Noah McColl '06

My clothes were soaked through, the rain wasn’t letting up and the temperature was dropping as the sun set above 4,000m. Ironically, this was a rare moment on the trip where things were going according to plan. Hours earlier my guide, Moulalay, and I summitted Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s tallest peak at 4,533m. The feat was a surprise to us considering how bootstrapped the expedition was and how beleaguered the first couple days had been. It’s an understatement to say we were hiking the unconventional route. The trip required special government letters permitting us to enter Simien Mountain National Park on unsanctioned trails accessible only by crossing a remote hydroelectric dam. It was a hopeful route I made up knowing only the basic geography of the area and studying Google Earth. As expected, any plan this ornate has hang-ups, and ours had plenty. Late starts, bad directions, lengthy negotiations, the list went on and on, and put us a vital full day behind on our five-day timeline. I needed to report to my job in Addis Ababa and a day’s delay was, indeed, a problem. This dam-access-only, backside of Ras Dashen, didn’t have shops selling Coca-Cola let alone cell coverage to rebook the flight or inform work. What had I gotten myself into?

Fortunately, our luck seemed to be coming around and in an attempt to make up time, we arranged for horses to meet us a few kilometers from the summit for our return trip. We now found ourselves on horseback, riding down the slick mud trail toward the village where we’d left our tent and supplies. Foolishly or chivalrously, as we made our way off the peak a light rain started and I offered my coat to Moulalay and for the hour after summiting, we were friends. The pictures, hugs and high-fives at the peak created a rare bond. Moulalay was a guard at the hydroelectric dam who I’d hired to guide me up the mountain. He had come recommended by the dam manager, but from the outset our relationship was in a state of flux. I knew I couldn’t do the trip without him, but I also had very little patience for certain lapses in his character. My concerns came early; for a five-day trip into the mountains, all he brought were the clothes on his back and a Kalashnikov. He promised he’d lead us to the top of the mountain, but it became clear hours into the trip that, beyond the immediate surroundings of the dam, he was more disoriented than I was. This didn’t bode well for a 100km hike with 3,000m elevation gain, with temperatures ranging from just above freezing at night in the alpine, to above 40° through the day at the trailhead. Luckily Moulalay could charm, and what got us up the mountain was his resourcefulness in leveraging people along the way. Almost every day of our trip he would convince another traveller along the trail to lead us to the next community. Furthermore, he’d borrow blankets, jackets and coats from these fellow travellers to keep his small, boney lowland self from freezing.

It was a cold, wet and miserable ride, but I wasn’t complaining as long as we were moving. Then, we stopped. Moulalay came alongside the horse-owner, who was guiding us, and brought us to a halt. 

The habit of Moulalay’s interruptions was irksome. On two occasions in the days prior to our summitting, seemingly out of the blue he decided the trip was too long and refused to walk any further. He would become morose and, with his eyes more than his words, express how upset he was. I’d talk through the trip, what was agreed upon when we first met at the dam, and how important it was for us to reach the top. Then we’d renegotiate his daily rate, and after 15 minutes we would be on our way again, his mood back to its jovial self. 

An evening descent from the summit didn’t seem like the time for these antics. Moulalay was now off his horse, gathering the borrowed possessions he’d accumulated on our trip. He looked furious and ended his discussion with the horse-owner. I didn’t hear what was said, but it didn’t look good. Slipping along the trailside in my oversized raincoat, Moulalay precariously made his way over to me and directed me off the horse. He demanded we pay the horse-owner now, but only a fraction of the agreed rate as we’d only gone a fraction of the distance. It was dark, our headlamps were dim after hiking into the night the two previous days and the trail was a mud bath. There was easily another four hours of hiking to our tent, and Moulalay had just thrown away our plan to ride. He wasn’t a reasonable man, so second guessing him wouldn’t have helped. How did I end up with such an erratic individual as my lifeline?

Last year I left the rugged unpredictability of Ethiopia for the staider surroundings of Brooklyn. I joke they’re the same in their love for coffee, but that’s where similarities begin and end. I still work for charity: water, the organization I worked for during my last two years in Ethiopia. In New York, my job is more donor facing, but my day-to-day work is the same. It’s hard for people to imagine this until they realize how much of my work is done behind a computer. Don’t be fooled by my Instagram posts, most of my time working in development in Ethiopia was spent sitting in offices in cities.

charity: water, like many development organizations, is designed to work through partnerships. We specialize in fundraising and advocacy for access to clean water, a right yet to be realized by nearly half of Ethiopia’s 100 million people. We work to connect and provide money to organizations, based in developing countries with low clean water access, to dig wells and sewers, and other things people in Brooklyn take for granted. Working with local organizations based in-country has many benefits, some which are good for the targeted country, like job creation, and others good for our programs, like better understanding of the real local needs. My work at charity: water focuses on finding the best water organizations in countries like Ethiopia for charity: water to partner with, and then working with them to improve their development. This involves a lot of desk work reviewing reports, budgets and work plans. Working through local organizations makes the typical expat development job less outwardly exciting, though my hands might not be as dirty as they’d be otherwise, I still find the work to be fulfilling knowing the benefits of this approach.

Moulalay clearly found his job of leading a foreigner up and down an unfamiliar mountain stressful. His English was not very good, and my Amharic was worse. Each day we started walking as soon as it was light and didn’t stop until well into the night. His job at the dam mostly involved surviving the lowland heat by sitting in the shade, chatting with other guards and breaking for tea. As the one who dreamed up this backside mountain adventure, the burden of responsibility affected my judgement as well. It’s safe to say neither of us were performing at our best.

It turns out he thought the horse-owner was a bandit and something that day caused Moulalay to believe that he was planning to lead us off our route and rob us. A scary idea, though I’m not sure how it was supported as there were two of us and Moulalay carried a Kalashnikov, and the horse-owner was a frail old farmer. Inevitably, by the time I heard this the horses were long gone. Though I was tempted to probe more to better understand this fanciful theory, I realized a broken exchange of blended Amharic and English would only result in more frustration and so I decided not to bother. The situation now was equally as bad for Moulalay as for it was for me, and yet he still made the decision to abandon the horses.

 We stumbled and slipped our way down the path for at least an hour. The faint hope of reaching our tent faded every time we were forced to course correct because of a washout. Moulalay started looking for an inviting looking tukul along the trail. Tukuls are traditional rural homes of the Ras Dashen area made with wood and mud walls and tall grass roofs. While planning the trip, I had considered leaving the tent and instead staying with farmers along the trail. I’d stayed in traditional homes before, but decided consecutive nights with long hikes in between would be too much. The homes are stunning, made of locally sourced materials, and finished and assembled in a lasting but seemingly delicate way. Twisted wood make up the houses’ frame, hard packed dirt for the floor and furnishing limited to benches. Tanned animal hides line the benches and grass woven baskets decorate the walls. But this traditional charm also comes with the unpleasantries of drafts, fleas, and trapped smoke from kerosene lighting. With a sleeping bag and bug repellent you can have a peaceful enough sleep. Otherwise, as you can imagine, unless you’ve grown up in a home like this, it’s a restless night.

The need for shelter overrode these concerns by the time Moulalay found us a suitable tukul. I’m not sure Moulalay mentioned he was with a white foreigner as he charmed his way into this home. The family, a husband and wife, their two teenage boys, one daughter of similar age, and another a few years younger, stood in silence dimly lit by the yellow kerosene flame. The silence didn’t last long. Shivering, dripping wet and eager to get fully inside, I gave my most gracious greetings and introduction in Amharic, breaking the family’s silence with laughter. Foreigners speaking Amharic always brings smiles. A small fire of twigs and sticks was lit. Animal skins from the surrounding benches were brought around the fire as mats. Wet clothes were removed and replaced with layered woven cotton blankets. Moulalay and I jockeyed for the best position by the fire, adjusting bodies and blankets to maximize collective warmth. 

Then came the food. The Ethiopian New Year was just three days earlier and reheated leftovers from the celebration now made this nighttime feast. Layered injira, traditional Ethiopian flat bread, topped with lentil and meat stews. The warmth and food brought our moods full circle. Moulalay was again a good friend as we recounted highlights of the day summiting Ras Dashen. The family joined in too.

They liked listening to Moulalay’s animated stories of our recent adventure. As they became more comfortable with us they started asking more questions, about where we were from, our families, and for me, the differences and similarities between Ethiopia and my home country. Our conversations carried on over the warm and delicious coffee the mother prepared by roasting beans on our little fire.

It was a cold restless sleep, but at least we were dry. The next morning I didn’t bother to count the bug bites. Clouds cleared as the newly risen sun brought a light mist to the green pastures surrounding our tukul. In still-damp clothes but with renewed spirits, we said goodbye to our gracious hosts and returned to the trail to finish the last leg of our journey together.

In the months following the trip, Moulalay would call me. The calls were short and endearing. He’d tell me about things back at the dam, I’d tell him about things in Addis, and we’d both talk about how we missed the trip. One day a relative of his was passing through Addis, and Moulalay called to ask if I would print the photos from our trip for him to collect. A couple of weeks later Moulalay called to tell me how happy he was to have these keepsakes of our adventure. I printed some of the photos for myself and to this day the photo of our host family outside of their tukul is on my desk in New York. When the annoyances of budgets, reports and deadlines pile up, the photo is an important reminder of the satisfying part of my job; the human part. Up in the remote highlands of Ethiopia are some very poor but very generous people, and it’s a joy to think my work goes towards supporting people like them.

Brentwood Logo
Play Youtube
Raise/Lower Content Zoom
load image