Where the Wild Things Are (hint: they’re all under 5’2″ and living in Ethiopia)

Girl running uphill to demand money when I stopped to take a photo

I procrastinated writing this post for so long because it is so difficult to put into words just how unique our experience with the youth in Ethiopia was. We passed thousands and thousands of feral, yet passionate youth each and every day. They greeted us with the biggest smiles imaginable, chased us into the bushes, fought over our garbage, treated us like rock stars, demanded to have the shoes off our feet, sprinted across fields just to say hi, attacked me with sticks, stole everything from our cameras to our outhouse to our bike shoes, surrounded us at every campsite and coke stop, and mimicked my every move.

We first refused to give these kids our empty water bottle but after much harassment, my friend was so annoyed that she threw the bottle across the street, which only triggered a full-blown war.

Interacting with the children, like cycling through the country, was uplifting or draining depending on the attitude I took. One day the kids would be great, the next they were too much to bear. We resorted to screaming and shouting, to chasing them through fields (and even into their homes), some riders even retaliated with violence.

In the morning, I usually had enough energy to wave and greet every kid I passed. The afternoon was another story altogether. By then, I’d already greeted a gajillion kids (as enthusiastically as is humanly possible) and cycled uphill for 6 hours in intense heat with flies swarming around my head, so the last thing I wanted to do was lift my sweaty head, let alone open my mouth to say hi or pick up my pace to prevent the kids from grabbing my stuff. Ugh. I could go on and on about this but anyway, to illustrate how draining and infuriating these wild ones could be, at our Ethiopian camps I overheard such statements (from well-traveled and normally patient riders) as:

“In Sudan, a kid touches my bike and I say ‘hey take it for a ride!’ Here, they touch my back wheel and I want to kick their fucking faces in.”

“It’s a good thing we don’t have access to internet because I would really enjoy watching videos of Ethiopian children getting tortured right now.”

I know this sounds so outrageous, after all we’re talking about children, but I can’t emphasize enough how challenging it was to control our emotions and reactions when we were exhausted, and telling the 5632nd kid of the day that no, we will not give them money.

5631st and 5632nd kids asking us for money

So why can the youth in Ethiopia be so violent and demanding? This is what I think…

Sticks and Stones
Every child in rural Ethiopia carries a stick or stone, theoretically to herd their cattle. To complicate matters, adults also use anything at their disposal (canes, branches, shoes) to whip, kick or hit the kids in an effort to control them. Furthermore, every kid in Ethiopia loves to get the attention of passing “feranges” (foreigners). It logically follows that said kids will mimic their elders and use said instruments to get our attention.

Crowd control

I found the best way to deal with these attacks was to understand this thought process, be very very friendly and if all else failed, to ride straight into the children and hope to hell they moved out of the way before I killed them.

youyouyouyouyouyouyouyou

All the kids in town running to surround us at a typical coke stop

20120221-120114.jpg

Money Money Money
Kids in Ethiopia know 5-7 words in English: you, money, where, are, (you) go, and if they’re especially educated, give me. They then repeat each of these words as many times as they can from the time you enter their field of vision until the time you exit it.

Not wanting to see every kid as a rude, greedy little bastard, I tried to keep their demands in perspective by thinking of myself as Santa Claus. “I” come to town once a year on a fancy bike in a weird costume with a bag of goodies attached to the back of my ride. In Canada, kids would demand iPads and xboxes from such a character. In Ethiopia, they demand five cents. Who’s rude and greedy now?

We also liked to play word games with the kids. They yell youyouyou give me moneymoneymoney, we yell happyhappyhappy or mangoavocadobanana or even a rider’s name. Usually, they would repeat and we would feel like we’ve made the country a better place. It was amazing to hear the kids repeat what the faster riders had taught them (and we always knew someone was having a bad day if they kids greeted us in droves with fuck off)

money money money money money money

where are you go where are you go

Olympic Training
It took only about five minutes in this country to understand why Ethiopia is known for its runners. The kids in this country are like really, really f.a.s.t. It was not uncommon to have a toddler (no joke) run uphill beside me (literally) at my pace with barefeet on gravel paths. They seemed to stop only when they bored of me and moved on to another rider, not when they were tired (to my knowledge they never were). This was annoying at first because they would try to grab my stuff or touch me (and of course repeat the same 5-7 words mentioned above), but eventually, I enjoyed the practice and saw myself as a coach preparing them for the 2024 Olympics), demanding they run harder and faster and giving them their speed.

just the fastest little legs on the planet

Positive Thinking
Of course the energy of these wild things was contagious and heart-warming as well. Many welcomed us with song and dance, “I love yous” or giant smiles and frantic waving. Seeing throngs of children running at breakneck speeds across fields, down mountains, and out of homes on an hourly basis just to wave will go down as one of my favourite things about this tour.

There were also several special kids who will stand out in my mind. Some offered to push us uphill on especially tough stretches, some offered the food they were eating, and one, Adam, is the most charismatic and promising boy I will probably ever know (more about him later, I promise).

one of the many pleasant youth of Ethiopia

Adam (middle) with his two younger brothers on his bed/couch

kids getting scolded and chased by riders after throwing rocks

This post is getting long and I’m not even sure it makes sense so let me recap:

As trying as the wild things were, there is no doubt they will be the most memorable and oddly, enjoyable, part of this trip. Thanks to them, I perfected my assertive NO/HEY, climbed hills faster than I thought I could and brought my patience to a whole new level. I worry that they will be a lost generation, with expectations of charity and poor education, but I hope with all my might that their energy and assertiveness will translate into big assets for this developing country.

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