Up in the Afar region of Ethiopia, close to the Eritrean border marks a region labelled as ‘the hottest place on Earth’. The people that live here are mostly nomadic, some friendly, some less so to outsiders. On our journey to the volcanic region of the border, where a certain active volcano could be visited we overnighted in a small market town. It was market day and people from miles around had come to sell their wares. Our small group of four, mostly white Europeans attracted a lot more attention than in less remote parts of Ethiopia – but owing to the new world order in this part of Africa instead of being called ‘Ferengi’, we were called ‘China’. The children though, carefree and curious, paid us the same attention nevertheless.
They had gathered around all of us but right now the children were surrounding Libby. Girls mostly, of a particular tribe. They dressed in long dark skirts right down to their feet and dark tops, blacks and purples. It was their hair though that was the most spectacular. Their black and otherwise tightly curled African hair was braided in fine and delicate braids, finished with a patterned beaded hairband that matched their outfit perfectly.
They stared at Libby in amazement, curious and afraid. She was an enigma to them, the white skin and the blonde hair creeping out from her headscarf. The younger and more brazen ones stood next to her, the others a metre or so away. They giggled and chattered amongst themselves, but continuously looking at Libby: Some staring, some furtively glancing. The girls most afraid observed from behind, staying well back from ‘China’. Noticing how fascinated the girls were of her hair, she giggled along with them and suddenly whipped off her scarf and shook her wild (and matted) blonde hair exclaiming between giggles “This is blond hair!” One girl, eleven or twelve years of age and one of the most curious leapt into the air in fright and hid behind one of her friends clutching in her dress with white knuckles. I have rarely seen such fear in someone’s eyes as I had seen in hers. Yet she continued to stare, through wide eyes of terror. How alien it must be to see such white, white sin and such blonde blonde hair. What were they thinking? What stories had they been told about the ferengi (foreigners)? What are they afraid off? Not sharing a common language we could not know. It was times like this that I wonder whether we were the tourists or the attraction.
The girl now stayed on the fringes of the group, safely behind her friends and relatives. Soon though, a group of elder boys evidently of the same tribes, teenagers, their hair also braided, walked past us, they berated the girls for communicating with us, the foreigners, talking to them and holding their hands and ushered them on their way. Our entourage came to an abrupt end.