Monday 14 September 2009

The Year Of The Sheep 11th September 2009

It seems that everyone is carrying a chicken or a sheep with them today. Men with poles over their shoulders with dozens of birds hung upside down like a living boa, walk the streets selling to passers by. Almost everyone has a foul, carrying it round like a plastic bag, strapped to the back of a bike or slung over a shoulder. Others are pushing sheep home like a wheelbarrow holding their back legs whilst the overworked front legs scrabble to keep up the pace in an unnatural manner. I see one sheep that is on the back of a truck make a bid for freedom whilst stationary at a red light, with a single bleat it leapt off the truck and stood confused for a second unsure what to do with it's choices. Before thinking what i was doing I jumped out the car I was in and grabbed the sheep whilst Ashu drove after the owner who had pulled away unaware of his loss. It felt a touch incongruous being stood holding this animal more used to mountains and open spaces at a busy set of traffic lights in the middle of a small town in ethiopia but harder to accept was that i was assurring it's imminent slaughter. As a man that doesn't eat mammals it crossed my mind that I should let it go but I didn't want to spoil some families New Year Feast and when a sheep costs 500 birr (£25) I was doing the whole family a good turn rather than the sheep.

The eleventh of September is new years day in Ethiopia, and I am in Mekele a small town in the Tigret region in the north of the country. I am now accustomed to the complete uniqueness of this country it is unlike any other in Africa I have visited but I don't think I am alone in my ignorance of its range of culture, peaceful nature and its long history.

Sir Bob was here, Bono and Princess Di were here millions of pounds of aid were here when Tigray's own government refused to help feed what it considered rebels. In brief a Russian backed communist coup by the military overthrew Haile Sellassie in the early 80's, rebel groups sprang up throughout the land that were brutally supressed. The first area to be liberated was the Tigray, sadly this coincided with a terrible drought. The Ethiopian government did nothing but Sir Bob some pop stars and our conciences did. Ironically they probably did know it was Christmas it's just that Ethiopian orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th January. As a result most of us think of Ethiopia as being barren, starving, poor and helpless. We are so wrong.

Today is the 11th September 2009 by our gregorian calender but here by the Julian calender it is new years day 2002. I have been here a month tho it is the 13 th month and is only 5 days long. This whole area is green with thick knee length grass or crops of sorghum. There are steep hills immediately to the south of the town and hills all around in the distanceIit has been raining most days and the temperature is like an English summer.

It is hard to understand that this is the same place we saw horrific pictures of skeletal starving humans dying by their thousands in sun baked fly infested camps in the early 80's.This place is lovely. But we are all subject to the weather some more critically than others, whereas our bank holidays get washed out,here and in other places millions die.

Mekele is a pleasure, calm, clean and busy it Is growing incredibly fast around its old centre which has a good paved road network spreading out from it.

It is the first African city I have been to where no one is interested in me , it is such a relief not to be constantly hit upon because of my colour. To be able to look in a shop window without being called inside, to go in a bar and have a drink on my own and be left that way, to be given a price for something and not have to barter it down 60%. To not be a novelty There is a true pride here and sense of worth, a sense of identity that seems ancient and a lack of dependency. Everything about this area and I think country seems to be unique even down to the fact that not only do they have their own calendar but they have their own clock ; 7 am is 1 in the morning for them. 4 pm is ten in the afternoon 6 hours added basicaly and they live by it. Addmitedly it causes problems at airports but local people manage and I now work by it fine. I havent heard anything but ethiopian music in any bar or restaurant and no evidence of American rap culture apart from the odd bit of clothing. Apparenly very low paedophilia rates few muggings and in this area of tigray no female circumcision. It is noteable that it is a desert culture that is not Islamic and christianity here predates European christianity. The Prophet Mohammed sent some of his people here when they were being persecuted early in Islam's history saying go to ethiopia you will be safe. They were and the ruling emporer refused to send them back when Arabic aurhorities requested they be deported. As a result it is written in the Koran that there should never be a jihad against Ethiopia. Of course by the 10th century there had been repeated muslim invasions but none was successful , religions are sadly susceptible to selective interpretation.

Earlier than that Ethiopia was a much larger state and the early Pharoes of Egypt were from here, all Semitic languages trace their routes here and if you look at a map the route through modern day Eretricia and the Red sea is not that far to the Mediterranean.

Overall I get the impression of Ethiopia being a very old country which has an identity that stretches back over time. I am sure that this is because it was never successfuly colonised , the Italians tried briefly but got nowhere. This to me explains everything about what is suprising about Ethiopia the sad fact that it wasn't ruled by a European power, it grew up in parallel to Europe and developed at it's own pace which is as I see when wandering the streets- is slow.

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