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A group of kids, Ethiopia / Photo Dave Bouskill

Meeting children on the road is one of the joys of travel… unless they have an unusually painful way of showing their affection.

“You, You, You, give me money, give me money.”

After cycling through the East African Nation of Ethiopia, these phrases will forever be ingrained in my brain.

Brought to the Worlds attention through Live Aid in the 1980’s, Ethiopia is largely remembered in the West for its drought and famine.

There is no way to prepare for the thousands of children that will use you for target practice as you make your way down the country.

Today it is a lush and vibrant country filled with lakes, jungles and mountainous vistas cutting through the Rift Valley. The Nile runs south to its source at Lake Tana and it houses the incredibly beautiful Blue Nile Gorge.

It is exactly these features that make it one of the most difficult countries in Africa to cycle through.

The roads are rocky and sometimes non-existent, the mountain climbs are treacherous and the extreme heat and altitude can take its toll on anyone. It is a serious challenge, but with enough training and preparation, one can handle the elements.

There is no way however, to prepare for the thousands of children that will use you for target practice as you make your way down the country.

Terms of Endearment

Biking hard, avoiding rocks / Photo Dave Bouskill

Throughout my 23 days in Ethiopia, I was whipped with a bullwhip, slashed at with a machete, had gravel thrown in my face, and rocks of various sizes hurled at me from all directions.

Maybe it was a term of endearment. Maybe it was their way of saying I like you… the way a little boy pulls a girl’s hair to show he has a crush on her.

Whatever it was, there was no escaping their wrath, no reasoning with the little boys who were up to no good – and no way of knowing when the next pack was going to strike.

But how can you blame them – they must have thought we were nuts. In Ethiopia, bikes are ridden for necessity and work. It gets them from point A to point B.

“Why are these crazy foreigners torturing themselves riding through unbearable heat and climbing insane mountains dressed in their silly spandex and bike helmets?”

I had to admire the kids’ talent and perfect aim. They could make a rock zip through the air with great distance and precision. Forget going to the Dominican Republic or Japan. Major League Baseball scouts need to go to Ethiopia for their next draft season.

There is a star pitcher in every village we passed through.

Craving Relief

Ethiopia’s mountains can reach over 4000 meters in altitude. For hours on end, I struggled at a mere 6km per hour up steep inclines.

The dreaded staff / Photo Dave Bouskill

Children would run beside me, never seeming to tire. I was frustrated, but even more embarrassed. Here I was on a high tech machine and these kids could run backwards faster than I could turn my pedals.

I craved silence to wallow alone in my misery, but instead the group of children yelled their infamous chant. “You, you, you, give me money, give me money.” They grabbed at my pack, pulled on my wheel and tried to hop on for a ride.

They slapped my butt numerous times before I realized it was their way of figuring out the material of my cycling shorts.

Even finishing a climb couldn’t bring relief.

In Ethiopia, the descents are more punishing than the climb itself. The rough roads would shake my body like a jackhammer… and always, I had to be on guard for more children.

It seemed that every child carried a staff to control their herds of cattle. They didn’t hesitate to try to stick their weapon of choice through the spokes of my tires.

Little girls would jump out in front of me as I careened in at top speed, forcing me to swerve wildly to avoid a collision. They didn’t understand the danger that they were putting themselves in. They would just laugh and run away.

Friendship In Many Forms

With great relief I made it to the Kenyan border in one piece. I can’t say that I will miss cycling in Ethiopia, but I would like to go back and travel it by local transport and stay in the villages.

I would stop and take the time to get to know the people better. Racing through on a bicycle didn’t give me a chance to really connect with anyone. I was too busy trying to make it to camp before the sun went down.

I never did figure out why the children would throw rocks at us.

Maybe they wanted us to stop and say hello…or maybe they were just bored. Maybe they wanted to be a part of what we were doing.

I just wish their friendship wasn’t so painful.

Have you had painful, or unsusual, experiences with local children? Share your stories in the comments!

Culture + Religion

 

About The Author

Debra Corbeil

Deb Corbeil has hiked, biked, climbed and trekked her way through 5 continents. In 2008, she was Women's Champion of the Tour d'Afrique and her experience in the worlds longest cycling race was published in a series for the Toronto Star and followed by people around the world on her blog.

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  • http://matadorabroad.com Tim Patterson

    Amazing post – at once sad and inspiring. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to cycle across Ethiopia, but you gave me an idea.

  • http://www.ianmack.com Ian MacKenzie

    On the one hand, I want to hear more about the psychology of the children, how their actions are the result of their environment, hardships, poverty, etc…

    but on the other hand, maybe it’s all just face value. Maybe the kids just like chucking rocks at foreigners on bikes :-D

  • http://wayworded.blogspot.com/ Hal

    Damn…I cycled for 3 months across SE Asia and encountered some pretty strange reactions, but yours seem to have been about x10!

    I also remember local kids that left me and my Trek 520 in the dust of their 100-year-old rusted one-speeds. :)

    Cycling East Africa sounds like a trip–might have to give it a try one day. Thanks for the report!

    • http://theplanetd.com/ Dave and Deb

      Haha, I also remember kids cycling on their old bikes leaving us in the dust. They were fast and they loved racing with us. Big smiles on their faces as they left us behind and everyone on the side of the road laughed and laughed. Crazy.
      Definitely give Africa a try, if you can survive cycling Asia, you can survive East Africa.

  • http://www.ianmack.com Ian MacKenzie

    Just out of curiousity, did anyone else get the title reference to Van Morrison? I thought it was pretty clever…

    • http://wayworded.blogspot.com/ Hal

      Yup, great song.

  • http://www.truequanimity.com/ Christine Garvin

    This reminds me of a night spent in the border town of Tunduma, Tanzania. We were waiting for the bus to leave the next day, sitting with a man who had found us a hotel* the night before, and these curious kids starting walking up to us. I had an eyebrow ring at the time, and they started pointing and chuckling at it. Finally, a brave child reached his hand out and touched it gingerly, and I smiled. So then he started pulling on it. Then all the kids tried to have a go and started screaming stuff. In his broken English, the man told us to get our asses on the bus as fast as we could. Needless to say, we complied.

    And yes, Ian, that song has been in my head all damn day now…

    *brothel

    • http://theplanetd.com/ Dave and Deb

      Those situations can get scary. A nice innocent moment gone bad. Been there before, good thing a bus was coming.

  • http://nonotfar.blogspot.com/ Troy

    While it in no way excuses their behaviour, it might be able to be explained. As you wheel through, these people see a bike that costs more than their family will see in a year. Rightly or wrongly they assume you can afford to buy them lunch. They see themselves as working a toll road of sorts, and if you want to pass…well a few Birr (Ethiopian currency) please. Rightly or better said, wrongly, if you don’t cough up…well, a less than gentle reminder.

    A diplomat working in Ethiopia bluntly tried to explain the country to me once. Before the 80′s…the country had a population of around 20 million. This would fluctuate with the unreliability of the monsoons. Along comes the terrible drought in the 80′s that is accompanied by BBC cameras and the world gets the horrific images that turned into Live Aid.

    The country was then flooded with food, money and medicine…but little training and even less infrastructure.

    What do you get?

    A population boom.

    Now you have a population of 75 million living in a land that could support 20 at the best of times. Combine that with a negative cycle where traditional displays of wealth, cows, also multiply and eat those mountains bare, leaving nothing to hold onto the top soil which washes towards the sea when the rains do decide to show. Add to that a completely unnecessary war with Eritrea (common sight in Ethiopia, F-15 buzzing overhead as papyrus boats ply lakes) and you get a marvelous recipe for disaster, a handout state.

    And those handouts came in the form of tolls on your trip.

    Not very PC I’m afraid, but a possible explanation.

  • http://www.theplanetd.com Dave and Deb

    Well said Troy. I didn’t realize that their was such a population boom. A growth of 55 million people in a couple of decades is insane. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t have the same experiences in other struggling countries like Malawi and Sudan. Now reading your post…all of your points combined together explain a lot.

  • http://nonotfar.blogspot.com/ Troy

    Take those figures with more than a health pinch of salt. They were said over several jugs of Tej (honey wine) and then ‘remembered’ the day after. That said, I do clearly remember the diplomat getting the 3rd degree from a few other travelers that were there…didn’t like his frankness I suppose.

    The point being that it has become a handout nation, whether of its own doing or not.

    I have had similar rock throwing incidents happen to me in villages just across the water in Yemen, but that was generally in ‘tourist’ villages that were angered if you just walked through their village, took your photos and didn’t leave anything behind.

  • http://theplanetd.com/ Dave and Deb

    Thanks for all the comments and sharing your experiences. Cheers!

  • http://www.mikesryukyugallery.com Ryukyu Mike

    An awesome story and interesting follow-on comments.

  • http://nodebtworldtravel.com brian from nodebtworldtravel.com

    I’m glad I didn’t bike when I went to Ethiopia. But the fact that you stood out and they feel that anyone that can afford to visit can afford to give them money is a sad state of affairs. Beautiful country and so much more than I expected.

    Just glad I missed the stoning part…

    • http://www.theplanetd.com Dave and Deb

      I would like to go back and travel through it. We never made it to Lalibela, so we have an excuse to go back. I think it has something to do with being on a bicycle because on rest days we didn’t have a problem at all.

  • http://www.keepingpaceinjapan.com Turner Wright

    The runner will always overtake the cyclist on the uphill. Sorry the runners had to be throwing stones in this case, though.

  • http://www.theplanetd.com Dave and Deb

    Ooh, I feel better about that. Thanks

  • Michael

    Great I was trying to convince my girlfriend to cycle with me through Ethiopia, now if she sees this, and my response, my attempt is sunk. Can you suggest any other interesting African countries to cycle through that might be less of a hassle.

    Thanks, Michael

  • http://www.theplanetd.com Dave and Deb

    Hi Michael,
    I think that you are safe to take your girlfriend to Ethiopia. We were taking part in a race and there were a lot of people cycling through at the same time. I think that if it is just you and your girlfriend taking your time going through the country, you will be fine. I think that they were overly excited when groups of people made their way through. It is such a beautiful country. But be warned, I have heard of independent cyclists having rocks thrown at them as well.
    Other amazing countries to cycle were…Sudan. They were extremely friendly.
    Tanzania-It had great roads and friendly people. Botswana was nice and flat and you ride straight through Chobe National Park. Zambia was amazingly beautiful. Namibia was difficult but breathtaking. Difficult terrain in the Kalahari Desert. Egypt had crazy traffic and South Africa was pure heaven with its awesome roads and campsites. Hope this helps!

  • http://wanderproject.com Josh | The Wander Project

    A great piece about a great trip! (well, except for that whole machete thing.) I’ve wanted to take an extended cycling trip for a while now; it’s nice to see that such trips are indeed do-able. I’ll definitely check out your website. Cheers!

  • http://graydonstravels.blogspot.com Graydon Hazenberg

    Just got back from 2 months of cycling in Ethiopia. I’ve cycled in a lot of countries around the world, mostly in Asia, and the emotional annoyance and anger that I felt on a daily basis in Ethiopia was the worst I’ve encountered anywhere, all due to the overwhelming negative encounters with people. Mostly kids, but adults as well.

    To put things in perspective, I rode for a few days with a British couple who had ridden from South Africa to Ethiopia and were heading on to the UK. They had had lots of begging in other countries, particularly in Malawi, but the very first stone thrown at them anywhere in Africa was in Ethiopia. It certainly wasn’t the last one; it was a daily occurence across the country. I don’t know what makes Ethiopia different from all its neighbours, but there is something, and I think it may have a lot to do with excessive amounts of foreign aid.

    However, it also has to do with a culture of complete indifference by the adults towards the behaviour of the kids. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that adults would help deal with out-of-control mobs of kids, unless I specifically asked for help. It didn’t seem that parents and adults thought it at all a bad thing to see an entire village of kids baying for blood and hurling stones at me. If the adults do nothing, the kids feel that they have complete liberty to behave as badly as they want. I had adults watch kids throwing things at me ask me “but why don’t you just give them some money?” Westerners are viewed as ATMs on wheels, rather than human beings, and so the regular rules don’t seem to apply to us.

    It should be pointed out that bicycle tourists aren’t the only victims of these attacks. Ethiopian truck drivers have serious problems with stone-throwing kids, and frequently the driver’s assistant hops out of the truck with a big kid-whacking stick to chase off these mobs. Westerners riding touring motorcycles also have rock-throwing issues. As well, when I went into a store, attracting huge crowds of kids and other rabble, the store owners would frequently chase the crowd off by….throwing stones, or else swinging a stick. I saw a particularly unruly crowd of schoolkids who were harassing us get driven back to school by four teachers who laid into the kids with sticks and whips. I saw lots of kids having rock fights with each other; there’s a real culture of rock throwing in Ethiopia even when there are no foreigners around. I should also say that I found girls just as likely to throw stones as boys.

    I’ve encountered stone-throwing kids elsewhere in the world, in the places everyone complains about: NW Pakistan, Tibet, eastern Turkey. In the above places, however, it never got me down as much as it did in Ethiopia. I don’t know why; perhaps it happened less often, or else the amazing scenery in those places let me forget about it. I think that the other places I mentioned have much less dense populations, so it’s not as non-stop as it can get in grossly overpopulated Ethiopia. One of the toughest things about cycling in Ethiopia is that it’s well nigh impossible to ever be left alone; someone always sees you, no matter where you are, and comes running over with ten of his friends to annoy you and ask you for money, shoes, T-shirts, pens, candy or whatever he or she can think of. Or to chuck a rock.

    I found the only way to keep some sanity and safety was to carry a cane hanging from my handlebars that I could draw quickly and use to threaten any kids who looked like giving me trouble. That reduced, although didn’t eliminate, the problem. Fear is an effective child-management technique. My British friends had another method, with the husband dropping the bike and chasing kids on foot. He caught a couple, and one of the kids was so frightened that he lost control of his anal sphincter and soiled himself spectacularly. Maybe, just maybe, the shame of this might make him think twice before chucking more rocks, but I doubt it.

    Overall, while I found some of the sights in Ethiopia to be unforgettable, I think that Ethiopia may be one of the few countries on earth where a bicycle is not the best way to see the country. I would say that, unless you’re passing through on a trans-Africa adventure, that Ethiopia is not worth the heartache of cycling through. In the words of a Norwegian uber-cyclist I once met: “I wouldn’t wish cycling through Ethiopia on my worst enemy!”

  • Gribbo

    I have lived in South-east Asia for more than 20 years and cycled extensively in many of the countries here. I have only once in all that time had stone thrown at me while I was cycling – from a passing truck in Java with a group of youths in the back. I tried to catch up with the truck to give them a mouthful but it was too fast for me! I know though that if I explained what had happened to any local people around, the youths in the truck would have been in for a hard time.

    It’s sad to hear that Ethiopia is so different. I am just considering the possibility of working in Ethiopia for a while and of course wouldn’t be going there without my bike! So maybe I’ll just have to get the kevlar suit to go with the helmet ;)

    Have a look at this site to see a few of my south-east asia trips: http://www.wikiloc.com/wikiloc/user.do?name=gribbo9999.

  • Elisabeth Waldmann

    Just back from cycling through the Ethiopian highlands I fully agree with Graydon Hazenberg “I think that Ethiopia may be one of the few countries on earth where a bicycle is not the best way to see the country”. It is so a beautiful country and the adults are very friendly, but the hassles with the kids prevented us from enjoying the country.
    Ethiopia was our first country with stone-throwing kids. A smaller annoyance we felt in Marocco and Malawi with begging children. In all other countries we felt a bicycle is the best way to see the country (Madagascar, Namibia, Tanzania and Mozambique in Africa, a lot of countries in the Americas, Asia, whole Europe).

  • http://roomswithgreatviews.com Bill

    I once heard a very compelling (if cynical) explanation for why the teller didn’t like foreign aid that consisted solely of goods – without training, infrastructure, etc. He said that “once upon a time”, when drought or other natural disasters would bring havoc, the population of a place would migrate. Not always welcome news for the neighbors, and still extremely difficult for the participants, but … well, they did it. In today’s world, with more distinct and better guarded borders, and with aid often flowing in from the rest of the world, they stay put…. and they survive. But there’s nothing to do… no work. They can’t find employment, they can’t grow crops. They can, however, have children. So the population grows and grows, all the while getting outside aid, until the world says “enough, we’re tired of giving all this aid and things not getting better.” Meanwhile, things haven’t improved environmentally. So when the aid is cut off, instead of 10 million people starving, it’s 30 million. The aid has actually (according to this theory) made things worse.
    Myself… I don’t know. We obviously can’t stand by and watch the 10 million starve. They usually CAN’T migrate these days. So what do we do? How do we help without making it worse? Beats me.

  • Stevecollinsarts

    I lead The Maternity Worldwide cycle ride every year, along tarmac roads. We generally have few problems cycling with a group, and having Ethiopian people along with us. The children and people are friendly on the whole. 

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