Saturday, April 14, 2012
The road to Assaita turns off the main Djibouti road some 100 km before the border, and goes through totally flat, grey desert, here and there some trees, but mostly the familiar nothingness. Except that quite a few gazelles still find a living here, and the occasional wild ostrich. And except that, in one way or another, quite a few Afar find a living, too, or at least are living in the occasional hamlets; herds of camels and goats roam around the huts.
(1, 2, 3, 4) the road to Assaita is fairly uniformly coloured, and gazelles, ostriches, camels or people do not change that much
Assaita itself is somewhere described as a cul-de-sac at the end of the world. It is, but because of it, it is actually a wonderful place, unspoilt. At the banks of the Awash River, this is the heart of Afar culture, those Afar that are reputedly such fearsome warriors, but who turn out to be some of the nicest, friendliest and most genuine people we have met so far in Ethiopia. Everywhere along the road, people break into a smile when they see us, rare ferenjis, pass; nothing like the hysteria in other parts of the country. This is also the first area where we manage to visit a village, and actually have some meaningful conversation, through an interpreter. Most Afars are Muslim (wonder whether that has anything to do with the genuine hospitality, and the general absence of begging here). Our host, Husser Burhaba, is a wealthy man, who has acquired already three wives, in three different villages, and has child number 10 on the way. He mostly raises animals – cows, goats, camels – and sells them, but he also has some vegetable gardens, for which he needs the wives. He cannot understand why I have only one wife, but just in case I want to do away with her, too, he is prepared to make a reasonable offer – we don’t go into detail. Husser lives in a small hut, with bamboo cover, which is remarkably cool in the afternoon heat; we hardly fit through the entrance, though, big people as we Europeans are. His children, and many other children in the village, are initially afraid, but after a while they get used to us, curiosity is stronger than fear.
(5, 6) Husser and his family, and a few of the children outside the hut, having overcome their fear for the feranjis
(7, 8) cattle herding is still the main economic feature, here
We take a walk to one of the lakes outside Assaita, one of the many in which the Awash River disappears – as Thesiger demonstrated long ago. A bridge near Afambro, another Afar town, has collapsed, years ago, and the only way across is by tree trunk bridge. It turns out that the law has recently changed, or so we are told by the police in Afambro. We are no longer allowed to continue without police escort, which, however, they are happy to provide, against a nominal fee. Some features of good old Ethiopia slip back in.
All the way, the area is green, showing what irrigation can do. You can only imagine what Husser could become if he shifted his main attention from cattle herding to agriculture – how many more wives he could acquire! The nearby water also supports a lively bird population, of course (I realize that the subject “bird” is rapidly replacing the “market” of earlier weeks): I have never seen Kingfishers at 100-200 meter intervals.
(9) one of the lakes in which the Awash River disappears (and a whole lot more, it looks)
(10) a hut on the way to the lake, decorated with the things people find important here
(11, 12, 13, 14, 15) colourful birds they are, aren't they? whether nesting on the river bank or in trees, or just contemplating the world in tree or electricity pole
Assaita is also the place where we reach rock bottom as far as accommodation is concerned. The Bersha hotel is pleasant enough, reasonably clean rooms, and we have the suite, with double space, two large beds and ceiling fans, and windows onto the central courtyard – but the common shower and toilets, latrines really, at the end of the courtyard are, well, not quite filthy, but definitely smelly. To the effect that it is better to keep the window closed. And the window on the other side, well, that opens into the cow shed. Choice of human or animal excrement smell. And something else: perhaps we are getting too old for holes in the ground. But like elsewhere in Assaita, the people are so nice, so helpful, so friendly.
A stroll through town – without our driver, without guide – is equally pleasant, unhurried. Everybody is outside, interested in the foreigner, but not with the sole objective to make money, they are actually genuinely curious, eager to talk. As if we are in a different country.
It is almost a pity we stay only one night – except for the hotel comfort, that is.
(16) the minaret of Assaita's mosque behind some shops
(17, 18) some of the towns inhabitants
(19) and the window of the Millenium Bar, closed unfortunately (the bar, as well as the window)