Singing Wells
Sep. 23rd 2004
It was another early morning start and we headed off to Yabello to drop off our stuff at the hotel. It was nice to be back on an asphalt road again. I think we had forgotten what one felt like.

It hadn't been originally planned but we headed out to a singing well owned by the Borena people. The drive into their area took us past deep, dry valleys with rocks the size of houses perched on the side, threatening to fall in at any moment. They've probably been there for thousands of years but they did look ready to pounce. We stopped briefly at a town for refreshment and I left the others for a wander. There were a few 'fuck yous' and other things shouted and my hopes that this town would be different sank. Close to the edge of town however, people were friendlier and the children loved the fact that I waved at them. Judging by the clothing, it seemed to have a higher proportion of muslims than Mekelle.

Outside of the town we left the road, Firew being guided by his memory onto a dirt track, and then we were on our way towards a salt lake. The salt lake was at the bottom of a deep crater. Although a path led down to the water, it would take two hours to walk it. The crater was very, very deep. At the bottom of the crater was a dark blue, irregularly shaped lake. Surrounding the lake was the exposed salt. If you looked really closely, or with the assistance of a zoom lens or binoculars you could see the people working the lake to get the salt. The salt was for people and animals. To make the cattle fat, salt is added to their feed.

Close to our vantage point was a village and in this village, Firew found a man to act as a guide and translator for the local language. I thought we had left the dust behind us but it wasn't long before the car and ourselves were covered in dust once again on the way to the singing well.

The area surrounding the well is very dry. Because of this dryness, the well is controlled and excellently organized. Cattle are brought to drink just once a day at a pre-arranged time. The well is controlled by a foreman who might work the well just once a month. The job is shared amongst the people in the area. It is the foreman's job to keep the animals moving in and out and to tell the people in the well when they need to put on a spurt to get water up.

As we approached the well, we could see signs of the organization in the different pens for the animals waiting for their drink. Imagine Heathrow was a well and aeroplanes cows. We walked down the slope into a large hole in the ground. Along one side was a trough made from clay from which the animals could drink. At the other end was the well itself. Forget the idea of a wishing well type. There was no little roof, and no bucket on a winch. This was a hole and in it were the people lifting water up by buckets. In the well, were seven stages, each with a broad ledge for people to stand on. To keep time and spirits high, the well workers sang deep-toned songs. The noises echoed around the well and became louder.

The Hamer people were lovely. However, I think that these people are my favourites. I think they were a little bit surprised to see Ferenji at their well. There was a touristy one somehwere nearby but Firew doesn't use it anymore after they tried to rip him off. The ladies who had been in the well were lovely. They wore bright sashes and had plastic bags under the hair nets. I think the reason I liked them was that they had a job to do and they did it. They did it well without slacking or complaining and were happy just to say hello. There was no asking for anything.

Before leaving we saw one of the men doing something that seemed strange. They were putting soil into the water. I incorrectly assumed that it was salt, but it was just soil. The reason was to take away the smell of some goats that had just drunk from the water. The larger cattle are picky and don't like to follow the goats.

We returned to Yabello and spent a lazy afternoon at the hotel. Yabello is a smuggling town because it is close to the Kenyan border. The drivers seemed to have acquired some goods to take back to Addis, presumably the tax had been 'minimized'. The Yabello hotel was a very nice hotel although I was annoyed not to have hot water for a shower. In the evening we thought we were being overcharged for some beers and were arguing with the waiter. A couple of tigraians on a nearby table were amused by this. Their amusement turned to astonishment when we talked to them in Tigrinian (baring in mind how far way from Tigray we were) to ask the price of a beer. They were being charged the same as us and it was the menu that was out of date.