Monday 23 June 2014

The Long Way to the Fistula Hospital

In which we make our way to the Fistula Hospital with a suitcase full of bras:-
Having had many previous experiences with shipping packages to Mother Teresa’s Leprosarium on the outskirts of Calcutta (Kolkata) and mysteriously disappearing to line the pockets of customs officials, I thought I would employ a strategic move and bring my ‘package’ with me for the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa. The ‘package’ consisted of a suitcase full of bras kindly donated by the lovely women of Cairns for the wondeful women attending the Fistula Hospital. Bras you might ask? Isn’t that the wrong end of the body? Well, after the women afflicted with a fistula have been successfully operated on and recovered they are usually able to return to their villages and take up normal lives and relationships. The Fistula Hospital encourages these women to return to the hospital if and when they are ready to give birth to their first child in order to be safely delivered and avoid any risk of a second fistula through obstructed labour. These women will sometimes have breast/nipple issues that require dressings and hence the need for bras to keep them in place easily.
Anyways, Occy and I had arrived in Addis on a cold afternoon and managed to nearly get ourselves evicted before even stepping foot outside the airport. At the security screening we put our suitcases and bags thru the x-ray machine and the heavily armed security officer started gesticulating wildly to Occy and demanding to see inside his camera bag. Occy unzipped the bag and the officer said, ‘What is this? What is this?’ pointing to his super doper telescopic lens – you know, the sort men get when they reach a mid-life crisis but are in denial about it, yet you can tell because they start buying stuff that symbolises the enormity of their penises.
‘Well that’s just my camera gear, you know for photographs,’ says Occy to the officer. The officer points an accusing finger at him and states, doesn’t suggest or ask mind you, but states as if it’s an obvious known fact, ‘You are a photojournalist, this is not allowed to come in, I must take this!’ Uh oh! This could end badly, I was thinking to myself – I’ve seen Occy in challenging confrontations with pseudo-authority figures before and he doesn’t take too well to it. To my utter astonishment in a rare turn of events Occy actually decided to try being diplomatic instead of incensed. ‘No, no, no,’ he said to the officer, ‘I’m not a photojournalist, I’m a doctor, this is just for taking holiday photos!’
‘Doctor?’ the officer asks, ‘Which hospital are you working at, where is your work visa?’
Oh dear! ‘No, no, no,’ replies Occy, ‘I am not working here, I work in Australia, I am just here for a holiday.’ ‘Huh!’ the officer grunted then rounded on me. ‘This is your suitcase?’ he asked me, pointing to a large red suitcase.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘There are many things in here shaped like this,’ he said, drawing a U-shaped curve in the air with his finger. ‘What are they?’
‘Oh, they’re bras for the Fistula Hospital,’ I replied.
‘Bras? What is ‘bras’,’ he asked in a voice that implied that it was clear to him that we were both up to no good and I was probably carrying a shipment of secret weapons. I cupped my breasts with my hands and jiggled them up and down at which I’m sad to report that he got completely the wrong idea and eyes nearly popping out of his head, screamed, ‘What! What is this you do?’
I quickly flicked the bra strap out from under my shirt and showed him that instead, repeating, ‘Bra!’
Recognition finally dawned on him and he looked at both of us disgustedly and waved his hands, shooing us away with a ‘Go, just go!’ We scampered out of there as fast as we could, astonished that we had managed to retain both the camera equipment and the offending suitcase full of bras.
On the appointed day that we were to visit the Fistula Hospital we lugged the suitcase full of bras into our 4WD and directed the driver to proceed to the Fistula Hospital.
‘First I must show you something,’ he cried, ‘then we will go to the Fistula Hospital!’ The something turned out to be Emperor Haile Selassie’s cathedral and tomb which Lion-boy was keen to see. Having travelled thru many Muslim countries, we had heard what we took to be the usual call to prayer by the muezzin, but it in fact turned out to be the call to prayer for the Christian church, the method of worship blurring the lines between the two distinct religions.  Magnificent stained glass windows depict scenes from the Old and New Testament. - an Adam and Eve stand under an apple tree accompanied by an ostrich and a lion – how quintessentially African!

Adam & Eve with a lion and ostrichWomen in white muslin dresses and shawls floated in through the ‘women’s’ door like so many ethereal beings in search of a pew from which to worship.

A black garbed Coptic priest presented himself to us, offering for us to take his photo then promptly presented his hand for payment. Outside in the sunshine men kneel and pray, then rise and kiss the wall of the cathedral before prostrating themselves again. A mention of the Rastafarians triggers my memory – there was a connection with Emperor Haile Selassie but I couldn’t quite remember what it was. Later Indil-cat recounted that the Rastafari movement had started in Jamaica in the 1930’s revering Haile Selassie as the returned messiah largely due to the fact that he was crowned Emperor shortly after Marcus Garvey’s prophecy ‘Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the redeemer.’  The Rastafarians believed that God himself was black as stated in Jeremiah 8:21 ‘For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; as astonishment hath taken hold of me.’
Emperor Haile Selassie
 Haile Selassie’s lineage can be traced back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. When he was crowned, the King of England, considered by many to be the most powerful and important man in the world, could not attend but sent instead the Duke of Gloucester who, upon meeting the emperor bowed to him revealing that the new emperor was more important than the most important man in the world!We finally left the historic cathedral and thought we would now proceed to the hospital. Well, that’s what thought did! Our driver had other ideas and insisted he take us to the National Museum where an anthropologist took it upon himself to show us through to the archaeological digs section and where the original ‘Lucy’ bones discovered by Leakey are housed. A collection of skulls dating back some 5 million years revealed excessively flat molars, the reason? Even back then they chewed chat or khat! I’d recently watched the film Captain Phillips so I knew that khat was a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa that was chewed by the Somali pirates. Khat causes excitement, loss of appetite (god, I should have been chewing it!) and euphoria and gives the pirates false courage for a raid. We did later manage to get hold of some for curiosity’s sake as we descended into the Omo Valley and it was being sold by the roadside but can’t really say we noticed much of anything, probably due to the fact that it tends to work on a slightly cumulative basis. By the time we were finished with our anthropology lessons at the National Museum we were starting to wonder whether we’d ever get to Fistula Hospital and we were in fact getting quite desperate and paranoid even. Did the driver have something against the Fistula Hospital? Did he know something we didn’t? Was he deliberately trying to keep us away from the hospital? In the end it turned out that he just didn’t know where the Fistula Hospital was and was embarrassed to say! We wound our way up and down cobbled streets, in and out of the merkato thru goats and donkeys and people and back around the way we’d come until eventually we arrived at the gates of the Fistula Hospital. We almost cried with relief we were so happy to see it. Big signs and the presence of security officers at the gate warned that the taking of photos was strictly prohibited so there would only be verbal documentation of our visit. It also stated visiting hours were strictly Tuesdays and Saturday 1-2pm only with no exceptions! It was a Friday. Undeterred Occy put on his best ‘doctor persona’ (you know, the one where they exhibit signs of a God-complex and act all omniscient & omnipotent and basically bluff their way into getting whatever they want) He wound down his window and said imperiously to the security as if he would brook no argument, ‘I’m Doctor Russell d’Scarlett, this is my family, we have come all the way from Australia and we are carrying supplies for the hospital’ – thankfully failing to mention the ‘supplies’ were a suitcase full of bras! Nek Minnit we were issued security lanyards and ushered through to see matron. We had missed Catherine Hamlin by a few days; she had had to go to England on family matters so we had an appointment with the 2CEO. The grounds were beautiful, most of the gardens having been planted by Catherine Hamlin herself over the years, they were lush and green and cool.
We passed a group of women waiting outside a clinic and even though we had spoken to the children about fistulas and what the consequences of a fistula was (leaking urine and or faces uncontrollably) Lion-boy suddenly gasped at the strong odour and exclaimed, ‘What’s that smell?!’ Horrified, both Occy and I squeaked out, ‘Shhh! It’s the smell of urine because the poor girls have no control over their urine leaking – they are probably waiting to be assessed for operations to fix that.’
We eventually found our way into matron’s office and spent the rest of the afternoon at the hospital with her discussing the success, evolution and current needs of the hospital. It now had a staff of 500 that included 5 outreach hospitals each with 5 satellite clinics lying close to the Ethiopian borders. Each clinic had a trained fistula midwife excepting 8 of the clinics that were still waiting for specialised midwives to be trained. Because of the difficulties caused by having 83 different languages spoken within Ethiopia, midwives were chosen from the region in which they would be deployed to in the future. The hospital trains many doctors from all around the world in the fistula repair techniques developed by the Hamlin’s and the matron offered for Occy to return in some years and be trained so he could do voluntary work in the outlying hospitals where they were short-staffed. We agreed this would be a splendid idea.
Matron took us on a tour of the surgical ward where 4 surgeries can be performed simultaneously in an open operating theatre. The recovery ward was full of women recovering from their surgeries. The hospital had relied heavily on funding from AusAid but with the new Abbott government,  AusAid had been disbanded and funding to the hospital downsized. I would really urge you to help the women of the Fistula Hospital by heading directly to the hospitals official donation page where you can also purchase gifts, many of them made by the women themselves, the proceeds going to fund the hospitals surgical, rehabilitation, midwifery and maternity programmes.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Into the Wild Omo Valley

Sunrise over Lake Chomo
We rose early in our tukuls (huts) so we could observe the sun rising over the Rift Valley. Golden fingers of light broached the mountain top across the valley floor in front of us as we sipped on steaming cups of Ethiopian coffee, gradually bringing the dark green floor of the valley to life. Baboons screeched nearby and a few eagles soared, catching thermals in ever decreasing circles as they descended over the valley.  The girls and I had to pee so we walked into a natural circle formed by some trees. As we squatted there I suddenly had the feeling someone was watching us. ‘Look up in the trees – baboons!’ 
Monkeybuns said. These baboons had the most astonishing blue balls and peered at us maliciously. We scampered out of there as soon as we were finished our business to find a few military police in their blue camo grinning at us. They were there to patrol the shore perimeter and clearly took their job quite seriously, sitting in the shade of an Acacia tree with their AK-47’s resting across their laps, smoking.

We bolted down some hot omelette and drove down to the shore of Lake Chomo.
A rickety tin boat with an outboard took us onto the lake to spot its famous array of birdlife, crocodiles and hippos. Enormous herons, pelicans and fish eagles were everywhere. The pelicans worked in teams forming a circle in which they could herd the fish. India was particularly delighted at the ‘pink’ hippos. Local fisherman calmly stood waist deep water fishing, paying no mind to the potential dangers of the enormous crocs and wandering hippos.

We drove on to the town of Konso where the women’s skirts took on an unusual peplum design. We stopped to take lunch of wat and injera at a lookout over another section of the Rift Valley. There were a few Italian travellers here and everyone, even the twins partook of the strong black Ethiopian coffee.
Occy & India eating injera & wat
 After lunch we drove on til we hit dirt – 83kms of hell to get to Turmi, the Hamer tribe town sitting close to the border with the Sudan.  The closer we got the redder the earth, the more naked the people, carrying machetes, Kalashnikovs, spears and always their headrests that doubled as stools. Their distinctive red coloured hair was braided and dressed with a combination of animal fat and red mud.
A Hamer man holding a headrest

Hamer woman along road with yellow water container
We eventually turned into our lodge not long before sunset. It was literally in the MFN as my dad would say – the ‘middle of fuckin’ nowhere’! Small rooms built by the tribe to accommodate curious travellers such as ourselves. We left our gear and walked a kilometre up a track toward a kopi (small collection of boulders forming a hillock) where the ‘restaurant’ was. We found our dinner companions were half a dozen shirtless Russian men, having already noted the presence of a ‘bar’ with a selection of about 5 different Russian vodkas and various Ethiopian beers. This Hamer tribe was quite enterprising then!
Room sign

Lion boys photo of India taking a photo of Monkeybuns on the walk up to the restaurant hidden by the kopi

Thursday 15 May 2014

A Dangerous Expedition to Arba Minch

Lion-boy & Princess Snapperhead at Paradise Lodge looking over the valley with Lake Chamo in the background

Ethiopian drivers have to pass ‘levels’. A driver classed to drive foreigners around in a 4WD must be a ‘level 3’. From my penetrating observations after many hours traversing Ethiopia I have come to the following conclusions:
A ‘level 1’ driver knows how to start a car, drive the car and possibly when the thought occurs to him remember that there might be road rules, such as the suggestion of driving on the right hand side of the road. He may also, at any old time that he feels like it, drive on the left hand side of the road. Intersection right of ways are determined by whoever has the greater will power.
Traffic on the road to Arba Minch
A ‘level 2’ driver knows that the road actually belongs to the goats, donkey and people and he is skilled in negotiating James Bond type manoeuvres around them. He acknowledges that the roads were actually built not for ease of travel of vehicles but aforementioned goats, donkeys and people. Further proof of this is provided by the fact that, and I kid you not, the road is also routinely used by the intended road users for afternoon naps – smack bang in the middle of the road.
Outside of the towns the road becomes rough
A ‘level 3’ driver knows all this and is still allowed to drive foreigners through the deepest, darkest roads of the interior! These elite drivers are also certified cattle whisperers and are born with an additional feature - they possess an echolocation mutation that allows them detect and avoid potholes in the dark! In addition, the level 3 driver must above all possess the ability to multi-task – that is to say that he must be able to simultaneously steer the car on a pothole avoidance course whilst waving at rock throwing locals in an attempt to engage them in the same activity – in Ethiopia the custom prevails that if someone waves at you, you MUST wave back – hence causing them to desist in their previously gleeful and potentially life threatening rock throwing.
Having driven through a lot of Asia I would have to say that thing that really sets the Ethiopian driver apart from any comparison to his Asian counterparts is his complete and utter calm, courtesy and lack of any aggressive honking. These guys are not horn blowers!
Tukul with Entoto mountains in the background
As we wound our way arduously over the Entoto Mountains out of Addis Ababa into a gruelling 9 hour drive to Arba Minch, the landscape gave way to swathes of golden fields and green forested hillsides. Round tukuls (huts) appeared and the number of people carrying machetes increased to include even 6 & 7 year olds the closer we got to Arba Minch. ‘They carry the machetes to harvest in the fields and to protect themselves from snakes,’ our guide told us.
We drove along a dusty potholed side road on the top of an escarpment at twilight until we came to a uniformed guard standing duty with an AK-47 under a rusty sign swinging in the breeze. I eyed the sign sceptically - ‘Paradise Lodge’ it announced. The guard swept the bottom of our vehicles with a bomb detector and waved us on. A small group of tukuls clustered at the very precipice of the drop into the Greater Rift Valley with sweeping views over Lake Chamo to the right and Lake Abaya to the left. Paradise after all!
Entrance to Paradise Lodge Arba Minch

Security at the entrance to Paradise Lodge

Princess Snapperhead at our Tukul
Inside the kids tukul
Occy at the back of the tukul   

Sunday 4 May 2014

Time Travelling to the Karo Tribe

Typical Conical Shaped Karo Huts

In Ethiopia they use a calendar based on the Coptic Egyptian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar that we in the west use. This calendar moves slightly slower than the Gregorian and allows for 13 months in the year – the 13th month having only 5 or 6 days in it, but nonetheless allowing the Ethiopian tourism industry to advertise ’Come to Ethiopia where we have 13 months of sunshine’.  I call this calendar the antiageing calendar because it is also seven years slower. This technically makes me 43 not 50, therefore NOT middle-aged and Not eligible for any, oh so considerate, ‘seniors’ benefits! They exploit this well with the slogan – ‘Seven years younger in Ethiopia!’  Technically this means you can leave your home town on the 3rd of December 2013 and arrive in Addis Ababa on the 4th of December 2006, having effectively travelled back in time! 

If this hasn’t amazed you enough you can be further astounded by the fact that in Ethiopia they tell time differently! We have Orop time (Europe time) and Ethiopia has Habbishat time. It’s quite logical really - the clock, which is a 12 hour clock, starts at sunrise (this varies little in timing during the year and is usually at 6am, sunset being at 6pm). Therefore, logically, the first hour of the ‘day’ – our 6am- is 12 o’clock, 7am is 1 o’clock and so on until it gets to 6pm when its 12 o’clock again. Why do we start our day at midnight anyway? Next time you want to ‘miss’ an appointment with a less than desirable friend at say 1pm, just send them a text at 7pm and say, ‘I’m here, its 1pm Habbishat time, where r u?’ 
Anyways, having confirmed with our guide that we would be leaving at 7 the next day and was that 7 in the morning or 1 or really 1 in the afternoon which was 7? – we set out to find the Karo tribe. We had already been travelling for 3 days and this day was another road from hell. 65km’s across three river beds later, we finally arrived at the Karo village, perched on an escarpment overlooking the serpentine Omo river. This river irrigates crops of maize and sorghum planted close to its banks.
  Grass conical shaped huts lay sprinkled across the dry, red earth. A group of five or six men stood under a singular acacia tree awaiting our arrival with Kalashnikovs slung casually over their shoulders. We pulled our two 4WDs up in a cloud of dust and got out to greet them. The men have a unique way of greeting whereby they shake hands whilst simultaneously bumping opposite shoulders together. Indil-cat declared she felt faint as soon as she got out of the vehicle, so we left her under the shade of the acacia tree and went off to explore the village, meeting the individual members of the tribe. It was incredibly hot and it wasn’t too long before one of the men came up to tell us the Cat had fainted. We rushed back to the acacia tree to find her laid out flat with a woman cooling her down by splashing water over her face. After she’d downed a litre of water she felt better and got up to shoot Polaroids of the children. She gave them their photos and watched their amazed little faces as they looked upon their image captured on a piece of paper.
Indil-cat showing Karo children their polaroid photo

Every Karo family owns two houses: the Ono, the principal living room of the family, and the Gappa, the centre of several household activities. The Karo are renowned for their elaborate hairstyles of red ochre and animal fat, similar to the Hamer tribe who they share lineage with and intermarry, put together in elaborate styles. Body paint is drawn with ochre, white chalk, yellow mineral rock, charcoal, and red iron ore. The men make a part from one ear to the other, pulling the front section into braids, framing the forehead. The rest of the hair is drawn back into a bun and held firmly by a colourful cap of glazed earth that can take three days to construct. This can be painted in various colours or into which pieces of bark and  ostrich feathers are attached. A man wearing a grey and red-ochre clay hair bun with an Ostrich feather indicates that he has bravely killed an enemy from another tribe or a dangerous animal, such as a lion or a leopard. It is usually remade every three to six months, and can be worn for a period of up to one year after the kill.

They wear goatskin loincloths decorated with elaborate beads and sometimes tiny shells they have traded for and the women are considered particularly beautiful the deeper their chest scarification's are. Some of the men had painted their bodies white which made them look fierce. The Karo men cover their body and face with ashes mixed with fat as a symbol of virility. Scars across their chests are a symbol of having performed a major kill, either of an enemy from another tribe or of a large animal. They offered Occy 100 goats and 1 Kalashnikov (this is more valuable than the 100 goats and is also worth one leopard skin) for Monkeybuns which he politely declined saying she was already promised to another who had offered 200 camels and 2 Kalashnikovs! They sagely nodded their heads in acquiescence of this greater offer. A man in the tribe can have as many wives as he wants, but must be able to afford them.  Most men will only marry two or three. The end of the Mengistu reign in the 1990s and ongoing conflict in Sudan and Somalia means there has been an influx of left over AK-47′s, Kalashnikovs and G-3 rifles. Look at this photo of us (minus the Cat who was still under the acacia tree feeling dodgy) with some of the Karo men - don't we look like white worms that haven't ever seen the sun!