My earliest memory of giraffes as a child is of tall, arrogant, condescending, but beautiful giants. Of all the wild animals that we interracted with and admired, the giraffe never lacked colour.
First, it stands still and stare down at you as you approached. The huge males would let us get as close as possible before walking away, but most times, we didn’t get close enough. In my eye as a child, the giraffe had this majestic elegance and confidence that ruled the canopies of our acacia trees and anything above my height. I loved how it ran with all its legs literally in the air. That was the 1980s and 90s before the Savannah plains of Kajiado County were invaded by the land subdivision (Quarter Acre Plot) disease – before the tin-roof disease arrived in Maasailand – before the thousands of giraffes left the land for better grounds or were literally hunted down.
We would sing a particular song to the giraffes: Ormeut Lai Lentolit Nado (My Giraffe of Red Marrow
Kimanita Eliyo Elukunya (Your Head is Lonely)
Today, I found myself at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi – a sanctuary where the endangered Rothschild giraffes are bred and released to the wild in order to increase its depleted population. Rothschild giraffes, also known as Baringo Giraffe, are mostly endemic to central and northern Kenya. Maasai and Reticulated species of giraffe are found in Narok, Kajiado, Tsavo and other parts of Southern Africa. The obvious way to differentiate Rothschild from the rest is that they have no markings on the lower leg, thus giving it the impression of wearing white stockings.
Giraffe Centre is a popular place where tourists come to see; feed and pet the giraffes. Since I am not a big proponent of petting things, especially wild animals, I kept a little distance and watched my friends Amos Kipeen and Harris Taga of Friends of Maasai Mara feed the gentle giants.
My upbringing gifted me with a cautious mind – always be careful around wild animals, however, tamed they seemed to be! So, I preferred to chat with the guides, asking a barrage of questions – they seemed to really have a grasp of details on the giraffes, like its heart can weigh up to 11kgs. I asked “What was the worst experience here between giraffes and visitors?
“Giraffes can head-butt especially if you go close to them without the pellets in your hand. We also have one temperamental giraffe and has hurt people before,” the guide told me. I remember too as a kid, giraffes fighting – heading butting one another in a fight for dominance and at times would lose consciousness in the process.
Tourists kept streaming in – most reacting in different ways when the giraffes lowered their heads to pick up pellets from their hands. Some would put the pullets in the mouths and the giraffes would pick it with their 45cm tongues. Selfies went round as giraffes kissed the tourists on the mouths – I found it gross, rather, I am kissing no frog today, not even a Rothschild beauty.
There were moments of humour and anxiety when a giraffe would surprise an absent-minded visitor. One lady with her friend freaked out and smashed the man’s phone against a wall and ran. The man ran to the phone, picked it up, screaming “Babe you broke my phone. Oh no!”
She apologized profusely, promising to replace the screen – still in shock, with her hands on her chest. I thought the guy should have first checked if the lady was okay instead of reaching out to the phone, but, who am I to judge in this matter?
Anyway, the giraffe population is in trouble worldwide. We only have so few of them left – mostly as a result of habitat loss and poaching. The giraffe population in Africa has dropped from 140,000 to 80,000 in just 15 years, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. It’s a silent extinction.
That is the reason why we must support the County Government of Kajiado spatial plans to stop the continuous subdivision of the county rangelands into quarter and one-eighth acre plots. This insatiable demand for individual land ownership has destroyed wildlife habitat, taken away crucial livestock rangelands and grew urban areas in places they should not be. We must protect Maasai rangelands for the sake of our wildlife sectors.
*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.
We left Hawassa at 8:30AM – in a jovial mood – musing over yesterday’s adventure with the Rastafarians. We passed Shashamane and saw the same brokers huddled around the gate – waiting for tourists.
The road is busy with traffic in both directions. We passed the towns of Kuyera, Negenem, Bulbula – areas covered by flat landscapes dotted with acacia trees and beautiful views of Lakes Langano and Abiata Shala.
The soil looks white and livestock keepers are literally covered by it as they followed their livestock to grazing areas and water points. There are signposts to tourist lodges around the lakes.
There are several flower and grape farms along and people are standing outside the gates, possibly looking for work. The driver pointed to a Turkish factory on the left with several kilometres of fenced land.
“They make chocolates and other things,” he commented. A man is driving his cattle along the factory fence and I wondered if this was once his land before the company came to the area.
We stopped at Zuway Town for breakfast – Mila Senbera (injera and matumbo). The great Haile Gabreselassie has a resort here but we turned into a travel restaurant by the roadside. It was busy and waiters were fast and friendly. Word quickly went round that I am a foreigner – A waiter mused that I look like Mo Farah, the famous British athlete. The manager came over for a chat. I pointed out that the coffee is late.
“Do you want your coffee before with your meal?” he asked in English.
“Yes please,” I responded.
Coffee in Ethiopia is mostly served after meals. Well, I am just a foreigner, a traveler. Naloolo Ai!
The coffee was heavenly and I could still smell it as we drove out past a chain of donkey carts that are possibly going to the market. Vehicular drivers drove alongside the carts cautiously.
As we approached Meki Town, I saw a few burnt trucks along the way.
“They were burnt by Oromo protesters two years ago,” the driver said. The Oromo people that make close to 50 million of the 100 million Ethiopian national population have had years of run-ins with the government.
We drove past another broken truck with its driver’s palms on his face – in despair. He might have been on the road for days and now stranded with cattlemen walking past him like he did not exist.
Alem Tena Town is green with irrigation fields that draw water from River Awash – tomatoes, onions. The river drains into a lake that I could see it is chocking under hyacinth – a deadly water weed.
A chain of buses passed heading us towards the opposite direction carrying people who will be attending St. Gabriel festival in Hawassa. It is an important festival for the Orthodox Church followers.
The driver made a quick cross prayer as we drove past a church. I remembered passengers from Moyale doing the same and got curious if it means something different. It basically says “God sent his own son to earth to put us from the left to the right. Thank you!”
“We do that short prayer while driving, asking God to keep us safe,” he explained.
We reached Koka Town at 12:30AM. It is another town surrounded by irrigated farms. Hundreds of uniformed high schoolers were walking along the road from schools. Our vehicle lost power about a kilometre from Koka and we pulled over and found out that the battery terminals got loose after hitting a pothole.
We stopped on approach to Mojo Town, 65 KM from Addis, to buy fresh strawberries at the gate of a farm that produces them. The town is named after Mojo River, also transliterated as Modjo. It has all the signs of a well-planned town and a growing economy – new buildings going up, busy streets and a high population. It hosts a major station of the new Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway that connects the country to the Red Sea.
From here we joined the Express Way – a six-lane highway that connects Mojo, Adama City and Addis Ababa. The Express Way started with a toll station – we paid 15 birrs to Adama, another beautiful city that we had planned to see.
Adama whose other name is Nazreth is the capital of Oromo region and just one those places you would love to live in. It sits between the base of the escarpment to the west and the Great Rift Valley to the east. It looks carefully planned – wide, clean streets, colourful buildings, hotels and office blocks.
Now we got 99KM to Addis Ababa and we were cruising, excited, that this journey is finally coming to an end.
We started the approach to Addis Ababa, the city on the foot of Entoto Mountains– the home of the African Union, University of Addis Ababa and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
Like all cities, the sky is disappointingly gray – a sign of pollution and I felt a little sad for its 3 Million inhabitants.
We drove into Tulu Dimtu tall station at 2:30P and paid 50 birrs, our cost for using the Express Way and started meandering on various roads towards Bole Area near the airport where I would be staying for the next four days.
1600KM! Welcome to Addis Ababa!
*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.
I usually start my day with prayer – with the face on the mattress, then a reading from The Daily Bread.
Today is my birthday and I asked God to keep walking with me on this journey of self-discovery, to give me another chance to start over with Him – to keep forgiving my belligerence and selfishness.
“Happy Birthday Dad!” came in messages from my son and daughter. I quickly responded that I am actually some years younger according to the Ethiopian calendar.
The driver called in sick – food poisoning. He will see a doctor and come pick me up later.
I spent most of the morning on a boat ride at Lake Hawassa – pleasant views and I really felt guilty enjoying this without my children but again, how would one keep teenagers on the road for long without causing a crisis or war?
The driver arrived after midday and we decided against driving to Addis Ababa but instead tour the nearby town of Shashamane, the home of the Jamaican Rastafarians. We picked a 19-year old fellow who knows Shashamane well to accompany us – a friend to the driver. This will probably be the most eventful part of my travel.
Shashamane is 25KM from Hawassa – a town of 100,000 people. It is here that Rastafarians migrated to from the UK, France, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago etc. – they are descendants of African slaves who were taken away during the tragic trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
During a visit to Jamaica in 1966, Emperor Haile Selassie set aside 500 acres in Shashamane to welcome back descendants of slaves seeking to return home. They did, and many Rastafarian made Shashamane their home and Ethiopia has become their spiritual home and they believe the Haile Selassie was a descendant of King Solomon and the Messiah.
The 400 Rastafarians who live here believe they are fulfilling a prophecy that descendants of slaves will all return to Africa. It is upon this historical background that I was excited to visit Shashamane.
We drove into the town – nothing different from the other Ethiopian towns that I have seen– the usual sea of blue Bajajs (Tuktuks), donkey and horse carts, street coffee places, shops and offices. It is really a crossroads town where major roads connect to different regions. We reached the home of the rastas in the northern side of Shashamane. We pulled onto a gate painted in rasta colours and written “12 Tribes of Israel.”
At first, there was a guard, then, a few young men joined from the street as we conversed about the entry. Within a minute we were surrounded by young guys all asking to be our guide, one had some kind of official tag. Another handed me some magazine about the Rastafarians. Another said he can get me something nice – “good ganja in Shashamane,” he said.
The guard opened the gate and we walked through, several of the young men came through too. I started to worry and told them I need no guide. “I am your guide. I have government papers,” the fellow with the tag said. He was definitely intoxicated with something “nice” and still chewing khat (miraa).
A rastaman approached us from the building – tall, slender and calm man with intense eyes
“Brother, just wait outside the gate, they are my guests now,” he told the “guide”.
“I am their guide,” the guide said.
“You are not our guide,” I intervened. “We don’t need a guide.
Words were exchanged and the young man wanted a fight. We retreated and left the compound and got into the vehicle and started to pull out.
“Sir, pay for the magazine, 200 birr,” I heard as a hand was extended towards me through the window. Ouch! I thought it was free stuff. I handed it back to him. He said I have read it so I should pay. Wow! This is getting interesting. I offered 50 birr. He took it.
We started to drive out while my mind was racing, wondering if this was the end of the Rastafari experience. I was disappointed. While at it, one of the young fellows came to the window.
“Brothers, don’t leave. I can take you to another place. A better place with no crazy people for free,” he said.
“For free? Are you sure?” the driver asked. “Yes, free.” I did not believe him but he has this cheeky smile and twinkling eye. He is definitely street smart and reminded me of my younger self while growing up in the border town of Namanga – hustling, always looking for one deal or another.
“I am sorry for the confusion, people here sometimes smoke too much stuff, too much marijuana,” he said.
He got into the car and guided us onto a dirt street to a compound that boasts as the only “Banana Art Museum” in the world.
He knocked the gate and called out. “Ras, Its Christmas family, they want to see you.”
It took a while until a tall, skinny rastaman opened the gate. He welcomed us with a smile – a soft-spoken man with kind eyes. His name is Ras Hailu Tefari, an immigrant from St. Vincent in the Caribbean islands. He moved here in 1995, took up land, built a home which is also his museum. ‘He has a beautiful place where he grows his own food, lots of herbs like Aloe-Vera and fruit trees.
“I am going nowhere. This is home,” he told me. His artwork is impeccable. He basically uses dry banana leaves to make art instead of painting – an art he taught himself from the age of 10. He believes the skill is a gift from God. I spent about an hour talking to him – going through his collection of many years. Asking about the family he left behind and the one he started in Ethiopia and the challenges that the rastas face in their new home. I found that he can’t travel outside the country because his passport expired and he still does not have Ethiopian citizenship. This is the case for many rastas. They are stuck but the government is still promising to process their citizenship at some point.
Ras Hailu charges $1 for entry to the museum.
I walked out of the museum only find the young men outside – all lit! Puff! Puff! A roll of marijuana was making rounds and another one was being rolled and passed around as a gift for me and the driver.
We drove out for lunch at the Bolt Restaurant. It is managed by a couple from Jamaica. She was happy to see us and showed me photos of her visit to Kenya – so not all rastas are stuck here. The food was great!
We stopped by another compound with a museum and a Tabernacle, they call it – a place of worship. We were welcomed by a calm gentleman – very dark in complexion. I could barely hear what he was saying – he seemed to have had a stroke at some point in life. There are drums in the museum and he explained what the different drum beats mean but generally, they all ended up saying “Do Good.”
It was approaching 5PM and I still felt like giving the 12 Tribes of Israel compound another try, with the hope that the broker-tour guides have left. The place is home to just one section of Rastafarians. There are others like Bobo Ashanti and Nyabinghi and like churches; they too have different rules and regulations.
We drove back to the 12 Tribes compound – the guard was in prayer ((Muslim). We waited till he finished and were ushered in. The crazy “guide “miraculously reappeared and walked with us into the compound.
The same gentlemen who earlier received us came over. He was happy to see us.
“Please remind me which country you come from?” He asked. He later brought me a book which used to learn Kiswahili while in prison in Addis Ababa. He was jailed for smoking marijuana in public in that part of the country. He met a jailed Kenyan bank fraudster who taught him Kiswahili.
As someone who is on a spiritual journey, I learned a lot from the 12 Tribes of Israel rastas. One of their tenets is that they read one chapter of the Bible a day. I have never met kind people like these ones – actually, all the Rastafarians are respectful and have this aura of honour around, like some kind of royalty.
They believe in Jesus and the Bible, so, our differences is that they added Haile Selassie and the smoking of marijuana as their sacrament – the equivalent of bread and wine in Christian communions.
After the tour of the building, we sat around to chat and read the Swahili book – there was a translation of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and we tried to sing it. By now, a lot of people have come into the compound and never in my life seen so many joints of marijuana going round – rather, everyone had their own lit or rolling one.
“This is the red light district for marijuana,” said one of the rastas. “No one can arrest you for smoking it here but you can’t do it outside of this area.”
Did I take a joint? No comment. My teenage son could be reading this.
Did I smoke it? No comment.
Did I inhale it? Well, one could smell marijuana miles away. I think inhaling was not optional.
And with this, I bid bye to Shashamane! I will be back, someday!
Good morning. It is Christmas Day in the rest of the world but not here. People are up and about working as usual.
The vehicle arrived driven by a handsome and calm 26-year old fellow. I threw my rucksack to the back seat and we hit the road towards the north, leaving behind Yabelo seated under the round Obda Hill.
He is a good driver – I could tell it by how he handled the Landcruiser in the first few meters – expertly nursing the accelerator, letting the engine sing to the change of gears.
“How long have you been driving?” I asked.
“Been driving since I was 14. I actually drove for many years without a license for a taxi company,“ he said.
“And you never got caught?” I marvelled.
“No sir,” he smiled. “You know if you don’t cause trouble like an accident, the police would rarely ask for your license.”
“What happens if one gets caught?” I pressed on.
“You can go to jail for a long time or pay a huge fine,” he answered as he gently turned on the music. Teddy Afro, a controversial and popular music came on…blurting the words “Mare Mare.” I responded to the beat shaking shoulders and clapping to the beat. He smiled – a little surprised that I know the song and how to dance it. That connected us and it will be three days of stories on the road to Addis Ababa.
The land is flat and beautiful but clear signs of overgrazing in non-farming areas. The road is wide and well-marked. Donkeys, cattle and camels are abundant, crossing the road at will; a driver has to be extremely careful for killing livestock carries punitive penalties.
They also grow Teff here – an indigenous crop that is high in dietary fibre that provides protein and calcium. It is similar to millet but the seed is much smaller and cooks faster. Teff is used to make Injera. After the seed had been harvested, the rest of the plant is used to feed livestock.
We drove past small towns that are mostly occupied by subtribes of the Oromo people – Fichawa, Fresheka and Hagera Maryam. At about 100KM, we started to climb towards the highlands – a region called the Southern Nations Nationalities Peoples Region. This region is productive – green fields with maize and bananas. The road is now laced with trucks, donkey and horse carts that took produce to the markets in the towns of Gedeb, Fisehagenet, Yirgachefe and Winegu. The people are different too – more Bantu looking than Cushitic. The farms and markets are busy – all I could see is a hardworking people.
We stopped for a break at the city of Dilla Town – 200KM from Yabelo and this is also the end of the good road. We started driving very slowly past road construction crews and earth movers for over 100 kilometres. Sunset was fast approaching and we all seem anxious and I was relieved to see the 46KM sign to Hawassa at the town of Aposto.
We made it to Hawassa at 7:30PM. It is a beautiful evening in a seemingly busy city with well-lit streets. We checked into Pinna Hotel at the shores of Lake Hawassa.
I logged into the hotel wifi – Christmas Messages are still trickling in. I am still unable to access Facebook and Whatsapp because authorities have blocked their use in order to mute a student-led protest over the unrest in Moyale.
It was an easy day considering that I was not on the road. I planned to relax and read.
There are quite a number of restaurants and coffee places down the street. I walked out for breakfast at about 10AM. To my surprise, there is nothing that is not meat. So, I bought milk from a shop, which turned out to be from Kenya and bread. I learned that most Ethiopian families here love to make their own bread – they do not have to buy it all the time. I can’t say the same of my own country.
I had some real nyama choma for lunch – they call it Woslam in Oromia. The meat is roasted in a kiln and it comes out really hot and yummy. Happy man!
Today is Christmas Eve and Christmas messages from Kenya started buzzing in but there is no sign of Christmas here. Ethiopia celebrates Christmas in January. This is also not the year 2017 but 2010 according to the Ethiopian Calendar. Am I ten years younger? Whatever makes me happy – Yes!
I alighted from the bus in Moyale, called my contact who advised that I should make haste and cross to the Ethiopian side because they have power cuts at 10:00AM and that means they will not be doing any immigration work until the afternoon.
Breakfast: Liver and ugali at ZamZam restaurant – Yes, let me make it heavy. As I washed hands at the back of the restaurant, a young Maasai warrior emerged from one of the rooms. I could tell he is Tanzanian by the colour of his shukas and beads. What on earth is one of my own doing 1000KM from home? A little chitchat – he sells honey and its good business. Whatever works for you man – as long as it feeds your kids.
I made my way down to the border post, past yelping money changers, boda boda taxis and did my paperwork – it is a beautiful building with a large parking area for travellers and transit tracks. I could see across the bridge in Ethiopia that they have put up the same facility. Africa is moving forward and traveling is much easier!
My contact/fixer arrived as I walked out of the Kenya immigration and we crossed the bridge towards Ethiopia on his motorcycle. I found a group of Kenyan Christians on a mission to Djibouti lining up at Room 2. The officials were chatty and friendly – a word of Swahili and Amharic here and there between them and the excited young missionaries. My turn came and the passport was quickly stamped and told: “Good luck with Djibouti, sir!”
That was easy! The backpacker just passed for a missionary. I rarely cross African border posts with little drama. As I walked through the gate, the guard blurted “Wapi chai?” I smiled and walked past him and jumped on the motorcycle – I need to change money and find a bus to Yabelo – 200KM away for my first night in Ethiopia. There is no direct bus to Addis Ababa from Moyale but you can take buses that stop at cities like Yabelo, Hagera Maryam, Hawassa or Shashemene. It all depends if you want to tour these towns.
My contact quickly briefed me that there is tension and insecurity on the Ethiopian side of Moyale. There has been fighting between Somali and Oromo people and dozens have been killed. The government claims that the conflict is overuse of resources like water and grazing areas etc.
Moyale on the Ethiopian side is literally divided into two – one side occupied by each group.
As we rode towards the bus station, Gede showed me the station on the Somali side that is empty – for fear of attacks. Somalis were staying indoors or have left town. It is strange that everything looks normal – shops are open and the streets are busy with people on their daily chores.
Transport to Yabelo is by minivans and I found passengers already seated and luggage being tied to the carrier. The fare is 60 Birr (Sh180) but was quickly hiked to 80 once the attendant learnt that I am a foreigner.
There was also an extra fee of 100 birr (Sh300) for my rucksack – purportedly for the customs and police officials at different checkpoints along the way. We haggled over this, as I insisted that I will deal with the police myself if they have a problem with my luggage.
“He is not a foreigner,” said one of the passengers. “He is pretending not to know our language.”
Am I causing unnecessary drama? I look a little Cushitic and you could not pick me from a crowd in Ethiopia as long as I keep my mouth shut. My contact negotiated the fee down to 50birr (shs150). He took the phone numbers of the driver and another passenger so that he can check on me while on the way.
11:20 AM: Okay, let us go!
The road to Yabelo is smooth – easy drive. There are a number of police checkpoints but they did not bother with us except the conductor passing on bribes to them.
The driver could speak some English. A mother offered his 8-year old son as a translator. I sat next to a young couple who are definitely in love – hands wrapped around one another. I mused if they know that love could at some point fade away and that it will hurt. I turned my attention to the window to enjoy the landscapes of Southern Ethiopia!
As we approached Yabelo at 2:45 PM, the driver asked: “Do you need a bedroom?” I had to quickly remember that he meant hotel accommodation.
“I will stay at Yabelo Motel. It should be on the road before the town,” I responded.
I alighted and bid them goodbye and crossed the street to the motel. I could feel the passengers’ eyes on me – still wondering why I am not one of them.
Yabelo is a small town of about 15,000 people. It is predominantly occupied by Oromo people and hosts several aid agencies. My contact here is an old friend.
I had Shekla Tibs and Injera for dinner and downed it with local beer. Shekla Tibs is some kind of sizzling nyama choma placed on a little clay pot cum jiko.
My contact here had some good news. I can get a ride on one of their vehicles going to Addis Ababa on Dec 25 (Christmas Day). This means spending an extra day in Yabelo. Perfect!