Copyright 2021 by Edward A. DeMarco, All Rights Reserved. For exclusive updates on the book, enter your email on the home page.
Starchy, civilized Ethiopia rolls to a stop at the town of Arba Minch, delivering your first triumph over the enigmatic national tongue known as Amharic: you have arrived in Forty Springs. Lush with palm-frond flora and breezy sapien fauna, Arba Minch affects a relaxed, anything-goes vibe, a tropical tonic for life in the uptight, pious north.
Ethiopia’s youth hordes tumble into a final pileup here, proof that Africa’s most populous nation after Nigeria, 3,200 kilometers, or 2,000 miles, to the west, exudes a passion to procreate. Almost half of Ethiopians are younger than 18 years, about 50 million youth in all.
Like pilgrims parting a sanctified darkness, students from the university stream down into Arba Minch at night, illuminated only by their glowing phone screens. As they crowd the cratered roads, vehicles bearing outsiders bounce past, climbing to a high point.
Sunrise brings forth shimmering revelation. While the forty minch remain concealed and thus mythical for the casual visitor, liquid smooth and sloshing glistens the daytime scene.
From the terrace of the Paradise Lodge perched on an escarpment at one end of town unfolds one of East Africa’s most sublime panoramas. Two mighty Rift Valley lakes come together, separated by a thin hump of land known as the Bridge of God. To the left one admires the milk chocolate expanse of Lake Abaya, while a pivot to the right brings smaller, darker Lake Chamo into view.
Dimly perceived, about 10 kilometers, or 6 miles, across Chamo’s waters, festooned with ravenous Nile crocodiles 4 meters or more than 12 feet long, sits lonely Nechisar National Park, named after the white grass of its desiccated plain. Thousands of zebras roam there today, a remnant of the varied beasts driven or hunted out in past decades of political upheaval.
Like the skittish stars of “Madagascar,” the wild residents of Nechisar fled into exile with predators at their backs – in this case marauding Marxists.
A visitor to Paradise relaxing on the lofty terrace one day in August – a rainy, cool month in the highlands of Ethiopia – would have paused with his glass of trembling beer suspended in the fading afternoon light as an odd spectacle hummed into view.
A craft smaller and quieter than an Ethiopian Airlines turboprop, workhorse of the domestic aviation fleet, had risen from Arba Minch’s diminutive airfield, soaring past Paradise, climbing above the Bridge of God and a dense, darkening forest below. A winged, windowless tube accompanied by a faint droning sound. In a few moments, the mysterious machine banked sharply to the left, heading east for the battlefields of Somalia.
Leaving Arba Minch is the beginning of leaving Ethiopia. Yes, the political map still places you firmly within the sovereign bounds of the federal democratic republic, latest incarnation of a stubborn, secretive 3,000-year-old nation once ruled by divine, and sometimes divinely maddened, kings and princes.
Chilled beer and warm injera, Ethiopia’s spongy, slightly sour mealtime staple concocted from the grain teff, will still be found down the road. Donkeys will reliably meander into your path and cattle may clog the roadway.
Yet settled, highland Ethiopia waves farewell from Forty Springs, as the road snakes down the escarpment and makes its way toward the Konso lands to the southwest and eventually into the great and enveloping valley of the Omo River, where time itself drifts away.
The word Omo occupies a magic space in the mind of the highlander Ethiopian, for few have visited that far-off land. They will know pictures of women in braided, ocher hair, breasts dangling, or lips stretched to grotesque lengths, or men resembling birds with hair feathered and fancied with red-mud plaster.
These mesmerizing images illustrate tourist ads, promotional videos and storefronts in the city like come-ons for half-beast, half-human grotesques at a county fair in America. In this spectacle live people of primitive mindsets, close to the mud, devoted to their cattle and guns, enthralled by strange, earthy rituals. Habits like requiring teenage boys to scamper naked over the backs of bulls to prove their manhood.
The Valley of the Lower Omo is the other world that modern Ethiopians file away, possibly while scratching their heads, as they go back to Orthodox Christian and Muslim observances and five-year economic plans and social-media updates. Who are these people that time abandoned and what are we to do with them?
IN THE GREAT AND ENVELOPING VALLEY OF THE OMO RIVER,
TIME ITSELF DRIFTS AWAY
An American boy of the polyester 1970s, living in an era before the world was knit in a tangle of voices and a torrent of instant images, would have asked the same. Opening a National Geographic to ogle fantastic humans like these was glossy proof of an exotic world untouchable and perhaps unreachable even in the era of moon shots. Earth indeed was a planet of many worlds. And this world and its women were decidedly naked.
The highlander Ethiopian, on the other hand, is rather devoted to her garments. The land rises above 2,500 meters or 8,000 feet and brisk winds blow through the valleys. This is Africa’s Switzerland minus crisp ski runs and precision chocolate, an enthralling high-altitude land: the roof and water tower of Africa. In rainy season all is consumed by mist and fecund-damp growth.
Tanzania lays claim to Africa’s highest point, Mount Kilimanjaro, yet that cherished summit is a chubby, 19,341-foot-high oddball dormant volcano bursting from an elephant-studded plain. Ethiopia for the most part is majestic, tectonic upthrust. Waves of rock roll from Arba Minch and its environs to the border with Eritrea hundreds of miles away in the far north of mesas and red-rock vistas.
Up there you expect to spy a cowboy charging across the frame kicking up a dust plume of horsepower.
From those northern Ethiopian vistas the lofty land tumbles down to the eastern desert out of which lava gurgles and spits from otherworldly Technicolor pools less than 100 miles from the Red Sea.
In those remote, high mountains men may wrap themselves against the chill in thick, nubby cotton cloaks known as gabis. Women will wear skirts of dark green, a uniform of the devout Amhara peasant, and may bear crosses tattooed on their foreheads.
In the growing towns and cities of the central plateau, by contrast, T-shirts and jeans sheathe the urbanite. Slim young women, aware they are among the most alluring females yet known in this solar system, gravitate toward tight skirts and slinky jackets according to the vibe. Skin may be revealed inside a dance club, yet on the street modesty holds.
Yet let us spin our compass southward once more, for our journey leads that fateful way. Less than two hours out of Arba Minch, you stop for coffee in Konso, a town set amid terraced hillsides, and perhaps buy a Konso TV (delightful hand-drawn paper channels that unspool as you turn tiny bamboo rollers; the Obamas feature in one). Even here the unexpected may ruffle the calm.
Near Konso once, during a return journey from the Omo Valley, a deranged local hurled a rock at our moving vehicle with the force and velocityof a baseball pitcher, spidering the windshield with a terrific gunshot-sounding impact. A split-second difference and the projectile would have brained the driver through his open window.
Yet fate was entirely on his side; the driver had commanded a battle tank in the border war with eccentric Eritrea and thus reacted with cool decisiveness. In 20 seconds, he halted the vehicle, leapt out into a crowd, collared the sullen culprit and shoved him into the back seat for delivery to the Konso police station.
After Konso the road rolls toward a dramatic valley backed by a mountain wall. One’s mind expands along with the vistas, which begin to stretch for long miles toward hazy horizons. The air grows warmer as you descend. Along the way, clothing begins to fall away.
Young men appear along the roadside without shirts, and soon too their pants begin to shrink, revealing weathered legs though nothing pendulous – yet. While the youth may toss a checkered cape over his shoulder as he displays a few trinkets, the fabric is an afterthought.
Young women hint at going topless, with T-shirts straining. It will get a bit steamy out here today.
BAGGING LENSES AS THE SUN DIPS, THEY ROAR OFF
IN LAND CRUISERS TO DRINKS AND DINNER
While lips, hair and body art will attract their blinking shutters, the long lenses of the tourists are coming for the breasts. Make no mistake. The clothesline descent toward the Omo Valley intoxicates with Stone Age titillation. There are rumors of European tourists who come here for sex parties secreted in indigenous villages, throbbing with wild dancing, dazzled by the jeweled dome of night.
Before the highland Ethiopians fully appreciated the untamed potential of the surging Omo waters, the tourists had alighted upon the passions of the pastoralists. With cameras and fat wallets they were turning the valley into a human zoological park. Bagging lenses as the sun dips, they roar off in Land Cruisers to drinks and dinner.
You will run across these tourists en route to the valley at a charming lodge in the heights of Konso with a broad view from its stone-floor overlook toward the distant, sparkling watershed of the Segen River. The Segen is a mere stream when compared against the mighty Omo, yet valuable to parched herders wandering the precious grasslands out near Kenya’s most remote terrain.
At dinnertime, American, British and German tourists mingle with aid workers and visiting doctors and nurses volunteering time. The Omo trail is rarely crowded and retains a flavor of exclusivity as if a portal is beckoning into an African Shangri-la.
While small-group organized tours haul most of these visitors into the valley, some independent travelers do venture in. A couple from Los Angeles lingered one morning over breakfast, explaining their plan to wander into one of the last strongholds of deep-time Africa. A territory patrolled by muscular warriors cradling AK-47s and shadowed by suspicions.
Pastoralist ancients still afoot in these parts seem to regard the land as boundless, or as boundless as their prehistoric needs dictate. Their world of human interaction is bounded, at the service of elemental and recurring facets of life in a natural state.
The 21st century Ethiopian nation-state presents a contrasting template: a marking off of the land into its political and economic uses and an unbounding of life’s consumer possibilities flowing from these utilities. A fracturing of ancient cultures in the march of earth movers, a growl of modernity that the state’s men insist heralds rescue from backward ways. “Competing paradigms,” we called it in our report from my first foray into the valley.
“The various tribes of South Omo have distinct and ancient cultures, usually based on an agro-pastoralist and mobile lifestyle,” said we envoys of Ethiopia’s major international development funders, governments American and European. “The Government of Ethiopia’s development plans for the region are based upon sedenterized and irrigated agriculture which it believes will greatly alleviate recurrent food security problems; a new departure for cultures whose livelihoods have remained unchanged for centuries.”
Or thousands or tens of thousands of years, who knew? Troves of hominid fossils and some of the earliest tools crafted by humans have come to light in the Omo around 4-million-year-old Lake Turkana, which juts into southern Ethiopia though resides mostly in Kenya.
These tools are “evidence of the oldest known technical activities of prehistoric beings,” the United Nations explains in justifying designation of the Lower Valley of the Omo as World Heritage terrain. The discoveries, opines the world body, render these lands “one of the most significant for mankind.”
Hominid feet have pressed into this soil for what by our mortal timespans is eternity, perhaps a billion days. Time so elongated into the slanting equatorial sun as to transport us onto another planet altogether, the future so remote from those early bipedalists that their present jogs in place, refusing to budge.
Muscle and stubbornness that only the 21st century could muster would change the course of the river and its people. The Valley of the Omo would become an agricultural stage worthy of imperial ambitions in an age without divine kings.
In lands where human ancestors may first have chiseled implements to tame their surroundings and improve their harsh odds of survival, a new epoch of land, water and sugar was taking hold. Yet the existential contest was still very much in play.
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