I roll to a halt in an explosion of dust as a convoy of vehicles barges past at breakneck speed. I make out the dim initials of the United Nations, angular navy-blue lettering stencilled across the brilliant white paintwork, tinted windows and sunglasses streaking past at sixty miles an hour. This has become a familiar sight in Africa.
The clouds of dust kicked up in the village of Gob Gob by the aid workers and diplomats will not settle for another half hour. I pull my headband down to cover my mouth and squint in search of the little blue sign I’d spotted on the roadside – a sign that I guess will indicate accommodation of some description. A tall young man emerges from a low doorway and strolls up to where I have stopped. We exchange greetings – ‘Sallam-no!’ – and Melech confirms in fluent if slightly archaic English that it is indeed possible to stay the night here. I wheel my bike through a packed room-cum-restaurant and into the back yard, where there is a familiar-looking little row of mud and timber rooms for rent. Opposite the rooms, a wooden roundhouse topped with a plume of smoke betrays the kitchen. Between the thin timbers and straw matting of the walls I can see red onions being chopped furiously. The household’s children rush out to greet me, shake my hand and stand smiling nervously as I test the waters of language, without much success. But they are a kind and gentle crew and I feel immediately welcome and at home here, so I chance to bring out my video camera. The kids fall about laughing at the sight of themselves reproduced in real time on the tiny screen, help me wedge my luggage and bike into the cramped room, and don’t once ask me for money.
Melech, worried that I’ll be offended by the aroma of damp earth, lights an incense stick in my room and promises to take me to see ‘a beautiful place’ – but first, dinner: shiro and bread. A thick stew of chickpea flour and a spice melange, shiro has become a staple meal, packed with protein and energy. It’s always too spicy, but the sensation is somehow addictive.
After dinner, we venture out into the town. It is approaching summer and there is plenty of daylight here, one border-crossing north of the Equator. We cross the road and slip between the buildings into the yards beyond. Thanks to the complete absence of privately owned cars, all is quiet up here on the plateaus, thousands of metres in altitude. A large pair of metal gates lie open and rusting, and we enter the ‘beautiful place’.
We wander through a labyrinthine garden, Melech in happy silence, I in wonder and bemusement as a large complex of vegetable gardens is revealed on the fringes of the village, with fields divided amongst tree seedlings, beehives, carrots, potatoes, onions and cabbages, all separated and sheltered by hedgerows planted in a bizarrely English-looking fashion. Beautiful indeed; also overly ordered, silent and mysterious, it exudes a sense of displacement in space and time, tended by ghosts and shadows. And, as my host tells the story of Gob Gob, pieces of the jigsaw begin to slot into place.
‘This is a plant . . . plantation,’ he explains, ‘for construct house, for furniture production. For wood. There’s a pipe down, the middle – do you see?’
Hundreds of tiny plastic plant pots fill the rectangular space like a regiment on parade, inspected by a network of hoses and troughs. It’s all the more impressive, and all the more bizarre, for being hidden away behind someone’s back garden in the rural Ethiopian highlands.
We continue through the labyrinth.
‘These are bees . . . do you know bee? Honey bee?’ says Melech as we approach a large wooden box on stilts. ‘This is an ordinary system of honey-bee production. It is not modernised. There are about ten thousand bees.’
‘In this nest? Ten thousand?’
‘Yes. There is the mother bee – the queen. Then there are worker bees. Drones. They are living in connection . . . they are . . . what is it called . . . a “group animal”.’
I ask Melech how this place came to exist, and why it now carries this feeling of being frozen in time. Years ago, he says, there was a foreign organisation here. The ferenjis had been responsible for running this place. And one day they’d vanished.
After running a productive local enterprise for almost twenty years, continues Melech, feeding the local populace and at the same time giving employment to two hundred people, the volunteers had decided to extend the remit of their project, embarking upon a spate of religious missioning amongst the Orthodox Christian community. The elders of Gob Gob, he says, were incensed by the uninvited meddling. The ferenjis had come to sow seeds, not religious disunity! The hapless volunteers were rounded up and kicked out of Gob Gob, and the Ethiopian government followed suit and booted them thenceforth from Ethiopia. The state had then taken responsibility for the project. Within five years, the local workforce had dropped to fewer than twenty people.
We wander amongst the overgrown fields in the evening light, all but a couple given over to nature, furrows still visible through the undergrowth. One has been kept trim as a sort of ‘village green’ for weddings and other events. The remains of a huge wooden gazebo lie where they fell to earth during a storm, splintered uprights still pointing crookedly at the heavens. Once, not so long ago, this was the place where two hundred workers would convene for lunch every day.
‘If you come to work,’ says Melech, addressing aid workers across the world, ‘simply work with the work – work in development, don’t interfere to religious. This region, country, believes Orthodox toward. So, you interfere? Get out!’
The two hundred workers had produced far more food than the village needed. When the aid money was withdrawn from the region, there was no local demand for the surplus produce. And so twenty years of energy and passion in what must have been the toughest of conditions went to waste, because no thought had been given to the cradle in which the project rested – this small Ethiopian community, which needed self-sufficiency and autonomy, not a forty-hour working week and maximum economic turnover. A handful of onions, potatoes and bees in a beautiful, forgotten place is the only legacy.
Gob Gob doesn’t have a signboard. Many villages have them still; white paint cracked and peeling, still featuring the hand-painted logos of agencies and organisations from far corners of the world who sent idealistic volunteers and television-appeal money to Ethiopia. Symptoms of problems had been tackled, rather than the root causes. In the aftermath of the awful famine, it must have been so much easier. People are hungry – give them food. People are poor – give them money.
The signboards are not the only memorial of this time.
‘Give me four hundred birr,’ comes a high voice to my right.
A small girl in a navy-blue frock is marching atop the roadside bank, matching my uphill crawl with ease. She must be seven or eight at the most, with a head of wispy dreadlocks. The unexpected precision of this demand, delivered in clear English, elicits a sudden fit of giggles! Heck, why not five hundred, or a thousand? Why on earth four hundred?
I’d recently met some newly qualified teachers from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, sent to work in provincial schools. They had invited me to stay the evening in their dormitory, for which they each paid a monthly rent of £2.50.
‘Don’t give the kids anything,’ they’d said. ‘They don’t need money. They have enough of everything. But their parents teach them to ask anyway. We’re sorry you have to experience that.’
I’d asked them why most children’s grasp of English began and ended with ‘you’. They’d had no idea. So I was forced to formulate my own theory. I imagined some guilt-driven do-gooder plonked in the middle of a village with a box of clothes.
‘One for you . . . one for you . . . and one for you . . . you . . . you . . . you . . .’
One small boy doesn’t bother opening his mouth at all. You, nameless child, you you you you you, are going to bring all that I have endured to critical mass.
He watches me approach, and I watch him, a moody little loner, standing motionless on the rocky earth a few dozen yards from the road, neither moving nor speaking. I ride on – his is just another staring face. I’ve seen thousands now. But he knows something that I do not. He knows that my route will take me to the far side of the hill on which he’s herding his goats. Something in this boy’s brain clicks. And he starts towards a vantage point at the top of the rise. He now knows what he is going to do.
Meanwhile I continue grinding up the latest in I don’t know how many unyielding inclines, slowly inching round the bend in the road, when a stone the size of a golf ball smacks into the dust a few feet ahead of me and bounces into the meadow beyond.
The world stops turning; I imagine the impact, the ringing in my ears, the blood, the dent in my skull, and all is red: I slam on the brakes and leap off my bike, not caring whether anything breaks as it topples over. The little silhouette has already turned tail and is running pell-mell away from the scene of the crime, limbs flailing, but I grab the nearest pebble and launch it with all my might and anger in the direction of my pint-sized tormentor. It doesn’t even reach halfway. In fact, as throws go, it’s utterly pathetic. The six-year-old can lob a stone twice as far as I can. He does it for a living.
‘Come on then, you little shit!!!’ I roar into the thin air. The sky is a perfect blue; these lost, traffic-free highlands are tranquil, but my blood is boiling and I’m locked in battle with a small boy. He stops, turns, sees me standing in the road, arms outstretched. ‘Come on!!! I’m all yours!!!’
He hesitates for a moment, then takes the bait, picks up a rock, judges the weight, distance, and lets fly with a rapid swing and a follow-through stagger. The stone sails high into the air; a speck of black against the harsh brightness of the high-altitude summer sky. It’s way off to the left, and I smirk. Then it begins to drift back on course – suddenly it’s metres away and I realise the skill of the spin he’d applied; I flinch as it drives into the road two metres to my left with a sharp crack. At the same time as I see the moment of impact and the huff of white dust, I notice a group of women walking slowly up the track a few hundred yards away, minding their own business but probably wondering what exactly all the hollering is about.
I snap back to reality and realise it’s time to defuse all of this. So I stoop for another rock; the kid knows – and I know he knows – exactly what the action means. I pause, not even bothering to pick up the rock. And he scarpers frantically over the brow of the hill. Interesting.
I get on my bike and ride on, passing the group of suspicious-looking women with a fake smile and a wave. I cannot believe what has just happened, and I shake my head: I’m Tom Allen, and I throw rocks at children.
Two Liverpudlian cyclists I’d met in Jordan had told me of the story of a French couple’s ride in Ethiopia. They’d been tormented to the hilt by one gang of children and had sought the help of the village’s adults; the adults had responded by stabbing the Frenchman in the arm, and he and his wife had fled. The Liverpudlians, on hearing this story, had sworn that they would never set foot on Ethiopian soil.
I don’t want to be stabbed, or knocked out by a flying lump of rock. But I do want to have an opinion based on experience and evidence, rather than anecdotes and stories. I ride on and am mercifully left to my own devices for several hours – a record stretch – and slowly I realise that my little incident of man-on-man warfare with the six-year-old goatherd has taught me quite a few things. Firstly, and most importantly, that my treatment is a generalisation. My white skin elicits demands. Tough shit. It’s not a function of my personality, or any inflated sense of whether or not I deserve it. I, Tom Allen, do not exist, to those who stop me for handouts or chases or target practice. Only ferenjis exist, and they appear and disappear every now and then with no particular purpose. I am one of them.
Having accepted that, I can carry out the remainder of my journey more easily, because I can treat conflicts with all of the practical techniques that I’ve learnt will be effective. By far the best is to ignore them altogether. It’s nothing personal, remember? So I can safely ignore the demands. If I sense a barrage of projectiles, I can easily scatter a group of mini attackers by slamming on my brakes and jumping off my bike. This has the immediate effect of sending all and sundry dashing for cover. And if any particularly cocky ones decide to hang about, my stooping and reaching intently downwards is usually enough to make them scarper.
It works. I cannot deny this simple fact. Ethiopian adults discipline kids by throwing rocks at them. I see this happen every day. And I have learnt to execute these routines on the spot, without guilt. And each time, as soon as it’s over, I remember that it jars with every instinct towards diplomacy I’ve ever been taught. I abhor the fact that there is no common ground to be had. Nicole, my host in Gondar, spoke fluent Amharic and had told me that even with command of the language, the assumption that ferenjis were there for nothing more than handouts was unshakeable. On a moral level, I despise myself for even pretending to throw stones at the marauding kids.
But it works.
But it’s despicable.
But it works.