“We hit a kid with a car last week. The tourists I was carrying got mad at me for not stopping to rescue them. You don’t understand Africa. You think you’re still in Europe.”
When you reach Danakil, if you decide to venture into the Eritrean border areas, two armed guards are assigned to you for security reasons. At least until a few weeks ago, when tensions between the two countries were finally resolved. Our guards are in their 20s, and they don’t speak a word of English. They look at us like cattle to guard and their weapons remind us at all times that it is better not to go too far alone.
“A tourist died nearby last year, but I don’t want to tell you where,” my friend Johnny tells me as we approach Erta Ale volcano. We hope to see the lava spring out of the crater. “He had left his group at night and came across some soldiers patrolling the border. They asked him for his papers, and this kid got scared, he was afraid he’d run into kidnappers. So, he turned and ran. The cops mistook him for a terrorist and shot him in the back. It was an accident“.
We arrive on the crater vent at three in the morning. We walked all night to reach this unique place.
Known as the Gate of Hell, Erta Ale is one of the most active volcanoes in Africa. Located between 3 tectonic plates moving away from each other, it has a brazier in which the lava is boiling in the open sky.
Unfortunately, when we get there, the volcano is smoking. The lava is hidden by its stinking and poisonous vapors. You can walk along the vent of the crater, while the glassy lava creaks under your feet. It’s like walking on brittle and crunchy egg shells. We stand there, watching the red light spread in the black night.
We sleep in the military outpost located a few meters away, lying on the ground in small stone hovels. I wake up for a little snack and I realize I have a mouse next to me begging me to share my meal. At dawn we try again to the crater, but the smoke is still there.
Africa makes you feel old. Ethiopia has 81 million inhabitants and an average age of 18 with 4 children per fertile woman. At the age of 40, you’re already a grandparent. And I’m a grandpa who gets escorted by two kids armed with Kalashnikovs.
Jeep trip is challenging due to the quality of the routes. Between 13 and 16 o’clock temperatures reach 50 degrees, all you are looking for is a rest stop in the shade. Most of the trip is spent driving from one destination to another.
Everyday life flows out of the car window. When you cross a village, the road is animated by children who graze goats or carry dead branches on their heads; you also meet men and women haggling in the street, laughing and holding hands.
Inside the car, I try to have a conversation with the driver on duty. I’ll never forget Broke’s eyes when he tells me that his daughter is saving money to buy pencils for her classmates. He’s a Copt Christian. His country is still struggling to combat poverty and illiteracy and that hurts him.
“There are 85 tribes in Ethiopia, each with its own history and traditions. Some tribes enjoy special statutes, take state subsidies, and continue to live by their traditions. We speak 86 different languages. Each tribe has its own dialect and then there is the official language spread by TV. The government is trying to force people to take their children to school, but many desert and send them to work in the fields or lead cattle”.
This is a very intimate conversation. Broke and I are alone in the car. We’ve had broken air conditioning in our car for days. My companions huddled in the other jeeps to avoid the heat but I gladly stayed with Broke to spend some time with him, though the hot wind hits me through the open windows. I noticed he speaks good English so I want to take this opportunity to ask him some questions. I’m so numb from the heat, I can’t tell if this conversation is real or a hallucination.
“My daughter suffers from seeing that many of her friends don’t have money for notebooks and pens. She uses her savings, the pocket money she gets when she makes a commission, to buy pencils from her friends.”
You seems very proud of her. Before leaving, I was told to bring pens for children, but only now I fully understand why. I feel how much Broke cares about the welfare of his country and I feel close to him, to Ethiopia, to Africa as never before. He tells me he prays a lot for his people, he trusts in the will of the Lord. I don’t know if I believe in God, I’m still struggling with Him, but I can kinda see him in the arid valleys all around us.
It’s night when Jimmy, who is another driver, drops the bomb. “We hit a kid with a jeep last week. The tourists I was carrying got angry with me because we didn’t stop to rescue him”.
“What??? Of course they’re angry!” replies my friend Barbara. “You don’t understand Africa. You think you’re still in Europe”, Jimmy replies. “My partner hit the kid. We pulled over and called the police. They told us to run as soon as possible. The local tribe is dangerous. If you run over a sheep or a child, and you stop to rescue him, they will attack you and kill you. You have harmed their tribe and they must avenge the wrong they have suffered. Only thus they do feel at peace. We left the kid at the side of the road so we could protected ourselves and the tourists who were with us”.
“What about your partner who hit the kid?”
“He’s in jail. He’ll be there until the end of the trial.” I think of the Ethiopian galleys. I feel shivering. “It is often months before the trial begins. Some disappear into jail before they can defend themselves”.
He’s worried, you can see it in his face. I think back to all the times we narrowly avoided the cattle that appeared after a bend in the middle of the road or the children who ran recklessly near our jeeps. I look at Jimmy driving. There is very little visibility. The road opens before us, dark and mysterious.
As much as I feel like a world traveller, Jimmy reminded me that most of the time I’m just a European tourist who takes many things for granted.
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