”I live in Ethiopia in Bahir Dar in the region of Amara. I have been here for 26 months, my first working experience abroad, apart from a summer I spent working in a hotel in France.
Bahir Dar is a tourist destination, ranked among the 10 most beautiful cities of Africa, being near to the waterfalls and the source of the Blue Nile.”
Danilo Vallarino is humble, timid almost. At times he seems to be carrying an ancient melancholy in him.
He arrived to Africa more than two years ago, following his job call. He is a Chef and when asked how can an Italian cope with the difference of ingredients available on the market, the tastes of the different latitude, – Ethiopia is not Italy, his home country – he makes no fuss: ”Not easy, but I manage. And every chef up to his job simply goes to the market!’.
He tells me this is not the Africa of the safaris, the Africa people generally have in mind.
His is the Africa of the Blue Nile river which, within Ethiopia, runs over 800 km and is the longest river of the continent. But it is in Ethiopia it holds its heart running up to Khartoum to meet the White Nile and give life to the entire Egypt.
The Blue Nile Falls are about an hour by car from Bahar Dar and then there are all the Orthodox monasteries on the Lake Tana, where the Blue Nile originates. In its own way, this is a very special tourist destination.
For the past 15 years, Danilo has a companion. Better, two: an Olympus and a Nikon. He always carries them along. Even when he goes out just for two hours.
Sometimes, even when he is cooking. He does not photograph food – there is plenty of that in the net – he takes shots of people working with him. The smiles at the end of a difficult evening, the vapours and the aprons. Sometimes a hug, when a dish has come out particularly well.
From the kitchen of the hotel where he works, he looks outside. Ethiopia is there.
The Blue Nile chanting its blues. It´s a call he answers once a week, on his day off.
”I always carry the camera with me, even when I go out for just two hours. Even before Ethiopia, when I was in Italy. The nature, nature itself, in its most savage – or natural – form, or people, daily life, the ordinary, are mind blowing to me. The lights at the end of the day when all these people have is a piece of bread, to share. The markets where people sell anything and fix anything. The workers, the basket weavers, the farmers.. virtually anything which is natural.”
”Sometimes I venture out alone and find myself in a crowd, surrounded by so many people. Each one of the men, women I meet bears on the face, hands and feet a databank of endless information. It is up to us to decode it, read it.”
”The women at the market, for instance, always remind me of delicate ceramic creations. They face the scorching sun all day long, selling little to earn even less. These women are a delicate equilibrium of its own kind. I always fear they might break. Yet, they are so strong.”
”I do not consider myself good at writing, but thank you anyway. I use angry words, true. Because anger is a part of me. I am often pissed. But it is a form of struggle I engage in, always, in order to never accept anything which is being served in front of me. But it is from that very same anger inside me that love grows. If only I could rely on more inner peace, then I think I would be a better person. Especially for those around me. Human relations are all we have. They should always come first.”
Ethiopia is already a part of him. Ethiopia has changed him. He is one of the few people I met who does not use the experience abroad as a platform to move on in life.
” I see the gap now. It happens when I return to Italy. I may be talking to my family, or anyone, and people pay attention to what you have to say for no longer than 5 minutes. I realise at a certain moment no one is listening. Someone interrupts me just to mention the Champions League.. just while I was trying say Hey, I was telling you about the women who every single day walk for hours carrying 15 litres of water on their head, bare feet. They look like mules…”
”I really do not know if people are not interested or prefer to ignore there is another reality, uncomfortable one. Maybe it’s a way to keep the conscience at bay.”
His conscience is not at bay.
”I do have a project, you know? It´s a big word, can I say it? It´s PEACE, in its broadest sense. Starting from inner peace. But relating to Ethiopia, I would like, one day, to publish a photographic book and try to help a small community. With no institutional help, no association involved. I think the biggest danger we run in places like this is darkness when it comes to historical memory. I will try to explain it: here, as in many other countries, there has never been an ‘age of the camera film roll‘. Nowadays people take pictures with their smartphones. Selfies and alike. Horrible. They think they are giving a sense of modernity and progress. But if you do not print, you are most likely going to lose everything. Pages of history and memory. What we received, as a society, has always been transmitted to us by stone, wood and paper. We need to print. A digital file is nothing. This is what I am planning to do: preserve for the future. Transmit. I do this also for my children who represent my bridge to the future. They might understand who their father was.”
Danilo, most likely, will leave Ethiopia at the end of the year. His children await him.
”I love this people. There are times I get so angry when we work together but there is a fundamental attraction, a sense of belonging. Otherwise I would not have stayed. Fact is my children need me.”
The Blue Nile is chanting and returning to Italy will not stop it.
Danilo will never, really, leave Ethiopia. He will come back, not only for the book.