Fiche (pronounced Fee Che, not with a ‘sh’ but a ‘ch’)…..that is where we are gonna spend the night, we are told. It is a high altitude area in Ethiopia, and even colder than Addis Ababa. I stuff my shawl and sweater and sweat shirt and whatever woollies I have in a tiny bag bursting at the seams. We set off by bus, early morning.
I have taken a seat next to Shai, knowing that the 3 hour journey will be spent chatting away feverishly. On way, the pouring rain reminds us that we all need umbrellas. The bus is stopped in a small neighbourhood.
While a few volunteers go down to shop for umbrellas, Shai craves Ethiopian coffee and cajoles me into getting down. Montessori joins us. We are in an Ethiopian Dhaaba. This is my first taste of Ethiopian coffee…..in a tiny, terracotta coloured cup, I have a shot of the coffee. Strong beyond words. No milk. No sugar. For someone used to Tapal chaai and Everyday creamer, coffee is not generally my thing. I take pride in being a discerning and heavy tea-drinker. But after a few sips, the coffee grows on me. My batteries are re-charged!
Twisty, meandering roads like twisting and turning snakes. But we are all too smitten by the beautiful landscape to notice the roller-coaster effect of the drive! As far as the eye can see, the mountainous region has pastures that are a mix of green and brown. Cows and other cattle graze lazily. It is reminding me of a trip by road in England’s countryside.
But something is strange. Something is amiss. Something does not seem quite right. The roots of the few trees we spot are so exposed that the next downpour could pluck them out. There is land and rain but not enough plantations. And not enough soil. This is actually what deforestation and soil erosion at the hands of climate change and torrential rains looks like. Clear pastures with very few trees and not enough soil for agriculture. Ethiopia, apart from its other struggles, is also fighting this.
Our bus finally halts at Girar Jarso Woreda, some 112 km away from Addis Ababa. At its highest point, the altitude in this area is some 2195 m!! Mogues, a lean man with very short cropped hair, warm and dedicated, from LEM Ethiopia, an NGO, welcomes us and we get down. Some 25 to 30 village women are standing there in a very disciplined manner, wearing their cleanest and best clothes, all of them draped in white cloth over their normal clothes. We are told they have been waiting for us for a couple of hours.
Children passing by and a few villagers have halted to see what’s happening. I spot a few girl children tightly clutching books in their hands. They seem like a friendly people and it seems they are used to visitors, as they smile back radiantly when I smile at them, and some are kind enough to allow me to photograph them. They are uninhibited and pose readily. A photographer’s delight. I can sense that they are equally fascinated by us…..they observe me from head to toe when I go closer to take a snap, but they do not ogle. They are respectful, but, well, simply fascinated to see a somewhat different looking woman who is clearly not from the neighbourhood.
The faces of the women intrigue me – weather-beaten, hardened skins tell tales of a life of hard labour. But the expressions are not hard. Every once in a while, they smile, and their sparkling white teeth stand out against their dark complexions…..a lovely sight. Aster Birhenu, a stately and graceful woman, is the village women’s spokesperson and gives us a wonderful welcome, which we gather partly from the words of the translator and partly her clear warmth.
The whole team now has to trek towards the school we have to go observe. For city people who at most use the treadmill to ward off the guilt of being couch potatoes, the hike is not easy. The paths are muddy due to recent rain. Every now and then, one of us will take a “panting” break, and vow to be more regular in exercise on return home to build some stamina.
The secondary school is spread over sloping hills. Here, Mogues gives us a detailed talk about the holistic approach being applied to improve lives of people. The school is not just a secondary school for the local people. It is a centre for so much more. The children are taught life skills in addition to quality education like how to protect themselves against diseases, the health side-effects of early marriages, HIV prevention and awareness etc. Agricultural skills are taught here to village youngsters so that in spite of erosion, they can plant enough to sustain themselves and their families. We meet the pretty young girl called Bogalech (her name literally means ‘the brightest light’) who has a tiny one room health centre in the school premises. According to Mogues, she is a fireball of energy and dedication. She is a lady health worker, traveling on foot to villages on mountains in her catchment area to provide basic health facilities, especially to women and children.
On way back, we visit a couple of homes who in their backyards have small farming areas, where they are growing enough fruits and vegetables to eat themselves as well as sell some in the market, with the help of NGOs. One of the prominent village families leads us to their home to formally welcome us with the traditional coffee ceremony. Sitting in that small mud house, I notice the similarity between the humble homes I have witnessed in my ancestral village in Khairpur, Sindh. They have stacked up their numbered, brightly coloured plates and cups on niches in the mud-made walls as prized possessions. Articles of worship are stacked up too. Here it is the cross and symbols of Christianity. In Pakistan, I will notice the Quran and frames with “Allah” and “Muhammad” written in them. But the most startling similarity is also the most amusing – posters of Indian Bollywood stars Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit on the walls J. I tease Shai about India’s biggest export, their film stars.
Tired and hungry, at about 4 pm we reach the hotel where we will stay for the night, and are shown our tiny one bed rooms where we leave our bags. The lunch is a feast. Traditional bread (or rather, pan cakes) called “Injera” make it to my plate for the first time. There is vegetarian variety as well, which they call “fasting food”, which I am happy to eat voraciously in the absence of halaal meat.
As the sun sets, we go to the lodge where some of our team members will stay as the hotel did not have enough rooms. In their central dining area, atop a hill, we all sit around a huge bonfire that is our savior on that freezing, rainy evening. We have an interesting discussion about Ethiopia and how they are fighting their obctacles, with Mogues, and Jason who is our spirited team member from USA but travels often to Ethiopia and knows a lot about it. After a traditional barbeque dinner made over the same bonfire, we head back to the hotel.
There is load shedding. No electricity. Tiny rooms. Cold weather. Slight homesickness. Soon there is a knock on my door, and then another. Kounila and Shai are in my room. They can’t seem to fall asleep, like me. We sit and chat for hours, with me and Shai educating Kounila about the intricacies of marriage and parenting, and giving her unsolicited advice, till the poor little girl starts to yawn. That night in that tiny room at the hill station Fiche in Ethiopia – that’s a night I doubt I will ever forget. And I say that in a good way J.