Some Observations on Street Life, Past Life and Cycling
Ethiopians appear, after one week in the country, to have the street sense of what I refer to as “the headless chicken riders”: those 50,000 or so cyclists who bunch and barge, flail and force their way around my home town on one day in March each year. For all intents it’s a mindless, performance-enhanced, drug-crazed frenzy called the Cape Argus.
Driving long distance in Ethiopia is a thought-provoking experience. Most of those thoughts are of utter terror. The route from Addis Ababa to Bale is tarred all the way to the national park boundary. The journey usually takes six to seven hours, depending on things like the availability of fuel and the bravery of the driver.
Ethiopians are very proud of their 2,000-year-old culture, but it seems this 40-year-old road construct is an all too new concept. It certainly is not a major transport route in the Western sense of the thing. For much of the way there are wide verges through the verdant countryside or substantial sidewalks in towns and villages. But they are seldom used for their intended purpose. Mostly they serve as extensions of farms or businesses. Everyone and everything else uses the road: vehicles, budgets (tuk tuks), horse carts, horsemen and horsewomen, cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, dogs and pedestrians.
In towns and villages (and goats do roam in villages), they will seldom make any effort whatsoever to give way to the traffic, whether budget, bus or truck. In towns pedestrians do not think for one second to look when venturing with great purpose into the street. Actually about half do, and half do not. But either way, none of them changes speed or direction in any event.
Pedestrians walking five or six abreast do not flinch for oncoming traffic. They appear to have as much right to use the road as anyone, or any animal. People standing in the middle of a lane chatting will not move out the way for any wheeled machine. “Excuse me! Can you see I’m standing here, talking?”
If a horse is straddling the middle line, vehicles whizzing past in both directions, the owner (who you can see standing on the far side of the road) will not expend any effort to move the animal. It’s not their problem; it is the drivers’.
The same goes for all animals. They appear to have every right to travel in the traffic lanes. People moving cattle, the herds spanning the road – abreast, never in line, they always move abreast – will make no attempt to move them to one side or part them for vehicles.
Animals, loaded or not, walk confidently towards oncoming traffic without so much as a blink, with no shepherding human supervision. The humans usually walk a ways behind: animal shields maybe. It’s all very interesting in a 2,000-year-old kind of way.
Ethiopian drivers seem to have worked out the behaviour of each animal species (as well as that of pedestrians), and adjust their speed and direction to just shave a horn, ear or arm. No one or thing gives an inch. It is only the dogs that seem to get nailed.
They are a somewhat shorter, stouter and fluffier version of a border collie. Maybe they are more smart than the other animals, or maybe they are less. When they find themselves trotting across a road and suddenly confronted by a speeding vehicle (truck and bus drivers here are called El Qaeda – they have no respect for life), they think “holy crap” and try to take evasive action. Not a good survival strategy around here, Darwin Dog!
We won’t say much more about the drivers, other than to observe that they also never (ever) look before pulling out or turning. The concept of lanes is still novel. If you are at all a nervy person, the best thing to do is close your eyes for the duration and ignore any sharp braking or swerving.
We also will not discuss night driving, other than to say, rather don’t. Ethiopia is one of those countries where driving with lights on after sunset is optional. But driving horse carts or moving large herds or cattle in the dark is customary.
A person standing, or walking, in the road with their back to the traffic will not respond to any amount of hooting. You can actually hear them thinking: “That could not possibly concern me. I have a right to be right here, and I am here exercising that right.
This possibly could have something to do with the history. Until the mid-1970s Ethiopia was a medieval-style society, governed by intrigue under the absolute rule of Emperor Haile Selassie . He was deposed in the revolution of the Derg, under the leadership of Sandhurst trained Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam and his blood-thirsty military cronies.
They were avowed communists in the Cambodian mode, who attempted to kill half the population and settle the remaining half on vast collective wheat farms. They were fairly successful on both counts. (To find more about this read ‘The Emperor’ by Ryszard Kapuściński, the best book by the best writer to ever write about Africa.)
Flying over the fertile highlands, from horizon to horizon the land is a finely quilted vegetable patchwork in golds and greens, with some blue-brown river wiggly worms appliqued over. This is not and never was a place without enough food. The starvation of Ethiopia was a purely political construct by one group to starve out their ethnic enemies.
The dreaded Derg were eventually overthrown by the Tigrean forces (remember the time of the starving Ethiopians, these were they), who instituted what is probably the most successful example of African socialism. Except that, as everyone who knows, much like Cape Town, the country is not really part of Africa.
So Ethiopian people today are agricultural, stoic and unyielding. About half the population is Orthodox Christian, their branch of the faith predating the Roman Catholic Church by around 200 years. The other half is Muslim, and it is enshrined in their culture that the two live side by side with total tolerance and harmony.
It was on a 12-hour hell-bound ride back from Bale to Addis Ababa that I had an epiphany about, of all things, road cyclists back home in South Africa. Now I know where they all come from.