Twelve random observations about Ethiopia

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been posting a series of articles about travel in Ethiopia. I’m about halfway through but I have some observations that don’t fit into anywhere but would be of interest to people considering a trip there. So here are a dozen facts about one of Africa’s most interesting countries.

1. When kids see you they’ll often shout out “Farenj!” (Foreigner!) It’s not meant in a bad way, and they’ll break into peals of laughter if you respond with “Habasha!” (Ethiopian!) This usually leads to a schoolbook conversation in English and much shaking of sticky hands.

Ethiopians love Facebook. At any one time at least half of the people in Internet cafes are using it.

Male friends will often hold hands or walk with their arms around each other’s shoulders, but homosexuality is frowned upon.

English-language newspapers are easy to find in the capital Addis Ababa, and virtually impossible to find anywhere else.

5. Some hotel restaurants will give foreigners menus listing only imitations of Western dishes, assuming they’re not interested in “National Food”. I recommend the “Papered Steak”.

Obama is incredibly popular here and everywhere else in Africa. There are Obama hotels, Obama electronics shops, even a brand of Obama ballpoint pens.

7. Harar Elephant Sanctuary has only one road, and the elephants avoid it.

8. Western charities bring over huge shipments of secondhand t-shirts from the West, so you’ll see Ethiopians wearing shirts advertising the Lake Champlain Monster, “Canada, Eh!”, and “John Kerry for President of France”.

9. Unattractive, poor, old, and handicapped characters are much more common on Ethiopian television than Western TV. Apparently Ethiopian drama isn’t afraid of reflecting reality.

Ethiopians generally don’t eat dessert with their meals, but don’t despair. There are lots of Italian-style pastry shops.

11. Amesaygenalo is the Amharic word for “thank you.” At six syllables it’s the longest word for thank you I’ve ever come across. I like a culture that doesn’t rush its thank yous.

. Ethiopia has a different calendar. Right now it’s the year 2002. The calendar has thirteen months and the day starts at six in the morning. The Ethiopian Tourism Ministry’s motto is, “Thirteen months of Sunshine” and one tour operator has the motto, “Come to Ethiopia and feel eight years younger!”

Next time: Lalibela, Ethiopia’s ancient jewel!

Climbing Ethiopia’s clifftop monastery

While visiting the ancient capital of Axum is one of the highlights of any trip to Ethiopia, you can’t see its most famous relic–the Ark of the Covenant, reputed to be kept in a special building behind the Cathedral of Tsion Maryam. Only a lone caretaker is allowed entry into this sacred building. Every Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a replica of the Ark, called the tabot, but only members of the clergy are allowed to see it.

Even though the holiest artifact of Ethiopian Christianity is strictly off-limits, outsiders can still see places that look like something straight out of the histories of the early Christian Fathers.

After Axum, the main highway loops southwards through the border province of Tigray and passes Debre Damo, built in the 6th century and one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Perched high atop a sheer mesa (amba in Tigrayana), it has survived wars, invasions, forced conversions, and the relentless pressures of time. Women are forbidden to enter the monastery and even female animals are kept away. The only way to enter is by climbing a thick leather rope up a sheer cliff. The priests have cut many footholds over the years, but this didn’t help my fear of heights.

Four years of rock climbing in college made me able to control my fear, but never took it away. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up a lifelong dream. You see, back when I was about ten I read a National Geographic article on Debre Damo and thought the idea of monks living all their lives on top of a cliff was really cool. It was my first impression of Ethiopia, and the image stuck with me through all the reports of famine and war in the 1980s and 90s. I knew there was a different Ethiopia to the one I saw on television and I was determined to see it .

Seeing it was turning out to be tough going.

The high altitude has both me and Sntayehu, my Ethiopian driver/translator/fixer, out of breath before we even get to the bottom of the cliff. Once there, a local guide ties me to the “security rope”, a thick leather strap that snakes up the cliff and disappears out of sight. Tying me in isn’t done with any sort of proper climbing harness, but a loose knot around my waist fastened with a long pin. I have to climb up the main leather rope hand over hand as some unseen assistant keeps the safety rope firm in case I fall. Travel is all about trust, but I’m determined not to test his belaying skill.

%Gallery-90292%So up I go, while Sntayehu stays at the bottom to take photographs of my squashed remains wondrous feat of climbing. The “assistant” at the top of the cliff yanks on the rope, and keeps yanking so hard he nearly pulls me free of the cliff. The security harness burns my skin and almost comes off as I puff up the cliff hand over hand as fast as I can for fear of getting assisted to death. In less time than I think possible I’m up, one hand on a rock crevasse, the other on a wooden threshold worn smooth by centuries of desperate grabs for dear life. Another pull up and this forty-year-old writer sees what he had been waiting three decades to see–the interior of one of Ethiopia’s most remote monasteries.

My view is suddenly blocked by the guy who had been so helpful on the climb up, a young deacon who promptly asks for the entrance fee. At 100 birr ($7.50) this is twice as much as most places, but an entire community of monks lives up here and this is one of their only means of support. Sntayehu told me a story of a group of Israeli backpackers who got to the top, complained about the price, and refused to pay. The deacon pulled up the rope and said they could climb down on their own. They paid. The monks may live in a different world, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid!

Once that formality is finished, I chat with a couple of monks sitting on a narrow staircase leading up to the top of the mesa. My Amharic is limited, their English nonexistent, but I communicate how happy I am to finally be here and they communicate how welcome I am. Ethiopians are good at communicating that. Up the stairs I go and pass through a gate and onto the bare, flat top of the mesa. It’s large, large enough to house a couple of churches, a couple of hundred monks, and lots of open space in which to be alone. The monks only go down to buy food or perform church services, and when they get too old to climb down, they stay up here for the rest of their lives. Simple stone houses shelter them from the sun, and small herds of animals wander around grazing on the few shoots of grass poking up through cracks in the rock. The place looks abandoned as nearly everyone is at a church service.

With the main church closed for services there aren’t many “sights” to see up here, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the atmosphere I came to feel. The quiet is almost palpable, with only the wind blowing across bare rock and the occasional swoosh of an eagle riding the currents of air. A deacon tells me there are hermits living over the lip of the cliff, sitting in caves out of sight and accessible only by tiny finger- and toeholds. The oldest one has lived in a cave for sixty years. Unlike at the monasteries of Lake Tana, they aren’t given a holy book or icon to study, but simply sit thinking and looking out on the vast landscape. At night the monks can hear them singing.

I try to imagine what it would be like sitting alone in a cave and staring out at the rough, dry countryside. The terrain reminds me of the Holy Land, or the desert of Egypt where the world’s oldest Christian monastery still stands. I wonder what it is about deserts that draws mystics of all cultures. Is it the remoteness? The harshness? The proximity to death? Whatever it is, this is how monasteries started. At first hermits went out seeking solitude, then they were followed by more religious seekers until entire communities took root.

I also wonder what it’s like to live the life of a monk up here, but there’s nobody with enough English to ask. The deacon says he’s going to become a priest, the life of a monk being too hard. So I climb back down the rope little wiser than I went up it, except for seeing what life was like for the earliest Christians, and what it is still like for some. I’ve glimpsed a lifestyle I didn’t know still existed. And I learned that the hermits sing at night.

That’s enough.

To see earlier posts in this series, click here.

A Glimmer of Hope for Children in Ethiopia

One thing you notice right away in Ethiopia is the children.

Everywhere you drive they’re by the side of the road, smiling and waving. Whether you’re on a newly paved highway or a rutted, back country dirt track, the kids love seeing foreigners and wave at each one. One day I counted 110 waves and it felt like a slow day.

It’s impossible not to feel good when children are smiling at you all the time, but beyond those smiles there’s a story that’s not so happy. Many Ethiopian live in poverty and lack clean drinking water, adequate health care, and access to a good school. Many have to work to help support their family.

The government is making a serious effort to change that, especially in the field of education. School is free, as are textbooks. Even university is free for students who pass a tough entrance exam. The problem is, many families can’t afford to send their children to school because they need them to work in the fields or at home. Plus the quality of education varies widely. While some schools are excellent and the university students can be downright intimidating with the extent of their knowledge, rural schools often lag behind.

This is where another common sight in Ethiopia comes in–the NGO. Non-governmental organizations are everywhere, building health facilities or engaging in microfinance. Some do a good job while others are criticized for inefficiency and wasteful spending. I couldn’t help but notice the large number of NGO vehicles in the parking lots of the most expensive hotels, the same hotels my wife and I avoided as being too expensive.

While there’s a lot of justified criticism of how NGOs operate in Ethiopia, one organization that gets universal approval is A Glimmer of Hope. This Austin, Texas, based organization has a huge endowment that pays all its operating expenses, meaning any donations really do make it to those in need. Other than some projects in Austin, they focus entirely on Ethiopia, mainly in education, health, water, and microfinance. I got to visit four Glimmer of Hope projects and found them a step above the usual NGO efforts.

Our four-wheel drive bumped and lurched over a rough dirt road through patches of forest and farm fields. We were only a mile off the main highway and already a half century back in time. There were no shops, few villages, and electricity was a rarity. Strange to say, we were only a half hour’s drive from Gondar, a major tourist attraction. Our goal was the villages of Burbex and Girargie. Here Glimmer of Hope was building new schools, a rural health center, and a well. As soon as we pulled into the dirt schoolyard and got out of the car we got more than friendly waves; we were mobbed. All learning stopped as kids poured out of the classrooms to see the foreigners.

%Gallery-89843%The “I’ll teach you English if you teach me Amharic” game that we played at the source of the Nile started in earnest, and it was with difficulty that we waded through the crowd to meet the engineer in charge of the building project and the principal of the school. They showed us the old classrooms. A long building, made of wood, mud, and plaster, housed a few cramped rooms on which students sat on bare benches. There were no desks, no extra books besides the textbooks the government hands out, and few educational materials besides a blackboard. Across the yard the new schoolhouse was being built and it already promised a huge change. It was bigger, made of concrete, and would be furnished with educational materials and proper desks provided by Glimmer of Hope. Donations for another school project in Dali are being collected through an online purchasing system where you can buy individual bits of equipment, such as $45 blackboard, that go directly to the school.

Deeper into the countryside we visited a school that had even fewer facilities. It was housed in an abandoned home and the kids didn’t even have benches to sit on. Instead they sat on rocks. The only light came through the glassless window and the cracks in the walls, and the only equipment was a blackboard with a hole in it. Yet here, too, kids were learning, at least until we showed up and got mobbed again. These shoeless children dressed in tattered clothing proudly tried out their English vocabulary and showed us their government school books, which were well-written and stuffed with information. The government is serious about education and stretches its limited resources as far as possible. A dedicated student can do well. The government will even subsidize room and board for university students so they won’t be a burden on their families. While this country needs help, they are doing everything they can to help themselves.

A Glimmer of Hope recognizes this and does something few other NGOs do–it hires only Ethiopians for its in-country staff. This avoids a lot of embarrassing blunders where well-meaning but essentially clueless Westerners try to graft their own ideas of development onto a society they don’t understand. And it gives much-needed jobs to Ethiopians, from the people hauling concrete to educated professionals working in the head office. Once a school is built, the local government takes it over and A Glimmer of Hope moves on to the next project.

This cooperation has worked well at a school in Lege Tafo, near the capital Addis Ababa. A Glimmer of Hope is building an expansion, a science lab, and a library while the government is stocking the library with books, funding another expansion, and funding school operations. What was once a middling semi-rural school is fast becoming a science magnet school. The fact that most students walk several miles down from the surrounding mountains to go there is a testament to its reputation, and to how serious the kids are about education.

This is something you see all around the country–twelve year-old girls who want to be doctors, kids doing their homework by firelight, and university students who aren’t applying for foreign visas because they want to stay and build up their country.

With a new generation like this, it won’t be long before Ethiopia won’t need so many NGOs.

Next stop: Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region!

You can read the entire series of Ethiopia travel articles here.

Gondar: Ethiopia’s Camelot

The road north from Lake Tana, Ethiopia, gradually ascends into the mountains. The landscape grows greener and the farms look richer here.

The combination of rough mountains and good farmland made it an obvious place for a capital city, and for many years it was. Gondar is nestled in a mountain-ringed valley at 2133 meters (6,998 ft.) altitude and is free from the malaria that plagues the Lake Tana region. It appeared so attractive that the Emperor Fasilidas moved from Lake Tana and made Gondar his capital in 1635. He built the impressive castle pictured to the right and gathered his court and supporters around him.

If the castle looks a bit European, that’s because Fasilidas took his inspiration from the Portuguese. A group of Portuguese adventurers had helped his father, Susneyos, defeat the Muslim conqueror Ahmed Gragn. Susneyos converted to Catholicism and tried to convert his subjects too, but the Ethiopian Orthodox faith was too strong for such a change. When Fasilidas came to the throne he quickly reconverted everyone back to the traditional church and ejected the Portuguese. This didn’t stop him from learning a thing or two from the Europeans, however, castle architecture being one of them.

Gondar makes a good rest stop after a few days of driving. The mountain breeze is cool and refreshing. The Italians liked it too, and during their brief occupation of the country from 1936-1941 they built an attractive European-style downtown that still retains some faded glory.

%Gallery-87470%Gondar is a place of song. The town’s many churches broadcast prayers and hymns over loudspeakers from the early morning until late at night. While this is common practice across Ethiopia, here the prayers bounce off the slopes and echo across the valley. They are especially audible at the palace complex, where Fasilidas built his castle and his successors vied with each other to make their own mark on history. There are a total of six castles by six different kings, built during Gondar’s 280 year run as the empire’s capital. The entire complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While that of Fasilidas is the most imposing, each castle has its own distinctive style. A walk around the grounds is best done in a leisurely manner, and some castles offer fine views from the upper windows and battlements, although it takes some convincing to get the guards to let you up there!

Two related sights nearby should not be missed. One is the “Bath” of Fasilidas, actually a giant baptismal font for his famous mass reconversion. Usually it’s left empty, but for Timkat, the celebration of Epiphany, it’s filled with water and the faithful gather around, dressed in white and carrying candles.

The other sight is the Trinity Church built by the Emperor Iyasu in 1674. Of the 44 churches in Gondar, this is the only one to survive the attack of the Mahdi’s forces from the Sudan in 1888. It is said that the bees kept in the orchard on the church grounds swarmed against the Muslim looters and stung them so badly that they fled. The soldiers tried several times to burn the church, but each time they were driven off by angry bees.

However the church was saved, every visitor is grateful that it was. The interior is filled with elegant paintings of miracles and Bible scenes. Even the ceiling is covered in art. Winged angel heads are painted in neat rows along and between the roof beams. They look in every direction, a symbol of God being able to see everything at once.

If he has an eye for beauty, he must be looking at Gondar a lot.

Coming up next: Ethiopia’s wonderful children!

You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.

Medieval monasteries on Lake Tana, Ethiopia

The Christian communities of Ethiopia have an eye for dramatic settings. From the sweeping views of Debre Libanos to the many monasteries perched atop sheer cliffs, the surroundings of a holy place are often as beautiful as the place itself.

It makes sense from a religious point of view. If you’re going to spend your life celebrating Creation, where better to do it than a place where Creation is at its most awesome or serene?

This is certainly true of the monasteries and nunneries on the islands of Lake Tana. These religious communities are set in a placid lake surrounded by green hills and fields. At 65 km (40 miles) in diameter it’s the largest lake in Ethiopia and has been a center of worship for more than 500 years.

Hiring a boat is pretty straightforward at the lakeside town of Bahir Dar, and our first stop is a peninsula a few miles along the coast where stands the 16th century church of Ura Kidane Mihret. The boat docks at a little pier and my wife and I take a narrow path through a dense forest. Coffee grows everywhere under the shade of the forest canopy. I’ve never seen coffee growing before. Splitting open one of the red berries I find the bean inside, a pale yellow, sticky thing that bears little resemblance to the roasted beans I’m used to. We drink Ethiopian coffee every morning at home so it’s nice to see where it comes from.

We climb a hill and pass though a simple stone gate. In the yard the monks are busy laying the foundation for a new building. All the monks have to work hard, either at farms on the mainland or helping out around the church and monastery. The church itself is deceptively simple on the outside–a large, round building topped by an elaborate cross–but when we pass through the tall wooden doors we’re stopped short by brilliantly colorful paintings reaching from floor to ceiling.


The outer wall of the church shelters an inner wall that encloses the worship area and holy of holies. Every inch of this wall is covered in paintings. Some scenes are familiar, like the Crucifixion and St. George defeating the dragon. Others are strange to us, coming from holy books that have been discarded by or lost to the Western tradition, like the Miracle of Mary and the Kebre Negast. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes many such books in their canon. The books of Enoch and Jubilees were translated into Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian language still used in church services, but were lost to the West and survive in the New Testament only in a few quotations. If it wasn’t for ancient Ethiopian translators, these books would be almost entirely unknown.

The paintings are vivid, showing scenes of miracles and worship. Mary is a popular figure and every phase of her flight to Egypt is shown in detail. There’s also a brilliant painting of all the souls in Hell being freed after the Crucifixion.

The paintings sometimes take interesting twists to familiar themes. For example, the common image of St. George killing the dragon has a unique legend attached to it in Ethiopia. There once was a village that worshiped the dragon and made human sacrifices to it every day. A maiden named Brutawit was going to be sacrificed and St. George told her that if she believed in God that she would be saved. She was, thanks to George’s skill with a lance, and she took the dead beast back to the village to show that God was more powerful than the dragon. The entire village then converted to Christianity.

A short boat ride away is the island monastery of Kibran Gabrael. Like many monasteries, it’s off-limits to women so my wife hung out in a shady grove while I went to see the monastery’s famous library of medieval manuscripts. The monastery is quiet, most of the monks being on the mainland tending crops, but the librarian is in and he leads me to a little building stuffed with books. As a dedicated bibliophile I’ve been to some of the great libraries of the world and looked through many rare illuminated manuscripts, but I was very impressed with what I saw on this peaceful little island. The level of artistry in the books is equal to any of the great works of medieval France or Italy, yet completely different in style. The librarian opens up book after book of sturdy goatskin, showing me richly colored paintings of Bible scenes. Each of the Gospels has its own book, and there’s a hefty New and Old Testament that weighs in at 17 kilos (38 pounds)! Also in the library are a selection of icons. When a monk goes off on his own to pray in solitude for a few days, the abbot gives him a book to read and an icon to meditate on. Thus the monks get some fine art to admire and think about while they are cut off from the rest of humanity.

Lake Tana has several other monasteries and churches other than the ones I mention here. Some take an entire day trip by boat to visit. Someone seriously interested in seeing them all would need about a week to do it properly. Hopefully some day I’ll go back and write about them all here.

Next stop: Gondar–Ethiopia’s Camelot!

You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.