by Juliana Lightle
We left Adama early because the drive was long. The highway was good, paved, two lane, but very busy with truck traffic going to and from Djbouti. It made me think of Interstate 40 at home. Like all highways in Ethiopia, goats, cattle, horse-drawn buggies, people, and sometimes camels crisscrossed and walked down the road. Trucks and cars constantly dodged here and there. If you accidentally kill someone on the road, you receive an automatic prison sentence.
At first, the landscape remained green, not as green as in the North, but still green. Fields cultivated for teff lined both sides of the road. Eventually, the landscape transformed to desert acacia and thorny shrubs. Black lava fields and extinct volcanoes appeared. We were in the Great Rift Valley. There it was to my left: the rift from which the valley gets its name. Slowly over years, the rift widens, getting larger and larger. Later, we saw a dormant volcano; it last erupted three hundred years ago.
Now we were in the land of the Afar, a semi nomadic people who herd cattle, camels, and goats. Boys drove herds along the roadside, huge herds of animals. Herd size determines wealth.
Suddenly, a loud noise indicated a blown tire. Carlo pulled over. Carlo and Dino, father and son, worked at changing the tire. First, a truck driver, his truck broken down the road, came along to help. He refused money, saying in Amharic, that people should help each other. Second, an Afar boy came walking toward us, stopped, watched, then walked off. Then, his back to me, I noticed the eight inch dagger in the back of his pants.
I saw the Afar man coming long before he reached us. He stopped to look, said nothing, walked around the SUV to me. He was tall and dark with an assault rifle slung over his left shoulder. With my hands, I indicated what had happened, trying through gestures to communicate with him.
Suddenly, Dino said, “Get in the car!” I kept trying to talk to the man. Dino repeated, “Juliana, get in the car!” I did, not understanding why. The man walked off down the road.
Later, Dino commented, “Didn’t you see how close he was standing to you?” I had not because I possess no personal space. I had felt no fear.
Note: The Afar consider themselves the most ancient Ethiopians, having lived the same way in the same place for thousands of years. Afar men are considered fearsome, protecting their domain historically with daggers and attacks on strange men. As recently as the 20th century, they cut off testicles of male intruders. Now they carry assault rifles.
Raised on a family farm, Juliana now teaches high school, blogs, sings, raises horses, and wanders the wild on the edge of a canyon in the Panhandle of Texas. Her collection of poetry, On the Rim of Wonder” was published in April. She returned from a vacation in Ethiopia two days ago.