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Sticks & Stones; An Ethiopian Fable

A long time ago, when I was seven years old, I had a fight with my brother. We were living in a small village in Eastern Slovakia. We were in a grassy field and my older brother had had enough of me and walked  away. When he was twenty or thirty meters away, either because I was still yelling or he was just terribly frustrated with me, he picked up a small stone and threw it my direction. It landed on my head and I started bleeding profusely.

When I cycled through Ethiopia in our inaugural tour in 2003, I thought often about that incident, as little Ethiopian boys threw stones at me and the other cyclists. This was not my first trip in Ethiopia. I first arrived there during the great famine in 1984-5. Many people especially children died at that time.

As a kid during the summer, I and all my friends would lead our families’ cows to pasture where we would play all day long, only to interrupt our games by chasing the cows whenever they wandered away. If that happened, we would throw stones at them whenever we saw the animals turning in wrong direction.

In 1991 I went to visit Canadian friends in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. While there, I took a plane to the interior and flew into one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. During WWII the Americans were looking for an air base for their efforts during the Pacific war and one pilot noticed a flat area populated by stone-age inhabitants. The Americans landed and discovered tribes walking around with gourds on their organs and carrying stone adzes in their hands. These tribes have never seen a white man before. To say the least they were very deferential.

Once the decision to create the base was made, a plane landed, set up radio communications and soon afterwards plane after plane were landing with all sorts of supplies. These folks had never seen anything like this. By careful observation they noticed that “gods who came from the sky”  would talk to a wooden box and soon planes would be landing bringing food, supplies and many other things they the locals had never seen before.

Within a few years the war ended, the American packed up and left. Soon enough the villager’s shamans started imitating the white “gods” and started talking to a wooden box. The efforts did not work but they did not stop. The “gods” gave it a name – the cargo cult – and variations of them developed in many parts of the world where more technological advanced societies came into contact with an undisturbed ancient way of life. From their perspective the technologically advanced society was all powerful and endlessly abundant. Not only did the “gods”  never lack food or any other material need, but there seemed to be an endless amounts of whatever they required. When one car was destroyed another one driven by the same person would show up a week later.

The famine in Ethiopia was devastating, especially in the more remote areas of the country. Disaster takes a while to develop and this particular situation deteriorated with no one to help. Until one day strange people started showing up and with them came planes unloading food. When there was no possibility of landing, food was airdropped. Shinning new trucks full of food started traversing the few existing roads; distribution centers and clinics were popping up.

In isolated areas, and to people who until then used horses, donkeys, and their backs for transport, “gods” showed up. Who can imagine what kind of stories were being told around the fire in poor villages? What are the myths the children heard growing up.

Fast forward another 20 years and all of a sudden new apparitions are on the roads and this time they are travelling slowly enough that you can actually ask them for something…anything. After all they are “gods”.  They have infinite amount of everything and the kids have heard stories that in such and such village or town they gave a 1000 birr to a kid or shoes or clothes or ice cream. So why not ask? But as one by one the “gods” pedal by, ignoring you, not even smiling, well damn it, the kids think, ‘I will get their attention one way or another’!

This, then, is my long-winded explanation of why Ethiopian kids throw stones. We cyclists, the “gods” have it all. We can do everything so why are they not giving anything – a birr, a pen, a t-shirt.

On the other hand Jim,  who most of the time cycled in my vicinity, had a much simpler explanation. Jim, a smiling, ebullient extrovert, who in four months of cycling could not bring himself to say one negative word, simply said: “Ah Henry, they are just kids.  They just want your attention.  Talk to them, smile at them, stop and take a picture”. Jim did not have one stone thrown at him.


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