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January 24, 2008

Goats, Chat, and Camel Drivers

Wow. It’s January. That’s a little crazy. [Hot in the Ethiopian desert, remember.]

Yesterday* was eventful. The goat was butchered, the chat truck came, the camel drivers went on strike. And we got a lesson in the Afari language. [Gotta love a journal entry that starts that way.]

[*written Jan 25]

Tim and I went in the morning (but not early) out to DA35, here in Digdiga, and installed a campaign marker for the upcoming gravity survey a few meters from the continuous (permanent) GPS site. While we were drilling, a man approached yelling from the back side of the hill. Our police guard from Semera, the smaller Mohammed (because of course there are *two* police guards with us named Mohammed—this brings us to Mohammed #4, I think), who had been out of view, stood up and calmed him. This is why we have guards. Speaking Afari and carrying an AK-47 works wonders. The angry man calmed down and moved on and we got the campaign GPS going and I took a look at the continuous GPS site—no satellites. Hmmm. Antenna cable just barely hanging on to the antenna, maybe by one thread. Bummer. But at least an easy fix. I screwed the antenna on tight and the receiver was back to collecting data.

[The beginning of our campaign GPS work: Glue a metal marker into a hole drilled in the rock, set up the instrument over it and measure, come back and do it next year or whenever and see how the position has changed. Or, in this case, measure for just a little bit to get the height to within a centimeter to use as a correction for the coming gravity measurements.]

When we came back to camp, we parked and headed off with Belay to Ishmael’s to see if he had any soda in. There was quite a crowd gathered outside—around a truck. People and a few long stalks of sugar cane and big bushes of chat in the bed of the truck, and the crowd of people receiving the big bushels of chat gathered round.

[What's all the fuss about? Photo: Tim.]

[It's...... the chat truck! Note the guy just to the left of the truck with the huge bushel of chat and the AK-47. Chat is a mild narcotic which works on you as you chew the leaves. You do swallow the leaves, which makes it seem to me that the act should be described as *eating* chat rather than *chewing* chat, but you chew the leaves up pretty good before swallowing to release whatever it is they've got inside. Folks will hang out chewing chat all through the hot hours of the afternoon, sitting around on mattresses on the ground in cafes or behind store counters (in places where there are cafes and small stores) or otherwise dark rooms. I came into the back room of Ishmael's once towards the end of the project when a group of our gang was back relaxing with some chat and I said Woah, it's dark in here, to which one of them said, 'It's only dark in here because you just came from the light.' Which was kind of funny, because I had just come from Ishmael's front room, which is already dim. 'No,' I said, 'I think it's dark in here because there are no windows.' I mean.....well, *I* thought it was funny. Photo: Tim.]

Men wandered around like beauty pageant winners with bouquets against their shoulders. A man followed us into Ismael’s trying to sell. Abdu was already there, and showed us back into a dark room where we sat on a mat across from three women. A little boy used my knee as support to stand up and I said salam, and he looked at me and at Tim and at me and then turned crying to run for the door but tripped and Ishmael happened in just in time to scoop him up and cover his cheek in kisses.

See these three beautiful women? Abdu said, gesturing to the women across from us. That one is coming back to Semera with me. She has already agreed. She will be my wife. (He is, of course, joking.) (We hope.) Later, Abdu shamelessly pointed at the woman on her right: For Tim, this one, he said. I don’t know that my English wife would like that very much, said Tim. He took some photos of the women in the lovely low light, and of a small boy crouched against the dust-colored door.

[Photo: Tim.]

After our sodas (Cokes for them, Mirinda for me—a frighteningly but deliciously orange drink), we got up but paused in the front doorway. It’s quite a beautiful scene, isn’t it, said Tim. In the kitchen, a woman nursed a baby. Another was cooking. The only girl from our the English class was hanging shyly in the doorway from the kitchen to a back room, and the main room was filled with men and boys. “The whole community in four rooms,” I said. As we turned to leave, Belay and I caught sight of a boy—the one who a few days earlier had been running barefoot through town at high speed with his “car” (a stick with a wheel fixed onto the end)—running around to pick up errant leaved branches of chat. As we walked out, a goat munched on the scattered leaves the boy had left behind.

After lunch, Tim got an anxious call from John on the petrology camel trek: The camel drivers had gone on strike. They’d unloaded the camels and threatened to throw away the rocks. It was, of course, over money. We’d planned to pay 100 birr/day for camel and driver both, and they wanted 200 birr/day—100 for camel, 100 for driver. That is, they said, what the last group paid—the last group being the BBC. So I’ll take a moment here to (start to) talk about money in Afar. Here’s the problem: Everyone wants money. That’s a given, right? The Afari are not business men, do not make much money, and not consistently. And, the men have all the time in the world, since the women are tending to the huts and the children and the food, so why not got on strike? Why not sit around for two hours or more, discussing? Because really, what else is going on? There are no cell phones here, no internet, no daily planners—no running water or electricity, for that matter. So. We have our agenda, and they have theirs—ours has a time limit, and they could care less. And, of course, we need them.

If you pay a guard 100 birr/day one trip, you can’t come back the next trip and expect them to accent 70 birr/day. If a ferangi (white foreigner—obviously very, very rich) comes along and pays what they can afford for a guard and then the Ethiopian nationals like Elias and Gezehegh come along later and want to pay what *they* can afford based on their funding, the Afari won’t have it. So groups like the BBC, who pay way more than groups funded by the Ethiopian government can pay, and our group with its funding mostly from the UK and US, make it difficult for Ethiopian geologists to get anything done on their own in this region. It’s easy for foreigners to cause inflation like this in regions like this—I even heard a waiter in Christchurch, New Zealand, complaining about his fellow Kiwis not tipping, even though it's not part of their culture.

And another thing, back to the camel drivers—it’s not unusual to see one man driving a string of six or more camels, but yet when we come along they *obviously* need one driver per camel. Camels are very high maintenance, you know….when there are foreigners involved.

Anyway. BBC had paid 200 birr/day, apparently. Tim put Abdu on the phone with Gezehegn and then Abdu talked with the elders on the trek, emphatically and unhappily: I told them *you* are responsible for the success of this project, he said to me afterwards. You are the ones making this problem. He’d stood talking and gesturing against the barbed wire fence of the school complex for some time.

Right, and sometime in there the goat’d been slaughtered, over on the other side of the shower, just outside the fence. I saw Sahid (local camp help) and another man, Sahid with a knife glinting in his hand, but opted out of going over to take a look. I’ve heard that the slaughtering process is quite efficient—slit slit and they just pull the skin right off the body. I don’t feel like I need to see it, though.

Later, Meron called me to the kitchen—probably because I’d asked her to get me the other night for the cooking of the ostrich egg. As I followed her, I said to Tim, also heading that direction, “I hope it’s not to show me the dead goat.”


Fortunately, the goat was already in pieces, Sahid and the other man working with a knife to make them smaller. The other man picked up the guts to show us—spongy and tan, not looking like anything that would come from an animal’s insides. I was thankful that they didn’t offer any of it to me.

In the afternoon, at almost 4, Tim and I headed out with Belay and our police guard smaller Mohammed to install and measure a campaign marker by DA25. We chose some rock at the base of the hill right next to a major thoroughfare—hoof-trampled sand. After setting up the site, Tim headed up the slope to have a sit near Belay and Mohammed and a local who wandered in.

[And to make a little call on the sat phone.]

I stood on the plain looking outward, taking pictures of the lengthening shadows and eventually watching a herd of goats and sheep (sheep, as Tim pointed out, always at the back) approach with three young herders.

At first, the boys were curious but shy, and wouldn’t come look at their picture on my camera after I took it. A young man also materialized, and Tim took some pictures while I took down the GPS and emboldened them, and when they came over my way I took some more. I didn’t notice until Tim pointed it out that they had a newborn sheep—born just that day. When I asked to take the boys’ picture, they put the newborn down behind them and posed, and when I tried to ask if I could get the sheep in the shot—guard Mohammed understood, and passed on the thought to them—one of the boys turned to pick it up by the neck and place it in a heap before them, its stub of umbilical cord exposed. Mohammed leaned in to rearrange it for the picture.

[Check out our friend in the foreground. How very GQ, no? What a nut.]

After dinner, sitting around, just about ready to go to bed, Abdu the teacher came and sat down with us enthusiastically, sitting down next to David on the solar panel box and immediately putting—slamming—a hand onto David’s leg. David and I snickered—I doubt David minded, probably not having issues with his masculinity, but still, I doubt he gets that much in the UK. Abdu went on to teach us (again) the numbers in Afari with much repetition, which killed us—every time we nodded after reaching ‘ten’ (‘tabana’) in a thank you, that’s nice, okay, Abdu started again with ‘one’ (‘iniki’). He ain’t a teacher for nothing, I guess. After a while, he excused himself and came back with a sheet of paper filled with English-Afari translations, spelled phonetically so that we didn’t really know what a word was supposed to be until he said it (like ‘it’ for ‘eat’). He put words together into cryptic thoughts, like “house door milk.” The others were thinking he was inviting us to his house for some milk, but since he lives in the school I was a bit skeptical. Or, at best, confused. The lesson went on until we could politely excuse ourselves, which we did with relief.

Note that, according to David, Abdu was a “shifta,” or bandit, along with the town chief until something shifted and the chief became the chief and Abdu became a teacher. He has delicate patterns tattooed onto his forehead that I just today noticed, in the light.

The stars were fantastic before the moon came up. It’s rising later every night (obviously) and is waning—last night it looked just a little squashed.

I have nice little fantasies of a lovely, clean porcelain toilet in a large, clean private bathroom and a nice private shower with hot water. Mmmmmm.

Posted by beth at January 24, 2008 10:38 PM

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