Neil Shea

writer | photographer | story consultant

Absolute Power

Dispatches from Ethiopia :: March 2009

The king sits just inside the door of the large, mud hut on a white plastic bag that once held grain and bears the fading seal of the U.S. Agency for International Development. It is an unlikely throne, donated by a people who do not know his highness exists, who certainly have not heard of his power to control the elements, the animals, even the reach of death. He taps snuff from a plastic bottle. His hair, slick with butter and brilliant paints of crushed minerals, is perfect.

“If there is a problem, with cattle, people, the land, I resolve it,” the king says. He inhales the snuff. “Everything is under me.”

It is a matter of fact. In his face, a rare and complete confidence.

“If there is a problem in my kingdom,” he says, “The solution is me.”

From his hut high in the Buska Mountains in Southern Ethiopia, King Wangala Bankimaro rules over 35,000 members of the Hamar tribe. The Hamar are mostly pastoralists, herding cattle and goats across a broad territory of bushland not far from the border of Kenya. They also work small fields of grains including sorghum and maize. In an environment that is not generous or forgiving, the Hamar have managed to thrive, growing into one of the region’s largest tribes. For this the Hamar thank the rain, which feeds their cattle and their crops. For the rain they thank Wangala Bankimaro.

The king wears no jewels or robes, possesses no entourage. It is not trumpets that sounded upon his arrival but the splutter of goats and the dumb cries of roosters. Yet his is the purest form of royalty. Unquestioned, omniscient, unbroken. His people believe. They fear and they obey.

For days I had sought out the king, missing him as he walked from the hut of his second wife back to the huts of his first, third, and fourth. As I tracked him, people in villages and along the bad dirt roads filled in pieces of the royal story. Hamar women, their hair rolled into gleaming red-dyed braids, told me the king commanded the respect of even the Ethiopian government, which rules from a distant capital and is trying, slowly, to consolidate its control in these tribal lands. Hamar men, AK-47s looped over their shoulders, told me the king’s curse was feared more than bullets. Bullets can miss or merely wound. The curse, they told me, guarantees death.

One morning at a small village of a half-dozen thatch-roofed huts, a group of elders stood leaning against a fence, telling me how dry the season had been. They were worried about their cattle, which they prize above all else. The elders considered their options. Nearby, children shooed goats from corrals of thorny brush, and women sewed beads into cowhide skirts. Of course, there was really only one thing to do.

“We will bring many gourds of honey to King Wangala, and a sheep,” they said. “We’ll make a sacrifice and ask that he send the rain.”

When I meet King Wangala days later, he is just back from the rain ceremony. It had been a success. Rain will come, he says, shifting his weight on the grain sack. Brass coils wind around his wrists. He wears a t-shirt, white shorts, sandals made from old tires.

I am not sure how to behave; I’ve never met a king before. In the dim, smoky hut, one of the king’s wives boils coffee over a hearth. A child’s chalk drawings dance along the mud walls—wobbly alphabets, a truck, birds, mythically proportioned cattle, strange winged creatures—alive as the ancient cave paintings at Lascaux or Altamira. I ask the king why, if he can summon rain, he had not done it earlier to avoid drought. He looks at me for a few moments in silence. The expression of a man humoring his guest. The answer is obvious.

“Last year, the people did not come to me,” he says. “They did not make sacrifices to ask for rain.”

An error of protocol. The environmental consequences of spiritual negligence.

The king’s power is broad. He settles disputes, murders, love intrigues between rival men. He wields his fearsome curse-power carefully; he would rather not condemn a man to death if he can avoid it. The king never approaches the people to inquire about their needs. They come to him and he instructs them in what they must do to achieve favorable results. In return they plow his fields and deliver gifts of precious cattle. His rule is so complete that the federal government of Ethiopia, with its large army and Western-style democracy, must approach him and win approval for projects that enter his domain or affect his people. When they need him, they send a truck to pick him up, no small thing in this distant place. The king explains that he decides which parts of government programs he will support. If he likes something, he instructs the Hamar to cooperate. If he disapproves, he simply ignores it, and the Hamar continue living much as they have for generations.

Slowly, the government has been extending its influence and its legal code into tribal life. One plan aims to abolish what have been termed “harmful cultural practices”—the ritual whipping of women during certain ceremonies, for example, or female circumcision, which is not done by the Hamar, but by tribes living next door. Recently government officials lobbied King Wangala on a practice called “minge killing.” Minge is a kind of very bad luck; it can manifest in many ways and works beyond the individual, bringing misfortune to the entire society. In southern Ethiopia, many tribes believe children can be harbingers of minge. If they are born deformed, or if their top teeth erupt before their bottom teeth, these are taken as signs, dark omens, and tradition dictates such children be killed before their minge spreads. Parents do not necessarily want to obey, but communal pressure is strong, the threat of minge serious. Usually the child is abandoned in the bush; sometimes its mouth is filled with dirt. In the worst cases, the child is thrown into the river.

Not long ago, the king decided to support the government plan to stop the practice.

“Now there will be no more minge killing among the Hamar,” he says. “I have made it so.”

He says it without arrogance. Tradition, magic, fear, wiped away. Discarded like clothes that no longer fit.

The solution is me.

Wangala taps his snuff bottle. Once it held moisture lotion. I wonder what this monarch would do about the world’s financial meltdown, if he knew about it. If it mattered to him. But that world, with all its power and wealth, seems inconsequential as a cloud that holds no rain. The king remains seated on his throne, shaking our hands as we depart.

The road down from the king’s windy ridge is an obstacle course of rock and cattle. On the steep, dry hillsides, stone terraces, built with government help, attempt to prevent the thin soil from washing away when the rains do come. Beside a barren field, two girls approach the truck. They are teenaged sisters, one round and healthy, the other bone-thin and unsteady, draped in a thin blanket. They ask for a lift to the health clinic in town. The healthy girl helps her sister into the truck. Her face is a mask of pain. She points to her abdomen, her head.

Everything hurts, my entire body, she says.

Our guide looks her over and guesses at the problem: complications from an abortion. A mile later a young government teacher climbs in. He recognizes the girl, confirms the diagnosis. An abortion done the traditional way, by pressing a hand into the mother’s belly, crushing the baby in the womb. A common practice not affected by the king’s decree.

“Went badly,” the teacher says, shrugging.

The trip is jarring, the girls silent. In town, the healthy sister helps her miserable sibling from the truck. The girl sways, loses her balance. She sits on the truck floor and gingerly extends her feet to the ground. Then she stands and and the pair walks slowly away through the dust.

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