The Seeds

Just in case if readers ponder why I titled my last blog “Wearing My Other Hat”, I am a person with many hats of trades. Besides being a medical doctor, I am also a counselor and art therapist. It all dated  back more than 10 years ago when I was working in Hong Kong with many underprivileged patients in a government housing estate. Numerous of them were suffering from mental or emotional problems, but due to financial reasons and insufficient services provided by the government, they had limited access to counseling /psychotherapy. In order to care for my patients in a more holistic fashion, I undertook a Master Degree in Counseling. As time went by, I realized that there were some blind spots with verbal psychotherapy or counseling, especially for children, people with language barriers, speech problems or simply those who do not express themselves well with words. Art therapy seemed to be another helpful treatment modality for me to put into my armarium. Consequently, I went to do a postgraduate diploma course (Master degree equivalent) at the  Toronto Art Therapy Institute in Canada. Therefore, working in the mental health field is wearing my other hat in  addition to my regular obstetric-related job.

In a community where it feels like everyone knows everyone, or knows someone that knows someone, I understand why one would have concerns about seeking professional help for mental or emotional issues, especially from an Ethiopian counselor. There are also myths about mental illness being the curse of  devils. Seeking help is  a sign of weakness. All these deter patients from obtaining help.

It cannot be more obvious that the actual demand for mental health services in Ethiopia is enormous while supply is limited. Similar to the medical health care with shortage of trained doctors and nurses, primary care is usually provided by health workers with some training. Counseling is usually done by community counselors (paraprofessionals) who will try to help with simple problems and more complex issues will be referred to psychosocial counselors.

It is now coming into recognition the importance of mental well being and the Ethiopian universities have started psychology as a new subject. They just had their first batch of new graduates in 2011. There are additional  increase in job postings in the newspaper from NGOs hiring psychologists, counselors and social  workers, especially for projects working with with  women and children from violence, physical and sexual abuse, and HIV.

Likewise with all other “new” professions in developing countries, the challenges these fresh graduates face are: lack of supervision and guidance from experienced seniors. They have to explore their own way.  The students were taught all the theories in the classroom but had not gained the actual working experience through practicums. Often they are overwhelmed and intimidated by the heavy workload and complex case scenarios in the workplace. On top they have the extra pressure of being “seniors” to teach  their juniors in 2-3 years time. Lack of access to textbooks and training materials is another major obstacle for continuing further education to advance in the field.

One other frustration for the psychologists and counselors are misconceptions of their job nature and scope of work by the uneducated public. They were often mistaken as “social workers” who can help solve issues about money, food and housing which are of extreme importance to satisfy the basic human needs. Clients will turn down appointments once they discover they cannot be assisted in those arenas.

In order for any foreign aid assistance program to be sustainable in the long run, it is of utmost importance to educate and train the local staff to deliver the services to their  own people. Besides conducting individual art therapy sessions, I also teach students and educate related staff about mental health and art therapy. (Ironically, art therapy is often interpreted by the locals as ART therapy-the antiretroviral therapy for HIV)

I am very surprised to find 3 young psychologists in Bahir Dar, one is working at Grace Centre for Children and Families, one for Alem Children Support Organization (ACSO), and one sadly (like many Ethiopian university graduates) is still unemployed. I am very happy to share with them my knowledge and skills and give them support and supervision with their work. Hence I started up a weekly 3-hour training program in art therapy and counseling with both didactic and practical components.

Topics that were covered include the theories and principles of counselling and art therapy, developmental stages of children- Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development,; motor cognitive theory; Viktor Lowenfeld’s artistic developmetal stages etc., psychoanalytical theories of Freud, …to very practical, work related subjects such as aggression in children , stealing behavior, practical tips in setting up for an art therapy session.

The experiential practical portion of the training session gave the students hands-on experience using the different art materials, experience of using artwork for expression and exploration, learning the different art therapy techniques and mastering some directives such as those used in projective art therapy assessments.

Here are my 3 psychologist students (left to right): Hiwot Yared, Ateneh Abun, Tadesse Haile (future pioneers  in Psychology field in Ethiopia!)

Here are my 3 psychologist students (left to right): Hiwot Yared, Anteneh Abun, Tadesse Haile (future pioneers in the Psychology field in Ethiopia!)

These three young brilliant people are a delight to teach. They are very enthusiastic and keen to learn. They actively engage in  discussions and ask plenty of astute questions. They make full use of their experiential sessions and are very willing to share their reflections on their artwork. Tuesday evenings usually pass by without being aware of time. The three of them are encouraged to form a peer support  alliance for themselves to share and discuss their work experiences and hopefully will expand their network to other parts of Ethiopia and globally to the rest of the world.

Performing the Ulman's manouvre.

Performing the Ulman’s maneuver.

  Just to close this blog with a fancy note. My students were so proud and happy that they were told to be great- great grand students of Sigmund Freud.  Freud is considered by many to be the Father of Psychology. Dr Martin Fischer, the founder of both Toronto Art Therapy Institute and Vancouver Art Therapy Institute, was a student of Freud. All my teachers and supervisors from TATI were taught and trained by Dr Martin Fischer. Thus my students can rightfully claim to be  Freud’s students of the 4th generation down the line. I hope I had sown some seeds of art therapy and counseling in Ethiopia, Africa. I do have faith these brilliant and passionate young people will make the profession  bloom in their country.

Advertisements

Wearing My Other Hat

After my first visit to Grace Centre, I was so touched by the work of these missionary volunteers to the children and families in need that I really wanted to help out in one way or another.  Thus, besides my regular weekday work with  the Amhara Regional Health Bureau on BEMONC training, I  volunteer weekends at Grace Centre.

The premises are jam packed with kids, most of them are from broken homes, single parent families, if not  being abandoned. For some, parents may be suffering from diseases such as HIV rendering them disabled to work or may even have died. Facing poverty and many difficulties in life, many of these children have emotional and behavioral problems.

Basic medical care is limited in Ethiopia, not to say mental health care. Awareness of holistic care and mental well being is on the rise and Ethiopia’s universities had produced their first batch of psychology graduates in 2011. Grace Centre was very  lucky to have hired one of the fresh graduates to provide counseling services and emotional support to their children. Obviously demand is much greater than supply and the list of children requiring counseling and therapy is long. I decided to put on my other hat and wrote a proposal to start a weekend art therapy and counseling program for the children. In order for the program to be sustainable in the long run, it is important to start training the local staff as well.

Art therapy is definitely a very new entity to Ethiopia. So far as I know, this is the first art therapy program in Bahir Dar even though this is not the first in Ethiopia. From my limited google search, Artists for Charity is operating a children’s home in Addis Ababa.  Deb Paskind and her 2 students from the Adler School of  Professional Psychology in Chicago had established an art therapy program in Awassa in partnership with Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights in summer of 2011.

It is a lovely experience working with the Ethiopian children and a great learning  opportunity for  myself  doing therapy in a completely different cultural setting.

IMG_1874

There are some significant challenges:

Language is  a major issue. With my limited Amharic, I am conducting individual art therapy and counseling sessions with the help of  a translator. Not many local staff can speak English, hence I have to pull them out of their busy routine duties to assist my sessions.

This is Hiwot Yared, Grace Centre's psychologist. She is a great help in assisting me with the translation as well as offering me background information about the children.

This is Hiwot Yared, Grace Centre’s psychologist. She is a great help in assisting me with the translation as well as offering me background information about the children.

Understanding the children and their issues in their cultural context is another challenge. The children are overall shy. It is their cultural way to show respect not to have direct eye contact nor to speak loudly, not to say in front of a ferengi (foreigner). Ethiopian children are strictly disciplined, sometimes even by physical punishment. They are not very open verbally to express their  emotions. (Art therapy just comes in handy as pictures is a universal language for communication and children can express themselves freely through their  artwork)

Under normal circumstances in Ethiopia, art materials and supplies would be an issue. The local stationery stores do carry some color pencils and crayons. The only paper they have available is the A4 white paper for printing. I did attempt to search for paint in Addis Ababa, the capital, but the only paint I could find was for the walls. I discovered myself pretty spoiled  working at Grace Centre. With volunteers bringing in donations from abroad, I was surprised they even had the luxury of different colour markers, chalk,  and even foams for craft making. I did bring along some water colour, paint and brushes myself, so we are well equipped to have fun in art making. The only thing I miss is clay which is an excellent medium to use in art therapy.

Getasew 5 (4)

Power outage is not a problem. We can always go for an outdoor session for more fresh air and sunlight. One day I was caught off guard as we were happily doing finger painting when the water supply suddenly went out. How could I clean up the kid with his face and fingers all covered with paint? OMG, the cleaning staff would be cursing me making all the mess without cleaning up the room after. The next week I was a bit more prepared saving up a small bottle of water and rationed it amongst the kids.

Dawit 7 (3)

Last but not the least is the challenge of my own reactions as a therapist in witnessing the social problems that came along with poverty in the developing world. The most fundamental physiological needs in the Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs are not met. Food and other material supplies are scarce. These children are aggressive hitting their siblings fighting for a banana because they are hungry. They steal a loaf of bread as their family cannot afford. Common themes in their drawings include mostly food, house ( a strong  desire to satisfy their basic physiological needs  for food, shelter and protection) and cars. Food in Freudian psychoanalytical terms can also represent the oral needs for love and nurture.

This is a drawing from a 7 year old boy from a single parent family. The  following are items which he would like to have: a car to take him to see his dad, a book to learn, an apple to taste ( he had learnt about apple from school), an orange to eat and a TV with  remote control. (I think kids in our developed countries should find themselves very lucky having all these things possessed  for granted)

This is a drawing from a 7 year old boy from a single parent family. The following are items which he would like to have: a car to take him to see his dad, a book to learn, an apple to taste ( he had learnt about apple from school), an orange to eat and a TV with remote control. (I think kids in our developed countries should find themselves very lucky having all these things possessed for granted)

This picture speaks it all. This is a drawing by a mentally retarded child. He said this was the hero (mother) with super powers to protect the 2 children.

This picture speaks it all. This is a drawing by a mentally retarded child. He said this was the hero (mother) with super powers to protect the 2 children.

Later he drew the father of the children on a separate piece of paper.He indicated he would like to stick the two pieces of drawings together.

Later he drew the father of the children on a separate piece of paper.
He indicated he would like to stick the two pieces of drawings together.

With the language and cultural barriers, I am not quite sure about therapeutic  benefits of my therapy on these children. However, I am glad that at least I  can provide a safe and nurturing setting for them to express themselves and receive some one-to-one attention amongst a big crowd of kids (They usually have large classes of at least 40 children taught by one teacher) I am so happy to see these children so engaged in doing their artwork and their self confidence and esteem improving over the weeks.  Some of them are even out of their “shyness” running up to give me hugs and high fives when they see me down the street.

Totally Absorbed

Totally Absorbed

A Real Life Miracle

My dear blog readers and followers,

Interestingly enough, I have procrastinated for a while before I pick up the pen to write this blog. To be  very honest, I have never written a Christian testimony before, nor have I even thought about writing one. But truly God has worked miracle  through this woman’s work and definitely her amazing story needs to be shared. I feel so blessed to become a witness of His grace  and also have the opportunity to work with her and become a small part of this miracle.

This woman’s name is Marcie Erickson, the founder of Grace Centre for Children and Families (which include an orphanage, day care centre and medical clinic) in Bahir Dar. Since August 2012, besides my regular weekday volunteer work on BEMONC (Basic  Emergency Obstetric and Newborn Care) at the Amhara Regional Health Bureau, I work with the children at Grace Centre during the weekends.

This is how I came to know about Marcie and the Grace Centre. It all happened one day after work walking home from the hospital. I was following two women, one Caucasian and one local, both in uniform. They had just finished donating blood (which is a precious scarcity in Ethiopia). Upon casual chatting, they told me about their work and even proudly led the way to show me their workplace – Grace Centre.

Marcie is a US missionary in her 30’s. Just out of high school at the age of 18, she headed off to Guatemala to volunteer in a children’s home and then at 19 went to Ethiopia for the first time. She spent 9 months in Ethiopia teaching English and was overwhelmed by the conditions people lived and children dying from starvation. Upon return to US, she studied music therapy at Florida State University and then transferred to Florida A&M University to study photography. She waited for God to send her for another international mission.  Although she did not graduate, she had used her photography all the time as a voice for Africa. At age 24, she volunteered under the Catholic Church in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo. Later she returned to Ethiopia and made Bahir Dar her home. She felt the calling of God for her to adopt children and raise them in Ethiopia.

Marcie Erickson, 26, adopted three Ethiopian children on July 25: Tariku, 3, left, James, 10.5 months, middle, and Amanuel,1, right. Erickson, a 1999 graduate of Barron Collier High School, currently lives in Ethiopia but was visiting family in Naples. She has started a project in Ethiopia to open a center which will include an orphanage, day care center, and clinic, called the Grace Center for Children and Families.

In May 2006, she quickly became the adopted mother of three Ethiopian boys, aged 13 days, 3 months and 2 years and 9 months respectively. At that time, the frail 13-day old baby was hanging on for his dear life. While waiting for the processing of the adoptions, she had to stay in the orphanage with her children. She found it hard to see the way these babies were cared for with  three laying to a crib, bottles propped in their mouths and their cries seemed to go unheard. She then had a vision from God in her head, a wonderful safe loving place for women and children. According to Marcie’s article “Blessed through Service”, she said a prayer, “Lord, if this is coming from you, then you give me the people that will help me run it.”

She then phoned to her closest friends Deanne and Andrew Knife who are Australian missionaries, residing in Addis Ababa at that time. They immediately agreed to move from the capital to Bahir Dar to help Marcie run the project. (Deanne was the Caucasian lady I met at the hospital that day) Together, with God in the forefront,  they formed what is known today as Grace Center for Children and Families. Their goal is to see families remain together and not come to the point where mothers feel like they have no choice but to abandon their children. They began by taking in foster children in the fall of 2006 with five foster children. Two were reunited with their birth mothers and the other three are now living with their adoptive families in Australia.

It didn’t take long before the Grace Center was busy and fully operating with the:

Day Care Center: Offers single women another option other than to abandon their children.

After School Program: Provides tutoring for children.

Feeding Program: Providing nourishment for the malnourished.

Medical Clinic: Offers free medical care to those in desperate need.

Women’s Empowerment- Jobs and Training: Assists women in becoming self-sufficient through childcare, basket weaving, jewelry making and other skills, training and employment.

Children’s Home: A home for abandoned and orphaned children.

Temporary Care: Provides the opportunity for families undergoing severe trials to have  temporary accomodation for their children.

Child Sponsorship: Provides the opportunity for impoverished families with the ability to stay together as a family.

Within the Grace Center alone they serve 850 women and children, hundreds of these women have conceived children through rape. Many of the women are HIV positive and have other diseases. The children are homeless, begging with their mothers on the streets. At Grace Center they strive to allow these families to grow and become self sufficient, having a full life.

Come and have a tour of the Grace Centre with the youtube clip below. You will see the amazing service Marcie and her friends have provided to the women and children in Bahir Dar. Grace Centre is the first to provide such kind of services in Ethiopia. It now has over 140 local staff with 6 compounds on 12 acres of  land donated by the government.  The facilities are well equipped with donated supplies which are often flown in from overseas by missionaries and volunteers. The premises are jam packed with children in need. It is serving at least 800 free meals a day. Volunteers have come to serve  from many different countries.

You can also read more on Grace Centre’s website:  Grace Centre, Bahir Dar

Marcie is now married to a local Ethiopian, Sefinew Birhan, and has 3 biological children of her own (6 in total plus the numerous children in Grace Centre who love hugging her as their own mommy) To raise money for Grace Centre, Marcie is traveling to speak to local organizations and soliciting donations, as well as speaking to youth groups and children to raise awareness. She also is producing music CDs of hymns, and all of the proceeds will go to the mission. In addition, she’s looking into ways to auction or sell her photographs of Africa as an additional means of income. “I know God will provide, ” she said.

Isn’t Marcie’s story a real life miracle? With faith in God, there is no dream too big. This young woman is living her dreams, helping countless  impoverished families and orphaned and underprivileged children in Ethiopia. There is no sign on Grace Centre’s door telling people who they are, but God brings the ones He needs them to help.

Where Has the Lion Gone?

“Bridge of God” (an isthmus between Lakes Abaya and Chamo)
Left: Lake Abaya
Right: Lake Chamo

My southern Omo journey would not be complete without a safari trip to the Nechisar National Park  to see the wild animals. (“Safari” is a Swahili word meaning  journey/hunting expedition in eastern Africa). Nechisar (means white grass in Amharic) National Park  is located  near Arba Minch in the Southern Rift Valley, with the undulating Nechisar plains, hosting  lakes Abaya and Chamo.

Going to the Nechisar Plains was anticipated to be a tough journey. The 20km from the entrance of the park to the plains was merely a dirt road, meandering through thick canopied forests and waterlogged marshland. At times, the dirt road did not even exist. The 4×4 was left to climb rocks and boulders, ascending and descending  mountains, and treading across streams and rivers.

Lake Abaya – a beauty of its own kind
It is the largest “rift valley lake” in Ethiopia. (NB Lake Tana in Bahir Dar where I live is the largest lake in Ethiopia) It’s unique red hue is particularly eye catching, especially when seen side by side with Lake Chamo, which has a clear, tranquil blue surface. The red color is caused by heavy load of iron suspension.

Lake Chamo
Another rift valley lake nestled quietly in the Omo valley. Due to time limitation, I did not take the boat to see hippos,crocodiles and pelicans, which was an activity I dearly missed. Most tourists will prefer to take the scenic boat ride while I had taken the road less traveled.

It was only on the second attempt that we successfully reached our destination. We had to head out very early before dawn. Our first undertaking at the Nechisar National Park was aborted after one and a half hours of bumping up and down the narrow trail. Our road was blocked by another tourist 4×4 vehicle, which was stuck and decided to turn back. It had rained  the night before. My experienced driver also considered the danger of the slippery boulders and sinking mud unsafe to proceed further. For the next few days, I was praying faithfully  for the sun to dry up the road.

My strong passion to see the wild animals could be demonstrated by my insistence to return to the park and determination to conquer the challenges. My safari dream could not be achieved without the support and expertise of Seid, my driver. I felt so thankful to have him as a comrade on this journey.  There had been so many moments that we were all holding our breaths and I was clinging tight onto my seat. I swear I did not wet my pants though!

Crossing the same river, three different responses..

This is a river I will never forget, a place where I had my first encounter with the gigantic biting tsetse flies (or tik tik flies). Tsetse flies are the vectors that carry trypanosomes, which  can cause the  deadly sleeping sickness in humans  and nagana (animal trypanosomiasis) in game animals. They have the characteristic resting posture of holding back their wings (like a person holding  back his arms on the back). The flies were swarming over our car, following us through the jungle.

The different responses of my “exploration team” at this spot vividly showed the different personalities of each individual.

It had been several days we did  not have proper access to tap water. Driver Seid stopped at the river and gave his beloved vehicle a thorough wash and wipe. His act was  important to ensure a clear view of windows and mirrors for safe driving.  The windows of the car were shining so spotlessly clean that  I could even see the veins on the wings of the tsetse flies. This made the flies look more horrifying. In addition, he bottled up more water for future use.

Believe it or not, Abush, the chubby tour guide, stripped naked right in front of our eyes and plunged into the river for a bath. He was taking all his time to enjoy the freshness of the water, only to regret that he was a “conspicuous” target of the hungry tsetse flies. He got bitten on  his big toe!

You can call me a coward, but there is no way anybody could bribe me out of the car. Despite I was steaming hot and  my body covered entirely with sweat, I had all the windows rolled up to stay out of harm’s way. Besides, I couldn’t care less whether my body smelled or not. I simply did not have the courage to bathe open in public.

Smile of triumph arriving at the Nechisar Plains. You can imagine how challenging the road had been. The 20km journey had taken nearly 3 hours.
I was immediately cautioned about ticks in the tall grass by my guide. Ticks can transmit typhus and other diseases.  He also meticulously helped me search for bite marks and any hidden ticks  in my jeans and boots after the expedition.

The Nechisar National Park is home to a large number of animals and birds: antelopes, hartebeest (endemic to Ethiopia), Grant’s gazelles, greater and lesser kudus, dik diks, Burchell’s zebras, black and white Colubus monkeys, olive baboons, bush bucks, bush pigs, warthogs, hippos, crocodiles, crested francolins, doves, white pelicans, white brow sparrows, gray back fiscals,… just to name a few.  I was lucky to come face to face with many of  them almost within arm’s reach. Sometimes I wish my little “point and shoot” camera could respond faster and capture all these wonderful creatures created by God with vibrant colors, interesting shapes and bold patterns. Some of the animals and birds are endemic only to Africa. I realized my knowledge about animals and birds was extremely limited. Often I had to look up their names retrospectively. Flamboyant colored butterflies and dragonflies painted an magnificent scene every time our car splashed over a puddle. Startled from their romance, the insects swarmed and rendezvoused over our car, fluttering their beautiful wings. Numerous species of fish live in the rift valley lakes. I had the chance of tasting the big hefty Nile perch for dinner after the trip.

Crested Francolins

Two warthogs bucking heads, opposing each other obstinately.
They were charging forcefully at each other for quite a long while with no one able to proceed forward.
How many times do we see this in human beings too?

Olive baboon


Same baboon posing for my camera after given a banana.
Picture looks familiar? (Mentioned earlier in  my blogs: tribal people posing for photos after monetary or other material rewards)

Greater Kudu
Both the greater kudu and its close cousin the lesser kudu have stripes and spots on the body, and most have a chevron of white hair between the eyes.

Male Greater Kudu
The greater kudu’s horns are spectacular and can grow as long as 72 inches, making 2 1/2 graceful twists. This male chauvinist was proudly leading our car for at least half a kilometer before rejoining his herd

Burchell’s zebras – 5 in a row

The Burchell’s zebras are not shy of taking close-ups!

Little dik dik

You must wonder, how come I was walking so freely on the Nechisar Plains watching wild animals without the fear of being attacked by the lions? Where has the lion gone?  That was a very good question. Due to overhunting by the tribes living in the national park and poor conservation, many of the large mammals, including the lions, giraffes and elephants, have extincted on the plains . This was evidenced by the victory waka poles on the graves of the tribal heroes documenting how many lions they had killed in their lives. In 1998, a blogger described he could still hear the roar of the lions in the vicinity of his hotel. Today, the tour guide told me there was only one lion left in Nechisar National Park. I suspected this was a “fact” he made up to lessen my disappointment. He said there might still be some of these large mammals in the Omo National Park, which was hardly accessible by car. The only way to get there was either by rafting or by foot. Otherwise, I need to visit them in the safari in Kenya or Tanzania.

Thus, the awards from my African safari trip was definitely not the prize of a  hunted lion (or I should say the fortune of not being devoured by a lion) but the joy of the intimate encounter with Nature, the thrill and excitement of the adventure, and the pride of overcoming challenges all along the way.

Days Without Connection-Part 2- Karat Konso

Karat Konso is definitely a place that needs a separate blog page to mention. It is a small town on the Konso Highlands en route to the Omo Valley with its own unique culture and landscape scenery. It is perched at an elevation of 1,650m and is 90km far from Arba Minch. It was registered as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2011.

The Konso people are well-known for their stone terracing and soil conservation system. They grow sorghum, wheat, barley, maize, peas, beans, bananas, cotton, tobacco, coffee and root plants.

Konso villagers drinking their sorghum wine at least 3 times a day.

Konso market

Konso woman in her traditional white costume with colorful fringes

Gesergiyo lies 17km from Karat-Konso by road up on the mountain. It attracts attention primarily for the adjoining formation of sand pinnacles sculpted by occasional water flow in a normally dry gorge. It is a magnificent and very unusual natural phenomenon. Rock formations of similar character can be found in other parts of the world but the fact that they are made entirely of sand makes them incomparable.

The external resemblance of the pinnacles to a row of ‘skyscrapers’ led some people to rename the area ‘New York’, but sure I myself prefer it’s original name Gesergiyo.

Local myths has Gesergiyo’s supernatural origin. The story goes that a local chief of the 9 clans awoke one day to find his ceremonial drums had been stolen during the night. He prayed to god, who swept away the earth from where the thieves had buried the drums, creating the sand formation in the process.

This landscape by erosion is magnificently revealing the powers of nature.

In addition to  The Konso are the only remaining stone tool-using culture. It is used for grinding grains, sharpening knives and spears, making anvils, lining wells, building walls and constructing dams.

The Konso people strategically live high on the mountains to keep themselves safe from being attacked by other tribes.

The Konso built their villages in a maize of stone walls to protect invasion from neighboring tribes

Gate to the Konso village

The Konso’s village huts

The chief’s hut as indicated by the ostrich egg on the roof top

Each walled village possesses several several public places, mora, of different tupes and functions. They are the site of political negotiations, administration of justice, rites of passage, sacrifices and victory or harvest ceremonies. They are also places for social gatherings and dancing.

In front of the mora are erected the generation poles. These poles are long dry wood of junipers, erected every 18 years when a new generation takes place. By counting the number of generation poles, one knows about the age of the village. The village I visited has 21 poles.

Also in the mora is the matrimony stone. This is a challenge all Konso boys have to take to prove their manhood before marriage by lifting up the stone to show that they have the force and power.

This is the ‘pafta’-a common house constructed for all active age men to live in the mora. The Konso has designed a system that all active men in the responsible age group are not permitted to sleep in their private house but to sleep and be on guard at the common house. This is to facilitate a rapid mobilization of all active men against any possible dangers such as attacks by other tribes, fires, etc. It is also the responsibility of all active men to keep the traditional stone walls.

The pafta has 2 storeys. The active men usually sleep on the top storey. Male guests from other villages may sleep in the pafta as well. A view from the pafta seeing a senior villager who does not welcome much the presence of foreigners and photography in his village.

Traditionally a waka would be erected above the grave of important konso men such as heroes or clan chief. The dead was usually represented in the center of the waka group and flanked by his wives. On the surroundings stood any enemies he had killed or fierce animals he had slained.

Days Without Connection

Embarking my Adventurous African Journey

On October 12, 2012, I flew from Addis Ababa (capital of Ethiopia) to Arba Minch (name means 40 Springs in Amharic) to embark on my adventurous journey in the South Omo Valley. The Omo Valley is a remote area in the south-western part of Ethiopia bordering Kenya. It’s located in the Africa’s Great Rift Valley. About 50 years ago, it was literally untouched by the outside world. It is a fascinating place with its own unique culture and diversity. It has once been known as the “Lost Eden”.

My wild African dream would not have been made possible without my “team” which consists of the following team members:

The adventurous explorer- me and the reliable 4×4.
The area is not easily accessible without a 4×4. Most of the roads are dirt paths climbing up and down steep mountains, rocky paths or marsh areas. The road conditions would even be harsher after rain.

The “Team”
My Muslim driver,Seid Ebrahim, has been driving these rough roads through the mountains and valleys for 30 years. He is so good avoiding the potholes and smoothening all the skids that I did not even need a single motion sickness pill nor my white flower ointment. I would highly recommend him to anybody who wants a driver to visit Omo valley.
The chubby guy is my local guide- his nickname is “Abush” which means little boy in his language.

In some places such as the Mago National Park, it is compulsory to hire an armed security guard carrying a rifle (AK47). His presence made me feel so much like a VIP. He was there not to protect me from being eaten by lions, but to keep me from the hassle of the tribal villagers. It is kind of sad to need such a service as the villagers are usually pretty benign. They swarmed over a foreigner simply because of curiosity or because of their basic needs are not met such as need for money, food and water, clothing, etc.They live in such a remote area that these amenities are not easily accessible except tourists are bringing in these items from outside.

On the first day, we drove by a small town called Weita where the Tsemai people were having their market day.

The journey was often slowed by these road users who always had the right of way- large herds of cattle and sheep

The Tsemai, are the dominant people in the Weita village. They speak an east cushitic language.

The Tsemai are mixed subsistence farmers who practice flood cultivation, with the major crops being sorghum and maize. They also rear livestock, cattle and keep beehives for honey.

Market days are great social gathering opportunities for the Tsemai villagers. The women often use clay mixed with butter to apply on their hair to give a copper color to make themselves look pretty.

These trucks, overloaded with passengers, are their ” local buses” to go to market.

Tsemai people greeting each other

En route to Jinka for the night, we went past another very colorful market.

Termite mount

Colorful market of Jinka

Jinka is the administrative capital of the South Omo zone. This small town has a small airstrip in the centre which used to land airplanes. Many traders from different areas come to Jinka’s market to sell their goods.

The second day  we went to the Mago National Park where the Mursi tribe lived. The steep dirt road between Jinka and Mago National Park was only 40km, but it took two hours to cover. Most of the park lied on the Rift Valley floor and was  covered densely by acacia woodland. Due to inadequate conservative measures, many large mammals were now severely depleted through years of poaching. Not many wildlife could be seen in the park.

White chalk markings on their chests are symbols of the Mursi tribe

Markings on arms to brag their bravery and how many animals they have killed

More Mursi women with disfigured lower lips

The accomodation for my whole trip was very modest. Most of the “4 star” hotel did not have power, water nor internet. Some hotels did have their own generator which might be on intermittently. It was an experience with complete  disconnection with the outside world. I also had the opportunity  to stay in a hotel which was built with mud, grass and cement looking like the following:

The hotel built with mud, grass and cement in Turmi

Hotel restaurant

Chef slaghtering a goat at the back of hotel

Vulture waiting eagerly for its meal

Washing basins

Common pit latrine

Each tribe living in the Omo Valley does have is own characteristic tradition, style, fashion and housing. On the third day, we went to visit the Hamer Tribe in Turmi.

The Hamer woman is adorned with thick plaits of ochre-colored hair hanging down in a heavy fringe, leather skirts decorated with cowries,and many copper bracelets.Married women wear thick copper necklaces- from her necklace, we can tell she is the second wife of her husband.

Hamen men can marry many wifes. This is the necklace worn by the first wife.

Crafts seen at the Hamer market:

Portable little stools used only by the Hamer men

Hamer men skilfully sitting on their little stools having a conversation….
Man with a feather indicates he has had the bull-jumping ceremony, an event that shows his adulthood, his readiness to own cattle,to marry a wife and can perform the ritual beating of women.

…while Hamer women only sit on the floor.

Hut of the Hamer people

The Hamer women are consensually beaten by men of their tribe who had suscuessfully undertaken the bull jumping ceremony. The pain and the scars on their back show their love to their kinsmen .

Women of all these tribes are very strong and they carry heavy loads on their back, walking long distances. This one is carrying grass to feed cattle back home.

I hope  this blog will give you a brief glimpse of the differrent tribes of people living in the Omo Valley. Can you tell the difference between them? Please follow on and more to come in my next blog.

Melkam Enkutatash! (Happy New Year!)

Ethiopian New Year Card (1)

Melkam Enkutatash! (Happy New Year!)

Today it’s New Year Day in Ethiopia. It is the year of 2005. Yes, 2005. Coming to Ethiopia, I have gone down the time machine and gained 8 years ( a lot to be done/re-done if I were really given eight more years in my life!) The Ethiopian calendar is a unique form of the Coptic calendar, derived from the earlier Egyptian calendar. It has 12 months of 30 days and then a small month of 5 days at the end, making a total of 365 days a year.

Enkutatash is the name for the Ethiopian New Year, and means “gift of jewels” in the Amharic language. It is an important time for family gathering or reunion for the Ethiopians. Most people have gone back to their hometown or village for this festival.

The celebration is both religious and secular with the day beginning with church services followed by the family meal. Usually they will kill a sheep or goat for this occasion.  Young children will receive small gifts of money or bread after the girls gather flowers and sing and boys paint pictures of saints. Families visit friends and adults drink Ethiopian beer (Tej/Tella). When asked of their new year’s wish, most Ethiopians will tell me they want to find a good job and earn a good living. Many people (men, women and kids) today wear their traditional costume, the white woven cotton with colored embroidered borders or scarfs/shawls.

I have received two new year’s card too. Let me share with you the good will and  greetings from Ethiopia.

Melkam Enkutatash! (Happy New Year!)

Ethiopian New Year Card (2)