Virtually Driving Back in Time?

Virtually Driving Back in Time?

September, 2021

sinkneh eshetu

In May 2021 I Joined the Astrobus Ethiopia, on a driving trip across different regions in the country, on a project aiming to empower and connect young learners with science, art, and technology. This marked the third trip for Astrobus Ethiopia, and we journeyed to my home town – giving me the opportunity to rediscover cultural landscapes and reconnect to my fond childhood memories. All the three places targeted were special to me: Konso is my birthplace, Jinka is where my early childhood memories were moulded, and Arbaminch is a place I spent my junior and high school times.

screenshot, May 14 2021

This is southern Ethiopia. This is a place of natural and cultural diversity. It is called by some a mosaic of culture for housing about 25 of the 81 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. That implies so much diversity in the ways of exploring and knowing, perceiving and expressing, valuing and living our shared reality. Here, one feels, time is not flat but as ragged as its landscapes. Some live on the hilltops, others at the hill bottom, still others in the valleys, the forests, the prairies, or deserts of the landscape of time, where times past, present, and future are superimposed. See there? An earth-bound-looking bushman, apparently alien to the whims and fancies of modernity, is talking to someone with a mobile phone. Did this mobile influence the way he sees the world? Does he know how his voice travels in space and time to link him with his distant friend? Very unlikely. I read somewhere what an anthropologist did a few years back at this very place. He showed the community a picture of their late relative. Everyone was excited to find a ‘proof’ that their late father or friend is invisible but still in existence. ‘This is his shadow;’ they reasoned. ‘If the shadow exists, the person responsible for the appearance of the shadow must also exist.’ The technology only served to reinforce their traditional belief in the existence of the soul after death. With the mobile, they might have found a proof for the way a human spirit transcends space-time boundaries, who knows.  

Among the central objectives of Astrobus are fostering critical thinking and exchange of worldviews. What does that mean? I was wondering how each member of the Astrobus team might be seeing these people and places. These are favourite destinations of cultural tourists and anthropologists. That makes you wonder why tourists, most of whom are from technologically advanced societies, are attracted to these communities. Could it be that they consider their coming here as going back in time to their origins as homo sapiens? Probably they have read the works of the historian Yuval Harari and believe in his theories: Homo Sapiens, originating in this part of the world, succeeded in conquering and ruling the globe with the strength of their stories. They may then assume that these people of the so called the Land of Origins loved the stories that showed their compatriots of 70 000 years past conquering the giants of Eurasia, the Neanderthals.   So, they did not see the point in changing that story, hence their archaic-looking way of life. They may also predict, taking for granted that the coming of Harari’s Homo Deus is going to be a global phenomenon, these people may then be riding straight from the Era of crop or animal husbandry to the Era of Cyborgs, without having to traverse, like them, the twisted and tangled paths of feudalism, capitalism, socialism or a cocktail of these isms. I would not be surprised if they think so. For here, it is easy to assume that these traditions, having come thus far apparently resisting change, may continue to do so for years to come only to eventually submit to the irresistible global force. What would become of their stories and their worldviews then?

Astrobus has made it clear that it is here to foster exchange of worldviews and not to change any. Still, each member of the travelling team might have his or her own view of these target communities and the aspired exchange. I did not ask, but it would be interesting if anyone of them might be thinking this trip as a virtual journey to our collective past.

Our first stop was Arbaminch, a place noted for its landscape beauty, traditional weaving and music. Though things seemed to be disorganized at first, because the local volunteers who promised to help us organize were busy mobilizing people for the 6thnational election, we eventually managed to reach three schools in a day. That was a very empowering first experience for the travelling team. 

Next, we drove to Konso, my birthplace. This is a community of industrious people known for their terrace-building and settlement patterns that reflected their social organization, registered as UNESCO’s Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site for that reason. My fascination with the folktale of the Konsos gave birth to my first anthropological novel, Searching for Ella: Crocodile College, that explores how folktales, indigenous belief systems, and rituals could help ensure the resilience of people at the face of disruptive changes. Here, some of the travelling team members were hoping to stop by one of the traditional villages to get a glimpse of the highly esteemed traditional culture. With the interest of time, however, that idea had to be dropped. Where the Astrobus team had its event, the school’s science club also demonstrated its works – some herbal medicine and models of machines. That was underlined as a form of the aspired give-and-take.

screenshot on may 15, 2021

Our last stop was Jinka. It was here that I had a hilarious childhood experience about film. It was a dark countryside evening. There was no power then. Except probably for the flickering stars and the distant glows of moonlight, all was dark. Once in a while, a strong light is turned on and off from a truck standing with its rear end facing an eager crowd of kids like me and no-less-eager adults. Three or four people, carrying a feeble flashlight, were struggling with a strange object on the truck, which I later learned to be a film projector. I was 9 or 10. That day in school, we were told that a film would be shown at the town’s marketplace at night and we should all be there. A film! I had no idea what that was. I do not remember even hearing the word before that day. Being a loner, I did not ask anyone what was going on. I strained my eyes staring on the truck and on the wheeled machine the people were fumbling with, hoping to see something interesting. I now guess the people had difficulty making the projector run. But then I thought that object, the projector, was ‘the film’ we were supposed to enjoy. My interest faded away quickly and I returned home soon not to anger my mom by staying out too late watching that boring staff. Later that night, my siblings who stayed behind spoke excitedly about the amazing things they saw in the film. I was mad to have missed the opportunity by mistaking the projector for the film. When that same film, which was on wildlife, was shown again six or so months later, I was awestruck. I thought film was some kind of magic. That experience was so enduring that it found its way to my latest novel, Catch Your Thunder: Rendezvous with the End – the film as a modern miracle local magicians must beat in order to keep on holding the upper hand in the market of miracle-making.  

Jinka did not change much from those old days. Yes, a few modern-looking buildings have made their appearance in town. TV and mobiles have long been commonplace and the internet is accessible for those interested and are cyber-literate. Certainly, there is no magic in films and pictures anymore. Though the workings of the technology might still be mysterious for many, nearly everyone knows that one can make his or her own ‘film’ or picture with a mobile. Jinka even boasts its own university now. However, if one drives a few kilometres to any direction from the town, one will find people living the most natural way, some even walking naked, apparently keeping their promise to their ancestors who went away eons ago to conquer the globe. This is the background that formed the student body Astrobus engaged with in Jinka. I was thinking of my first experience with film in this very town when a group of students talked about the films they were trying to make at the booth the filmmaker among us made them try their hand on a professional film production. I can only imagine what an impression this engagement might have created on the young learners privileged to attend the event.

Exchange of worldviews? I am not sure how much of that happened. Generally speaking, most of us, even artists, went there with thoughts and tools refined at the background of a worldview that compartmentalizes reality with its fast-changing knowledge system. And these indigenous cultures see reality holistically with the lens of their slowly accumulated, millennia-long experience. If worldviews were demonstrable like paintings or telescopes, the difference would have been stunning. This would have been especially so if we had the opportunity to go to local communities with our high-tech tools and arts, as many of the team members wished to do. Unfortunately, however, that was not possible mainly because of financial constraints. In our preliminary survey tour, we managed to visit half a dozen indigenous communities. After visiting the Dorze and the Konso villages well known for their art of weaving, construction, and social organization, one team member asked, ‘why did they stop here instead of pushing boundaries to propagate their amazing ways of life?’ And one of us answered, ‘maybe they didn’t see the need to do that.’ That may not be a choice in this era of rapid globalization. It seems every indigenous culture must strive to be heard telling its own stories in order to survive as a culture and identity. Otherwise, its age-old stories would be lost for good in the noisy tale of money, science, and technology.

Sinkneh Eshetu (penname: O’Tam Pulto) is a published author and landscape architect.

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