The city of Arba Minch was to be my stepping of point to Dorze, an area renowned for its intriguing house design, and as I was to later discover, its intriguing festivals.
It didn’t seem difficult to get to Dorze, so I planned a day trip starting early in the morning. I was warned that the bus fills up early and leaves early in the morning. I duly set out to arrive at some ungodly hour to find that not only was there no bus, but the bus station was locked up. I waited in darkness as other passengers assembled until dawn broke and the gates were opened. There followed a scramble for buses, but lacking local knowledge I belatedly found the Dorze bus, a minibus crammed full. I watched it leave, reassured that I, along with many others would be able to take the regular bus a little later.
The little later turned out to be 11.00 am. But I was one of the lucky few who battled my way through to board, the bus which arrived almost full. We set off. On reaching the edge of the town, the bus turned round and headed back into town. We picked up a woman and child and headed off again. By now I was wondering about the sense of a day trip, but I was on the bus and moving, hopefully in the right direction.
As we again neared the edge of the town we were stopped by a police officer. It appeared that she wanted to check the paperwork for the bus. My heart sank as we turned round yet again. This time we were taken to the town’s police station where we all disembarked and waited. As I waited along with the other passengers, I learnt that the bus was new bus and the papers were not in order. As we trudged back to the bus station I did my best not to appear ungrateful to the local passengers who suggested that there really was no problem and that we would eventually all arrive in Dorze.
It was not until somewhat later in my Ethiopian trip that I managed the visit, and what a visit. Unbeknown to me my visit was to be during Meskel celebrations. These celebrations appear to be associated with finding the true cross. They take place throughout Ethiopia.
For my second attempt I decided to visit for a few days. My arrival involved wandering the village and surroundings. They have a very different feel to the Ethiopia I had so far experienced. Given the higher altitude, the area has a much more temperate climate, cooler and with higher rainfall. There is therefore much more lush vegetation; fields of rice, surrounded by tracts of bamboo. What stands out most, however is the extraordinary building architecture unique to the Dorze people. The more sedentary traditions of the people arising from the cultivated rather than pastoral agriculture the building are more permanent.
The more mountainous terrain results in cooler more humid weather with frequent overcast skies and mists.
It was the day after my arrival that I was informed of the celebrations. In the morning I attended a small local celebration which involved a bonfire, prayers and hymns officiated by a priest.
But it was not until I walked into the main town square that I started to appreciate the full extent of the celebrations and what they involved. A short walk took me to an area the size of several football pitches busy with crowds mingling with tethered cattle. One after the other, the cattle were being dragged to the ground and slaughtered. On reflection it may not be a scene to photograph; I won’t show here some of the more gruesome. I was not however to escape lightly from my experience. I faced a rather frisky bull, understandably reluctant to be dragged to the ground. After a struggle, he broke free and I was in the direct line of his flight for freedom. Before you join in the laughter at the local Dorze population at my flight across the field I would like you to question at what point would you pause to look behind to see whether a bull is continuing to chase you. When I finally stopped at the relative safety of a tin shack, it was clear from the laughter around that the bull had been restrained some time earlier. Embarrassing as the incident may have been it broke the ice. I was drawn into the celebrations.
As the day progressed, one after another, the cattle were dragged to the ground, slaughtered and butchered. At the same time the choice pieces of raw meat were passed around and washed down with a supply of liquor from gourds. I joined in with the liquor, but the raw meat seemed too much. Fortunately, the less sumptuous meet cuts were being cooked on BBQs around the edge of the field.
As the sun set, the more religious aspects of the festival came to the fore. Priests arrived along with choirs and bonfires were lit. The initial bonfire and the religious element gave way again to the more alcohol fuelled celebratory atmosphere as the night drew on, with large bonfires in various sections of the town.