144 Hours in Ethiopia: Into the Land of Plenty
Editor's Note: During a recent trip to Ethiopia, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton experienced rural areas outside the country's capitol as he travelled to Negele Borena by car. Negele Borena is the site of the only bridge in Ethiopia built by Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. It spans a dangerous river, which claims the lives of roughly three people every year. The completed bridge will allow the local people and livestock to cross the river without fear of being swept away by its strong currents during the rainy season.
The long car ride to Negele Borena afforded Denton the opportunity to see a people very different from the stereotypical images most Americans have of Ethiopians. He described the journey as a discovery of the soul of its people.
This is the first part of a four-part series: 144 Hours in Ethiopia.
Time seemed to take a step backward almost immediately after the high-rise buildings and bustling streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, disappeared in the SUV's rear view mirror, December 4.
Vast expanses of golden wheat fields, which rivaled the rolling hills of the American Midwest, were on display throughout the two-day journey to the recently completed bridge in Negele Borena, Ethiopia, as though they had been plucked from the pages of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
Having arrived in country the day before, my preconceived perceptions of Ethiopia were instantly shattered. While Addis Ababa had been filled with the towering spires one would expect to find in an American metropolis, the countryside lining the road to Negele Borena was the most startling.
The images of famine and poverty most Americans associate with life in Ethiopia were replaced by the reality of a hard-working, industrious people developing a strong agricultural base. If there was a plot of land along the road capable of supporting crops, it was seeded, tended and harvested. I found myself captivated by the hills and mountains, full of meticulously maintained farms, which seemed to touch the sky.
Negele Borena, our final destination, was the site of a bridge dedication signifying the partnership between the people of Ethiopia and the United States. It was a long car trip, divided into two parts, which meant there was plenty of time to take in the sights along the road and ask questions about the country.
"We have a very rudimentary agricultural system," said Addisu Wedhao, local national employed at the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia, as he drove. "But, the last few years have seen a push to modernize and develop Ethiopia."
Wedhao's words were illustrated by the men tending the fields along the road. They harvested the wheat with their bare hands or sometimes a small scythe. Women walked alongside the road, carrying heaps of wood or straw on their backs. He also mentioned the Negele Borena bridge as a fine example of Ethiopia working with the United States to improve itself.
"This is a sign of globalization," Wedhao continued. "We are looking to simplify our lives through technology, but we don't want to forget where we've come from either."
It is important during this period of growth, Wedhao said, to retain the cultural identity that makes Ethiopians such a proud people.
"Ethiopians are proud, respectful and hospitable," he said. "We have a lot of history, traditions, culture and values which Ethiopians respect and carry with them."
Wedhao said Ethiopia is home to many nationalities, which must be tolerated and respecteddddÃ?otherwise conflict would arise. He feels the modernization has done much to bring these diverse elements together in a spirit of cooperation.
"We work together to make this country better," Wedhao said. "The land gives you what you give to the land."
The land itself is just as diverse as the people inhabiting it. The lowlands and highlands have blended together, much as modern architecture and technology have blended with cultural traditions to form a nation with a deep sense of pride. From businessmen in suits, working in the city, to farmers driving a wooden cart to market, everyone is asked to find a way to contribute to society, he said.
Nowhere during the ride from Addis Ababa to Hawassa did I see anyone on the road sitting idly by. Everyone was busy, working or on their way to or from somewhere. Suddenly, the SUV jolted. The paved road had been replaced by a cobbled, stone street. Wedhao told me the road had been created by hand, as he motioned to a group of people working on an unfinished section of road nearby.
They hefted huge chunks of rocks in their bare hands and carried them to other workers, who used hammers to break off tiny stones. Those stones were carried to the unfinished sections, where workers carefully placed them in a spiral design. The smaller stones were then set with a mortar, which, when dried, would form a beautifully designed cobblestone street.
This was not the stereotypical Ethiopia I had seen on my television set. The road to Negele Borena had shown me a nation with a people invested in its future.
"We are proud to be Ethiopians," Wedhao said. "I love this countryyyyÃ?because it is my country."
Wedhao's words stayed with me as we stopped for the night in Hawassa, Ethiopia.
The dissonant sound of tires rolling over the cobblestone road reminded me of the precise placement of each stone to form the street, as the SUVs left the city of Hawassa, Ethiopia, bound for the Negele Borena bridge, December 5.
The dream to build a bridge for pedestrians and livestock began in 2009 when a civil affairs team from Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa met with the mayor of Negele Borena, as well as delegates from the local community.
Before its creation, the residents of Negele Borena were forced to cross a dangerous and sometimes deadly river. I imagined the people who unsuccessfully tried to cross it, swept away forever.
"The river is incredibly dangerous when it floods," said Wedhao. "So many people have lost their lives after being swept away by the current."
More than 17,000 citizens in the Negele Borena region and their livestock risk their lives when they attempt to cross the river during its flood stage to receive health care and education. The bridge allows for safe passage, said Wedhao, as well as contributes to the ongoing road repair project.
"It has been difficult to make significant progress on paving the road," he said. "The rain washes away much of the work completed and we have to start again."
Almost on cue, the SUV Wedhao was driving lurched and began to shake. The road outside became rocky gravel with potholes, cracks and crevices, which Wedhao had to navigate around, or else risk becoming stuck.
"We won't give up," he said, avoiding a large pothole. "We are committed to improving travel between our cities and villages."
A small bazaar appeared on the horizon. People packed the streets, buying, selling and trading goods. I saw a young boy shopping a line of woven, straw hats which stretched at least a hundred feet. Wedhao told me this was one of the many small, nameless towns that grew as a result of the increased travel along the road.
"People between here and Negele (Borena) travel to markets like this to try and sell the crops they harvest," Wedhao said. "The state of the road makes travel difficult sometimes."
The delays and safety hazards along the road to Negele Borena often lead to fresh produce arriving to market past its prime. Because of this, the local population coordinated with other various nations to develop a safe and expedient means of travel in this part of the country.
After the SUV rolled past the bazaar, we travelled for several hours before the SUVs stopped for a brief respite.
I stepped out of the vehicle and stretched, realizing for the first time how cramped I'd been in the SUV. We stopped along the incline of a mountain, and I looked out over the countryside below.
Few moments in my life could be described as "breathtaking," but the sight of vast expanses of farmland and neighboring lush, natural vegetation was enough to give me pause. The sunlight peered through the clouds, calling attention to the raises and depressions of the land below.
Tearing myself away from this picture of natural splendor, I returned to the SUV feeling more refreshed than any nap could have allowed me. Wedhao started the car and continued toward our destination.
My thoughts returned to Negele Borena. I wondered what our reception would be. The people were committed to taking charge of the bridge after the dedication ceremony; however, would they be happy to see the people responsible for its construction leave? What kind of relationship had the United States built with the people of Negele Borena? These questions lingered in my mind as the SUV rolled into the town.
It was busier than I expected. People hurried to and from buildings lining the road. As the vehicles rolled by, residents emerged from their homes and businesses, waving. I smiled and waved back - feeling more at ease, and incredibly welcome.
We turned off the main road and travelled past the local market. Children ran up to the SUV, waving and shouting "you" in English. Wedhao told me it was often the only word they knew, so the children equated it to shouting "hey." I smiled and turned my attention to the road ahead. As people cleared out of our path I saw the bridge in the distance. Sunlight glinted off the steel frame as it spanned a crevice leading to the river below.
Wedhao said the Negele Borena people are ready to take ownership of the project after its dedication, December 6.
"It's hard to believe we're done," said U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Alex Polivy, NMCB 5 equipment operator. "The people of the town treated us like a part of the community."
Polivy said living in the town and interacting with its people made it easy to see the reason Negele Borena needed a bridge.
"The river probably goes over 10 feet during the rainy season," Polivy said. "I've seen people fall in and get washed away by the current. Luckily, no one has died since we've been here."
Even though there were no casualties during the construction of the bridge, the river has claimed hundreds of lives in the past, when the only way to cross the river was to ford through it.
Polivy confirmed he heard from locals that the river, on average, would kill three people every year. He noticed the way the locals, especially the older ones reacted to it in conversation. Specifically, a man known only as Mr. Solomon, who provided the service members a place to live in his hotel while they built the bridge, has lived in Negele Borena for more two decades and witnessed many friends and neighbors killed by the river.
The bridge offered residents like Mr. Solomon hope for the future, Wedhao said.
"This river will not take anyone else," Wedhao said, as he stared at the completed bridge, which towered over the now-dormant water below. "I knew two brothers from one family taken by this river. With this bridge here, it won't happen again."