Ethiopians and Eritreans are terrific in the Olympic games, as long as they can wear shorts and run long distances. But what about the Winter Games? Do they ski? Does snow exist in Ethiopia? Here’s the whole story
By Barry Hillenbrand (Debre Marcos 63-65)
Yes, at least one Ethiopian does ski. And, yes, there is snow in Ethiopia. Well, sort of. Robel Teklemariam is an Ethiopian skier and participated in the 15-kilometer cross-country race in the just completed Winter Games in Vancouver. More astounding is that this was Robel’s second Olympics. He skied for Ethiopia in the Turin Games in 2006. Robel did not learn his skiing in the Bale mountains or the Gojam highlands, but in Colorado where he attended boarding school while his mom, an official with the U.N., was posted to North Korea.
Robel snagged a skiing scholarship to the University of New Hampshire and then continued hanging around the ski slopes after college. On a whim he decided that he would try to ski for Ethiopia in the Olympics. Easier said that done. Robin had to set up a Ethiopian Skiing Federation and get recognized by the powers at the International Olympic Committee. Then he has to get enough qualifying points at cross country ski competitions.
But he managed to get all his blue stamps of approval in time for the 2006 Games where he 83rd out of 99 competitors. He was not discouraged by his showing — hey, he finished the race! — so he crisscrossed Europe last year once again building up his competition points to qualify for Vancouver. He just managed to place as the last qualifier and was seeded last in the starting gates. The race was a struggle since he had less training time this Olympics than he did in Turin. Robin finished 93rd out of 95 skiers, some 12 minutes behind the winner. Still he had support from a vocal group of Ethiopians who turned out to wave Ethiopian flags and cheered him on his way. His mom, who now runs the The Nile Restaurant in Richmond, Va, was also there to support him.
Robel says he has made strides in making Ethiopians aware of skiing, but skiing-mania is not about to sweep Ethiopia. Indeed, there is some question about whether it snows in Ethiopia. Robin, whose flawless, idiomatic American-accented English makes him sound like one of those snowboarding dudes, told an AP reporter that there was no word for snow in Amharic. He calls himself a “Baradoe Shartate,” which he loosely translated as “ice slider.”
We posed the word-for-snow-in-Amharic question to Grover Hudson (Addis 63–65), who has taken his Peace Corps language training in Amharic and turned it into a high-flying university career in Ethiopian linguistics. Grover is professor emeritus in linguistics at Michigan State University and author of Essentials of Amharic. Hudson reports that Thomas Kane’s Amharic-English dictionary translates bärädo as only ‘hail,’ while Wolf Leslau’s English-Amharic dictionary translates ‘snow’ as bärädo. But Hudson adds:
I have talked to some Ethiopians who tell me that snow and hail are distinguished in Amharic as qällal bärädo and käbbad bärädo. Qällal and käbbad are usually translated ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ (but käbbad also ‘heavy’), but whereas in English we can say both ‘a hard test’ and ‘hard as a rock’, we can’t say ‘an easy test’ and ‘easy as a pillow,’ qällal and käbbad work both ways in Amharic. But, again and as we know, most Ethiopians have no experience of snow, so never have cause to distinguish snow and hail.
It’s an old cliché that Eskimos (Inuit, to be PC) have many words for snow, distinguishing its many forms, but not English. But in fact English speakers who significantly experience snow in its different forms readily come up with ways to name these: drifting snow, blowing snow, wet snow, dry snow, etc. Linguists like to say that languages are highly evolved and perfectly adapted to the needs of their speakers.
Hudson recalls — as many of us might — that “hail, termed ‘bärädo’, once covered the ground in Yirgalem, Sidamo, in my Peace Corps days. You can imagine what a racket it made on the tin roof of my house.”
And just a few weeks ago we received an email from Loretta Davis (Asella 68–70) who has been going back to Ethiopia each summer to help prepare teachers for schools that her church, the Light of Hope Ministry, is building in the southeastern part of the country. LOHM runs the schools for five years before turning them over to the Ministry of Education. During her visit to Ethiopia, Davis spent some time in the Bale National Park, followed by a visit to the hot springs pool at Wondo Genet where she had a chance to warm up a bit. The spring water is so hot, she says, that next to the pool they boil eggs and cook potatoes.
But on the road to Goba, she had a surprise. Reports Davis: “We were speeding through Bale Mountains National Park trying to reach our hotel in Goba before dark when we came around a corner, and we all said ‘SNOW…. WHOA’ to our project leader who was driving the car. We had to take some photos of this.” And so we publish Davis’ picture of white stuff in Ethiopia, with the question: snow, hail, or bärädo? Let us know. Just click on Comment below. Send us your snow pictures.