Of dogshows and African diatribes

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of Tanzania  , Zanzibar Archipelago,
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Come to me, my beauties, come to me."

Conjure visions of a sheikh's master of arms offering sweet succour to a team of prized Arabian horses. Or a sultan offering titbits to his favourite racing camels.

"Come to me, my beauties, come to me," rings and floats the voice from the cliffside, the words tumbling down into the dusky netherworld of an east Ethiopian valley, wooded, fielded.

Abdee stands on the same 3m-high, rounded boulder each evening, at the setting of the sun, on the northern fringe of Harar town, less than a half day's ride from anarchy, piracy, the Somaliland border. He stands tall and still and sings and sighs his plaintive call.

Only metres away is a sandy square behind a government poorhouse, an old, 10-roomed dormitory inhabited, apparently, by some 400 unfortunates.

Not many take notice of the evensong.

"Move away to the edge of the square, they are always shy at first," says Abdee over his shoulder.

As visibility closes down to shadow-play, an awkward, hunched canine shape flitters up out of a metre-deep rain gulley. Its head moves left and right, searching danger. The beast shuffles, peculiarly sprightly for a shuffle, into the middle of the square, and slowly lies down.

Two, three, four more squat, slightly elongated bodies glide out of the dark into the very thin twilight, hyenas all, heeding the beck of their odd shepherd.

The ugly beasts stereotypically are at the butt-end of beauty-stake literature, uncomfortably-shaped, powerfully hind-quartered, with jaw-strength firmly in the heavyweight division.

Eight spotted hyenas now gather around the centre of the lot, two or three skittish, moving around, ears twisting and peaking, the others just lie and watch.

Three human observers look on from around 7m away. Local strollers going home from work in town barely bat an eyelid.

A medium-sized Alsatian mongrel dog walks past my toes, catching one's acute attention. The scent of the beasts from the bush does not raise a whimper or bark, or even a twitch of the domesticated head.

A hump-backed ox ambles past, 3 or 4 metres from the nocturnal marauders. They show absolutely no interest in this large chunk of fresh steak, as little interest as the one ton Big Mac shows in some of the most serious canines on the trot.

Abdee appears from the shadows, carrying a wicker basket some 1m across the top. The hyenas agitate, animate.

He sits down on the sand, dips his hand into the basket, and draws out a long, thin piece of meat, some 2cm thick by 20cm long, flicking it outward, into the gloom. Two or three hyenas lunge for it as it lands. One grabs it without force nor feud.

More meat is tossed, aimed at specific animals, until all, or most, have had a taste, and are lured closer to the basket.

Abdee holds a piece of meat in his hand, straightens his arm, and a hyena edges close, stretching its head forward, delicately, politely, before taking the morsel.

Another piece of meat, another hyena takes its turn at the table to receive, hand-delivered.

The ringmaster spikes a string of camel steak or skin on to one end of the 20cm stick he has been using to flick the meat about, and places the other end of the stick in his mouth.

Gently, gently leans one hyena forward, to the very edge of its stretch, accenting the obtuse angle of its rump, elongating its heavily muscled neck, and snitches away the dangling morsel with the tips of its frontmost teeth - with a discretion that would put many pet dogs to shame.

A car drives up, carrying a load of paying tourists. Now the show is in the headlights.

A customer ventures forward, to hand feed the animals himself, herself. And to play the mouth-to-mouth party trick.

I sit in the sand 3-4m away. A piece of meat is flicked at my feet. A hyena edges close, and almost apologetically takes it from just in front of my toes - reversing carefully, watching me intently, rather than turning and dashing.

A girl of 5-years-old has a turn at the different feeding games. Finally, the basket is all but finished, and the 'environmentalist' asks the little lass to hold the basket outward. Two hyenas approach her, place their heads in the spliced split-bamboo bin, and clean up, licking a little blood soak and lifting out the scraps.

Game over.

The uncanny image left is not the dangerous tryst enacted by a Djibouti tourist's daughter, but the look of absolute adoration and love on the face of Abdee each time one of his 'pets' takes a piece of meat from a hand or mouth. Glazed eyes of love and a beatific smile reveal a true bond with the animals, all of whom he calls out to by their own personal names.

Legend has it that around 60 years ago, hyenas began to come out of the bush, into the town, displaying aggressive feeding behaviour. In a rare show of compassion, instead of killing them, as would have been the wont of numerous others, one man decided to begin feeding them.

Since then the evening's interaction has brought about an uncommon truce between man and beast - to the point that the animals now roam freely through the town, yet seemingly attack no one, nor any livestock, only feasting on scrap-heaps.

A circus? Neo-eco-tourism?

They giggle, yelp, snarl and bicker in the gutter, 5m behind my hotel room window, loudly long into the night, but put on a display of fine manners at the dinner table.

Bizarre, surreal, a hyena fetish played out nightly in the birthplace of Haille Selassie (born Ras Tafari), part-time home of French enfante terrible and poet turned gun-runner and explorer, Arthur Rimbaud (personal friend of Selassie's father), and what explorer and (Western) discoverer of the source of the Nile, Richard Burton, called the Timbuktu of eastern Africa - in recognition of the town's own legend of Islamic study and discourse.

The selfsame Burton who travelled with a cage of monkeys in order to learn their language.

On approximately the same latitude as Timbuktu, yet near the eastern extreme of Africa, Harar recently celebrated its 1000th anniversary, as Timbuktu will next year.

According to local wise man and the last of a famed line of manuscript binders and restorers, Ali Sharif, supine on his flat couch chewing a rare stew of the local low-grade stimulant, khat, in a rough and comically loud voice proclaims 'Harar' is an old Arabic version of the number 405, representing the number of Muslim pilgrims who arrived from Mecca just over 1,000 years ago to settle.

"This is a town of many layers," he explains.

It is an enclosed, protected citadel, or at least the old section is. The wall still stands, 1,666 fore-arm lengths long, recognising the 1,666 verses in the Koran. There are 5 gates, recognising the 5 pillars of Islam.

The town originally contained 99 mosques, reflecting the 99 beads of a prayer string in turn reflecting the 99 names of Allah. Each house in town has five floor levels, even if two or three are stepped in the same room - reminding the inhabitants of the five calls to prayer each day for a Muslim devotee.

The question of Zimbabwe's Harare arises; Ali insists that "never in a 1,000 years" have the Harari people ever had anything to do with Zimbabwe.

In Harar's sweaty midday hours of beer-drinking and shade, a somewhat eccentricish English artist stationed for 30 years in France, one Guy Weir, regales with tales of extensive travel. His eighth visit to Ethiopia "will probably be my last, I'm getting bored now", he says, revealing he'd got the Ethiopia bug after 10 years of travel to Central America.

"I met (explorer/author) Wilfred Thessinger three or four times. He always goes on in his books about stingy welcomings and poor hospitality. He wouldn't even offer me a cup of tea!"

God-son to a Secretary of the Royal Navy and Cabinet Member, Monsieur Weir relates that his father "knew Lawrence of Arabia. Didn't think much of him. Thought he was a bit of a fraud". (Exactly, I point out, what Lawrence himself took pains to illustrate repeatedly in his classic part-biography The Seven Pillars of Wisdom - lying to the Arabs, with whom he embedded himself, with regard to Britain's real Arabian intentions; and lying to his British military masters with regard to his personal ambitions for a unified Arabic state.)

Weir, who paints ethnic scenes with sophisticated water colour technique, prides himself with knowing 18 of his (not-so-ethnic) canvasses grace the walls of Kenya doyen, Francis Erskine.

"I've had typhoid for the last two weeks," says the 60-year-old travelling paint brush, with a leery glint in his eye, one of which quivers uncontrollably with each hint of lascivity. "Seems to have done the old libido. When I look at a woman, I don't get the urge. I think I need a shot of testosterone. It's what I do when I get like this, or when I get bored ... When I get bored I also often get a suit made. Never wear them, of course."

Only in Harar?

"Met a mad Russian once, we travelled together in Kerala, south India. One day, I saw smoke coming out of a temple. The Russian (a local resident) told me that feuding holy men had been trading mantras, then anti-mantras, then anti-anti-mantras, then anti-anti-anti-mantras until there was so much energy flying around that the fire was a result of spontaneous combustion."

The temple burnt to the ground.

Not only in Harar.

The road wends back to rambling Addis Ababa, then down south.

Stumble upon another icon getting a spanking.

Travel writer Paul Theroux receives an upbraiding for his Ethiopian chapter in Dark Safari, a revisiting road-ride across Africa.

"The only way you can learn whether to trust a travel writer is by reading about a place you know better than he does," writes Ethiopian resident John Graham.

"I took great delight in finding at least a couple of factual errors." (Details of Selassie's house, Ethiopia's use of the Julian calendar, and the wrong tribes on the wrong roads.)

"He's the lone middle-aged white guy who (thinks) he really understands black Africa, who relates to the local folks, who goes to the places that other white folk don't ... (Some of us) have grown tired of the white visitors or volunteers or whatever who are on such a special trip that they can't stand to acknowledge that another white person could be there.

"Before I met him, I thought of Theroux as extremely skilled, but somewhat pompous and cynical. After meeting him, I was sure of it ... Theroux was on his best behaviour, no doubt due to respect for (his host), but his contempt for all the rest of us was easy to discern. We were the comfortable chatterati ... and he was the intrepid traveller, seeing the reality that was apparently denied us."


South African writer, Sihle Khumalo, upon crossing Africa himself, in response to Dark Safari, comes to similar conclusions in his humorous journal Dark Continent My Black Arse. A real homeboy riposte!

Ethiopia seems as peaceful country as you could wish for. There is intense pride in the belief that it is the only African country to have not allowed itself to be successfully colonised by the invading Euro bible and shotgun brigade of the 18th and 19th centuries, having twice sent Italy packing.

Christianity is thick in the air, but is carried with an elegant lightness, unlike the weight of eternal questioning, and answering, as packed by mid-Eastern Muslims. Taxi drivers halt briefly on passing a church and quickly make the sign of the cross, before continuing to grind along the bumpy roads in their antiquated Ladas, styled on the squat squares of Russian Trabants.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church stretches back to near the beginning of Christanity, and is revered for its history. Fables and some Western academia hint at the relics of the ark resting in some hidden Ethiopian alcove.

On Sunday morning, the choral singing begins to thread out of churches at around 4am.

Sunday morning dawn country driving finds white shroud after white shroud appearing out of valleys of mist, drifting along roadsides to places of worship. Ethereal whisps mingling betwixt low-lying cloud. Elegaic ghosts in fields of dreams.

Pride in nation elicits a constant question: how do you compare Ethiopia with South Africa?

Choose between poor and peaceful, and monied and violent, becomes a pat reply.

[Enter into an ongoing conversation with myself ...]

Travelling across Ethiopia, Kenya and into Tanzania for the first time, there is a rank danger of applying preconceptions and broad brush strokes to Africa as a whole, or even parts thereof.

It is simply too big to lump all into the all-too-common continental generalisation.

Algeria has as much in common with Uganda, peoples, cultures, religions, geography, environment as perhaps Finland has with Portugal.

Much of Western philosophising about the 'state of the continent' is blatantly palsied with this grossly ignorant 'broad brush', with overstated visual iconage, and a tendency to 'bad press makes African news'.

The snotty-nosed child, the distended belly, the emaciated drought scene, the machete wielding madmen.

In an article entitled 'How to write about Africa', Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainana sticks his tongue not quite in cheek with his scathing critique of Westernised cliches. "Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book", he chortles. "An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts, use these ... treat Africa as one country, don't get bogged down in detail."

But, but, but ... I can hear the cynics crying into their corn flakes.

Having personally emerged from the belly of an insane beast, apartheid South Africa, where differences and doggerel were, and still are to a lesser extent, bread and butter conversation, I tread gently through these inner-African pastures, well aware of the tar-brush of sociological claptrap with which I had long been tarnished.

Africa: corrupt, violent, poverty stricken! Just read the Euro-Yankee-centric papers.

Shock therapy awaits.

Almost every person one bumps into on the road, seller, sweeper, driver, diner, passenger, cohort or just innocuous passer-by wants to know where one hails from.

"South Africa" conjures two constant responses: are you ready for the World Cup, we are all so proud. And, that's a bad place, a dangerous country.

African homogeneity debunked over a coke in a roadside cafe. How easy. How difficult.

Conversation after conversation with residents of supposed dangerous 'all-African' countries raise the spectre of horror that a lot of Africa feels about its southern-most nation.

Almost every brief acquaintance knows a family member or friend who has ventured south in search of the great gold dream, and come unstuck, robbed, killed or missing in action.

Apocraphyllic or not, there is a common current of thought from Egypt to Zanzibar: "You can go there to get rich, or dead."

"People die like flies there," says one. "There is no regard for life," ventures another. "My brother got an axe in his shoulder" ... "My neighbour's friend has disappeared. Nobody has heard of him for six months ..."

"South Africans don't like foreigners down there. They are still a new country. They have not yet learnt how to belong to Africa ... they are selfish, they have forgotten how we assisted them in their time of (liberation) need."

These are just 'by-the-way' conversations with people going about their daily lives.

Africa, the people, the so-called forlorn, is in truth far more entranced, it seems, with Premier League football, upgrading fake cell phones, the impending struggle with neo-colonialists China ("all they care about is money"), and just making ends meet, than trying to disentangle the divide-and-rule petty power plays still concocted and enacted by the West and East as their search for industrial raw resources grows more critical and competitive.

Governmental-level corruption seems the curse, way above the heads of the man in the street.

The patience shown by suburban families would put Job to shame.

Rough on the road, in this savage land?

The path from Cape to Cairo is a well-trodden highway.

Swagmen have been taking their toll of highway riches across all the continents since travel began.

Greybeard falls foul to a 7-year-old lout, who lifts his cell phone. Not that the phone could communicate, but worked well as an alarm clock and calendar. How long has this journey been?

Walking across a town square, from bus to taxi, the little imp tucks himself into my blind spot, tight up behind me, and gently prizes open a zipper on a shoulder-slung bag. The phone is gone is a flash. I feel the nudge, turn, glare, admonish, but am too preoccupied with travel arrangements to notice the bag is fractionally lighter, until too late.

The old rule still applies: if you are not watching it, it does not really belong to you - until you see it again.

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Matteo on

Great report, as usual, Lance.

Jean on

Right on !

anni tonin on

lance, please check yr hotmail account - there is news on jenny mcmahon. cheers xxxx anni

Parag on

In the year 2000, Stone Town Zanzibar got inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

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