Ethiopia Part 3: How to Say “Bajaj” in Five Languages

We truly did not know they were waiting for us, the hundred-plus kids standing in front of the three school flagpoles, in the increasingly hot morning sun. Had we known that they would delay the flag ceremony until we arrived, we wouldn’t have savored Peggy’s homemade pecan rolls for so long. Had we known how difficult it was for them to remain still and keep their hands to themselves for so long, we would have slurped down our coffee more quickly, heartburn be damned.

But, on Friday morning in Ziway, Ethiopia, we were clearly late for a very important date.

Like circus clowns, the four of us – Jenny, Peggy, Gary and I – extracted ourselves from the Ifft’s tiny motorized rickshaw, or bajaj, in local parlance, and rushed to the flagpoles. The American flag was already flying high, but the flag of Oromia and the national flag of Eithiopia were flapping patiently, each waiting for its turn to be raised by the two earnest and reverent students entrusted with their care.

Slowly, the flags ascended into the blue sky and the assembled students sang belted out the Ethiopian national anthem. The school principal, Solomon N., addressed the classes and spoke about the flag, nationalism and the constitution. At least that’s what we think he said. It was entirely in Amharic.

Then, it was Jenny’s turn.

Jenny speaking to the students at Flag Day ceremony

With Solomon N. translating, Jenny implored the students to study hard, be good to each other and make their communities and country proud.

And, with that, we were off to Bochessa.

Bochessa is a small village on the shores of Lake Ziway, approximately 15 minutes by bajaj from the primary school. Most of the route follows dusty, bumpy roads that hug both the lake and the giant, industrial rose plantation operated by the Dutch company, Sher Flowers. Sher employs roughly 12,000 Ethiopians at this facility, and runs a health clinic on one end of the property. Despite these positives, there are increasing reports that the chemicals used to keep the flowers beautiful and pest-free are causing respiratory and reproductive health issues for the workers.

For years, reaching Bochessa from Ziway required either “going the long way ‘round” or crossing the river that spills from Lake Ziway by small wooden boat. Not only were both routes inconvenient, the boat crossing was often dangerous. With pods of hippos living in the lake and river, the boat was sometimes tipped over by an emerging beast, resulting in drowning, or – as happens too often on the continent – the hippos actually trampled people.

Now, however, thanks to Gary and Peggy’s efforts, there is a bridge over this river that has changed people’s lives. On this day, the bridge allowed the blue bajaj, impossibly stuffed with the four of us, plus a friend of theirs who grew up in Bochessa, to cross over and make for a government-run school on the other side. When we arrived, we learned that while most of the kids showed up, but most of the teachers did not.

It was par for the course, apparently, at many government schools. Same goes for the woeful conditions.

The kids want to learn, but the teacher(s) just didn't show up for work today...

A classroom at the government primary school in Bochessa

We spent about 30 minutes at the school, speaking with the principal (who did show up for work that day), obliging the kids requests for photos, and watching the older students teach the younger ones the English alphabet.

From there, we sped off in the bajaj toward some land Gary and Peggy purchased on a small foothill nearby. We saw grazing cattle tended by little boys, cattle egrets and Egyptian ibis foraging for worms in the grass, and several other birds feeding in the swampy areas closer to the lake. Since we needed to cross through the swampy areas to reach our destination, we got good quite a good look at them. Until we got stuck.

The weight of five people on the three-wheeled bajaj was just too much for the patch of wetland we accidentally found. Fortunately, the bajaj itself is only slightly heavier than Snooki at her full fighting weight, so we managed to free it fairly quickly, but not before getting a bit muddy in the process.

Peggy & Jenny sport some muddy feet after getting the bajaj stuck in the marsh

Abandoning the trip to the Ifft’s property, we retreated back towards Bochessa and Ziway. On the way, we came across a group of men winnowing tef (or teff) with just a pitchfork and two makeshift brooms. It was a fascinating process.

Farmer winnowing tef in Bochessa

The tef grain is so small (the word tef reportedly comes from an early Ethio-Semitic word meaning “lost”) that just a slight breeze can separate the grain from the chaff.

Notice all the tef specks in the foreground -- they all ended up in my hair

Men winnowing and sorting tef in Bochessa, Ethiopia

Spotting the ferenjis, a group of kids caring for kids wandered over to check out the new attraction. We played a quick game of net-less volleyball with the bundle of plastic bags and rags someone had sewn together as a ball before jumping back in the bajaj and driving to Ziway. It was time for the second part of Flag Day ceremonies at school.

Some children who greeted us in Bochessa

We arrived just in time to watch a presentation of handmade flags representing the nine regions or states of Ethiopia, as well as a couple of familiar looking ones.

Jenny and I, and Gary and Peggy, received our very own American flags fashioned from yardsticks and construction paper. They even had all 50 stars.

Students presenting American flags

After lunch, it was time for a macchiato. Make it a double.

Refueled and recharged, we returned to the primary school for yet another VIP appearance. This time, we were to shake hands with the members of Team Lucy (named for Ethiopia’s most famous girl) and Team Baboons before their high stakes soccer match. Even though we were clearly seen to be impartial ambassadors, once we left the field supporters of both teams lobbied us to cheer for their side.

It was quite a lot for one day, but we were in for much, much more.

The plan for that evening was to attend a barbecue at the home of one of Gary and Peggy’s friends. Many people were invited, and they would slaughter a sheep for the occasion. How could we refuse?

In addition to the many cuts of grilled sheep and injera, our hosts also served a dish that we thought might be kitfo, or minced raw (sometimes cooked lightly rare) beef. No. Not quite. It was actually dulet, made from the sheep’s stomach, like tripe. Either way…

The highlight of the night, beyond the food, homebrewed tej and a selection of wines from the Castel Winery (the chief winemaker was among the guests), was the multilingualism. At any one point, there could be cross-conversations in English, Amharic, French, Spanish and Arabic. Fine food, fine wine and five languages. Quite a night.

Saturday: Headshots and Hot Spices

The next day, Jenny and I each had separate tasks. While I worked on a digital template for displaying headshots of the school teachers and staff, Jenny joined Peggy and several women from the school kitchen in the preparation of an important Ethiopian spice called berbere.

Red chiles drying in the sun, the first step in the berbere process

After drying thousands of red chili peppers in the sun for several days, the women use giant mortar and pestles to crush the peppers, garlic, rosemary, ginger, black pepper and basil together. The paste is left to dry again before it is taken to a mill in town to be ground into the powdery spice used to flavor many traditional Ethiopian dishes. Making large batches of the spice enables the school to keep its feeding program costs exceptionally low.

Sunday: Going to the Chapel

On Sunday morning, we went to church. For a wedding.

One of the teachers at the Adami Tulu school was getting married and had invited several colleagues, including Gary and Peggy – and, by extension, us.

Upon arrival at the church in Adami Tulu, we immediately jumped into a throng of singing, dancing wedding guests, leading the bride and groom into the church.

Mamit's wedding in Adami Tulu

By tradition, the bride is not allowed to smile at all during the ceremony. This is meant to symbolize her sorrow at leaving her family’s home to join her husband and his family. While many American brides may show their nerves on the altar, most of them at least flash a furtive, if not truly genuine, smile now and then…

The bride may not smile...

It must have been especially difficult for her during parts of the ceremony where the choir and congregants burst into spirited song and dance. It was raucous at times. Almost as if the reception had started before the “I do’s” were said.

We were especially lucky to witness such an event, as it offered yet a deeper look into part of the culture of Ethiopia.

With the newlyweds ensconced in their “Just Married” mobile, we left the party and set out for lunch at Lake Langano to the south. Relaxing.

Monday: Our (Almost) Last Day in Addis

Looking ahead to an early flight to Djibouti on Tuesday morning, combined with Gary and Peggy’s need to do some business in Addis, we left early Monday morning for the city, where we checked into the Danish Guest House. Det er fint! Unfortunately, there were no real Danes staying there on whom to use my four words of Danish (not counting my usually hilarious pronunciation of rødgrøde med fløde).

It was the start of a largely “non-Ethiopian” day: Mexican for lunch, an afternoon movie (starring Antonio Banderas as an Arab Sultan), and Italian for dinner. The only quasi-Ethiopian moment, aside from the macchiato at Kaldi’s, was the malfunction of the van key, locking us out of our vehicle in downtown Addis. Don’t ask me why I qualified that event as “Ethiopian” – it just was.

And so ended, more or less, our first visit to Ethiopia. Our second visit would come after our djaunt to Djibouti, which we will djescribe (briefly) in the next post.

Until then, please have a look at the rest of the photos, and try to think of as many jokes involving the word Djibouti as possible.

4 thoughts on “Ethiopia Part 3: How to Say “Bajaj” in Five Languages

  1. Pingback: One Step From the Edge | My Blog

  2. Pingback: Ghana Part 2: Dead White Men’s Clothes | Africa Time, a Second Time

  3. I’m confused… Why was the American flag hanging on a flag pole at a school???? Was it just hospitality because of you and your friends? Since you guys are American?

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