Dreaming of Lamu

Lamu, Kenya

Lamu is a centuries old Arab town dating back to the fifteenth century and it is the oldest continually inhabited town in Kenya. Situated on a small island just off the East African coast, a short distance south of the border with Somalia, it is a place that relatively few outsiders choose to visit. The laneways in the old town are so narrow and convoluted that no vehicles are allowed and, other than a few bicycles, donkeys are the only form of transport. I have wanted to go there since I was a boy and now, nearly fifty years after leaving Kenya, I have the opportunity.

We are keen to get to there so we can begin our ‘little beach break’ which we are planning to kick off in Lamu and then travel slowly down the coast into Northern Tanzania. We take the twenty minute flight to Manda Island from Malindi and then catch the ferry for the seven minute ride across to Lamu Island. This is a great way to approach the town arriving at the wharf where many other boats are congregated.

The scene is lively with lots of good natured calls and shouts. We haven’t booked any accommodation so finding somewhere to stay is the first order of business.

Petleys Inn, Lamu, Kenya

Right opposite the wharf is Petleys Inn, the first place that we want to look at. We are offered a room on the first floor which opens up onto a large shared balcony with tables and chairs overlooking the wharf. A short walk to the back of the hotel is a small but perfect swimming pool.

Petleys Inn, Lamu, Kenya

We will be right in the middle of things here so we quickly say yes but we can only stay for three of the four nights we will be in Lamu. There is a cultural festival starting in a few days and the place will be humming.

As it was in Malindi, it is hot and humid but we are slowly acclimatising and we make good use of the swimming pool. Early mornings and evening are terrific and I do a lot of exploring and taking photos.

Relatively few western tourists make it to Lamu but a few Kenyans come through here, especially when there is a festival on. The day to day life on the island goes on around you as you wander the tiny alleys and laneways. 

The old town is quite a bit smaller than Stonetown in Zanzibar but the lanes are narrower and cleaner and most have a drain running down the side. There’s very little rubbish but there is the odd trail of donkey droppings. Most of the buildings are three to five stories high so that the sun only penetrates the narrow alleys for a short time each day. Some of the front doors open straight onto the alleys but quite a few have little vestibules outside with a seat in the shade. These are very handy during the monsoon rains as well. Every so often we come across a donkey standing in one of these vestibules, some are tied up and others just seem to be taking a break.

Because the alleys are so narrow donkeys are part and parcel of life in Old Lamu Town. Any time anything heavy needs to be moved the donkeys are loaded up. Coral stone for building, cement and water deliveries are loaded up into the panniers on each side of a donkey. Sometimes small teams of donkeys are used, at other times they pull carts carrying goods offloaded from the boats arriving at the wharf. A few people can be seen riding donkeys, their feet inches from the ground on either side of the animal.

Donkeys seem to have a semi-autonomous existence in Lamu. This is probably not true but it is not unusual to see someone, arriving at their destination, climb off a donkey and set it loose with a whack, obviously with the expectation that it will find its own way home. Donkey drivers, walking behind their donkeys, very rarely need to make any movement to let the donkeys know which direction to take.

After the first few occasions, when walking through the town, it is not surprising to meet or be passed by a donkey that has no load nor any rider or driver in sight. At times they are lying down in the alleys, just wandering around, or ferreting around the rubbish tip. They are an intrinsic part of the character of Lamu. There is a ‘donkey rescue centre’s on the wharf street, which has been there for many years, where dozens of donkeys are fed and cared for. 

We frequent a few of the local eating establishments along the waterfront and quickly find out that we prefer the Swahili dishes to the attempts at Western food. It also has the advantage that they are quite cheap as well as being very tasty. 

The town is at its liveliest during the evening and we love sitting on our balcony while we watch the passing parade. The people on the island are predominantly Muslim and there are twenty three mosques.

One of many mosques

Around 5pm each evening there is a parade which changes in character each night. Sometimes it is young men only, at others it includes children of varying ages and one evening it was all women. Each time they played music and sang as they walked along the road. 

The main square is in front of the Lamu Fort and the locals congregate here in the evening to play games like Bao and to enjoy the shade.

Playing Bao after the days work is done
The entrance to the square in front of the old fort

On a couple of mornings we visit the local market which is to one side of the Fort.

A Cultural Festival begins on our second last day. We enjoy the Dhow races along the channel

the donkey races along the waterfront, and the fish auction where they auction off the largest of each type of fish caught in the last few days. 

On the last night we stay at a very lovely guest house in a newly renovated building where the owners have restored the place to show off the best of Swahili architecture.

Before catching the plane back to Malindi on our last afternoon we watch the crowds along the wharf. 

Young boys and young men vie for attention as they dive off the wharf into the cooling sea.

We only had limited time in Lamu and we would both have liked longer. It is a quiet corner of East Africa where you can chill for a few weeks or a few months.

Ethiopia Part 9, The Bull Jumping Ceremony

“Bull Jumping” Hamer Tribe, Ethiopia 2018

Imagine this. You have driven for three hours through the African Bush from a remote dusty village in the southwestern corner of Ethiopia, along twisting dirt tracks and across dry creek beds, and then for a further 45 minutes on a roughly cut track through the bush, which is not a road or a track at all but merely a clearing either side of a footpath along which no other vehicle has yet travelled. It is so fresh that the exposed stumps of trees and bushes are going to cause havoc with your tyres, and you have no hope of spotting or avoiding them all. You’re not sure where you are going but your guide says ‘it’s all good’ …

You are here in the Southern Omo Valley in a remote corner of Africa to witness a pre-nuptial ceremony in which a young man earns the right to marry the woman of his parents choice by running naked across the backs of a line of nine bulls and doing this four times after a day of celebration, dancing, drinking and traditional rituals. It is called the ‘Bull Jumping Ceremony’ but it turns out to be so much more than that!

You may have read about the Southern Omo Valley tribes of Ethiopia and possibly seen some of the documentaries and photographic essays that have brought a broader audience than anthropologists to these unique cultures. There are more than twenty tribes living in this remote south-west region of Ethiopia, an area which has only relatively recently become accessible to tourists, and then only with a guide, and often an armed guard.

Having made your way here from halfway around the world you need to work out how you can make the most of your visit. The small towns of Jinka and Turmi serve as ‘jump off’ points to explore the region so you make your way to Turmi, a small, hot and dusty village with very little infrastructure but it is close to the Hamer villages. There is a small hut in town which serves as the ‘office’ / ‘gathering place’ for the local guides, so finding a guide is quite easy. The people in Turmi have already figured out that the ‘Ferengi’ (foreigners) have lots of money and they sometimes stage manage visits to nearby anvillages and their ceremonies but you aren’t really interested in joining the dozens of tourists that are also in town and you are quite prepared to get off the beaten track.

This is our challenge and we are very excited to be here for our last great adventure before we leave Ethiopia. We have set up camp in Turmi for a few days and we are here to see ‘The Bull Jumping’ but other than that we have no idea what to expect. We talk to a guide and he says that he knows of two ceremonies that will be taking place the next day. One is fairly close to town but the other is some way out and we will be the only ‘Ferengi’ there.

We agree to leave around lunchtime the next day and assume we will be back around sunset. We anticipate joining our new friends, Thomas and Igna for dinner back in Turmi at 7pm, who arrived later in the day having spent two days on the road from Jinka, where it only took us one day. But then they are travelling on a tandem bicycle!

We leave Turmi with high expectations but, as it turns out, we didn’t really know what we had signed up for. Our guide is crammed into the front of our Landcruiser with us and we wind our way between several villages before we leave the dirt road and pick our way along the newly cut bush track. Eventually, we reach a group of boys under a tree and we park in the shade. Our guide says we have to walk a short way so I grab my camera bag and we follow him for about ten minutes along a path that leads down to a river bed. There are crowds of people down here and we stand off to one side taking it all in while our guide talks to the villagers.

We are introduced to the young man who will be ‘jumping the bulls’ today and we can see that he is quite nervous.

The Central Character

A group of women leave the river bed, dancing and running, and climb the slopes up to a cleared area near the village huts where we find crowds of people sitting together on the ground under low shelters. We are invited to sit with them.

The women continue dancing and the noise is tremendous when they pass. The stamping of feet, the jangle of the many bells around their legs and ankles, the singing and the blowing of horns are almost deafening.

As they dance the dust rises and swirls in the light of the afternoon sun … a symphony of colour and light and noise.

The smells and taste of sorghum beer, and the local coffee, both of which are being brewed in large calabashes over small fires all add to the vibrancy of the scene.

All of our senses are assailed by this onslaught and it is a struggle to take it all in.

The children run around under everyone’s feet, as do the goats. One baby goat scratches around one of the fires and a small child removes it before it gets burned.

Ethiopia 2018

The smaller children are very keen to have their photos taken.

Occasionally one of the men asks if we are ok and offers us more coffee or sorghum beer. Otherwise, we are left to our own devices and to sit on our cattle hide happy to observe.

This man is carrying his own seat

The celebrations can last two or three days and during this time a number of different activities take place.

We are directed back down to the river bed where people are regathering. First up the men use some pigments, black, ochre and white, to paint their faces. Our guide paints Julie’s face.

Our guide tells us that ‘The Whipping’ is about to take place. We are not sure if we have heard him properly and we have no idea what is going to be whipped. A few people gather slender branches from some of the bushes and strip the leaves from them. During all of this, the women continue dancing and singing and blowing their small horns. Different things are happening all over the place.

Then ‘The Whipping’ starts. The women encourage each other and, through dance, singing and blowing their small horns, demand to be whipped. Their backs carry the scars from past ceremonies. Several of the men are reticent but the more senior men seem to accept the responsibility more readily. The women obviously want to be whipped and they show no sign of pain. Apparently, they later rub things into the wounds on their backs to promote scarification. Several men refuse to carry out the whipping and some of the younger girls contemplate it but then back down. Both men and women seem free to participate or not as they wish. The men select a branch that is most flexible.

The young boys and girls are taking a keen interest in proceedings, picturing themselves as more active participants in the future.

Later in the afternoon, a large number of people arrive from other villages and they are welcomed, offered some space under the shelters and given some sorghum beer.

Some of the men have coated their skin with oil and charcoal so that it shines. When they arrive they are given the best places to sit and plied with sorghum beer. These men will play a central role during the bull jumping.

The whole affair is a moving festival of activity from the river bed to the village and back again and then over to a clearing where the bull jumping takes place.

A group of men take themselves off to one side and start to dance. A few of the men step into the semi-circle formed by the other men and start to dance. They all set up an amazing syncopated beat with their feet and clapping with their hands. The men inside the semi-circle jump in unison with the rhythm of the beat they are creating.

As sunset approaches the mass of people moves up a slight rise to a level area. We are told that the cattle are coming. They arrive and are immediately surrounded by the dancing groups of women who are making a tremendous noise. They move in and out of the bunches of cattle, pushing and shoving and generally confusing the cattle. This goes on for some time until the cattle are befuddled and bemused. That seems to be their intent because the cattle become a lot more malleable and stop trying to escape from the surrounding ring of people.

Trepidation

The young man who is the central character in this ceremony wanders between the cattle contemplating what is to come. There seems to be a distinct look of trepidation on his face.

The oiled young men now move in and start to line up the bulls in preparation for the central event. They grab horns and tails and drag them into position. It is now well after sunset and the light is fading fast. A shout and the young man is up and running lightly across the backs of the bulls. Once across he drops to the ground and turns to repeat the effort three more times.

“Bull Jumping” Hamer Tribe, Ethiopia 2018

So very quickly, it is all over and we need to get back to the car. By the time we reach it the light has gone completely. Our guide is walking around the car with a torch and he draws our attention to one of the tyres which is completely flat. There’s nothing for it but we have to get it changed, which we do and we start the slow journey back through the darkness.

We haven’t gone far before Julie says that she can hear something. It is a warm night and we have all the windows open. She can hear air escaping and we have a second puncture and this tyre is slowly deflating. I decide that it can wait until we get to some more even ground so we can get a jack under the car. We still have a couple of four-wheel drive spots to get through though.

Eventually, we get back to a semi-decent track and change the tyre and we can head back to Turmi. We reach there a little before 8pm and unfortunately, we have missed our dinner date so we have dinner on our own, our senses still reeling from the intensity of the afternoon.

When we left the celebrations looked set to continue well into the night and will last through the next day. Each village only holds one bull jumping ceremony per year so they obviously make the most of it.

Ethiopia Part 8, Tribes of Southeast Ethiopia

Mursi Woman and Children, Ethiopia 2018

In the south-east of Ethiopia, we find an entirely different aspect of the country. We leave behind the  Orthodox Christian Churches and Monasteries of the northern circuit, the hustle and bustle of crowded Addis Ababa and the extreme highs and lows of the Bale Mountains and the Danakil Depression and enter an area where tribes build huts in their unique traditional methods and the people live as they have done for hundreds of years.  

The first village we visit in this area is a Dorze Village in the Guze Mountains high above the Rift Valley city of Arba Minch. The Dorze people live in a cold and damp environment so they need huts which can withstand the weather and they are famous for their towering homes which are essentially massive upturned baskets. Its too high for banana trees to grow but perfect for Bamboo and Enset (false banana) and their homes are woven with bamboo and thatched with the enset leaves. They can be 12 metres high when first built (or woven) then as termites and damp slowly wear away the base is sliced off so over 60 to 80 years the huts become progressively shorter. They don’t use a central pillar for support and the hut can be picked up and moved to a new location when needed.

Inside there are partitioned areas on the sides for livestock and vents are set high in the roof to help clear out some of the smoke from the cooking fires. A small area at the front serves as a reception room and if you imagine this as the trunk and the upper vents as eyes, the homes are said to resemble massive elephant heads (maybe you need a good imagination).

There are numerous Enset plants in the adjoining garden patch and our hostess shows us how she makes and cooks kocho, a fermented, unleavened bread, from the plants. It is eaten with honey and data, a hot chilli sauce. 

We are also treated to glasses of a local hooch made in stills in the village and drunk with a loud ‘Hoy, Hoy, Hoy’ toast as you raise the glasses high then quickly swallow the lot. Pity our visit was in the morning as a few more of those would certainly be warming on a cold afternoon or evening.

We are staying just a short distance from the village in a lodge where each chalet is a modified Dorze hut. Instead of the partitioned area on the side housing livestock, we have an ensuite, and there is a dining area in the middle of the hut, instead of a cooking fire, with magnificent views over the lake below. The views and the peace are so magnificent it is easy to stay an extra night.

Not far south of Arba Minch live the Konso people who have taken an entirely different approach to building their villages. They are not as high in the mountains and the weather is milder but the country around is very hilly and covered in innumerable rocks. Through 400 years of very hard work they have transformed the hills into terraces for their crops and built their villages on the tops of the hills surrounded by walls of rocks for protection.

We visit a village with a guide who explains the customs and significance of what we are seeing. Once inside the outer wall the twisting stone-walled walkways connect family and clan compounds, each with a clutch of thatched-roof homes, communal mora (huts where young men sleep at night to serve as watchmen and community servants for the village) and public squares where generation poles (one pole is raised every 18 years) stand tall.

Children play in the walkways and around the generation pole in the public square.

From Konso we drive west into the Lower Omo Valley. This area is featured in many articles in National Geographic and it is an area we have been looking forward to visiting. There are over 20 different ethnic tribes with distinct differences in dress and culture and they still live largely traditional lives. The country is primarily indigenous bush with very few buildings using modern materials. This part of Ethiopia has been accessible to tourists for a relatively short time and west of the Omo River it is still very remote and requires planning and guides to visit the area.  

Jinka is the largest town in the area and will be our base for visiting the Mursi people. Even our drive to Jinka is fascinating as we pass through wonderful and varied landscapes and through towns like Kako and Key Afar where the local tribes include the Banna people with their distinctive hairstyles and decorations. It is market day in Kako as we pass through the area and for many miles either side of the village we see people driving their animals or carrying their produce for sale in the market.

Once in Jinka we find some accommodation and begin organising our trip through the Mago National Park and across the Mago River. A guide is required for the trip and we also need to collect an armed guard when we enter the national park. Fitting one extra person into our vehicle for a trip of that length is extremely difficult and uncomfortable, two is not even an option so we will have to go in our guide’s vehicle. While we are at our hotel we are greeted by two other travellers we had seen on our trip out from Konso. Igna and Thomas are from Lithuania and have been working in the US for the past few years. They are riding a tandem bicycle for two months in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania … it sure makes our travels seem very easy and comfortable by comparison. They are also planning to visit the Mursi people so we join forces to share the costs of the guide and guard.

We make an early start and the trip out to and through the national park takes us through more great landscapes as we cross a range of hills and the Mago valley. There are apparently quite a few animals in the park but the thick vegetation means spotting any is rare. It would appear the need to carry an armed guard is more to provide employment than any real danger. 

We visit two Mursi villages. The first is a permanent village and the people have some cattle but are also involved in agriculture. In the second village, they primarily raise cattle and move around their lands to provide them with new pastures. As they are nomadic so their huts are less substantial and are easily deconstructed then remade using larger branches they have carried with them plus local grasses and other materials from the new area.

The main source of cash income is from visiting tourists such as ourselves and although the clothing, or lack of it, is genuine, the face and body painting and elaborate headgear would traditionally only have been worn for battle or special occasions. It is now worn often in the hope we will pay for taking their photos and people eagerly line up to be included in the photo shoot.

The enormous lip-plates worn by some of the women can be up to 12 cm in diameter. They are made of clay and are inserted into a slit in their lower lip. Due to the obvious discomfort, women only wear the lip-plates occasionally, leaving their distended lips swaying below their jaw. The hole is cut around age 15 and stretched over many months. Now women can choose to wear plates in their ears instead, not an easy process but certainly easier than wearing the lip-plates. When asked why they did it we were told it was to show respect for their culture. Other people told us that it originally started to stop neighbouring tribes abducting their women.

In the second village the decorations used included cattle horns, gourds and local berries.

Mursi Woman, Ethiopia 2018

From Jinka we travel south to Turmi. One of the main reasons we are here is to witness a Hamer “Bull Jumping” ceremony. While we are waiting for that to happen we travel to the nearby town of Dimeka for their weekly market. It’s a very colourful and lively affair and well worth the visit while we are waiting for the “Bull Jumping” ceremony.

Back in Turmi we conclude arrangements to visit a “Bull Jumping” ceremony which turns out to be something quite special and warrants its own post so keep an eye out that.

Ethiopia Part 7, Bale Mountains

We are sitting in the mist and driving rain in the Bale Mountains in southern Ethiopia waiting for it to clear slightly so I can start taking photos. The wind is buffeting the car and it doesn’t look very inviting outside. But that’s not surprising. We are up at over 4,200m in altitude on one of the highest roads in Africa in the middle of the largest expanse of Afro-alpine climate zone on the continent. It is freezing cold, especially after the Danakil, and quite desolate up here. I’m loving it!

We stayed in a nearby town called Goba last night and got up in the dark before 6am to drive up into the mountains. Thankfully it didn’t rain too much during the night. Not far out of town the road turns to an all-weather dirt road and we were soon climbing up some steep hills. Not surprising because we climb over two thousand metres in less than fifty kilometres. We show our pass at the gate and we continue our journey.

On the left edge of the road a torrent of water rushes down the hill but we couldn’t see much else because of the thick mist. 

Before too long I get impatient and I’m out of the car, stepping carefully across the spongy ground. The wind is blowing and it is icy so my hands are freezing but I’m enjoying being outside the car. In this mist I can’t see further than about forty metres. 

As I walk off the road I see a narrow stream flowing slowly across the marsh, winding its way back and forth before it disappears into the thick mist. I’m often stepping in shallow water so I’m very grateful for my good hiking boots which keep my feet dry. I keep hearing the sound of bubbling water and I soon find the source; a water fountain on a very slightly raised mound is feeding the stream and there are other fountains spread about the place. The ground is sodden and carpeted with tiny plants that obviously thrive in the cold and wet. I love these wild places. 

In another spot I take photos of a couple of small waterfalls tumbling down from a raised marsh over a small natural wall of rocks. I climb up about two metres to the marsh and find more rocks around small hills as well as giant lobelias which can grow up to nine metres high. There are some small tarns amongst the rocks and every now and then a little more sunlight makes its way through the clouds and mist to add some reflections to the flat grey surface of the water. Apart from the soft sound of the wind and the swirling mist the place is eerily quiet and still. The cold seems to pervade everything. 

In some areas the ground is riddled with holes but for a long time I don’t see any animals. Then I spot a mole rat scurrying across the ground, and disappear into one of the holes. Later I see a hare running away with black and white tipped ears. 

I take shelter in the car a few times to catch my breath and warm my hands but eventually the temperature warms up enough so that I can stay outside. 

At one of our last stops I step outside the car and look behind us. I quickly and quietly call to Julie to look out of her side of the car where two rare Ethiopian wolves are crossing the road. One of them heads away from us but the other trots over to some rocks nearer us to investigate something. It sniffs around for a while before taking off after its mate. We are thrilled. There are perhaps only three hundred of these wolves left alive. We vaguely saw a couple in the shadows the night we climbed the volcano in the Danakil Depression so it was wonderful to see them so clearly up here.

Giant Lobelias, Bale Mountains, Ethiopia

We drive back to a place on the road above a wide area which has several larger tarns surrounded by larger hills and a rounded peak, all of which are swathed in rolling mist. After we eat we sit a while to see if the mist will clear. At the first opportunity I am out taking photos. When the mist rolls in again we start back down the track we came up on. 

We have one last stop to take photos when the sun comes out for a while showing us the fertile valley nearly two thousand metres below us. What a view! In the east we can see a massive line of cliffs. I climb up to a viewpoint and I look down into a narrow and very deep valley to the west that carves its way through the mountains. This is a truly dramatic landscape. 

We had considered camping the night up in the mountains but we both felt that it was too cold and wet to be at all comfortable and we couldn’t get to the official campground because the road was too muddy. Even so it’s a very special place and we are very glad to have spent the better part of a day up here.