Sorry for not having posted in awhile. We had a five day midterm break from school for Eid and I went to Harar with some of the other teachers. I was really excited to go to eastern Ethiopia because I hadn’t left Somaliland once in the three months since I had arrived.
A friend’s guidebook described Harar as the ‘Fez of East Africa’, and seeing as how I loved my visit to Fez in November 2009, I had high expectations for Harar. An ancient walled city, a labyrinth of narrow, colorful alleys, and the wonderful scent of spices and roasting coffee – all of this sounded perfect to me and a far cry from the last three months of life in Somaliland.
Although I could not wait to explore Harar, first I had to get there, which is a bit of a chore. Actually, getting anywhere from Somaliland is a chore. We had all gone to the Ethiopian consulate in Hargeisa weeks before and gotten our only-available-to-Americans 2-year multiple entry visas for Ethiopia. Good thing, because I plan to hop over the border many times before I leave Africa.
One of the school’s drivers and armed guards drove us the hour and a half to the Somaliland/Ethiopian border. After about 45 minutes driving along a sealed road, the tarmac disappears and the rest of the way is bumpy, dirt tracks. It is mindblowing to me that the Somaliland side of the road is in such atrocious condition – dozens of khat trucks cross the border from Ethiopia every day. Hassan sped through the dirt road, and every time we slowed down for a bump or a turn, a thick, brown cloud of dust would catch up with us and engulf the entire car. Luckily, we had all our windows up.
We reached the border town of Wojaale at about 2 pm. I am whole-heartedly convinced that Wojaale is hell on earth. If not, Earth’s creator was in a very bad mood when he made the place. The town is straddled by two countries, but both the Somaliland and Ethiopian sides are miserable. The dirt road is so bumpy that it seems like it has been peppered with landmines. I thought it would be a great place to test-drive an offroad Jeep, and that is about it. It is hot, difficult to get to, completely covered by trash, and offers little for sale except for khat, warm Coca-Cola, and bald tires.
We caught a bus from Wojaale to Jijiga, another run-down place about an hour and a half into Ethiopia. Almost as soon as we crossed the border, the road drastically improved to a brand-new, sealed road (Chinese-built). The bus driver crammed about 22 people into a mini-bus built for 12 and we were off. Unfortunately, the bus stopped about four times at checkpoints so that we could be thoroughly patted down and our bags checked. Supposedly, certain electronics goods are cheaper in Somaliland and people try to smuggle them in. After arriving in Jijiga, we caught another two hour busride to Harar. The scenery began to change rapidly and I noticed hills, mountains, and green lowlands for the first time in months. It was such a refreshing change to see a different landscape – Somaliland’s dull, rock-filled brown had started to wear on me.
That night, the six of us celebrated our arrival (and our departure from Somaliland) with cold Harar beers and delicious Italian-style pizza. Our waiter must have thought we had just escaped from prison as he watched us wolf down pizza, salad, pasta, and many beers. Such a wide variety of tasty food (and alcohol) cannot be found in Somaliland, and definitely not at Ethiopian prices! A Harar draft beer in a restaurant cost about 8 Ethiopian birr (45 US cents) and the large pizza was about 2 USD. In Hargeisa, the beer would have been unavailable and the pizza would have been 8 USD and soggy.
Another teacher, Siler, and I spent most of the next four days wandering the old streets of Harar with our local Harari friend, Ermiyas. Harar is really an amazing place and one of my favorite cities I have ever been to. It has been one of the most important trading towns in the Horn of Africa for years and is “the fourth holiest city in Islam” because of how many mosques it has. The old walled city is Harar’s claim to fame and is reminiscent of a Middle-Eastern medina. The 16th century was Harar’s Golden Age, and culture, poetry, and craftwork flourished. Ermiyas walked us around the entire old city and many of its vibrant passageways, in addition to showing us the five gates of entry to the walled city.
One of the highlights for me was the Muslim meat market. It is a quiet square in the old city where butchers slaughter and sell halal beef and goat. The cool thing about the market is that large hawks and birds of prey lurk on the rooftops, waiting for meat morsels to be dropped so that they can swoop down and scavenge them.
People-watching was great fun in Harar. In Hargeisa, I am always going somewhere and have little time to observe what people are up to. Even if I did have more free time, the city is so dusty, dirty, and congested that I wouldn’t really want to sit outdoors and watch residents go by. In Harar, all of the Ethiopians that I saw seemed so upbeat and positive. Women hawked onions and tomatoes, men sipped coffee, and little kids played in the streets showing off the new clothes they had received for Eid. There was a certain liveliness and energy that I rarely see in Somaliland, and it was great soaking in the new atmosphere.
Ethiopian food is delicious and can now be found around the globe, but there is nothing like splitting a carpet-sized circle of injera with beef tibs, cabbage, and a feta cheese-like dish amongst six Americans and ten Ethiopians. Of course, injera is meant to be eaten by hand, so we never used any cutlery. Because I am left-handed, it is very awkward for me to try and eat using only my right hand, and I was a bit anxious that I would offend some Ethiopians by eating with both hands. Luckily, no one seemed to care and we all feasted until the table-sized dish was gone.
Never one to pass up a strange foreign liquor, I also made sure to sample tej, the traditional Ethiopian honey wine. I had heard that bad distillers try and cheat by adding sugar instead of honey, so I got Ermiyas to take us to his favorite tej spot. I was surprised by color of the stuff – it glowed a bright tangerine color, to the point of looking artificial. The taste was quite odd…at first it tasted like a combination of orange juice, hard cider, and cigarettes. Gradually, the flavor grew on me and I enjoyed it, especially when I realized that the warm buzz I had from my own personal 1 Liter bottle would only cost me 10 birr, about 60 US cents.
Another highlight of the trip was the massive Eid celebration at Harar Stadium. Nabil, one of the guides from the hotel, was going to the stadium to pray and invited us to join him. Battling sleep deprivation and a bit of a hangover, we pulled ourselves out of bed at 7 am and joined the massive exodus of Muslim Hararis walking to the stadium. It was a pretty unbelievable experience witnessing a couple thousand people all celebrating the holiday and praying together.
After the Eid prayer, Nabil invited us over to his family’s house for a traditional Harari breakfast. Many of his relatives were there celebrating the holiday and we were treated like two more members of the huge, happy family. It was really kind of his family to host us and we were stuffed with bread, Ethiopian cheese, stewed spinach, sweet, milky tea, and Harari coffee. The coffee was the best part. Coffee is thought to have originated in Ethiopia and the country’s beans are highly prized and exported around the world. Hararis drink their coffee unlike any I had ever tried. It is common for them to make a pot of coffee using somewhat salty butter. Sounds gross, I know, but it was actually really rich and tasty and the butter helped counter the overwhelming strong coffee.
On our final night, we paid a visit to the Hyena Man. The Hyena Man is now world famous and has become one of Harar’s biggest tourist attractions. Lots of Hararis I met bragged how Harar is the only city in the world where hyenas roam the streets and don’t attack people. Multiple times when walking home from bars at 2 am, we would see a pack of hyenas wandering on a pedestrian footpath on the side of a boulevard in downtown Harar!
Every day, Hyena Man buys up unwanted scraps of meat from local butchers. At night, you pay a guide 50 birr (roughly 3 USD) to take you to his house, which is on the outskirts of the old city. We sped through the old city on a rickshaw and arrived at dark at the Hyena Man’s hut. He sauntered out, cigarette in hand, and whistled and called for the hyenas in Amharic. Supposedly, he has been feeding them for decades and no one has ever been bitten or attacked.
After a couple of yells, the hyenas slowly emerged from the shadows. Even though there were probably ten of us, I got a bit nervous when I realized that there were probably ten hyenas lurking closeby. I remembered what I had read before I left for the trip – hyenas’ jaws are so powerful that they can bite through human skulls. Hyena Man sat down on a rock and began to lure the grungy beasts in, meat-in-hand. Slowly but surely, they approached and one at a time would lunge forward and snatch the meat from Hyena Man. Another teacher, Siler, sat and fed them as well.
Eid is the day when Muslims slaughter a sheep and feast, so unfortunately for us, many of the hyenas had spent the day munching on sheep carcasses and remains. They were surprisingly not very hungry, and only ate a bit of meat before running away into the dark. It was still a thrilling experience to be encircled by a wild pack of Harari hyenas.
All in all, the short break was one of the best trips I’ve had in a long time. Perhaps the challenges of life in Somaliland made everything in Ethiopia seem so alive, free, and foreign. But I definitely did notice a fundamental difference between Somaliland and Ethiopia. People in Harar seemed more relaxed and laidback about daily life. At the same time, the spirit of enterprise and commerce was alive and well, and everywhere I looked there were roads being paved, bridges being built, and goods being sold. An Ethiopian-American whose hotel we stayed at in Harar talked with us for hours about his mother country. Even with a population of about 70 million, Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but the country’s rapidly growing economy (11% annual GDP growth) is a sign of good things to come. Ethiopians are hard-working and optimistic people and there was something in the air that gave me the feeling that the country is making serious progress and that Ethiopia’s future will be bright. The country certainly has its problems, but much of the clan bickering and bureaucracy that I feel stonewalls investment and infrastructure projects in Somaliland seemed refreshingly absent in Ethiopia.
I cannot wait to get to back to Harar in a month’s time. Until then, I recommend you look into making a visit. I’ll be looking for future jobs in Ethiopia…
Dehna hun! (Amharic for ‘goodbye’)