Ethiopian ShepherdIt’s been five years to the day since I snapped this photo hanging out of the window of a white Land Rover. Yes, I know I’ve written about this photo before, but wow, it’s one of those stunning images that stays with you no matter what. Of course I had no idea how terrible 2007 would end up being—nor did I realize how lonely and difficult the trip in Ethiopia would be—but this day offered both promise and excitement (some in the form of Qat).

My mental map of Ethiopia, up to this point, was largely formed by Band-Aid and the famine in the eighties. I expected rocks and semi-arid plains. Thomas, my driver, and I drove up over the mountains ringing Addis Ababa watching little old ladies carry impossible burdens of sticks on their backs, many of whom end up permanently hunched over late in life from such labors. We came down the backside of the hills into a wonderland of round thatch-roofed huts, thick trees and boys playing soccer with tightly wrapped balls of leather strips, straight from the cows that they herded the year before. The dirt was intensely red and warm, the bark of trees almost gray and the leaves a bright rippling green in the soughing wind, but the main south-north highway was, and would remain, dirt and dust.

The road and the landscape continued straight and flat until a great abyss opened up.

“Aha,” I thought incorrectly, “this is why Ethiopia was once called Abyssinia.

This was the Nile gorge, a mighty chasm. If Africa is the land of horizons, none is so great as that halfway down the gorge where clouds streamed overhead and the rays of light are visible between them like a surrealist masterpiece. A lone green bus drove upwards far away across the gorge. Further and further down into it we drove, switchback after switchback after switchback along the river-carved cliffs composed of a geometrically shaped volcanic rock—like long parallelograms stretching out a hundred feet. And then, abruptly the shapes melted into waves, rolling in from the ocean and finally flat nothingness only occasionally pockmarked betrayed 70 million years of geology from the rimrock of the gorge to the alluvial bed at the bottom. By the time we reached the valley floor the elevated coolness of highland plains gave way to an almost equatorial African heat, blasts of warm air coming in from the windows, sweat beading on my temples.

The road rose quickly out of the canyon and the cool air returned as we sped across the golden plains of Amaharaland—the core, the home of Ethiopian Christianity and its dominant ethnic group. Beehive shaped piles of tef, Ethiopia’s staple cereal crowded out the view of blue skies and parched white clouds. We stopped and bought some Qat, had lunch and then ate the Qat as the road chewed up the miles. My euphoria rose and Aster Aweke played on the radio. Songs from a strange continent, syncopated and eerily enjoyable.

There they were: two boys, shepherds of old with crooks, smiling and singing to their sheep. An almost biblical scene washed in outrageous color, green, gold, tan, ruddy, white clouds and blue skies. Was I dreaming? Was it the qat?

No, I wasn’t dreaming and it wasn’t the silky thoughts emanating from the alkaloid.

A moment in time—a snapshot—but one that has stuck with me, enduring so many more adventures and trials and joys. Few have overshadowed that moment and I doubt few ever will.

A Photo For Wednesday

Ethiopian ShepherdIt was my first full day in Africa. I’d arrived the day before from Dubai, via Amsterdam, New York and Houston. The air in Addis Ababa was dry and the horizon leaped out in all directions forever: a dome of blue collapsing atop warm orange grasses. I was unprepared for the beauty of the Great Rift Valley.

I found a driver by noon and was on the road north by one thirty. We crawled north on the main highway–naught but a graded dirt road–through a low range of mountains passing women carrying impossible loads of wood on their backs. We went up into conifers and came down into fields of tef. Gold, green, ashen rocks, blue skies and high darting clouds. Baboons scurried across the road while the harvesters piled tef stalks into bee-hive mounds.

Two hours out of Addis we came upon this scene. North of us was a low ridge of hills, behind nothing but tef fields as far as the eye could see.

I jumped out of the car and started snapping shots. I must have taken twenty or thirty of this scene alone, from different angles, up close, far away. The light was brilliant and as I think back on my time in Ethiopia, although it wasn’t the happiest period of my life, the light, a high arcing angularity, was everywhere. Goats kicked up dust. The young shepherd twirled his staff like boys the world over, carefree in the cool elevated air of Amharaland. His whistle broke the soft silence of the bleeting goats. I thanked him and jumped back into the car. Tomas and I drove off towards Lake Tana–the true source of the Nile–secure in the knowledge that  that the morrow would be brilliant. Had I but known how right I would be.

The Golden Fields of Amhara-land

Ethiopian ShepherdThe fields stretch out across the horizon. An attenuated, high altitude light falls on the dark volcanic soils. The rusted hulks of dead war machines litter the roads. A shepherd boy smacks a goat into line, driving them all back into line. Baboons scamper across the highway. The main north-south artery between Addis Ababa and Axum is a dirt road. It is a more fecund land than I ever expected. But who could blame me for thinking otherwise? After all, in the 1980s Ethiopia was a famine crippled land.

But it is a fragile fecundity, dependent as much on the counter-Monsoon as India is. A full 60% of the water volume that flows into the Nile drains out of Ethiopia, as well. Significant portions of Ethiopia are very arid. The area north of Gonder on the road to Axum is semi-arid, but by the time I arrived in Axum it was all dust and sand with only a little, very sparse vegetation. Most of the Tigray region is like this, as well. The Awash Basin, a newly formed mass (new in geological terms) of sand, sulfur and dust, is being shorn from Africa to the East as the Red Sea and Arabia pull it away from the continent. And to the South of Addis? Well, I don’t know what the farm land is like there. I didn’t see it. Ethiopia is also densely populated. At least in Amharaland–that area in the center of the country which is dominated by the Amharan-speakers. It’s a land of small farms, lots of people and extreme poverty, as they eke out a meager existence farming tef, a crop grown only in Ethiopia used to make injera, that nasty, slightly sour and spongy bread the Ethiopians so love.

And now, into this mix of dire poverty and overpopulation comes the mega-farm. Ethiopia is now selling leasing it’s most precious resource: it’s land. And some people think this is just peachy:

many experts are cautiously hopeful, saying that big agribusiness could feed millions by industrializing agriculture in countries such as Ethiopia, where about 80 percent of its 75 million people are farmers who plow their fields with oxen.

In this age where the US has become a net food importer anyone who believes that industrial agri-business is a good thing needs to have a long talk with Don Henry Ford, Jr. Industrial food production does increase yields, but at the cost of food quality and a serious decrease in the redundancy of food distribution. In a country like Ethiopia, which has suffered famine in the past, a lack of redundancy in distribution can be cataclysmic.

If this trend continues in Ethiopia the following will happen: many, many farmers will be driven off their land. After that they will swarm the cities. And when the crops fail, due to a poor Monsoon, one of two things will happen: the big agri-farms will suck as much water out of the lakes and the Nile drainage in Ethiopia and the Sudan and Egypt will suffer. Or, there will be famine in Ethiopia. Or both.