Everywhere we went in the forest, we were constantly surrounded by people - kids watching us, talking and laughing, priests who seemed to oscillate between become comfortable with us there and decidedly uncomfortable, farmers, and shepherds who would tether their cattle outside before coming in. Word spread quickly that there were foreigners in the forest and people wanted to see us. It was a part of working in these forests but it took some getting used to.
One forest was high on a hilltop, about a 45 minute hike straight up from the road and it wasn’t an easy place to work. The day was hot and dusty and I’d been scrambling up and down a steep hill, mostly on all fours, grabbing hold of trees to pull myself up so I could take photos of the team at work. It was fun at first, but a group of about fifteen priests had gathered around us asking questions and getting increasingly agitated. They stood inches away and watched everything we did which eventually got a little overwhelming.
I’d had enough and told everyone I’d wait for them at the edge of the forest where we’d entered, but as soon as I made it clear that I was leaving, one of the local men followed me. I wanted to take photos so I motioned that I was going to walk down the slope to where a tree was growing on the edge of a cliff trying to convey, “Hey, I’m not going far, no need to follow me,” so I was increasingly annoyed as he walked with me down the slope.
There was no one else around. I got out my camera and started taking photos, hoping he’d leave. Was he watching me in case I did something wrong? Did the priests tell him to follow me? What was I not supposed to do? He followed me everywhere, staying only a few steps behind.
I finally sat down on a rock and sipped some lukewarm water. If I sit here long enough, surely he’ll go. But he stood right behind me. Sweat dripped from my forehead. I watched the drop trickle along my arm and draw a line through the dust on my skin. Finally, he tapped my shoulder. He pointed to my camera, dropped the staff of wood he was carrying and walked a few feet away to the edge of the cliff, straightened his faded red shirt and motioned behind him as if to say, “Look at this view!” He composed himself and stood stiffly upright as I lifted up the camera and took the shot. Click.
He ran over to look at it on my camera’s screen and laughed before saying the only Amharic word I knew, “Ameseginalehu,” - thank you. He walked away to collect his cattle and I was finally alone by the tree.