10th March 2016
Arriving in Sheikh Hussein, a sleepy remote town in south-eastern Ethiopia, with no hotels, restaurants, electricity or mobile network - you feel like you just went back 100 years at least. You can clearly see that the only things that changed here are the bright yellow jerrycans, a mobile network tower (which did not work when I was there) and some corrugated iron roofs. The beauty of having no noise or light pollution and no mobile phones ringing!
The town is named after what some Ethiopian Muslims believe to be most sacred place in the country - the tomb or shrine of Sheikh Hussein. According to tradition, Sheikh Hussein lived in the 13th century and is credited with having introduced Islam to the region. The town developed around Sheikh Hussein's whitewashed shrine, unique to this town.
The Oromo that live here are mainly pastoralists. However, twice a year the city is an important pilgrimage site which attracts over 50,000 chanting worshippers from all regions of Ethiopia as well as parts of Kenya and Somalia. The first pilgrimage which falls around February/March commemorates Sheikh Hussein's birth whilst the second in August/September commemorates his death.
Once they arrive at the shrine, the pilgrims take their turn entering the saint's tomb by crawling through a small doorway.
Other landmarks at the shrine include the pond of Dinkiro, fed from a spring of "miraculous" water and at the entrance of the holy area and two wild fig trees called "kiltu" in the Oromo language. Also nearby are several caves: a "cave of serpents", a "cave of herbs" and a "cave of honey" and rock formations said to be petrified persons.
Visiting Sheikh Hussein was like visiting Ethiopia some 30 years ago before tourism and development. The remoteness and the lack of infrastructure makes it feel as though you've just found this little gem, which was been an important pilgrimage site for the local Muslims for centuries. Sometimes I wish I was born 50 years earlier to see Ethiopia at its best!