Pelicans, cannibals and waterfalls that aren’t: Bahir Dar and around

St. Sebastian is not having a good day. Also, Jesus appears to be trying to set his mum's cloak on fire.

The thing I regretted most about my work in Ethiopia (give or take a bacterium or two) was that I didn’t have any time to properly explore the massive amount of architectural and arcahelogical goodies that are so thick on the ground in the north of the country. Sadly, in spite of my initial enthusiastic planning, fieldwork did not turn out to be a synonym for “six week holiday” and my architectural investigations were generally limited to attempts to determine the precise location of the leak in the ceiling of my hotel room. In desperation, I did manage to sneak away from a climate change conference in Bahir Dar to see what might be offered by the “Ethiopian Riviera” and neighbouring Lake Tana, and managed to be a tourist for a couple of days.

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The British summer never disappoints

Leave Ethiopia in the middle of a downpour, arrive in London in the middle of a downpour. One of the most frequent questions I got in Ethiopia was “Is it your rainy season now too?”, to which I usually assented, and today’s weather makes me feel happily justified.

Cheers, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s parting gifts to me were a double whammy of typhoid and typhus, which on the one hand makes me feel interestingly Victorian, but on the other, more practical hand, made the overnight flight home an experience I would not particularly want to repeat. Plus, while antibiotics are a wonderful thing, it’s my birthday tomorrow and no alcohol or dairy is going to put a damper on proceedings. Still, I suppose it’s preferable to intestinal perforation or metastatic abscesses (I do not know what either of these things are, but the Wikipedia article manages to make them sound unpleasant nonetheless) and I do not want to be so interestingly Victorian that I actually expire.

I have to say I am really appreciating finally being able to lie down. Armrests on airport seating really should be banned.

Uninvited proselytism usually doesn’t end well.

Seventeenth century Portuguese attempts at coloniolisation via infrastructure; didn't really take off.

Ethiopia was famously the only part of Africa to resist European colonisation (with the exception of brief Italian and British occupations during the 1930s and 1940s). The Portuguese did have a go in the 17th century when some Jesuits stopped by the Emperor Za-Dengel and suggested how nice it might be if he and his subjects converted to Catholicism, and incidently, here are some soldiers to help with your armed raider problem on your eastern borders. This went about as well as these sort of arragements usually do (civil war, coup d’etat, thousands dead) and ended up with all foreigners being banned from Ethiopia for the next 150 years. So not a resoundingly positive result for anyone, but the Portuguese did leave this very nice bridge for anyone wishing to cross the Blue Nile near Bahir Dar.

Coffee beans and cooking lessons

Making injera: SO much harder than it looks.

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’.

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Lake Tana

Tankwa carrying firewood, Lake Tana.

Everywhere on Lake Tana you see these little papyrus canoes called tankwas – exactly the same as you see in images on ancient Egyptian tomb paintings. People living on the lake shore collect firewood and ferry it across to Bahir Dar to sell, a trip that takes five hours of serious paddling. When the lake stills in the afternoon, dozens make the trip – I counted sixty strung out across the horizon.

Ethiopian food: our heroine vs. injera

When I told people I was going to Ethiopia, a common response was “Ethiopian food is so great, you’ll love it!”. So Ethiopian food is clearly pretty familiar to many people, but I didn’t know the first thing about it before I came here and was frankly unprepared, when I sat down to dinner on my first day and ordered something rather at random off the menu, to find my meal arriving wrapped up in what appeared to be a grey dishcloth. More alarming was the fact that there was no cutlery – in fact, said dish cloth (which turned out on closer inspection to be a kind of spongy grey pancake) appeared to be the cutlery. Eyeing the other diners cautiously, I broke off a piece and tasted it – I was expecting plenty of things, but insanely sour was not one of them, and why the hell would you make a sour pancake in the first palce (still not entirely sure about that)?  Thus was my first experience of injera, which seems to be the basic component of all Ethiopian meals.

Haing gained a little more experience over the past couple of weeks, below is my highly unscientific explanation of Ethiopian food as I have encountered it so far, based on a rather classy meal I accidentally ordered yesterday:

A tasty, delicious and annotated Ethiopian meal

An annoted Ethiopian meal! Image courtesy of MS Paint and the speed of my office internet, which allowed plenty of time for artistic endeavour in between clicking “refresh” on my college email account.

Things to note: the total lack of vegetables fairly sure the green stuff doesn’t count), the emphasis on spices.Technique: unroll injera, chuck everything else on top of it. Rip off small piece of injera, use to convey food to mouth. Repeat, without making too much of a mess (this is much more difficult than it sounds).

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“This country is full of events”

A volcano has just erupted in part of Eritrea that just borders the Afar region of Ethiopia, with a resulting Eyjafjallajökull-like effect on air traffic in this part of the world. Ethiopia, of course, does not have enough going on at the moment.

Bole Medhane Alem Church

Eighteen hour services on feast days - not sure I could cope.

I am reading lots of papers with titles like  “Political ecology: where is the ecology?” and “Political ecology: where is the policy?” which goes to show that political ecology is a good geographical term because people are able to have lots of arguments about what it means, and actually you can make it mean pretty much anything, so it is a useful framework to have for a dissertation where you are not entirely sure of the topic yourself. This is rather my situation at the moment, so as avoidance techniques I go to museums (lots of million-year-old molars and “Screw you Tanzania/Kenya/Chad, Ethiopia is the true cradle of humanity”, except usually phrased more politely) and accidentally get sent on tours of churches which involve quizzes on how well one can recognize the Old Testament Bible scenes in the stained glass windows, and learning that Ethiopian church services can last eighteen hours on feast days, and there are special sticks piled under the pews that people  lean on so they can continue to stand throughout (“What do the priests do for eighteen hours?” I asked the guide. “Sing”, he said, and I’m not sure if this is supposed to encourage the congregation or not).

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