30 December 2012

Ethiopia: Christmas - What Not to Eat


People living in the northern hemisphere have celebrated Christmas, braving both the harsh cold weather and the financial crisis that has swept over the whole of Europe. Family reunions and enjoying Christmas pudding, turkey and ham are significant features of the festive celebrations.

Every time the Christmas tradition of gathering friends and family together draws near, many parents make long-distance calls and send text messages to their children, or other kin, living in the Diaspora. Foreigners, who might happen to be here in Ethiopia, try to celebrate Christmas together, in hotels and resorts.

I will never forget an incident, whenever this holiday arrives, that took place in Gambella, exactly 45 years ago. Among the Peace Corps volunteers, serving as school teachers, in Ethiopia, there were two friends, one of whom was assigned inAsmara, with the other in Gambella. The one, who was assigned in Asmara, flew all the way to celebrate the Christmas holiday with his friend, in Gambella.

That morning they had breakfast at a small eatery, run by Mr George Panayahos, a Greek national, a man of many trades and a long time resident of the town. Today, Mr Panayahos is still going strong, albeit a bit older. That day he could not offer Christmas pudding or turkey, for the Peace Corps friends, but was able to surprise them with the delicacy of "Gur", a massive Nile perch caught in the early hours of the day, in theBaroRiver.

Gur is the name given to this glossy fish, by the Agnwaks. The average weight of a Gur is 50Kg and it is brought ashore suspended on a pole, carried by two strong men.

The fresh catch was lifted up and placed on a big table, waiting for Mr. George to work on it with his favorite carving dagger. He sharpened it for a few minutes, more as a starting ritual than a necessity. The huge marine guest was skinned and boned in no time.

The snow white glistening substance was chopped down to bite size and put on the big oily pan, which was made ready for the ceremonious display. Mr. George kept simmering the fish on the pan, whilst adding chopped Abyssinian red onions and garlic, as well as salt and other spices.

He took the pan from the fire when the sizzling began to die down. The aroma was appetising and the fish cutlet was ready. The two American men looked excited and seemed to like the taste.

That day, which had started so well and in high spirits, turned out to be an agonising and unforgettable day, however, by late afternoon. We had all gone down to the River Baro to swim and cool off from the heat. There were a couple of crocodiles sunbathing ashore. Despite the warnings of onlookers, the American Peace Corps volunteer,fromAsmara, plunged into the river to swim.

He was said to have undermined the tempers of the Baro River crocodiles, but was fatally proved to be wrong before too long. One of the crocodiles swiftly turned violent, attacked and killed him.

The next day, a professional hunter was summoned to kill the predator, which he did with a bullet from his powerful rifle. When the giant animal was split open, only the remains of his skull and limbs were found intact. They were put in a parcel and ceremoniously shipped back to theUnited States.

That unfortunate incident was recalled last Tuesday, on a holiday trip to Langano, where I saw old horses standing still in the middle of the road at several points. Old and wounded as they seem to be, the horses are said to be standing there seeking the gusty wind blown by speeding vehicles, which whisk away the flies biting their wounds in the process. These pathetic animals, suffering from the bites of termites and other insects, find their way to death at the crocodile market, near Arba Minch. The crocodiles are fattened and sold abroad, both for their skin and for their meat.

Ethiopians, on the main, are not prone to eating man-eating animals, or any amphibians for that matter. The big question today is whether we eat what we choose, or rather, eat what we get?

If we are to live by the words of television commercials, deafening us day and night, many people may be troubled to decide what burger to bite on, and make up their minds as to which brand of beer they should wash it down with.

The facts on the ground, for many others, with meager incomes, however, are quite different. A quintal of teff is selling for over 1,700 Br. Despite the, much talked about, double digit economic growth or the shrinking inflation rate of 15pc, eating once a day at all is increasingly becoming a privilege, never mind choosing between nutritious material and junk food.

For many of us, delicacies have become a "gone are the days" tale; old stories of the good old days. Every time a holiday came to pass, people would buy live animals, like lambs or goats, and slay them, more for the shedding and spilling of the blood as a sacrifice to a higher power and a celebrating ritual, than for anything else.

Christmas used to be the time for a union of friends and relatives, and a reason to enjoy a big feast. Half a dozen people, in a neighbourhood, used to raise funds to buy an ox and share the meat equitably.

With the passage of time, the ox was replaced by fattened rams or goats, although some people abstained from eating goat mutton. They believed that the goat ate snakes, and snakes are not on the list of edibles.

Talking of edibles, I was once disappointed to discover that a tantalising chunk of fatty meat displayed in a supermarket in Leeds, United Kingdom, in 1989, was not to be for me. It was pork. Even the huge turkey put in the middle of the laid table was a kind of a scary scene, until the host had taken the ground breaking step of splitting it open and slicing it into small portions to serve on our plates.

I had remained silent, contemplating whether the fowl was a crow or an owl, but, in due time, the turkey had tasted delicious.

So maybe in the years to come, as Ethiopians, we may begin to incorporate new delicacies into our celebrations. For some, it may be out of necessity and the availability of different meats, and for others it may be due to the exposure to new types of food. Until then, regardless of what you are eating, Merry Christmas!

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