Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ethiopia. In bits


Yesterday the Ethiopian Prime Minister rocked up to our hotel along with 2,000 Ethiopian farmers wearing identical chalk white caps and t-shirts. It was National Farmers’ Day and the farmers, rows upon rows of white caps and t-shirts, watched young traditional dancers shimmy and step in the traditional style. They all wore white and the girls had Queen of Sheba hairdos. The next morning we saw the Ethiopian Prime Minister on TV talking to the nation about the troops they’ve sent to Somalia and the bombing of the major airports. The sharp american accent of the BBC World newsreader comes in over the top telling us it could unbalance the fragile stability of the region. The newsreader uses the word, Islamists.

The Joker, Bahir Dar

The B____ bar is red and tiny and packed on both sides with people sitting on low wooden chairs and stools. There’s a bar at the back (also full of people) and to the right of it a door out to the bluelit alleyway behind. A man with a mini drumkit sits in the space between the door and the bar. Dressed in traditional white garb with a wooden instrument held low on his waist, the top end pressing into his shoulder, a man strolls back and forth in the tiny amount of floorspace afforded him. His instrument is guitar-like, but with a diamond-shaped body and one thick blue string that he manipulates with his fingers and palm, drawing a curved wooden bow across the bottom. The place is packed with young Ethiopians and I can see their shoulders wiggling to the beat. The man with diamond guitar strolls back and forth, his eyes sparkly and mischievous. He has the look of a joker and sings little ditties making fun of people in the room. A big man behind the bar leans over a young man’s shoulders and drunkenly sings a ditty of his own. Four lines.
“You say, ‘How are you?’ in English.” The joker repeats the phrase with a flourish of his bow.
“I say, ‘How are you?’ in Amharic.” Again, and some more bow.
“How can we understand each other?” Repeated and a flourish.
“But in bed, there is no problem!”
The bar goes mad with everyone clapping and laughing. The drums kick in and everyone is smiling at us.

The Boatman, Lake Tana

The hotel manager is strange and sleazy with a cleanly shaven head, he invites us for a coffee, and then for wine after ripping us off on the boat trip to the monasteries. The Ghion Hotel looks right out over Lake Tana and there are pelicans on a pile of rock nearby and hornbills making noise in the high branches of the trees. A nervous monkey collects bits of food left over from the Farmers’ Day celebrations.
We spend Christmas day, lazy start, trying to avoid the manager who seems to appear instantly at our sides, as if he has sniffed the air and smelled us coming. We avoided him and his flashy mobile phone, jumping off the large, clean tourist minibus at the last minute when we realised that we didn’t want to spend the day with other tourists. We caught the nice boatman (who also seems to get screwed by the sleazy manager) and did a deal with him to take us to the mouth of the blue nile river. He’d taken us out to the island monasteries the day before and made animated jokes to the Ethiopian couple from Addis Ababa we shared the trip with. Later the couple told us what he’d be saying, imitating different nationalities and their tipping habits – Japanese, American, French, English.
“You say your price in birr and the Japanese are tentative.” The boatman bows his head and makes a mmmm noise, imitating his Japanese customer. “You ask him then, What about 50 dollars? And the Japanese looks up smiles say yes yes yes and gets the money out straight away.”
“Americans? No problem – they leave big, enormous tips. And Germans, too. the French are difficult and the English,” he says, knowing we are English and the trip is not over yet, “are fair. If they get good service, they will tip you nicely.”

The boatman is embarrassed that his jokes have been translated to us by the man from Addis Ababa with the gold tooth and gel in his thinning hair. His girlfriend/wife/woman is younger and beautiful and quietly smiles. But we all egg him on and ask, What about Ethiopians? How do they tip?

The girlfriend is scared of the boat tipping and smiles nervously every time someone climbs in or out of the boat. While we wait at the bottom of the island at the top of which the monastery sits in a green cloud of foliage, she teaches me one to ten in Amharic and writes the script next to my own phonetic spellings. She seems pleased to help me and I think, with her beauty and quietness, she would make a good teacher. We are not allowed on the island because, as women, we would be a huge distraction to the monks who have there without such distractions on their turf since the middling ages. No Entrance For Lady. The men brought us back a photograph of this sign and of the ancient books of Mattius, Marcus, Luka, and Johannes, and of frescoes and of a monk holding a Lalibela Cross.

While we waited for the men to visit the monastery, we shared bananas and the boatman told us the story of an Italian woman who refused to accept that she wasn’t allowed up with the men, marched straight up to the gate beyond which the path led up the hill to the monastery. Our boatman sat on the dock drawing a sign for a monk who had emerged from the bushes. He traced the sun-faded symbols with his pen. The Italian woman was stopped at the gate by some Ethiopians – maybe the monks themselves – and a fracas ensued, she wouldn’t give up, she shouted and tussled. Eventually a fellow Italian was able to calm her down. And she not pass through the gate. The boatman continues to trace the Amharic script as he tells the story, shaking his head, laughing. She was a crazy woman. The monk stood by, nodding. It seemed we women posed no distraction whatsoever to this monk. And I felt the slightest trace of resentment, the barest inkling of indignation at having been excluded from the monastery for simply not being a man. A memory of feminism/equality, that dirty word, where does that fit into tradition and religion?

st gabriel, monastery, ethiopia