16 Jul Jezology Podcast – Season 1 | Episode 4
Pack Your Pens
Ethiopia – 2013
[Please click play to listen to the episode]
My legs are tired, but the thicker air relieves my lungs and I’ve all but forgotten about the pounding headache that harassed me for most of the day. Trekking above 4 thousand metres has taken its toll on me since we climbed up into the central Simian mountains two days ago, but having passed the highest point on the 8 day expedition, the decent down into the lush green valleys that would typify our final days in Northern Ethiopia seems to be flushing my oxygen starved body with new life.
The beauty of our camp is astounding. I have been blown away many times on this trip already, but this particular night-stop is something special. A schoolhouse perched atop a flat-topped grassy hill in the shadow of Ras Dashen, the highest mountain in Ethiopia. The view is an amphitheatre of magnificent tall rock promontories, carved slowly and lovingly by millennia of fluvial erosion. Like the master sculptor caressing a formless piece of limestone lost in the process and aiming for no particular destination. This part of Ethiopia feels ancient, as if these deep, green canyons have been sheltering man from before the beginning.
The beauty is not limited to mother nature here. I’m drawn to the soft, shy faces of four young school kids who are watching our approach to the schoolhouse camp. Wrapped head to toe in thick ragged shawls to keep out the cold. Despite our decent and the warm sun, we are still at 3500 metres. There is an immediate contrast between my technical mountain equipment and the blanket cloaked figures wandering gracefully across the misty backdrop, but our exchanged smiles help temporarily sooth my embarrassment. As with many of my previous travels, my attention is held so easily by these young locals. There is something about kids, particularly in underdeveloped nations that is so very heart warming. There is an honesty to their movements, actions and personalities. A lack of self-consciousness and a natural intrigue makes them extremely photogenic and a true joy to interact with. This time was no exception. I wasn’t to know at the time, but 6 years later I would use one of the photos as the cover album art on my debut studio album, Insecuriosity. The mysterious yet innocent nature of wrapped up village kids set against the backdrop of drifting cloud would capture the album concept in a powerful, yet delicate way. Anyway, back to 2013…
As usual at this point in the day, our Ethiopian trekking guide brought out a tray of pick-me-ups and hot tea. Usually, this was my favourite time of day… Walking done, sun going down, tea and biscuits… What’s not to love! Today was immediately different. I was ravenous, but we were being watched curiously by our young friends, lying bunched on top of one another from a grassy knoll not far away. The decision was easy, I would share my snacks with the little villagers. Being conscious to not offend our guide, I asked him for permission to donate the abundance of treats. To my surprise he declined outright… His opinion was clear, by giving the kids a treat today, they would come back tomorrow in greater numbers. Eventually their gratitude would turn to expectation and before long, the expectation would lead to animosity. I was a little taken aback… It’s only biscuits, I thought, but this would turn out to be an important lesson which would play out over the coming days as we descended into the warmer, more populated parts of the Ethiopian highlands.
What I hadn’t considered with my moment of generosity and human kindness was that I was just one in a train of western tourists who descend on the Simian mountains. This could also be said of so many of the tourist destinations in developing countries around the world. By donating things that I casually assumed these kids might want or need I was actually starting the slippery slope into wealth divide animosity. This became stark as we ended our trek in northern Ethiopia. At first I heard more and more calls for pens, t-shirts and paper from the kids as villages became more populous. Initially this was sweet and understandable, considering certain international tourist guides had been telling people for years to stock up on pens to give to the children of the mountain regions for their schoolwork. The problem is that this had become a pen conveyor belt with trekkers passing by on a more and more regular basis. The kids, starting off sweet and thankful in the remote regions, gradually became louder and more aggressive in their requests and eventually demands. At one point all I heard from village kids as I walked was cries for ‘Money, money!’… some even wafting across considerable distances after our small group had been spotted. Inevitably, the more aggressive the demand, the more irritable the response when I declined their request. This would unfortunately become a routine of much of my trip through Ethiopia.
It strikes me that there is a balance to be struck here and a responsibility bestowed upon wealthy tourists wanting to get off the beaten track. The analogy seems apt regarding charity and aid in general. Unconscious giving to those we consider needy to satisfy our own desire to be generous and altruistic can unfortunately lead to unhelpful and undesirable consequences of our actions. My Simien mountain guide had seen this change first hand and considered it a great shame that people had come to his country (perhaps due to preconceived stereotypes) with the intention of unbridled giving. He had seen the change in those receiving from being appreciation, to expectation, to reliance and eventually aggression towards him and this tourist clientele.
Clearly, there is an equilibrium to be struck. Wealth is a responsibility and consciousness of your actions is so very important during travel and in charitable donation. Inevitably there is a gulf in-between our understanding of new cultures and intricate social systems and our desire to help people and populations less fortunate than ourselves. My lesson was clear. Invest where you can in the local economy. Support local businesses and people, but be very careful when giving for no return, you may be causing more problems than you are solving.
I continue to travel and support the local tourism in many parts of the world, but I now think very carefully before packing my pens.