It had been a day of searing heat in the city of Logiya in Ethiopia’s north-east Afar region. It’s a tough neighbourhood, containing the Danakil Desert, one of the hottest places known to man: temperatures in the naked plains frequently soar above 50°C (122°F), exacerbated by the fierce blowing of the Gara, which translates as “fire wind”.
Hence as the sun finally began to dip late afternoon, I went for a stroll down Logiya’s main drag along with everyone else, it seemed, as locals and stallholders made the most of the heat index abating.
In a small market, I joined Afar women seated on low stools where camel milk was being added to tea – traditionally the Afar are pastoralists – and a muezzin called from a nearby mosque. At the same time, endless trucks trundled down the nearby road going to and from the ports in neighbouring Djibouti, bearing materials needed by Ethiopia’s modernising economy.
My time in Ethiopia’s once forbidding Afar region – not that long ago Afar men had a habit of cutting off the testicles of any intruder – left me pondering what countries in the developing world might teach more developed countries, rushing headlong into a hi-tech future, about balancing tradition and modernisation.
The Afar regard themselves as the oldest of Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups, having occupied their remote, inhospitable homeland for at least 2,000 years. While recent decades have seen a trend towards urbanisation, Afar men can still be seen driving their precious camel herds by the roadside, or far off as diminishing dots stretching towards a blazingly hot horizon.
And while those trucks are supporting Ethiopia’s burgeoning economy, the Afar still cut salt bars out of the desiccated ground to transport on camelback to the neighbouring Tigray region along ancient caravan routes.
In a village I watched an Afar woman weaving palm fronds into the matting that covers the light, flimsy dome-shaped huts which are transported from one location to the next by camel. Walking back to my three-wheeled Bajaj taxi, I passed children jumping into a ditch filled with muddy water, happy as could be. As the Bajaj bounced along the dirt track back to my hotel in a nearby town, we weaved past plodding camels and field hands at work.
My hotel, like the town centre surrounding it, was far from modern, though it had a giant refrigerator packed with cold beers. The best place to drink them was on the hotel’s rooftop, reached by a wooden ladder. Atop a hill beside the Awash River, the hotel gave a commanding view over surrounding fields being tilled by farmers, as birds of prey rode the thermals high above.
In the distance, where the palm trees and greenery began to turn to desert, I could see a giant sugar factory glinting in the heat haze, reminiscent, at least to my eyes, of the outlandish buildings at the start of Blade Runner. The government has made a concerted effort in recent years to establish sugar factories to meet growing local demand, create jobs and boost economic growth. In the factory’s lee you could see dozens of dome-shaped huts, which faded from view as night settled and factory lights blinked on while it continued business.
The old and new coexist like this across all of Ethiopia, as well as in neighbouring Somaliland and Djibouti. There, businessmen in suits mingle with orange-bearded elders in traditional garb, shiny new malls stand next to greasy spoon cafés and corner stores, and SUVs share the road with donkey-drawn carts.
It looks a more comfortable balancing act than we manage in the West, where too often there is an attitude that once something becomes old it is only fit for the rubbish heap, be it clothing and appliances or the use of Latin and its role in shaping our language; or, increasingly and worryingly, how we view the old and infirm.
Travelling around Afar and seeing those dome-shaped huts scattered around the arid plains, I wondered about the nomads inside them. No bank account, mortgage, taxes or rigid 9 to 5. After waking up, the day’s main effort is tending to their basic needs or moving somewhere else – that’s it. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt a twinge of envy: the ability to arise, pack up and go in whichever direction you want.
I’m not saying I would change my Western lifestyle for the Afar way – often a life of subsistence with no room for error. But how is it that whenever I encounter poor Ethiopians in Afar and around the country, living at the edges, most can still flash a type of smile that seems endangered in the West: bold, unrestrained, utterly human, indicating genuine contentment, if not happiness?
A trade-off is required to effectively embrace old and new, and it’s a tough one to manage – but currently we in the West seem increasingly incapable of considering any balancing, so hypnotised have we become by all that sparkles and beckons us to only look in one direction.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the US and UK, writing for various international media. Twitter: @jrfjeffrey