Chapter 4 – Our Arsi Neighbours
Word soon spread throughout the area when we arrived in 1971 that foreigners were planning to live near the lake shore. Many were suspicious of our motives. Others were perturbed that outsiders had dared to penetrate into their traditional territory.
The Arsi people were well-known throughout Ethiopia for the sense of entitlement they had for their traditional area. Back in 1936 two SIMers, one from Canada and one from New Zealand were murdered while crossing through their area to the south of where we now lived. Little did we realize that it would take several years to build a bridge of acceptance with them.
We first encountered the people while we drove the ten miles in from the highway to our clearing. Men walked to market carrying their walking stick and spear and the ladies packed the precious market goods on their backs and often, at the same time, guided a goat or two along the trail.
At a bridge we met ladies and young girls making their way up from the river bank with pots of water carried on their shoulder or strapped to their back. Often they placed a tin can on top of the water to keep it from sloshing out. They eyed us suspiciously but were usually polite.
The ladies were adorned with colourful beads braided in their hair, dangling around their neck and sewed into their cowhide capes. Butter smeared on their heads made their hair glisten. The men usually wore short pants and a jacket purchased locally and a treasured white homespun shawl wrapped around the shoulders and sometimes draped over their head.
When they met on the trail, one would shout “Fiya”, and the other responded “Fiya”. That was the common greeting, “How are you?”. But the next greeting was intriguing, it was “Urrgah” and the person responded “Urrgah”. This actually meant “How is your smell”. This was significant, because they used butter for adorning themselves and applied it when good and happy things were happening. So the odour of old butter was a good smell to them and meant they were feeling well. When Betty heard the explanation of this greeting, she thought, “Yes, if I am happy and on the go, I squirt a little perfume on”. In fact, in our bedroom Betty had a whole set of perfumed this and that lotions. Why wouldn’t they in their own way do the same!
Brides were adorned with butter on their heads. One day I was asked to transport a few neighbours to a wedding a fair distance away. When I returned, we looked at the vehicle and it had a buttered ceiling! So what! Now we could also respond with the rolled R’s just like them, “Urrgah”, with a smile in our voices!!
The Arsi territory encompassed the southern shores of Lake Langano and spread south as far as the town of Sheshamanae about 40 to 50 miles away. The lake was one of a string of lakes along the bottom of the Rift Valley that split the country down the centre and extended into Kenya. Out from the lake shore the countryside rose in a series of escarpments like a gigantic staircase to a high plateau. The Arsi people lived in the middle of this staircase, several hundred feet above the 5,000 foot level of the lake. That meant the closest neighbours lived some distance from our clearing.
They lived in family clans each with a cluster of round mud-walled and thatched roof houses. Many mature men were polygamists with their wives each living in one of his houses. Fields of corn were cultivated around these settlements.
But the Arsi people were pastoralists; their cattle were of prime importance to them. During the rainy season they pastured their livestock in the highlands above the lake moving them to greener pastures down by the lake when the hillsides became dry. Here they constructed temporary shelters and corrals to protect their animals from hyenas and other predators. One morning we awoke to the sound of a cow bawling in the roadway. Apparently it had not gotten into the corral the night before and was attacked, probably by a hyena, and suffered with its belly torn open. It’s amazing that it escaped at all. Cows were needed to barter a bride price and for feasts and sacrifices. Meat was not in their daily diet, but homemade yoghurt and corn cakes were.
One of these corral enclosures was located near the river a few hundred yards from our home. It was here that Betty was able to start building bridges of friendship with the ladies. They spoke their own Arsi dialect and not the Amharic language that we had learned in language school. I found it amazing how Betty could communicate with the “language of love”.
It wasn’t long before some of them would stop at the clearing where we lived. For most of them we were the first white people they had ever encountered. It was evident that Betty could assist them with simple first aid care. Maybe we should consider opening a clinic, but that would require appropriate facilities and a government permit.
Borema let it be known in the community that I was looking for men to help clear the property. Six men showed up for work one morning. This was the beginning of my relationship with Arsi men and the interesting culture in which we now lived. After a day of work, the men hurried off to their homes; in their minds it would not be safe to stay in Satan’s territory after dark. But Borema would often stay behind and tell us about his people and their superstitions.
Apparently a government agent had come to take a national census many years back. When he asked the elders if they were Muslim or Orthodox (meaning the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which was the official religion of the country), they knew they were not Orthodox, so they said Muslim. Now there were elements of the Islamic influence, but in practice, the Arsi people were subjected to Satan’s fearful domination. If someone was sick, a sacrifice of a black goat would need to be made to Satan; before a crop of corn was planted, another sacrifice was offered. More than likely this would be a cow or ox. The horns and skull of the animal would be hung on a pole at the edge of the field as evidence. They performed these sacrificial rituals at night, and frequently the drum-beat that accompanied them would echo down to our little home in the clearing.
Borema also told how they sought guidance in the affairs of life by listening to a certain bird. (As far as we could tell, this is what Borema seemed to be telling us.) For instance if that bird was seen over their house, it meant that they must vacate it immediately. If the bird was discovered in front of them as they set out on a journey, they knew that was a good omen for a successful trip. Or if they were planning to build a house, they searched for the bird, and depending if it was seen to the right or left of the chosen location, they will change the location of the house. The bird to the distant right was always a good omen. I guess every culture has its own set of superstitions … even ours!
The longer we lived with the neighbouring clans, the more we grew to appreciate them. You would have, too. Warm greetings always welcomed them to our compound and they responded in kind.
Because of Borema’s presence and the mutual respect we had with the people, we eventually found it was not necessary to lock the house in our absence. I never experienced the loss of my building tools except on one occasion when a young boy about five years old found my yellow handled lino knife. He decided to play with it on the pathway leading away from the work site. I am told that his father was disciplined by the elders for this petty “theft”. We had much to learn from the cultural differences of our neighbours. And in turn, they were greatly amused by the strange things we foreigners did. I will endeavour to weave some of these delightful episodes into my story as it unfolds.
It was evident to Betty and I that we were living at Lake Langano for more than just the building of a youth camp and conference centre that would someday minister to the church in all of Ethiopia. The opportunity to serve the local population around the southern shores of the lake was unplanned in mission strategy when they sent us here. A two-pronged thrust of ministry lay before us. Both of these would expose us to a great challenge.
… so we had better get on with the story ….