Passing the Pipe in Ethiopia
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

When you're the elder guest of honor in a remote tribal village in Ethiopia, going with the flow can mean reaching an altered state.

Ethiopia smokers

In Africa, when I enter a village, I command respect.

As a travel writer who seeks out remote tribal cultures on my own, my white hair has given me entre to societies that are usually closed to tourist groups. On a continent where 50 is considered old and especially in rural tribes that have no medical facilities and must contend with predatory animals and poisonous snakes as a way of life, I am usually senior in age to most tribal elders or chiefs.

My arrival at such places is usually welcomed with an immediate audience with the tribal authority and a crowd of curious people anxious to know how such an ancient dinosaur is wandering around the bush by himself. This fascination has in turn has usually opened the collective memories of ceremony and oral histories that I so dearly love.

Dorje woman

But there have also been times when age has not automatically opened the door and I have been subjected to small tests to prove my worthiness to enter a particular society. Case in point: the Dorje people of Ethiopia.

The Dorje live high in the Guge mountains of central Ethiopia and are known for their tall bee hive shaped thatched huts that resemble the head of an elephant. They are made this way because centuries ago the central mountains of Ethiopia teemed with high-altitude elephants that shared the land in harmony with the Dorje, and they build their homes in this manner to this day as a homage to their now extinct neighbors.

Khat up in a Ritual
I arrived at the village of Chencha unannounced on a Saturday morning to find hundreds of people gathered in a small valley for the weekly market. Such arrivals are usually greeted by a mob of curious children who loudly announce my presence and lead me in. This time was no different. With a child firmly attached to each hand I wandered among the women, seated on the ground with their products showcased on spread blankets, the only outsider present. Surprised by the general lack of men I could not help but notice that many of the women were puffing away on small homemade pipes that had a clay bowl sitting on top of a bull's horn. This was not unusual as many tribal women smoke pipes in Africa but I could tell immediately from the aroma that this was not tobacco.

Dorsey with pipe

They were smoking Khat, a local plant common around the horn of Africa and usually chewed to produce effects similar to marijuana. I did not know at the time that the Dorje prefer to scrape the leaves of these plants for the sticky residue which they sun dry in fist sized blocks that produces enough potency to level a grown man.

I had not seen pipes like this before wanted to purchase one as a collectable but was let known in no uncertain terms that first I would have to imbibe it with the owner. I do not make a habit of such acts nor do I condone doing so, especially in developing countries where drug laws can get you thrown into a dark pit for the rest of your life, but this was a remote place beyond the hand of the law and I figured one little toke just might give me face to enter their world.

By now I had attracted a large crowd, fascinated by this strange white intruder, all of them urging me on, so with deference to international diplomatic relations, I inhaled a tiny bit and a second later felt the top of my head explode. As I did so a murmur of approval passed through the crowd.

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