Sunday, 12 February 2012

Article - Final thoughts on Ethiopia

This last posting on the trip to Ethiopia contains all that information and tidbits that I gathered during the trip, but couldn't really include elsewhere.

Although I never felt threatened at any stage during our trip, I would not recommend independant travel.   There were times when it could have been difficult, and we were saved only by the quick action of our guide.  A good guide is a must.  I'm happy to recommend Kibrom Tesfay whose email address is

There is a culture of expecting hand-outs, and we were occasionally swamped by children asking for money, pens, clothing, shoes, etc.   The more responsible elders did try to restrain the children.  They are concerned that these children will grow up continuing to expect handouts, won't go to school and will end up uneducated.  There is also a more immediate concern of the children getting hurt as they hurtle regardless towards tourist buses and cars.  If we wanted to help, we were told to give money to the disabled or the elderly.   One particular favourite of our guide was a charity to assist war widows.   These elderly ladies survive by carrying enormous loads of firewood.

In the rural areas, the children are left to fend for themselves whilst both parents go off to work. The elderly and older children try to ensure that the younger children do what they are supposed to do, tend goats, donkeys, etc, and head off to school when required to do so.   There are two school sessions a day.  I'm not sure how it is decided who goes to what session.   The children start to learn English in Grade 7, so before that they are only able to recite parrot fashion what they have been taught: 'hello-money' was something they seemed to pick up early!  There is no school for June, July, August and part of September, during the heavy rains and the growing season.

Breakfast usually consists of bread with honey, milk and tea.   Lunch is injera with a sauce.  Dinner is the only meal that the family will usually all eat together.   Most rural families live in one house, depending on the number of children.  Additional rooms are built if there are more than 4 children, and when the children reach 16 or 17 years.

The clothing was beautifully embroidered.   A display in Addis Ababa gave an opportunity to take some close up photos.  The patterns have different meanings and differ according to the region.

Both men and women wore shawls that were very useful to protect them from the dust.

Although the economy is freeing up and there is encouragement to start your own business, there are still disincentives.   I understand that if you own more than half a million birr, it's confiscated by the Government.    Tax (of 4%) is only paid by those who have a regular income.  Farmers don't pay income tax, own their own land, only work 4 months of the year, and so generally can't see the need for education.

In the rural areas, marriages are still arranged by the parents.  Even in the towns, modern youngsters are relucant to marry against their parents wishes.  Dowries can be provided by either the boy or the girl, it depends on whose family is the wealthiest.

Ethiopia has a different calendar to the Western calendar.   The year 2000 was only celebrated a few years ago.  I think they are currently in 2004.  The clock is also different.   The first hour of the day is the first hour of daylight.  So our 7am is their 1am.   Luckily most of our dealings were done in our time.

When a person dies, the priests place the deceased on a bed and take the body to the village square.   The villagers will go to the square and pray for the deceased to go to heaven.  This is followed by a procession to the church with 7 stops along the way.  The body is usually buried in the church grounds without a coffin.  The priest will stay with the family at their house for the day holding prayers.   The villagers, can be up to 100 or 150 people will stay for 3 nights offering prayers.   There will be a continuous stream of visitors, friends family and neighbours over the next 7 days.   Mourning will normally continue for a year, allowing time for distant relatives to make their way to offer prayers.   After 40 days the priest will hold prayers again.

I really enjoyed this trip to Ethiopia and I hope these posts have give you a taste of what it was like.

Journal - Addis Ababa 27 January 2012

Our last day in Ethiopia!  We had lots to do starting with a visit to the Ethnological Museum currently housed in the former Haile Selaasie's palace.

I was fascinated by a display which explained the different uses for various trees found in Ethiopia.  I've given two examples below:
Desert date, used for firewood, charcoal, kills bilharzia.  The bark is used to cure elephantitis, stomach aches, yellow fever and syphilis.   The kernels produce an oil that can be used as soap and cures rheumatism.
Hog plum, obviously this provides fruit.  The wood is used for fences and windbreaks.  The seeds used for oil, and soap.  Good for skin cuts, ear piercing and bone surgery.  The flower and roots can be crushed and used for gastric problems.

The knowledge of the traditional healers can only be passed onto an apprentice, and as not many youngsters want to be trained as a traditional healer there is a problem that this information will be lost.

We were lucky enough to be invited to the artist's studio of Afewerk Tekle.  Now in his early 80's he is still one of Ethiopia's leading artists.   Quite a character, he had many tales to tell of his life and the many changes he had seen in Ethiopia.   He had been very close to Haile Selaasie, and it was obvious that this had disadvantages as well as advantages.  

If his tales were true, and not coloured by an old man's memory, then he was indeed a courageous and outspoken man, not only in words, but also through his work.   His work is bright, colourful and full of symbolism, speaking out on the problems that face Africa.   We saw one of paintings in Trinity church in Addis, which shows the defeat of the Italians.

These beautiful parchments manuscripts continue to be produced.   Each new church requires their own set of Books.

There was time for a final cup of coffee and then it was time to head off back home.

Journal - The final Timkat Festival Lalibela 26 January 2012

We dashed back to the centre of Lalibela, hoping we weren't too late to see the final ceremony.    I saw this guy weaving on the way.    Unfortunately when we went back after the ceremony, he had packed up for the day.

The first indication that the ceremony was under way was meeting the group of chanting, dancing and stick-waving young men.

When we got to the ceremony, there was just an enormous horde of people.   Being rather short, I was dismayed, thinking that I wouldn't be able to see a thing.    But no, it was a bit like parting the Red Sea.   The crowd parted and let us foreigners through, right to the front.   We sat down to ensure we weren't blocking their view and effectively had front row seats of the final ceremony!

In this photo below you can see the priest with the Tabot, the replica of the Ark of the Covenant on his head. 

It was time for one last meal at Ben Abeba restaurant and one last beautful sunset, before we headed back to Addis Adaba.

Journal - Lalibela 26 January 2012

After the mule trip, we visited the remaining churches in Lalibela.  This group included Bete Gebriel, Bete Rufael, Bete Emanuel, Bete Markerious, Bete Libanos, and Bete Giorgis.    Bete Markerious and Bete Libanos are joined by a long tunnel.  

Our guide said we had a choice of getting to Bete Libanos by heaven or by hell.  Hell was the tunnel.  As some of our party suffered from claustrophobia, we went via heaven!

Again it was difficult to capture the majesty and size of these churches in a photo!

On the left is a photo of our 'shoe wallah'!   We were very grateful he was there to look after our shoes and move them from where we entered to where we exited!  

It was getting quieter and quieter around the churches, as everyone started to prepare for the end of the Timkat Festival.   What we had seen beginning in Gondar was about to end in Lalibela, and it was time for us to head off to the final ceremony along with everyone else.

Journal - Monastery of Ashetom Mariam 26 January 2012

The next morning we took a mule trip up to the Monastery of Ashetom Mariam.   Not my favourite form of transport!   It was okay when the mule was walking along the road, but once he was clambering over rocks on a narrow path, it was very difficult to hang on!   I also felt more confidence in my own footing - some of these mules weren't exactly sure footed.

So I walked most of the way up and down, saving the riding for the section through town, as being on a mule protected me from being targeted by children.   And proved that I wasn't totally scared!!

Once again we had amazing views over the countryside and Lalibela.

We had a fantastic view of the villagers making terraces and retaining walls.  This was a Government initiative.    All the farmers were required to participate during the non-growing months.

How cool is this guy?   The photo on the left is him making out the receipt for our payment to see the church.   Inside he is displaying some of the treasures of the church.  Sunglasses are so that we could use flash.

Travellling back to Lalibela.

Journal - Lalibela 25 January 2012

The Cliff Edge Hotel lived up to its name and the views were wonderful.   This photo is sunset from my room.  It was a very acceptable hotel.
Brand new and the developer had been advised by someone who understand Western requirements!  Which translated into clean beds, lots of hot water immediately available, and working toilets!!  Sheer luxury.

 The restaurant wasn't finished and we had to eat meals, other than breakfast elsewhere.     Well, this wasn't a hardship as we had already spotted this strange looking building perched on a hilltop and had debated as to what it was.   A restaurant, managed by a Scottish lady?  Well, we were game for anything, and I have to say the food was really good.  And the views were stupendous!


Lalibela is one of the holiest cities in Ethiopia.    There are no mosques in the city.   King Lalibela was born in the second half of the 12th century.  Apparently he visited Jerusalem and when it was captured by the Muslims, he decided to build his own Jerusalem, and hence these amazing churches.   Legend says they were built by men during the day and then by angels during the night.  It's hard to appreciate the extent of the churches because so much is underground and you wander through a labyrinth of tunnels and narrow passageways,  with offset crypts, grottoes and galleries connecting them.   These photos really don't do it justice.   It's once of those places that you have to go to.

This is the church of St George - of course, St George is just everywhere!!
It's the most famous picture of the churches. The northern group of churches consist of Bete Medhanialem, Bete Mariam, Bete Meskel, Bete Denagl, Bete Gologotamichal and Betemichael.

Journal - Hawzen 24 January 2012

More spectacular scenery. This is early in the morning before we headed off to visit yet more churches. My 'temple socks' were definitely getting a workout! Although most of the churches are carpets strewn on the floors, some of the older ones didn't. The floors had been smoothed to glass by the numerous feet that had visited them. I was pleased that I had been warned and so had little socks to slip on that had non-slip soles. A necessity!

We visited Abraha atsbeha, a 10th century monolithic church.    Luckily this was easily accessible.

St George was with us once again!
Petroswepawlos was the next church on the itinerary, which was reached by an extremely rickerty ladder.

Apparently the ladder was a recent addition, and scorned by the local guides and accompanying children.    Those of our group who hadn't made it to Daniel and Mariam Korkor previously, were determined to be braver today, and in fact all of our group were successful. The priest was off attending to other business, and his gorgeous daughter took the required payment and unlocked the door.   So priests are allowed to be married, but if their wife dies, then they can't remarry.

Some priests hadn't made it back down to the village in their old age and were 'buried' in an open grave behind the church.

Journal - Yeha 23 January 2012

In the early morning we headed off once again. This time to Hawzen, but stopping on the way to see the Temple of Yeha which dates back to 700 BC.   The oldest standing structure in Ethiopia.   It survived as long as it did as it was changed from a temple to a church.

We continued on following a route which although the road was thankfully in good condition and tarmac for a change, continued to offer us spectacular views. But I am never happy, as the good road condition meant we went faster, and saw less, as we whizzed past people and villages.

This is the Bizart valley. We stopped to take photos and were overwhelmed with the smell of wild sage.

Whenever we stopped, children would appear from nowhere.  Almost as if they had been hiding in the bushes!   This could be rather embarrassing if we were planning a 'loo' stop and we definitely needed our guide to ensure that we weren't followed. 

We spent the night at Gerhalta Lodge, which felt very luxurious to us. It was owned by an Italian, which meant our requirements were understood, but also meant that the main ingredient for most of our meals was pasta! A delicious change from injera.  As many ingredients as possible were grown organically at the lodge.

Some of us managed the strenuous climb up the mountain side to view Mariam Kokore and Daniel Korkore, two ancient rock churches.  Most of the group gave up half-way and only four of us continued to the top, up what seemed to be sheer cliffs. I hope these photos give you some feeling of how high up I thought I was.
Whilst we struggled along, children and guides scampered up next to us, 
offering help and assistance.  The climb itself wasn't that difficult, but the concern was getting back down. However, with the help of the guides it was far less difficult than we feared.

I was nervous that we wouldn't make it back down before sunset, but in fact down took much less time than going up.

This is me, celebrating reaching the top!

          The first church we reached was Mariam Kokore approximately 600 AD.  It's one of the most complex and biggest rock churches of its kind, with carved columns and arches.

The second church Daniel Kokore was even older approximately 500 AD which we reached after walking along a narrow ledge.   It had a very narrow opening into the church, that we really had to squeeze through.

It was very dark inside.  There were two chambers.  As you can see the murals looked much older.

The view was enough to make the climb worthwhile!

The priest had been away during our visit, and we met him on the way back. He didn't seem to have the same difficulties that we had in making the climb!   We gave him a small donation for the church.  His gratitude was overwhelming and humbling.