About 250-300 kilometers due south of Addis Ababa is the Great Rift Valley, a remnant of long forgotten volcanic activity from millennia ago. The person I had arranged the visit with offered to drive me down to the Rift Valley Lakes, which allows you to see a large variety of indigenous plants, animals and birds. The roads were in mediocre condition, several times just disappearing altogether as new construction or repairs were in the process of completion.
(traffic accidents are common)
(Rift Valley scenery)
The land is actually quite barren, sort of a semi-arid desert type environment. There is very sparse population in this area, but none-the-less little villages and towns are seen along the way. This affords the opportunity of seeing how the rural population live. It is a very different lifestyle, completely agrarian, without any of the basic amenities of life: no running water, no electricity, no windows, an open fire for heating, no telephone, no internet and in essence subsistence living.
(Rift Valley scenery)
(Small Rift Valley homes)
The huts are constructed of mud and dung, covered by a thatched roof, which means the mud will not dissolve away in rain. In such remote areas away from any rivers, with only rain water capture, several wells have been dug to provide water. Still, people spend hours each day walking or driving a donkey or horse-drawn cart to be able to get water. I saw people carrying large jugs/plastic containers filled with water, while in other areas, these same large yellow containers were on the back of carts.
(waiting to vote)
A political aside for a moment: we happened to be driving on a Sunday, and this Sunday was special, as it was their national election day. I was stunned to see hundreds of people standing in long lines, with the authorities checking their ID’s and making sure that they were eligible to vote. It was amazing to see so many willing to vote and participate in the electoral process, even though there is a >98% vote for the current ruling party (as reported!). This also meant you saw many more armed guards around, flashing their machine guns in a show of force to avoid any unrest or violence.
We spent some time in Abiata National Park, which encompasses three of the largest lakes in Ethiopia, one of which is stated to be 600 meters deep! There are several gazelle, antelope, warthog, ostrich and other bird species in this preserve that is more than 900 square kilometers. It was only 90 birr ($4.50) to be in, although there was the obligate bribe and guide fee, that took it to 210 birr ($10.50). About 5,000 people still live in the park, since they were there first!
There were many different bird nests, although with the heat of the day and no rain, the birds were not in attendance at this time! I was quite impressed by the size of the “beach” which surrounded the lakes. When inquiring about this, I was told that two factories on the lake (opposite side) were involved in evaporation projects to yield a white salt or potash like substance that was used as a fertilizer and for the cattle. This has resulted in a significant decrease in the size of the water part of the lake, with a consequent change in ecology.
Flamingos eat algae and so have remained at the lake, but the fish have died due to changes in chemical composition of the lake and consequently the pelicans have migrated away! So, again, what used to be an incredible site (from the pictures shown in the headquarters office while acquiring the entry permits), has now sadly changed. Global warming may also contribute to evaporation which further diminishes the size of the lake. To end on a positive note, the evaporation has left behind some very interesting and unique shapes in the mud, which I enjoyed photographing!
(row of greenhouses)
The acacia trees were sprinkled with a few evergreens and jacaranda tress, along with low shrubs and other bushes which are known to produce the various spices used in their traditional foods. Further, several of the flowers and plants are used for various medicinal and herbal remedies. More about one of these “spices” in a moment. There are two major crops grown for export, coffee and flowers! I was really quite surprised by the huge number of very large greenhouses along the side of the road. These “hothouses” were growing roses, tulips and a variety of other flowers that are exported all over the world. The climate is good, with a natural water supply, but it is still startling to see so many hothouses in the middle of nowhere!
Several different birds are also seen in the trees, with weavers in abundance, along with horn-billed birds, buzzards and pelicans. There are also several species of water fowl that inhabit the lakes of the highlands. There are many “cultivated” cacti. The locals grow the cactus as a barricade or “fence” around their homes – although the goats and camels will eat the cactus, so sometimes you see the “fences” in disrepair.
(onions for sale)
(Farmers create charcoal by burning wood)
Many of the farmers were selling their produce or products at the side of the road. There were huge “mounds” of onions, melons, or cucumbers. You had to buy in bulk, but the prices were astonishingly low. Many people were selling a modified coal (charcoal), which they had created out of “slow burning of wood. So in essence, they actually burn the burnt wood as charcoal in heating their homes, cooking and in making coffee. A very instructive day, with lots to absorb and enjoy.
The coffee is world famous, and I was glad to have a pleasant coffee service at the Haile Resort. Haile Gebrselassie was a world famous Olympic athlete, who parlayed his fame into fortune, operating several 5-Star resorts around Ethiopia. The coffee ceremony is exactly that – a ritual and ceremony. This is a time when the whole family gets together, usually at night, and shares the coffee. Some may have tea instead, but it is usually coffee. It is an involved and time consuming enterprise. The beans are roasted over an open flame or in a pan over hot coals. After it is roasted, it is then ground, with the coffee then placed with water in a ceramic pot and allowed to boil for 8-10 minutes. The product is poured into the waiting small cups, with mild and sugar added. Needless to say, the coffee is very flavorful and most enjoyable, to say nothing of the really wonderful bonding time for the whole ceremony. I did bring some of the coffee home, and hope to be able to share the ceremony with others.
Now for a short chat. I had noticed these very large banana leaves rolled and either laid out or hanging from various hooks all over the country. I thought it odd that people would buy banana leaves, and so decided to learn more about it. What a can of worms. It turns out that “chat” in Ethiopia is a flowering plant indigenous to the horn of Africa, going by the name of catha edulis (khat in Amharic), specifically cultivated because of its significant stimulant quality. Specifically, chat is chewed to get a “high”, a cultural custom going back for centuries in this region. The reason it has remained a regional phenomenon is that only the fresh leaves have the stimulant effect, and so they cannot be allowed to dry or age. Therefore, the harvesters will pack the leaves and stems in plastic bags or wrapped in banana leaves that are sprinkled with water or kept in a refrigerator to keep the leaves as potent as possible.
(chat for sale)
Chat's active ingredient is cathinone, a very quick acting stimulant that works even faster than amphetamines (15 minutes versus 30 minutes, respectively). When chewed, the cathinone as well as its breakdown products of cathine and norephedrine are absorbed across the mucous membranes. Cathinone is the most potent part, but this is what breaks down very quickly due to its instability. For anyone with some chemistry or a little street knowledge, you can see that “norephedrine” sounds a lot like epinephrine and amphetamine, which is exactly the family or class of action from this substance. It is not illegal in Ethiopia, which is why it is found all over! I must have encountered many people thus affected, since it results in verbosity, extreme talkativeness, euphoria, friendliness, hyperactivity, increased alertness, greater concentration and extreme over confidence. In essence the people are manic or a bit psychotic. While it can produce a mild psychological dependence, it is not thought to be seriously addictive. Still, I am probably hyper enough on my own that this would definitely not be a choice for me – and besides, it is illegal in the US and Canada!
And finally some more scenes from the drying lake at Abiati National Park....
Dr. Thompson's Ethiopia series continues next week, with 6) Lucy at the National Museum