Jayhawks make Ethiopian connections

Posted on Feb 22, 2019 in Alumni News and News

Jerome Younger and Tu Yao in Ethiopia

When Jerome Younger and his wife, Tu Yao, visited Ethiopia’s Hamer tribe in December, the tribe members seemed hesitant to greet strangers. Fewer than 20 tourists visit the region daily.

But KU’s “odd bird” caught a young boy’s eye. He stepped forward and pointed at Jerome’s chest, then pointed at his own. Puzzled, Jerome smiled back, then started to walk away. But the boy was insistent, repeating the gesture. “He wants your shirt,” the guide explained. “He wants that odd bird you are wearing.”

Unfortunately, Jerome, e’12, could not grant the boy’s wish. When he and Tu Yao, PhD ’15, had set out for Ethiopia, they planned to travel to as many remote places as possible—often on foot—so they had packed light. Jerome simply didn’t have a shirt to spare.

The couple settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2015 and soon discovered a large Ethiopian population in the Twin Cities. Jerome befriended several Ethiopian coworkers, and he and Yao wanted to visit the country. Determined to make their trip as authentic as possible, Tu Yao booked private tours to the Omo Valley to visit the numerous indigenous ethnic groups in the region. Their itinerary also included important details—the locations of checkpoints where they would pick up armed guards and escorts. Some areas were known for violence, civil unrest and tense relations with neighboring countries. Visiting five nomadic tribes also meant no hotel rooms, no restaurants and no luxuries like showers and toilets. They often slept on a thin woven pallet on open ground.

Mursi tribe members are hunters and gatherers. They wear very little clothing, painting their bodies with tribal symbols, and they distort their lips and ears by inserting wooden plates. (A guide explained that this disfiguring tradition started hundreds of years ago to discourage kidnapping.) When the children asked for candy, Jerome and Tu Yao realized they had left behind a bag of new pens, pencils and Jayhawk stickers in Jinka. They had intended to give these to the children and regretted that they had nothing to share.

When the couple’s driver heard the Hamer tribe was having a bull jumping ceremony, they drove as fast as possible through the desert to reach the village. The ceremony celebrates a boy’s journey into manhood, and it is rare for outsiders to witness the event. The boy had been quite ill, and Jerome and Yao watched as the frail boy’s family gently helped him walk across the backs of several bulls for his rite of passage.

They found the Daasanach tribe to be friendly and curious, eagerly asking questions translated by a guide. The tribe’s government had just built its first Jerome Younger and Tu Yao in Ethiopiaprimary school. Did the visitors want to see it? Yes, and Jerome and Yao had finally remembered to bring their bag of gifts! The students were surprised and delighted to receive new pens, pencils and Jayhawk stickers.

The couple feared danger only when they stood on the rim of the Erta Ale volcano in the Danakil Depression, one of the lowest elevations on earth. To reach the lip of the crater, Jerome and Yao walked for five hours through the desert in darkness so black they wore headlamps to illuminate their path. If they stepped off the path near the crater, they risked plunging their feet through fragile, recently crusted lava to unknown depths. At the rim of the volcano, the air was so smoky that only the red glow of the lava lake was visible. Sulfurous fumes stung their eyes and throats, and sleeping by the rim was difficult that night. A rumbling, growling sound­—the earth gurgling from its deepest depths—was eerie and unsettling.

Safely back home in St. Paul, Jerome and Yao crossed a sixth continent off their list. When they graduated from KU, they set a goal to visit all seven. The trip to Africa is Jerome’s favorite thus far. Next up is Antarctica, then it’s time to set their sights on another ambitious goal for adventure.

Jerome Younger and Tu Yao in Ethiopia

—Susan Younger

Alumni note: According to University Records, just four students from Ethiopia have attended KU.

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