A Genius for a Guide
​Dateline: August 2007
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Biruk and a couple of young kids he brought to us for a photograph - with him in it of course - after we paid!
'What is this 'ratshit, Mr Ron?', Biruk asked over the UHF radio.

'Well Mate', I replied from the Patrol, which at that time was following our friend Neil's big Ford along a bumpy eroded Ethiopian road, heading to the Omo Valley, 'It's when something is not good, like this road which is bumpy, washed out and rough ... that makes it ratshit', I said.

'Aaah, so 'ratshit' is not good, Mr Ron?' Biruk answered in confirmation ... anything to keep the conversation going over the radio which he had only learnt to use the day before and of which he was now captivated with.

Next day we were again on a rough and bumpy road when Biruk, who was taking his turn in our vehicle, turned and said to me, 'Mr Ron, .... this road is shitrat!'

I broke up laughing. Hesitantly he asked 'Shitrat, yes?'

In-between laughing I agreed that the road was indeed 'Shitrat', and from then on, long after Biruk had left us, anything rough or bad was termed 'Shitrat'.

But this was just one of his many sayings and terms of phrase that endeared him to us.
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Our 'genuis guide' Biruk.


We had first met Biruk (pronounced, Brook) as we had entered Ethiopia from northern Kenya and were standing beside our vehicles after getting through the border and breathing a big sigh of relief after crossing the bandit and rebel plagued desert. We had earlier, at the last police checkpoint in northern Kenya, refused a police escort for protection and had to sign a waiver to say that we had done that on our own free accord - see our yarn, 'Africa Overland' for one of the reasons why. 
 
Biruk had wandered over to us and offered his services as a guide and 'helper', something we normally knock back and we did this time as well. Then he offered to take us to the Omo Valley and my ears pricked up at this - a place I had always wanted to go, but it was by the reports in newspapers I had heard previously, a dangerous place, so I had kyboshed the idea. Now it sprung back into my thoughts. An hour later we had a guide for the next week and set off west into the setting sun.
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Hamer maidens at very suggestive 'harvest dance'.
Notes from my Daily Trip Log:
Headed off and wound our way through the people, carts, sheep, cattle and goats that were already crowding the main street – a few signs in English, but most were in the unique script of Amharic, that along with the Amharic language, is based on the ancient Ge’ez language which helps make Ethiopia so interesting and unique amongst African countries. Add to that a number of ancient cultures with their traditional attire and beliefs, a Christian religion that dates back to the dawn of Christianity, and a country that was never subjugated to colonial rule (although the Italians tried in the 1930s but didn’t have much luck) or missionaries. Then there is the Omo Valley with its multitude of different tribes - some say the most diverse in the world.

Along with all of that, there are the fantastic monuments, castles and churches (does the fabled Ark of the Covenant still reside in one of the rock hewn churches – many Ethiopians believe it does), along with an unusual and varied cuisine that has won world wide acclaim.

Then there is their calendar which is seven years behind ours (the new Ethiopian millennia - year 2000 - began at the end of August 2007), while their daily time starts, not from midnight, but from 6am – which means 10am our time, is 4am their time!

It is also the cradle of mankin, with direct links to our ancestors reaching back millions of years. In Addis Ababa, the country's capital, there is the 3-million year old skeleton of  'Lucy'. Added to all that is the grandeur of the natural scenery, some of the world’s most unique and rare wildlife … and 73 million people crammed in to a country twice the size of Texas - or the size of South Australia! Yep, it sure is different!
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Spicy goat meat (fabulous), injera bread top left (an acquired taste!).


'I am a genius', he blurted out one day as we sat around a table eating 'mesto' which is a tasty plate of spicy goat meat on top of the traditional Ethiopian flat bread, Injera, which I've got to say, is an acquired taste; the goat meat though was superb. 'I know everyone', he said confirming his self-acclaimed status, 'They love me, they respect me'. He certainly wasn't backward in coming forward.

Biruk though, did seem to know everyone - police, pretty tribal women, doctors and hospital staff, shop keepers, border guards, brothel keepers, other guides and shady characters we would not have been game to stop and talk to without him around. And with him doing the bargaining we got to sleep in pretty well protected spots, including a police station, a border post, and in the grounds of the only hospital in the whole region - that was an eye opener!
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A Tshemay mother and child.
As we headed deeper into the Valley looking for yet another tribal group he was again travelling in Neil's Ford when the call came back to us over the radio, 'Miss Vivvy ...... over?' His radio procedure being much improved by now.

Then a few seconds later, more urgently, impatiently, Miss Vivvie, Miss Vivvie, are you there? .....  over'

Viv's reply of, 'Okay okay, Biruk, dont get your knickers in a knot!', was met with complete silence.  

Hesitantly, Brook came back on the radio, 'Miss Vivvie ...... Miss Vivvie .... er, what is this .... er ......don't get your knickers in a knot? .......over.'

In the background we could hear Neil and Helen, breaking up with laughter, and it took some explaining by Viv, what 'Don't get your knickers in a knot', really meant. Perhaps though the meaning was lost on Biruk, 'cause unlike 'shitrat' , we never heard him repeat it!

Another day we were yarning when he said, 'I love everyone, does not matter what skin colour, or tribe', then lowering his head, his eyes closing slightly, he went on, rather conspiratorially, 'I hate those muslims!' You had to laugh at the intensity of Biruk, but his feelings weren't really surprising in a country that is mainly Christian surrounded by Muslim countries that aren't so friendly. And anyway, political correctness doesn't rate highly in Ethiopia.
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Tshemay cattle herder - most tribal men in the valley were armed with a Russian SKS semi-automatic rifles.
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Arbore woman.
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This Karo warrier has 7 scars incised over his chest - telling all he has killed 7 men in battle!
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Brightly painted Arbore boy.


Over that week - in fact, we kept him on a few days longer - we visited the Borana people, then the Konso tribe, the land of the Tshemay people, the men and women of the Arbore tribe, the Hamer, Karo and the Galeb peoples, the last tribe only being reached by an intimidating canoe ride across the waters of the Omo River.

Photographing the many individuals though here is a battle. Now, I don't mind paying as I'm getting something from them so it is an exchange and they are so bloody poor. But here in the Omo Valley it was a bargaining battle of wits amongst a dozen, sometimes more, people wanting their photo taken, demanding you take 'their' photo as they thrust their hands into your face, pushing others out of the way, scrambling to be in the pic. At times we just walked back to our vehicles to get away from the hubbub. It was a meat market. The pics - one pic - for each individual was just 2 birr (about 30cents)  - kids 1 birr - and Biruk would always be there 'helping', coming back to us with a pretty young woman, or a couple of kids for us to take a photo of him with. Then he would casually say to us, 'You must pay her (or him), 2 birr!' We would have to stop him otherwise there would be an unending stream of photographic subjects, always with Biruk standing in pride of place.
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This old women from the Karo tribe was adorned with a cockroach headress.
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This striking Afar woman was on her way to the Key Afar market with honey and milk to sell.
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This Afar women was walking miles with all her pocessions on her head.
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Viv, Helen & Neil get treated to a feast by Burik's mum - it was a humbling, lovely experience.
On our last day with Biruk we were well away from the Omo Valley heading for Addis Ababa, through, what my diary says ....  'was an unending stream of humanity with hundreds of donkey drawn or horse drawn carts amongst the streaming masses.'

At the small village of Kofele, Biruk took us to meet his family. That created quite a stir in the community that sees few, if any white tourists. We were greeted warmly by his parents, his father taking us inside to meet everyone and then heading back out in the now heavy rain to keep watch over our vehicles while we were inside the home. The hospitality was overwhelming and we were fed a huge meal. Again from my diary:
'They served up a meal of local bread (Injera), nice bread rolls, spicy beans, spaghetti, potato and salad. At one stage Tshgye (Biruk's mother) fed us by hand, putting the food in our mouths – which is the custom, then Deslagn (Biruk's sister) brought us some sodas.'

It was obvious that they had raided their meagre money supply to put on such a feast and we gave Biruk money to give to his parents for the food. It was a very, very humbling experience - one of many we have experienced on our travels around the world. 
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Young Hamer kids watch the dancing.


So ended our travel with our 'genius guide', one we will never forget, but it was only the start of our travels through Ethiopia.
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Market in Demika - a Hamer stronghold.
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This heavy hauling Konso lady weighed down with a load of branches was happy to be paid 2 birr (about 30 cents) for a photo.
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Karo women and child.
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These Afar herders were two of the very few we saw who weren't carrying a gun.
  • Heading into the Omo Valley.
  • Little freeboard on the unstable canoes as we crossed the Omo River.
  • Young Konso boy working his oxen ploughing the field.
  • The remote Galeb people were one of the poorest we saw.
  • In Key Afar we ended up camped in the hospital grounds - it was a revelation.
  • These Afar kids saw us coming, threw their clothes and cloaks off and started dancing.
  • Typical roadside scene as we approached the alrge town of Key Afar.
  • Two of the doctors with an area map showing the tribal boundaries of the people in part of the Omo Valley.
  • Doctors with a patient suffering cerebal malaria - she had been carried in by 8 porters who had carried her in a stretcher many miles.
​Copyright Ron & Viv Moon