The reason I enjoyed my first trip to Ethiopia so much was not just because of the colourful visits to over 20 tribes, each with its own decorative style and traditions, but more especially because I had an excellent driver and very kind, interested guide in one Ermias Kifle. Not only did he answer all my questions about the villages we visited and my inquiries into the Amharic language, which he would let me practice with him on our long drives, but he was also extremely receptive when I asked if I could interview him.
We sat down together at a picnic table in the shade of a dusty tented camp at Turmi, in Southern Ethiopia, during the siesta hours of the afternoon of the day after the Hamer wedding
described elsewhere in this website. Here was the chance to talk to a handsome man who had been around Ethiopia many times and could answer my questions in excellent English.
I opened the interview by asking Ermias if, for the purpose of background information, he could give me an idea of his education and upbringing.
He replied, “I was born in Addis Ababa and I still live there. I finished grade 12 in high school and went on to study at a teacher training college for two years in Addis. However, after completing a one-month practicum with 13 to 16 year-olds, I realised teaching was not for me and instead I took driver training. After a year, I received my grade 2 license and after another year, I obtained a grade 3 license. This means I can drive vehicles that carry up to 20 passengers.”
“And how long have you been working with your current tour company?” I asked.
“Four years but before that I was working for another Ethiopian company offering rafting tours on the Omo and Awash Rivers and the Blue Nile.”
“Are tours to the Omo Valley available only at certain times of the year?” I wondered.
“The South can be visited all year round except during the rainy season in April and May. The best time to visit is from July to October as this is ideal for witnessing the bull-jumping ceremonies of the Hamer people
“And how did you manage to learn about all the different tribes and speak their languages?” This was one of many of his abilities I had been impressed by, being a linguist myself.
“I have learned about the tribes from my many trips down here. I can speak some basic words in the local languages, which I learned from the people themselves, but we speak to each other in Amharic, which is our national language.”
“What kind of earnings does a driver have on average?”
“Driver/guides like myself and drivers earn a basic monthly salary plus a daily rate when we're working. We work about 25 days a month.”
“And how many people are employed by the company you currently work for?”
“Including guides, driver/guides, drivers, cooks, office staff and hotel and restaurant staff in the hotels managed by the company,” he answered, “there are about 250 people who depend on our company for work.”
I thought for a while about all the places we had visited during our jaunt from Addis in the middle to the south. The hotels and lodges that we had been staying in were fairly good standard with very few exceptions and the meals had been excellent. “How many vehicles does the company you work for have?” I continued.
“Twenty-five vehicles: 3 minibuses, 5 buses and the rest are Land Rovers, which are very expensive to maintain and keep in good condition.” He knew his stuff since, of course, as a driver he also had to be an excellent mechanic in case there were breakdowns in the middle of nowhere. I had also been very impressed each day to see that the Land Rovers we were using were kept very clean despite all the mud, dust and sand we drove through!
I then changed tack. “What are your own thoughts on tourism in Ethiopia?”
Ermias' reply was a positive one, “I think that this coming year things will improve. I heard that the EU may give the Ethiopian government $50 million in aid specifically for tourism. I've personally seen a lot of changes due to visitors coming to the South especially among the local people.”
“How about the development of business in Ethiopia?” I was curious, as the business woman that I am (another of my professional hats). “Have things been improving there too?”
His answer was encouraging, “Yes. There are many joint ventures between Ethiopian and foreign companies, mostly European but also some American.”
I returned to a more personal question. “What are your own career goals?”
Whereas all the high school students I had interviewed
in both the North and the South invariably stated they wanted to become doctors, Ermias' more mature reply was as follows, “I would like to be a Tour Manager. For that I would have to go back to school but right now I am always on the road so don't have the chance to improve my situation.”
Interested by this idea, I queried, “How long would it take you to obtain a certificate or diploma in Tourism Management?”
He shyly admitted, “I haven't looked into it yet, but I imagine 2 to 3 years if I studied part time and worked part time.”
I changed tack again. “Where is your favourite place in Ethiopia?”
There was no hesitation on his part. “Definitely the South for the tribes. For scenery, though, the North is marvellous. The North and South are totally different.” This reply encouraged me to see more of Ethiopia, and as it happens I did manage to do so two months later, this time as part of my new business.
And now for my final two questions, “What has been your best experience so far as a driver/guide?”
Ermias thought for a while and said, “I was taking a group of Spanish tourists on a game drive in Mago National Park and we almost never see any big game there. This one guy really wanted to see lions and I was just looking around and suddenly saw four of them. When I pointed them out to the guy he was so excited he was shaking!”
“So, what about your scariest experience?” I asked next.
“We were once held up in Murulle. We were camping near the village of Kortcho and had just packed up and were driving to Murulle when a man with a machine gun told me to stop and give him money. He asked for 1000 Birr (an amount equivalent to about $110 Canadian). I told him I didn't have that much on me; all I had was 100 Birr. He then asked for 1200 Birr. I got out 300 Birr and threw it down. The guy with the machine gun looked very nervous. I told him not to shoot because I knew other Karo people and they would find him and kill him. I then drove on and when I found my Karo friends I told them about the incident. The elders started to investigate and asked around as to who among their people was going in that direction that day. They found the man and asked him why he was travelling that way. He said it was to see his goats. They looked on his person for money and found he had 300 Birr. They then took him to the spot where the incident had happened and placed his foot into the footprint he'd made when he'd taken my money and it fit. The elders said to him, 'Ermias is our friend. Why did you do this to him?' They whipped him, confiscated his goats and made him pay 100 Birr. Finally they took him to the police station in Jinka and he stayed three months in jail.”
Impressed by his answers, not to mention his courage, I ended our interview with the all-purpose marketing question, “Do you have any message for future tourists coming to Ethiopia?”
Ermias' answer again was well thought out and diplomatic. “Yes. Help us to help the Ethiopian communities to keep their traditions without exploiting their culture. Come and visit Ethiopia.”
I thanked Ermias and wished him much luck in his hoped-for career. I told him that I planned to spread the word about Ethiopia as this had been for me one of the best trips I had been on.
The above interview took place in Turmi, Ethiopia, on 13 September 2005.
The content was checked with the interviewee and revised in Addis Ababa on 26 November 2005.
It was then cut and rewritten in the form of a conversation in Vancouver, BC, Canada, in May 2009.
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