Little Steps: Underground Activism in Ethiopia

Addis Ababa appeared almost like a mirage, spreading out along the valley below from the crest of a climb through the mountains. All of the riders were a little on edge by the time we reached the city, having spent five days cycling through picturesque but grueling gorges and mountain passes. It was slow and arduous work, and Addis represented a place of rest and sanctuary.

For me, Addis was also the first place where there was a good chance of contacting some of the LGBT rights organizations that I was hoping to meet along the cycle. While Cairo has a thriving underground gay scene, there wasn’t enough time at the start of the trip to make connections; in addition, the political climate has turned increasingly dangerous for LGBT people in recent months. In Sudan, there wasn’t even a question of meeting with an organization. LGBT people in Sudan evidently come to Ethiopia – which, as we’ll see below, isn’t exactly a safe haven.

I was in luck. A friend from Yale and his wife invited me, some of the other cyclists, and several of their friends to their home for a delicious and greatly-appreciated pasta feast. One of the guests knew just the person I should meet: a young Ethiopian who was starting an underground project to deliver essential education and health care to the LGBT community in Addis.

I met Haile (which is not his real name; I’ll use pseudonyms throughout the post) the next evening at a coffee shop downtown. He invited me to come to dinner at his house, which he shares with a number of other gay Ethiopians who are working on the advocacy project. As we walked, I asked him about the gay scene in Addis. Everything is undercover. There are no gay clubs; although when Haile and two dozen of his friends show up, the club gets pretty gay pretty fast. Some establishments are more tolerant than others, but few places encourage frequent visits.

Haile’s circle of friends mostly consists of men, although he does know several lesbians in the city. He doesn’t know anyone who is transgender. He told me that, while the gay population in Addis is no doubt as large as one would expect for a major metropolis, the community exists in a plethora of isolated pockets. Most men develop friendships within a tightly-knit circle that they form through online connections. These groups generally have some overlap with other groups, but it isn’t extensive.

The online fora that are most useful for meeting people include a handful of gay dating sites and Facebook. While the Ethiopian government censors the internet extensively (porn sites, for instance, are blocked), for some reason the government hasn’t yet figured out that Manhunt is not a website about missing persons. Grindr also works, probably because it only requires a cell network and not an internet connection. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Grindr, let’s just say that it’s enormously popular but subject to abuse. It’s not necessarily the safest way to meet people, especially in a country where the stigma against homosexuality is high and where being openly gay is dangerous.

Gay men in Ethiopia are subject to jail sentences of up to 15 years for homosexual acts (even longer if there is transmission of HIV). Lesbians can no doubt be similarly persecuted; but as is true for several African countries, the criminalization statute is vague and arguably does not apply to women. It was unclear to me how frequently women have been prosecuted under the penal code.

Indeed, Haile didn’t know anyone personally who had been subject to prosecution or a conviction. But he pointed out that the real effect of the law was to remove any form of legal protection for the gay men he knew. If someone is raped or robbed during a sexual encounter, there’s nowhere to turn. The threat of blackmail is high, as people are extremely and understandably worried about being outed. Citizen arrests are also a problem, as hotel workers and others feel that the law allows and perhaps even obligates them to expose what they see as illegal activity. Most importantly for Haile, there are no public health services. People are fearful of seeking medical advice for any conditions that might require a revelation of how that condition was obtained. In a country where the HIV rate is still high, let alone the prevalence of other STDs, the inability to obtain education and treatment is devastating.

imageHaile and a group of around a dozen of his most trusted friends decided they needed to do something about what they felt was a public health crisis. They formed an underground organization dedicated to educating the LGBT community about important health issues and providing a space for counseling, outreach, and eventually treatment. The name of the group is Dana, which is Amharic for “little steps.” The group also refers to itself as 1Zega. Zega, which means citizen, has become a code word that gay men use to identify themselves in Addis.

I met seven members of Dana that evening at Haile’s house and chatted with them as we shared a spicy salad and a hearty tomato pasta. The group is diverse, highly educated, and clearly passionate about the project they are creating. Their members include a doctor and a public health worker, as well as a graphic designer and a filmmaker.

I asked them several questions about what it was like to be gay in Ethiopia. Most of the guys are not out to their families, although there seemed to be a few instances where the truth was understood but never acknowledged. One of the men, Mule, lives with his boyfriend Boche. Mule was buying a new mattress with his sister one afternoon when and she remarked that he might want a bigger mattress so Boche could fit on it. Other than that offhand comment, the subject of Mule and Boche’s relationship never came up between Mule and his sister – despite the fact that Mule first overheard a discussion about homosexuality between his parents. They were speaking about Mule’s stepbrother, who was also gay. I asked Mule if his stepbrother, unlike his sister, had been more open to a discussion about sexual orientation. Mule shook his head: “He committed suicide before I could come out to him.”

The group communicates with each other in person and over Facebook. All of the members have two Facebook accounts: one with their real name that they use for work and family, and one with a fictional name that they use for their personal lives. When I asked whether most gay men in Addis had a face Facebook profile account, one of Haile’s colleagues corrected me: “I wouldn’t say it’s a fake account. It’s the only place where I can really express myself.”

imageMuch of the motivation to form Dana occurred as a reaction to an anti-gay rally that was to be held in Addis last April. The rally was sponsored by a group of religious leaders, such as Dereje Negash, the head of a group associated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Negash said that the rally was not designed to harass gay people, but to advocate for stricter criminalization of gay sex. Haile and his cohorts orchestrated a series of responses to the rally that exposed the contradictions in the statements made by Negash and other organizers. The government eventually cancelled the rally when the Orthodox Church withdrew its support, although it’s not entirely clear what caused this sequence of events. In any event, the solidarity created between Haile and his friends in response to the rally was a motivation for them to take further steps to address the public health crisis they saw in the gay community in Addis.

Many of Dana’s efforts are in the trial stage. Just a week before my arrival, the group had its first training and outreach session. The session involved around thirty people divided into two groups: sixteen came to Haile’s house, the others met privately with members of Dana wherever they felt most comfortable. Haile said that they had originally planned to host the training at one of the European embassies in Addis, an embassy that I won’t name but which has lent some support. Unfortunately, the embassy withdrew the offer for space at the last minute, perhaps because it was concerned about diplomatic repercussions with Ethiopia. Haile shrugged off the disappointment and said it was for the best: a private home is more conducive to discretion anyway.

imageThe goal for the training session was twofold. First, Dana wanted to test the materials it has prepared to disseminate public health information. Second, the group was hoping that the trainees would feel empowered enough to take the instruction back to their own circles of friends and discuss health issues with a larger community. Dana targeted people from diverse friend groups so it could extend its outreach as far as possible. Needless to say, all the people who attended the first training session found out about the event through private invitation and word of mouth.

In the future, Dana hopes to continue its outreach through a variety of methods. It has a Facebook page and is developing a website, which will facilitate an online clinic in which volunteer doctors can answer questions anonymously from people who have concerns about their sexual health. The group is also in the process of editing a short film which will describe the daily lives and struggles of gay Ethiopians.

Not surprisingly, Dana could use increased funding to pursue these projects. Out in Africa Ride is currently looking at ways to get money to the group, which is much harder in Ethiopia than in other countries. The main obstacle is the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which limits the funds a group can receive from foreign sources. We’re currently studying the law to see if there are possibilities for working around this requirement.

Dana works in dangerous territory. From all accounts, the current government is just as repressive as previous regimes, and it is unclear what would happen to members of the group if they were discovered. Beyond formal punishment and legal action against them, many members could face ostracism from their families and from their work.

Nevertheless, they have each other. Even from my brief meeting with the members of Dana, the closeness and solidarity of the group was apparent. It is, perhaps, the one silver lining of oppression: a recognition and appreciation of a shared humanity in the face of a common enemy. When I explained to the group how gay men can be judgmental and snide to each other in other cities – how I have heard many gay men make racist, sexist, anti-lesbian, or transphobic remarks –, I was met with blank stares. In places where rights are better protected, how do we forget so quickly that there is far more that brings us together than keeps us apart? The interactions between members of the group and the dedication and courage with which they are trying to make Ethiopia a better place for LGBT people were an inspiring reminder for me of the little steps we all must take towards greater understanding, greater empathy, and greater kindness.


Why Is Learning Arabic So Hard?

I’ve been working on a piece about the various languages I’ve encountered throughout Africa over the past three months.  But before I finish that, I thought it might be fun to post something I wrote seven years ago when I was studying Arabic in Cairo.  Here’s a piece about why Arabic is such a difficult – but wonderful – language for English speakers to study:

My bathroom is leaking. It’s not a big deal, nothing a new valve on the toilet couldn’t fix, but I haven’t spoken to my landlord about it yet. The problem? I’m in Cairo, and my landlord only speaks Arabic. Though I have been studying the language intensively for over a month, basic conversation is still difficult and I’m not yet prepared to delve into vocabulary that confuses me even in English.

There seems to be unanimous agreement that Arabic is a hard language. The Defence Language Institute rates Arabic as a Category IV language, the most difficult category, along with Korean, Japanese and Chinese. After 63 weeks of intensive study, the DLI estimates that someone who is adept at learning languages could communicate in Arabic with only minimum working proficiency (a 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is fluency equivalent to a native speaker).

imageSo what makes it so hard? Unlike Japanese and Chinese, Arabic has just one alphabet with 28 letters to learn, which isn’t nearly as bad as all those thousands of characters. True, Arabic is written right to left (so you feel like you’re opening your book backwards) and each letter has four different forms depending on whether it appears independently or in the beginning, middle, or end of a word. But familiarity with the alphabet comes much more quickly than it would first appear.

If it’s not the foreign alphabet, then what? One problem is that like other Semitic languages (Hebrew, for instance), Arabic does not write out all the vowels. Long vowels, yes, but the short ones are usually dropped from non-religious texts. Though there are a limited number of options, “rdng wtht vwls s vry dffclt.”

Then there are the sounds. Several are foreign, though two have achieved special infamy for English speakers. The glottal stop, “hamza,” is not actually terribly difficult to produce (it’s the hyphen in “uh-oh”) but feels funny to stick in the middle of words. More troublesome is the “ayn,” a sound which one of my textbooks describes first as “one of the most beautiful and distinctive sounds of the Arabic language” before suggesting that producing it should “sound a bit like someone’s strangling you.” I still don’t understand how Arabic speakers maintain conversation during meals – talking with your mouth full is not just impolite, it’s hazardous to your health.

Next comes the grammar. Though the Arabic system is incredibly organized (in fact, I’ve met many mathematicians who became addicted to Arabic), it’s also incredibly complex (they were pretty smart mathematicians). There are two features especially that tend to make English speakers grind their teeth together. The first is the nominal sentence, or a sentence that doesn’t have a verb. This weird sounding for Americans. It rather bizarre. Like the previous two sentences, many Arabic sentences lack the verb “to be.” Making a complete sentence therefore relies on rules about definiteness and indefiniteness that are not necessarily intuitive.

Another feature is the use of the dual. In English, we have pronouns for singular and plural (I versus we, he versus they, etc.). In Arabic, there is a third category that refers to a group of two people. Nouns and adjectives take a special ending whenever there are two of something, and verbs must be conjugated accordingly. For those used to the frustrations of six different conjugation forms in languages like French, Spanish, and German, just imagine 13 different forms! Though the dual seems excessive to English speakers, its use poses interesting questions. Just as we might ask, why do you need a separate form to refer to two things?, an impartial observer might ask an English speaker why we feel the need to differentiate between “he” and “she.”

Interestingly, both the nominal sentence and the use of the dual are not unique to Arabic. In fact, if we trust the good people at Wikipedia, the majority of the approximately 6,000 languages spoken in the world today manifest one of these two features.

Besides the dual and the nominal sentence, Arabic has many idiosyncracies to drive you batty. There are nonsensical rules involving numbers, such that the gender of the number is usually the opposite of the gender of the noun. Meanwhile, a group of three or more non-human objects takes a feminine singular adjective such that one might say, “The houses, she is big.” By the time our professor embarks on a discussion about negating the past tense with a present tense form of the verb, we’ve all jumped out the window.

imageBut let’s pretend that you’ve familiarized yourself with the alphabet, mastered the basic grammar, and learned some vocabulary. You’re ready to barter down the price of that shiny new sheesha pipe you saw in the bazaar, right? Think again. If you proudly take your newfound Arabic skills into the streets, you will be greeted with puzzled looks. What gives? The problem is that there really isn’t any such thing as Arabic. In fact, no one speaks the language you are learning in class as a first language; rather, it is merely one standardized version of a collection of dialects that are as diverse as French and Portuguese. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of the media and is essential for understanding Arabic newspapers and broadcasts. However, as most Arabs learn this version of their language in school, the degree of familiarity possessed by the average person you meet in the streets varies wildly. They will probably understand you, but it will sound a bit like you’re ordering your hummus with a line from “Macbeth.”

Thus, learning Arabic fully is really a study of two languages: one to read, and one to speak. The vocabulary is different, the vowels change, and the verbs follow different rules. To make matters worse, a lot of spoken Arabic is a mixture of the two styles: Arabic speakers shift between different registers depending on how formal the situation is. Plus, you have to decide which colloquial version to learn. Do you want to be understood in Morocco, the Levant, or the Gulf? Many Arabic programs in the States solve this dilemma by avoiding it entirely, but that can create a big problem when someone who is “fluent” in Arabic is sent to Baghdad and can’t understand anyone.

So what’s the point? With such a huge time commitment required just to gain a minimum level of proficiency, is there really any use in taking an Arabic course? The answer, of course, is yes. Even within a few weeks, studying Arabic opens doors into interesting perspectives on a culture and history that has been routinely misunderstood by foreigners, often with disastrous results. Considering the importance of the region in terms of current events, a few small steps toward bridging the language divide can go a long way. Most of the Egyptians I have met are well aware of how difficult their language is and seem extremely appreciative of even the smallest attempt to use it. Just a few words can turn a grouchy cab driver into a fount of advice and information. So go ahead and enroll in that class you’ve been thinking about – you never know when you might end up in an Arab metropolis with a flooded bathroom.


A History of Ethiopia: The Abbreviated Version

Get out your injera bread and pour yourself a steaming cup of Ethiopian espresso because, if you’re unfamiliar with Ethiopian history, you’re in for a treat. The country is absolutely unique and the history is somewhat mind-boggling. After three weeks of cycling through the Ethiopian mountains, I’m still struggling to figure out which end is up. The problem is that Ethiopian tour guides, as well as Ethiopians you meet on the street, will state with absolute conviction facts that would not necessarily stand up to independent corroboration. For instance, did the Queen of Sheba really rule over an ancient kingdom? Is the Ark of the Covenant kept somewhere in modern day Aksum? People swore to me that these things were true, but I never found any verification of these assertions other than the convictions of people’s beliefs. I’ll try to point out below where the archaeological record is missing; but if one of the reasons to study what’s happened before is to gain insight into what’s happening now, perhaps it’s important to understand the history that people believe to be true no matter what the scientific evidence shows. And to spend some time contemplating what really distinguishes a historical fiction from a historical fact.

imageLet’s start with some science. One of Ethiopia’s claims to fame is that it is the resting place of a number of ancient hominid remains – including, most famously, Lucy. These remains were discovered in the Great Rift Valley, which runs all the way from the Dead Sea down through Ethiopia and into the Great Lakes of Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique. Lucy died around 3.2 million years ago; she was discovered in 1974, at which time she was the oldest and most complete hominid fossil to be uncovered. More recent finds have suggested that Lucy may be less of a great-grandmother figure to the human race and more of a great-aunt on a lateral branch of human evolution. But either way, Lucy shattered the theory that hominids only began walking upright after evolving larger brains. Fun trivia fact: Lucy is named after the Beatles song, which was a favorite in the camp of the archaeologists who discovered her.

Fast forward several million years to around 2000 BC; as you may recall from posts on Egypt and Sudan, this was the age of the pharaohs. Records are scarce, but what is now the country of Eritrea probably formed part of the Land of Punt, which traded with the ancient Egyptians and established contacts in southern Arabia. Around 1500 BC, a civilization arose which combined African influences with cultural traditions of the Sabaean people in Arabia. The city established at Yeha during this period is generally considered Ethiopia’s first capital. One lasting legacy of this civilization is the Ge’ez language: a precursor to modern Amharic and, impressively, a script that is still read by some Christian priests in Ethiopia today. By my count, that makes Ge’ez quite possibly the oldest language that is still read that you’ve never heard of.

Around 1000 BC, we enter the age of the Queen of Sheba. WARNING: nothing about this famous queen is in the archaeological record. My sources here are a tour guide in Gondar, two guys I met on the street in Addis, and the Lonely Planet. So maybe don’t quote this stuff with too much conviction at your next cocktail party.

imageAnyway, according to tradition, the Queen of Sheba was a daughter of Yemen who became the ruler of ancient Ethiopia. In the tenth century BC, she traveled to the court of King Solomon in Jerusalem – evidently, to test the king’s renowned wisdom with difficult questions and riddles, which makes her pretty fabulous if any of that is true. Under Ethiopian legend, King Solomon was a bit of a cad and was determined to bed the beautiful queen. He let her stay in his palace on the condition that she touched nothing of his. Which seems like the sort of condition that might lead you to be suspicious enough to book a room at the Motel 6 instead. The king held a feast in her honor and plied her salty and spicy foods. Afterwards, the pair retired to separate beds in the same sleeping chambers. (Alarm! Alarm! “Don’t worry, you can sleep in my room and I promise we won’t have sex” NEVER MEANS THAT.) In the middle of the night, the thirsty queen reached for the king’s glass of water on the bedside table, at which point the king pounced. The child that resulted was Menelik I, the king from whom every other royal ruler of Ethiopia has claimed direct descent.

Evidently, Menelik later traveled to Jerusalem to meet his father. AND THEN STOLE THE ARK OF THE COVENANT. Which seems bold, and rather surprising that no one noticed the commandments of God packed away on the camels amongst the bedding and spices. The Ark is now believed, at least among Ethiopians, to reside in the St Mary of Zion church in Aksum. Many Ethiopian churches contain replicas of this holy relic.

Aksum (which I’ve also seen written as Axum) puts us back on more solid historical ground. The Kingdom of Aksum emerged as early as 400 BC, when the city of Aksum became an important commercial crossroads. Indeed, Aksum grew to be one of the most powerful kingdoms in the ancient world, which makes me feel somewhat sheepish that I had never heard of it until a month ago. Many monuments from this time still exist, including the great stelae, or obelisks, which surround modern-day Aksum. Importantly, it was during the Aksumite era that Christianity entered Ethiopia.

Here’s another story: a man known today in Ethiopia as Abuna Selama was born a Christian in the early 300s in Lebanon. He traveled with his brother down the Red Sea to Ethiopia, where a group of locals massacred everyone aboard the boat other than the two boys. They were taken as slaves to the king of Aksum, where they befriended the king’s son, the future King Ezana. Abuna Selama eventually converted Ezana to Christianity, which appears to have become the state religion around this time. Here we’re back to the historical record: King Ezana’s stone inscription references Christ, and the coins during this era bear the Christian cross. At the end of the 400s, a group of wandering missionaries called the Nine Saints arrived from the Levant, built a bunch of monasteries, and went about converting the masses. Today, about half of Ethiopia’s population is Orthodox Christian.

Most other modern-day Ethiopians are either Protestant or Muslim, but Islam didn’t make the early inroads into the country that it did in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Sudan. However, the Muslim hadith recounts that Mohammed sent one of his daughters to Negash in 615 to avoid prosecution in Arabia; Negash remains an important site of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Muslims today.

The Kingdom of Aksum declined around 700, when Christian Aksum lost control of the Red Sea trade routes to Islamic Arabia. Thereafter, little is known of the Ethiopian “Dark Ages” during the next several hundred years, except that the Zagwe dynasty reigned from around 1137 to 1270 and built awe-inspiring churches out of rock near present-day Lalibela. Of all the parts of Ethiopia that I missed on our cycle route, Lalibela is the place I’d most like to return.

In 1270, Yekuno Amluk seized control and began the Solomonic dynasty, claiming direct descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The dynasty ruled for 500 years, until the fall of Gonder in the 1700s. This period was known as Ethiopia’s “Middle Ages” and, because the capitals of the kingdom were itinerant at the start of this era, it’s hard for me to imagine this time in any way other than as the guy with two coconut halves following around King Arthur in Monty Python. In reality, rulers had huge courts and entourages that accompanied them about the country. At some point during this time, the Kebra Negast, Ethiopia’s national epic, was written. This book is the source for lots of the history about Queen Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant that I’ve recounted above.

Contacts with Christian Europe also increased, in part as a response to the rise of well-equipped Muslim armies in the area that is now Somalia. Tensions between the religions eventually boiled over in the 1490s when a man named Mahfuz in Somalia declared war against Christian Ethiopia. Cue lots of bloody fighting for the next fifty years. Eventually, Emperor Lebna Dengel of Ethiopia appealed to the Portuguese for help; but in 1542, a warrior named Ahmed Gragn the Left-Handed (not making up this name) DEFEATED 400 PORTUGUESE SOLDIERS in Massawa, which is in present-day Eritrea. This event deserves all caps because the Portuguese were a well-armed bunch; also, it was not the last time that a group of Europeans suffered defeat in this region.

Anyway, that victory didn’t have too many lasting political effects, because good old Ahmed was killed the next year by Galawdewos, the new emperor of Ethiopia. He had help from the surviving Portuguese, an alliance that was renewed several times over the next 200 years as the Ethiopians faced a new threat coming northward from Kenya: the Oromos, a people known for their fighting prowess on horses. To fight the Oromos, several emperors sided with the Portuguese Jesuits. But eventually this alliance proved a step too far when Emperor Susenyos converted to Catholicism and tried to impose his religious views on his people. The result? Civil war. And no Catholicism. Susenyos finally backed down and the Orthodox faith was restored.

imageSusenyos’s son and successor was Emperor Fasiladas, who broke the nomadic tradition of the royal court and founded a new capital at Gonder in 1636. Continuing with the King Arthur theme, the royal palaces at Gonder are sometimes called the Camelot of Ethiopia. The architecture of these palaces is excellent and unique: a fascinating mix of Islamic and European styles. Gonder occupies a strategic position in the hills above Lake Tana (a fact to which I can personally attest – I biked those hills and it wasn’t a picnic) and it became a major power center in the region.

The golden period started to decline in the early 1700s, when court intrigue became rife. Lots of plotting! And poison! When Emperor Iyasu II died in 1755, the Gonder kingdom disintegrated and Ethiopia entered a period of civil war for the next 100 years.

The man who brought it all back together was Kassa Haylu, aka Emperor Tewodros. He gained popularity as a Robin Hood figure who eventually defeated enough rival princes to unify much of the previously warring territories in 1855. He moved the capital to Maqdala, just south of the rock churches at Lalibela. He promoted Amharic as the national language and began an ambitious program of military modernization and land reform. He fell from power after imprisoning a group of Britons who were at his court. The British were NOT PLEASED and sent in heavy forces in 1868. Tewodros died with a flourish on the receiving end of his own pistol and trigger finger.

After a battle for succession, Kassa Mercha proclaimed himself Emperor Yohannes. Yohannes was from the Tigray region of Ethiopia in the north; although he was Ethiopia’s only ruler from this region (the rest have been from the central Amhara region), Tigrayans currently have an influence on Ethiopian politics far larger than their relatively small percentage of Ethiopia’s demographics would otherwise suggest.

As we saw in Egypt, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had dramatic consequences throughout the region. The Italians suddenly became interested in the strategic value of the Red Sea and turned their eyes to the port city of Massawa. While trouble was brewing with the Italians, Yohannes had other problems. Remember General Gordon and the Mahdi up in the Sudan? After the whole beheading incident, the Mahdists started to expand their territory under the leadership of the Khalifa. They progressed into Ethiopia as far as Gonder, which they sacked in 1888. Yohannes was killed the next year in a battle with the Khalifa’s forces.

Enter Emperor Menelik II. In the power vacuum that occurred after the death of Yohannes, the Italians saw Menelik (who had been king of the central Ethiopian region of Shoa) as a potential ally. They signed a treaty that recognized Menelik’s sovereignty in exchange for control over Eritrea. But translation errors fueled a major conflict. Article 17 of the treaty, which dealt with foreign relations, said different things in Italian and Amharic. Whoops! THEY CLEARLY NEEDED BETTER DRAFTING.

The Italians began taking territory further and further south, which was a super fashionable thing to do if you were European and in Africa in the 1890s. Eventually, Menelik had to act. He sent his forces north and, on 1 March 1896 – in an event that shocked pretty much everybody – HE WON THE BATTLE OF ADWA. More all caps! This was a big deal! All Ethiopian schoolchildren know this date because, with that victory, Ethiopia became basically the only independent nation left in Africa after the European powers finished carving up the rest of the continent.

Emperor Menelik built a new capital at Addis Ababa and embarked on ambitious infrastructure projects all over the country. He died (peacefully!) in 1913, at which point there was a bunch of family wrangling over the throne for a decade until Prince Ras Tafari eventually schemed his way to the top. On 2 November 1930, in an extravagant and I’m sure absolutely fabulous spectacle (pay no attention to the cost or all the hungry people), Prince Ras Tafari became Emperor Haile Selassie.

imageSIDE NOTE: If the name Ras Tafari seems familiar, that’s because Marcus Garvey’s followers in Jamaica believed that the emperor’s coronation was the fulfillment of the biblical prophesy that “Kings will come out of Africa.” Garvey’s followers created a new religion: Rastafarianism. But they mostly stayed in Jamaica. Evidently, Selassie wasn’t sure what to think about all this, but eventually granted the Rastafarians some land in the town of Shashemene. Having cycled through this town, the only thing I can really say about it is that lots of people can sell you weed there.


In 1931, the now entirely unified Ethiopia adopted its first written constitution. Which sounds like a bit of joke, since it basically gave Selassie absolute power. Still, Ethiopia was uniquely free from European influence. This was a situation that displeased the Italians, who were still smarting from the Adwa defeat and wanted to expand the control they already had in Eritrea and parts of Somalia.

The Italians invaded on 3 October 1935. Despite sanctions from the League of Nations, no one really did anything about it – mostly because Hitler was getting feisty in Europe and Britain was nervous about pissing off Mussolini and pushing him into an alliance with Germany. The occupation was brutal. The Italians used mustard gas and killed almost 300,000 Ethiopians. Despite valiant counteroffensives, the Italians gained control of most major cities (although one tour guide I had was adamant that Italy never conquered the entire country). The emperor fled and made a famous but ultimately fruitless speech to the League of Nations in June 1936.

Resistance to the occupation was fierce and reached a peak in February 1937 with an assassination attempt on the Italian viceroy, Rodolfo Graziani. In response, thousands of Ethiopians were shot, beheaded, and disemboweled in the capital.

The tide turned with the outbreak of World War II. Britain was no longer worried about appeasing the Italians (too late!) and, with the help of the local Ethiopian forces, launched three successful counterattacks in 1941. Emperor Selassie reentered Addis Ababa on 5 May 1941.

The emperor resumed absolute power, but cracks appeared in his rule at the beginning of the 1960s. There was an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1960, followed by growing discontent over Ethiopia’s unilateral annexation of Eritrea in 1962 and war with Somalia in 1964. In 1972, a famine struck Ethiopia in which an estimated 200,000 people died over the next two years. Students and other people opposed to Selassie’s rule brilliantly used footage of the famine juxtaposed with sumptuous palace banquets (and photos of Selassie feeding steaks to his dogs) to undermine the emperor’s power. Selassie was deposed on 12 September 1974, when he was unceremoniously bundled into the back of a Volkswagen (a deliberate tactic to humiliate him) and driven to prison. He died in 1975 under suspicious circumstances – no one is quite sure whether he was murdered or by whom.

imageIn a set of events that I find eerily prefigures the current events in Egypt, what had at least in part been a student-led revolution was quickly exploited by a military elite. This elite was known as the Derg (which means Committee) and its leader was Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Derg purported to be socialist and communist; but from what I’ve seen of its tactics, it seems like it was pure fascism to me. In a Big Brother kind of way: there were some crazy propaganda posters with a big eye watching everyone.

The Derg instituted what was known as the Red Terror to beat back its enemies. Mengistu gave a famous speech in Addis in which he smashed bottles filled with blood (or something that looked like it) to represent the crushing of his opponents. Estimates for the number of people killed during the Red Terror range from 100,000 to 500,000 and possibly higher. By all accounts, Mengistu was Ethiopia’s Pol Pot. Thousands of children were killed, their bodies rotting in the streets until they were eaten by wild hyenas. Later, a massive famine in 1984-86 was almost certainly made worse by Mengistu’s unwillingness to help the Tigray region, which was a center of opposition and unrest.

Many of the people I met in Ethiopia had personal histories from this period – brothers who had been shot, and mothers who had been imprisoned. I visited the Red Terror museum in Addis, where I was given a harrowing tour by Fre, a former prisoner of the regime. Fre related excruciating tales of torture, the most vivid of which was his description of how his captors tore off his fingernails. Interestingly, the museum does not receive any funding from the government – and I had the sense that my guide’s comments were uncensored. He had a great deal of criticism to heap on the current government, which he said was no different from the Derg in essential ways.

The Derg collapsed in 1991, in part because the Soviet Union no longer existed to support it. The Derg was also battling a multi-headed hydra by that point, with liberation armies from all corners of the country. Most powerful was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) (remember, Tigray is the northern region which was the home to Emperor Yohannes). The TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, led an interim government and eventually became the president under a new constitution.

The TPLF continues to dominate the government today. While Ethiopia has remained peaceful since the nineties, it has been involved in several conflicts on its borders. Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia at the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, has remained a source of tension. A war from 1998-2000 between the two countries resulted in a demilitarized zone and a UN Mission. Although UN troops withdrew from the border zone in 2008, the two countries remain at odds. Meanwhile, Ethiopia has repeatedly invaded Somalia to fight both the Islamic Courts Union and al-Shabaab.

Zenawi died in 2012. Evidently, some of the last people to find out about this event were Ethiopians themselves, as the government heavily censors the internet and filters the news that its citizens receive. An interim government has been in place until the next election, which will occur on 24 May 2015. Everyone to whom I spoke said the result is preordained and the TPLF will be returned to power.


On Motion

My steadfast companion for the past two months, paradoxically, has been constant motion. Every day I cycle past new terrain and new vistas; and, more importantly, past thousands of new people. The people I pass are at once instantly familiar and entirely foreign. The shared amusement with a mother over her daughter’s antics is a scene that could play out in hundreds of countries; but the unique headdress and hand gestures and dialect are specific to places I’ve just discovered.

I find myself one morning at the foot of a massive climb. As I slowly grind up the incline, a small child races beside me, chattering ceaselessly in a language I wish I understood. We crest the hill together, at which point I gradually gain speed. My bike begins to inch away from him – first by mere feet, and then by a steadily increasing expanse of space. He continues to run after me, unwilling to accept that our velocities have become unmoored. Eventually he stops, his chest heaving with the weight of things there was not time to say. I turn to see him rooted to the same spot before the next rise obscures him from view. Given the relativity of motion, it’s hard to say which one of us is moving forward and which one is standing still.

I think about these questions of motion a great deal as I cycle across the continent, in the freshness of the morning and on long, grueling afternoons. The idea of motion helps me formulate the larger project on which I have embarked; it also challenges me to interrogate my decisions in a deeply personal way.

On the more philosophical level, I wonder sometimes if the ideal of equality is not best measured by an equality of acceleration. Equality is often viewed through the lens of equal opportunity, but this conception strikes me as problematic in its flexibility. What do we mean by equal opportunities? People are clearly born with different capacities, both mentally and physically. And I’ve never been convinced that absolute equality of wealth, regardless of the choices someone makes, is either a viable or a desirable goal. People will always move with different speeds, and on different modes of transportation, and along different roads.

imageBut when I think about what gives my life meaning and hope, a fundamental component of that dignity is the power and ability to change my velocity. I have the means and opportunity to leave one job and start a new one, to further my education, to live abroad. It is clear from my travels and from even a minimal familiarity with current events and history that I occupy a privileged space. Too often, people are trapped by the lack of resources, by poverty, by the patterns of history and current governance that marginalize groups of people based on their race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation. All human beings are worthy of dignity by virtue of their birth; but to realize the full potential for that humanity, people must have the ability to make choices, to feel their lives are in motion, and to accelerate. Here I use that term as a physicist would, meaning simply a change in velocity: sometimes slowing down is better than speeding up. And a change in direction may be more necessary than a change in speed.

What can we do as citizens of the world to guarantee that as many people as possible have this feeling of autonomy, this capacity to alter the trajectory of their lives? First and foremost we must fight for the equal application of the law. Many of the great struggles of the past have been waged over what should be the simple question of whether all people should be treated as people. In the United States, the Fourteenth Amendment righted a great wrong when it stated that all citizens, regardless of race, were entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizenship. A century later, the civil rights movement attempted to realize the promise of those words. The struggle continues to this day: police brutality and incarceration rates disproportionately affect people of color, and these statistics are only the tip of an iceberg that floats in a sea of historical disadvantage. Until we find ways to confront and address our painful history, we leave whole swathes of society spinning in eddies that are agonizingly outside the powerful sweep of the river.

The struggle for LGBT rights has sometimes been dubbed the new civil rights movement, and in many fundamental ways the issues are similar. In several states and in the majority of countries around the world, LGBT people are denied the right to seek employment and housing free from discrimination, and to have their relationships recognized and treated with dignity by the governments who represent them. It is difficult to feel forward momentum in personal relationships when those connections are legally deemed less worthy of respect. And it is all too easy to internalize a government’s unequal treatment and the messages of support such a regime receives for its policies of marginalization. There is nothing that prevents a person’s progress toward dignity so effectively as that person’s self doubt that he or she is worthy of dignity in the first place.

These civil rights struggles are far from over, but even if we make substantial progress in the fight to apply laws equally regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, nationality, or wealth, it is not enough. An equality of legal treatment does not, by itself, ensure an equality of acceleration. Without basic necessities such as clean water, housing, and health care, political rights such as voting are difficult to access. Many legal scholars refer to these underlying rights as socioeconomic rights, or “positive rights”. To achieve them, they require positive duties on the part of government and other actors to take steps towards their fulfillment. Unlike negative rights, such as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, these rights are about what the government must do, not about what the government cannot do.

The South African Constitution, unlike the Constitution of the United States, guarantees these positive rights to all citizens of the country. I spent a year working in the South African legal system, and it was fascinating to see how South African courts attempted to make such rights legally enforceable. After all, adequate housing for all is a laudable goal, but one look at the informal settlements around Johannesburg or Cape Town is enough to show how far South Africa is from realizing that ideal. What role can the judicial branch play in requiring the political branches of government to take action? There have been a number of cases in which the Constitutional Court has addressed this question, holding that the socioeconomic rights enshrined in the Constitution create positive duties on the government.

In the early 2000s, President Thabo Mbeki refused to accept the current science around HIV and AIDS and his government failed to provide South African citizens with Nevirapine – a new drug on the market that had proven effective in HIV patients and was able to reduce dramatically the rate at which mothers transmitted the virus to their children during childbirth. A nonprofit organization, the Treatment Action Campaign, took the government to court. In the landmark judgment of Minister of Health v Treatment Action Campaign, the Constitutional Court held in 2002 that the right to health care required the government to take reasonable steps towards a progressive realization of this right. Furthermore, the Court ruled that the government’s failure to provide Nevirapine to its citizens violated this duty.

The legal reasoning in the Treatment Action Campaign case mirrors some of my thinking about the equality of acceleration. Courts cannot simply require government and other actors to achieve certain rights; but in some situations, they may be able to help ensure that there is motion towards these goals. Certainly government is not the only entity that can foster these rights. Private business, religious groups, and civil society organizations all have roles that, in some cases, may be even more effective in guaranteeing these rights. But we must be vigilant to ensure that government stays focused on an equality of acceleration as one of its essential and most important goals – both by applying laws equally to all of its citizens regardless of race, sexuality, and other markers that can be used to divide; and by working towards a society in which all its members have access to health care, housing, and other basic needs necessary for a dignified existence.

One of the most important of these needs is education. Critical thinking, constant questioning, and continual reassessment are the motors that drive progress towards the realization of other rights and towards the feeling of personal movement and freedom in individual lives. For me, discovering a diversity of viewpoints during college and later in life helped me achieve self confidence as a gay man and opened up a wide world of travel and other experiences. The support I received from my parents helped supply the means, but the education I received from my family and schooling is what provided the fuel and desire. Perhaps the first step towards a feeling that you have the autonomy to change your life is the knowledge that such change is possible.

imageEducation also helps shore up our resolve in the struggle for an equality of acceleration – even in the face of a constant onslaught of current events in which societies are moving away from this ideal, not towards it. Literature, art, science, and history all help us understand that, while something is being destroyed, something else is always being created. Like Sisyphus, we put our shoulders to the boulder and the effort of moving forward, even with the knowledge that this forward motion will not last. It’s easy to coast to the bottom of the hill, but where we must muster our strength is when the road starts climbing and we must decide whether to keep pedaling.

It is not only these profound questions of human rights and equality that engage me as I cycle through the countryside. Every pair of eyes I pass also suggests questions of a more personal nature. I wonder how I can play an effective role to help LGBT people in Africa achieve a feeling of motion and a freedom of acceleration. I wonder what lies in store for me when the ride is over. Most hauntingly, I wonder how to live a life that’s in motion without leaving behind the people I love.

Staring at the night sky, I sometimes think of personal relationships as celestial bodies: some objects revolve around each other in a perpetual dance; others, like a comet slingshotting around the sun, pass for a brief moment before hurtling back into empty space, seeking an unknown goal or the warmth of other stars. How do you bend your trajectory to fit the motion of other people, and how do you know if your paths have diverged?

My decisions to come to South Africa a year ago and to follow that experience with the cycle trip have allowed me invaluable growth and joyous encounters that I would never give up. I’ve met lifelong friends, tested my physical and mental limits, and observed the world from new perspectives. Not surprisingly, though, these opportunities have come with sacrifices. My parents have both turned sixty in my absence. A beautiful and meaningful romantic relationship has foundered on the shoals of distance. Emails – far too many of them – have gone unanswered or unwritten. Close friends have celebrated marriages without me, while others have had babies and started families. There are children I’ve known and loved who have grown tall and thoughtful. As I move forward in distance, others seem to be moving forward in time. I worry that one day I’ll return like Peter Pan to find that Wendy is aged and unrecognizable.

I assume and hope that many of these sacrifices are only temporary. I expect that with old friends we will pick up where we left off as soon as our orbits realign. I trust that my parents will be around for belated celebrations. I take for granted that there will be time to say the things I have never learned how to say, that the gardens I have neglected to water will still flourish.

One lesson that cycling has taught me is how uncertain these assumptions are. Motion can be stopped as easily as it is started, sometimes in sudden and catastrophic ways. As I was waiting one afternoon at the crest of a hill above Addis Ababa for all the cyclists to arrive so we could ride into the city together, a local van pulled up carrying one of our riders, Terry, who was badly injured. A car had accidentally run Terry off the road, giving him a concussion and a broken arm. He was treated at a hospital in Nairobi and later flown back to Australia – luckily, he appears to be making a full recovery. But his accident was a reminder of how quickly our trajectories can change. The things I assumed there would be time to say or do may have evaporated like pools in the desert. The people to whom I hoped to return may be revolving in new orbits.

imageThese are difficulties that we all face even if we are not traveling. Living a life in motion doesn’t mean living a life of geographical exploration. My parents didn’t travel a great deal while I was growing up. My father worked as a professor of mathematics at a liberal arts college and my mother spent the time when she was not at home serving in local government and in a statewide organization. But my parents’ lack of travel did not render their lives motionless. They moved forward by serving their students, their communities, and by nourishing our family. They provided a solid foundation so that my brother, my sister, and I could make choices that were unavailable to them; so that we could explore a world that had fewer boundaries. It is a foundation for which I am immensely grateful.

There are so many ways of moving, of living. People all over the world find motion in their careers, in their families, in their communities. As Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.” A life of interior exploration can be as challenging, as treacherous, and as fulfilling as a life of exterior adventure. It can lead to new perspectives and to distancing from old relationships as surely as years of Circe’s embrace on the shores of some foreign isle.

But no matter how we find motion in our lives, whether externally or internally, the choices we make to shape that motion require sacrifices. We fight for our freedom of acceleration, for the ability to choose our speed and direction. Nevertheless, this ability is a double-edged sword. Every choice entails a path not taken; each decision creates the possibility for regret. How do we shape our life’s motion in a fulfilling way? How do we balance new experiences, career obligations, or personal revelations with the desire and need to cultivate longterm friendships, nurture families, and create communities? Put another way, how do we balance multiple passions that may pull our lives along divergent paths?

My friend Ofentse, who was a colleague in South Africa and whom I was able to visit last week in Nairobi, gave me one answer: prioritize personal relationships. It’s insane to use up all your energy on causes that are subject to the whim of notoriously corrupt governments, she remarked. I took Ofentse’s comment with a large dose of skepticism, as she is one of the people I know who is most passionately dedicated to a world of forward movement. But the warning to nourish and protect one’s personal life echoes comments I have heard from a number of sources.

I had an influential English teacher in high school named Ruth Michaud. At a stage when I was scared of the future, uncertain of my sexuality, and struggling to discover what I believed, Mrs Michaud saw me in a way that I wish I could have seen myself. I was not alone. The energy she poured into my creative output and development was the same energy she devoted to every student passing through her classroom. She surprised me in a conversation we had after I graduated college when she expressed doubt about whether her personal motion had been in the right direction. “I had so many students come and go,” she remarked. “And all the time I invested in them was time I didn’t spend on my son.”

I found Mrs Michaud’s comment heartbreakingly raw, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that in response I should have referenced a discussion I had with her in high school about The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The novel concerns a butler who sacrifices everything for his career, basing his decision on his philosophy that, as the servant of a great man, he is also able to contribute to the forward movement of the world. But what the reader knows, and what the narrator is unable to admit, is that his master is a dupe for the Nazis and anything but a paragon of humanity. The butler’s life is founded on a lie, and the reader must face the question: what is left at the remains of his day?

Mrs Michaud and I both saw the novel as a cautionary tale, one that encourages us to examine continuously and critically the assumptions that underlie our decisions so that we are ready to respond to that haunting question. When Mrs Michaud posed that query for herself, I wish I had pointed out a crucial distinction: unlike the butler’s unexamined beliefs, the assumptions underlying Mrs Michaud’s decisions about the balance between family and work were not false. The influence she exerted on me and on all of her students was real and powerful. In fundamental ways, she helped form me into a compassionate and critical thinker. She gave me the confidence to discover who I was, to stand up for my beliefs, and to encourage others to do the same.

Teachers, activists, and many others can and do make positive change. The energy and passion they pour into their work radiates outwards in ripples that can have unpredictable and sometimes unexpectedly large consequences. This effect does not obviate the need to seek a balance between passion for work or a cause and the energy invested in a family, a community, a partner. There is no easy formula for striking this balance, but what seems important to me is to make these choices and sacrifices with lucidity, with introspection, and with the humility that comes from constant questioning and reassessment. I wish I could have this conversation with Mrs Michaud now, but with her death this past year our trajectories have diverged irreparably.

imageAnd there, within that finiteness of time, lies the rub. I am torn between the love of old relationships and the thrill of what’s just around the next corner. As I traverse a foreign continent, I feel like I am rowing a very small boat on a very large ocean: the places and the cultures I have not yet explored leave me exhilarated and overwhelmed. Between harbors, the immense expanse of sky is both sheltering and isolating. I feel the motion of the waves even when I am on solid ground. It disorients me. Am I the child who stays panting behind, or the cyclist who forges steely-eyed ahead? Either way, the joy of people coming is tempered by the sadness of those who disappear over the horizon. I hope that one day I will travel past them again, or that they will return to me. Meanwhile, I think about the sanctity of time, and my increasing shortness of breath. I think about how to make decisions that are clear, critical, and balanced. I think about how to leave, and how to stay.

These questions will continue to challenge me for the rest of the trip. But with motion comes inertia, and for now I continue to ride – past smiles and sneers, and haunting glances that ask unanswered questions; past verdant mountains and haughty deserts and lines and lines of latitude; past bravery and injustice and new friendships and missed connections; and past streams of humanity in all its colors and smells and pettiness and sublimity. The kilometers tick by and I sometimes forget whether my odometer is measuring distance or time. Every so often, I am reminded of the things that are moving away from me. One afternoon, a momentary shadow alerts me to an eagle that is hurtling past far overhead. From my vantage point it is impossible to tell whether his wheeling circles are aimless or purposeful, playful or desperate.


Mountains Beyond Mountains

I’m stealing the title of this post from Tracy Kidder, who used it for his excellent and highly recommended book on Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti and elsewhere around the world. Kidder, in turn, stole the title from a Haitian proverb: Deye mon gen mon, or beyond mountains there are mountains.

The words are as meaningful and appropriate for Ethiopia as they are for Haiti. We’ve been cycling here for over three weeks and there are mountains everywhere – both geographically and psychologically. As soon we’ve conquered one challenge, a new one presents itself; but each obstacle brings new vistas, new insights, and a raw beauty that accompanies the sweat and blood.

Ethiopia has always been the country on the tour about which I felt most excited and most apprehensive. It has one of the most unique histories of any country in Africa, a story to which we’ll return in the forthcoming Ethiopian history post. It has its own national language (Amharic, although many other languages are spoken), its own script, even its own clock and calendar. The Ethiopian clock starts at sunrise: six o’clock corresponds to six hours of sun, or noon. Meanwhile, Ethiopia never converted to the Gregorian calendar, so it’s currently 2008 here. I’m not making any of this up.

imagePerhaps it’s not surprising that a country with such fascinating features should also have more worrisome attributes. We joked at the beginning of the trip that “Ethiopia” was the answer to all questions concerning any hardcore aspect of the trip. Where are the hardest climbs? Ethiopia. Where do the riders get the worst gastro problems? Ethiopia. Where are you most likely to be pelted with stones? Ethiopia. My mental picture of the country before I arrived was one in which I was on the side of a gravel road with a 45-degree incline trying to change a flat tire while vomiting and being beaten by stick-wielding children.

That vision was, of course, somewhat exaggerated. The inclines aren’t that steep. But the most disastrous parts of my time in Ethiopia tell only part of the story. While the days have been hard, they have also been fulfilling; processing and overcoming the difficulties has been a highlight of the trip so far.

In terms of the challenges, the real trouble is the way that all of them hit you at the same time. You’ll be struggling up the last few kilometers of a massive climb and really feeling the altitude when suddenly the road gives way to rough gravel and a bevy of children comes running toward you, loosed from some hidden font. Pedaling any faster could have catastrophic consequences for a bowel situation that is precarious at the best of times, so it’s better to continue trucking along and go into whatever happy place, if any, is still available to you. I like to replay old Carol Burnett sketches in my head.

Here’s the thing about the children. We hear the dulcet tones of these sweet cherubs incessantly, from the moment we hit the road: “You you you you you! Where are you go? Where are you go?” Which is a lot of existentialism before I’ve had a second cup of coffee.

Some riders try to endure the onslaught with stoicism and a stony gaze, resorting to harsh words when the ululations are accompanied by sticks or stones. I can sympathize with that impulse, but I’ve found that engaging with the kids is a more productive tactic. True, this approach is easier to conceptualize than to enact, especially during the last 20 kilometers or so of a long day; but it seems to be somewhat effective. It also feels better.

Engaging with the kids gets harder as the day goes on because conversations with them tend to be extremely repetitive, mostly because they all ask the same questions. The consistency with which Ethiopian children can recite the following basic phrases in English, right down to the grammatical errors, is eerie; after three weeks, I started wondering if these words were part of the national curriculum:

  1. “You you you”
  2. “Where are you go?”; sometimes “Where are you come?”
  3. “Money”; or “Give us the money”; or (advanced) “You must give us the money”
  4. “Pen”
  5. “Faranji” or “Faranj” (foreigner, specifically a white foreigner)

One of these phrases comes at me somewhere between ten to thirty times per kilometer. Given that we cycle over 100 kilometers each day, you can see how saying “I’m going to Kenya” several thousand times can get old. Nevertheless, I find that many kids (and adults) are genuinely interested in a response. The “you you you” or “where are you go?” introductory salvo comes across as somewhat aggressive, but a reply often elicits a thumbs up or a “welcome to Ethiopia.”

imageMany interactions are extremely rewarding. If you’re in the right mood, the energy can be infectious and some of the smiles the kids have beaming across their faces are unforgettable. The adults can be equally delightful. I passed an old woman once and said “Seulam” (hello). She pointed at a gaggle of children nearby who were engaged in the standard “you you you” ululation. She mimicked them for a second before bursting into a fit of laughter that shook her body so hard I almost thought she would end up on her back.

Some of the interactions are more problematic. Saying you have no money or pens or ignoring the request entirely can result in a stone to the back or, if you happen across one of the rare kids that are truly malicious, the head. There are bad children everywhere, of course, but these bad kids have really good aim. Sometimes the stones come flying from the side of the road without anyone in sight. Or a group of kids may surround you on a climb and try to reach in your pockets or grab your bike. In one town, a dozen or so different teenagers all yelled “Fuck you” at me, despite my widest smile and enthusiastic greeting.

We’ve had some close calls. One rider missed a large rock by mere inches while hurtling down a steep incline at over 80 kilometers per hour. Another rider got a rock to his derailleur; as a result, he had to sweat two days over the mountains to Addis Ababa with only one functional gear. Teenagers can be especially angry: besides the swearing, I’ve been spit on numerous times, although perhaps they were merely expressing their disapproval of the color-coordinated Spandex. Even when the children are just energetic and inquisitive, the incessant yelling wears you down quickly.

So where does all this come from? And why Ethiopia? We’ve had a few similar incidents in other countries, especially in southern Egypt, but nothing on the scale of what we encountered daily in both the northern and southern sections of Ethiopia. I imagine someone with a better internet connection than I currently have might be able to give more accurate answers, but here are at least some ideas.

First, the interactions we’ve had are clearly colored by previous encounters with aid agencies. There are a number of these agencies at work in Ethiopia – NGOs, UN-sponsored groups, religious organizations – and many have attempted to address several serious famines that have hit Ethiopia since the 1970s. The agencies are a favorite whipping post for lots of criticism; I’ve heard people suggest that all the money does is buy more white SUVs for aid officials. True, we’ve seen a number of these vehicles (in fact, they make up the bulk of non-commercial traffic on Ethiopian highways, as everyone else walks), but other than my own observations I have no way to verify this criticism. My guess is that many of these groups are doing useful and important work, even if some of them may be mismanaged.

Regardless, the constant presence of the agencies creates a dynamic in rural areas that we haven’t seen elsewhere. The children associate white people with things – money, pens, books – and they may get understandably confused and frustrated if a group of Westerners come through empty-handed. I also imagine that many aid agencies distribute essentials like food simply by driving through town and handing out supplies. This is totally a guess, but the “you you you” cries may have originated during times of famine to signify “me me me; I’m here, I’m hungry, I need food.” The cries are truly piercing, and they’re effective attention grabbers.

The poverty of the regions we’ve passed through may also contribute to the problem. Even the least expensive bike that one of us is riding is worth over a year’s salary to many, if not most, of the people we’re passing. With the lack of development and job opportunities in some of these areas, there’s no doubt a frustration that comes with seeing others in motion when you feel your own life is standing still.

A third factor that may be at play is the history of Ethiopian resistance to European colonization, especially against the Italians. Ethiopia was the only area of Africa that successfully avoided foreign annexation during the Scramble for Africa in the 1890s, famously beating back the Italians during the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Italy eventually occupied the country for five years from 1936 to 1941, a period that saw a series of resistance movements and brutal suppression of those movements by the Italian occupiers. For instance, thousands of innocent Ethiopians were killed in retribution for an attempt on the life of the hated Viceroy Graziani in 1937; a memorial to these victims still stands at a busy roundabout in Addis Ababa. Given this history, it’s no surprise that some Ethiopians may still have negative feelings towards faranjis.

Even if the people we’ve passed have no memories of old Italian atrocities, the fact that many of these Ethiopians are poor and rural does not mean that they are ignorant of world history. And that history, of course, is in one in which white Westerners have been responsible for a seemingly unending list of appalling practices against black Africans. Even under occupation, Ethiopia has proudly maintained its independence through all of that history. I may be mistaken, but I believe that as of 1900 there were only two nation-states under the power of black rulers: Ethiopia and Haiti. It may be that much of the animosity we’ve experienced stems from that proud tradition.

I had the opportunity to accompany our tour director to a meeting with the Minister of Tourism while we were in Addis to discuss the stone-throwing problem. I thought the Minister’s response was eye-opening. He was quite concerned about the issue and interested in brainstorming solutions, but he also noted that the stone-throwing was not necessarily a top priority for the tourism department. “After all, no one is being lynched.” The comparison to a brutal chapter in America’s history is telling. I can imagine a number of people objecting that the comparison is inapt because lynching happened “such a long time ago.” These are similar voices to those that think twenty years is long enough for South Africans to move past apartheid; or that Ferguson isn’t really about race.

I disagree with these voices. It seems clear that the violent histories of slavery, segregation, colonialism, and apartheid continue to color interactions between different racial groups in Africa and elsewhere today, especially between black and white people. The anger our group of white cyclists has experienced has surprised some of the riders, but it is a surprise born of the naiveté that comes from membership in a racial group that has been historically privileged. In almost every other situation on the ride, our skin color advantages us in ways that are both overt and sometimes more subtle; in this one instance, white skin marks us apart in a way that is a disadvantage. I hope the experience helps open my eyes and the eyes of other riders to the reality that people of other racial groups have lived historically and continue to live on a frequent, if not daily, basis.

As I said before, I may be terribly wrong in my analysis of why we’ve experienced the troubles we’ve had in Ethiopia. But regardless of the underlying causes, the remaining question is how to cope on a daily basis with the psychological and physical stress.

imageOne of the best strategies has been to ride with a partner or a group. I’ve been riding most of Ethiopia with Ben and the Duchess, whom you may remember from a previous post. There are actually other riders on the tour and I promise to tell you more about them some day, but Ben features prominently here because Simon and the Duchess have such similarly idiosyncratic riding styles in Ethiopia. They both like to hit the climbs hard before grannying their way down the other side; they also have little appetite for speeding along the rough roads and are perfectly content to let the bikes with front suspension whizz past. Needless to say, neither Simon nor the Duchess are at all impressed by the gravel roads and construction that have popped up throughout the southern half of the country.

Ben shares my philosophy of engagement; between the two of us, we’re sometimes able to out-wave and out-greet the children. “Seulam! Seulam! Seulam!” we shout. “Deuna neuh? Deuna nachu?” (Hello! How are you? How are you all?) It turns out that learning a few words of Amharic works wonders, which isn’t really much of a shocker. Unfriendly frowns generally turn into beaming smiles as soon as you show that you’re making an effort, even if your accent is as horrible as mine.

Unfortunately, when the kids chase us up a hill (or, as Ben says, when they irritate us up a hill) they often exhaust my limited Amharic fairly quickly. At first I tried singing to them, but immediately found that it only exacerbated the wailing. Instead I sometimes strike up nonsensical conversations with them in English that go something like this:

Nine-year-old child: “Money money money!”
Me: “Listen, when we first met things were going really well. Our chats were full of witty repartee, the melodic tones of your voice thrilled me, I thought we hit it off. But lately something’s changed: the spark’s gone out, the fire just doesn’t burn as brightly. I think we should start seeing other people.”
Nine-year-old child: “Pen?”

I also find it helps to imagine that I’m in a parade, possibly bedecked in a fabulous outfit in the middle of San Francisco Pride. This takes less imagination than you might think, especially because I’m already dressed in Lycra and there are kids that come running from hundreds of meters away across the fields just to stand by the side of the road and scream like mad. A handful of beads and I could be in New Orleans.

Most importantly though, the best way I’ve found to cope is to keep some perspective about the problem and where it comes from – which is why I’ve tried to explore some possible theories above. I’m reminded of Albert Camus and his discussion of Sisyphus, the man in Greek mythology who is condemned to push a boulder to the top of a mountain only to have it slip from his grasp and roll back to the bottom. According to Camus, Sisyphus has gained clarity and lucidity about the absurdity of his condition, and this allows him to be happy. There’s something Sisyphean about getting on the bike each morning and mustering a smile and an energetic response to questions that you know will be repeated endlessly throughout the day. But maintaining a sense of humor about the situation is immensely valuable, as is a consideration about the source of the issue and how it resonates and connects with deeper questions of poverty, development, and race.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is not the kids but the other riders. Not surprisingly, everyone has experienced some psychological trauma over the past few weeks and people have different ways of processing those difficulties. I’ve heard some horrendous things in camp, including the comment that the next time there’s a famine in Ethiopia, “we should just let them starve.” Needless to say, my head almost exploded. I’ve found it hard to muster the energy to confront people expressing those sentiments in a productive way, even though I know it’s important to bear in mind how these comments come from a place of stress and exhaustion.

imageAfter all, the kids would be difficult enough even without the strenuous climbing, the altitude (we’ve generally been hovering around 2500 meters or 8000 feet), and the illness. In case you thought I’d escaped unscathed from the bugs that have been circulating amongst the riders, I should point out that gastro problems continued to be a disaster for me throughout Ethiopia. I have little dignity left at this point. Here are just a few of the lowpoints of the trip: explosive diarrhea in a pit toilet infested with dozens of cockroaches; a similar incident in an open field where the onlookers were nine extremely impressed children; uncontrollable vomiting through my nose while hunched on all fours in a grassy section of a motel courtyard during a rainstorm. I should point out that all of these incidents included getting up the next morning to ride 130 kilometers or so on rough roads. Everyone says Kenya is much better, perhaps because there’s evidently no food other than carrots and potatoes until we get further south.

Given all this, it’s safe to say that Ethiopia has been the most challenging country on the tour so far. And yet paradoxically, it’s almost certainly one of the countries that I’m going to miss the most. It’s not just the breathtaking scenery that rewards you at the top of a climb, or the distinct aroma of Ethiopian coffee and berbere spices. It’s the thousands of positive interactions with people on the road that counteract the few negative ones. It’s the unique history, and culture, and food, and dancing, and language. It’s also the energy of Addis Ababa, a city that blends the amenities of a modern metropolis with the feeling of a rural village, and a place where I had the good fortune to meet an inspiring group of Ethiopian activists whose activities I’ll detail in my next post. Mostly though, it’s the way that the challenging aspects of the country provide such fodder for thought, for growth, and for deeper understanding. I don’t think I’ll miss the “you you you” cries of the children or the constant harassment. But some mornings I may find myself wondering what happened to the parade.



Gun-Wielding Bandits in Northern Kenya!
It’s Fucking Hot Again!
Crossing the Equator Cross-Dressing Party!


A History of Sudan: The Somewhat Condensed Version

If you ask someone about the country of Sudan, you’re likely to get some blank stares or a tentative response that includes words like “terrorism” and “wartorn.” Someone up on their human rights atrocities might know that there is a continuing conflict in Darfur and that there have been efforts to bring charges against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity; or they might associate the country with its refugees, perhaps having seen a documentary about the Lost Boys or having read Dave Eggers’s book What is the What? You’re certainly unlikely to hear anyone recommend Sudan as a honeymoon destination.

The ongoing and very real conflicts have darkened what would otherwise be, and in many places still is, a wonderful country to visit. It was a privilege to spend several weeks cycling through a place where few foreigners travel, where the friendliness of the people is overflowing and genuine, and where the history is rich and complex.

In this post I’ll provide a window into that history, but as a refresher you may first want to review my post on A History of Egypt: The Condensed Version. I know, even the condensed version was long – but there were some nice pictures and a few funny bits to get you through! More importantly, just about every power that has controlled Egypt has controlled Sudan at some point – the Ancient Egyptians, the Christians, the Islamic caliphates, the Ottoman Empire, and the Brits – so it might be good to remind yourself how those powers affected the development of Egypt.

imageIt will also be helpful to know a little about Sudan’s geography. The north of Sudan looks very similar to Egypt, and its history is more intimately tied to Egypt’s than the rest of the country. Civilization is centered on the Nile, which continues to wend its way south through a series of five cataracts (making six in total, including the first at Aswan in Egypt). Just a few miles away from the Nile, the desert becomes harsh and inhospitable (we biked through this part, so I speak from experience) and is home mostly to nomadic tribes.

At modern-day Khartoum, the Nile splits into its two main tributaries: the Blue Nile, which has its source at Lake Tana in Ethiopia; and the White Nile, which begins at Lake Victoria in Uganda. Interestingly, the reason why the source of the White Nile remained elusive to European explorers for some time is because the river passes through the Sudd, a swamp in what is now South Sudan that is mostly unnavigable. While some explorers, such as Sir Howard Baker, attempted to trace the source of the Nile by heading upstream through the Sudd, other explorers, most notably David Livingstone, tried with varying degrees of success to determine the Nile’s source from the other direction.

(Livingstone died in 1873 believing that the Lualaba River eventually became the Nile. He was wrong; the Lualaba turns into the other great river of Africa, the mighty Congo. This fact was proved conclusively to European eyes after an expedition by the American Henry Morton Stanley, an event that was one of the triggers for a massive episode of European colonialism commonly referred to as the Scramble for Africa. But that’s a story for another post.)

Between the two Nile tributaries lies a fertile area home to the modern province of Sennar, which was at one time dominated by the Funj Sultanate. To the west of the country lies the arid Darfur region, which became a center of power for the Fur Sultanate in the fifteenth century. Between these two areas is the region of Kordofan, which historically has been a buffer zone in the power struggle between the two sultanates. In the South of Kordofan, the Nuba Mountains divide Sudan from what is now South Sudan. All of these regions are quite large: to get an idea of the scale, Darfur is the same size as France.

The ancient Sudanese history for which we have the best historical record centers around the Nile in the north. South of Aswan, the Nubia region has been inhabited for over 10,000 years, including a settlement at Kerma where a huge mudbrick structure called the Deffufa is the largest, and possibly oldest, manmade structure in sub-Saharan Africa.

imageA number of ancient Egyptian dynasties made incursions into Nubia during the Old and Middle Kingdoms; this turned into active conquest during the reign of Thutmose I, who founded the New Kingdom. The Egyptian province in Nubia was known as Kush, which is possibly the same Cush referred to in the Old Testament. The Egyptians built a Temple of Amun (like the temple dedicated to the same deity at Karnak in Luxor) at Jebel Barkal, which means “sacred mountain.” On one of our rest days, we climbed to the top of this mountain near modern-day Kerima to survey what would have been the southernmost point of the ancient Egyptian empire. When the New Kingdom disintegrated around 1070 BC, Kush was released from Egyptian control.

Remember how we skipped a bunch of Egyptian history from the downfall of the New Kingdom until Alexander the Great came along? So one of the things we skipped was an important period of Nubian history. Alara, King of Kush, established the city of Napata at the foot of Jebel Barkal around 780 BC and consolidated Nubian power so successfully that his grandson Piye was able to conquer Egypt fifty years later, establishing the 25th dynasty – the so-called Nubian Dynasty. The most powerful Kushite king, Taharqa, expanded the borders of Nubian control to the edges of Libya and Palestine and constructed a new temple at Jebel Barkal.

imageAfter Taharqa, the Nubians lost control of Egypt. Around 270 BC, while the Ptolemies were busy living it up in Egypt, the Kushite rulers moved their power center further south, abandoning the tomb-building at Napata and Jebel Barkal for a site between the fifth and sixth cataracts of the Nile at Meroë. There are around 100 pyramids at the site in Meroë and unfortunately the cycle tour missed this site by taking a shortcut through the desert to Khartoum (although luckily we were able to see great pyramids at Jebel Barkal). The pyramids in Sudan are both shorter and steeper than their Egyptian counterparts, but equally beautiful; Meroë is the best place to view them if you fancy an archaeological holiday.

When the Romans grabbed control of Egypt from Antony and Cleopatra, they were unable to extend their power into Nubia despite a number of military incursions. Eventually the Romans sued for peace, an entente that lasted 300 years until the Kushites lost power and the now-Christian Romans were able to establish control in a number of areas. The Nubian Christians followed the Coptic Church in Egypt after it split from other branches of Christianity. This period is marked artistically by a number of beautiful frescoes in cathedrals that were built along the Nile; we saw several examples that are now preserved at the National Museum in Khartoum.

In a repeat of what we just saw with the Romans, the Arab invaders who took control of Egypt in 640 failed to extend their authority south into Nubia. There’s just something about that first cataract at Aswan. Instead, the Arabs and Nubians negotiated a baqt, or peace treaty, which remained in place for 600 years. During this time, Islam very slowly spread south; this process was aided by the establishment of a port at Suakin on the Red Sea Coast, which was built for pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

When the Mamluks came to power in Egypt in 1250 (remember them? They’re the slaves that overthrew their masters, the Ayyubids), they became more aggressive with their military incursions into Christian Nubia. In 1323, Kanz al-Dawla, a Nubian convert to Islam, became king.

Over the next several hundred years, three main power centers arose – all of which were Islamic. Besides the Arab Mamluk rulers in the north, there were two sultanates in the southwest and southeast of present-day Sudan. Amara Dunqas founded the Funj Sultanate in Sennar; his descendants were able to push the Arabs back to the third cataract and extend the power of the Funj past the White Nile and the Nuba Mountains. Meanwhile, the Fur Sultanate in the west became a powerful force. The Fur and Funj clashed repeatedly in the Kordofan region.

Both of these sultanates derived their wealth from trade in human traffic. Slaves went north from the Funj through the major slave town of Shendi on their way to Cairo. Slaves also traveled north from the Fur region along the arduous Forty Days Route, a desert route that derives its name from its forty marching segments. The actual journey was much longer and many people died during the march. We passed by part of the route, which is still used to herd camels to Cairo; it was sobering to see the number of camel carcasses along the way and to imagine how at one time the route would have been littered with human remains.

Everything changed in Sudan when Mohammed Ali came to power in Egypt in the early 1800s. He’s the guy that invited all the remaining Mamluk leaders to dinner AND THEN KILLED THEM. He was similarly ruthless in Sudan. In 1821, he sent his son Ismail to gain control over the area. Ismail quickly demolished the remaining Mamluks up north before establishing the city of Khartoum at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile and conquering the Funj. Ali’s primary interest in Sudan was the slave trade, and an increasing number of people were sent north into bondage.

Ali’s grandson Khedive Ismail saw himself as a reformer and attempted to stem the traffic in human beings. By this time, Britain had also abolished slavery and wanted to stop the practice in areas under its control. As we have seen, those areas included Egypt after Ismail’s government went into debt to the tune of the Suez Canal and Britain stepped in to establish the veiled protectorate. Britain sent General Charles Gordon to become the Governor General of Sudan, but Gordon found the work disillusioning. Slavery was the bedrock of Sudanese trade and disrupting the practice was a monumental task. The powerful slaver Zubeir Pasha had overthrown the Fur Sultanate in Darfur and gained so much influence that the Ottoman Empire proclaimed him governor of the region in 1873. Gordon had some success bringing Darfur to heel, but made little impact elsewhere. In 1879, Gordon tendered his resignation, and Britain turned a blind eye to a new power center that was growing to the south of Khartoum.


imageThe son of boat-builders from the north of Sudan, Mohammed Ahmed was a holy man who began preaching on Aba Island in the south. He proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam, and vowed to overthrow the Turks – who, despite all the British meddling, were still officially in control. The Mahdi successfully captured the second largest town in Sudan: El Obeid, the center of Kordofan. Britain and the Ottomans took notice, and the colonial powers sent an Egyptian army led by British officer William Hicks to recapture the town. It was a disaster. During the Battle of Sheikan, the Ansar (the followers of the Mahdi) massacred the entire army of 10,000 men. Darfur and the Bahr al Ghazal area in what is now South Sudan fell soon after; and in the east, the nomadic Beja tribes under the leadership of Osman Digna signaled their support of the Mahdi. Only Khartoum and the port at Suakin held out.

Britain had to save face after the disaster at Sheikan, so prime minister Gladstone re-appointed General Gordon as Governor General and sent him to evacuate Khartoum. There was some ambiguity in the orders, and Gordon believed he needed to establish some form of administration to stand against the Mahdi before leaving. He proposed handing over power to the slaver Zubeir Pasha, but that plan proved disastrously unpopular, so he then resolved to hold Khartoum himself.

The Mahdi laid the city under siege in September 1884. Initially, Gordon was protected by both branches of the Nile; but as the waters began to drop, his defenses became increasingly exposed. Britain had to do something. The government ultimately sent a rescue expedition, but inexplicably opted to send the force up the Nile rather than make the dash across the desert from the port of Suakin. It was a fatal error: the rescue force arrived two days after Khartoum had fallen on 26 January 1885. General Gordon was stabbed to death on the steps of the governor’s palace and later beheaded.

The Mahdi wasn’t able to enjoy his victory for long – he died five months later, probably from typhoid – but his successor, Khalifa Abdullah, set about reshaping the country. Omdurman, on the West Bank of the Nile across from Khartoum, became the new capital and the Mahdi’s tomb became a required pilgrimage site. The Khalifa’s army flexed its muscles against both Egypt and Ethiopia, but at the cost of weakening the state and making it susceptible to a new British invasion.

Britain had turned its attention away from Sudan after the Gordon fiasco, but renewed its interest in the area after King Leopold II of Belgian started eyeing up parts of the Nile headwaters to add to his Congo Free State (spoiler alert: NOT a free state for the Congolese people who lived there). Britain sent General Kitchener to reestablish control. We’re going to meet Lord Kitchener again when we get to South Africa, so keep him in mind.

imageIn an extremely mismatched battle outside Omdurman on 2 September 1898, the British decimated the Ansar and destroyed the Mahdi’s tomb (it was later rebuilt and remains an important site today). The Khalifa fled and was killed a year later in Kordofan. Ali Dinar reestablished the Fur Sultanate in Darfur in the wake of the Mahdist collapse, but a military expedition in 1916 toppled him and settled Sudan’s western boundaries.

During this period, the Egyptians (aka the Turks) were nominally in control, but Britain really pulled the strings. What does this sound like? Oh yes, Egypt during the same time! Except in Sudan, the weird power sharing had an equally strange name: the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, which sounds more like a residential development.

When Egypt formally gained its independence in 1922 (but jokes! We all know Egypt wasn’t really independent until King Farouk sailed off in 1952), the Sudanese began calling for self-determination as well. Britain eventually agreed to a new legislative assembly and entered talks about self-determination with the Umma party, headed by the Mahdi’s grandson Siddiq al-Mahdi, and the Democratic Unionist Party.

Sudan became independent from both Egypt and Britain on 1 January 1956, with Ismail al-Azhari of the DUP as its first president. The traditional territory of Nubia was split, with the northern section just below Aswan going to Egypt. Things didn’t go well for the new Republic. General Abboud swept to power in a military coup in 1958, starting off a series of intermittent coups and elections for the next thirty years. Sudan’s current leader, Omar al-Bashir, gained control of the country in a military coup in 1989.

Sudan’s history over the past 60 years is complex and I was by no means able to become an expert during my short time there. But here are some broad strokes.

The main conflict in Sudan (and source of many refugees) since 1955 has been the tension between Khartoum and the area that is now South Sudan. Unlike the rest of Sudan, South Sudan remained Christian and never converted to Islam. As a result, there was a religious component to the dispute – but that seems like an oversimplification. In general, it appears that South Sudan never felt its interests were represented by the succession of governments in Khartoum. Not surprisingly, there was also a natural resources component of the tension: South Sudan has a lot of oil, an estimated four times the amount that is in Sudan.

Disquiet began as early as the 1950s, and exiled rebel groups began coalescing in Kampala under the Sudan African Nationalist Union (SANU) and its military wing, Anyanya. The situation reached a fragile peace in 1972 with the Addis Ababa Agreement, but fighting broke out again in 1983. This time, the rebel movement was called the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Despite internal faultlines and the overthrow of Ethiopian dictator Haile Maryam Mengistu in 1991, who had provided training camps and supplies for the rebels, the SPLM/A kept up resistance until a ceasefire was brokered in the Nuba Mountains in 2002. A peace agreement signed in Nairobi in 2005 led to a 2011 referendum in which South Sudan voted for secession, becoming the newest country in the world.

While tensions between Sudan and South Sudan have subsided somewhat, they have not disappeared. The status of Abyei, a region on the border between the two countries, is still contested despite international arbitration. Meanwhile, South Sudan has struggled to get on its feet and internal power struggles and ongoing civil war have led to massive displacements and concerns about further deterioration and possible genocide. Needless to say, we did not cycle through South Sudan; instead, we entered Ethiopia directly from Sudan.

Meanwhile, concern over the fragility of the South Sudan peace deal led many international bodies to turn a blind eye to what was happening elsewhere in the country, especially Darfur. To an untrained eye (mine), the situation bears some similarities to the rebel movement in the south: namely, a frustration with the lack of representation in Khartoum. But whereas there was an additional religious component at play in the south, an added factor in Darfur (which is wholly Muslim) appears to be an ethnic tension between Arab nomadic tribes and the black Fur and Massalit famers – although again, this is an oversimplification of a complex conflict.

imageA major reason these groups have come into tension is the desertification of the area from Lake Chad all the way to northern Darfur, a process which many scientists attribute to climate change. The quickly changing conditions have caused the nomadic Arab tribes to migrate further south in search of water, bringing them into conflict with more settled Fur and Massalit farming communities. Since the late 1980s, the government in Khartoum has supported the Arab tribes by arming them – the so-called janjawid militias. Fur-Arab and Arab-Massalit conflicts led to the formation of two rebel groups: the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice & Equality Movement. These groups launched attacks in 2003, which brought swift retribution from the janjawid. The situation quickly deteriorated, with many international groups calling the actions of the janjawid genocide.

The International Criminal Court issued warrants for the arrest of President al-Bashir on multiple counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. While these warrants were issued in 2009 and 2010, they have not been executed. The Sudanese government has predictably refused, and other African governments where al-Bashir has visited (including Chad, Kenya, Malawi, and Libya) have failed to arrest him on the grounds that the African Union opposes the warrants due to the concern that the execution of the warrants would destabilize Sudan. Despite a peace agreement concerning Darfur signed in 2011, the area remains extremely tense.

A final feature that has put Sudan in the news for the wrong reasons during the past two decades is its association with fundamentalist terrorist organizations. In the 1990s, Khartoum was the home of Osama bin Laden after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia (in 1996, international pressure led Sudan to expel bin Laden as well, at which point he traveled to Afghanistan); the city also played host to Carlos the Jackal. Tensions with the United States were heightened after the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. As a result of those bombings, President Clinton launched a retaliatory attack on a pharmaceutical factory in North Khartoum (which later proved to be a legitimate facility making valuable drugs, not products for chemical warfare). While Sudan allowed US investigators access to information on al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States continues to impose sanctions on the country for its alleged associations with international terrorist organizations.

What does all this recent history say about gay rights in Sudan? It’s a bleak picture, at least for the immediate future. It’s difficult to obtain information about what’s happening on the ground; as far as I know, there are no organizations openly fighting for LGBT rights in the country. It is often the case that the rights of sexual and other minorities take a back seat during times of conflict, and these groups are prone to be scapegoated in political power struggles. Sudan imposes the death penalty for homosexuality, at least against men who have committed three offenses. There is little accurate information to determine if this is a penalty that has been carried out frequently or at all during recent times.

A final observation I noted about the country: environmental rights are not a priority, and a number of controversial projects have escaped the notice of international groups. In Egypt, there was massive controversy in the lead-up to the opening of the Aswan High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser in 1971. Many international groups contributed to efforts to save important historical treasures from flooding, including the beautiful temples at Abu Simbel. In contrast, the Merowe Dam in Sudan, a project of similar magnitude built at the fourth cataract of the Nile, opened in 2009 with a fraction of the publicity. The dam caused the displacement of 60,000 people and, like the Aswan High Dam, created a massive reservoir that flooded a vast area of the Nile. Despite some attempts to salvage important archaeological sites, many were submerged.


Egypt: A Revolution Deferred

Midan Tahrir is a square that occupies a central position in the geography and psychology of Cairo. To the south of the square sits the Mugamma, a Kafkaesque administrative building of tiny windows, a brutalist design, and an army of employees processing the bureaucracy of the Egyptian government. To the north, the square is graced with the elegant pink facade of the Egyptian Museum, where glittering treasures and beautiful statues from antiquity have been kept in what appears to be the exact positions they occupied when the museum opened in 1902. At the museum’s side stands the now burnt-out headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Further west is the Nile, and to the east lie the dust-caked but still grand buildings of Cairo’s downtown. Just visible to the southeast one sees the red and white-trimmed windows of the old campus of the American University in Cairo, where I had the privilege to study Arabic in the fall of 2007.

On January 25, 2011, an extraordinary event occurred in Midan Tahrir. The square filled with protestors, many of whom were young students, who had been ignited by calls across social media and a simmering rage against Mubarak’s dictatorship. For 18 days, the protestors called upon Mubarak to step down from the presidency and allow for democratic elections to decide the next leader of Egypt. During the sit-in, protestors formed a human ring around the Egyptian Museum to protect it from looting; Christians protected Muslims while they prayed, and Muslims returned the favor. Services across the city shut down. My friend Heather who was living in Cairo at the time with her young baby Saif said that grocery stores first ran out of alcohol and cigarettes, then yogurt and bread. Individual neighborhoods banded together to self-police (evidently, even Saif participated with the help of a feather duster), and despite a number of precarious situations, the overall tenor of the revolution remained peaceful. When Mubarak resigned on February 11, there was a feeling of euphoria and hope.

The feeling was not to last. With Mubarak’s departure, power quickly concentrated into two groups: the army, whose generals mostly retained their positions; and the Muslim Brotherhood, which was popular not only for its Islamic credentials but because it had been responsible for organizing a number of essential social services that Mubarak’s regime had failed to provide. The Muslim Brotherhood was, however, regarded with skepticism and fear by the United States and Europe, in large part because of perceptions that the Brotherhood had close ties to terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and that it sought to impose a draconian version of sharia law (perceptions which the Brotherhood continues to dispute).

imageIn the excellent documentary The Square, one of the protestors (if my memory serves, it was Ahmed Hassan) explained that the aim of many of the students was to implement a secular democracy, one that was not tied to the traditional triumvirate of Egyptian power: the dictatorship, the army, and the Brotherhood. But such a choice had not yet emerged by the time that democratic elections were organized in 2012.

Instead, the main rivals in the elections were Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik from the army. The Egyptian people elected Morsi, but he was not to hold power for long. On June 3, 2013, after four days of protests against Morsi’s rule, an army-led coup ousted Morsi – an event that was mostly noted with speeches expressing concern but no real actions by other world powers. Since a few months after the coup, Egypt has been ruled by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and a number of pro-Morsi demonstrations have been violently suppressed.

A year into al-Sisi’s rule, the general crackdown on political protest is alarming and I was greatly troubled by what I saw in my brief time back in Egypt. While I did speak to a few Egyptians who were in favor of al-Sisi (generally expressing a variant of the sentiment that Egypt is not ready for democracy and can only be ruled by some form of dictator), the majority of viewpoints I heard were strongly opposed. “Worse than Mubarak” was a common sentiment. The stories told by these Egyptians (who I will not name for safety reasons, although I recognize that this is bad journalistic practice), as well as a number of recent current events, suggest that Egypt is currently a place where any form of dissent is brutally suppressed.

One friend now living in the States told me he can no longer speak to his Egyptian friends about politics because they are worried about being arrested. A woman I used to work with living in the Mohandiseen neighborhood of Cairo told me that, conservatively, she estimates that over 50,000 Egyptians have been secretly detained and jailed. She said that every Friday there are massive anti-government protests in Giza, and these and other protests often end violently. Six peaceful demonstrators were shot in front of her apartment, their bodies lying for hours because no one was brave enough to remove them.

Just days after we left Egypt, on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, approximately 20 people were killed in various protests across the country. Video evidence shows that many of these protests were peaceful. One woman was killed as she went to lay a wreath on the grave of people who had died during the 2011 revolution. The death toll during that week was not as high as the 64 people who were killed a year previously, on the third anniversary of the revolution; and certainly not as high as the hundreds of protestors who were killed on August 14, 2013, when the army moved to suppress demonstrations that were either in opposition to the coup or in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the reduced number of casualties may simply reflect the success with which the government has rooted out all forms of protest. Midan Tahrir, where I wandered about freely three weeks ago, was entirely cordoned off on the day of the anniversary.

imageOther recent events have been equally horrific. In March last year, an Egyptian court stunned the world when it issued 528 death sentences against Morsi supporters. Months previously, 37 protestors who had been arrested during the August 14 unrest were gassed to death after having been trapped in the back of a truck in the summer Egyptian heat. Mohamed Soltan, a 27-year-old American citizen and graduate of the Ohio State University, remains in jail despite a well-publicized hunger strike.

It is not only the Muslim Brotherhood who has been targeted by the al-Sisi regime. The crackdown appears to extend to anyone expressing criticism of the government (a popular protest slogan is: “Neither Morsi nor the military”), including journalists. Three journalists from Al-Jazeera have been jailed for seven years for allegedly aiding the Brotherhood; the evidence against one of the journalists, Mohammed Fahmy, is that he had a spent bullet in his possession which he picked up at a protest site. While the Court of Cassation has allowed an appeal of the judgment to proceed, the journalists currently remain in jail.

One of the biggest complaints I heard was that the democratic process has not been respected in Egypt. Even people who were vehemently opposed to Morsi’s rule expressed the desire to accept the will of the people and to wait for a future election to campaign for a new leader. Many people also suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood has been unfairly demonized and mistakenly aligned with more extremist Islamist groups. It is not entirely clear who is responsible for recent atrocities, such as a number of violent attacks against Coptic Christians. And in breaking news, a group expressing affiliation with the Islamic State attacked security posts in northern Sinai just a week ago, taking the lives of at least 27 people. I have seen nothing linking this group with the Muslim Brotherhood, but it may well be that al-Sisi’s crackdown on the Brotherhood has provided a window and a motivation to increase recruits to more hard-line groups.

The government suppression of the Brotherhood contrasts with a statement made by my friend Abdullah, who thinks that al-Sisi is trying to be more of an Islamist than the Islamists in a bid to stem dissent. (Note that Abdullah uses the word Islamist, not Islamic, thus distinguishing between a political group and a religious viewpoint. In a future post, I’ll explore the importance of not letting extremist views dictate what is or is not in line with Islam, or control perceptions by non-Muslims of what it means to be Muslim.). What this translates to is a suppression by al-Sisi’s regime of any expression deemed to be anti-Islamic by the extremist groups. Most relevantly for the purposes of the Out in Africa Ride project, this means a crackdown on LGBT rights.

The numbers of arrests that have been made for perversion or related offenses in the past year have skyrocketed. According to the blog Erasing 76 Crimes, there have been 109 arrests in just over a year. Other rights activists believe that there have been more than 150 arrests in 2014.

Notable incidents in the past few months include the detention on September 3 of several dozen people in connection with a “gay marriage” video. The video surfaced on the internet and showed a group of men on a boat in the Nile, with blurry images of what looked like a cake and the exchange of rings. At least eight of these men were later arrested on charges of “incitement to debauchery” and “publication of indecent photographs.” The arrested men were subjected to anal examinations, a procedure which is obviously intrusive, torturous, and of no evidentiary value. The eight men were sentenced to three years in prison, a sentence that has since been reduced to one year.

imageAnother 26 men were arrested on December 7 from a bathhouse in Cairo. The men were hauled naked to waiting police trucks, with an Egyptian TV presenter present to document the scene. Many of the men were beaten before they were arrested. The men were acquitted in early January, but the damage to their personal lives had already been done. Many men covered their faces with scarves in the courtroom, even though their images had already been broadcast in footage of the raid.

Dalia Abd el-Hameed, the director of the Gender Program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, associates the crackdown on the LGBT community with the larger atmosphere of oppression in Egypt’s current regime: “Personally, I do not separate this crackdown on LGBT [people] from the general oppressive climate and the regressive rights and liberties status. Journalists, students, human rights activists and gender and religious non-conformists are all under attack by the regime.”

And longtime Egypt observer and LGBT rights activist Scott Long sees the current slew of arrests as a reflection of political wrangling between the regime and its enemies, with both sides accusing the other of moral laxity. “It’s not just that police could smash the door and seize your body at any moment; it’s that your desires and emotions, the most intimate elements of existence, now nourish somebody else’s political agenda.”

imageThe current state of LGBT rights are an ominous reminder of what Egypt was like under the Mubarak regime. On May 11, 2001, 52 men were arrested aboard the Queen Boat, a floating gay nightclub that was moored along the Nile River in Cairo. The arrests sparked a series of trials that were condemned by international human rights groups; 21 of the men were eventually sentenced to three years.

Many of the charges in the Cairo 52 trials and more recent cases come from a 1951 law criminalizing prostitution. The law is ambiguous, but a 1975 decision of the Court of Cassation held that the questionable provision encompassed consensual non-commercial sex. Later court pronouncements suggest that this ruling could be overturned, but such an event does not seem likely in the light of recent events. Instead, the ambiguous legal situation acts like a sword hanging over the heads of Egypt’s LGBT community, ready to be wielded as needed by competing political forces.

The current climate of oppression concerns a much broader swath of society outside the LGBT community. The parallel between the recent arrests of gay men and the arrests of the Al-Jazeera journalists, for instance, is obvious. When a marginalized community is under attack, it is often a sign that broader civil liberties across society are at risk. The crackdown on the LGBT community should cause immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and any other groups lacking political power to take note.

The revolutionary spirit that took over Midan Tahrir in 2011 pointed away from the abuses of the Cairo 52 trials, not back towards them. That revolution has not been achieved. Egypt today appears to be a country where dissent is outlawed and where nonconforming groups are at risk, whether these groups are part of a political opposition or are simply identified with the youthful, progressive energy that was such a major factor causing Mubarak to fall from power. But Egypt has a long history, and this chapter is far from over. The Egyptian people have seen that their voice can have strength, and it will be difficult to silence that voice now that it has been heard. It remains to be seen how the energy of January 2011 will bubble back to the surface, and what forces will then be at play. In the meantime, Midan Tahrir watches and waits.


The Longest Stretch

I was planning to post a sequel to the A Day on the Ride post to give you an idea of how the riders have settled into the routine of the tour. But as events unfolded over the past week, it quickly became clear that there was no longer any routine. Each day brought new challenges and, taken together, the past eight days have been the most physically, mentally, and emotionally draining of the trip so far.

I didn’t want to title this post The Longest Week for fear of tempting fate: I’m pretty sure there will be several contenders for that title during the next three months. Instead, I thought I’d focus on one unique aspect of the last week: it was the longest continuous stretch – eight days – of cycling without a rest day of any on the trip. Generally we get a day off every four to six days, and the longer eight-day stretch was noticeable. In addition to the length, the section featured some of the more grueling days of the tour, including the day with the greatest amount of climbing and several days of difficult unpaved terrain. Here are a few of the challenges we have faced.


imageMost of the cyclists would cite the heat as the primary evil over the past week. A Khartoum local told me that temperatures were “unseasonably warm,” which is not something you want to hear from a resident of one of the hottest cities on the planet. None of us had precise instruments, but measurements of the afternoon temperatures ranged from 45 to 54 Celsius (113 to 130 Fahrenheit). I found it mostly bearable, as at least it was a dry heat, but it meant that hydration was a real concern. I was drinking seven or more liters a day, which is crazy since I have no idea what happened to all that liquid after it was ingested – although a whiff of one of my cycling jerseys might give a clue.

Other cyclists fared less well. Heat exhaustion was a major enemy, with most people suffering at some point. I probably succumbed myself yesterday, during the killer hill day (see below), although it’s hard to separate problems caused by the heat from problems caused by gastrointestinal bugs. It turns out that a lot of heat exhaustion symptoms look just like food poisoning, both of which have led to some real carnage at dinner time.


Dinner hasn’t been the only time for carnage. Some mornings and afternoons our camp has resembled an ICU ward or a Red Cross area: people passed out on tarps, often with a shovel nearby for emergency bathroom expeditions. I’ve watched at least two perfectly healthy-looking riders suddenly keel over. Besides the heat, many of the problems stem from a number of GI bugs that seem to be circulating. This is probably inevitable as our bodies encounter new foods in new regions, especially because we’re putting them under a great deal of strain. I was one of the last riders to stay strong, but yesterday I succumbed to the nausea/diarrhea symptoms a number of riders have been experiencing. Luckily, I have two days of rest before we hit the road again, so I hope to be mostly recovered.

More serious problems (as in, those brought by mosquitoes) still lie ahead, but we’re in enough of a risk area already that everyone has started malaria prophylaxis – which may be a contributing factor to people’s conditions, as many of these drugs have unwanted side effects. I opted for Malarone, which cost me my firstborn but has the benefit of supposedly few adverse reactions. Other options include doxycycline, which increases the risk of sunburn (PROBLEMATIC) or Larium, which makes some people go crazy (EVEN MORE PROBLEMATIC). After a few weeks, I’ll have to compare notes with the riders who are on these other medications.


We basically have no privacy anymore. In the last few campsites in Sudan, and especially since entering Ethiopia, there are children everywhere. Very inquisitive children. This can be a problem if you are one of the cyclists suffering from GI problems. One of the riders in a spot of desperation finally gave up and let two little girls hold his hands while he popped a squat.

I have nothing against these kids, nor do I find their behavior surprising. Thirty Spandex-clad cyclists are definitely the best show in town. Why would you not pull up a chair? Look at that Dutch guy wandering around in his underwear! Still, it’s a bit of an added stress to have several pairs of eyes on you at every moment.

The inquisitive children are far more pleasant than the stone-throwing children. We were warned about this before we entered Ethiopia, but nothing really prepares you emotionally for being pelted with rocks by eight-year-olds.

Here’s what happens. As soon as the first cyclist is spotted, children come running across the fields. It’s uncommon to go more than a few hundred meters without seeing a group of them. They begin a piercing “You-you-you-you-you” cry, which then changes to “Where are you go?” or “money-money-money”. I’ve learned that saying you have no money IS NOT A GOOD OPTION, as that’s when you tend to get a rock or a cane to your back. Continuously smiling and waving seems to disarm some of them, but it doesn’t always work. To make matters worse, the kids will run up the hill beside you, yelling all the way. Sometimes they will help push you up the hill, which is nice, but more likely they will grab your jersey or your bike to see if there’s anything in your pockets. Pacifying them with candy or spare change is a bad idea, as it just makes things worse for the next cyclists.

As you can imagine, this is emotionally exhausting. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to scream “Fuck off” to a group of little kids, but the temptation definitely presents itself fairly frequently here. What’s important to remember is that the vast majority of children are delightful – frustratingly curious at times, but perfectly lovely. In my first few days in Ethiopia, I have seen thousands of children and only had problems with a few dozen. Unfortunately, the suspicion that the kids might be troublemakers is hard to avoid, which adds an interesting layer of stress to some already difficult conditions.


While still in Sudan, we cycled about 270 km over three days on some very rough roads. This was my greatest challenge, partly because Simon was not really a fan of what was happening. He protested by getting a flat every few hours. The other part of the problem was rider error. It was a steep learning curve as I figured out how to maneuver Simon in the sand and dirt. I crashed six times the first day; once the second; but by the third I was fine. With one exception that involved more blood than I would have preferred, these crashes were comical rather than disastrous. One happened in front of everyone at lunch. During another, both feet stayed locked in the cleats and I spent five minutes trying to get free, making me feel like a turtle that had landed on its back. Luckily, even the serious crash did more injury to my dignity than anything else.

imageWhen the road wasn’t covered in sand, it usually meant something worse: CORRUGATION. Imagine riding on a corrugated tin roof and you’ll come close to what I was experiencing. Sometimes I walked Simon for a few minutes just to give my kidneys a rest. I also found that, due to the lack of front suspension, my hands and forearms took a serious hit. My handwriting has gone from atrocious to illegible.

Getting lost was another problem on these dirt roads. The tour organizer marked the route with flagging tape, but the tape would often disappear by the time I got there. Or worse, kids would move it to the other side of the road. At one point, this caused me to take a detour of several kilometers into a village where I made excellent use of the important Arabic phrase: Shuft khawagat bil ‘agala? (Have you seen foreigners on bicycles?) Turns out we’re pretty hard to miss, so it didn’t take long to get back on track.

It was slow going (one day took me eleven hours), but Simon and I struggled through. I found the best way to keep my spirits up was with music; which, since listening to an iPod can be dangerous given the need to hear coming traffic, meant a lot of singing aloud. I’m pretty sure this was southern Sudan’s first taste of the musical Hairspray.

I also had good company, including a ride with my friend Ben one afternoon, whose bike is named The Duchess. Simon and The Duchess get along famously, not least because they’ve both received some doubting looks concerning their competence in the dirt. (Someone told Ben that The Duchess looked like the type of bike your parents gave you for Christmas when you were 16). Clearly these people are not aware that Simon and The Duchess are FIRE-BREATHING STEEDS ready to bolt from their stables at any moment. At any rate, all four of us made it to the end of the road, which was only true of half the cyclists (everyone else had to be picked up in the van at some point). As Ben put it so eloquently, “You can’t buy perseverance in carbon fiber.”

Here are some lyrics I composed to commemorate our off-road riding. Warning: these contain minor swears of the sort that you would expect from someone who has ridden on corrugation all day.

“Flagging Tape” – to the tune of Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face”

My ass is sore, my arms are numb, my legs feel just like jelly
And after seven hours getting lost there’s no food in my belly
When I try to sit I feel the jolting without pause
But when I try to stand that’s when my saddle hits my balls

Can’t read my, can’t read my, no I can’t read my directions straight
C’mon where’s the flagging tape?
Can’t read my, can’t read my, no I can’t read my directions straight
Where’s the fucking flagging tape?

Fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-flagging tape
Fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-flagging tape

I’m lying on my back I’ve still got one foot in the cleat
I think I’d stay all day if I weren’t worried ’bout the heat
The drivers here are crazy and there’s unrelenting sun
But baby when it’s dirt if it’s not rough it isn’t fun

Can’t read my, can’t read my, no I can’t read my directions straight
C’mon where’s the flagging tape?
Can’t read my, can’t read my, no I can’t read my directions straight
Where’s the fucking flagging tape?

Fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-flagging tape
Fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-flagging tape


imageJust as the rough roads were ending and we entered Ethiopia, we faced another challenge: climbing. So far, only yesterday has been an intense day of mountains, but what an epic day it was. We climbed over 2600 meters (over 8000 feet) to arrive on top of Ethiopia’s central plateau in Gonder. It was a challenging day for me, not only because it was more than I’d ever climbed before, but because I was also suffering from whatever GI illness I picked up. Things were a bit touch-and-go at lunch, but Simon and I summoned strength from somewhere. We were one of only about twelve riders to make it to the top; if you’re keeping track, The Duchess also emerged victorious. The mountains will continue to be a major challenge for the next two weeks, as no part of our route in Ethiopia is flat.


Lest I leave you with a vision that the last week was a complete hellscape, I should point out that the past eight days have included some of the most beautiful moments of the trip. Besides some major bonding time with Simon and with the other cyclists, I was frequently overwhelmed with gratitude for the glimpses of life that I got to see. Very few foreigners ever traverse southern Sudan, and many of the villages we passed are not on any map. Whether it was the vast unpopulated sorghum fields of Sudan or the densely populated but breathtaking highlands of Ethiopia, the scenery more than rewarded the effort it took to view it. Most importantly, I have a sense that I’ve overcome the first major physical and psychological hurdles of the trip. While there are sure to be new challenges ahead, I think Simon and I are ready to face the next three months with a smile. And maybe some body armor.


Just How Big Is Africa?

I happened to look at a map before I flew to Cairo to start this adventure. Turns out: 12,000 km is a huge distance. Like, massive.

Let me put it in perspective. Cycling this route through Africa is basically the equivalent of cycling from Los Angeles to New York three times in a row. We’re now about 2,000 km into the trip and it’s as if we just cycled from Seattle to San Diego during the past three weeks. Here’s another jaw-dropping fact: As the crow flies, Cairo to Cape Town measures a little over 8,000 km. That’s just under the distance from Beijing to Berlin. During the trip we’ll cross three important lines – the Tropic of Cancer, the Equator, and the Tropic of Capricorn – covering over 60 degrees of latitude, or over one third the distance from pole to pole.

I mention these facts and comparisons not only to give you some insight into the thought that runs through my head from time to time – namely, Holy s*@# what am I doing? – but also because there’s a larger point lurking behind these calculations.

Many of us are visual learners. And in terms of geography, size matters. When we think of importance, whether political or otherwise, size is often a subconscious influence. In the States, California and Texas both take center stage in national discussions, and it’s no surprise that they are two of the largest states in terms of landmass.

The problem is that the maps which we’re accustomed to seeing when we look at the world are wrong. This should be an obvious point: a map is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional surface, so of course it’s going to be distorted in some way. But the distortion that we most commonly see is one that falsely portrays the relative size of Africa in relation to other continents.

Most maps in classrooms around the world use the Mercator projection. It looks like the map you see here:


A simplified description of what this projection does is that it maintains the approximate shape of countries, but does so by sacrificing the relative size of countries in comparison to each other. Countries that are close to the poles, such as Greenland, are massive compared to what they look like on a globe. In contrast, countries close to the equator, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, appear comparatively small. On this map, it looks like Africa is about the same size as Greenland, and about twice the size of the lower 48 states. India appears to be smaller than Alaska.

Other types of projections exist. Most relevant to this discussion is the Peters projection, which looks like this:


The Peters projection maintains the relative size of countries; if South Africa looks twice as large as Texas, it’s because it is. What it sacrifices is the relative shape of countries. Individual countries look distorted compared to what you would see on a globe.

Look carefully at the Peters projection. It will probably look surprising and, well, wrong. But this map is no more or less distorted that the Mercator projection, it’s just distorted in a different way. It is just as truthful about the world we live in, and yet the Peters projection tells us a different truth than the one with which we’re usually confronted. In this version of the world, Africa is huge and Europe is tiny. India is massive while Greenland is negligible. Whereas the Mercator projection emphasizes the horizontal sweep across Eurasia, the Peters projection focuses the eye on the vast vertical sweeps of Africa and South America. When the map is centered on Africa, the continent visually dominates all of the others. To give your brain another aid, here is a depiction of the number of other countries and continents that could fit within Africa:


And as a final mindbender, consider this. There is no reason why the North Pole should be at the top of a map and the South Pole should be at the bottom. The following map isn’t upside-down, it’s just a different way of seeing the world – but it’s one that prioritizes the Southern Hemisphere instead of the Northern:


(If you’re really a visual learner, you may appreciate seeing these concepts in a video. Here’s a great excerpt from the West Wing when the press secretary, played by my favorite Alison Janney, has an encounter with the Cartographers for Social Equality:)

These differences in size and position are not just psychologically important; they also tell a story about economics, anthropology, and history. Size has a substantial correlation with natural resources, for instance. It also points to the number of diverse linguistic and cultural communities that exist within an area. And it should come as no surprise that the maps we are most used to seeing are the ones that emphasize the importance of Europe and the United States, two areas that have held the lion’s share of geopolitical power over the past few hundred years.

The psychology of maps leads to strange assumptions. When I led visitors on tours of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, I would often point out that the doors of the courtroom were beautifully designed with Kente cloth patterns from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. I viewed this cultural borrowing as a metaphor for the requirement enshrined in the Constitution that South African courts align themselves with international law to the greatest extent possible without contravening domestic law. The Constitution also permits the courts to make use of foreign law where appropriate, which is one of the reasons why several of the justices hire foreign law clerks like me. A number of visitors reacted to this explanation with the query, “But is Ghana really international? Isn’t that also in Africa?”

More so than any other continent, Africa tends to be viewed as one large country. The World Cup in South Africa was seen as the World Cup in Africa; an outbreak of ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone affected safari bookings in places as far afield as Tanzania and Botswana; writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are often identified as African before they are identified by their nationality. In contrast, imagine someone classifying Victor Hugo as European without mentioning that he was French.

It is vitally important to see Africa as the vast and diverse continent that it is, not only to make forward strides in LGBT rights but for all kinds of humanitarian progress. The complexity of issues at play in a crisis such as the one occurring in Darfur makes far more sense with the recognition that Darfur is not simply a farflung and remote corner of the continent, but an area the size of France.

The cultural diversity of the African continent is overwhelming. Just within the Nuba mountains of southern Sudan alone, over 50 tribes speaking nearly as many languages maintain unique cultural traditions. These traditions are no less complex when they are communicated orally rather than in written form, even though there is a tendency to see unwritten histories as less important because they are harder to study.

One of the goals of the trip is to give myself a better education about the rich history and diverse traditions across the continent. I hope to impart some of what I learn to readers following the website, so be ready for future posts on a variety of topics that may seemingly have little to do with biking or LGBT rights. Meanwhile, thanks for the support as I continue the long, long way down. Or up.

Pyramids of Giza at sunset, Cairo, Egypt

A History of Egypt: The Condensed Version

Recounting a concise history of Egypt is a bit like trying to give a short version of the history of the world.  Many of the major powers and former empires have had a part to play in the formation of the current country.  Yet despite having been ruled by a foreign power for over 2000 years, there is an undeniably unique Egyptian spirit – one which has been especially on display over the past three years.  I’ll write more about the current political situation in a later post; for now, enjoy a hopelessly overgeneralized story of the past 5000 years of humanity in the Nile basin.

First, a disclaimer.  It’s one that I’ll have to make in most of my blog posts over the next few months.  While I think it’s important to give an account of the cultural and historical context of the places through which I’m traveling, it’s difficult to research these posts to any great extent.  Given the lack of internet or access to other sources of information, you should be critical of any of the facts recited below: they are mostly coming from memory, Lonely Planet, and the dubious claims of the ever-present Egyptian guides who will tell me pretty much anything I want for a small fee.

b0d4f632b730b71713a6513d97afd1d5b11072a2Our story begins in 3100 BC, the date when legend credits the pharaoh Narmer with uniting the peoples of Upper Egypt (near modern-day Aswan, symbolized by the lotus) and Lower Egypt (near modern-day Cairo, symbolized by the papyrus).  Narmer was a pharaoh in the first of 31 dynasties that would rule Egypt for almost 3000 years.  Historians have divided this time into a number of shorter periods, the most famous of which include the Old Kingdom (2700 BC – 2150 BC), the Middle Kingdom (2050 BC – 1650 BC), and the New Kingdom (1550 BC – 1100 BC).  If you’re curious, the in-between times of unrest are referred to, creatively, as the Intermediate Periods.

Our cycle has followed the progress of history through this era.  We began in Cairo, just 20 km north of the ruin of ancient Memphis, which was the capital and principal city during the Old Kingdom.  The pharaohs during this time built tombs on the west side of the Nile (where the sun would begin its journey into the Underworld), a process that reached its zenith during the 3rd and 4th dynasties and the building of the Great Pyramids at Giza.  These three pyramids, the final resting places of the pharaohs Khufu (Cheops), Khafre, and Menkaure, were most likely built by a conscripted labor force of farmers, who worked on the pyramid construction during times that the Nile was flooded and their crops were covered.  Depending on how you look at it, you could see this process as either job creation or slave labor, which I suppose makes the pyramids an ancient and more aesthetically pleasing version of Wal-Mart.

During the Middle Kingdom and especially the New Kingdom, the center of Egyptian power moved from Memphis to Thebes, the site of modern-day Luxor.  The rulers during this time hid their burial sites in the hills to the west of Thebes, resulting in a large number of tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.  The tombs are beautifully adorned with hieroglyphics depicting the sun god Ra’s nightly journey through the Underworld, the realm of Osiris.  By this time, the Egyptians had perfected the mummification process, whose success was dramatically enhanced when the embalmers began removing internal organs to prevent putrefaction.

Besides the tombs, and possibly as decoys, some rulers also built funerary temples closer to the river, such as the famous Deir al-Bahri, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut which was tragically the site of a terrorist attack in 1997.  These temples are distinct from the awe-inspiring temples on the East bank of Luxor (the temples of Luxor and Karnak), which were built to honor and house gods such as Amun-Ra, the king of the gods.

The Big Man of Egyptian politics during this time was the 19th-dynasty ruler Ramses II, whose impressive 66-year reign lasted from 1279 BC to 1213 BC.  If you see a statue of a pharaoh outside an Egyptian temple, it’s probably Ramses II.  If you see four statues, say perhaps outside of the temple of Abu Simbel, they’re probably all Ramses II.

My favorite period of history during this time occurred 100 years earlier, during the reign of Amenhotep IV (1352 BC -1336 BC).  Amenhotep, possibly as a political maneuver, decided that his people should no longer worship the state god Amun, but would instead worship the sun god Aten.  He changed his name to Akhenaten and moved the capital to a site halfway between Memphis and Thebes, a city which is now known as Tell el-Amarna.  I love the Amarna period not only for the heresy of it all, but because Akhenaten ushered in a period of great artistic freedom.  The engravings from this time are easily distinguished from classic pharaonic poses, with elongated faces, thick lips, and distended torsos.  Akhenaten was famously married to Nefertiti, whose bust is on display in Berlin.

Akhenaten was also famously the father (from another wife) to Tutankhaten, who changed his name after his father’s death to Tutankhamun and returned the center of Egyptian power to Thebes.  Tutankhamun only ruled a short time and would no doubt have been forgotten to history had his tomb (which was hidden under the much larger tomb of Ramses VI) not been discovered so remarkably intact by Howard Carter in 1922.  Given the wealth of treasure and artistic masterpieces in the tomb of a lesser pharaoh, it’s overwhelming to consider the vast troves that must have been robbed from the tombs of such megalomaniacs as Ramses II.

Fast forward a few hundred years of general decline and intermittent rule by the Libyans, Assyrians, and Persians.  In 331 BC, Egypt entered a long period of foreign rule (i.e., until 1952) when Alexander invaded and established the new city of Alexandria on the coast.  Upon his death eight years later, control of Egypt devolved to one of his generals, Ptolemy, who was the first in a long line of rulers that culminated in the famous reign of Cleopatra.

Interestingly, the Ptolemies attempted to cement their authority by appropriating and integrating with older Egyptian religious and cultural traditions.  One of the best preserved temples I viewed was the Temple of Horus in Edfu, which was built over the reign of several Ptolemies in a style that was already archaic at the time of construction.  The temple was dedicated to the Egyptian falcon god Horus, who was associated with the power and clear sight of the pharaoh – a ruler with which the Ptolemies attempted to identify.

Back to sassy Cleopatra.  In an attempt to conquer Alexandria, Julius Caesar set fire to a fleet of ships anchored in the harbor in 48 BC; the fire spread to the city, tragically burning down the Greatcleo Library.  To me, this loss is incalculable.  The books stored in the library included the additional works of scholars who calculated the circumference of the earth, discovered that the earth revolved around the sun, and compiled the definitive version of Homer’s poems.  It’s difficult to imagine the extent of the knowledge that was lost.

What Julius Caesar couldn’t accomplish, Augustus Caesar did.  Despite her power alliance with Marc Antony, Cleopatra ultimately capitulated to Roman forces at Actium in 30 BC.  The conquest ushered in a period of Roman rule that lasted several hundred years.  Stick with me, because we’ve only got 2000 years to go.

One of the most important changes during the era of Roman rule was the gradual introduction of Christianity and the death of the old Egyptian gods.  Christianity had a slow start in the empire, including persecution that may have claimed the lives of some 144,000 Copts during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.  Things changed rapidly when Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, had a vision of the cross in the sky just before a victorious battle.  Constantine converted to Christianity and made the religion official throughout the empire in 324.  By 391, Emperor Theodosius made the worship of old Egyptian gods a treasonable offense.

The Coptic tradition states that St Mark arrived in Alexandria in 45 AD, and Christianity was certainly established in Egypt by the end of the first century.  Having been strictly polytheist previously, it is interesting that the Egyptian Christians became so stridently monotheist that their beliefs resulted in a split from the church, a split that still exists.  At Nicea in 325, the Alexandrine Christians won the day by proclaiming in what became known as the Nicene creed that Father and Son were one (as distinct from the idea that, because he was born, there must have been a time when Jesus was not divine).  The Egyptians were sidelined, however, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when they split from the church because they refused to accept the idea that Jesus had one person but two natures (divine and human), seeing this duality as a form of polytheism.  The Coptic church is still a separate branch of Christianity; its adherents are ruled by a patriarch (currently Pope Shenouda III) and the religion has a long history of monasticism.  In fact, the first Christian monk was St Anthony, whose monastery remains a place of retreat in the Eastern desert near the Red Sea.  In modern day Egypt, about 10% of the population is Christian, a tension to which I will return in a future post.

I’ll skip forward another 200 years, during which time Egypt was still a part of the Byzantine empire and power continued to ebb from Alexandria.  The next major invasion occurred in 640, only eight years after the death of Mohammed, when an Arab army under the command of Amr ibn al-As swept through Egypt and established the city of Fustat to the south of modern-day Cairo. A succession of Arab dynasties controlled Egypt for the next several centuries, including (for those who know their Middle Eastern history) the Abbassids, the Tulunids, and the Fatimids, who established the city of Al-Qahira (the victorious), a name that was mispronounced by later Europeans as Cairo.  The Fatimids centered their city around the Al-Azhar mosque, which became and remains one of the most important mosques in Islam.

Interestingly, the Fatimids were a Shiite dynasty, but they were eventually overthrown by Salah ad-Din (Saladin) in 1171, who founded the Sunni Ayyubid dynasty.  Since that time, the majority of Egypt’s population has been Sunni and Al-Azhar University has become the most prestigious place to study Sunni orthodoxy.

Saladin was a prolific builder and constructed the Citadel, one of my favorite places in Cairo and the seat of power for over 700 years.  The Ayyubids ruled until 1250, when they were overthrown by their own slaves, the Mamluks, who were of Turkish and Caucasian origin and had been brought to Egypt to cement the power of the ruler.  In an excellent example of how logical the Arabic language is, the word “malik” means king (one who rules), whereas the word “mamluk” means slave (one who is ruled).  Both come from the same root consonant group: MLK.

The Mamluk era was juicy.  Intrigue was thick, leaders were ruthless, and most rulers were unable to hold their power for long.  Yet despite the brutality of some of the sultans (one, Sultan Qaitbey, allegedly tore out the eyes of his court chemist with his own hands after the hapless chemist was unable to turn lead to gold), the Mamluks endowed Cairo with some of its most beautiful architecture.  During this time, Cairo became the intellectual and cultural center of the Islamic world – which, if you consider the conditions in Europe at the time (Black Death!  Fun!), basically meant that Cairo was the center of everything outside East Asia.

Everything changed in 1516 when the Mamluks lost a decisive battle in Aleppo to the Turks.  Although the Mamluks were allowed to remain in place, they lost their power and Cairo (and Egypt) quickly became little more than a backwater corner of the Ottoman Empire.  Power would likely have ebbed from the Mamluks even without their defeat: the monopoly over trading routes they had once controlled and exploited with the Venetians was weakened after the Portuguese discovered that they could sail around the tip of Africa and avoid all the hassle.

I’ll skip another 300 years because the fact that you’re still reading at all is shocking.  Things get exciting again right around 1800, when England and France are duking it out for supremacy.  Napoleon defeats a Mamluk army of 1000 soldiers in about 45 minutes in 1798 at the Battle of the Pyramids (the Mamluks had scimitars; Napoleon had muskets).  Then Britain blows up a bunch of French warships at the Battle of the Nile.  Imperial wrangling aside, the Egyptians decide that they’d really rather not have either the French or the British hanging about and manage to get them both to depart, leaving behind a new tax system and the first catalogue of ancient Egyptian monuments, which later inspires masses of tourists and, correspondingly, masses of Egyptian touts to congregate around the Pyramids and Luxor.

Enter Mohammed Ali into the power vacuum left by the French and British.  Not the boxer, but an Albanian-born lieutenant in the Ottoman Empire.  In 1811, he consolidated his power by inviting all the remaining Mamluk leaders to dinner at the Citadel (all 470 of them) only to barricade the exit after dessert and slaughter all of them (except for one, who legend has it was able to jump over the gate on his horse).

Mohammed Ali dramatically changed Egypt’s history, not just by having a massive mosque built in the corner of the Citadel, but by modernizing the Egyptian military, building a new canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, introducing cotton as a cash crop, and instituting public education.  His heirs completed Africa’s first railway and created a postal and telegraph system.  Then they got greedy.

In 1869, the Suez Canal opened to great fanfare (but not, as I once thought, to the debut of Verdi’s opera Aida, which was written for the event but not completed in time).  Unfortunately, Egypt’s then leader, Khedive Ismail, had gone so far into debt with the construction costs that the government went bankrupt six years later and Ismail was forced to sell his share in the canal to the British.  A group of officers from the Egyptian military were massively displeased by Ismail’s handling of affairs, but their revolt against him simply provided the pretext for the British to come in and take control.


The Brits created a Protectorate because they were’t really concerned with gaining another colony; instead, they merely wanted to ensure control over the Canal.  Stay tuned for British involvement in the Sudan during this period.  Although Britain was clearly pulling the strings, Egypt remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until World War I, at which point Britain permitted the formation of the Wafd, a nationalist political party.  In 1922, Britain granted Egypt “independence”, but everyone knew that there are scare quotes because Britain reserves the right to protect its interests in Sudan and the Suez Canal (aka, Britain could still do whatever it wanted to).  Britain eventually agreed to withdraw entirely within 20 years when it signs the Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936.

Before that could happen, the Brits had to weather World War II.  German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) caused a big fright when he pushes across North Africa and corners the Allies at El Alamein, the last defensible position before Cairo.  Everyone was so scared, in fact, that British staffers burned all their important papers to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.  But just when everything seemed lost, General B.L. Montgomery launched an all-out counteroffensive and, after thirteen days of intense fighting, was able to repel the German forces.  This battle later inspired Winston Churchill to say:  “Before Alamein, we never had a victory; after Alamein, we never had a defeat.”

Back in the rest of Egypt, many of the Egyptians were unimpressed, especially the ones who weren’t really rooting for either side anyway.  These Egyptians were ready for the victorious British to leave, but the Brits were taking their sweet time.  There are riots, demonstrations, strikes, and eventually a showdown over a police station in the Canal Zone.  Mobs torch foreign-owned businesses and on 26 January 1952 (Black Saturday) Cairo is set on fire.  I’m realizing now that I probably could have structured this whole history around the theme:  Important Things Set on Fire from Time to Time.

King Farouk, the nominal monarch at the time (and descendent of Mohammed Ali), thought he could weather the storm with British backing.  What he didn’t count on was a revolt from within the ranks of the military – namely, a faction of officers calling themselves the Free Officers.  This group was led by General Gamal Abdel Nasser.  When Nasser caught wind that the gig was up, the Free Officers immediately launched a successful coup.  On 26 July 1952, King Farouk departed Alexandria on a yacht, leaving Egypt in the hands of the Egyptians for the first time since the pharaohs.  Nasser was overwhelmingly elected as President four years later.

Immediately upon his election, Nasser set about a program of nationalization that set alarm bells ringing in foreign countries – especially when he decided to nationalize the Suez Canal.  France, Britain, and Israel sent a force to stop him, but had to back down in the face of pressure from the US and the UN.  The bravado made Nasser a hero in many parts of the Middle East, which he enhanced by espousing a Pan-Arab nationalism.

Events with Israel would test Nasser’s popularity.  In the Six Day War in 1967, Israel launched a surprise attack that ended in an Egyptian defeat and the loss of control of the Sinai Peninsula.  Nasser offered to step down, but in a show of support the Egyptian people refused to accept his resignation and he remained in office until he died of a heart attack in 1970.

His successor, Anwar Sadat, was also a former member of the Free Officers. During Sadat’s first year in office, he opened the Aswan High Dam, a massive engineering project that flooded much of the homeland of the Nubian people of Upper Egypt.  By creating the largest artificial lake in the world, the project also threatened to destroy many historic sites.  The most important of these monuments, such as the temple at Abu Simbel, were painstakingly transported block by block to higher ground.

Barak-Begin-Sadat-Weizmann1978In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Egypt attacked Israeli defenses along the canal.  The war included initial successes by Egyptian forces and later advances by the Israelis.  The ability of both sides to spin the war as a success paved the way for the Camp David talks in 1978, in which Israel agreed to return Sinai to Egypt in return for recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.

The peace agreement cost Sadat his life. He was assassinated in 1981 during a military parade held to commemorate the 1973 war. After his death, Hosni Mubarak came to power and led the government for the next 30 years. During this time, Egypt weathered a spate of terrorist attacks in 1997 (in Cairo and Luxor) and the first decade of the new century (in Sinai) and the Muslim Brotherhood steadily gained strength as an opposition party.

Mubarak’s rule ended in 2011, when he stepped down in response to massive protests that took place at Midan Tahrir in Cairo beginning on January 25.

There is a lot to say about the current political situation, as well as the state of LGBT rights in the country. BUT IT’S BEST TO KEEP QUIET ABOUT ALL THAT UNTIL I’M OUT OF THE COUNTRY. So stay tuned for a future blog post that will detail these recent developments!