We head east towards the war-ravaged, sorry lands of Somalia. We cross brown, barren land unrelieved by any greenery. Marks, like the scratches made by colossal fingernails show where rivers presumably run in the wet season. Mud houses stand in the dug recesses used to build them. Goats nibble at the dust. Women walk by, bent double under their burdens of firewood, or stiffly straight with the branches supported on their heads.
At the UNHCR in Addis, we met Amare G-Egziabher, a man whose job it is to help manage the hundreds of thousands of refugees that arrive here from across the disputed border. Ten years ago there were more than 1 million refugees in the country, with contributions from Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. Now there are a couple of hundred thousand fewer, but Ethiopia has one of the biggest refugee burdens in a the continent with the world’s highest number of refugees. They live in a large camps, like the one at Kebribeyah, in which each household (average number of family members is more than 16) inhabits a small, one-room tent made from patches of cloth and sacks. Each tent seems to small to hold more than 4 people. Many of the camps have been here for more than 15 years – children have been born here, grown up and known no other address. There is nothing except circumstance to distinguish the inhabitants from the Somali clans that live on either side of the border – they speak the same language, follow the same customs and traditions and, in common to their culture, share everything they have.
The biggest problem is water. There shouldn’t be so many people living in this concentrated group so far into the desert. The region sustainably supports a few pastoralist communities, who harvest their water in traditional tankas. Amare is looking at options for piping and pumping water from tens of kilometres away. At the moment, they receive water rations via an expensive UN tanker or through the few groundwater pumps.
Fuel is another problem. Women and girls travel for miles every day to procure fuelwood, wasting precious time when they could be studying or earning money, and risking rape and other attacks during their forays. Cooking for up to 23 family members in these small tents is a dirty, smoky, assault on the respiratory tract, not to mention a considerable fire risk. This last, is something that the rather wonderfully named Gaia Project, seeks to address. (Thanks: Dave Fenton.)
I met up with the project’s enthusiastic director Milkyas Debebe, who is distributing ethanol-fuelled stoves throughout the country’s refugee camps, transforming the daily cooking experience for thousands of families. The stoves are a Swedish design for use on boats, so they’re extremely stable, fire-hazard-proof (even tipping them upside down doesn’t leak ethanol) and simple. The ethanol, a byproduct of the sugar production industry, is tainted so it looks, tastes and smells unlike your favourite tipple, and it burns cleanly and efficiently. Ethiopians can even use the ethanol stoves for their beloved coffee ceremonies, which they perform up to six times a day, each time using around 2 kilograms of charcoal, because the stove has a sensitive regulator that can reduce the heat as efficiently as removing a glowing charcoal.
A factory has now been set up to produce the stoves for commercial sale throughout the country.
The only problem, Debebe says in frustration, is the lack of ethanol. The refugees receive rationed amounts when it’s available, but it’s never enough.
We pass through the wide, ordered boulevards of Dire Dawe, chuckling at placards proclaiming ‘Dire Hotel’, ‘Dire Water’, ‘Dire Beer’ and so on.
Harar stands in the hot dusty scrub, shielding itself from the harsh sun with high stone walls. It’s a beguiling city of secret white-walled alleyways leading up and down and around houses that are each painted a bright colour that dazzles. Goats, donkeys and cripples, children and beggars, tribal women wearing beads and tattoos, even camels press past the narrow lanes. The air is full of cooking and insense, cow and human shit, smoke and fumes and fresh laundry.
Our ears swim in the mullahs’ mournful wails of ‘Allah akbar’ – Harar has the highest concentration of mosques of anywhere in the world – of children shrieking, the airborne calls of black kites and grounded barks of dogs fighting outside the butcher’s, the bells from the church, the rhyming chants of beggars and (more confidently) of market sellers. One of the biggest rainbow houses in this multicoloured town is Rimbaud’s. A beautiful, timberframed home, shot through with panes of every colour and internally decorated with painted flowers and nymphs and hung with some of the poet’s rather brilliant pen and ink sketches. Rimbaud’s story is peculiar. The stereotypically sensitive poet arrived here over land and sea via Aden, after failing to achieve success in his native France, and somehow ended up a gunrunner, slave trader and general dodgy character. He got cancer quite young and returned to France, finding success shortly before he died.
We wander ourselves hot and tired and return to our grotty guesthouse room. Wanting to wash after our travels, we enquire about the water – still none. We nap and are woken by the galloping of a thousand rain-horses on the tin roof. It stops after a few minutes but it’s refreshed the darkening streets.
In the early morning, we are woken by the chuckles of hyenas in the football ground below our room. We head out with torches to investigate and find around a dozen spotted hyenas cowering from the local dogs, although they could crush a dog with one bite of those strong jaws. These hyenas are beautiful, not at all like the rather sinister ones I’ve seen in nature documentaries. They are spotted and fluffy with sweet little faces and curled-down ears. They are shy but approach one of the shopfronts slowly. It is 5.30 am and the butcher is already serving customers. He comes out and offers scraps to the hyenas who delicately take the meat from his outstretched hand. We watch amazed. After each customer, he offers the hyenas more. The jealous dogs grumble and bark, but they are no match for the butcher’s stick.
As the light floods in, the hyenas shrink back like the noctornal creatures they are and disappear into the fringes of gloom. Vultures, huge and magnificently ugly, congregate for more scraps and rubbish. The hyenas come here because just a little further around the city walls, ‘hyena men’ have been hand-feeding them for nearly 1000 years. Some feed the beasts with meat held between their teeth.