Arthur Rimbaud: A Poet Adrift
In 1875 one of France’s finest poets turned his back on his poetry, his country, his wild living and his lover to reverse his fortunes and see the world. He was just 21 years old, broke and bitter.
By 1880 Arthur Rimbaud had travelled to Germany, Italy, Cyprus and Java (with the Dutch Colonial Army, from which he later deserted) and, in the service of a coffee trader in Aden (Yemen), became the first white man to travel into the Ogaden region of southeastern Ethiopia, finally living like a local in a small house in Harar. His interest in culture, languages and people made him popular and his plain speaking and integrity won him the trust of the chiefs and Ras Makonnen, the governor of Harar. His commercial dealings were equally as colourful and included coffee trading and running guns to King Menelik of Shoa.
In 1891 Rimbaud developed a tumour on his right knee. Leaving Harar in early April, he endured the week’s journey to the coast on a stretcher. Treatment at Aden was not a success and Rimbaud continued onto Marseilles, where his right leg was amputated. By this time the cancer had spread and he died later that year at the age of 37.
During his self-imposed exile to Ethiopia, Rimbaud’s poetry had become increasingly known in France for its daring imagery and beautiful and evocative language. Sadly this belated recognition brought him little satisfaction and he remained indifferent to his fame until his dying day.
‘The Danakil invariably castrated any man or boy whom they killed or wounded, removing both the penis and the scrotum. An obvious trophy, it afforded irrefutable proof that the victim was male…’
Sir Wilfred Thesiger, The Life of My Choice
Fuelled by early accounts from European travellers and explorers, the Afar have gained an almost legendary reputation for ferocity. And, as they are one of the few tribes capable of surviving the harsh conditions of northeastern Ethiopia, perhaps that aura of myth is deserved.
On your journey north, look out for Afar men striding along in simple cotton shirits (sarongs), with their famous jile (curved knives), water-filled gourds hanging at their side and a rifle slung casually across a shoulder. Even today many Afars still lead a nomadic existence and when the herds are moved in search of new pasture, the huts in which the Afars live are simply packed onto the backs of camels and carted away. In the relatively fertile plains around the Awash River, some Afars have turned to cultivation, growing cotton and maize. Inter-clan rivalry is still alive and conflicts occasionally break out.
The region around Dire Dawa and Harar (and especially the town of Awaday, about 13km northwest of Harar) is the reputed origin of the addictive stimulant chat. It’s not only a major export commodity, replacing coffee on many farms (look for the slender trees with shiny, dark-green leaves planted in neat rows), but a huge percentage of the population spends most afternoons lying on the ground in a drunken-like stupor. Driving through Awaday on your way to Harar, you'll see why it's dubbed the 'chat capital of the world'.