“It’s better to die than live without killing.” – Afar proverb
I am in the oddest place I have ever been to in my travels. Lying 100m below sea level, the Danakil Depression – where, sadly, four tourists were killed in January 2012 – is officially the hottest and most inhospitable place on earth. So surreal is the dry moonscape here that it doesn’t seem to be a part of the Earth at all. We are not far away from the Eritrean border and I have come here to witness and photograph caravans of camels transporting salt from the nearby lakes and showing the men’s tough work. It’s a place of genuine, raw adventure. Few corners of the globe can match this overwhelming wilderness of bubbling volcanoes, dryness, sulphurous mounds of yellow contort, ferocious tribes like the Afar and temperatures frequently saying hello to 45ºC. Not a place for everybody.
After some long hours on the public bus, I have finally arrived in Berahile. The heat is unsupportable and the only solution I see is to get one of those breezy dresses the local Afar women wear. I don’t exactly remember the moment when Medina appeared, but suddenly she was there, next to me, helping me to find my dress material and get it tailored. The first thing I notice about Medina were the big scars in her face – and her beauty. Two scars on her forehead, two on each cheek and two big, long scars running from ear to ear along her chin. Medina is a young woman of the Afar tribe. She doesn’t know her exact age, but guesses she is around 20.
The Afar people are located in East African countries like Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Eritrea. They are a proud people, emphasizing a man’s strength and bravery. Vengeance killing has been a strong value and war the primary context for much of the culture, though it’s diminishing more and more. A few decades ago, a young man was not considered an adult until he had killed one man, usually a member of an opposite tribe. I asked many Ethiopians about the Afar people and got feedback like, “I am afraid of them”, “They are very scary” or simply “They are overheated motherfuckers”.
I cannot help it but I feel a strange vibe in the air. A man wearing an Osama Bin Laden t-shirt comes towards us talking nonsense. Many men carry guns and spend their afternoons chewing chat leaves, which give them an unbeatable high, suppress their hunger and prevent tiredness.
Yesterday, there was a beautiful sunset. I walked outside the family’s house where I was staying, trying to capture the amazing sky colors with my camera when suddenly a stone came whizzing past me. It was one of those “overheated fellows” thinking that I had captured him with my camera. Another example? The same evening, I asked for a toilet and was taken to an outside hole in the ground surrounded by corrugated metal. While I was inside, I suddenly heard the noise of stones thrown at the toilet enclosure, followed by an angry voice of a woman. Luckily my Ethiopian friend Zemen was close and could calm down the shouting lady. When I got outside, I found out that I had been directed to the toilet of a Moslem family. When she heard that I was Christian and using their toilet, she became very upset. For them, it is like contaminating their reputation, and I felt very bad. Welcome to Berahile, Danakil.
I wanted to know more about Medina’s scars. My friend Zemen starts translatingbetween us and a short, but intense friendship is about to start. “It’s part of our Afar tradition. It symbolizes the toughness of a woman”, Medina tells me. “In the past, all women got scarred with razorblades. My mother also has scars in her face. She was the one who pushed me to get it done. I was really afraid, but the pressure around me, even from my friends, became bigger and bigger. At the end, some of my friends scarred my face with razorblades when I was 10 and it swelled up horribly. When I came home, my dad got very angry, beat me up and threw me out of the house for some days. My mother was happy, but my dad had been against this tradition since the beginning.”
Medina is from Awash, central Ethiopia, and comes from a very traditional Afar family. “My father was always the dominant person in the house, but that is normal in our culture. The scars in my face reflect my tough childhood. Believe me, being an Afar woman is not always easy”, she tells us. “When I was around 13, I fell in love with an Afar man from Berahile, the northern part of Ethiopia. He used to work temporarily in my town and all my friends really liked him, saying that he was very cute. He stole my virginity when I was 13 years old and my parents found out. It is a scandal in our tradition. You have to be married, and my parents got him arrested. He freed himself, paying them 20.000 Birr (= 850 €) and giving them a gun. Some time later, he had to go back to the north, and I decided to follow him and run away from home. I was crazily in love.”
My dress is finally ready and we decide to have a cold drink in the shadow. I cannot talk directly to Medina. All conversations are through Zemen, but I can tell that she is worried…and that she has the need to talk to somebody. Her beautiful smile is present all the time, but I can see her worries behind it.
“In the first years, he was such a good person. He was like a mother to me, gentle and kind,” Medina continues, about her beau. “We got married and lived together here in Berahile. When I was around 15, I got pregnant and our son was born. But everything changed when he met this other woman. In our tradition, men can have up to three or four women, but I really loved him and thought he would never do this to me. I felt so hurt when the other woman moved in. She is an Eritrean refugee and comes from the refugee camp near the Eritrean border. She doesn’t even know how to cook and, suddenly, he started using me as a slave. I had to make food for them, clean, and wash their clothes, and he gave me cheaper and bad food. I had to serve his relatives when they came for a visit, but he stopped respecting me and even refused to support me financially.“
I can feel how emotional Medina gets about this topic and that she feels very confused. We propose to go back to the family’s house where we sleep over and Medina wants to join us. In the midday heat, there is nothing to do except sit in the shade…and our conversation goes on.
“He started using me only for his personal interests and gave all his attention and financial support to the new woman. He began to beat me, became very aggressive and even threatened to kill me in some moments,” she told us with a sad voice. “I could not stand this situation any longer and just wished to become independent from him. I went to the women’s court and asked for a divorce. It was a long way to achieve it, as he was giving me a hard time and wanted to save his reputation, but finally he gave his agreement to get divorced. Without the agreement of the men, we cannot get divorced.
When I finally managed to move out and have my own small hut, I decided to sell chat and some drinks in my home in order to make a living. Chat is a good business here, as almost all men are addicted, and I even sell it in small towns nearby as Hamed Ela. My ex-husband has been telling all sorts of rumors about me, for example that I am working as a prostitute, which is not true. He started to ruin my reputation and, sadly, many people in this town believe him.”
Her face gets very serious and she shows us her black, wild hair. I am surprised that it’s not braided as all the other women’s hair. Medina explains, “The women here don’t want to do my hair. Most of them believe the stories my ex-husband has been telling and refuse to help me. Sometimes, and when I have a little bit of money left, one woman from the Eritrean refugee camp comes here and does my hair. She is the only one. I have nobody here and my family is far away.”
The conversation continues in Tigrinya between Zemen and Medina, and I can tell that she hasn’t talked to anybody about her worries in a long time. I can see from their faces that they talk about something serious. After a long time, Zemen finally translates, “She is worried because the ex-husband has their son. After the official divorce, he got so angry that he refused to give him to Medina. Now the son lives with the ex-husband’s parents and he threatens to kill her in case she attempts to get the son back. Medina is desperate. She wants to leave this place and thinks about going back to her parents’ place, but there is no way she can get the son.”
“What about the court?”, I ask Zemen. “Is there no way she can go there and get help?”. Zemen laughs, “We are in Afar area and here rule the laws of the men. He didn’t care about the divorce and that’s why she achieved it, but she will never be able to get the son through the court. Forget it.”
Her story starts to make me sad and angry at the same time. I can see that Medina needs a break for herself and gets up to say good-bye to us. “Please come to my house tomorrow”, she tells us with her beautiful smile. “I would like to invite you for dinner, and you can also have some chat and coffee at my place”. I don’t feel excited about the chat proposal, but look forward to seeing her again.
We accept her invitation and, the following day, go to her small hut that she has transformed into a simple, but lovely 3-in-1 café. We spend the whole afternoon talking and drinking coffee and tea. I can tell that Medina is an experienced housewife: the way she prepares tea and coffee, the way she cleans her small fireplace, the way she organizes her few kitchen belongings and the way she serves her three guests who are Afar men from the Ethiopian-Eritrean border area. She gets up and starts looking for something in a box that she hides behind her bed. Proudly, she takes out a big perfume bottle that looks kind of old and covered with dust. She starts putting it on me, spraying it on my hair, my dress and my skin. “This is a sign of truly friendship and affection”, Zemen explains to me. “She really likes you. For her, the perfume is one of her most valuable belongings and she wants to share it with you.”
Medina smiles at me and goes back to her small kitchen place. She starts making our dinner, local injera with pasta, and continues telling us her story. “There is something I didn’t mention yesterday”, she confesses. “Some time ago, I met a new man. He is Eritrean and comes from the nearby refugee camp. He used to be a chat customer at my place and we started to get to know each other more and more. He is kind, gentle and knows everything that has happened to me. He now lives in Hamed Ela, about an hour from here, and we see each other regularly. He supports me and wants to stay with me in whatever I decide to do.”
Our table is the floor of her small hut and together we sit down and eat the huge injera with a pasta portion for at least five people. It’s delicious, and prepared with affection by Medina. “When my ex-husband found out that I was seeing somebody else, he freaked out and threatened to kill him,” she explains. “I am afraid and feel it’s time to leave this place, but then I have to leave behind my son. I have been trying and trying to get him back, but there is no way. I am risking my life,” she says in a sad voice. “I have been thinking about going back to my family in Awash. We are still in contact and my mother tells me to come back, but I am afraid and feel ashamed. People will ask questions and I have failed in so many ways: I ran away from my parents, I got divorced, I have to leave behind my son, and I am alone. I don’t know what to tell them, how to answer all the people’s questions. I promised them many times I would come back, but never did, and now they don’t believe me anymore. My sister also ran away from home when she was young and escaped to Djibouti, following a man. She has a similar story and is now back home, but I know that she is not getting along with our father.
The Eritrean man I am seeing now has to go to the capital, Addis Ababa, soon to finally get his visa and do the last medical check. He keeps telling me to go with him and then return together to Awash, my hometown. He knows about my fear, but insists to support me in whatever might happen. I can feel that he really loves me and only wants my best”, she tells us with a smile.
Silence is in the air and Zemen and I are both digesting her words and story. We don’t know what to tell her, we don’t know the answers to her questions and fears. An intense and lovely evening is coming to an end, and it’s time to say goodbye to Medina. We are leaving Berahile the next day. I feel that she needed those two days with us, to share her story, and that she needed somebody who would listen to her. She insists I should sleep over at her house and save my money for the rest of my trip. When I want to give her something for the dinner, drinks and coffee, she refuses and tells us that we are friends and not guests. “Friends don’t pay at my house. That’s the beautiful side of the Afar culture. Many people here ask me for money and, if I have it, I lend it to the people. But almost nobody pays it back to me. See this.” She shows us a book full of names and numbers next to it. “My friend writes down for me who owes me how much money. I cannot even read and write. I have never gone to school in my life”.
We give her a big hug and I can smell a cloud of perfume, the same one I am wearing that day. I insist that Medina should take my small money. “It’s not for the food and drinks. It’s going to be for your bus ticket to Addis Ababa and then back home. Do you promise?” I ask her.
She shows us her beautiful smile and thinks for a few seconds. “I promise”, she says firmly.