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.

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Ethiopia Part 2: Haile Selassie Slept Here (plus, Donkey Business, Macchiatos, and Parts of the Body)

I believe we left off after dinner at Jewel of India. Yes.  Well, from there, things started to get even wilder, if you can believe it…

As we strolled up Gabon Avenue to Bole Road (also known as Africa Avenue, because…well, why not?) and back to the Damu Hotel, we reconfirmed our plan to walk to the Djibouti Embassy early the next morning to apply for tourist visas. With only two short days booked on Djibouti’s Moucha Island, and after our three-hour tour of the immigration queue at Bole International Airport, we wanted our arrival in Djibouti to be as smooth as possible.

This plan, combined with the spicy dosas and the dirty wine, gave me crazy thoughts. As I fell asleep, two famous – and unquestionably relevant – quotes ran through my head:

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again.”

– George W. Bush

“Look, man, I ain’t fallin’ for no banana in my tailpipe!”

– Axel Foley

I think I could have slept for 48 hours, actually. But we had a mission to accomplish.

The next morning, during the 10-minute walk to the embassy, Jenny and I wondered aloud what a person from Djibouti is called. A Djiboutan? A Djiboutian? A Somali? (As you will learn in a subsequent post, the correct answer is Abdi.)

The visa application was easy, just a single form and $40. There was a space on the form for photos, but I asked the representative if we needed them and she said no. She lied. When we handed in our passports, completed form and cash, she said, “Photo?”

And, of course, we left our passport-sized photos in the hotel room. So, I ran back up Bole to the hotel, returned to the embassy and tried again. “OK, tomorrow at 2:00,” she said. We should have known.

Since we would be 100 kilometers (and several decades) away by tomorrow at 2:00, we decided to cancel the application and get our visas on arrival in Djibouti. Did we fall for the banana in the tailpipe? Reinhold be the judge.

We hoped not, but to make ourselves feel better, we went back to Lime Tree for breakfast and Macchiato #1.

From there, we hailed a Russian Blue (the word I just made up for the blue, Soviet-era taxis choking the streets of Addis) and bounced our way up to Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian Ethnological Museum.

Once inside the gates of the university, my first priority was to offload some books I carried from the Centre for Human Rights in Pretoria about the 30th Anniversary of the African Charter. Fortunately, one of the first buildings we saw was the John F. Kennedy Library. They were confused that I didn’t have a letter explaining who I was and what the books were, but they took them off my hands, anyway. [SIDE NOTE: In case you’re planning a semester abroad at AAU, you should a.) bring your own sidewalks and toilets,  and b.) check out one of the books.]

Though an admittedly dorky pose, the Scared Panda tee makes me look cooler

The Ethnological Museum, further in, is a magical mystery tour if I ever saw one. First off, it’s in Emperor Haile Selassie’s former palace. There’s a staircase outside, built by the Italian occupiers, that has a step for each year of fascist rule and spirals up to nowhere. One of the exhibits is Haile Selassie’s bedroom and bathroom (he had a less-than-opulent throne, shall we say). Still, the museum was quite nice. We especially enjoyed the exhibits of folktales and histories of the diverse peoples of Ethiopia. I think it helped us gain perspective and understanding that would be useful later in the trip.

Later, after a brief return to the Sheraton, we were off to yet another bathroom – this time at the Addisu Filwoha Hotel. The Addisu Filwoha is actually known more for its hot springs than its bed springs, and we, like several dozen Ethiopians that day, wished to bathe in them.

First, though, with the help of Birhanu, who just happened to be nearby, Jenny and I booked massages for the special “Foreigner Rate” of 125 birr ($7.23) each. When it was our turn, we were led into adjacent chambers separated by heavy curtains. For Phase One, we were each instructed to remove all our clothes and get into a massive, paint-chipped tub that was being filled with water from the hot springs. Phase Two involved a man (for me) and a woman (for Jenny) coming in and standing over the tub (where we lay naked) and using a high-pressure hose to massage our legs, feet, torso and arms. Though we couldn’t see or hear each other, we each thought the massage ended there.

Wrong.

Phase Three was behind Curtain #2. Walking naked out of the tub, we were led to individual massage tables and told to lie face up. We are still separated, and therefore unable to give each other the silent “OMG” faces for which the situation desperately called.

Once appropriately covered, a more traditional, if somewhat hasty, massage ensued. In the wake of all that had stressed us thus far, it was nice to find some relaxation.

However, we were now covered in oil and needed a shower. No problem! Our 28 birr ($1.61) entry fee included a hot springs shower in a separate building. Since we booked in as a couple, we were given a private “family” room with a shower and separate bath for 55 minutes. I think we stayed for five…

Shower in the "family room" at Addisu Filwoha Hotel/public baths

Later that night, we rejoined Birhanu for dinner. Pizza. With garlic chili sauce. Nice. And Macchiato #2? Not tonight. We had an early wake up call the next morning for our departure from Addis and drive down to Ziway.

Wednesday: Get Me to the Greek

On Wednesday morning, we made a discovery that was equal parts pleasing and frustrating: our hotel had free breakfast. All that angst the previous two mornings was unnecessary. There were eggs and pancakes and yogurt and orange juice every day. We kicked ourselves while sipping Macchiato #1.

After breakfast, we hauled our brand-new-but-already-broken-grocery-store-luggage down to meet our driver to Ziway: a half-Ethiopian, half-Italian, half-Greek tour guide/Volkswagen mechanic/Beetle racer named Lucca. Thank goodness he was an excellent driver. I stopped counting after the thirteenth time we almost hit a goat, cow, dog or donkey on the highway. One time in particular, as a half-dozen donkeys were crossing the road, two of them decided to “get a room” right on the center line. *Blush.*

Descending from approximately 8,000 feet in Addis, the landscape heading south out of the city was breathtaking. Expansive fields, incredible acacia trees, timeless rivers, ancient mountains and colorful people whooshed by for about two hours, until we rounded a corner and Lake Ziway came into view.

On the road to Ziway

In Ziway, we went to the home of Gary and Peggy Ifft, an American couple from Bloomington, IL (Gary was Jenny’s boss at State Farm Insurance) who have lived in Ethiopia for more than a decade. After lunch with them, and a strong cup of coffee (in place of Macchiato #2) brewed in a jebena, we toured a couple of the primary schools Gary & Peggy built and administer in Ziway. After introducing ourselves and hearing some songs, we could tell that the next few days would be really special.

Thursday: Injera, Obama, and Head! Head! Head! Head! 

Thursday began with breakfast at the hotel, which included Macchiato #1. We would need the caffeine, as Gary was taking us to school.

At the primary school in Ziway, we met the kitchen staff, learned how they were feeding students breakfast and lunch for $0.25 per child per day, and watched Jenny try her hand at making injera on a mitad. Let’s just say practice makes perfect.

Jenny making injera

This is how it's done...

Soon, it was time to introduce ourselves to the 2nd and 6th graders. As usual, Jenny was a star. Not only is she a professor, she’s a lady professor. That’s a big deal. And it was important for the students, particularly the young girls, to see what a woman can accomplish. The boys, however, did not seem to appreciate the fact that I quit my job to move for my wife’s. So it goes.

During each introduction, Solomon N., the school principal and our translator, opened the floor for questions. One student, who we later learned was Solomon’s own kid, tried to pin the professor down.

Hand up. Question. Translation. Solomon: “He would like to know, what is a noun?”

I whipped around to look at Jenny, her eyes big, her mind backpedaling into left field to catch the question and throw the answer back towards home plate before the runner tags.

“A person, place, or thing!” Jenny retorted, proudly. You just can’t get one past her. Who do you think she is? Bill Buckner?

After successfully answering all questions, and amazing the kids with the fact that Jenny and I have met Barack and Michelle Obama, it was time for lunch and Macchiato #2. Like our man Prufrock, we were beginning to measure out our lives in coffee spoons.

We returned to the school, sated and refueled, just in time for “Question & Answer.” This time, though, the students were on the spot. It was like a trivia/game show competition and there were only four contestants left. Final Jeopardy!

In the end, the winners received not only a gift-wrapped book, but a photograph with a couple of pasty ferenjis. What a prize!

As the celebrity ferenjis, we were honored to help award prizes to the winners of the Q&A contest

Considerably more impressive is the magnitude of incredible work Gary and Peggy are doing in Ziway and neighboring Adami Tulu. In addition to multiple schools and feeding programs, they also established a small home for vulnerable children. Samuel’s Home is just down the street from the Ifft’s home, and we visited the kids who stay there just before bedtime. The highlight of the night was the multiple performances of “Parts of the Body” – apparently an exercise the kids learned at school.

It begins with a child leading the other children in a recitation of parts of the face, working down to the feet while pointing at each part along the way. Eyes. “Eyes!” Nose. “Nose!” Lips. “Lips!” Chin. “Chin!” One little boy really wanted to capitalize on the rote memory aspect, and got stuck on Head. “Head!” Head. “Head!” Head. “Head!” Head. “Head!” for a hilariously long time.

Speaking of which, this post has been going on for a long time. The next one will take you to a ramshackle government school, get a bajaj stuck in the muck (watch out!), treat you to a feast of sheep stomach and assorted wines, and invite you to a wedding. Do you want to come along? Please, say “I do.”