The Paved Road to Progress

In the late afternoon, the sun is low, and without the earlier glare things are now easier to see without my eyeballs scorching and bunching up. From the car I spot a line of women and girls queuing at a borehole under some trees, each of them with a yellow plastic canister. They are patiently waiting to take their turns in getting water for the evening.

Here in the Ethiopian countryside, as in other African countries, the women seem to be the beasts of burden. Like those I have seen carrying baskets, wicker panniers, bales of fodder, stacks of wood, claypots or babies on their backs. Most of them have no shoes. Over the last hundred kilometres the number I have seen walking solitarily or in twos or threes, single file, along the road, strap over their head or a rope across their upper chests to keep the load in place, has exceeded anything else. One long procession of women at work. Like the equally endless lines of eucalyptus trees, sucking the water from the ground and denying the short conifers and palms the same. Without trees, no life. Without water no life.

Not that there isn’t a lot to see along the side of the road. Processions of goats, orange, grey, white. Processions of hunchback cows, black or brown. Processions of donkeys, tan or light grey. Occasional mules, where a horse erred in judgement. Processions of older women with umbrellas. Children, some of them infants, selling roast kolo barley or shining shoes in the villages, rows of them, one spot, one profession, some of them calling you-you-you farangi after us, in the hope we will part company with coins or smaller banknotes. Other, more fortunate children, walking in line, sometimes two deep, homeward bound from school: some in uniform, others not, but almost all of them with a rolled exercise book in one hand, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, between the school and wherever the round straw-roofed hut is they call home. Lines of pylons now and again, otherwise lines of wooden electricity poles, many tilting precariously.

Leaving Addis Abeba it was initially processions of corrugated hovels that accompanied us, with paper laid out to dry outside on the pavement, or piles of collected plastic waste, or lines of open waste-water culverts. The hollow-block huts gave way in the countryside to less corrugated iron and rows of mud-covered wooden square houses in straight lines along the road, set back by the storm-water drains, or concrete-block sheds that were shops. Occasionally, way out in the fields one saw a procession of a solitary herdsman and cows, in one long line.



Roads as the only links

The road itself, when it turns steep, which is a lot of the time, challenges the underpowered, which is most of us here it seems, and leads to processions of drool-dripping cows plodding their way upwards, being over-taken by slightly fleeter-footed but definitely overladen mules, who are being passed by very-slow-moving trucks belching black fumes whose line is constantly interrupted by slightly faster trucks that go by names such as Dove, Mammut or Tata, but get hounded by what are by most yardsticks still slow buses that were built before 2000, the blue “Level 2” busses, which in turn get overtaken by a line of green “Level 1” busses, which in turn get burned off by horn-blaring SUVs, all for some unknown reason trying to get to the next crest of the high plateau first. Before the uninterrupted line becomes a broken line of bald tires all racing downhill, past the six-year-olds at the side of the road calling out for plastic water bottles, a means of storing the life-saving liquid in these scorched heights. Past the herdsgirl with the braided hair who stand proudly above it all, a school book in one hand, a long metal-studded crook in the other. Past a young woman in an emerald green long dress, bending into the ascent to offset the weight of the bag of rice on her shoulders. A man strides along in front of her, his crook held by his right arm over his shoulders, a huge bale of straw on the other side of him, supported by his left arm. He walks upright. I assume straw is less heavy. In front of him marches a dog, who seems to have decided in this heat he will defy his canine instinct and not chase one of the trucks.


The road through the towns is lined by blue Pepsi hoardings, each of which bearing the name of the hollow-block two-storey abode that is a truck-driver hotel in an allotment behind it. Interspersed by shops and restaurants selling just about everything, the smell of the dust and the diesel mingling with the fragrance of the roasting kolo. The towns stop as suddenly as they start, giving way to long flowing fields, with in the distance, speckled like poppies in a Van Gogh, people out working the fields, or cattle, or vultures. Now and again a line of thickset oxen pulling ploughs behind them in the sets of squared smallholder fields. The procession of fields follows a patchwork pattern, the high teff wheat runs red as the heads hang heavy readying for harvesting, the next field is yellow, and yet another green, Ethiopia’s national colors splashed here across the entire plateau. Interspersed with stubble where an unthinkable number of man-hours have been spent stooped scything or sickling the harvest. Then there are lines of maize to match the processions of corn rows.


At this point, the road explodes into thin air, we have reached the Rift Valley, a massive stepped gorge, where the road descends from over 2,500 down to 900 meters, where the Blue Nile runs brown. Now the cars have to navigate the striated blacktop, crushed into furrows by the procession of trucks, lines that occasionally become whorls resembling Amharic characters or something I try and write on the bouncing back seat while the shock-absorbers groan beneath me. The road is steep, so very steep in parts that the girls who run across it in one village, bursting out of a house that is lined by yellow mountain gladiolas, arms straight down at their sides, but swinging, flipflops flapping as they rush, seem to be far faster than many an ancient truck crawling its way to the top like a beetle with a huge cargo carapace atop. However inhospitable, the flanks of the gorge are lines by processions of thin terraces, perching precariously but bearing grain among the fences of brushwood and cacti erected to keep out the next procession of goats.

Next morning we drive back along the same road. Between the villages, in the villages, between the towns and the villages, there is one constant flow of people on foot. The men again in shoes, and this time a few of the women, too – albeit only those in the light white cheesecloth shawls donned to go to church. The broken line is one long procession of wares heading for market, or purchases heading back home.

It is as though the whole of Amhara province were on the road, walking either this way, or back the other way. For the most part silently it seems. The distances they are covering to get the grain or beans to buyers is great. After all, up here on the high plateau, or so my driver Melese, one of ten children, tells me, about half of the grain in Ethiopia is grown – given a population this year of some 96 million, up from 93 million last year, the sheer tonnage of grain needed to keep people fed is immense. Especially if one remembers that Addis Abeba is now home to some 3.5 million persons officially, with the unofficial number much higher, and none of them can till fields. All of which translates into countless hands working the fields and countless feet walking along the road to market.

Paved roads can be killers

The road is being renewed, with proper layers of thick compacted gravel topped by asphalt, a project kindly paid for by a grant from Japan. Where the road is already ready, even the slower trucks are now mowing faster, no longer having to navigate the countless gaping potholes, deep enough to swallow an oil drum in the smaller versions, resembling bomb craters in the larger versions. The new road will facilitate travel north from Addis Abeba, I am told, as Highway 3 will then be able to link up the north far better. Travel times will be slashed, with the trip to Debre Markos said to soon only require a bit more than 3 ½ hours rather than the six we required. That will be real progress, hooking up the countries urban centres better in this vast country that lacks a railway network of any kind – there is a single line running from Dire Dawa to the port in neighbouring Djibouti.


Sadly, those hundreds of thousands of feet seem to have been forgotten by the infrastructure planners who design these new roads. There is no pavement, a side on which to walk, and the right of way was evidently such that the new road runs flush to the fields, other than a brief shoulder of sharp gravel. Meaning people are forced to walk on a road on which the traffic is now flowing, at times at real speed. It is a 300km-long suicide trap. Goats on strings do not understand the speed of cars. Nor do cows, or donkeys, or children. It is a national disaster waiting to happen, the kind of conflict that so easily undermines progress. If the smallholders can’t walk, there will be no food in the village market places, and no food move to the towns in the now faster trucks, and on to the cities.

Many paths to progress

There is an Ethiopian tale about the donkey, the goat, and the dog. They all feel tired one day and flag down a Level 3 bus to take them to the next village to have a cup of coffee. On the bus, the donkey pays the conductor its fare. The goat ducks down behind it and gets off paying anything. The dog, sitting at the back meekily, pays the full fare but with a large denomination Birr bill, and the conductor kicks it and doesn’t give it back the change due. This is why when buses, or trucks for that matter, come through a village a goat bleat and run away, frightened that the conductor has noticed its fraudulence. The donkey, a short-sighted beast at the best of times, knows it has paid and has nothing to worry about, and therefore simply keeps wandering it whatever direction it was moving in, ignoring all honking or cries or whips. The dog, still irate at being short-changed, comes running out, snapping at the bus, wanting to claim its money. The tale is old, and pre-dates the new roads. A contemporary version would need to include a whole group of villagers, incensed by some of their children having been mown down, or maybe it was only their livestock, or their guard dogs, board the bus, armed with their long, metal-studded sticks, and head for town to vent their anger on the planners. Progress can all too easily be impeded by such small oversights as a couple of meter of flattened dirt additionally created by a steamroller that was there anyway.