Meat on a Stick, 82 Mosques and Some Green Leaves

Written on 6/6/2008

We’re back! After three long days we are back in Addis in the comfort of our home. It’s Friday night and I just hopped into bed and am anticipating a long hard sleep. It’s overdue. After three days of traveling, my body still hasn’t recovered and I’m just plain tired. But I figured I should write to let you all know how the trip went.

So…a little background first. We all decided from the beginning that we wanted to see as much of Ethiopia as we could in our time here. It helps to see the sights and cities of the major cultures that come together to make Ethiopia what it is. A couple weeks ago, we decided as a group that we wanted to take a few mini vacations before our time was up and the fact that our school is basically shut down for 10th grade national exams gives us the time to accomplish this. So on Tuesday we set out at 5am.

Befekadu’s cousin-in-law, Mesfin, gave us an incredible price on a car for the trip, so we planned to go with him to in the east called Harer. We drove for about 275km before I asked Mesfin if we could stop so I could pee. He obliged and I used the time next to the bush to decide how I would confront him about his driving. Don’t get me wrong…he’s better than most in Ethiopia, but that’s like comparing niceness to the Devil. It was just the constant high speeds, braking right when he got to a corner, passing on blind corners…that type of thing. What would I say? “Hey Mesfin…I feel like I’m going to die when I step foot into your vehicle. I’m going to take a nice big slow bus instead. Just drop me off in the next town.” Of course I couldn’t say that, but all that I could think of was my friend Lauren who left Ethiopia…not by choice…after a terrible car accident leaving her with a broken back, a crushed ankle, and a medi-vac flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. We didn’t even get to say goodbye. And there was no way I was going to let that happen. The worst that could take place if I confronted him is that he would get offended…but at that point, I didn’t really care. Turns out, he took kindly to it. I just told him Lauren’s story and he said, “No problem.” I guess it never hurts to ask.

Anyway, lying 150km from the border of Somalia, we were well away from anything dangerous going on there…parents don’t be alarmed…but we were close enough to really see the Islamic impact of the middle east right here in Africa. Harer is an incredible city with two main districts…The Old City and the New City. The new city is just your average Ethiopian city. The Old City however, is what makes Harer unique. Surrounded by a wall, fully encompassing the contents of the city, it has the feel of a Bible-times Middle Eastern town. Curving passageways, gated entrances and bustling markets make the Old City a sight to behold.

We got in at about 3:30 in the afternoon and settled in to the Belayneh Hotel. After getting our things situated, Maren, Bethany, and I headed out for a walk until we were to meet up with Mesfin for dinner. The first thing we encountered was chat (pronounced chaw-t). Here in Addis, when you go to someone’s house, the offer you coffee and it’s sort of impolite in the culture to refuse. In Harer…it’s chat. Chat is a green leafy bush that is grown all over the eastern highlands of Ethiopia. It gives a high similar to marijuana, except you can concentrate for great lengths of time. Students use it before big tests because it helps them relax while still being able to concentrate extra hard for studying. The price of chat ranges depending upon the quality and freshness of the leaves. The lowest quality can be purchased for just 30 Birr per kilo…which is a lot of chat when you consider that it doesn’t weigh much. The most expensive can range however, all the way up to 700 Birr per kilo! In Harer, they chew it all day. Just take a few leaves and pop ‘em in the cheek.  We chose not to.

We walked through a crowded fruit and vegetable market and walked under one of the six gates of the old city wall. Wandering aimlessly through the narrow pathways of the Old City, I was struck by the community that was being displayed, perhaps with its members unaware. In Harer, there is a definite mix of cultures that you don’t see as often in the rest of Ethiopia. There are six people groups represented in Harer that are so different in custom and religion, that I was shocked that they live in relative harmony. The Tigray people of the north, the native Hareri, or Adare people, the Oromo from the southern regions, the Amhara from the central, and the displaced Somali people from next door all live together in this one town of about 150,000 residents. Religiously, Harer differs from much of Ethiopia as well. Within the walled city, there are 82 active mosques and only one Orthodox church…which, incidentally, used to be a mosque until it was “converted” by Emperor Haile Selassie. That might not seem like a ton, but when you consider the size of the Old City, it makes them more or less across the seven-foot wide alleyways from one another and on every corner. The population living inside the wall is roughly 95% Muslim. Outside the wall, there are only nine mosques and six Orthodox churches. It’s roughly 50% each. The lines of custom blur a little here. Common Somali, Muslim clothing is seen also on Oromo herders and farmers whereas in Addis Ababa, you wouldn’t see that.

After our short little jaunt, we were feeling the effects of the 4am wake up call that we’d experienced earlier that day and decided to head back to the hotel for a little rest. There we would also meet up with Sarah, who wasn’t feeling so hot upon arrival. Dinner was at 5:30, so we had some time.

After a short rest, we hopped in the car with Mesfin and made our way to Hirut restaurant. A quaint atmosphere and a cultural feel to the place, I was excited to try out the lasagna. “Lasagna alle?” I asked the waitress. “Yelem,” she replied. What? No lasagna. But it specifically says that you only have lasagna on Tuesdays. Okay, how about a cheese burger. Nope. And after 5 other choices, all of which she denied me, I settled for spaghetti. It was good, but no lasagna. Coupled with the locally brewed Harer Beer, the meal was rather good. We ate rather quickly knowing that dinner was merely a pit stop on the way to the event I had been waiting for quite a few months.

We hopped in the car and made our way through the main gate of the Old City, winded our way through small side roads, eventually coming out on the other side, crawled slowly up a winding dirt road to a small clearing with a few houses nearby. There he was. The Hyena Man. I expected some tribal looking, half-insane, half-dressed, old Ethiopian man, but no. He was a younger Ethiopian guy in jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt…side note…I was going to say hoodie, since that’s what it’s called nowadays, but I was afraid the older generation would lose it in translation. Anyway, when we got there, it was pitch black, but a small area was filled with the light of Mesfin’s car. In the middle of the light, the Hyena man placed a small burlap sack on the ground and took a seat. In his hands he carried a bunch of little sticks and a basket full of scrap goat, sheep, and cow flesh. Then came the hyenas, like a pack knowing what was in store, they approached slowly but concentrated. He began calling and taunting them with the meat and small scuffles would begin all around of hyenas fighting for meat. The high pitch squeals of the animals along with their flashing teeth was not very comforting. Then it was my turn. I walked slowly up to the seated man and knelt beside him, hyenas just inches away from me. I placed one of the small sticks in my mouth and on the end, a hanging piece of red, juicy cow meat. The smell of the aging, raw meat filled my nose, but was overpowered by the sights I was seeing and the anticipation of what was to come. Holding off the pack of hyenas until I was ready, the hyena man’s arm was all that stood between these beasts and me. Then SNAP! A hyena lunged at my face and stealthily snagged the meat just barely brushing his thick fur against my cheek. Then with as much quickness as he snagged the meat, he retreated to savor it in privacy. WOW! I can honestly say that I have never pictured myself feeding a ferocious animal raw meat using my mouth. For some reason, that just never made its way into my five-year plan. But it was sure a rush and it felt really cool afterward. The girls took their turns and all succeeded as well.

After the hyena adventure, we were back to the hotel to make some attempt at catching up on the sleep we had missed the night before. Only 7pm at the time, we thought maybe we’d hang out for a while…but not once we got to our rooms. It was bedtime in a hurry. We all passed out with exhaustion and slept like rocks until the 7am alarm. I don’t know what other people think, but to me, a 12-hour night of sleep is just fine. A cold dripping shower revealed a plethora of bites that we diagnosed as bedbugs. You know…that song has never had so much meaning in my life as it has here in Ethiopia. You don’t really have a choice whether you “let” them bite or not. The just do.

We headed out for a breakfast of various fried goods and poorly made macchiatos and headed into the old city to see the sights. Our goal was to see a few sights, the six gates, then be on our way, but at the first place we went, we hooked up with a guy who offered to give us a tour of the city for no cost. That first place was the former house of Arthur Rimbaud, famous French poet. Apparently, after his first works failed in France, he moved to Ethiopia and became one of the few westerners to ever live inside the walled city. He wrote his poetry and generated an income as a local trader in the city. After that, we began looking around the city with our guide, Hailu. All six gates serving different purposes, a huge market selling only mangoes, strips of fabric stores, a smuggler’s market called, Taiwan, by the locals housing all the cheap electronics you could think of, a recycler’s market full of old products used to create new tools, car parts, utensils, and anything else you could think of, were all played their part in the organized chaos of the city of Harer. After we sped through the city, we headed over to “Fresh Touch”, a new restaurant on the main strip. The spaghetti was good for a double bogey…I don’t like to say “sub par” because it doesn’t make sense…the term comes from golf and sub par is great…it’s the goal of the game…and the spaghetti at Fresh Touch was not, and will never be, my goal for spaghetti…hence, double bogey. After lunch we went to a little shop located in the center of town and had fresh squeezed and blended mango juice. It was incredible. Before we headed out, I wanted to swing back into the old city to grab one item…a mahawais. A traditionally Somali article of clothing, it’s basically one big piece of fabric sewn together in a circle…like a skirt of sorts, but it’s way to long, so you do some folding tricks and roll the top to create potentially one of the most comfortable things you’ve ever worn in your life. I like to where it around the house and to bed. I feel free. Only men where them and usually they’re confined to a few people groups. The Hareri, Somali, Oromo, and Afar people all where them, but for different purposes. The Somalis where them as traditional dress and for worship in the mosque, the Hareri where them when they sit around and chew chat, the Oromo where them when they are herding livestock or farming, and the Afar where them all the time because it is hotter than the eating jalapeños in hell where they live.

After I made the find, we hopped back into the bajaj and headed up the road to get mesfin. If I haven’t told you, a bajaj is a little three-wheeled motorcycle type vehicle with a roof that seats four people plus driver. It’s the main mode of transportation in smaller cities and towns, but isn’t sensible for bigger trips around Addis. After we got Mesfin, we jumped in the car and headed to our next destination, Dire Dawa. About 45 minutes back on the road to Addis, it sits down off the mountain plateau nestled in a dry river bed valley. The heat increases ten fold as you make the descent. We hooked up with a friend of Damon and Heidi’s in the city who is currently building a hotel on his compound and decided to stay at his place. It wasn’t the cheapest, but it was less than the hotel in Harer and it was nice to help out a friend. Siggy is his name and he’s been in the Horn of Africa for the last twenty years doing work with the Somali and Muslim population. Moving from his native Switzerland, he is the sole western producer of Somali Christian worship music in the world. He’s known all throughout the region by Somali believers and is well respected. He even has a Somali wife and they’ve been in Dire Dawa for the last nine years…Harer before that and actually within the border of Somaliland for a number of years before it became too volatile to stay. It was by far the nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in around Ethiopia. Hopefully his business soars upon completion.

Once we got our bags settled into our rooms, we went into the city to see what it was like. To let you know, a big part of our desire to see Dire Dawa was because our friends Damon and Heidi and their daughter Dasia will be moving there this summer to continue their work. We wanted to be able to picture the city when we talked to them from stateside after we get home. Anyway, we first went to the Kezira market. A classic African, outdoor market under stick and fabric awnings, we made our way through the muddy passageways to see the spices, fruit, vegetables, and other goods that each vendor eagerly offered. Stopping to talk to some vendors who carried foods we had never seen before, they offered us tastes and we chatted a little bit. Most were very friendly. Upon leaving the market, we stopped at the shop of one of Mesfin’s many extended family members in the city. Fetiya was her name and she invited us around the counter to sit on an old mattress and drink cokes. Her treat. We drank as she chewed her chat and we talked for about an hour or so. Then it was already almost time for dinner. We stopped at a restaurant that we thought was famous for their burgers. We realized that we were wrong and wanted to go find that restaurant, but upon Mesfin’s insistence, we stayed and had a beer before we left. Then it was off to Mitto Burger & Chicken. We should have known from the title. The two interesting things about a this restaurant, is that on that night, they didn’t have cheese which, in my mind, significantly lowered the quality and experience of their burger. The second most important thing is that despite their restaurant’s name, chicken was nowhere to be found on the menu…false advertising?

After dinner, we were under the impression that we were going to bed, but Mesfin had other plans. We apparently had agreed to stop by Fetiya’s house to visit for an hour or so. We turned in the opposite direction from our hotel and stopped on a dark soulless street and entered a door into her living room. Again chewing her chat, she invited us in to sit on her farashes…covered mattresses against the walls with pillows for back rests…most comfortable things ever. We sat and talked for a while and ended our time receiving gifts that she had purchased for us. In a small plastic bag, she gave us five small colorful woven baskets. It was a wonderful treat. We then left to get back to the hotel and get some sleep before our long trip back to Addis. Departure time, 5am.

Ring! Ring! Ring! Ring! Was I waking up to the alarm I had set for 4:45? Nope. I was waking up to Mesfin’s blaring Titanic theme song ring! What time is it? Well, upon Mesfin handing the phone to me, I realized it was just before 4am. Why was he handing me the phone? Who was I talking to? Turned out it was his wife calling from Canada. We talked for a few minutes and in a sleepy haze, I handed the phone back to Mesfin. After the conversation was finished, we packed up and headed out.

The drive was just as long as it was when we did it just two days before, but held a surprise at our breakfast spot. As we entered the small café in Hirna, we saw another white person. He approached us and in his American English, asked us where we were from. We got to talking and gave him our number in Addis. His name was Brian and was on his third tour of Ethiopia as a writer for the Bradt Guide Book. We told him about Siggy’s new hotel and gave him the number. Hopefully Brian puts him in the book and  that boosts Siggy’s business a bit. He said when he comes back through Addis he would give us a call. Maybe he’ll put us in the book!

We arrived home safely after sweating through the heat of the Awash and Metehara areas. It was good to be back home safe and sound. Sleep came next. I had an early appointment with Damon the following morning.

I’ll get back to you soon about some other thoughts. Hope you are all well and are healthy. See you soon!


So I where a skirt…what of it?


3 Responses to Meat on a Stick, 82 Mosques and Some Green Leaves

  1. laureninethiopia says:

    So glad you guys had an enjoyable time in the East! And, I am SOOOO glad you learned from my experience and had your driver slow down…I wish I would have done the same thing. I can’t wait to see photos of your time in Harar! p.s. I can tell you’ve been sick since I left…you look even skinnier! I hope you have been feeling better lately!

  2. Jack Parisi says:

    Hi Josh this is your brother Jack. I think you are the craziest brother ever. It was cool how you met the hyena man though. I miss you very much and can’t wait until you come home. Love, Jack

  3. Drew Parisi says:


    I can’t believe that you actually let a hyena snag meet off a stick in your mouth. It must of been pretty scary. If you could do it again, would you? I miss you a lot and can’t wait until you get back home.

    Love, Drew

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