Sunday, September 03, 2006

Northern Ethiopia . . . “You are an Ethiopian”

Growing up in Australia I associated Ethiopia with images of living skeletons on World Vision’s TV fund raising advertisements and the mid-80’s hit songs: 'We are the World' and 'Do they know it’s Christmas?' As a result, the expectation was that Ethiopia would be, in the words of the latter, “a world of dread and fear, where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears . . . where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow”.

So, it was somewhat of a surprise to visit northern Ethiopia, an area hard hit by famine in the 80s, and find wide, fast flowing rivers, pouring rain, green grass, crops and healthy livestock. That's not to say that Ethiopia's problems are over. There is a lot of on-going aid work here (which some claim is part of the problem), including food distribution. But in case there is anyone else out there who has been overly influenced by 80s pop music; I thought I should mention that the Christmas bells that ring in Ethiopia are not the “clanging chimes of doom.”

If anyone knows when it’s Christmas – it is an Ethiopian. There are several differing estimates of the percentage of Christians vs Muslims in Ethiopia, but it is generally accepted that the majority of Ethiopians are Christian. And Ethiopian Christians, particularly the Orthodox Christians, are some of the most religious you are likely to come across.

Northern Ethiopia is famous for, among other things, its ‘rock-hewn’ churches. These are churches that have been chiseled by hand out of huge chunks of rock. Our first stop in northern Ethiopia was a small town called Lalibela, home of several rock-hewn churches. We were shown around by our guide, Abeje, whose approach was to explain the history of the churches, the paintings on the walls and other decorations in the form of a Q&A session. “That is a picture of the Angel Gabriel. You know the story of Gabriel?” “And over here is a painting of a cock crowing. What did Peter do before the cock crowed?”

Phil, immersed in his quest for the perfect photo, wasn’t much help and it seemed that my answers (except perhaps on the Adam/Eve/Garden/Serpent/Apple story) were not quite to Abeje’s satisfaction as he soon asked suspiciously, “What religion are you?”

“Christian”, I responded feebly with the knowledge that I have seldom entered a church for reasons unrelated to a wedding, christening or funeral.

“Orthodox?” he asked with a mixture of skepticism and hope.

“No, just Christian.”

To which Abeje’s response was a look that I would have perhaps expected if I had admitted to drinking the blood of young children.

Eventually, Abeje got over the disappointment of leading ungodly tourists through several churches and we all managed to get through the day.

After Lalibela we visited more rock-hewn churches in the Tigray area on the way to Axum. Some of the Tigray churches could only be reached by hours of hiking that included scrambling up a cliff faces in what appeared to be an attempt to turn inaccessibility into an art form.

Even getting to the towns that were near these rock-hewn churches in the north was hard work, requiring several consecutive days on buses that only stopped once for food and perhaps for "urine" (as one bus driver enthusiastically announced). Luckily the scenery is spectacular enough to distract your attention for hours on end, despite the fact that the rolling hills of the north are dotted with rusty tanks - I assume left over from Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea.

Axum is the old capital of the Axumite kingdom - which from 4th century BC to 1st century AD, included Somalia, Eritria, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen and parts of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. There are several tombs, palaces and 'stelae' - huge obelisks that they erected to mark graves (one of which was recently returned by the Italians after being looted from Axum by Mussolini in 1937). Axum also claims to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

Other than the ancient sights, Axum was much like any other town in Ethiopia. Like the others, it contained an inordinate number of shoe-shiners per capita. Ethiopians are obsessed with the quality and cleanliness of footwear. Perhaps it is the Italian influence?

Children not enterprising enough to set themselves up as shoe shiners followed us around Axum with makeshift drums and tambourines, clapping and singing. At first this was a welcome change from the cry of 'one Bir!' and 'give me money' but we soon realized that the children’s scam was to serenade you so loudly and for so long that you will pay them to go away.

Phil had to put up with these hassles on a much more regular basis than I did. In Ethiopia, if I am not walking with Phil and I keep my mouth shut, people assume that I am Ethiopian. In fact, one thing that has been consistent throughout our time in Ethiopia – north or south - is the absolute insistence of some Ethiopians that I am an Ethiopian.

People here generally take one look at me and speak to me in Amharic on the assumption that I know what they are talking about. I have even offended people by starting a conversation in English when I am “obviously Ethiopian”.

When this first happened I launched into a detailed description of my background “My father is from Ghana, West Africa. My mother is from Australia. I was born in Australia . . . blah blah blah.” This soon devolved into “Father-Ghana. Mother-Australia” or, a personal favourite that I picked up in Kenya and which seems to be generally understood in Africa: “vanilla-chocolate” or the Ethiopian equivalent "macchiato".

Light skin seems to be much prized in Ethiopia – perhaps more so than in the rest of Africa, if you use as your measure the number of advertisements for Fair and Lovely, a “skin lightening” cream’. Fair and Lovely, according to the ads can lighten your skin so that any difficulties you have getting a job and/or a boyfriend will be miraculously removed as your skin pales. While the western world tans some Africans 'lighten'.

Despite being mistaken for an Ethiopian, I haven’t (unfortunately for Phil) picked up the ability to be as agreeable as most Ethiopians. Ethiopians would have to be the most eager-to-please people we have ever met and ‘yes’ is generally answer to any question . . .

Phil: So there is no bus from Axum to Gonder?
Local: Yes
Phil: Yes, there is a bus?
Local: Yes
Phil: Where is the bus station?
Local: Yes
Phil: This bus here, is it to Gonder or Shire?
Local: Yes

Trouble finding the right bus in Ethiopia is not helped by the fact that Ethiopia has its own time based on 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness starting at 6am and 6pm respectively eg. our 7am is 1.00 o’clock Ethiopian time. While the Ethiopian clock took a bit of getting used to, I was quick to embrace the Ethiopian calendar, currently in 1998 putting me back in my 20s. I will be using this calendar exclusively forthwith.

Despite the general feeling of confusion which didn’t often leave us, we made it around the tourist loop in the north of Ethiopia back to Addis Ababa via Bahir Dar, where the main attractions were monasteries and the Blue Nile waterfall.

We are now back in Addis waiting for our Sudanese visas – notoriously difficult to obtain. After several “discussions” about whether we should (Phil) or should not (me) go to Sudan we reached a compromise and (if we get the visas) we have decided to travel straight through the north of Sudan to Egypt. Phil thinks Sudan will be one of the best African countries we visit. But Phil also thinks that “now would be a great time to visit Lebanon” so one has to question his sanity.

I'll post a brief update in a few days when we know whether the Sudanese government will let us in.

In the meantime, Phil managed to upload the rest of his photos from Kenya and the photos from Uganda including the gorillas. He is now in the process of loading some of his photos from Ethiopia. The connection isn’t great but he has managed to post some. Click on the 'Cape to Cairo Photos' link for the latest.


Blogger JohnF said...

Hi, I ran across your blog and am impressed. Thanks for sharing your stories and photographs. It gives me some ideas for my next big trip.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

Thanks John. Glad you like it.

12:07 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

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12:07 AM  

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