Reflections from Afar…nomads, truckers, desert, crocodiles and smiles!

Luckily for us – my colleagues in Ethiopia have got an internet connection – and Colin got this fantastic account through to me! Take the time to read it…it’s worth it!

“Afar is a remote desert region in the north of Ethiopia about 300 km’s drive from the capital city Addis Ababa and where dance4life will begin its launch in the country. During our couple of days of meetings in Addis, before the trip north, we were getting slightly worried by the reactions of people when we told them where we were going. We were warned of a place full of hostile tribesmen wandering around with guns and knives, blazing heat, drought, no sanitation and ferocious mosquitoes and animals waiting to attack.

In fact some of this is true! 65% of Afar’s population is pastoralist, meaning they have no permanent base but rather move from place to place on their camels and donkeys. They will settle for a while and then move on when the water in that area dries up. They tend to be suspicious of outsiders and yes, as we indeed saw, they do carry guns and knives.

So it was with some trepidation myself and Kate (regional programme coordinator for dance4life) met up with our partners in Ethiopia, Youth Network for Sustainable Development and Amref, early on Thursday morning.

The long drive took us through some incredible landscapes, which we managed to enjoy despite the crazy driving on the roads. The main route to Afar is used by truck drivers transporting all range of goods both legal and illegal to and from Djibouti, the country on the other side of the northern border. Stopping off in a small town for drinks we were instantly befriended by a group of these truckers who insisted we joined them as they were just about to start their lunch of enjera (huge truck wheel sized piece of spongy bread covered in a variety of indistinguishable mounds of meat, veg and who knowswhat else!). It’s basically a communal free for all with everyone diving in and grabbing what they can! These guys were so friendly even when the conversation, as it so often does, turned to football. They all roared with laughter when I told them I was a Chelsea fan… Arsenal seems to be by far the most popular team over here. So we sat chatted, shared food, laughed and took photos before leaving with hugs all round and a big smile.

An hour or so later we arrived in Awash, the closest thing to a permanent town in Afar. Stepping out of the van we were hit by the heat, but it was bearable and the factor 30 sunscreen seemed to be coping. Another pleasant surprise was the hotel, not the Hilton (but then we know never to expect that when on a dance4life trip) but clean with a hard bed with mosquito net and what turned out to be a workable toilet!

We dumped our bags and went straight off to our first meeting at the local Amref office. Here we were met by a group of grinning young people from the local youth group who danced and performed amazing acrobatic tricks for us as a welcome. We met the local staff and then went off to the local elementary school. Students there have had some basic HIV and sexual awareness training by Amref and a group of them performed a short play they had developed, highlighting the need to have safer sex and also have an HIV test. It was great sitting with them afterwards. We explained that dance4life was coming and how we worked, they were so excited and were already talking about how they wanted to go out into the nomadic communities and become agents4change.

During our 3 days in Afar we met too many different groups, organisations and individuals to mention in detail but the common denominator amongst them all was the warm welcome we received and their excitement about dance4life coming to Afar.

Day 2 was one of the highlights of the trip as we drove out of Awash into the desert to try and meet up with one of the nomadic tribes. This, we hoped, would give us an idea of just how possible it might be for dance4life to operate in this context.

First impressions were slightly scary as we passed groups going to the town, on their animals, carrying large rifles. We arrived at a bore hole in the middle of the desert. Basically this is one example of some of the fantastic work Amref have been doing over the past 4 years. They have drilled into the ground and created what is hoped will be a permanent water source for the tribes people, meaning they can stay longer in one area. It wasn’t long after we arrived that we became aware of being watched and slowly but surely young faces started to appear. Some young people and children from the nearby tribe had come to see who we were and what we were doing. Cautious at first they gradually came and led us to the nearby settlement. The community lives in makeshift huts built with wood from the trees, which forms an oval frame. This is covered with woven grass and occasionally the odd bit of tarpaulin.  It is all very portable and can be dismantled quickly to be taken to the next settling spot. On average 30 to 60 people will live as one tribe and they tend to be quite insular and don’t mix much with the other tribes. At first we could only really see the children but then we heard the tinkling of bells and the rest of the village came into view across the desert, leading their goats and cows. I guess we were slightly nervous but never felt really threatened. This tribe knew the local Amref staff and were grateful to them for the work they had done with the bore hole so although wary they were welcoming. We were honoured when one of the elders invited us inside his hut. It was surprisingly roomy inside and neatly laid out with a cooking area and open fire, bed frame and even a few rugs on the floor. It was dark and somehow the construction must reflect the heat because it was actually quite cool. As are most of us he was proud of his home and seemed to enjoy showing it off to us, smiling and revealing his sharpened teeth (the Afari’s use a knife to sharpen their teeth into points) as he cackled. Outside again another elder marched purposely towards us holding a huge hunting

The SRHR alliance Ethiopia team - staff from dance4life, Youth Network for Sustainable Development and AMREF - in front of a traditional house

knife. After a sharp intake of breath I was shocked and relieved that he was offering it to me to try on! So it was strapped around my waist and I posed awkwardly for a few pictures…I’m not sure I’m a natural warrior! By the time we left, the children were clamouring around us to have their pictures taken and smiling and waving goodbye.

But can dance4life work in this situation? In the schools of Awash…for sure. The young people we met there were so enthusiastic and seemed almost desperate for opportunities to learn and take part in something which would potentially take them outside of their school and into the communities. Condoms are discussed openly in school and through Amref we can link them into local sexual health services. The tribal communities will definitely be more challenging. Only a handful of youth live in each village. Temporary schools are sometimes set up for them and it seems a few of the tribes will send the young people there even though it means mixing with the other tribes. This seems the most obvious way to introduce dance4life but as the local government health officer told us it won’t be easy to get into the schools and it takes time to build up the trust needed to gain access. Or maybe it will be those young people in the schools of Awash who will reach out in a more personal way to their peers in the tribes and bring a more individual way of inspiring, educating and activating to create some unique agents4change that will wander the desert doing the dance4life drill! Music and dance are incredibly popular across Ethiopia and we are confident that the spirit and energy of the local people will win through.

And the crocodiles!!??

On the way back to Addis we stopped off by a river in the East African Rift valley for a stroll. The fresh snake tracks didn’t fill me with confidence and then Kate spotted a crocodile resting on the other bank! Thankfully it must have had dinner as it didn’t seem too bothered by us! We were therefore able to watch it for a while before it lazily swished its tail and swam off into the river. The antelopes of all shapes and sizes hopping around us were beautiful and the baboons with their bright red backsides were…comical but the crocodile is something I will never forget.

So now we are back in Addis for some last days of meetings The above is probably already far too long and only a snapshot of an incredible trip and another beginning for dance4life.

Ethiopia is an amazing country where music and smiles surround you everywhere”


Freeze ! (desert style!)



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4 responses to “Reflections from Afar…nomads, truckers, desert, crocodiles and smiles!

  1. Katinka

    Really fascinating story! And I am happy you weren’t attacked by wild animals 😉 Thanks for sharing your great experience with a lot of learnings and an interesting view at the future!

  2. Eveline

    What an amazing story guys, so glad to hear you feel we could implement the programme! looking forward seeing you back in one piece later this week!

  3. Jan Bless

    It looks like a very inspiring and motivating journey. I guess that the dance4life involvement in the tribal communities will be through the agents of change we hope to find/create in Awash.

  4. Walter O

    The story reminds me of my trips to the countryside from the capital, Nairobi, except that here we see hyenas, zebra & Baboons along the way as we travell.
    Wellcome Ethiopia.

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