4,4 million years ago a small, hairy, small brained hominid that would later known as Ardipithecus Ramidus or Ardi made a final grunt and died. Her tiny form fell and lay in a moist and temperate forest where she had lived and was soon covered with a soft protective blanket of ash from the surrounding volcanoes.
4.4 million years and a week later a short and pale skinned small brained homo sapiens appeared out of the heat haze of the now arid desert grunted and lay down in the same spot liking the idea of sharing the death bed of his ancestors.
Ardi was found by archaeologist in 2004 in the remote Aramis valley in the Dalifarge district, now part of the Afar region in the Ethiopian lowlands . It is one of the hottest and driest places on earth and now home to semi nomadic pastoralists known as the Afar. Ardi would not have found these people attractive but to our modern tastes some have a profound beauty the likes often seen in travel brochures and fashion photo shoots. Young boys with jet black skin with long slender limbs, high cheek bones compliment a wide face that is framed with drapes of tightly braided hair. The women mainly veiled treat you to flashes of their eyes with a beauty so deep they can give you vertigo.
Of course not all are so picture perfect beautiful but that is how I will remember the Afar.
I am travelling with Masresha Yazew Andarge and his partners who work with AISDA, an organisation he set up in 2006 to try and improve the lives of these marginalised but highly adapted people that live only 600 km from Addis but thousands of years away in terms of lifestyles.
A stunning 12 hour drive takes you through land that could be mistaken for the Swiss Alps. Over high mountain pastures and rocky peaks you drop lower through hair pin bends and wood smoked villages. Slowly though the green veers off towards brown river beds run dry and the big trees are left behind. The road turns to dust then rock and you have reached the oven that is the lowland area.
The Afar live on a range of low hills and the flatlands below them. Both areas are dry and inhospitable. Summer temperatures are regularly in the mid forties and the quarry like landscape prohibits anything from growing easily. Sometimes clans decide to move to the neighboring Amahara regional state to graze their livestock.This often leads to angry disputes with the agriculturalists of that area as the Afar let their goats, cows and camels graze in their fields of Sorghum and maize. Consequently most Afar men carry semi automatic weapons that they use to defend themselves as well as their livestock. They appear so militant as they approach you with their arms hanging over the guns across their shoulders, oversized curved bladed knives strapped to their waists. But they always approach in peace.
Through the work of AISDA, lives in Dalifarge state are improving, this is an area that kills if you don't know how to live in it.
Water security to most of us means something that doesn't leak, but here it means offering an alternative to spending up to seven hours walking to fetch water from a riverbed where you then have to dig down two metres to reach and then carry it back
This means no school for girls as they are either child minding or fetching the water. When it does rain the rivers swell as the water runs down from the highlands, AISDA are building water catchment reservoirs which can hold enough for a community to last 5 months through their dry winter season If they get their small second rains in January or February life will be good.
As is sadly usual here on earth the burden of the work is mainly carried by women. Something we are not taught at school in our facts of life classes. Male penetrates female and womankind is shafted. But here as well as being responsible for collapsing moving and rebuilding their wood and skin dome houses, cooking, cleaning, fetching water, looking after the kids and the men and generally running the place women have to deal with an additional injustice .
In Afar like a lot of the desert regions in Africa the women are circumcised, but here it is really extreme.
A home made knife called a Makita is used to cut off the labia minora and labia majora then the clitoris is removed, the wound is stitched up leaving a pin sized hole to urinate and bleed out of.This is done on the floor of a smokey and dimly lit hut by women without clean water or soap. Known as Traditional Birth Attendants they generally mutilate soon after birth but sometimes a girl may have it done at puberty.
On her wedding night the young bride will be opened up so that her husband have sex with her. It normaly causes pain for life.and is the equivalent of genital genocide.Even though it is banned by the Ethiopian government it is carried out anyway.They largely ignore these people and they largely ignore the government they are world’s apart.
I ask where the tradition comes from and apparently it is for cleanliness and to stop women sleeping around and becoming too strong willed. Also a woman will not be respected if she is not circumcised. I twonder if its origins lay in power. The one thing that women have that men want is taken away from them. Maybe it says something about lifestyles and sex. Why mutilate the source of so much pleasure, unless mutual sexual pleasure is not a priority? Personally in a land with no alternative entertainment it makes no sense to limit the one pursuit available and cut off the power to hooded button of women’s joy.
AISDA is really active in stopping this and has had major successes in some areas, persuading women not to do this and so liberating hundreds of young girls from this horror. They train the Birth Attendants in hygenic birthing, have anti circumcision clubs in schools and walk around market places with megaphones denouncing it as dangerous The men need to be converted too and immams, clan leaders and members are all targeted and allowed to understand the dangers of it.
I met mothers and Birth Attendants who have taken the bold decision not to mutilate their children. I got hold of a Makita knife and gave it to them asking how they felt about it. All were full of regret at having had it used on themselves and having used it before.100% conversion from an ancient unfathomable tradition.
Tradition: that boulder in the path of evolution. In the developed world we yearn for it and buy it for our mantle pieces longing for some sense of cultural belonging of our own.The reality is Tradition means oppression too, the continuation of an ancient madness with unquestioned authority. Some traditions are dropped if it means life gets easier, no hesitation when changing a camel for a four wheel drive or a spear for a gun.
Yes tradition the oft used excuse for the continuation of brutal acts that I have heard anthropologists say they should not intervene with.
Despite the fact I couldn't look at a woman without wondering about the state of her genitalia and the discomfort she might be in, I loved the Afar region.
The funny thing about deserts is that though nothing grows there, they really grow on you. Something happens, things slow down and relationships drop their veils, actions involve more effort and reactions have greater effect. Hospitality is fuel of this society. Masresha explains that when a stranger approaches a clan’s settlement he will sit away at a distance and after sometime, even if there are no males around a woman will approach and offer water and milk, then the stranger will either move on or enter the settlement. It is something so simple and human yet can only really happen here where all luxury is removed.
It is no accident that Islam,Judaism and Christianity were all forged in the desert heat.
The fast food, action packed, paved and pampered world that we are fortunate enough to enjoy is only seen on satellite television here and it is surprising how it is perceived .
Dawed came from deep in the region to Dalifage the small market settlement where AISDA is based. Little more than a cluster of wood and dung sructures with a few bigger houses or compounds scattered around. To him it is like New York they have electricity between 6pm and midnight a school some shops and a road. He works as a watchman at the centre and gets to watch the TV set in the open sided wooden hut that is the lounge. After a couple of weeks of working there he asked Mesresha why in Europe and America all they do I kill and kiss ? What was wrong with them? That is all he had seen on the news and films and I guess that is how we represent ourselves. It’s true we never see deeds of love only sex and we never broadcast the good news only the bad.
For those that experience our world through a tv screen they receive very dubious messages about our morals and have no positive role models to aspire to. It is the same for our children. There is Nat Geographic and Discovery but then they just see themselves.
During the heat of the day between 1 and 3 we had to stop work and escape the sun. That is part of the lifestyle. With only three says to make my film I thought I couldn't waste time and stormed off to grab some shots of the town only to find that the heat made everything happen in slow motion The world had been steeped in honey everything became hard to do and the streets were deserted, even the goats were in the shade and any mad dogs had come to their senses and followed them. I returned to the rush covered space between two mud buildings that was in fact a hotel and lay down next to Masresha who simply offered me coffee and khat. In a culture free of alcohol and drugs khat is the accepted stimulant, unless you are in a monastery every culture has to have one and here caffeine and khat. It works fine, it really is the only way to get through the day and gives you a little lift that sends you out at three pm to continue your day with a little spring in your step it is clear how alcohol would have the opposite effect and is Haram (totally forbidden) within Islam – things are different in our cold north though. After coffee Khat is Ethiopia’s biggest export and it is illegal in the States.
There is I means of communication called Dagu when two men meet for the first time in a while they start by one saying " you ask me how I am" the other then says "no after you " this can go on for several cycles until in general the elder of the two will proceed to ask the younger about his family, livestock and what news there is in his area. When we ask how we are we generally say fine not really wanting to know any more; it makes people uncomfortable if you do otherwise. Dagu involves total honesty and ailments, problems and issues will be discussed. Through Dagu AISDA spreads information in an area where there is no radio and most people don't own a mobiles
I love the work that Masresha and his team are doing and I can see how rewarding it to make a difference to an area that needs to change but slowly at its own rate. Their work is really diverse and they are showing how to terrace and grow trees and are innoculating cattle to eradicate the diseases they are prone to.
After leaving Ardi's resting place we pass a group of mud dome houses that are scattered around a large tree. The shade it offers is all there is in a 360 degree horizon of heat shimmering sand and rock. A clan sits on a mat and the elder beckons for us to stop and join them.
They give us perfect coffee, not bitter but a full roasted flavour, black and sweet. Mufe an earth baked bread is brought out, unleavened hard and dry , complete with random seeds and insects, it too is delicious . I hesitate at the bowl of curdled milk with a film of fat on top. I could sense the bacteria in it that would wage a quick and decisive war on my stomach flora,Masresha agreed and we decided to introduce the term lactose intolerant into the Afar language.This he explains is their diet, milk for protein and bread for carbs. Occasionally a goat will be killed and every part will be used for something.
Sitting there under that life saving family tree, I experienced a sense of earthing. My life force's charge connected with the ground where I sat and I understood that this is life at its most elemental . Anything more than this is a luxury, this is my new bench mark. The old man and his clan just gave and shared it's what they do, survive and share. It's incredible to know that whatever happens with world economies, elections, wars and floods these lives will remain unaffected. Much the same as Ardi. Guaranteed though, nobody mutilated her genitalia and that she remained intact until she was found.