2017 Feb: The Linguist Shepherd Boy of Ethiopia
Twenty years ago a shepherd boy in the remote highlands of Ethiopia heard something that would change his life – he heard English. It was being spoken by a small but growing flow of tourists trekking the Simien Mountains of north-west Ethiopia and for Dawit Yohannes it represented something very special: a way out from a hard scrabble lifetime of rural subsistence.
An Amharic-speaking Highlander, `Dave’ as he prefers to be called, lived with his family in the village of Argin, a hillside collection of tumbledown stone-walled thatched hovels, set about by terraced barley fields, a rare patch where humans have had impact upon an otherwise virginal mountain landscape of grasslands, rockfields, gorges and peaks. The village had a perennial water source, a stream, and not much else: no school, no clinic, no vehicle access.
It was this remoteness that brought the trekkers, marveling at the extraordinarily spectacular Simien escarpment that lies within an hour or so walking of the village. But what appears idyllic in tourist photographs represents a poverty trap for locals, a year-round battle for subsistence in one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest nations in Africa. Dave’s childhood was shoeless, his bed the beaten earth floor of the family rondavel, shared each night with chickens and other domestic animals. At an altitude of over 10,000 ft, bone-aching cold had to be endured not combatted. Blankets were a rarity.
`During the day my job as a boy was to look after the sheep and the goats up in the mountains,’ Dave explained. `To get to the best grass we would climb for hours and hours. In the summer we sometimes slept in caves, and in the winter when it rains and rains for days we used to sit under the lobelia plants and fold down their leaves to make an umbrella over our heads.’
To pass the time most shepherds learned to play the `Simien flute’, a bamboo pipe which needs a special knack of pursing the lips if it is to make any sound. And they honed their slingshot skills, hurling stones far and true with David-and-Goliath style catapults made of knotted wool.
But Dave’s eye and, indeed, ear, were caught by something else. High up on the peaks he started to see groups of `ferenji’, the common Amharic vernacular for foreigners, and he was intrigued.
`They were speaking a language I had never heard but I was curious and I was persistent and after some time I began to recognise the same sounds and words coming from different people,’ he said. `I would walk with them for hours listening and asking questions. I must have been a bit of a pest but slowly I began to pick up the basics of English.’
The language progress he made up on the hill gave him a chance to try for school in the next village down the valley, Ambaras, roughly a two hour walk from home. He passed the test and from the age of 11 began schooling, a transformative experience, that has led to an increasingly successful career guiding today’s visitors to the Simiens. Good English is a must for dealing with almost all `ferenji’ visitors to Ethiopia but Dave’s skills go far beyond language. He knows the footpaths intimately, is studying for qualifications as a wildlife guide and he has the diplomatic skills to lead the various drivers, muleteers, guards, chefs and other support staff required for successful treks in the Simiens.
That is how I came across Dave, now in his late 20s, when preparing for our family trip. While I have travelled off-piste in Africa many times, this trek was a little different. I would not only need help with navigation and logistics, I would need someone I could trust with the thing I cherish the most – my family.
Dave was a fabulous choice, managing to juggle the interests of us, `the guests’, alongside the demands of his `team’, two cooks, one armed guard, two muleteers and a jeep driver. It takes considerable skills of leadership to manage all those moving parts over six days, an arrangement with plenty of potential to go wrong, but he did it with flare and skill.
When my son fell ill with altitude sickness Dave assessed the situation perfectly. Poor Kit, only 11, was not strong enough to take another step up the steep slope so Dave made us all comfortable in the shade of a tree and then ran up the hill at pace, returning less than an hour later with a mule for Kit to ride. When the guard needed more bedding for his long, cold night shifts, Dave arranged for extra blankets.
On the last day he took me to visit his home village, Argin. We walked in along the same footpaths he took as a child when he set out for those mountain pastures. It was quite a journey and as I walked the beautiful but tough terrain I felt sure that had I been born there, I would not have had the wit nor the skill to use a few words from tourist trekkers as a launch pad for a breakout career.