Two Women, Two Tribes, and a Journey of a Lifetime is a 9-part series penned by Lim Ka Ea about her one year stint in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she accompanied her husband on his 9th humanitarian mission. No stranger to travel and humanitarian missions herself, she learned that Ethiopia is not really Africa and Africa is not really all about national parks or long distance-runners. She also learned that being a “tai-tai” is so overrated unless there is another “tai-tai” to get into mischief with. This 9-parter tells the story of how two “tai-tais” explored Ethiopia and discovered their life as both an individual and a woman. This weekly series started with Part I: My first encounter with Africa and Part II: The faces, sounds and smell of Addis Ababa.

Part III – The gift of a kindred spirit

As I was about to turn my back against Ethiopia, I was given an unexpected gift. A few months later, I met a young woman, whom I had a previous brief encounter with when I made a short trip to Kenya. She has just arrived in Ethiopia from Azerbaijan with her husband who is working in the same organisation as mine.

I soon learned that she has taken up photography while she was living in Nairobi, accompanying her husband in his previous job. Like me, she had gone through longer period of lifestyle adjustment, depression and isolation as a result of moving from places to places, in support of her husband’s work.

Elephants of Amboseli, Kenya

This amazing photo of the elephants of Amboseli, Kenya won Irada an award. Click to enlarge image.

Irada started developing her interest in photography after realising that in order for her to bounce back into life, she needed something which would serve a greater purpose in her life. I find Irada to be a remarkable and inspiring woman. Not only is she a devoted wife and a mother of two adorable children, she finds time to nurture her own personal interest. She intends to pursue a career in photography with the hope that one day, she will be able to discover and share her own vision of the world through her own lens.

Her story of courage, strength, determination and optimism provided me with renewed hope and enthusiasm about my own role in Ethiopia. I realised that I had been too busy drowning myself in personal discontentment which had in turn blinded my ability to discover a higher sense of purpose in my life there.

Instead of doing something, I had reduced myself to just being “the unemployed wife.”

The opportunity for me to do something arrived when Irada suggested a trip to the South-Omo Valley, homes to the many traditional isolated tribes of Ethiopia. In the beginning, I was seduced by my sense of adventure but subsequently, my inner self reminded me that I would never forgive myself for not achieving anything while being in Ethiopia. So the idea of writing this story was conceived, thanks to this destined encounter, as Irada would have me believe.

South Omo Valley – home to the forgotten tribes of Ethiopia

Although South Omo Valley is home to many traditional tribes such as the Tsemay, Banna, Konso, Ari, Dassanitch, Arbore, Karo, Bumi and Surma, the Mursi were the ones attracting us the most due to their unique practices of lip plates, face painting, elaborate hairstyles and other ceremonious traditions.

Our exciting journey began in Addis Ababa on an otherwise typical bright sunny day. In the early morning hours of 30 May 2008, we loaded our rented and chauffeured Toyota Cobra with basic camping necessities such as mosquito domes, sleeping bags, three days of food supply consisted of canned and dried food, rolls of toilet paper, a torch light, bottles of mineral water, hand sanitiser, mosquito repellent, wet wipes and a first aid kit.

As any seasoned travellers would do, three jerry cans of fuel were strapped securely on top of our car to prevent the possibility of being stuck in the middle of nowhere. We were informed that we would need to camp in Mago National Park as they are no hotel facilities.

A calf looking up curiously while chewing on dried twigs

A calf looking up curiously while chewing on dried twigs

Finally, the rare opportunity to camp in the tribal wilderness of Africa greeted us both with great trepidation as well as excitement.

Of course being women, our travel bags included miscellaneous female hygiene and personal care products, not forgetting luxury items such as mobile phones, mp3 player, 5litres of South African white wine, a bag of mini Toblerone and a large Nestle chocolate bar.

Half of the car’s backseat was occupied by Irada’s photographic equipment while I settled with only a notebook and a copy of my dog-eared Lonely Planet guidebook on Ethiopia and Eritrea. We were rather amazed by Jalalem, our driver’s lonely and evidently self-contained duffel bag. Though we were only three, Irada and I decided to squeeze ourselves in the backseat so that we could talk easily.

We brought bags of candies to be distributed along the way with hopes of earning some smiles from the local children. This turned out to be handy since we were often greeted by emaciated-looking boys and girls demanding for “caramella” or candies in Italian. It didn’t take long for us to dispense all the candies much to the children’s delight and appreciation.

As we bid farewell to Addis Ababa, we could not help but feel like a saner version of Thelma and Louise, leaving behind our mundane domestic lives in search of hopefully, a melodramatic adventure.

The journey through the Great Rift Valley

The Great Rift Valley, measuring more than 8,700km in length, constitutes nearly one-third of the earth’s circumference. It extends from the Jordan Valley in the north, through the Red Sea, down south to the South Omo Valley of Ethiopia, through Lake Turkana in Kenya, across Tanzania, Mozambique and finally ends near the Zambezi delta. Situated south-west of Ethiopia, the South Omo Valley itself boasts six lakes, Ziway, Abiata-Shala, Langano, Awassa, Chamo and one of the largest of the Rift Valley; Lake Abaya measuring at 1160sqm.

In order to reach the Mursi, we had to make overnight stops at Arba Minch, Jinka and Mago National Park, across more than 1,000km of wide asphalt roads often proceeded with very narrow, winding and bumpy gravelled paths, as we moved towards more and more remote and isolated areas.

As we began to drift slowly away from Addis Ababa, we started to see the real beauty and charm of the Ethiopian countryside in all its organic splendour. Our first overnight stop, Arba Minch is approximately 550km from Addis Ababa, of which the last 110km consists of unpaved roads through mountainous terrain.

We were impressed by Jalalem’s driving skills as he confidently swerved and manoeuvred the car to avoid big potholes, cattle and pedestrians along the roads. In the beginning, it felt like a fun roller-coaster ride but after awhile, our buttocks and legs felt sore from the constant bumpy stretch of roads. It almost felt like we were sitting on massage chairs for hours, except that soothing vibrations were replaced by violent poundings.

The journey took us about eleven hours with occasional brief stopovers in the towns of Shashemene, Wolayta and Weyto to ease our full bladders, stretch our legs and refuel our vehicle and stomachs.

Cows 1

Kings and queens of the roads

Notoriously known for sleeping in long car rides, I did not even doze off for a second throughout the whole journey. Neither did Irada. We were both constantly fascinated by almost everything, right down to the herds of cattle which seemed to rule the roads in almost every village we passed.

The local cows are shaped rather oddly, with backs protruding like humps and skins sweeping loosely beneath their necks. There was a lot of “Look! Look!” exclamations, as each of us pointed out what seemed to have amused or tickled us from both sides of the car. Jalalem was completely unperturbed, except for his strange fascination for banana plantations as he often pointed out to us.

Despite a lot of frustrations without a local guide, we relied on Jalalem with his limited command of English to explain things. We soon picked up some basic Amharic during the course of our journey.

Since it was already close to the month of June, we began to see the sign of rainy season albeit the seasonal rain being late at this time of the year. The weather was slightly grey and melancholy followed by occasional soft drizzle. There was already flooding in certain lower areas.

Donkeys huddled together under the flat canopy of acacia trees, waiting stubbornly for the rain to stop. I began to notice how endearing these white-snouted four-legged creatures are as I often saw them in pairs, facing each other, as if having a private conversation with only God privy to it. Sometimes, they even nuzzled affectionately against each other’s necks. The sluggish pace of countryside often creates time for love even for animals, as compared to city life where people seem to hurry on with their inconsequential affairs.

While it was unfortunate for the people who were beginning to be affected by the flood, it provided us with some cool respite from the summer heat of Addis Ababa.

Next: Part IV – Getting in sync with nature

Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife in Ethiopia and Cambodia but failed miserably. Now, she works with lawyers and human rights activists by day and watches Discovery Travel & Living by night. She writes for The Malaysian Insider during her dwindling free time. She longs for the day when someone would pay her to travel, eat and write.

Irada Humbatova was born in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on 12 July 1974. She trained and worked as a midwife from 1994 to 1997, later assisting the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent with maternal health work by training and supporting traditional birth attendants in rural areas. Since then she has followed her husband on Red Cross missions around the world, developing her love for photography into a passion and profession. Inspired by Africa’s immense beauty and its people’s suffering she moved from art photography to photojournalism. She has since grown to become Reuters’ stringer for Ethiopia and work on assignments for other news outlets and magazines. Irada is currently back in Baku continuing her work with Reuters. She contributes most of the photographs in this series.

Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife...