I used to think I was quite keen on the outdoors, but my time in and around Ebinat has reminded me that what I actually like about it is the attractively picturesque backdrop it provides to various activities. When it gets to actual stuff that goes on there, I am completely at sea and find myself reduced to asking questions like “So what do cows actually eat?” and “Is that crop maize?” when it’s actually potatoes . So I spent several days picking my way around villages enquiring of women how empowered they were feeling (and occasionally ruining some poor lady’s batch of injera as I attempt to learn how to pour it correctly – not easy) and quickly felt a little awkward about this, it being the planting season and most people, women or otherwise, having slightly better things to be doing. Instead, I went to go an hassle some government officials, who also probably have better things to be doing, but at least I feel that being interviewed by randomers is slightly more their job than it is the local farmers’.
I am based in Ebinat, which is a low, scruffy town of about 8000 people, with more donkeys than cars. Although the capital of its own province, it’s remote enough that I am considered grand entertainment by the town’s youth (and not just the youth. My party trick here is counting to ten in Amharic – reduces entire rooms to hysterics) On market day, I managed to attract a group of about fifty children enthusiastically pursuing me through the village, all repeating the refrain, uniquitous in Ethiopia, of “You, you, YOU!” which made progress a little awkward, although at least no one was trying to sell me anything. In the absence of anyone to interview, I transcribe (half-heartedly) and drink coffee (enthusiastically), because it is here in Ebinat that I first encountered the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. This ritual is hugely important in Ethiopia, and takes a considerably amount of time. The green beans are first washed, and then roasted over a brazier. As the beans roast, they are periodically handed around the room so everyone has the chance to smell the smoke. When the beans are ready, they are ground and then brewed in a clay coffee pot, and incense is burned; the smell of roasting beans combined with the incense rises up from any row of Ethiopian houses that you pass in the afternoon, and I think this will be the memory that encapsualtes Ethiopia for me. The minimum number of cups that are required to be drunk for politeness’ sake is three; since the coffee is brewed extrememly strong with large amounts of sugar, this is usually enough to send me hopping around for the rest of the afternoon, quite unable to do anything productive.
One thing I always forget about the tropics is the way that night comes down almost like closing a shutter, and given that the electricity supply in Ebinat is consistent only in its lack of consistency, this usually puts paid to most activities by 6pm, unless I am entreated to go to the local tej beat, a bar where the national drink of tej is the beverage of choice. Tej is an alarming shade of mustard-yellow and is served in small, round-bottomed flasks that do nothing to alleviate the feeling that you are drinking the failed results of an A-level chemistry practical. It is brewed from honey, poured out of teapots, and tastes oddly sour. The tej bars I visited in Ebinat were dark, barely candle-lit rooms with rows and rows of chairs facing each other, serious drinkers at one end and dilettantes such as muself at the other, with teapot-bearing ladies swarmed up and down the aisles topping up glasses and an azmari (a traditional musician, who comes up and sings songs about you until you give him money. Hugely entertaining if you speak Amharic, apparently; mildly embarrassing otherwise) prowled around doing his thing at high volume. Tej is pretty potent stuff (it’s worse than mead, and as anyone who has sampled their uni housemate’s experiments in home brewing will know, that’s saying something) so I usually restrict myself to a flaskful before very cautiously making my way home via a puddle or two, since it is inevitably a) raining and b) I have forgotten my torch, and lie in bed listening to the noisy chorus of bullfrogs trying to impress their girlfriends, and someone who has had slightly too much tej explaining to anyone who will listen that he wants to buy their car and drive to Addis Ababa.