Mageru pulls over to the side of the road, parks and idles the Land Cruiser. We are still a few hours away from arriving back in Addis Ababa. He looks over to me, pats the steering wheel and says “I am a little tired. You can drive.”
This does not strike me as a generosity I should accept. Although I am confident in Canada, Ethiopian driving doesn’t exactly rev my engines. “Oh…I don’t think so, honey. The driving here is very different from my experience back home.”
“Chigger yellem,” he replies. No problem. “You can do this, I know, Maureen! NOW you are the Wife of a Guide! SOON we are going to have our Own Guiding Company! You NEED to KNOW how to DO such things!” When it comes to our future, Mageru always seems to talk in capital letters.
As he clambers out of the driver’s seat and comes around to the passenger side, he tosses in a last, lower-case aside. “Just watch for the people and the holes and the animals.”
It has been one thing to watch a professional adeptly manoeuver the Ethiopian country roads; it requires constant alertness, ever ready to dodge potholes and meandering pedestrians, cattle, goats, donkeys or sheep. As his passenger, I have had ample time to assess the different personalities of each group. And now, I get to put my observations, as well as the car, into gear.
Minimal traffic in rural Ethiopia means that pedestrians treat the highway as a wide sidewalk, but they will rouse themselves from their daydreams to jump aside if one gives a polite toot of the horn.
Cattle, however, seem to think they have priority and flaunt their size. They stare me down, chewing cud like rebellious teenagers cracking gum, moving aside only when they feel they have intimidated me enough.
Donkeys have the sense to rarely end up in the middle of the road. If they do, they will not deign to look at me, but treat both the car and me as if we were invisible. They are deaf to any horn work but will plod off eventually, while giving the impression they are not giving in, but merely have more important things to accomplish.
Perhaps I give too much credit, but I believe I can see goats thinking as they skitter left, veer right, and finally make a decision how best to vacate the danger zone.
But sheep. Oh, sheep are the very worst. Terrified of my vehicle, anxious to please, but still they are hopelessly indecisive. I must be very, very alert with sheep. I cannot assume that even after four-five-six steps, with their eyes pointing ahead in one direction, that they will continue. Not sheep. They wait until I am confident enough to lift my foot off the brake and apply the gas, and then they change their minds, and head straight for me.
Mageru awakes from his nap as I bring the Land Cruiser to a halt.
“I think a sheep hit the car.” I refuse to take the blame.
“Quick,” he replies, “get over to the passenger seat. Don’t say anything.” He checks the deserted road as he hops into the driver side.
But roads never stay deserted for long in rural Ethiopia. As ever, with something unusual to see, people seem to surface from behind rocks or out of the earth itself.
Mageru calls out in Amharic to a man coming across the field. “We have killed a sheep. Do you know who owns this sheep?”
After several conversations with several more men, someone runs off to find the owner. I get out of the car to look at the sheep. There is no blood, no mess.
“Maybe he is just knocked unconscious?” I venture. This is translated and everyone swarms the animal to check, but they all agree. The animal is definitely dead. We wait under a shady tree for the owner.
When he arrives, the negotiations begin.
“I am sorry, I killed your
“No, no,” says the shepherd. “That sheep, he always was the foolish one.”
“But now you have lost an animal that you could have sold; let me pay you something.”
The shepherd looks carefully at the limp mound of dirty wool on the
“Tomorrow is the end of Ramadan,” he says.
The two men,
As we get back into the car, I learn that because the sheep had only been injured in the head, the meat would still be good to eat. The shepherd would have killed an animal anyway the next day to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
“We were lucky,” says my husband. “With a white woman driving, they may have asked for much more than the sheep was worth.”
“Have you killed animals before on the road?”
“Do you always spend that much time to find the owner, and pay him?”
“No,” he replies. “No one does that. Everyone just keeps driving.”
He glances sideways at me - dare I say ‘sheepishly?’- as he swerves for a pothole. “I did that for you. You have the soft heart, Maureen. I knew you would be upset.”
Maureen Magee is a Canadian travel writer who typically finds humor in her misadventures. Whether she is sledding over a bone-cracking frozen ocean in the high Arctic, sleeping in a Welsh linen closet, or hanging with her tribal buddies in Ethiopia, Maureen’s tales will leave you shaking your head and asking, “Did that really happen?” Discover more at www.maureenmagee.com.