Friday, November 9, 2007

St. Mary of Zion Churches, Axum

I'm still working out bugs with this video thing on YouTube, but if you don't mind bearing with my learning process, here's a compilation of photos and video from my trip in March, 2007, focusing on the two churches of St. Mary of Zion in Axum.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Monday, May 7, 2007

Exorcising Ghosts in Ethiopia

It was not supposed to be like this. Since coming home, I have been tormented by dreams of that particular quality of the near-equatorial sunlight, the smell of eucalyptus, the smell of incense and roasting coffee, the extravagance of hibiscus, bougainvillea and jacaranda in bloom, the sound of shepherd boys calling and singing to their herds on their way home at dusk, and the music of Amharic spoken, even if I don’t know the meaning.
My mother, who is usually a wise woman, did not foresee this. It was her suggestion to make this trip to Ethiopia. It was supposed to clarify memories, bring focus to my writing and perhaps exorcise some ghosts. But, the love affair I have had with Ethiopia since early childhood was simply complicated by this trip, the way a brief glimpse of the object of a long-held secret obsession fuels the imagination of the unrequited love.

I have longed for Ethiopia often. I don’t completely understand the desire I have to return to Ethiopia. After all, more than 45 years have passed since a fragment of my childhood years were lived in Ethiopia. One reason may be that it is the country that holds within it some of the first sensory experiences I had of life on this earth: blinding sunshine and parched dusty earth; beautiful women with smooth chocolate skin dressed in gauzy white; proud men carrying or leaning upon the ever-present doula, bare brown feet covered in dust; eucalyptus groves; Land Rovers, endearing donkeys and stalwart mules; wood smoke, spicy wot and injera.

My intention was first to visit places that might have been around fifty years ago, when my father was the director/teacher of two mission schools in the northern highlands. I had initially hoped my son would go with me. My mother had many concerns for my safety in Ethiopia and some of my father’s stories did give me some cause for misgivings – particularly if I were to travel alone.

Finally, after months and months of inertia, confusion, misunderstandings, it came down to this: I joined a trekking tour group on an itinerary that included some of Ethiopia’s historic sites and also took us for 8 days into the rugged and remote Simien Mountains. Then I was able to make a local contact through friends who had been in Ethiopia when we were there. He agreed to meet me and to take me to as many of the "old" places of my memory as my time would allow. My son was very disappointed to be unable to get the time off work to join me. But, as I assured him, there will be another trip soon.

For weeks before my departure, I could hardly sleep from excitement.

snowy landscapes of home, the week before I leave for Ethiopia

In recent times, few have traveled there, and yet Ethiopia is a country with an extraordinary biodiversity, a complex history and culture, and a dramatically varied topography. Ethiopia unfairly has an image in the rest of the world as an impoverished country torn apart by war, revolution, famine and drought, of human devastation of epic proportions. It certainly has suffered in recent times, but Ethiopia has a long and proud history. Ethiopia prides itself as being one of the very few African countries to have escaped European colonization.

Modern Ethiopia is completely landlocked. The sea coast region belongs to Ethiopia’s neighbours in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. Within Ethiopia itself, the geography is unbelievably beautiful and varied.

The Great Rift Valley, which crosses much of East Africa, runs from the southwest across the country to the northeast, ending just south of the capital, Addis Ababa. The Rift Valley, with its many lakes, rich in wildlife, is flanked on both sides by incredible highland regions, including the Simien Mountains to the north and the Bale Mountains to the south.

in the northern-most reaches of the Great Rift Valley: an approaching storm

The most important mountains are in the Simien range, with Ras Dashen, the highest peak coming in as the fifth highest peak in Africa at an elevation of 4,620m. (sources differ as to the exact height of this peak). East and west of this central highland core are lowlands, steppes and deserts.

farm land in the Simien highlands

Both highland areas, the Simien and the Bale, are extremely rugged, beautiful and wild, home to some of the rarest indigenous flora and fauna in the world.

The fabled source of the Blue Nile arises in "the Mountains of the Moon", in Ethiopia, west of Lake Tana, passing through the lake and around the province of Gojjam before it goes westward to join with the White Nile at Khartoum, in Sudan.

Lake Tana, from the air

Ethiopia can also claim to be the cradle of the human race. The famous partial skeleton of “Lucy”, until recently the oldest known fossil remains of a hominid, normally displayed in the National Museum of Addis Ababa, is now on a somewhat controversial 6-year tour of the U.S. More recent finds of hominid remains and tools near the Awash river system and in the Afar depression, respectively, could be 2.5 million years old, the oldest archeological discoveries of human-like life to date.

The legend was that Ethiopia was the land of the Queen of Sheba and its emperors have long claimed a Solomonic lineage, a right to rule, symbolized by the Star of David and the Lion of the tribe of Judah. This tradition has survived, virtually uninterrupted, since the early kingdom of Axum adopted Christianity about EC 333, or AD 340.

It is this tradition of the Christian highland civilization, from the middle of the fourth century until the present, travelling from the north of Ethiopia to the central region, that kept Ethiopia distinct from its Muslim neighbours to the east, and the animist traditions to the south and west. It is through the Semitic-speaking Axumite kingdom, later the Amhara kings, that the unique Christian culture and language of the Amhara came to dominate much of Ethiopia.

The other large cultural groups include the Tigray in the north, and the Oromo in the south and centre. In addition, there are many hundreds of smaller tribal groups, each with their own characteristic language and customs.

ADDIS ABABA

My visit started in the capital, Addis Ababa. With a population of an estimated 5 million, it is the third largest city in Africa. A mix of the elegant old buildings and monuments of the imperial era, it also contains modern office towers, glitzy hotels and sprawling neighbourhoods of tiny mud-and-daub houses.

Here, beautiful gardens and majestic trees can be found in the gardens surrounding international elegant embassies and hotels. In sharp contrast, the Mercato, with its densely criss-crossing roads and alleyways, teems with buyers and sellers of anything and everything, exotic and mundane: spices, electronic equipment, textiles and fabric, live chickens, tires, potatoes, what have you. It is reputedly the largest market in all of Africa. It is also the area where you are most likely to encounter pickpockets, muggers and other petty thieves.

In the predawn hours, I was awakened by the Lent services of the Orthodox Christian churches. The rhythmic chanting prayers were broadcast over loudspeakers and were soon joined by the tootling horns and roar of city traffic.

Ethiopia boasts 13 months of sunshine (they follow the Julian calendar). In the comfortably cool highland air, under blue skies, I watched a busy cosmopolitan city going to work. Young men and women in business suits with cell phones pressed to the ear, school children in their neat compulsory uniforms, the devout returning from church, women wearing skirts that reach the ankles, heads covered with gauzy white cotton natala (large headscarf or shawl) beautifully trimmed in colourful tibeb (borders) of silk, and the occasional priest, the traditional shammas (a thick blanket-sized cotton shawl) draped over his shoulders.

Addis Ababa is a fairly new capital, the location chosen at the end of the 19th century by the wife of Menelik II, who enjoyed the hot springs located in the foothills of the Entoto Mountains. Not only the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa is also at the centre of world affairs in many ways. Since 1958, the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) have been here. Also, the Secretariat of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) has made Addis Ababa the “capital of African diplomacy” since 1963.

Friendly and relatively safe in comparison to many similarly sized cities in Europe and Africa, it has the energy of a small town, the youthfulness of a university town and the sizzle brought by international bureaucrats, aid workers and visitors. Most world cuisines are available, but perhaps the best of Ethiopian-style cooking is to be found in the city. Nightlife varies from the traditional tej beats and asmari clubs, to jazz clubs and nightclubs where a mix of African music can be heard.

Buses, bicycles and the Asian-style mini-taxis attached to the back of a motorcycle, mingle with the traffic of limousines, SUV’s, transport trucks, and the mad “blue-devil” taxis. In an ever-present haze of diesel-exhaust, working in tandem with the daring drivers of the blue mini-van taxis, taxi-touts lean crazily out the side-door, calling out the collective destination of the passengers within to potential passengers outside. As soon as passengers climb aboard, the taxi-touts slide the side door shut and the taxi swerves into traffic, often disregarding the warning tootling horns of other drivers.

Not the loudest city I’ve been in when it comes to tootling of car horns, it must be said that being able to tootle your horn is a prerequisite to the friendly chaos that is driving in this city. Drivers regard red traffic lights and lane markings as mere suggestions and have to be able to manoeuvre around odd surprises like a quietly subversive cow standing in the middle of the road or a pair of donkeys trotting merrily along ahead of their owner, who guides them with a prod now and then from a large stick. The donkeys are invariably laden down with loads of anything from a large bundle of wood, to sacks of grain or the bright yellow plastic containers of water.

My tour included the Ethnological Museum on the University of Addis Campus, a fascinating place that features many artefacts from the different cultural groups found throughout Ethiopia, arranged thematically according to milestones in the human life-cycle, birth, coming of age, marriage, death. I also visited the Holy Trinity Cathedral on the Entoto Road, north of the city centre.

There is much more to see in Addis Ababa: the National Museum, which houses the remains of “Lucy”, already mentioned as an example of one of the earliest hominid remains to have been excavated by researchers in Africa; the Natural History Museum; St. George Church and Museum; Menelek Palace, now the main headquarters of the government and closed to the public; the National Palace; Africa Hall and Meskel Square; and of course, the hot springs which were the raison d’etre of the capital. The waters are piped to the Addisu Filwoha Hotel where weary travelers can enjoy a sauna or massage.

Driving up into the Entoto Mountains north of the city through eucalyptus forests was a precursor to the steep climbs we were to have in our later trekking in the Simien Mountains. On Friday afternoon, I saw the wood-carrier women for the first time. I was to learn that as in most of Africa, bio-fuels, ie wood, charcoal, dried cowdung, etc., are used daily in 90% or more of homes for cooking, and in most of Africa, it is the wood-carrier women who travel far outside cities to collect the wood and bring it into the city for sale. Tinier than I could have ever imagined, these women carry enormous loads, suffer harassment and abuse at the hands of the guards who are supposed to protect the scarce woodlands, and the women earn mere pennies a day, not even a subsistence wage.

On Saturday afternoon, we went up to the Entoto Mountains again. The sing-song chanting of the prayers of services broadcast from the octagonal Entoto Maryam church provided background music to our windy views of the city below in the late afternoon sun.

The next part of my trip concentrated on part of what is known as “the historic route”.
These historic sites, in the chronological order of their historical pre-eminence, are Axum (1st century to approximately the 7th century), Lalibela (around the mid- 12th century onward), and Gondar ( mid – 17th century to late 19th century). Much history is also to be found in other parts of Ethiopia, but I was unable to include them on this visit.

Not following the historical chronology, we first flew from Addis Ababa to Lalibela.

LALIBELA

Beta Giyorgis

Lalibela is known for its complex of rock-cut churches connected with a labyrinth of tunnels. A World Heritage Site, the churches are unique in that they have been a continuously living site, in that they have been in use, ever since they were built in the 12th century. How they were built is a mystery and what was done with the vast amounts of excavated rock is not known. The churches and perhaps some of the tunnels too, contain many ancient religious artefacts and treasures, perhaps the best known being certain characteristic styles of iconic Ethiopian paintings and the silver or gold crosses.

Views of some of the churches are marred by the placement of protective over-roofs (eg Medhane Alem), a grid of metal supports, and wooden scaffolding (eg Bet Maryam) supposedly for reconstruction. It did seem like not much reconstruction is going on at present, perhaps due to a lack of funds and people knowledgeable in archeological reconstruction, even though this is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Our guide was knowledgeable, devout and passionate about the history and the sacred symbolism of the structure, decoration, icons and other treasures in each church. I particularly enjoyed the singular and colourful style of Ethiopian religious art. It has a fresh naïve quality with an emphasis on the eyes. Saints for example, are painted full-face, and therefore have two eyes. Evil persons are always, with few exceptions, painted in profile and have only one visible eye.

In each church we visited, we were repeatedly amused when, given the opportunity to photograph a priest holding one of the priceless crosses, we watched the anachronism of a traditionally garbed priest whip on a pair of dark sunglasses to avoid the “dancing spots in the eyes” after-effects of a dozen camera flashes going off.


AXUM

Next we flew to the ancient city of Axum. At its peak between the 3rd and 6th centuries, the kingdom of Axum stretched form the Red Sea in the east into large parts of southern Arabia and west into the Nile Valley in the Sudan. Positioned at the crux of busy trade routes, the export of gold, frankincense, grain, animal skins, ivory and slaves brought great wealth to the Axumite kingdom. From Egypt in the northwest, Arabia and India in the east, Axum imported textiles, glass, iron, wine, olive oil, gold and silver.

Here, where it is estimated that 98% of its archaeological treasures remain un-excavated, we may soon find conclusive evidence to support the legend that the Queen of Sheba did indeed come from Ethiopia, that one of her sons was also an heir of King Solomon and may have brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. Besides the mysterious granite stellae, we explored the ruins of palaces, tombs and what is called Queen of Sheba’s Bath. A small museum in the city contains many examples of excavated artefacts like old Axumite coins, stone tablets, pottery, glass and lion-headed water spouts.

Here too, we again looked in on some of the unique traditions of the age-old Orthodox Christian Church of Ethiopia, getting a glimpse of some treasures kept by the monks in a small museum attached to the older of the two churches of St. Mary of Zion.

The old chapel is said to house the original Ark of the Covenant, guarded by just one specially chosen monk. Anybody else who might try to get a glimpse of the sacred Ark, it is said, will burst into flames. Many such tales abound of the miraculous things that have occurred to protect the Ark from those who would desecrate it.

The old chapel and museum are not open to women. On the same compound, the huge new St. Mary of Zion Church, built by the Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1960’s, afforded us the chance to watch the procession of the priests, colourful over-robes and capes covering the traditional white garb, bearing brightly coloured parasols trimmed with silk fringes, led by a young deacon ringing a bell. The priests were followed by various monks, nuns, deacons and faithful women all chanting a sorrowful-sounding prayer. The procession circled the church three times before returning inside.

Meanwhile, the men in our party had been allowed to see a similar procession occurring around the smaller old chapel.

GONDAR

Leaving Axum again on the Fokker 50’s Ethiopian Airlines uses for its intra-country flights, we landed in Gondar. The palaces of Gondar date from about the 16th century. Here, the many palaces of the various princes and rulers of the period show the influence of Portuguese, Indian and Eqyptian designers and crafts-persons.

Gondar is also a busy, modern city where many buildings show the influence of the Italian occupation. Most recently, a new university has been built and the city was a shock after the very conservative dress of the rural highland people we had encountered during our mountain trekking. Here, as in Addis Ababa, we again occasionally saw young women wearing jeans and t-shirts, walking arm in arm with their boyfriends, a display of public affection between the sexes that is rare throughout Ethiopia. To some in our group of mostly English tourists, it was disconcerting to see open gestures of friendly affection between men. It is common to see men walking down a street together, arms slung over the other’s shoulders, or holding hands.

SIMIEN MOUNTAINS

We actually toured the palaces and the famed Debre Berhan Selassie Church of Gondar after we returned from our 8 days of trekking in the Simien Mountains. Leaving non-essentials in storage with the Goha Hotel, a hot and dusty bus ride from Gondar took us to Debark, where our guide, cooks, and scouts (ie., armed guards) joined us. Five exhausting hours after leaving Gondar, we washed off what dust we could, had our first evening meal in our dining tent and climbed into sleeping bags at our first of five campsites in the Simien Mountains National Park. From here on, until our return to Gondar, our duffle bags,tents and sleeping bags, off loaded from the bus, traveled ahead of us on about a dozen mules, with their muleteers.

Our trekking in the Simien Mountains took us along tracks made by the local people as they travel from village to village, or move their animals to pasture. Here, warm days quickly dropped to freezing temperatures at night after the sun went down. The Simien Mountain range north of Gondar includes many mountain peaks that rise above 4,000 meters. Mount Ras Dashen (also known as Ras Dejen) is the fifth highest peak in Africa, the highest in Ethiopia, at 4,620 meters. During our last four days of trekking, rain storms with cold winds blew in after lunch, sometimes bringing hail as well, and snow in the higher elevations. I found the altitude and climbing very challenging, so although I had to accept my limitations, I was disappointed to be among the 1/3 of our group who did not attempt the climb of Ras Dashen.

The climbing group set off shortly after 4 a.m., anticipating a 10-12 hour day. It had rained all night, finally stopping just before the climbers set off. The sun came out with the dawn. Down below in our camp at Ambikwa, we dug out all the damp sleeping bags and clothing and threw them over the tents and rock walls to dry.

Here, in this village without a clean source of water, I saw for the first time the flies that I remembered from my childhood, the flies that cluster around a child’s eyes and mouth. The infections that the flies carry make the eyes of the children red, itchy and pus runs from the corners. What I would have given for a few tubes of gentamycin eye ointment!

A cold rain had started to fall on and off in the early afternoon when the first climbers’ return was heralded by the welcome dance of the cooks and muleteers in camp with us. All the climbers returned safely, beating the arrival of the rain which had threatened ever since they had reached the summit.

Our treks each day varied in length from 13 to about 22 km, gruelling climbs up and down spectacular valleys, along the top of breathtaking escarpments and ridges, across tumbling rivers, over mountain passes and through the remote farming villages of the Amhara farmers. The ascent or descent was sometimes as much as 900 m in one day. From Mt. Imet Gogo, 3926m, we were rewarded with huge vistas across the lowlands and the Simien range with rock spires and prominent ambas, remnants of prehistoric volcanoes. A tough piste via Inalye, 4070m, and along an escarpment brought us over the Jinbar River and to my favourite camp at Chenek, 3620 m above sea level.


Along the route in places, and here by our camp at Chenek, we found large troupes of the endangered Geleda Baboon. Then later, nearly at dusk, we were able to spot and observe several of the rare Walia Ibex, grazing peacefully with the baboons, then climbing down the steep face of the escarpment towards the grassy meadows in the steep valley below. Although we did see a jackal or two, the extremely rare and endangered Simien wolf was not spotted by any of us. We did see many interesting birds, some of which are unique to Ethiopia, including the alpine chat, thick-billed ravens, lammergeyer birds, common-crested larks, the chough, augar buzzards, ankober serins, black-headed siskins, slender-billed starlings, fan-tailed ravens, brown rumped seedeaters, and spot-breasted plovers. Some of the unique plant life included Rosa abyssinica, Erica arborea, the giant Lobelia rhyncopetalum, helichrysum species, festuca species and herbs such as thyme and lavender.


From Chenek, we went via a pass that descended very steeply after Mt. Bwahit. The dusty, gravely descent was treacherous, although heavily travelled by locals with their donkeys and mules. The pack animals were laden with all sorts of things, even crates of orange Fanta and beer! It started to rain late in the morning and I started to feel surer of my footing in the sticky mud. We stopped for lunch in the school at the small mountain village of Chiro Leba.


The school was one room in a small building of wood and mud-daub walls with a corrugated tin roof. Being Sunday, the school-children were off for the day, free to gaze curiously at the foreign trekkers. One bright lad started asking where we were from and reciting the capital of the various countries. He was an example of the eagerness to learn possessed by Ethiopian students that I encountered everywhere I went.

Descending from Chiro Leba, we crossed the rain-swollen Mesheha River with the aid of our “ambulance mule”, then followed a path up a steep valley to our camp in the tiny village of Ambikwa. Containing a mill and a small church, Ambikwa did not have a well or spring for clean water. The water used by many in the village came from the rain-swollen little river than ran gurgling down past our campsite in a little meadow, to join the Mesheha River several kilometres away. The rain had washed all sorts of dirt, cow-, sheep-, and donkey- droppings into the river. The foresight of our tour leader and the mountain guide had allowed us to plan ahead and bring along clean drinking water from Chenek, where a well had provided us with a good supply.


Leaving Ambikwa, the “base camp” of the Ras Dashen climb of the day before, we found ourselves making our way up a picturesque valley through many remote mountain hamlets until we reached the village of Arkwasiye. Here I found the opportunity to visit inside one of two small mills. Inside, far into the night, they were busy, with the aid of a small diesel powered mill, grinding barley into flour. A steady stream of donkeys, laden with sacks of grain, came and went.

The guard who had accompanied me became a little unnerved when I was mobbed by some of the people in the mill. They were intrigued when they realized that my little digital camera enabled them to see their photo immediately. Many of them were seeing an image of themselves for the first time. Communicating with sign language, one of the women in particular made it quite clear that she found seeing her own image for the first time to be an overwhelming experience. She kept reaching again and again for my camera to look at her image. Finally seeing the concern of my young guard, although I felt no threat myself, I indicated that I had to go. With many thanks, I reluctantly took my leave of the friendly folk in the mill.

Our final day of trekking was relatively leisurely, up to the ridge above Arkwasiye from where we took in spectacular views of the semi-circular basin of rocky peaks and buttresses including Ras Dashen. This last day of our trek took us back to Chenek Camp, passing close enough to Bwahit, 4430m, for some in the group to opt to ascend that peak en route.

In Chenek we said emotional goodbyes to the mules and muleteers, and most of the cooks. Later in Deberk, the nearest town to the boundaries of the Simien National Park, we said goodbye to our trusted guards. Simien National Park has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site because it is home too several endangered species of flora and fauna.

CULTURAL HIGHLIGHTS



En route back to Gondar, we stopped on the outskirts of the city to visit the Project Ploughshare Women’s Crafts Training Center. There we were able to observe disadvantaged women and single mothers learning the traditional crafts of pottery, spinning and weaving.

We were also invited there to participate in the magical Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The ceremony involves a special green grass spread on the floor, the aroma of fresh coffee beans roasting over the coals, the thuck-thuck-thuck sound of coffee beans being ground with a mortar and pestle, and the smell of incense wafting through the room. Then, the woman making the coffee deftly stirs the ground coffee into a little container of water and pours it into the unique earthen-ware coffee pot to warm on a small charcoal burner. When the coffee is hot, it is poured into tiny handle-less ceramic cups and served with three scoops of sugar (or in the rural highlands, with salt). Often, the coffee is accompanied by popcorn. Three rounds of coffee are served, the tiny cups washed out and rinsed between each round, the third being the most important part of the ritual. An invitation to buuna, or coffee, sometimes two or three times a day, is a leisurely ritual I would have loved to indulge in more often. In a typical village, the buuna ritual is a time to stop, chat and bond with your neighbours. You just have to love a country where a well known saying is: “Coffee and love are both best when hot!”

We were glad to have our mountain guide, Abera, accompany us to Gondar, where we thoroughly enjoyed our first hot showers after 8 days, washed out some of our dusty and grimy trekking gear, and then went out to enjoy some city nightlife.

The backbone of Ethiopian cuisine is injera. Something resembling a greyish-tan spongy pancake, it is leavened like sourdough bread and made using a grain called tef. The slightly sour flavour goes perfectly with the somewhat spicy stews and vegetables of Ethiopian cuisine. During Lent and other holy days, like every Wednesday and Friday, Ethiopians eat what they call fasting food, meaning vegetarian. Otherwise, they are quite the carnivores, one special favourite being a dish of spiced raw chipped beef. The stews and vegetables are traditionally ladled in little piles arranged on the flat injera. Often, the injera is the “serving dish” placed in a basket-ware table with a bowl-shaped top. Everything is eaten by tearing off a piece of injera, and using only the right hand, wrapping the piece of injera around a morsel of stew or vegetable and popping the whole into your mouth. In this way, injera is both the “serving dish”, the “bread” that sops up the tasty juices and the edible eating utensil.

It may be an acquired taste, but personally I wouldn’t know. I just know it is part of my earliest memories and I love Ethiopian food.

Several decent beers are made locally and include labels such as St. George or the government-owned brewer of Dashen beer. Castel is probably the strongest beer. A homemade brew that is often available is a kind of wine made with honey. Called tej, the one glass I had was a thick soupy thing with a pronounced after-taste of minerals, perhaps due to the clay containers in which it was fermented. Others have declared tej to be delicious. We had an easily forgettable red Ethiopian wine one evening along our trekking trip. And early on, in Lalibela, at the Blue Nile Restaurant, we were offered a sample of araki, a fiery grain spirit distilled by the lady of the house herself. I am told it’s similar to the Greek ouzo. It certainly made our one most daring taster in the group gasp!

One obvious difference in Ethiopia is that the smoking of cigarettes is very, very rare. In all likelihood, a smoker is likely to be a white Westerner. Public drunkenness is also rarely seen and quite frowned upon. Although I didn’t personally observe it, in certain areas, chat is chewed. Chat is a leaf that is an addictive but mild intoxicant.

Tej beats, where tej is served instead of beer, are similar to Western bars, but are mainly the haunts of men.

Asmari beats feature the asmari, an ancient tradition similar to stand-up comedians. In some city bars, asmari have become celebrities in their own right. Even though the musical verses are usually performed in Amharic, sometimes a verse in English is thrown in, or even a verse of half English and half Amharic. A performance is a lot of fun to watch, as the performers are quite engaging and like skilled court jesters of old, often make up verses on the spot, accompanying themselves on a masenko (a traditional stringed instrument). They often use members of the audience as the butt of their jokes, much to everyone’s delight.

In many of the larger hotels and in some restaurants and nightclubs, shows of traditional dancing are put on. There are dozens of ethnic groups in Ethiopia and each has its unique traditional dances.

The most amazing to me was the iskita, very characteristic of the northern highlands’ people. It involves very rapid and precisely isolated juddering movements of the shoulders, torso, neck or head. In a couple of the bars in Gondar, we were treated to the “challenge” and led onto the tiny dance floor by a lovely dancer dressed in the white cotton dress of the highlands. For the privilege of making fools of ourselves in our attempts at the iskita, we were permitted to slip the dancer a 10-birr note, which she would then stick to her forehead. All the while she performed the incredible rhythmic jerking and gyrating motions of her torso in perfect time to the drumming, she sang, not at all breathless. We were quite happy when Abera, our native mountain guide from the Simien Mountains, was finally persuaded to redeem the reputation of our sorry group with a very competent bit of dancing.

RIFT VALLEY AND THE LAKES

Back in Addis Ababa after our tour of historic Gondar, I met my friend Kassahun, who took me south to the lakes district. A mad drive across increasingly flat terrain, and a landscape dotted with the flat-topped acacia trees meant dodging herds of cattle and goats which often chose to cross the highway, and avoiding the donkey drawn wooden carts laden with farm-families, produce, chickens, the odd goat or sheep too, on their way to market. The houses changed too, to more precise circular shapes with differences too in the straw used in the thatch roofs. Many of the new rectangular homes of adobe, built to take rectangular sheets of corrugated tin, were brightly painted.

And sometimes in a small grave yard, large, elaborate headstones of adobe or concrete were decorated with paintings depicting various heroic exploits or characteristics of the deceased. My guide wryly declared that the paintings oddly never bore any resemblance to the deceased as they were when they were alive. Perhaps the paintings were meant to portray the fond hopes for a better afterlife for the deceased!


At the first of the lakes found in the northernmost reaches of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Ziway, surrounded by attractive blue-tinged volcanic peaks, I enjoyed my first sightings of the plentiful bird-life attracted by the tilapia in the waters of the lakes. On an earthen jetty, small fishing boats, nets stacked in the back, lay idle, moored in waters busy with birds striding among large, fragrant water-lilies. As I watched the ugly marabou storks searching for the fishermen’s cast-off fish-heads, little boys offered me blossoms of the purple-mauve water lilies for sale.

There are five small volcanic islands in the lake. Three of them in medieval times had churches on them. One still is home to three monasteries.

As a little boy started naming the different water birds to me, I was struck with the thought that like most of us wherever we live, he lived and played here, taking it for granted, unaware of how rare a privilege it was for me to simply glimpse some of these birds for a few minutes after traveling thousands of miles to get here.

Down further south along the main road from Addis Ababa, we came to Lake Langano. Although its waters are a curious golden colour, the water and beaches are clean. Set against the blue of the Arsi Mountains which rise to 4000m, the lake is a beautiful and popular weekend retreat for people from Addis Ababa. I spent a very pleasant hour or two sitting with my friend on a quiet beach, in the shade of acacia and jacaranda trees, distracted by more exotic birds, listening the drumming of some Rastafarians who had travelled from nearby Shashemene to enjoy the lake.

Driving through Shashemene, a busy cross-roads town where the Rastafarians of Jamaica have a settlement, we journeyed on, arriving in the late afternoon in Awasa. I was treated to quick visits of a church and college of the denomination of my childhood days.


In the gardens of some hotels along the shores of Lake Awasa, we were in search of a particular monkey. I found the hotels charming, shaded by giant fig trees in quiet gardens. The hotels were quietly moldering into an aging, graceful memory of a more elegant era, when tea might have been served on the terrace. High in the trees above a hotel’s dining room, just as it started to rain, we spotted the monkeys. These large black monkeys sporting a large v-shaped “shawl” fringed in white, with a fluffy white tail, made a leisurely trip through the branches, as rain started to fall.

The rain finally made me retreat to our vehicle and we began our nerve-racking return trip in the gathering dusk to Addis Ababa.

My friend had often stated he hated driving in the dark. I soon understood why. Vehicles drove at wildly differing and inconsistent speeds, passing each other in impossible places. At first, we had to yield to cattle, goats, sheep in the roadway, even a pair of old horses dozing in the centre of the road. We shared the road with buses, their roofs laden with odd assortments of luggage. We shared the road with the now much emptier wooden carts of the weary farm-families returning from market. We shared the road with hugely overloaded trucks and vans. We shared the road with horse-drawn “taxis” with bells a-jingling. We shared the roads with transports without a single working rear light.

After a while, although the livestock had seemed to disappear, presumably into the safety of village corrals, traffic seemed to get worse as the night got darker. Oncoming traffic was often in the wrong lane, flashing the brights as they approached. Often, we came upon a huge truck spewing diesel exhaust, suddenly appearing out of the dark with perhaps one weak red rear light actually working. Hard to judge what it was doing, its speed, whether it was trying to pass another vehicle or double parked. It was always impossible to predict.

I found the drive back to Addis absolutely harrowing! I was amazed and relieved when we arrived in one piece and in plenty of time at the airport for me to catch my flight to Amsterdam and then home to Toronto.

But it was with real regret that I said goodbye to Ethiopia. My thoughts were full of all the wonderful, friendly people I had met, the amazing landscapes, the enchanting children, the aura of religious devotion in mystical churches, and the heartbreaking beauty of the wildlife and flowers. There is so much more that I didn’t have time to see: the colourful tribes of the south, the Bale Mountains, the monasteries of Lake Tana, the Falls and the source of the Blue Nile, the eastern city of Harar. Besides, my schedule didn’t actually permit me a visit this time to our old home in Debre Tabor.

So, yes, as soon as I can, I am going back to Ethiopia. I admit I don’t need an excuse, haunted as I am by the scent of thyme underfoot, the sound of chanted prayers, and the smiles of a lovely people.