During my LDS Mission to Belgium and France, I fell in love with all things medieval; I particularly wondered about the living conditions of ordinary peasants. As a result, as an undergraduate at BYU, I majored in history with a strong emphasis in medieval history.
As part of my studies (something like a senior thesis), I did a nutritional analysis of a hypothetical medieval peasant diet. I speculated on what nutritional diseases might have been a problem. One of the ways I did my analyses was by looking at the diets of a then present-day area–mid-20th-century rural Turkey–that probably had a diet similar to that of medieval times. My father had participated in a nutritional study of Turkish soldiers in the 1950s, so I had access to excellent dietary information.
The idea of studying the past by looking at the present, for all its pitfalls, continues to intrigue me. For this reason, on my recent trip to Ethiopia, I signed up for a 3-day trek through the highlands of northern Ethiopia (2,800 meters ASL). I wanted to get a better feel for what it was like to live in the Middle Ages. (I also needed the exercise.)
The trek started at noon with lunch at an open air tukul, a traditional circular Ethiopian abode or structure. From there the guide and I walked 12 kilometers through Ethiopian farmlands and up and down rocky farm lanes. Accompanying us was a small donkey and 2 handlers. The donkey was there to carry my small bag. According to my guide, this was a light load (an easy gig) for the donkey which usually carried much heavier loads.
The tukul farms and villages were very picturesque, but very primitive. It was grain-harvesting time, and the “threshing machine” of choice is 4 or 5 cows/bulls/steers tied together and walking in a circle. (The same cattle are used to plow the fields.) At one point we were besieged by dust devils. As one of the devils blew itself out, it managed to shower us with straw.
We spent the night in a traveler’s village that was manned by villagers from a nearby community. They had formed a cooperative so they could profit from eco-trekking hikers like myself. The village is almost surrounded by cliffs, so I had a wonderful view in almost every direction of the lowlands below. It is an idyllic site; but not a good one for sleep walkers.
I was assigned my own tukul which provided a very pleasant place to read and sleep, mostly the latter. Unfortunately, I was nearing the end of my African adventure, and was physically and mentally exhausted. I slept from 5 pm until 7 am the next morning; thereby missing dinner. While I missed the sunset, the sunrise the next morning was beautiful. I watched part of it from the latrine, which was missing the upper part of its door.
That morning during breakfast, I was informed that one of the first trekkers to stay in this traveler’s village was Brad Pitt. As I was rolling my eyes, they brought out the guest register, and sure enough there was Brad’s name. (I’ve since been assured that: Yes, Brad was in fact there.)
Our second-day hike was 20 kilometers. In addition to my pack, a solar panel and battery-powered lantern were tied to the donkey. I needed to charge the lantern’s battery. During the morning we continued to hike through primitive, but rustic, farms and across dry pastures. There were rocks everywhere. Even though the fields had been partially cleared of rocks, they were still rocky. I will always remember the rocks: rocky fields, rock fences, rocky farm lanes, rock barriers to help stop erosion, and tukuls constructed out of rock. Most of the pasture lands were overgrazed, resulting in some fairly serious examples of erosion. These subsistence farms must provide a tough existence. They have no line power and have to haul their water from centrally-located bore holes.
For lunch we stopped at another open-air tukul. This structure was also beautifully sited on the edge of a cliff. My guide indicated that during the wet season, you could see several waterfalls nearby. Unfortunately, I was there during the dry season.
The afternoon was largely uneventful. Just easy hiking and frequent rests. It gave me a chance to consider what life must have been like for peasants during the Middle Ages. It seemed unlikely that much had changed over the last 1,000 years on this Ethiopian highland.
That night, we stayed at another traveler’s village located on the edge of a cliff. I rested and read for a while, and then we had dinner. The two women who served us were both in their early 20s. Even though it is technically illegal, in rural Ethiopia it is still common practice to have prearranged marriages and for women to marry young. I asked the two women at what age they married. One said 14 and the other 15. I asked them if it was a good idea to marry so young? They both replied “NO”!
The next morning was supposed to be a short hike. But it was extended because our pickup vehicle broke down and we had to find our own way home. The guide rented a vehicle at a nearby town, and it was off to Lalibela. The next day, I started my plane trips back to Utah.