The festive season is over – the meat has been eaten, the tella has been drunk….there’s not a whole lot going on around here. At the college, end of semester exams are coming up, and while there are a few keeno students hanging around the ELIC, most of them, and their teachers (who usually work seven days a week), are taking advantage of the chance to stay away from the college for a few days on study leave.
I think about taking a trip to a nearby village for a change of scene, but then I hear that the road is blocked again. Not because of the rain or construction this time, but due to the fact that, rather alarmingly, some fighting between two of the local tribes has broken out. Apparently they’ve got guns and everything! No one here seems that surprised or bothered about it, but I don’t think I’ll risk it.
No worries, I decide to investigate the entertainments of Gilgel Beles on a deeper level. I’ve done the big three – drink coffee, drink beer, chew chat – it’s time to see what else the village has to offer. I’m not hopeful of much – you can walk everywhere here in about 5 minutes – but I do find stuff and here’s my Rough Guide Top 5 of ‘What to do in Gilgel Beles’, should you ever find yourself here…
1) Gilgel Beles United. Ethiopia, even in the remotest areas, is football mad; watching – often Arsenal (two enterprising local shopkeepers have got satellite sports and generators, and charge 10 birr to watch a match) and playing. Every institution seems to have its own team, and they take it very seriously. Anyway, it’s peak season here, the college team made up of instructors and a few specially selected HPE students is on a winning streak and the matches (at the village ‘stadium’) are the highlight of the week – everyone goes to watch.
The first match I see is a league match against Mandurah woreda (a neighbouring district). The college won the league last year and are hoping to retain the title, and apparently this is a ‘crucial’ match for them. I don’t hear about it until five minutes before it’s due to start, when my counterpart, Tsehay, invites me along. It’s a Friday afternoon, and I should be working, in fact I have a meeting scheduled with the dean, so I hesitate. Then I see the dean in full football strip, sitting next to the vice-dean and other teachers on the school bus, waiting to go to the football ground and beckoning me to join them. It’s an unwritten rule here – football trumps all – so I get on the bus with the rest of them.
The ride there is actually the highlight of the match for me. Although the ‘stadium’ is less than 5 minutes’ walk from the college, part of pre-match procedure is for the team and as many other teachers and favoured students as can squash in, to travel there by the college (pre-war) bus. I’ve no idea if this is what happens in the UK or other countries, as I’ve never been on a team bus before, but it’s hilarious – a party bus! There’s loads of singing led by a guy standing up in the front, and everyone joins in clapping and dancing. One particular chant involves inserting the name of various people on the bus into each verse. Suddenly I hear my name (well, ‘ferenj’) from the leader, and everyone on the bus pisses themselves. I have no idea what they are saying, but decide to go for it and punch my hand in the air (why?), look pleased with myself and join in the chant, praying to God they’re not singing “The ferenj’s a twat…”
We don’t actually go anywhere for ages, and finally get to the stadium an hour late. But the other team is two hours late, so the college players do an extended warm-up, choreographed and led by their captain, the dean. The match itself is ok, though nowhere near as much fun as the bus ride or warm up, but the college are victorious (with a late goal by English instructor, Shewa) and go on to win the league. Get in!
The other match I see is an in-house derby, with the social science instructors playing the natural science department. This match is brilliant entertainment in every way. Firstly, the crowd (college students) are merciless. If anyone, on either side, mis-kicks or slips up in any way, they roar with laughter, point and scream abuse at them. They save their biggest jeers for Gashe Fantahun – a senior member of the finance department, who has been recruited by Natural Science. At maybe forty-fiveish, he is considered ‘way-old’, and every time he goes near the ball, the students have hysterics. (It’s weird because they are generally very deferential of the instructors, and age is particularly respected…it must be another strange, football-related social convention.) Secondly, the match is taking place on the college sports ground, (basically a large, unfenced area of waste-ground in the middle of the campus) and the pitch is constantly invaded by irreverent donkeys, sheep, goats and cows, which are chased, “tsked” and waved away by the linesmen. So much more amusing than a streaker! The match ends one-all, with both sides claiming ‘they’d been robbed’. Awesome!
2) Make injera. Injera is the Ethiopian staple, present at every meal, which looks like a large grey pancake. It is either served a bit like an edible table-cloth, with the rest of the meal spooned on top of it, or rolled up on the side of the plate, next to the wat or stew. (There is a great urban myth about injera. Some ferenjis go to a restaurant in Ethiopia, and are served rolled-up injera. They think it’s a towel, wipe their hands on it, and wait for the food to arrive.) Anyway, Ethiopians love injera – as my colleague Aboma put it, “we can’t find comfort with other food”. Girls are taught to make it by their mothers and being a good injera-maker is one of the signs (along with being quiet and polite…) of good wife material.
Injera takes three days to make, because, amongst other things, you have to wait for the teff (the main Ethiopian grain) to ferment. When the mix is finally ready, it’s poured from an empty kalabas shell onto a clay hotplate to cook over a big log fire. Mulu, my neighbour, had been promising to show me how to do it for months, and finally I was around at injera-baking time.
Well…I’m not sure I’m going to be over-run with marriage proposals from the local bachelors. We go to Mulu’s outdoor kitchen shack and she demonstrates first – filling the empty kalabas with the mix and pouring it in decreasing circles on the hot plate to make a perfect, circular injera. Then, when it’s cooked, flips it off (with her bare hands!!!) and puts it on the pile of already made perfect injeras. Easy! My turn! As I put my hand holding the kalabas over the fire, the heat is overwhelming…I lose all control of my hand, and instead of a perfect circle, my injera resembles the face in Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’. Embarrassed by my inadequacy as a woman, and worrying about the whole taking it off with my hands thing, I panic and make matters worse by kind of flicking it off before it’s cooked . Mulu calls out to her three boys to come and check out my handiwork, who think it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen, and call to the neighbours to come and have a look too. I don’t think they are that impressed – there’s a lot of shrieking and ay Suzie! (oh Suzie) and ferenji nesh! (you are white!). To save face, I eat some, smile enthusiastically and say yitafital (delicious). I’m lying – it tastes rank…
3) Get a shoe shine. Despite often having very little money for clothes (which are crazily expensive here), the average Ethiopian takes great pride in what he or she wears, particularly in their shoes, which should be smart, shiny and clean at all times. This is not easy in all the dust, mud and poop, but luckily there are shoe-shine boys on every corner, on every street in Ethiopia, who save the day. These tend to be young boys (often not even in their teens), who are supporting themselves and who sit under trees, with their brushes, foot-step and containers of water, ready to clean your shoes for a small fee.
I had one of these guys in my summer ELIC group. His name is Masresha and he is amazing! He is an orphan – he lost his parents to HIV aged 10, and has been supporting himself since then. At that age, he managed to get himself from his own village (over 150km away) to Gilgel Beles because he’d heard that there was work there. He then did odd jobs to earn money to buy his brushes and set himself up as a shoe-shine boy, so that he could put himself through primary and secondary school. (He also became the village information spreader – basically a town-crier. When the local council office want to get word around about something, say TB vaccinations, they send Masresha out on a bike with a loud-hailer to tell all the villagers what’s going on.) He is now 19 and in grade 9, and came to my daily class in the school holidays because he wants to improve his English to get into university. Seriously, he’s an inspiration and one of the nicest and smartest people I’ve met here.
Anyway, I’d never had a shoe shine before, but my trainers were starting to attract comments (my favourite, from a random fellow passenger on a plane- “Wow, I would have missed the flight- I would have been at home cleaning my shoes all morning…”), so it was definitely time to see Masresha under his tree.
Well…it was a bit of an event! I thought it would be a quick wipe over with damp rag, but it turned out to be an hour-long complex process, involving the following steps:
1) Take off customer’s left shoe and remove laces.
2) Place plastic bag over customer’s left foot (to thoughtfully keep sock dry) and put shoe back on foot.
3) Put customer’s left foot on wooden box foot-step thing.
4) Use cloth, brushes, water and mysterious white substance (not soap) to thoroughly clean exterior of trainer.
5) Take shoe off again and remove (forcefully if necessary) inner sole, (even if it was never designed to be removed.)
6) Place outer left trainer in sun to dry.
7) Scrub inner sole down using stiff brush, water and mysterious white stuff. (Scrub it hard, suggesting that the person’s foot is especially smelly and rank.) Place clean inner sole in sun to dry.
8) Take laces and soak them in dirty water. Rub them with mysterious white stuff then rinse in same dirty water.
9) Wring laces hard until they are three times their original length, then hang them on a tree branch in the sun to dry.
10) Repeat steps 1) to 9) with the right shoe.
11) When everything’s dry, reinsert inner soles, put shoes back on customer’s feet, re-lace and tie in an elaborate triple bow (to accommodate new length).
At the end of all that, Masresha only wanted to charge me 5 birr (15p) and had to be pushed to take more! An absolute bargain!
4) Drink avocado juice. Although I’ve been here a year now, I only recently discovered that one of the shay bets (tea houses)also sells fresh juice. True, there’s not an array of flavours – there’s only one: avocado – and it’s only available sometimes, but it’s an exciting find when I thought I’d tried all the cold non-alcoholic drinks (water, Mirinda, Pepsi) the village has to offer. So there it is – avocado juice! Sounds disgusting, tastes surprisingly delicious. Try it!
5) Take a hike. The best time to go for a stroll in Gilgel Beles is early morning (before 8am) or after about 6pm. These are the times when it’s cooler, and you don’t have to have a little sit-down after walking for more than a minute. There are a variety of routes you can take – the road through the Gumuz villages (great at sunset, not great during tribal fighting), round the stadium and market (only possible in dry season), up and down the main street (a bit boring, but always safe and possible), or just a loop around the little side streets past all the villagers’ mud houses. Wherever you go, you will not be anonymous. If you are, like me, ‘the only ferenj in the village’, everybody will know you and most likely greet you. Adult greeters fall into three categories:
1) People you actually know (colleagues, friends, shop-keepers, etc), who you should stop, shake hands / bump shoulders with, then spend a several minutes saying ‘How are you?’ in various different ways (Salam new? Indet neh? Aman new? Dehna neh? Peace new? Hulu Salam new?, etc).
2) People you don’t know who just shout ferenj! or anchee! (you!) at you from across the street.
3) The less bold (usually college students), who wait until you’ve walked past (and therefore have your back to them) to practise their English and whisper “Suzie, are you fine?” or “Where are you go?”.
The children are in a whole category of their own. Even after me being around for a year here, they still go a little bit mental when they see me, calling out Suzie meta! (Suzie’s coming), running after me, the brave ones shaking or kissing my hand. The children of Gilgel Beles address me in a variety of ways:
• “Suzie” (appropriate)
• “Ferenj” (annoying at first, I’m over it now)
• “China” (in the eyes of these kids (and many of their parents) who haven’t had a whole lot of contact with people from the outside world, I am indistinguishable from the Chinese road construction team who are sometimes in the village)
• “Mister” (Slightly worrying – a vocabulary problem or do I look like a man?)
• “Abbat” (meaning “Father”, as in priest…similarly worrying. But I’m sure that it’s just because the only other ferenjis who are in the area are Catholic missionaries…It’s definitely not that I’ve become so slack with my appearance that my gender is now questionable…absolutely not.)
• “Mike” (yeah, yeah – before you say anything, remember the older guy Mike that used to be in the village? Well, his wife told the kids not to say ferenj, but to call him ‘Mike’, so now they think we’re all called Mike! Brilliant!)
So, as you see, I haven’t been bored. And it’s not just me who has been taking advantage of the village pleasures. Buzayehu the cat, (or as my neighbour Mulu calls him ye Suzie lij – Suzie’s child), has been larging it, and has only gone and got Miss Tabby up the duff! Mulu is delighted – “Suzie, you will be grandmother!” I’ve never been so proud in all my life 🙂