Where is Ron?
Meeting David Sheen, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Poster for David Sheen's presentation, 2 February 2006
Report from David Sheen, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Saturday 4 February 2006
The seeds that I planted in my first few days in the country have borne fruit. I met with the head of the Architecture and Town Planning Department of the University of Addis Ababa, told and showed him what I do, asked him where in the country I should go to see excellent examples of earthen architecture, and offered to share with the department whatever knowledge I have of earthen architecture in the context of the global North.
This is the tack that I took in Ghana, and it was highly successful, I saw many beautiful buildings, and learned lots. But because I had arrived in the country during the students' exam period, there was no way I could have given a presentation and returned the favour. But this time around, the students just got back to school, after being closed down for months due to anti-government rioting, so I was invited to present to the students, faculty, and local practicing architects.
The cultural attache at the Canadian Embassy was also helpful, putting me in touch with other people doing somewhat similar work in the country. Through these connections, I found out about, and got invited to, a conference on cultural studies being done in the south of the country with pastoral peoples there. My interests lie specifically with pre-pastoral, hunter-gatherer peoples, but I went anyways to learn what I could.
The conference itself was pretty lame -- a bunch of fucking tosser academics who like to hear the sounds of their own voices and spend a lot of grant money on expensive food and alcohol. And the German conference organizer had the audacity to threaten call the cops on me, because instead of a suit, I was wearing a T-shirt, camo pants, and a kaffiyeh round my neck. With absolutely no provocation, the racist fuck called me a terrorist!
Despite the Nazi asshole and the swanky wank session, I actually got some great leads on where to go and what to do next. I met some of the key figures who have been doing real research for decades now, through the university's Department of Anthropology and Institute of Ethiopian Studies. But even they know very little about what I want to know the most about -- where are the last remaining pre-agricultural peoples of East Africa living now?
Immediately after the conference, I presented at the architecture department. And it was an amazing success. About forty people came, and they loved the slideshow and asked lots of great questions. (I've included a couple of photographs from the lecture). The next day, professor Zegeye (standing to my right in the first photo) gave me a crash-course in Ethiopian vernacular architecture, broken down by tribal group and bioregion.
Directy from the lecture, I went out for dinner with a couple of the architecture students -- Melak and Brook, really great guys -- and an American that I'd met at the Mapping Authority Office (the only place in the country one may acquire a map of the country). Turns out, when Ron isn't starting up intentional communities on the East Coast (!), he's bicycling around the world spreading love and light.
Dena, an anthropologist that I met at the conference, put me on to her former thesis advisor Professor James Woodburn, considered to be one of the world's foremost experts on hunting-and-gathering peoples. Her work and his focused on the connections between the delay in return on energy invested to acquire food, and propertarianism and egalitarianism. In other words, anti-civilization anarchist activist anthropology!
Zegeye, Melak, Brook, Ron, Dena... I've met some nice new people, so I'm feeling much better than I did when I wrote my last letter. Thank you, Ian, Lorraine, Ran, Rebecca, Jeff, Imola, Hartley, Dani, Aya, Genevieve, ZoŽ, Chad, Sunjye, and Mom, for your kind words, they helped me get over Celebrity Sin. Now I'm back on track, focused, and I have some tough decisions to make: I have to figure out how I want to spend the next eight weeks in Ethiopia.
Most of the anthropologists I meet are telling me that the information that I came to Ethiopia on the basis of is all wrong: that there are no hunter-gatherers left in Ethiopia; that if there are any at all, they would be in Omo; or Asosa; or Gambella; or Sudan -- everyone's telling me something different. My best bet for hunter-gatherers would be to leave Ethiopia altogether and go to close-by Tanzania, where James Woodburn did his pioneering work.
But part of me really wants to fly over the Red Sea to Yemen, where there are skyscrapers of cob that demand to be documented on film. It would be a real coup to include that in the Revillageing movie, and it would be great to travel with natural plaster pro Julie, who wants to fly in from England and join me there. If I go at all, it makes sense to go now, from Ethiopia -- once I'm in Israel, I won't be able to visit any Arab country except Egypt and Jordan.
On the other hand, I am really impressed with the indigenous architecture of the Dorsei and Sidamo peoples of Ethiopia. They use bamboo not only rectalinearly, as is done in East Asia, but they slice it and weave it into complex boolean shapes, even Kremlin-like onion domes! It takes them about 5 days to build one of these beautiful houses, and then it lasts for about 60 years. This I've got to see for myself... and learn, for us all.
So, the four options you're voting on are: A) Stay in Ethiopia, try to find the lost tribe of is real; B) Fly to Tanzania, try to find hunter-gatherer tribes there, and figure out how they divert envy energy into free love; C) Fly to Yemen, film the 14-storey cob condominiums there; and D) Stay in Ethiopia, learn how to build healthy homes from bamboo, the fastest-growing tree there is. I guess there's also E) Spend two months on Lake Tana, the source of the Nile, and smoke a lot of dope.
There's probably enough time to do 2 out of the 5 options, maybe 3, so feel free to vote for more than 1 options. You can even rank them in order. But please, try to do a better job of voting than Canadians did two weeks ago. I can't help but feel that I left just in the nick of time, before the whole country takes a turn for the worse. Oh, by the way, it's about 25 degrees Celsius in February right now, in all of these different countries that you're supposed to choose from. =)
David Sheen and Professor Zegeye
Architecture students at David Sheen's talk
Last updated: 5 February 2006