Tag Archives: Ethiopia

Power Economics 101: Harnessing Wind Energy in the Horn of Africa

Someone recently asked me about which sectors in Somaliland I thought might be attractive for potential investment. After all, frontier markets are rapidly gaining popularity amongst Western investors, from Myanmar to Nigeria. Particularly in Africa, there are so many different industries that seem promising – infrastructure, food and beverage, oil and minerals, and telecommunications. Private equity firms based primarily in London and Dubai have begun to zero in on neighboring Ethiopia, which has consecutively posted impressive GDP growth, has Africa’s 2nd largest population, and exports a wide variety of agricultural and mineral products.

Somaliland, however, has not received much attention from investors in comparison to other African countries. The ongoing instability and civil war in southern Somalia, as well as the maritime piracy industry off the coast of Puntland, has deterred many would-be investors from putting their money anywhere near Somalia. The few large-scale investments in Somaliland have mostly been funded by successful Somali businessmen from the diaspora.

Although not blessed with mineral wealth, arable land, or a large population, Somaliland does have a few sectors that might interest seasoned investors or savvy entrepreneurs.

Infrastructure is one major area. China, Ethiopia, and Somaliland have reportedly already signed a trilateral deal to expand and renovate Berbera’s port and build a sealed road all the way from Berbera to Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is one of Africa’s largest and fastest growing countries, but it is land-locked and relies almost entirely on Djibouti’s port for importing and exporting goods. Berbera is a deepwater port that could be very beneficial to both Somaliland and Ethiopia and would provide a competitor to Djibouti. In comparison to Ethiopia, the roads in Somaliland are horrendous. Most have not been repaired in decades and the road from Hargeisa to Wojaale (the Ethiopia/Somaliland border) is not even paved for the last 20 or 30 km. A smooth, sealed road all the way from Addis Ababa-Hargeisa-Berbera would vastly improve Berbera port’s importance and would provide a massive boost to Somaliland’s economy.

Although the infrastructure is in various states of decay, I believe the energy sector challenges infrastructure as the most badly-needed improvement for Somaliland’s economy. Power in Somaliland remains prohibitively expensive, and the country’s population pays close to $1 per kilowatt hour for electricity. To put that in perspective, Americans pay close to $0.12/kWh. Such a high price will guarantee that industry and manufacturing in Somaliland remain nascent and will prove to be a major impediment to expanding and diversifying the country’s economy.

Working on the wind turbine to try and cut the school’s energy costs

Why is the price of power so high? Years of civil war destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, and Somaliland’s continued lack of international recognition has made it difficult to attract money from donors or companies interested in providing affordable energy solutions. There are no power plants here, and 100% of the power comes from expensive, environmentally-unfriendly diesel generators. Private generator owners charge neighbors exorbitant prices depending on their electricity usage, and it is not uncommon for households or small shops to pay per lightbulb!

The few power lines that run through Hargeisa sag languidly and only function to transport excess electricity from a large generator to neighboring houses and shops. Contributing to the dysfunctional, decentralized energy sector is the fact that diesel generators are expensive to operate. All diesel is imported from the Gulf. The boarding school where I live and teach has two generators – a small one for use in the daytime and a large, high-powered one used at night to power our security lights throughout campus. The school’s managing director told me that on average, we spend about $15,000 a year just on diesel for the generators!

Our electricity expenditures will decrease, inshallah…

Recently, our school has built and installed a wind turbine to try and reduce our costs and environmental pollution. I believe the wind turbine is the first of its kind in this country, and we imported all of the parts from China (the 20 meter tall base, the actual blade, batteries, etc.) A prominent Somali engineer who lives overseas helped manage and oversee the construction of the project. The process was time-consuming – from pouring the concrete foundation to renting a crane to help set the 20 meter base upright to hooking up hundreds of high-voltage batteries.

Now fully functional and by far the tallest structure on campus, the wind turbine is expected to cover 90% of our energy usage, and should pay for itself within a couple of years. We will continue to use the generators at times when the wind is still or if there are any problems with the turbine.

Xamse and Mustafe, posing in front of our 20 meter high wind turbine

To me, a wind turbine seems like the perfect solution to the school’s energy costs. Located about 20 km outside of Hargeisa in an open valley, Abaarso is incredibly windy most of the time. However, wind energy is a bit more complicated than many people realize, and should ideally be paired with another power source to maximize its benefit. If you think of hybrid cars, for example, the most successful ones combine electric power with gas-fueled power. With wind energy, you need a back-up power source for times when the wind is not blowing, the batteries are not fully carrying the charge, or you want to fine-tune your electricity usage by increasing or decreasing the voltage.

One potential option would be to combine wind energy with hydroelectric power imported from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has spent close to $8 billion on various projects to dam the Nile River and generate electricity. Ethiopia has become a major producer of hydroelectric power and there are now talks of the country exporting power to neighboring countries in the region. Such an option for Somaliland, however, would require an enormous upfront capital investment which would certainly require external financing from an organization like the IFC or the World Bank. High-voltage cables would need to be laid from eastern Ethiopia to the Somaliland border, but I have heard price estimates in the ballpark of $90 million to complete such an initiative. This project would cut electricity prices drastically for Somaliland’s population of over 3 million, but remains a pipe-dream without international recognition or clear access to funding.

Another alternative would be building a power plant that uses oil or coal and would service the capital city, Hargeisa, which is home to roughly half of Somaliland’s population. Building such a plant and revamping Hargeisa’s dilapidated electrical grid might cost in the neighborhood of $40 million and funding would also need to come from a variety of sources. At the same time, it could prove to be a great investment by monopolizing the country’s energy sector, providing power at a fraction of the previous cost, and making power affordable enough to encourage industry. Current power prices in Somaliland are prohibitively expensive for any kind of large industrial production.

Whatever the solution is, until Somaliland finds a more efficient way to provide power to its citizens, be it through a government-run energy monopoly or a private company, the country will face serious challenges in expanding its economy.

Moussa, Ismaciil, Maxamud, Xamse, Cabdikarim, and Mr. Siler

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Exploring Northern Ethiopia in Photos…

Been really busy the last few months and haven’t gotten around to writing any new blog entries. Sorry!

I just got back from an incredible two-week trip traveling in northern Ethiopia with my brother. From Addis Ababa, we headed north to Bahir Dar and Lake Tana, home of hippos and fascinating island monasteries. Next we caught a bus to Gonder, nicknamed “The Camelot of Africa” because of its Royal Enclosure, a series of Scottish-esque castles built by Emperor Fasilides in the 1600’s. Finally, we got a flight to Lalibela, home to Bete Giyorgis (Amharic for the Church of St. George) – a magnificent sunken church carved out of rock in the 13th century and renowned as the 8th wonder of the world.

This was my fourth visit to Ethiopia, and it really reconfirmed in me that Ethiopia is my favorite country I have ever traveled to. Friendly people, unbelievable landscapes and ancient ruins, and delicious food all make it a great place. I am still figuring out my plans for next year, but am focusing my job search on positions based in Addis Ababa – I would love to be located in Ethiopia’s prosperous capital and learn some Amharic along the way.

Until next time, enjoy the photos!

The shores of Lake Tana in Bahir Dar

The wall paintings inside Ura Kidane Mehret, an island monastery on Lake Tana

The landscape on the path to Tis Abay, the Blue Nile Falls

Tis Abay - Amharic for "smoking water". The Blue Nile Falls were much more impressive before the Ethiopian government dammed the Nile for hydroelectric power

"The Camelot of Africa" - castle built by Emperor Fasilides in the 1600s inside the Royal Enclosure in Gonder

Ethiopian sky

Stone-carved pillars of Bete Medhane Alem in Lalibela, the largest monolithic church in the world

Our guide inside one of Lalibela's rock-hewn churches

Bete Giyorgis, Amharic for the Church of St. George - the 8th wonder of the world. Just unbelievable...

An Ethiopian Orthodox priest entering Bete Medhane Alem

Tired after a full day of visiting Lalibela's churches, with a beautiful view of the valley below

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How to Get Robbed in Dar es Salaam and Other Tales from the Swahili Coast

I know I’ve been off the map for a couple weeks and I apologize for not writing anything in over a month. Classes at Abaarso Tech finished on December 21st and I spent three weeks over Christmas and New Years traveling through Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. All excuses aside, I finally found the time to sit down and do some writing, and I felt it would make sense to make my first post of 2012 a summary of my epic adventure to the Swahili coast.

Stressed out and eager to leave Somaliland, I left for Harar on the first possible day I could. You can fly from Hargeisa to Nairobi, but it is expensive and the flight connects through Mogadishu. I’m not sure which one of these factors was a bigger deterrent, but either way, I booked a flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi and saved a lot of money and any risk of being kidnapped.

I arrived in Harar with a fellow teacher who was going to Cairo for the break. Harar has begun to feel like a second home for me and coming from Somaliland, it is the perfect haven where I can walk around freely, eat delicious injera and tibs, and drink cheap St. George’s beer. We booked a bus ticket for the next morning to Addis and spent our one night barhopping and tracking down hyenas.

Buses in Ethiopia leave at 5 am and I groggily woke up on the bus to take in an unbelievable panoramic view of the valley stretching beneath the Arba Gugu Mountains. Thankfully, I was able to keep myself amused for most of the 10 hour busride simply by staring out the window and by watching the absurd Amharic soap operas on the bus’s television.

I immediately took a liking to Addis Ababa. With its refreshingly cool climate, laidback atmosphere, and sidewalk macchiato cafes, Addis feels much more European than any other African city I have been to. I was only in the capital for a day and a half, and spent most of my time eating delicious international cuisine and exploring Merkato, which is reportedly Africa’s biggest market.

My flight left Bole Airport at nearly midnight and arrived in Nairobi at 1:30 am. My plan was to crash in the Nairobi airport for the night and then get a bus to Mombasa the next morning. It turned out that my bag had been left in Addis by the airline and that I would have to get my bus to Mombasa with only the clothes on my back and my camera. ‘Sleeping’ in the Nairobi airport is something I would not recommend – it got really cold at night and I was kept awake by cleaners who swept, mopped, and polished the floor underneath my feet for five hours straight. The baggage claim office assured me that my bag would be forwarded to Mombasa the next day, and running off of about fifteen minutes of sleep, I got a taxi to the bus station. The ‘luxury’ bus I was riding to Mombasa was shabby and downright ghetto compared to its Ethiopian counterparts. The A/C didn’t work, my window was missing and taped up, and there was no TV showing Amharic movies. I slept the entire way to Mombasa, which is a shame because the road passes through some amazing scenery and national parks.

Even having been warned ahead of time, I was in no way prepared for the temperature and humidity change in Mombasa. Somaliland and Ethiopia are quite hot and dry and it gets cold at night. Mombasa was totally different – tropical, humid, and hot. I was met at the bus station by Cindy, a good friend of mine who was in the same course as me a couple of summers ago at the LSE and is from Mombasa.

I was in Mombasa for five days and it was a really nice, relaxed visit (after I finally got my bags from Ethiopian Airlines). Cindy’s family was incredibly welcoming and generously hosted me for many meals and barbeques while I was in town. The lively family atmosphere took away any potential feelings of homesickness I might have had in spending the holidays 15,000 miles away from my family. I’ve also decided that I prefer celebrating Christmas the Kenyan way. Instead of snow, candy canes, and wool socks, this year’s Christmas season consisted of swimming in the Indian Ocean, barbequing racks of goat ribs, drinking Tusker beers, and getting repeatedly beaten in Scrabble by Cindy’s mom and nephews. I don’t know if I will ever spend another winter in the northern hemisphere…

Fort Jesus in Mombasa

Building in Mombasa's Old City

For New Year’s Eve, I decided to join some other friends I had met at my hostel in Mombasa and head to Diani Beach on the southern Kenyan coast for a massive party that was being held there. The party had supposedly only just been called back on and there had been talks of cancelling it due to the risk of a terrorist attack. Since Kenya invaded Somalia in the autumn, there have been a series of bombings in Nairobi, and the threat level has been pretty high. The US embassy in Nairobi has emailed me so many travel warnings and terror alerts that I have instructed my email server to send any messages from them straight to my junk folder. There was a planned Christmas Day bombing in Nairobi that was foiled and a raid in Mombasa which seized some bomb-making materials.

The party attracts thousands of foreigners every year, and if I were an al-Shabaab fundamentalist, it would be an ideal target for me to take out a large number of people in a single attack. With this in mind, I headed to the party legitimately thinking that there was a 50/50 chance I would not make it out alive. My concern was deepened when I went to get my wristband at 3 pm, the time that the doors were supposed to open, and was told to come back at 5 because they were “just doing one final bomb sweep”. Call me a cynic, but I really doubted the capability of a bunch of privately-hired security guards to find and defuse a bomb with no visible bomb-detection equipment.

Thankfully, the party came and went with no al-Shabaab attack. There were three international DJ’s spinning and the event officially ended at 11 am on New Year’s Day. I was proud that I somehow managed that stay up until 9 am – my partying prowess has declined significantly since moving to sober Somaliland. Throughout the night, a police helicopter with a spotlight circled the beach scanning for any signs of danger. I think the Kenyan intelligence service could have at least used a strobe light to add a little New Year’s Eve fun to their anti-terrorism ambitions.

I woke up at 4 pm on New Year’s Day feeling more like one Kenyan shilling than a million American bucks and decided I needed to get myself to Tanzania. I promptly bought a bus ticket to Dar es Salaam after the guy at the ticket office assured me that the bus would arrive in Dar at 3 pm, giving me plenty of time to catch the final 4 pm ferry from Dar to Zanzibar.

New Year's Day, Diani Beach

Surprise, surprise…the bus stalled and moved at a snail-like pace through northern Tanzania and I arrived in downtown Dar es Salaam after dark, by myself, with zero information about the city, no map, and no previous plans to spend any time there. I was also the only mzungu on the bus. And I had no Tanzanian shillings. The combination of all of these factors meant that it would be nearly impossible for me to find a hotel by myself and that I was a disoriented, easy target prime for getting robbed.

As soon as I stepped off the bus, I was mobbed by Tanzanians trying to sell me necklaces, drugs, women, or offering to drive me to Zanzibar (keep in mind that Zanzibar is an island, and there is no landbridge connecting it to mainland Tanzania…). I swear if I hear another rasta hustler ever say “hakuna matata brothaaa”, I will lose it. I blame The Lion King and globalization.

One of the less sketchy lurkers said he could show me a hotel and wanted to be my taxi driver to the ferry terminal tomorrow morning. I figured he would get a commission from whatever hotel he took me to and that he wanted my business in a city where taxis are everywhere. He showed me an ATM so that I could withdraw some Tanzanian shillings and then passed me off to his friend, saying he had to meet someone at the bus station and that his friend could show me the hotel. The hotel seemed legitimate and his friend agreed to meet me at 6:30 the next morning to drive me to the ferry terminal.

I woke up around 6:15 and still half-asleep, walked out of the hotel to find my two ‘friends’ from the night before and a driver waiting for me. They had seemed alright the previous night and to my not-completely-awake mind, nothing seemed dodgy. I got in the backseat with one of the guys and wedged my backpack between my legs. After driving down the street for about a minute, another guy got in the backseat – they said he was also going to the ferry terminal. I should have realized this was dicey, but I was too out of it to even notice. We drove for about five minutes and I realized that I was boxed in the middle backseat with a guy on either side of me, and that the rolled-up windows were tinted a disturbingly dark shade.

Suddenly, one of the guys told me that we were in the ‘mafia’ area of Dar and that I was being robbed. I was surprised how calm I remained throughout the whole thing and, after I realized that running or attacking four Tanzanians at once was out of the question, I gave them my wallet as asked. I only had about 90 USD total in my wallet in a combination of US dollars, Kenyan shillings, and Tanzanian shillings. They asked for my money belt, which luckily contained no cash, only my passports. Incredibly, the robbers told me that they were only interested in cash and that they had no use for my passports or camera. They explained it to me that they were “nice people who needed money”, and not thieves. Hahahaha.

One of the guys took my ATM card and asked for the pin number. I told them that I would just withdraw money and give it to them. They laughed and said that I would stay with them in the car while one of the guys took my bank card and got the cash. I thought for a second of giving them a fake pin number, and realized that this would probably just lead to my execution in the shantytowns of Dar es Salaam. I gave the guy the actual pin number and he got out. We drove further into the slums of Dar, to an area where I actually felt safer inside the car with the robbers than I would have had I been tossed out into the streets. We sat there for about 45 minutes waiting for their friend to return, me staying calm but increasingly thinking that I might actually be in the process of getting kidnapped and the thieves texting, smoking cigarettes, and arguing loudly in Swahili. Finally, their cohort came back with my ATM card and gave it to me, saying that it “didn’t work”. I asked the thieves frankly what the hell I was supposed to do from here with no money, no sense of direction, and an empty bank account. In a surprising act of morality, they decided to give me 50 USD back for my ferry to Zanzibar and 30 USD in Tanzanian currency for a taxi to get myself out of the slums. In retrospect, it is pretty funny that they gave me some money back, and I mistakenly almost thanked them. Then I remembered that they had just drained my bank account and held me hostage in the ’hood for over an hour, and I slammed the cardoor and their faces and went to find a taxi.

The US Embassy gave me free internet and international phonecalls, and that was about it. I guess I had expected that they might be able to feed or house a victimized American traveler, but that was naïve of me. My bank informed me that in the span of five minutes, five withdrawals had been made for a total of $907 – all of my money. I woke my dad up at 4 am California time and explained what happened. Luckily, I had another debit card that they hadn’t found and my dad said he would make sure that the account had enough money to last me until I got home to Somaliland.

Disheveled, dirty, and disgruntled with Dar, I decided to catch the ferry to Zanzibar.

I spent three days in Zanzibar, and although I enjoyed it, it didn’t nearly live up to my expectations. To be fair, a large part of this is that I was in a bad mood having just lost a lot of money in a robbery. But Zanzibar felt exceptionally touristy and I saw scores of European families with their young children, dining at fancy restaurants and going for package snorkeling trips. The mystique and allure that I long associated with the name Zanzibar was lost upon realizing that probably everyone else in the world had the same fantasies about the place and also decided to book a trip there. Stone Town’s narrow alleys and spice street vendors were cool, but not incredibly different from the old towns of Mombasa, Harar, or even Fez in Morocco. The beaches were fantastic, but I thought Diani Beach in Kenya had been just as good.

A traditional Zanzibari carved door

Palace of Wonders (Beit-al-Ajaib), Zanzibar

Two Australian guys staying at my hostel were heading back to Dar and then onward to Nairobi, and I decided to join them, unwilling to hang out in Dar by myself again. We took the ferry back to Dar and somehow survived the next day’s hellish 14 hour bus journey from Dar es Salaam to Arusha, Tanzania’s second biggest city. Arusha is the jumpoff point for most safaris to Tanzania’s incredible game parks. It is where most travelers set up their safaris to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. The three of us wanted to try and do some sort of safari, so we walked around town checking out prices.

I was mind-blown by how expensive the safari options were. The cheapest tours we could find at the “budget” tour operators were all about $100-$120 per day. They also told us that it took about 3 solid days to do Ngorongoro and five to see the Serengeti. These were also no-frills packages where we would camp outside the parks and have to provide a lot of our own food and drinks. I was in no position to blow $600 on a safari and was running out of time, so the Aussies and I decided we were too broke for a safari and that we would spend our two days in Arusha simply wandering around the city before catching a bus north to Nairobi.

Northern Tanzanian highlands

We arrived in Nairobi safely (and in daylight) and I spent my one full-day in the city walking around the downtown and exploring the tree-lined, cool neighborhood where our hostel was located. “Nairobbery” is vilified as the most dangerous city in Africa, but for all the talk, I found it to be cosmopolitan, developed, and safe to walk around during the day. Most of Nairobi’s desolate shantytowns, such as the massive Kibera slum, are located quite far outside of the city center and although I did get nagged by a couple of street kids, I was surprisingly impressed by Kenya’s capital.

I said goodbye to my Aussie travel mates and met up with Cindy briefly before heading to Jomo Kenyatta Airport to fly back to Addis. From there, it was a tiring two-day trek back through Harar, Jijiga, and Wojaale before finally ending up back at school in Abaarso, where I immediately fell asleep in my own bed and reminisced about the amazing adventures I had just had over the past three weeks.

**After filing a fraud claim with my bank, I ended up getting the $907 refunded. The robbers also gave me $80 back, so in total I lost 10 bucks from the robbery. As far as robberies in Africa go, I was incredibly lucky – I didn’t get attacked and only ended up losing a very small amount of money.

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Harari Hyenas and Ethiopia for Eid

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.

Hararis walking outside the Old City

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.

Ermiyas and me outside one of Harar's five gates

A Harari alley

Another one of Harar's ancient gates 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.


Hawks wait to swoop

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.

Siler pulling a Harari girl on her street sled

Life

Commerce

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.

Tej, glowing

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.

The wonderful Harari family that hosted us for breakfast

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.

This is why you should visit Harar...

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’)

TreeMosque

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