There is nothing like driving through rural Africa. It was something I dreamed about ever since watching the 1980s film “Out of Africa” with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Call me a romantic but there is something utterly nostalgic and breathtaking about the countryside. Perhaps even more so in Africa where you take a step back in time to how things used to be.
In much of Africa, including Ethiopia where over 90% live outside of cities, rural life is life. Men, women and children tend to farms and herd livestock. Markets, business and life happens along the roadside. Modernity seems to have not yet reached this part of the world where water jerricans, mule carts, and manual labor are common. Electricity and running water is a luxury that few have. Bathing happens in the creeks. It is a world so unlike my own that everything I saw surprised me.
For this reason, I was always fascinating with our ventures into the rural parts of Ethiopia and sat glued to the window watching in awe and admiration. Instead of napping, I took photos from our moving Land Rover, trying to capture the heart and soul of rural Ethiopia. There was no way I could do its beauty justice especially since we did not have time to stop. Yet our drive from Addis Ababa, south through the Great Rift Valley to Hawassa had to be documented. The raw, aching beauty of Ethiopia spoke to me.
The Great Rift Valley splits the Ethiopian landscape apart leaving behind many circular crater lakes that are awash with hippos, crocodiles and lovely views like this hotel above.
Our entourage of six Land Cruisers left Addis Ababa early in the morning for our six hour drive south to Hawassa, where we would be based for two days during our trip with the International Reporting Project. Thankfully the roads were all newly paved and in good condition, unlike the rural, gravel roads we experienced driving out to the villages near Bahir Dar. The landscape was verdant, lush and tranquil just as I had imagined Africa would be.
We passed through small roadside villages and nondescript towns. Most farmers live in tukuls as shown below made out of grass and mud. They build their tukul around a small plot of land.
There are few trucks in rural Ethiopia. The preferred method of transportation is by mule cart or on foot. Driving is a dangerous endeavor as you are constantly warding off goats, sheep and cows who walk across the road like they own it.
Life in rural Ethiopia occurs along the roadside. I was surprised to see young children sitting perilously close to the oncoming cars. Toddlers walked hand in hand without adults and even herded goats and sheep without supervision. It was not a sight I was accustomed to.
The drive south to Hawassa passes through many nondescript towns and roadside villages. Since it was a Sunday, only men were out in the towns. Surprised I asked our driver where the woman were and why only men were out on the streets, walking around arm and arms or in groups. “Because the woman are home working” he replied.
Life in the countryside revolves around harvest time. The land is prepared in the spring. Seeds are sowed in the summer and the harvest happens in late fall. Life is difficult and hard. Yet the sense of community remains strong.
Perhaps the most renowned town en route to Hawassa is Shashemene. Known as “the Promised Land”, Shashemene is the Rastafari capital of Africa. It was here in 1930 after Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie that the Jamaicans founded a new religion called Rastafarian. You can see Rastafari billboards, posters and shops throughout the town and of course meet some fellow Ethiopian Rastafarians.
Once you leave the cities and small towns behind and enter the Great Rift Valley, you feel rather small and insignificant. It is absolutely huge.
More produce stands line the roads as farmers try to barter and sell their stock.
Alas, there is nothing but raw, eternal beauty that Ethiopia is known for….
It was so hard to leave. The beauty and culture were surreal. Yet I also learned through my visits with non-governmental organizations, hospitals and rural health centers that there remains a lot to be done regarding maternal and newborn health in Ethiopia. Much poverty and hardship remain.
I was in Ethiopia in June as a reporting fellow with the International Reporting Project. To see all my stories from the trip, click here. My stories are a mix between photo essays, culture, travel and newborn and maternal health (which is what I was primarily reporting on in Ethiopia).