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Angela Fairbank
Travel Writer

Visit to an Afar village near Awash Arba, Ethiopia

An excerpt from travel journal #22...

...we met at 2:00 pm to drive out to visit the Afar people, who are nomads and spend their time moving around to find water for their herds. We picked up a 13-year-old Afar boy in town and he led us into a village. All the men of working age were out with their cattle, so all we found were two women; one didn't stay around, but the other was most hospitable. She thinks she's about 16 years old and was married at age 14. She has three children under the age of three, a boy and two girls respectively. Her name is Zaira Mohamed.

We stood outside chatting, but the wind blew up the dust so she invited us inside her house (made of long thin sticks, covered with plastic and cotton materials and containing a big wooden bed, a camping fire and a suitcase of clothes) and indicated that I should sit on the bed while she sat on a stool breast-feeding her youngest. We talked about her life and she asked me about mine. I gave a map of the world to the young boy from town and showed him where I was from.

Then a 75-year-old man came into the house with a rock he'd found that looked as if it contained agate. I admired it but said I had no knowledge of rocks and minerals, so he gave it to Zaira's son to play with. He also asked if I was a doctor and if I would give him some antibiotic ointment for his eyes (which incidentally looked fine to me). The Afars are Muslim and this man has two wives and twenty children. One of his wives is pregnant and he lost two sons in a recent intertribal skirmish.

By using the language skills of the driver, Wube, interpreting between English and Amharic, and the school boy, interpreting between Amharic and Afar, Zaira asked if I was married and had children and when I said no to both she said that I must get married as soon as I returned home. According to her, the meaning of life is to get married and have children. Were there no men in my country? was that why I was not married? I said yes there were, but I liked my freedom and I felt my purpose in life was to travel and visit as many countries as possible.

Finally she excused herself saying she had to prepare dinner as her husband would be home with the cattle at 4:00 pm and that after a dinner of vegetables and sorghum bread they would probably chew chat (a mildly stimulating leaf).

I then asked if I might take some photos, so we went outside into the bright sun. She is a pretty girl with such surprisingly white teeth. For the photo, she removed her headscarf and tied another piece of bright-coloured cloth around her waist. She said that next time I came to visit her, she would braid my hair in the Afar style as I had the right hair for it.

Zaira Mohamed and youngest daughter, Afar village near Awash Arba, Ethiopia

Zaira Mohamed and her youngest daughter, Afar village near Awash Arba, Ethiopia.

As we drove away, Wube asked me what I wanted to do next and I asked whether it would be possible to visit the boy's school. He was in the morning shift from 8:00am to 12:00pm but the afternoon shift from 1:00pm to 5:00pm was still in session. Wube agreed and we drove into the schoolyard at the boy's directions and went to meet the principal, Bayu Nigussie, and vice-principal of Arba Trap Elementary and Junior School. Both of the men had excellent English and Wube told me that the principal had actually been his teacher back when he was in school.

I explained why I was there and said I was horrified by the overcrowding of schools and the shift system. They had statistics on their office walls of the number of boys and girls in each grade from one to eight and, surprisingly enough, they were about equal. I presented the two men with an inflatable globe of the world and a package of colourful pens and in return they gave me their address telling me they needed so much more - even the teachers lacked supplies. They also spoke of the problem of the Afar children, being nomads, leaving the school and interrupting their education as their families moved on to find water for their livestock.

They then offered to show me the classrooms, so we visited grades four and one. In the grade one classroom, I asked the students if anyone had any questions for me. One bright little girl stood up and asked, “Are you a student?” I answered that I was always learning new things so in a sense I was a student. The vice-principal explained that the children had forty-minute periods for each subject. He added that they also taught music theory and history but had no musical instruments for the children to learn!

I asked the principal if I might take some photos of him and the vice-principal together with just those pupils who were having their break in the schoolyard. Although I had my wide-angle lens, the excited children kept coming closer and closer and forcing me to back further and further into the spiny acacia bushes! I suspect other children, seeing what was happening, were running out of the classrooms to join their schoolmates so as to be in the photo as well. So it was a huge crowd, finally, that followed me back to the car, reaching out to shake my hand or touch my arm.

Just before we drove away, the vice-principal told me of his wish to be able to build more classrooms so as to extend the school to include grades nine to twelve as well...

Awash Arba, Ethiopia, 24 November 2005

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