‘Eyes Wide Open’ would be the selling slogan on the side of the box, if indeed chat was ever sold in a box. Of course, it won’t be, given that it’s a mind-altering substance that is illegal in most parts of the world. In Ethiopia, however, it’s pretty much a part of the daily diet – as much a staple as injera, tibs or fuul.
My first encounter with chat was while crossing the border from Sudan to Ethiopia. Our driver sat beside me munching on what seemed to be a bunch of slender spinach leaves, sharing them in generous abundance with the rest of his passengers. ‘How healthy,’ I thought, until I found out that the spinach was not spinach at all and rather a stimulant that makes one high on a few mouthfuls of bitter munching. I quickly shifted from admiration to fearful anticipation of a rather lively and speedy journey.
Since that first hair-raising, nail-biting minibus ride, I have become quite used to chat-chewing environments here in Ethiopia. Young men with chat-stained teeth smile at me on the street; hosts offer it to me as part of friendly hospitality and drivers’ seats are always scattered with the remains of previous bunches.
So what exactly is the great allure of this bitter tasting drug? ‘It keeps me awake’ says one minibus driver; ‘It gives you power,’ a young boy tells me; ‘it will make you feel like you can do anything’ says another. During my time in Ethiopia, I have come to see why such a substance should hold such esteem here.
For one thing, there is simply so much to see and do that sleeping is a waste of time. Indeed, Alan and I got very little sleep as we rushed between Gondor, Aksum, Lalibela, Addis and Jijiga. In Aksum, we spent mornings exploring the ancient tombs of King Kaleb, King Brazen and Gebre Meskel by the light of our headlamps, afternoons wondering through the hidden graveyards of the stelae fields, the playgrounds of Queen Sheba and the churches hiding the Arc of the Covenant, and evenings reading up on the remarkable history of the Aksumite Kingdom. In Gondor, we were taken back in time by ancient castles where the Sons of Solomon fought, the bathes of the emperors and the quiet sanctuaries of monks. With so much to take in and only a few weeks in which to do it, we could have done with the energy of a little chat ourselves.
But it was undoubtedly the lovely Lalibela that made me wish I never had to close my eyes. The product of a dream, this unbelievable town is certainly something to stay awake for. Legend has it that King Lalibela, poisoned by his brother, entered heaven only to be met by God himself who ordered the dead King to return to earth and build a new Jerusalem in Africa. And so it was that between the 12th and 13th centuries, the 12 churches of Lalibela were born and have attracted pilgrims from around Ethiopia ever since.
Wondering through the twists and turns of Lalibela is a majestic experience; the churches cut straight out of the rock are otherworldly, while the dark tunnels that stretch between them emerging into the light (said to represent the contrast between hell and heaven) filled me with awe and reverence. In nooks and crannies, there are skeletons and tombs to explore, hidden rooms in the walls where monks have made their homes, crosses and frescoes and manuscripts to find. At 05h00 in the morning, an eerie holiness is strewn across it all as white-robed monks, pilgrims and priests chant and pray, swinging incense and beating drums. With such wonders before their open eyes, it’s no wonder Ethiopian chat-chewers resist sleep.
But chat-chewing is about more than just staying awake. It’s also about strength, power and endurance. As our fellow passenger on our Moyale to Nairobi bus said, ‘When I chew chat, I get fill of power. I can do the things I couldn’t do before.’ If only Alan and I had known about this gift of chat before we set out on our three-day hike in the Simien Mountains.
For both Alan and I, stories of the magnificent Simiens had lured us long before we began this trip. I had heard of the majesty of these mountains from other travellers, from books and from television. Yet nothing could have prepared me for the majesty of its jagged ledges and soaring cliff faces that dropped down hundreds of meters in waterfalls; or for the rolls of hilly grasslands shimmering golden in the morning sun and the human-like branches of the trees. Nor could it have prepared me for the circling lammergeier and vultures swooping on the winds, the klipspringers and bushbucks peeping shyly from the bushes, and the many troops of geleda baboons grooming, feeding and playing.
On our first day in the Simiens, we hiked a nasty 21 km from Debark to the Sankobar campsite, which left our legs shivering and wobbly. As we cooked our camp food on our little kerosene stove, our bodies sagged and slumped under the fatigue. The second day was kinder to us, with a four-hour walk to the waterfalls and back. But the third day had us murdered as we hiked all the way back to Debark. Alan’s knees moaned and groaned on the descent and he had to limp the last 10 km. It was rather humbling to see people from the mountain villages racing up and down the cliffs with huge baskets on their backs. But then again, they had chat to chew.
The first time I tried chat was in Gondor, during a coffee ceremony with two young men. Despite eating it with peanuts, I found the dark green leaves not to my liking. My pale palette is simply not accustomed to such bitterness. But maybe I spat it out too hastily. After my month in Gondor, Aksum, Lalibela and the beautiful Simiens, I can see why chat-chewing is as necessary a part of daily life here as drinking coffee and weaving cotton. If I lived in this incredible country, I also wouldn’t want to sleep. With such wonder all around, who would ever want to close their eyes?