An ideal trip to my field site

The trip from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to my field site in the Southwest of Ethiopia takes about two days. The days after my arrival in Addis Ababa and before my departure to the field are usually packed with administrative and logistic activities. I catch up with linguistic colleagues at uni, go shopping for the upcoming stay in the field (notebooks, batteries, shampoo, medicaments etc.) and, most importantly, I hire a car for the trip to Laska. I usually hire a car and a driver for four days from a tour operator: two days to go to Laska, two days for the driver and the car to return to Addis. Unfortunately, not all tour operators accept bookings for such a short trip, especially if they don’t know the area where we are going to. Last time I was quite lucky and by chance I found a company that knew where to locate Laska (or the Basketo Special Woreda) on a map. Laska is out of the way of well-known tourist destinations in the Ethiopian South (e.g. Jinka) and therefore completely unknown to people in Addis Ababa.

An ideal trip to my field site looks like this:
We start early in the morning in Addis Ababa, we have enough petrol for the whole trip or face no difficulties to get petrol on the way, we have no flat tyres or enough spare tyres and tools in the car, the car is in reasonably good shape, the driver and the passenger (= that is me) are in a good mood, the passenger is happy with the driver’s driving style, the cattle has crossed the roads before we came or crosses it after we have passed, the roads are not too muddy, there are no endless diversion roads around Chinese construction sites, we still get hotel rooms halfway between Addis and Laska …

Here’s the map of my route:

From Addis Ababa (B) we take the road southwest to Hosaina (D) via Butajira (C). Once we have left the ever-expanding capital city, we drive a while through the Oromia Region. The Oromo language (written in a Latin-based orthography) is omnipresent on the signs along the road.

Trilingual sign in Oromia: Oromo-Amharic-English

Trilingual sign in Oromia: Oromo-Amharic-English

We cross the Awash River a couple of kilometres before we reach the border of the Southern Region. The Southern Region is the ethnically most heterogeneous regional state of Ethiopia and from now on, until the end of the journey, we pass the country of a different ethnic group approximately every 50km.  The first villages and towns after the border of the Southern Region are in the Gurage zone, more precisely in the homelands of the Soddo-Gurage and the Mäsqan-Gurage. Shortly after the town of Butajira (C) starts the Silt’i zone. The road passes through the quickly developing boom town of Worabe. The southern neighbours of the Silt’i (speakers of a Semitic language) are the Hadiyya (speakers of a Cushitic language). Hosaina (D), which is located about 250km far from Addis Ababa, is the administrative centre of the Hadiyya zone and a good place to stop for lunch on the way to the South.

In Hosaina I have two options to continue my journey. Before I started to work on Baskeet I had worked on the Cushitic language Kambaata for several years. From Hosaina I could take the road south to Kambaata, visit former consultants and their families and stay overnight in one of the hotels in Duuraame. If I don’t choose the Kambaata option, we continue our journey towards the southwest. After Hadiyya we go through the westernmost parts of the KambaataXambaaro zone before the road leads steeply down to Wolaitta. The Wolaitta are the first Omotic-speaking group on our way. The capital of the Wolaitta Zone, Soddo (E), is the last opportunity to fill up the car – there are no other petrol stations on the rest of the way to my field site. Soddo is the last internet cafe before my field site. Approximately 475km far from Addis Ababa, Soddo is also the end of the asphalt road; the second leg of our journey is entirely on dirt roads.

If we reach Soddo late in the afternoon, we have to stay there overnight in order not to be surprised by the dark on the way further southwest. Usually I try to avoid staying in Soddo – the town is extremely busy, too noisy, completely overcrowded and I just don’t feel very safe there. But let’s imagine that it is an ideal day and we have arrived in Soddo in the early afternoon, then we can tackle the (approx.) 120km on a fairly rough road to Sawla (F). The tourist groups all head further south from Soddo to Arba Minch, while we turn off to the right.

House in the Gofa lowlands

House in the Gofa lowlands

The road leads through the lowlands of the Wolaitta zone and the Gamo-Gofa zone. The area is a dry wide valley between mountain ranges. In the dry season it is not uncommon to see black patches of land that were burnt by bushfires to the right and left of the road. About halfway between Soddo and Sawla we cross the Maze National Park and the Maze River.

On an ideal day we reach Sawla (F) at sunset. It is always such a relief to come to Sawla! I feel that Baskeet isn’t far any more and I meet the first people that know me by name. The town is in the lowlands (about 1370m) and it is fairly warm in the dry season. The main road is a beautiful avenue lined with palm trees and small shops. Sawla is also the last bank (for national transactions) and the last post office before my field site. And the last café with cake and juice (or, when returning from the field, the first cafe with cake and juice!). If you ever come to Sawla, visit the Protocoll café with its beautiful garden. Or better go there twice: once for lunch to eat one of the great fish dishes and once for self-made juices and cakes. On an ideal day, the Protocol café still has a room for me to stay overnight.

In the morning of the second day, we have 48km left to Laska. 48km doesn’t sound very much but the geography is a challenge and it takes about 3h of concentrated driving (potential obstacles on the way not included). On an ideal day no speeding lorry passes us on the way from Sawla to Laska. From Sawla (F) (1370m) we climb up to Bulk’i (G) (2400m), a small town in the highlands of the Gamo-Gofa zone, a cool and cloudy place especially in the rainy season. After Bulk’i the road leads down to the Yirgino River at an altitude of 1238m. The bridge crossing the river is still fairly new (I guess about 10-15 years), before it was built the river could only be crossed in the dry season.

The Yirgino River is the boundary between Gofa and Baskeet (or: the Gamo-Gofa zone and the Basketo Special Woreda). Standing on the Yirgino River Bridge one has a good view on the mountains on which Baskeet is located.

View on the Baskeet mountains from the Yirgino River Bridge

View on the Baskeet mountains from the Yirgino River Bridge (Picture taken in the dry season)

Fortunately, these are the last mountains to climb. When we have managed the last kilometres of this rocky, bumpy and narrow road and reached the top, we are rewarded by a great view on the Yirgino River down in the valley and the Gofa country on the mountains opposite to us.

View on the Yirgino River and the moutains of Gofa

View on the Yirgino River and the mountains of Gofa (Picture taken some weeks after the rainy season)

From the edge of the Baskeet mountain plateau where the picture above has been taken it is only a couple of kilometres to Laska (A) (1870m). The driver drops me off in Laska and returns to Addis the next day. At the end of my fieldtrip, he will pick me up again.

More about Laska in one of my next posts …

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