Monday, July 09, 2012

Afar Away Again

It is appropriate that I spent a week this trip in eastern Ethiopia studying nomads.  After all, since I moved out of one apartment on May 31 and was not being able to move into my new one until June 29, I was at the time also nomadic.  (I call this the Pee Wee Herman “takes one to know one” school of economic development research.) 

But – as I mentioned in my December post after the first time I was out there – life on the margins in Afar isn’t pretty.  There were a couple of moments out there where I was just about as close to active ethnic conflict as I think I ever need to be.  The short version of the narrative goes like this: the Afar and the Issa (an ethnic group that we would call Somalis) have lived uncomfortably side-by-side for millennia.  Climate change, current drought, encroachment of industrial farming, and having well-mined borders haven’t really done much to improve relations.  Both groups have a tradition of livestock raiding – preferably from the other one.  (And people there love their camels.  Just think about how attached Americans get to dogs or horses, then consider an adult camel is the household’s main source of food, transportation, and savings.  In times of crisis – they can bring about 1200 USD at the market.  So if a single thing was this important to your livelihood, you would naturally insure it.  Insurance is a 75 USD payable to a Mr. Antov Klashnikov.)  

So they kill each other.  One side attacks, the other defends, men die, livestock changes hands.  In the village next where I was working, 12 people had been killed the night before in a failed raid.  Some of the households could not be interviewed because they were in mourning.  After we left that village, we tried another one, 7 people killed there the week before.  All the men had all left either with camels for safer territory or went to join the militia.  The situation got so tense after the second raid that the Ethiopian Federalis was called out.  The government brought hundreds of soldiers, truck mounted machine guns, and at least one tank.  It was not subtle.

At this point my Ethiopian counterparts assured me of two things: (1) now that the army was here the two sides would have to behave, and (2) I really didn’t need to worry anyway because it would be a major cultural faux pas for either side to shoot a woman.  While all that was well and good, I decided as the project manager that we were going south.  I told the driver to keep going until the density of soldiers thinned from “once every 500m” to “just the standard checkpoints.”  

And the south had the added benefit of amenities.  For the first time in days, we had both power and running water – occasionally even simultaneously.  The room was even equipped with a “Sunny” brand TV.  Flipping on the BBC, I heard about violence in 17 killed in Syria, 28 in Iraq, up to 9 in Afghanistan.  Nothing about Afar.  I asked my counterparts if it made the local Ethiopian news.  No, they said, that wasn’t news.  As long as they just stuck to killing each other and didn’t threaten the main shipping route to Djibouti – no one really cared.  And so it goes.

Other than that - the pilot was the usual assortment of pilot experiences (hot, tiring, exhilarating, hot, frustrating, ridiculous, hot, etc).  A bit of added stress in that I had along my new CoAuthor who had never been to Africa before.  And Afar is certainly not Africa-for-Beginners.  The desert provided a few new opportunities though.  We drove a few hundred miles north to the salt flats one afternoon.  Traditionally long caravans of camels would be used to transport salt blocks evaporated from mineral springs over the mountains.  These days long caravans of mechanically questionable trucks haul salt on what I have to admit is a pretty reasonable tarmac road.  And coming off the mountains onto the endless flat of the desert with the setting sun lighting up the rectangular evaporation pools into oranges and pinks – the sight was pretty spectacular – even if progress had emptied out my camel populations.

In what was also one of the more questionable decisions of the trip – we waded across the Awash River – twice.  The point of the pilot was to demonstrate to the future survey supervisors that all points are accessible.  It might take a pretty good walk in the blazing sun, but you can get there.  (There is statistics involved in why it is necessary to walk to these particular points but interested parties will have to wait for the paper to come out.)  Unfortunately for me, the road was on the wrong side of the river.  So we walked a good ways down the river to find the shallowest place to cross.  On the bank I was having serious second thoughts.  Visions of shistosemysis and river fluke danced in my head (despite the fact that these two are both microscopic – I assure you what my head conjured up were truly frightening.)  But – undaunted – in waded the local guide, then my Ethiopian government partners, then my Ethiopian counterpart.  The final straw was when CoAuthor hitched up her skirt and stepped in.  Son of a bitch – I have been working in Africa for 11 years – I am not going to let some newbie show me up.  So across I went too.  (Note: I grew up on the east coast.  What should be under water is rock – or occasionally if you are willing to sit in traffic for a few hours – sand.  I never got used to the squishy fresh water river bottom thing.  And this nature discomfort is multiplied by 1000 when that squishy river bottom is located in Extreme Rural Horn of Africa.)  But we got across with minimal damage, and then undertook a brutal 90 minute hike through the desert scrubland to my pilot point.  It was now midday and the sun was killer.  By the time we made it back to the river – the direct route this time – drinking water reserves were exhausted.  There was no hesitation about walking right in.  Or whipping off my headscarf, dunking it, and tying it into a decidedly non-pious but very cooling river-water turban.  When we eventually arrived back in town, I drank a two liter bottle of water.  By myself.  In less than 20 minutes.  

And that basically does it.  Pilot was in the end successful.  CoAuthor held up unbelievably well.  Project is ready for the implementation phase. 

I am going to close with two pictures that I really like that I didn't take - CoAuthor did.  Credit where credit is due - they definitely sum up the trip.  The first is the sheer joy of our young guide at arriving at the Awash River on the return crossing, and the second is a typical scene from the pilot.