Backyard Chickens, Ethiopian Style

A wonderful guest post from my husband Tom:

In May I left Lyanda and Claire and our new little chicks for a three week trip to Africa for work. A few days later (isn’t jet travel amazing?!) I found myself in a small stone-built compound in Mekele, Ethiopia, where Julia, the photographer I was traveling with, was documenting a peer-outreach worker’s weekly visit to an HIV-positive client.  The room where the client lived was very small, just enough space for a bed and a small stove to cook on, so I slipped into the courtyard to give them some space and to wait.

speckchicksmAs I sat in the sun, two things caught my attention. There were half a dozen chickens roaming around, including this speckled gal of an unfamiliar breed, scratching and pecking in the dirt just next to me.  Handsome chicken! But even more compelling was the face of this older woman who had stepped out her door and was watching the commotion: white foreigners swinging expensive photo gear and taking photo after photo, the woman photographing her neighbor, and the man photographing her chickens! I took this snapshot of the scene, and began hoping I might find a way to take her portrait.

chickenssmBiding my time, I noticed a small set of eggshells pressed into a little circle of earth above the door of her storage room. This was a keen anthropological observation, I decided; surely I’d found some ancient Ethiopian cultural practice, richly imbued with nature-magic and the potent symbolism of eggs and new life. If I could, I’d get the old woman to explain it, and thereby gain a deeper understanding of local Tigray cultural traditions.

chickenssm-0618-2As the photo shoot finished, I asked our translator to introduce me to the old woman. “Tell her I have chickens at home too,” I instructed, hoping our mutual fondness for poultry might open a door to asking more challenging questions about the folk traditions of local animal husbandry.

We shared a smile about our chickens-in-common. “And why are there eggshells above the door?” I asked, pointing across the courtyard. “What do they symbolize?” Her eyes followed my pointing finger, there was a rapid exchange in Tigrinya, and the old woman laughed, walked across the courtyard, talking all the way, and promptly reached up, pulled down the shells, and began crushing them between her fingers.

chickenssm-2“What is she doing?!” I asked our translator with mild alarm, the Tigrinya speakers having forgotten that I no idea what was being said.

“They’re just eggs,” he replied, chuckling to himself as he negotiated the gulf between an inquisitive American guest with a chicken obsession and an old woman whose home we had invaded with Nikons and impertinent questions. I pressed him, “What do you mean?” as the old woman tossed the eggshells into a corner. They exchanged a few more words, and the symbolism of the eggs was revealed to be merely personal, not deeply cultural. When the chicks had been born, the old woman had stuck their eggshells above the door, in a small gesture of celebration. That was all.

The ice broken, I asked to take her portrait, and took what is one of my favorite images from the whole trip, with a bemused smile and an intriguing set of traditional tattoos. (See high-resolution versions of all these images, and a photo of the outside of the house, here).chixlady500

As my colleagues said their thank yous and slipped out of the courtyard, I turned and took one last wide-angle shot of the scene. I hadn’t learned any secret Tigray chicken traditions, but I’d met a wonderful old Ethiopian woman, who was clearly fond of her brood.chickenssm-4

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