ETHIOPIA 10: Axum, drumming girls

September 15, 2004

At the airport in Axum, all the clocks are stopped at 4:41. Not just one or two clocks, but ten, fifteen, throughout the terminal.
One odd thing about Ethiopia is how they do time. The day starts at 7 am, which is 1 in Ethiopian time. (whenever an Ethiopian asks me the time, or tells me to meet him someplace at some time, it’s an intricate negotiation) It seems perfectly sensible, actually, that one would wake up at one and the day would proceed from there. Rather than the sort of arcane Western system.

I have arrived in Axum on a day called Ainwari. (Eyen-WAH-ree, I have no idea what the actual spelling is) In the streets of Axum there are packs of seven to twelve year old girls, in traditional Tigrinya white dresses, prettied up with hair braided and hands dyed red. They rush out into the street banging on drums and singing, not letting strangers pass until they give them some coins.
Being a Faranji, I’m a natural target. When I go to the bank to cash traveler’s checks, I get a bunch of one birr notes to give out. It’s a little easier to get my head around, as the packs of drumming singing girls are stopping Ethiopian guys, too. There are some disconcerting moments. One pack of girls begin singing a traditional song, and then devolve into a chant, in English, of “GIVE ME MONEY! GIVE ME MONEY!”
I’ve had really good experiences with guides in Ethiopia. But I don’t want one today. I just want to see a couple of the historic sites, stroll around a little. I am beset by potential guides at every turn. “You need guide? There are seven historic sites in Axum…” No, thank you, I’m just going to walk around, I say.
This is confusing to the potential guides. I’m not sure if it’s the notion of the guides, or just the way tourists tend to operate, but when you get a guide it’s assumed that you want to see ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING THERE IS TO BE SEEN. Sometimes at breakneck pace. I’ve done this in Gondar and Lalibela; I don’t want to do it in Axum. I want to see the Stelae (obelisks), which are walking distance from my hotel (the OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive Yeha, $37.50 a room–it shocked the Belgian solar engineer that I shared an airport taxi with that I’d shell out such a sum) and some of the ruins, but mostly I’m interested in walking around this ancient, fasctinating town, watching the activities at Ainwari, and, above all, just smiling at Ethiopians and being smiled back at.
But the guides are relentless. “You need guide?” No, thanks. “I am guide. There are seven historic sites in Axum.” No. “I will come back later, maybe we go to see the…” NO. NO. NO. Finally I get really mad: GO AWAY! I yell.
I’m standing outside a church, watching women dolled up like the drumming girls are, in white dresses, walk up and kiss the doorway. There’s a hundred like-dressed women surrounding the place, for the festival day.
An old man approaches me. He’s wearing a very funky check-patterned shirt with a butterfly collar. “Give me one birr,” he says.
“You’re going to give me one birr?!” I say. “Wow! That’s great! Thank you! Give me one birr!”
An old woman behind him gets the joke and cracks up. But he persists. “I want a drink,” he says. “Give me one birr.”
“Wow, that’s SO NICE of you,” I say. “One birr for me? AWESOME.”
The old woman is guffawing.
I sit down beside a reservoir that apparently’s been in use since the days of the Queen of Sheba. A group of teenage boys surround me. I am suspicious and grumpy; they ask me questions and I give them grunted monosyllables. But they just want to talk. Really nice guys. I feel a little ashamed.
They are draped all over each other, hugging, holding hands. This is how male Ethiopian friends interact; lots of really intimate touching. It’s really heartwarming, actually.
We talk about their school, Arsenal, 50 Cent, New York, playing music for a living, the difference between Tigrinyan culture and Amharic culture (Axum is Tigrinyan, the same language as Eritrea).
“I like George Bush,” one of them says. I assume he’s trying misguidedly to win my confidences. I don’t like George Bush, I tell him. “I also like George Bush,” says another boy. “He is tough on terrorists.” Wow.