Abyssinian Chronicles Revisited: Information Architecture & Ethiopian Homebrew

Koraro Kids

Our days in Africa are numbered. After a year here, we are moving back to New York City towards the beginning of June, so it only seemed fitting that most of this last month here would be spent in Ethiopia, one of my favorite countries in eastern Africa, & Mali, the country I've been most wanting to go to, in west Africa. When I went to find a ticket to Mali, it was cheaper to go through Ethiopia & Jess was going to be here for work, so, well, here I am, in northern Ethiopia watching the sun set on the rocky outcrops of Gheralta, listening to the otherworldly sound of a donkey baying. There's also this baby lamb bleating from the nearby bushes. It was born this morning, it's crusty umbilical cord still dangling, & sadly I don't think it's figured out how to suckle yet. It's a rather pathetic thing & it's mother is not such a great mother. Then again, much as I love goats, I'm impartial to sheep. She keeps running off to be with the other sheep & abandoning her newborn lamb. I hope it makes it through the night.

baby lamb

It's no wonder Bob Marley had a thing for Ethiopia. Ethiopia rocks. Not that Ethiopia cares what you think of it. That's the coolest thing about Ethiopia. They are haughty & proud & they can get away with it. Kind of like how Bono can get away with being such an arrogant rockstar—he's earned that right. They think they are the heart of Africa, & thus of all mankind, & they probably are if you think about it. They are on their own calendar, literally & only recently celebrated the millennium. They are in their own time zone (the sun rises and sets at 12, like in Tanzania). They are also the only African country that was never really colonized. So they don't have that henpecked yes-master air to them. They acknowledge that you are a foreigner but don't treat you any differently because of it (though other Africans would likely disagree). Ethiopia is a beautiful counry full of beautiful people.

We flew Ethiopia airlines from Nairobi to Addis Ababa. Didn't really have much time in Addis, just went to our hotel, the Queen of Sheba, had a late snack & a drink, went to sleep, then got up at 4:30 the next morning to catch a plane farther north to Mekelle. This was all essentially a repeat of our trip here a year & a half ago (in November 2007), but now it was a different season (& a new millennium). Here's the dispatch from before.

self-portrait in a kiosk in Koraro

koraro self-potrait

I read Bob Dylan's Chronicles on the plane. Probably one of the better autobiographies I've read, though he goes into greater detail about the times of his life that are less interesting. I imagine things were happening so fast when he was in his prime (throwing bums a dime) that he didn't have time to form memories around it, or make sense of it, or to write about it in a coherent way, besides the songs themselves that came out of it. It's only natural—you can't have your cake & eat it too. It's a bit demystifying to read how Dylan never had any intention of being the spokesperson for a generation & how he downplays the depth of his lyrics, but at the same time it's humanizing. It was interesting to listen to his music at the same time, while reading it, though most of the stories he tells around the circumstances of how the songs were written were about his more recent stuff that I'm not as familiar with. The writing is good & it's interesting how's it all put together in a non-linear way. Having just read Tarantula, I guess you could say I'm on somewhat of a Dylan kick & I suppose I am in—it doesn't get any more lyrical than Dylan. Not that any of this has anything to do with Ethiopia... that would be the other Bob.

From Mekelle, we got a ride the 2 hours or so to Hawzien & checked into the Gheralta lodge. Last time we were here, I was a bum & while Jess was working & going on a site visit, I went trekking to the rock churches in the area, so I missed out on seeing the Millennium Village of Koraro. This time I went to Koraro with Jess & Leadbelly, who was also with us. It's about 45 minutes on a bumpy road going along these beautiful cliffs.

camel on the road to Koraro

Camel against Gheralta


school cook in Koraro showing us cowpeas and germinated chickpeas

cook in Koraro


girl at the watering hole

Koraro girl


girl watering a mango tree (surrounded by thorn bushes to keep goats out)

watering mangos


kids wanting me to take their picture

Koraro children with outcrops


more kids and rocks


woman holding down her dog so we could pass

woman with dog

Ethiopians are the only culture in Africa with their own script, Amharic, which you can see in some of the photos, almost hieroglyphic, Egyptian-looking, which is no surprise, because they essentially are. They are also a very visual people, natural born information architects. The outsides of the schools were muraled in maps & diagram and all sorts of demonstrative diagrams and murals hung from the rafters inside.

student showing me drawing from her notebook

koraro student artist


Koraro mural


information architecture

When we got back from Koraro, I went for a run. I felt like Forest Gump. All the kids would take off running after me & most of them could keep up with me and more, which was embarrassing and made me run faster. These one girls that were lugging jugs of water in the opposite direction, turned around & ran with me for a while carrying their waterjugs on top of it! I don't know what was more tiring, the running, or all the waving and grinning to every passerby yelling, "Farenji! Why are you running?! Where are you going?" The hills are definitely killer here, and the air dry and dusty.

Had dinner at the Gheralta lodge, which is run by an Italian born in Ethiopia. He's got gardens on the premises and like all good Italians is a slow food member, so the meals are all really good and fresh. There's some lingering Italians left here from the years they tried to colonize it, and the influence still shows, from the Ethiopian-made Ouzo to the espresso machines in the little shops.

The next morning we went to the Wednesday market in Hawzien. Last year seemed more bustling & I took a lot more pictures. This time we just enjoyed it more. It was also very hot and bright, so most of my photos were washed out. But here's a few ...

woman selling her chicken

Chicken woman


Hawzien market girl


Hawzien market

After the market we stopped in at one of the local beer (tella) houses. Talk about homebrew—the "beer" was brewed right in the living room of some woman's house, from fermented bread made of teff, sorghum & millet & maize or whatever else she had on hand, spiced with gesho, a leafy herb that is their hops equivalent. We were seated on flour sacks along the walls of this room & served tella in these black clay goblets. The first sip was a bit acidic, almost rancid or acrid & it was warm, still bubbling with fermentation. But once you got used to it, it went down like a nice hefe weizen with lemon in it. There were these intense looking elder men sitting across from us that we got to talking to (translated by Jess's colleagues). Of course, they gave Jess & I shit for not having kids. Even if you can't understand what they are saying, Tigray is a really cool sounding language.


drinking tella with Dr. X and an elder

man in tala house

I came back to the room where I am writing this from. These black birds with orange breasts (white-winged cliff chats, I think) boldly came into our room while I was in there, picking bugs from the cracks between the bricks. We had some excellent Ethiopian food for dinner, washed down with some Ethiopian honey wine (Tej) which I thought was quite good and have had quite a few more glasses since. Life is good. And now it's the next morning, I went for a run and the lamb made it through the night and is chasing its mother around.

in the Tala house





(c) 2009 Derek White