A week ago I went with five coworkers to visit CPAR's farthest and most remote program area in Ethiopia. Dibate, in the Benishangul-Gumuz province in North Western part of the country, which almost touches Sudan. The area is very rural- even Dibate town doesn't have restaurants or a large market – and is home to a number of different ethnic groups, making it a very interesting development context.
To get there, we stopped one night at the CPAR Jarso basecamp and the next day traveled on to Dibate. Just past the basecamp, our 4x4 began a steep decline into the Blue Nile Gorge. The road was unpaved and rough, and about half way down we got a flat tyre. We were instantly helped by two mechanics and were soon on our way again. At the bottom of the valley was the Blue Nile, which, when it joins the White Nile, forms the famous Nile River. We crossed the bridge (I didn't take any photos because once a ‘farenj’ was shot doing so) and started climbing the other side. The landscape was amazing- it was as incredible as I imagine the Grand Canyon to be. At one point I saw a monkey!
We stopped to fix the flat in a small town. I got out of the car to stretch my legs. Within five minutes I'd attracted quite a crowd. They surrounded me (about 40 of them) against the car to stare and practice their English. I must have been asked what time it was 100 times! When asked, it turned out that I was the first white person some of them had ever seen.
The flat delayed us quite a bit but the landscape stayed incredible. We didn't make it to Dibate before 6 pm and decided to stay in a hotel about 50km from the base camp. When we arrived on Thursday and settled in, we got to work on our assorted responsibilities (there was a lot on the agenda for our visit.) I was tasked with developing case studies of CPAR's beneficiaries in the area as I had also done in Jarso. I went with both Abebe and Maru to visit many of CPAR's initiatives, including HIV/AIDS education, improved seed farms, woodlots, water points, and best of all one of the community schools in the very remote Gumuz villages.
By the end of the day, I felt as though I was in life-overload. I had sped through the African countryside on a dirt bike, no helmet, no roads. I had watched a woman, pregnant with her first child, lying against her mother in the dirt in pain because of the start of the birth. I had seen many times the Ethiopian version of a baby in a diaper: a baby with no pants. Because I looked so different, I had been asked questions, through an informal translator, like "are you a man or a woman?", "Can you talk?", "Can you laugh?" People would reach out and touch my hair or my arms and be absolutely amazed with the result. Or, I would reach out and touch them and they would scream and sprint 10 feet to safety. Each time we would leave the village, a crowd of children would come sprinting after me yelling, "Farenj Farenj" ("white person white person") I would reply "Habisha Habisha" ("Ethiopian Ethiopian") and they would laugh uncontrollably.
Throughout the trip, despite the language barrier, my camera was great for facilitating interaction. Each person pushed and shoved to be within the range of the lens. And when I turned it around to show them, there would be even more pushing and shoving, this time with pointing and plenty of chatter. One woman I interviewed about CPAR's HIV/AIDS educational interventions in town didn't want her picture taken because she is shy about her disability. I promised that I would show her what it looked like and she could tell me to erase it if she didn't like it. She chose to keep it and asked for a copy which I will provide the next time I'm in the field. I don't think she'd ever seen herself on camera!
One thing that I found very surprising is just how much some of the people I saw while in Dibate fit into the western stereotype of African cultures. They live in huts, their babies are naked and sometimes so are they. They live to live, not to accumulate or to plan, and they live in the most remote place I've ever been. One of the Gumuz people (An Ethiopian ethnic group) showed me how to grind something called finger millet. I got down on my hands and knees and used the stone to pummel it into a fine powder. Hard work.
On the way back to Dibate Town, it began to rain and we stopped for shelter in a cluster of huts and shops. I was ushered into the sheltered courtyard and offered the only chair. One guy seemed like the ring leader, and demanded (politely) "Photo Photo" and put his hands up to his eyes like goggles. I took it and again the crowd swarmed around me to inspect it. When the leader, in his traditional clothes, said "Bakah" (enough) and shooed the rest away so I could have some space, the questions began. "Do you speak Arabic?" "Do you have some medicine for my rough hands?" "Are you married?"
By the time we arrived back in Addis just under a week later, I was exhausted because of the overwhelming experience of rural Africa. Days on the road I find are the most intense here. I have lots of time to think without acting, and at the same time am inundated with new sensory treats. I wish that I'd written down all my insights, but I guess sometimes I've just got to think them and let them go. Suffice to say that the things I do and see here continuously make me question my world view, my norms, my identity. And I'm fairly sure that the result will be positive!