The weekly camel market at Bati should have been a highlight of that particular trip to Ethiopia and it took a full-day detour to get there. But a downpour sent camel traders scurrying home and there wasn’t a camel in sight by the time Assefa and I made it to the market entrance.
We were heading back to the town centre for a consolation cup of coffee when I heard rhythmic whooshes keeping strict time at andante and, on the floor of a structure that was barely a shack, I could make out glowing embers. Assefa called for me to follow him, but I was lost, bewitched by a scene where every element could have been unchanged for millennia. A blacksmith was at work.
The fire was being drawn to a frenzy of heat by air fed through goatskin bellows. A young woman wielded them, opening one end by hand to admit air and then closing it to expel the air through a horn and on through a pipe. The fluidity of her movements was hypnotic.
Lying in the fire was a piece of metal, destined to become a plough-tool. When the metal was hot enough to work, the blacksmith prised it from the fire with long tongs and placed it on a stone. He and an older man, sitting opposite, hammered the molten metal on all four sides until the blacksmith decided that it was ready for a further dip in the white-hot embers. Another solo from the bellows, another duet of hammering and the tool was lined up at the front of the shack with other completed wares.
Assefa thought I was feigning interest to make him feel better about missing the camel market, but when he realised the interest was genuine he told me more about the position of blacksmiths in Ethiopian society.
Many people believe blacksmiths are able to do their work only if they are possessed by an evil spirit and he said that it was no coincidence that this blacksmith was working on the outskirts of the town and near to the camel market, which only the men visit. He wouldn’t be allowed near the commercial market where the women go. Many blacksmiths are also itinerants; this one probably was.
When Assefa dragged me away, he was still bemused by the interest in the blacksmith and his forge. To him, they hardly warranted a second glance.
But at the end of the trip, I listed the highlights and seeing the blacksmith at work was at the top of that list. And Assefa was finally convinced that I hadn’t been trying to make him feel better about missing the camel market.