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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 July, 2004, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
Ethiopia's rugged good looks

By Mark Doyle
BBC correspondent, Ethiopia

Impressions of Ethiopia may still be firmly linked to the horrific television news pictures of drought and famine in 1984, but it is also a place of exceptional beauty.

Mountain range in Ethiopia
Much of the agricultural land can be found on mountain sides

As I headed out of the capital Addis Ababa, I was braced for a grim journey.

There would be sand and hot winds and people with stick-like bodies everywhere. They might not be in the news right now, but that would be because famine is so common here, it is no longer a big story.

My first surprise was on the outskirts of the city.

New businesses were going up everywhere, mile after mile of new buildings.

Textile factories, food processing plants, construction companies. And in between these new buildings, rich dark agricultural soil being tilled by men behind powerful oxen.

My journey east continued and I was pleased to notice that my route into the eastern mountains took me along a superb new road that followed, more or less, the valley of the Awash River.

I was driving through one of the fertile parts of Ethiopia.

The mountains beckoned, many of them volcanic. Ancient lava flows could be seen in the distance and at one point the road snaked around a long dormant crater full of rough red rock that had once bubbled out of the bowels of the earth.

I changed my mindset about the grim journey and decided to sit back and enjoy it.


Mark Doyle's journey
Mark's journey: Addis Ababa-Nazret-Awash National Park-Mahabara-mountain town of Deder

Soon we were speeding through slightly less fertile land.

The oxen and donkeys of the farmlands were replaced by herds of oryx, a member of the antelope family with thin, delicate horns.

I looked at the map and realised we were driving through a national park. Without searching them out, we saw, at the side of the road, baboons, monkeys, crocodiles and camels.

At one point we came across a huge herd of several hundred camels being driven by nomads. We stopped to say hello.

The camels were impressive enough, but it is the nomads' hairdos that I will remember.

Members of the Itou tribe, these young men had fashioned their afro hair into a large oval shape lying sideways. From a distance their heads looked like big black eggs.

A patchwork of green fields stretch down into the big valleys and up the sides of the peaks

This was a hairdo which required serious maintenance.

Clearly rather dandy nomads, they also sported impeccably clean robes of white and red.

They looked more like they were heading for a fashion parade than herding camels, and they gave my dusty jeans and T-shirt rather disdainful looks.


The smooth new tarmac road climbed steadily.

And then, suddenly, we were in the mountains. The Arba Gugu mountains of eastern Ethiopia.

Up here, the clouds brush the soil with moisture and we were back on agricultural land. A patchwork of green fields stretching down into the big valleys and up the sides of the peaks.

Farmers plant seeds on their land
Farming remains unpredictable

Maize, sorghum, bananas and coffee grow here. I also started noticing an unfamiliar crop, squat bushes of green leaves in neat rows.

This was khat. The leaves are chewed and have a mild narcotic effect. Khat is replacing more traditional crops here, like coffee, because it is easier to grow and fetches a higher price.

In fact the green fields I was seeing in the mountains were rather misleading.

This is not a fertile paradise. Because the rainy season had just begun, the crops were sprouting. But at other times of the year there is drought here.

On several occasions I passed by groups of people waiting for food parcels to be distributed by aid agencies. These were the poorest of the poor who needed a helping hand from outside.

But it was not the kind of hopeless scene a major famine creates. More common than these groups of poor people waiting for food aid were huge marketplaces with others trading cows, field crops and fruit.

A goat market
Local goat market

Ethiopia is still, of course, an extremely poor country. The vast majority of the people here lack basic amenities like running water and electricity.

In a way that is not surprising. During the Cold War years there was a communist dictatorship running the country and the Soviets backed the government while the Americans armed the rebels.

The country was awash with arms and when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviets and the Americans lost interest, the locals continued their own war for years, ruining the economy and impoverishing the population.

Ethiopia is now at peace, but still paying the price of those wars. It is a very poor country, but it is also, in many places, extremely beautiful and in parts quite fertile.

It is a place with some hope, as well as despair. And, as well as the groups of people waiting for food aid, I will always remember the majestic green peaks of the Arba Gugu mountains.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 31 July, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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