a tourist asks to take her photo.
“He’s going to tell people in his country that this is what we look like,” she argued to her two friends. “We sit here for money. You should pay us,” she turned boldly to my face.
I wasn’t up for unwanted attention, although none of the adults around interfered. So I agreed to pay her for the photo. I always walk away from a situation like this but I had already gotten too far in this debate. The young girl, who seemed no older than ten, wanted no less than one Ethiopian Birr, which converts roughly to seventy South African cents. I parted with the lollipops and cash.
Throughout our walk Tedy exhibited – and confirmed – that he had read the guide book in my backpack. He showed me the places and people, almost in exact reference order, to confirm that we’re on the same page. Most of Harar’s sites can be easily covered in two days. These include shrines of former Islamic leaders, the town’s somewhat not-so-splendid six gates and feeding raw meat to a pack of hyenas after dark.
“Stand close to me,” I hurriedly told the hyena’s friend, Balay, when he handed me a piece of meat to airlift. One of the hyenas reached for the meat and I let go as he pulled it with his fangs. There wasn’t much light where we did the feeding and I counted almost 20 hyenas around us. Harar has always had a special relationship with hyenas. Balay spoke to the creatures like they were little puppies. He had learnt how to handle them from his legendary father who has been feeding hungry packs nightly for years.
In previous times, holes were even dug into the old town’s walls as it was believed that hyenas absorbed evil spirits when they passed humans. It is also believed that these scavengers prefer raw donkey meat. I wasn’t sure what other meat they might like when, after we had fed them, two strayed from the pack and followed us. Balay chased them off with scowls and stones. At night, the hyenas and humans walk the same paths without attacking each other.
I had to rush back to the Belayneh Hotel because water shortages in Harar means that one has to schedule things like taking a shower. At Belayneh, water was only available in the morning between 6am and 8am and then again at night from 6pm until 10pm. Before getting clean I decided to get fed. Tedy and I stopped at some new place that opened the night before I had arrived in town. Deceivingly, it had the word ‘fresh’ somewhere in its name. It turned out that the hyenas probably enjoyed their meal more than we would.
Water shortages in Harar also meant hands were washed bucket-style. I was dying for roast chicken but lost my appetite when I used the outside toilet and saw one of the kitchen staff plucking the feathers off a dangling chicken. Harar’s butcheries notoriously hang their meat out in the open, without refrigeration.
Tuna pizza seemed like a safer option but when it arrived forty minutes later it was missing an important component: melted cheese. The base was smeared with tomato sauce and a can of tuna mixed with onion. Five minutes is probably all it spent in the oven.
“We ran out of cheese,” the owner came over minus apologetic sympathy.
Unfortunately, quality restaurant service is not an Ethiopian highlight, even in its capital city Addis Ababa, so I wasn’t going to send back the pizza. Even though I wanted to tell the owner that his waiter forgot to tell me earlier that they had run out of cheese. Besides, there aren’t that many restaurant options after 9pm.
Harar goes to bed early. So I had to hurriedly swallow whole to get back to Belayneh for a shower. Tedy wasn’t too impressed either with his offering of Tibs, a local favourite comprising fried meat pieces, served with sour-tasting traditional bread called injera.
“I don’t want to eat at this restaurant again,” I told Tedy as we finished up.
“I don’t even want to walk in this street again,” said Tedy, displaying dissatisfaction with his Tibs.
It was like when I told an Ethiopian journalist that I don’t need five-star accommodation he tellingly joked, “You won’t find that in Harar”. Charm is not discovered in the hotels or services but rather in the invisible Harar atmosphere. And if you’re not looking for it all you’ll see is a dump.
Roasted chicken was still on my mind the following evening and Tedy decided to take me to Hirut, “the restaurant that all the tourists go to”, with its adjacent hotel of the same name.
The most unappetising chicken ever served appeared on the table. The accompanying rice and vegetables did it for me as I gladly parted with the dried-out bird flesh. Tedy didn’t mind it but was appalled that Hirut’s menu had a full roasted chicken for R150 and a full goat for about R300. He asked the waiter if the goat “comes with a room”.
“The waiter laughed at me. It’s the first time for my eyes to read something like this. How can it be so expensive? Life is difficult. If I eat this now what will I eat tomorrow?” said the matter-of-fact Tedy.
“Why don’t you wash your hands?” I asked him after our meal.
“I want to smell the food when I get hungry later,” he silenced me for a while.
It soon appeared that Tedy’s story was typical of too many African life-scripts. When he discovered that I was a journalist he asked me to write about his ambition to finish high school and find sponsorship for further studies. “I don’t want to be a tour guide anymore. I spend too much time in the sun,” he said. My ears had already acquired sunburn and we had been walking around Harar for only a few hours.
The sun must have gotten to me because I started having deep thoughts about the vast development needs in Ethiopia, the country that hosts the African Union – an organisation that aims to rescue the continent of its woes. In Harar one comes face-to-face with every statistic you’ll encounter in reports drawn up by organisations like the United Nations.
Statistics that read like ‘fifty percent of the world lives on less than one dollar a day’ and ‘thirty-five percent of the world’s citizens don’t have access to clean drinking water’. I wondered how one even begins to talk development in Africa from a fancy building in New York. Or from a road distance roughly ten hours beyond Harar, in Addis Ababa, where the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa is based. How do we talk development to communities whose sons don’t go to school because they need to herd animals that are sold at livestock markets?
The noise of life awoke me from these thoughts. Harar might be small but it can get noisy, with its rickshaw drivers speeding by and taxies competing for space with donkeys and goats and people carrying live chickens for tonight’s supper. Tedy then also had the bright idea of traveling to Babille and Jijiga. Once again my heart lifted to the possibilities for exploration. I felt happy to be on the move; on the road of newness. What will be greeting my eyes on the other end of this ride? What stories will increase my memory bank?
My patience will have to stretch for as long as the road takes to get there, I thought, once inside an overcrowded minibus headed for Jijiga. Chatter and traditional Ethiopian music induced comfort though. Until we hit what felt like a screaming train smash at a small town stop called Bombas. A group of women flooded the minibus. Its driver roughly coordinated the scene of noisy seat-grabbers. The women recklessly exposed full breasts to quiet down their children’s wails. We were also accompanied by a guy who stuffed a live chicken under his seat. And there was a soldier with a large rifle.
Twenty-eight passengers and four children on their mother’s laps were crammed into this minibus that would make a South African minibus taxi look amateurish. The grey-haired bones next to me looked bewildered; eyes as curious as a five-month-old baby discovering the world. Screaming matches eventually became amiable smiles.
Everybody managed to get it together, emotions were less entangled and we were on our way. Windows opened wide. I was ready to break into songs of gratitude.
Does travel help us to judge less because we understand more, I wondered in my confinement. How did these people end up in these remote parts of the world? Did they just get tired of traveling and then decided to unpack their goodies and set up home? Right in the middle of nowhere?
The poverty stared back at me and there was no getting off this bus. The women were so poor that their clothes had become discoloured and their children wore no underwear or shoes.
This might be the last bus out of town for these women and their children who need to maybe get to their families this evening. Not tomorrow morning, that might be too late, but right now. Maybe travel, like our attempts at writing about daily life, bears testimony to reality. Been there, done that. Yes, I can confirm, the bus ride is cramped, the people are poor and breast-feeding women should definitely show more modesty in public spaces by covering up their sagging breasts.
Tedy and I visited Babille’s colourful markets where tailors sew clothes and every imaginable Made-in-China knock-off found its way, most likely from the nearby Jijiga close to the Somaliland border. A little walk further from the general market we reached the livestock market. Camels, cows, goats, chickens were all on sale.
In Jijiga we met the Ethio-Somali community, a mix between the two bordering countries, commenting on much of Africa’s interconnectedness. We played table tennis and Tedy got himself a new contrabrand mobile phone. This is the land of cheap electronics via tax-dodging traffickers of who-knows-what-else. It’s a market of illegal everything.
Soon thereafter the overnight minibus arrived in Addis Ababa to early morning joggers, a reminder that this is the land of remarkable long distance running Olympian heroes like Haile Gebrselassie. Ladies of the night were still parading; street kids were playing soccer, stray dogs were finding a meal in the city’s trash and a man used the sidewalk as a toilet.
I sensed that I had indeed been converted; the traveler had acquired a desire for depth. Jumping on a boat in Bali to see dolphins swimming remains appealing. So does being part of the crowd of sun-lovers at Barcelona’s Mar Bella coastline. But hedonism no longer seems the lingua franca. The Prophet Muhammad was right; travels are like little deaths. The journey converts us in so many ways…