Preceeding Paul Theroux (page 3)
Preceeding Paul Theroux
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Haystack houses

Boran Women

     We were in the area of the Boran Oromo ethnic group. From a distance, the Borana villages looked like haystacks in a desert of cactus, thorn trees and rocks. The men often wore cloths wound around their heads turban like, and sometimes we would see aluminum phallic symbols attached to the foreheads of the older ones, probably the leaders. Every time we would meet them riding their horses on the road, they would move off the road, dismount, and hold their spears upright. It was the polite thing to do. They were showing us that they weren’t going to charge and try to spear us. The women wore what seemed to be hundreds of strands of square aluminum beads around their bare necks. They were striking, with these silvery beads against their ebony skin and colorful wraparound skirts. I had fun taking picture after picture.
     We stopped at a well and watched as 11 men and women climbed down a deep hole — at least 100 feet deep — and stood on tree trunks wedged at intervals down the hole. It was more like a narrow mineshaft than a well. Standing one over another and chanting a haunting rhythm, they hauled out muddy-looking water for their animals, passing leather buckets from person to person — full ones up, empty ones down. The top person poured the muddy water into a canal that was directed into one of several troughs, one for camels, one for cattle and goats, and one for people. Nearby, several women squatted over hides instead of basins, washing clothes with as little as a quart of water. Now we understood why their clothes were dirt colored. The whole scene was so fascinating that I still can conjure up vivid images, even without the photos.
     However, Nelson thought it was disgusting and said, “They should not use that water, especially to drink. They will certainly get sick and die.” We pointed out that they had been living that way for generations and were used to it. Nelson was a sheltered, city-dwelling African seeing primitive Africa, and he didn’t like it. Still, we didn’t take any water for ourselves, even though we would have treated it by either boiling or putting chlorine tablets in it. Drinking purified, thick, muddy water would have been nauseating, nevertheless. We carried jerry cans of water, filling them at village wells or public taps in little towns and treating it with purification tablets.

      On our way into Mega, we passed what appeared to be an old Italian castle. It was probably a fort, left over from the years prior to WWII when the Italians ruled Ethiopia. On the outskirts of Mega we found another Swedish Mission, and again we were allowed to camp at the edge of their large grassy compound. Nelson decided to forgo the Jeep and sleep outside. However, we didn’t sleep very well that night because there were animals howling all night long. They sounded like babies crying with intermittent sounds of grunting and growling. The frightening noises seemed very close by, just over the low fence that wouldn’t keep out a rabbit much less a wild dog or hyena. Soon after the hubbub started, we heard Nelson slam the Jeep door as he clambered inside. Next morning we found out that a pride of lions, with one of the females in heat, had made all the racket. “You needn’t have worried,” said one of the missionaries. “They’re interested in sex, not food. You don’t hear them when they’re hungry.”

Thursday and Day 5 on the road.
     We were tired and cold. It was a foggy morning, which sometimes happened during the rainy season. We got a late start after having our oatmeal and chamomile before the last leg to Moyale, only 65 miles away. Twelve miles down the road we came across a village that had been attacked by shiftas two days before. They killed a man and stole some cattle. Perhaps we should have been more worried about the shiftas than the lions.
     Shifta is the Amharic word for bandit, but also was (and still is) applied to any group that opposes the Ethiopian government. These shiftas were probably Somali raiders who routinely crossed the borders into Ethiopia and Kenya. Partly political, partly tribal, partly a way of life, these groups were and still are active throughout the whole Horn of Africa. Their modus operandi when we were driving through their territory was to make a sneak attack at night, starting off with a machine gun spraying a village with bullets, followed by the rest of the shiftas rushing in with their old Springfield rifles and spears, stealing what they could. Laurie made it through only 50 pages that day.
     We weren’t bothered by any shiftas, but the possibility did begin to worry us because we were the only car on the road for miles and miles. We made only one forced quick stop for brake adjustments and paused to take pictures of the smallest and shyest antelope in Africa, the dik-dik. Every time we came across one, it hid before we could focus the cameras. We kept the engine running, just in case.

At the border
We made it! Finally, around 4:00 in the afternoon we drove into Moyale, not stopping until we were right at the border — which was closed for the day and the Kenyan border guards ordered us to go back. Grumbling, we retraced our tracks and stopped at the Ethiopian police station to ask where we could camp. They said it was best to stay right in the station. “Not safe out there.” So we hauled out our tent and camping gear and set up camp within a few yards of the office.
     Why did this trip from Addis to Moyale take so long? There was only one “road” and if we had been able to see it, we wouldn’t have gotten lost. But our trouble with the Jeep slowed us down much more than our photography. It took us 5 days to cover roughly 350 miles, at about 70 miles and 7 hours per day of driving, for an average of 10 miles per hour. That’s the speed of marathon runners these days. For us, it was a different kind of slow motion adventure on “the longest road in Africa.”

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