The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 16th February 2006

Ethiopian Pilgrimage

Given by - Barbie Campbell-Cole

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


“Oh My God! That’s perfectly disgusting”

The young girl’s midriff was a mass of flea bites.

“Where did you get that?”

“Oh! I’ve just come back from the south where I’ve been making a film. It’s about a pilgrimage to the tomb of a holy man named Sheikh Hussein.”

And that’s where, for some reason or other, our short conversation ended way back in May 1993 in Addis Ababa’s Extreme Hotel (‘extreme’ in name and, in this case, guest).

Until…………..

“Excuse me”, I said, “you’re not the young lady who was covered in bites………”

Reunion, at last. Almost sixteen years later. In SOAS’s Halls of Academe! Where better? And, no fleas!

Barbie Campbell-Cole has not suffered in vain for her art. A full audience of Society members and friends sat riveted as a masterpiece of sound and colour played out before them as film narrator, Glynnis Brooks, told the story.

So let’s begin at the beginning. The film’s location? Southern Ethiopia’s Bale mountains, in particular a small village perched on the edge of a high plateau in the province of Arsi. It is in this village that Campbell-Cole carefully selected her stars – Haji Ahmed, his wife Tefti, her sister and Haji’s daughter-inlaw. The film-maker accompanies the party for seven gruelling days as they traverse wild, remote and stunning Ethiopian countryside. They descend from the high plateau to the baking Bale plains and then descend again into the vast canyon of the Webi Shebelli. Then, ascent up the gorge to the Sheikh Hussein village on the plain.

Cambell-Cole captures everything. Breath-taking photography of frail humanity fording the raging river; superb shots of the canyon at dawn and dusk; close-ups of anonymous bare feet treading the stony paths in the gorge. Her film exudes atmosphere in every frame. You feel as if you are there.

The human side is equally well treated. Haji Ahmed and his family are recorded singing their pilgrim songs along the way – as cheerful as anyone could be going off on holiday, taking a break from hum-drum daily routine. As they chant, they carry their Oule Sheikh Hussein forked sticks. These sticks identify their bearers as pilgrims, entitling them to solicit hospitality along the route.

Nine centuries ago, a Muslim Sheikh from the Hadramut, Sheikh Hussein, is believed to have landed on the Indian Ocean shoreline and followed the great river, the Webi Shebelli, from its mouth to its headwaters. Here he settled and preached Islam and performed many miracles. He died in the Bale mountains. His tomb became a shrine, and the shrine became a village.

Not only Muslims are pilgrims to Sheikh Hussein village: Oromo people as well form a large part of the crowds who flock to the Sheikh’s tomb. The Sufi Saint’s many miracles have been assimilated into Oromo beliefs. Twice a year pilgrims converge upon the shrine: once to coincide with the haj to Mecca; and six months later to celebrate an Oromo cult figure known as Abba Muda.

As we near Sheikh Hussein village, paths converge and pilgrims with them. We see a blind man being led along – he is going to the shrine to receive alms. Sheikh Hussein’s tomb is in a large white sepulchre topped by a red-blue dome. The scene at the sepulchre is sheer chaos: pilgrims are kissing the walls, crying, prostrating themselves and unburdening themselves of their problems. The experience is entirely cathartic.

But perhaps not just cathartic: “no making love, no flirting, Sheikh Hussein will punish you. You’ll be turned into stone”. Surely these admonitions suggest a social side to this mighty get-together.

Haji Mukhtar and his family have controlled the shrine, the film’s commentary tells us, for many generations. This is a lucrative position. But all is not well. The handling of the shrine’s funds are a matter of investigation. Financial impropriety is suspected. Worse, there is competition. Haji Omar has set up his stall. Having perfected his rhetoric, he has attracted a large crowd: “the day has come, victory is ours”, he proclaims. Which ‘day’ and what ’victory’ is not quite clear. But it’s all good stuff. Haji Mukhtar is worried. He is right to be so.

Spiritual sanctity does not come free: “giving one birr will register you so that you can come here again”. They are probably going to come again, one birr or not. But nobody minds. Everyone knows the score.

Everyone is having a good time enjoying a mixture of holiness, spirituality and human camaraderie – the fare of pilgrimages the world over.

Barbie Campbell-Cole can be proud of her work. We thank her for a wonderful evening and a penetrating insight into a lovely event. I’m just so sorry she had to suffer so much in getting it all onto film.

First Published in News File Summer 2006

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