Quest to the Ends of the Earth: visiting Sheikh Hussein

It is now the morning of the 16th November. Yesterday leaving Wabe Shebelle, we resumed our positions on the edge of the window and drove for about an hour to Sheikh Hussein, named after a saintly Sheikh, who is thought to have introduced Islam to the Sidamo people. This town is said to be the most important Muslim site in the country and around 50,000 people visit twice a year during the months of Hajj and Rabi’ al-Qulud; one celebration for his birth and one for his death. The village had a ‘quest to the ends of the earth’ feel about it.

We were taken by the villagers to a small hut where we were met by a number of elderly people, including a man with swords, necklaces, dreadlocks, and trinkets hanging down from every available space. Upon seeing us, the glazed expression that came from a morning’s qat-chewing session lifted, and was replaced by a radiant smile. Up he jumped and handshakes and hugs were had all around before offering for us to sit with them and chew qat. We declined and the tour began.

Most of the welcoming committee took up various duties; two men looking after our walking boots, insisting it was necessary to keep them safe, and a battle ensued between villagers to decide who would look after the vehicles, which was resolved when it was decided they all would. The rest solemnly followed us around for the duration, occasionally prompting us in the right direction. The tour itself was difficult to understand since our drivers had stayed behind to keep the vehicles safe (!). Strangely, one of the women in the main cohort guiding us around spoke some French, which turned out to be our main form of communication – besides improvised signing.

Each part of the tour that we could understand was fascinating, involving a purification-by-dust ritual, finding our way around a maze-like system into the tomb in order to tie a wish ribbon to the bars protecting the tomb, and then leaving backwards as a mark of respect.

Further around, Will and Graeme listened avidly to the guide, while two young boys, enthralled by my camera, distracted me and spent the time persuading me to take photos of them in different poses. In the end it made some of the best pictures of the trip. After the tour, the rest of the village was there to greet us.

I took out my Ethiopian tour book, mainly to try and find Sheikh Hussein and make sense of everything I had missed. The locals were utterly fascinated and we spent a good 20 minutes flicking through with them crowding around. There was a lovely community atmosphere to this place, like a big family all looking out for one another.

Little did I know the rest of the day was to be made up of a bone-shaking journey that would rattle me to the core contributing to every travellers worst nightmare; a 24-hour sickness. Next stop: Bale Mountains.

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