ethiopia field notes



Let us not hide it - Addis Ababa is not really known for its amazingly beautiful neighbourhoods, lovely buildings, parks or even awe-inspiring monuments. There are a lot to see, but all in all, most people tend to either spend as little time there as possible or avoid it altogether. I had the same option too, but there was one place in Addis that I felt I could not pass without seeing: east-Africa’s largest open market (and the second largest in Africa!), the Merkato. The Merkato is essentially a massive, almost 11 sq.kms area (just to understand the sheer size of it, you can cross walk a cross-shaped path across it in just under 4 hours and still miss more than 75% of what is in there!) providing an area for whole-sellers and shop-owners across Ethiopia (and even neighbouring countries) can meet and trade on anything, from recycled metal and plastic (and all the millions of items which can be manufactured with those materials) all the way to livestock, vegetables, meat, spices and everything in between.

The market is organised in sections (even though it’s not always easy to identify where one starts and the other begins) and, in the recent years, most trading is being ran from small shops build along each road (as opposed to open-air shacks and benches which was the case a few years ago). Of course, in typical African fashion, shops tend to extend outwards, upwards and downwards as needs warrant and it is not unlikely to not really know where one store stops and the other begins. The nature of things sold does not make things easier either. It is a place filled with the sheer press of humanity - it is not unusual to have to press tightly against locals as they try to squeeze between tiny alleys, parked cars and boxes of merchandise -, dust and spice particles, water rivulets running in the middle of the tiny alleyways, heat, smog and everything else you can imagine. It does require a lot from someone to spend time in there, but hey, this was my first time in Ethiopia, so I decided to go.

Let me start by saying its a truly amazing place. I have been to some of the largest markets and bazaars around the world, and this is packed with sights and experienced as you get. I started from the vegetable wholesale market - for your information, this is located a little outside the main Merkato area, but it is an absolute must! I think if someone only had a couple of hours and could only see one of them, I would almost certainly recommend the vegetable market. It is more open, has easier access to all the various areas and, as a rule, more open people to seeing visitors - especially one equipped with a massive camera! Here you can find anything - from potatoes to onions to salads and fruit from all over Ethiopia, sometimes traded in massive baskets, sacks and anything in-between. it’s not unusual to see more than half-a-dozen people work on any stall or corner, as all these massive sacks need to be sorted, packed, haggled-over and purchased and finally, transported to the long line of awaiting vans and trucks destined for every corner of Ethiopia. While work is insanely hard, it is not unusual to see people laughing and joking, making fun of the tourist (yep, just one - me…didn’t see a single other tourist there!) but almost always with a funny mood and without malice or other intend. Of course, I wouldn’t know if they were calling me anything very insulting as they do it in their local language, but somehow it never left bad - who knows, who cares.

A couple of things on photography: I could easily spend 2-3 days (like, from 6am to 6pm when they close) just shooting there. There are so many amazing things to see, so many stunning images to shoot. BUT, you can only snipe away from a distance, when people are not looking or simply, raise the camera, snap a couple of frames and then move on. The people do not like being photographed - like, at all! It’s worse than even the strictest muslim town or city - the difference is here people will joke with you while waving their arms so you cannot take their picture (or any picture containing them). So, photography opportunities are very limited but hey - we’re not only in this world for this, right? Sometimes you can only just experience things…

The Merkato area itself is almost impossible to describe. You park quite away from the main streets and stalls and you usually have to walk for 20’ or so until you’re in the thick of it. Bear it - it’s smoggy and annoying, but well worth in the end. Depending on which way your guid will take you (and yes, you NEED a guide - don’t even think of doing this alone!)


Well, first things first: this day actually started last night when we - completely by chance - discovered that our flight (on which the entire rest of the trip was sort of hinging on) was cancelled. Without notification or without any attempt to make alternative plans for the stranded passengers. So, it took numerous phone calls, threats, pleading and eventually shouting to somehow find alternative flights which, of course, will only get us to our destination 4hrs later than planned, meaning we’ll miss most of our day tour.

Why am I writing this? Because this experience - along with the experience of our equally randomly changed flight on Day Two, the horribly incompetent guide on Day Three have proven to me something I never thought I would find myself in a position of stating: it is true that Africa neither wants nor deserves the help the rest of the world bends over backwards to provide. They do not care about bettering themselves - not in the slightest. They do not care about better roads - they have no cars - or actual running water and sanitation as, even when those things are present, nobody actually cares enough to use them. And, more importantly than all of the above - they do not care. About anything. About talking to people with respect - I’m not talking about cowardice due to position, I’m talking about courtesy and simple respect. About accuracy and simple decency. About professionalism and punctuality. About not stealing from you when you’ve already been insanely generous to them. The only thing they care is the now and the amount of crumpled dirty notes in their pockets. Absolutely nothing else. So, all this aid that the TV is advertising is both pointless and a sham - an attempt for people who will never know Africa to feel better and for the hundreds of thousands of aid workers to have work.

But, this is not a political statement - it’s a travel blog - but I thought a short description of WHY this continent is where it is, was actually important. Because it explains a lot of what the rest of the day and weeks are going to be about…


So, with Day 6 being, pretty much, a non-stop travelling day, today was all about seeing things! You see, this was part of the deal when our guide, the wonderful Fitsum, informed us upon landing that our carefully planned itinerary would have to be thrown away because he had learned that in a Hamer village near Turmi there was to be a bull-jumping ceremony, something very rare for casual visitors such as myself to see. This meant that, rather than simply driving to Jinka and following our plan, we would spend the whole of Day 6 driving directly to Turmi (yes, that would entail another 3 hrs of driving!) so we could be there at 6am to start following the proceedings. Now, normally I would bulk at such drastic changes, but from the little I had read about the bull-jumping ceremony, it was something both rare and - apparently - very, very impressive to see, so I threw caution to the wind and said “hell yeah!”…and boy, was I not disappointed!

First things first: the bull-jumping ceremony is essentially the Hamer male coming-of-age ceremony when a male child, with absolutely no preparation whatsoever, runs across the backs of 6-7-8 bulls, from one end to the other, 4 or 6 times! You may think this is simple, but these are actual living bulls, each weighing over 900 lbs and, even when restrained by 2-3 men each, well, they do move! A lot. So, running across their backs…well, far from simple or easy. Anyone can do it, at any age, and it is a ceremony which involves the entire family - and for the Hamer, when we say the “entire family” this could be anything from 100 to 300 people.

The ceremony itself starts around 6am, with the immediate family gathering at the bull-jumper’s mother’s house and singing and dancing pretty much for 2-3 hours. It’s also a communal affair, with people coming in and out, joining and leaving the dancers, mothers with babies, fathers with their goats - the works. This is the only part of the celebration the mother of the bull-jumper can join, as she is excluded from the actual event which takes place much later in the day. Around 11am, everyone pauses and the bull-jumper’s family feeds everyone around with a mixture of maize and milk, along with a rather interesting mixture of tea and coffee drank our of communal bowls. Once the eating is done, the entire family (along with all visitors) start walking to the place where the actual bull-jumping will happen - this may be anywhere from 1 to 10hrs away. We were lucky as the actual place was just 2hrs walking so we could follow the entire process.

It is absolutely impossible to describe what happens throughout the ceremony: there is dancing, singing and jumping while wearing the traditional metal bell anklets and blowing on small brass horns. There is the whipping of the women - and yes, this is exactly what it sounds: men who have completed their coming-of-age, are allowed to whip, quite viciously, the women of the village, using thin flexible branches from the nearby trees! It is insanely painful and leave really deep scars on the women, but - wait for it - the women actually compete amongst each other for who will be whipped more times and by whom! Within a couple of hours, every single girl - married or not - has at least one bloody mark at one part of her body and the designated whippers are exhausted. There is a really complex explanation about why this is so, but for now, just keep this image in your head.

There are also face painting ceremonies - where the chief whippers are painted with specific patterns to set the apart from everyone else - , there is a special ceremony involving metal rings being passed between the chief whippers and the bull-jumper (the origins of which, by the way, are completely unknown and lost in time - nobody knows why it is done, save that it has always been done this way!) and, of course, the jumping of the bulls themselves. It is an incredibly chaotic affair, with people doing pretty much everything and anything they want all the time, there is tons of dust (happens when you have 20-30 people jumping up and down on the dry earth alongside 40-50 heads of cattle), millions of flies (oh yeah, that’s the one downside I can think of - unless you’re wearing long trousers and a long sleeved shirt, be prepared to be covered by them every single minute) and, for us visitors, no shortage of hawkers, sellers of pretty much anything you can think of and just curious locals wanting a quick chat. But it is an amazing experience and one I would happily repeat again and again!

The Hamer are very friendly - and fiercely proud - people and once you show them you’re respectful, kind-hearted (and yes, the do pick up on those tourists who are only there for a quick picture and nothing more!) they will welcome you among them and pretty soon you’ll feel as a part of the family (as much as possible, of course). We were lucky enough to spend the entire day with them so by the end we were treated, pretty much, as friends - which is not what I can say about the other flock of tourists which descended on the ceremony in their big, white, 4x4s, 10’ before the main event, shoved their cameras and phones on the faces of the people and, once the bull-jumping was completed, left faster than you could throw a rock at them.

I loved the experience - every single moment of it - and I feel blessed that I was able to capture some of the elegance, strength and pride of these wonderful people. I have travelled across the world and have met many locals, from one end of the compass to the other, but I don’t think, to this date, I have met a nicer people. Yes, they still live in the 1700s and are oblivious of many of those things we consider normal and even essential to our lives, but I saw nothing in their eyes to show remorse, despair or even poverty! And this is extremely rare and amazing to behold.


I have often written about photographers’ tendency to use local people’s desire to make some additional money in order to portray something now the way it really is but how they - and, by extension, us - like it to be. Photography in and around Began in Myanmar is an excellent example and so are some of the famous tribes of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia. Let me explain by using the Kara tribe as an example.

The Kara were, in years gone by, known for the chalk markings and paintings they would put all over their bodies as both ritualistic symbols as well as markings to inflict fear on their enemies and attract mates. And I am pretty sure that this practice was continued until not too long ago - at least until the primary reasons for those markings to be worn naturally (i.e. without being put on on demand or on an ad-hoc basis) were, sort of, evolved away. After all, there are not too many enemy tribes these days engaging in warfare and, in this day and age, even the tribes do not always have to show their prowess in battle in order to secure mates - after all, there are less than 2,000 members of the Kara tribe these days. Along with the reasons to wear the markings naturally, their traditional lifestyle has changed, as with the arrival of the locusts of photographers hoping to see them WITH their markings, the tribe members realised they could make quite a lot of money asking for money for pictures. After all, you have to drive for almost an hour (that’s each way) from any other point of civilisation to get to their villages, so once you’re there you can hardly say “well, I’m not going to give you 5 or 10 Birr for a picture”, can you? And the Kara know that.

So, what happens? Well, everyone in the village will get painted and then vie for your attention and the hope of a picture with them in it. The tariff is very specific: 5 Birr per person if you use 1 camera - you can take as many pictures per setting as you want - 10 Birr if you happen to have two cameras etc. So, an impressively painted Kara, with an interesting head-dress and wielding an AK-47 can collect, before a single hour has elapsed, upwards of 100 Birr (that’s less than $4) which, for him, is more than a week’s expenses on food and other essentials. Repeat the process 5-6 times a day, 5-6 days a week and you can see how the math works out. Having said that, I’m sure some of you are thinking that what you always thought were primitive tribes are anything but, but in that, you would be wrong. Completely. The Kara - like the Morsi and the Hamer - live very, very primitive lives. There is an almost absolute lack of any electrical device - there is no electricity anyway -, they live entirely off the land and their crops and they provide everything for themselves or through direct barter trade. Very few things are obtained with money and it is for those reasons they rely on tourism. If tomorrow all tourism stopped, very little would change in the way the Kara live. Yes, they would need to sell more tobacco leaves or more goats to get the same amount of money, but it would not fundamentally alter their way of life - if anything, it would make it a bit simpler, as they would no longer need to get painted and pose for pictures. So, for all intends and purposes, tourism in the tribes of the Omo Valley is a strangely mutually beneficial parasitic relationship: on one hand it brings a flavour of times long gone to the visitors - at the cost of a few hours of “theatrical” performance by the tribes people - and on the other, it provides these tribes much needed hard currency to allow them to continue living their secluded lives without the additional toil which would be necessary without it.

My time with the Kara was wonderfully easy, simple and beautiful. They were all willing to work with me, experiment, eager to look at the results of our combined efforts, willing to try again if they didn’t like something - and let me tell you, they WILL let you know if they don’t like a picture you took! - they were curious about the strobe and the soft box I used in some of my shots and, all in all, helped create a wonderful atmosphere. Sure, there were some more annoyed than others - you could see it in their eyes - but usually the very process of involving them in the picture-making process would smooth those ruffled feathers. I think the Kara are incredibly photogenic and am certain they would be the perfect collaborators in any photographic adventure. So much so that I am planning to visit them again very, very soon and this time create an entire story with their invaluable help!

Daily markets are another concept altogether in Ethiopia. There is a market in pretty much every single town (or largish village) every day and people from all around gather there to trade their goods. You can find pretty much anything you need there - well, everything the average rural Ethiopian needs…not sure there are many designer handbags or named sports shoes for sale there.