Entoto, Ethiopia: Part I

Its 3 am in the morning in Addis, the rain is pounding hard, it’s pretty cold and I can’t sleep. My mind and thoughts are in Entoto, a relatively large mountainous region in the outskirts of Addis Ababa.

My mind is here for one reason only; the remarkable women that I had met a few days earlier; Aster, Alamnish and Abavechi.

“I wonder what Aster is up to,” I think to myself. Maybe she’s asleep? Or is she chatting with her 6 children this very moment? Or has she already left her house to head out into the mountains to pick firewood? I for one am freezing my brains off, are her and her loved ones warm enough up there?

“Nyagz, try and sleep your mind will explode,” I tell myself. But my brain was on overdrive till day break, I just couldn’t sleep.

Allow me to introduce you to Aster, Abavechi and Alamnish; very beautiful, strong and graceful women that I met on my final stop in Entoto; and final in the sense that the cab could not go any higher up the steep slope. The car engine coughed and sputtered and finally gave in. It was time to head back down.

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Just as we turned the car is when we saw the three ladies heading down the steep slope with what seemed as heaps upon heaps of wood. “Oh my goodness, “I exclaimed to my friend Hedego. “Is this for real?”

“It is my dear.”

Entoto is a mountainous region that is approximately 3,200 metres above sea level and was home to Menelik II when he founded Addis. This is an area densely populated with eucalyptus trees so maybe you can understand why on this rainy morning; my thoughts were with the ladies and their families.

I had been here about two years prior visiting some tourist sites, Menelik II’s palace and a religious church called Entoto Maryam church, both sites that are very rich in history and culture. (I highly recommend)

It was on this first visit to Entoto that I encountered the women in this area. Back then I was astounded just I was that very moment when I saw the ladies, only difference is that this time around I had come to interact with them.

“Salamnu,” I say. “Salamnu, they reply back.

That’s as far as my Amharic goes and so I ask my friend Hedego to ask them kindly if they could take some time to speak with me to which they agree.

“We need to rest anyway, so there’s no problem,” Aster says as she walks to the side of the road with the others following suit. They all put down their bundles of wood in unison and look me squarely in the eyes awaiting my questions. This caught me off guard I must admit as I wasn’t quite prepared for their quick cooperation.

I begin by introducing myself and explaining my reason for wanting to speak with them; which was to gain a little more insight into their lives (quite intrusive if you ask me) but thus far, this forward approach has worked for me.

I ask them if it would be okay to pay them something small for their time and this seems to tickle Aster. “Of course daughter, I will never say no to money, I’m not even sure I’d speak to you without you offering it.”

“Do you ladies know each other?” we begin, “No we do not, we introduce ourselves to each other in the morning as we head up into the forest or on our way back down. “We are usually there by 5 am and only make our way back after 10 hours; you are bound to make friends on the way,” Alamnish informs me.

“I have many friends,” Abavechi quips.

I come to learn that the women spend most of the day in the forest and sell their collection at the bottom of the slope for about 20-25 Birr ( $ 1-1.25 )

This load that I speak of is approximately 35-40 kgs or could be more. I could not fathom the weight on my back after lifting it with my hands (which I was still unable to) and so my friend Hedego tested it out. The poor guy could barely flinch let alone take a step. Alamnish had to help him.

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“This is out of this world,” he exclaims.

I also come to learn that both Abavechi and Alamnish have husbands who work in the textile industry and that it is they who chiseled tools for them to use in the forest. For Aster it was a different story, “Ah my ex husband is a nobody,” she says in between laughs. ”Ok not a nobody per se he sends me 1000 Birr ($ 50 ) from time to time for our 6 children.”

She seems to think about it for a split second and looks at me again, “Ah my dear, let’s call him a nobody.”

”One day when I went into the forest I returned home to find him gone.  Despite the aching back and long hours on this road, I was always on time to make food for him and the kids.”

What intrigued me most about Aster is that from the get go she kept eye contact with me the whole time yet my friend Hedego was the one translating our conversation. It felt like a woman to woman conversation.

I came to learn that Aster has 6 children, Abavechi one child and Alamnish 2; who are all in school. “You cannot undervalue education; not after the government has made this much an effort in providing it for our children. We can only play our part and that is by being responsible mothers. That is why we have to make ends meet by all means; our kids can only help us over the school holidays,” Aster says.

I commend them on this and can’t help but think of the words George Manblot once said. If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work, then every woman in Africa would be a millionaire; Alamnish, Aster and Abavechi being at the front line.

“Egzi’abher yibarkih” we say to each other, which means in Amharic, God bless you as we part ways.

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