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A Wheelchair in Ethiopia

Just before the wooden poles arrived, I had one of those moments when you realise that things are so NOT in control that there’s no point in worrying any more. 

Pic by Ingrid Vekemans

We were in northern Ethiopia, attempting to get to the legendary Blue Nile Falls, which were first ‘discovered’ by Scottish explorer James Bruce in 1770 and are still so far off the tourist trail that they’re practically not on any trail – certainly not any trail navigable by wheelchair.

Since leaving the lakeside town of Bahar Dar at sunrise, our mode of transport had been whittled down from an old diesel Land Cruiser to a boat, and now finally to boots and wheels.  To say ‘wheels’ is an exaggeration – we had abandoned the four-wheel-drive at the edge of the Nile and in the next hour I probably rolled less than ten metres.  The rest of the time was spent with up to ten people, lifting, levering and lowering me into the riverboat, and then after we crossed the Cairo-bound water they manhandled me in similar fashion onto the opposite shore.  And that’s when we hit the trail.  Surrounded by towering termite mounds, spiky acacia thorns, boulders and ditches, it looked as if we were going no further.


Pic by Ingrid Vekemans

Africans, however, have a tremendous capacity for improvisation, whether it’s fashioning shoes from old car tyres or building insulated houses from coca-cola tins and mud.  If someone is too ill to walk to hospital, they get carried – usually shoulder high – in a chair.  Therefore I shouldn’t have been surprised when after a debate in Amharinga, four men suddenly seized my chair and assuming I was aware of the next move, they threw me skywards onto their shoulders.  If my throat hadn’t closed up through shock, I’d have screamed.  As it was, only the last squeak escaped, and I realised in amazement that I was still upright!  Upright maybe, but far from relaxed.  I was lurching forward over rocks and bushes with the posture and gait of a first-time horse rider.


That was the moment I gave up worrying.


We managed about fifty metres like this before it was decided that refinements to the system were required.  A young girl was sent racing to the nearest village for poles and within twenty minutes I was aloft again, with the wheels removed and my chair balanced on two strong lengths of eucalyptus. We were going unnervingly fast over the rough ground, and the whole experience was made even more unsettling by the silence of the contraption.  Only the creaking of the poles and the excited chatter of birds around me could be heard above the arguing of my ‘bearers’ about the best route to follow.  Despite the niggling feeling that it was a bit colonial to be lording around Africa on people’s shoulders, I actually began to enjoy my new perspective on life, ten feet up!


Pic by Ingrid Vekemans

This ability of Africans to ‘just get on with it’ pervaded our holiday.  Unlike Europe for example, there are no aisle chairs in Ethiopian airports to take wheelchair users into the aeroplane.  This task falls to whoever happens to be around at the time.  In Arba Minch I just had to wait until Solomon had finished fuelling the twin-engined plane, then he and the co-pilot were quite delighted to carry me to my seat.  In Gondar my trousers slid alarmingly down during my undignified extrication from the fuselage, much to the horror of the missionary couple from Denmark who were waiting patiently – bibles in hand – on the tarmac.  Travelling by road was equally treacherous.  Four-wheel-drives are essential for Ethiopia, and their extra height meant that I had to be lifted in and out of the car, normally with crowds of bemused and sometimes amused onlookers, and therefore no hope of privacy should my bare backside have become exposed!


As we approached the falls, the calls of forest birds were gradually being drowned by the thunderous sound of ‘Tis Abay’, meaning ‘Smoke of the Nile’. 

Pic by Ingrid Vekemans

Here the water plummets a hundred and fifty feet over a precipice before relaxing back into a meander towards Khartoum on its five thousand mile journey north through the Sahara to the Mediterranean.  It is a stunning sight.   A permanent rainbow is created in the billowing clouds of spray, and tropical plants thrive in the lush microclimate.  Deafened and drenched I sat at the foot of the falls, with my poles propped on rocks.  The only other tourist there, an Ethiopian, came over and shook my hand furiously, grinning with droplets of Nile water running down his face.


‘I’m happy…’ he shouted above the noise, ‘that you want to visit my country.’


He asked why I could not walk and I explained that I had dived into shallow water and broken my neck.  He screwed his face in agony as if he had just done the same.


Pic by Ingrid Vekemans

‘Ooooooh, I’m sorry.’ He shook his head in sympathy, and then asked, ‘But when will you get better?’


I told him that there is no cure for spinal injury yet and he winced again, this time with more feeling as if this was the fatal blow, and he shook his head once more in resignation.


His reaction was typical.  Of course, Africa has more than it’s fair share of wheelchair users (or those who would use a wheelchair if one were available), but when disability affects a farangi (white man) it is unbelievable.  How can it be that there’s still something incurable to Western medicine?  There is never a shortage of sympathy, usually closely followed by offers of help and advice.  Often, prayers will be promised to whichever is the preferred deity, and sometimes witchdoctors and their mystical powers are suggested.  Now, I’m not completely disbelieving – partially from a fear of what might befall me if I were to scorn these suggestions – but I’d first need to see proof of the African Lourdes before allowing any sacrifices to be made on my behalf!


Pic by Ingrid Vekemans

Dripping wet, we finally emerged from the foot of the falls and climbed the escarpment to be immediately treated to some musical entertainment by a local duet – I took them to be brother and sister.  He was playing a massinko, a violin like instrument, which despite having only one string is surprisingly tuneful.  She was dancing ‘eskesta’ and if I hadn’t been blessed with the rhythm of a cold mince pie then I could have danced with her, as eskesta dancing involves mainly the head and shoulders in a jerking and vibrating movement designed to tantalise and seduce.   Ethiopia is a bit like that.  Not only is it a country of incredible natural beauty and unsurpassed hospitality, but one bursting with culture and desperate to be seen.

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