In India the cow is king – or queen whichever the gender may be. Wherever it goes, it reigns supreme – along roads (usually in the middle!), in busy shop areas (sometimes even inside the shop), in alleyways, grazing in garbage at the side of a street… in other words, anywhere it likes and no one is going to interfere with it. In Ethiopia, much the same can be said about cows as well as goats – but they don’t reign supreme. If you kill a cow or a goat along the road with your vehicle, you have to pay for it. And they don’t travel alone but in groups or in herds – the more difficult to avoid but at the same time, easier. In Ethiopia cows and goats mean money, livelihood – the more you have, the better off you are. In India, cows are just there – important but in a different way. And, of course, in Ethiopia, there are camels and donkeys – but very few dogs. Cats? What are they?
[Click on the image to enlarge it]
Much of Ethiopia is contained within the Great Rift Valley which runs from north to south for around 6400 kilometres from northern Syria to central Mozambique in southern East Africa. In British Columbia, when we think of valleys, the images of steep, narrow gorge-like terrain come easily to mind whereas in Africa the opposite is true. The Great Rift Valley varies in width from thirty to one hundred kilometres and in depth from a few hundred to several thousand metres. So one doesn’t think of it as a valley at all.
But that isn’t the valley’s only distinction: there is a continuing debate whether the area was indeed the cradle of humanity (I like to think so with my romantic and limited knowledge of anthropology!). Some of the oldest evidence for modern humans is found in Ethiopia and it has been suggested by many scientists that the Rift’s trough is widely considered the region from which Homo Sapiens (that’s us, folks) first set out for the Middle East and points beyond in an important route for human dispersal. When one contemplates on these things, one is left in wonderment and awe. At least I am. Amazement is my Holy Grail…. Ethiopia is also the origin of the coffee bean!
Ethiopia is a diversified country with varied terrain and a land of natural contrasts, from Africa’s largest continuous mountain ranges, to deserts, jungles, different cultures (with at least 80 different ethnic groups within the country) and changes in climate. Never have I experienced such distinctive differences in any of the places I have travelled (over fifty countries at last count). In the north the people are lighter-skinned from what you might expect of Africans. They are also more finely-boned than those in the south and east, giving credence to their affinity with North Africans. (It’s obvious that my bias and ignorance are showing. It’s obvious also that I am generalizing in regard to these characteristics; in my limited time there I am forced to generalize, unfortunately.)
(Thinking about how I am writing this reminds me of the philosopher Édouard Glissant, who was born in Martinique, educated at the Sorbonne and profoundly involved in anti-colonial movements of the ’50s and ’60s. One of Glissant’s main projects was an exploration of the word “opacity.” Glissant defined it as a right to not have to be understood on others’ terms, a right to be misunderstood if need be. (Italics mine) The argument was rooted in linguistic considerations: It was a stance against certain expectations of transparency embedded in the French language. Glissant sought to defend the opacity, obscurity and inscrutability of Caribbean blacks and other marginalized peoples. External pressures insisted on everything being illuminated, simplified and explained. Glissant’s response: No. And this gentle refusal, this suggestion that there is another way, a deeper way, holds true for me, too.)
But why Ethiopia? Two principal reasons. When I was a young teenager I read a book about a British officer who was assisting the Ethiopians in their resistance against the Italians during World War II, Orde Wingate. It was an interesting ‘war’ story but what was fascinating to me was the light it shone on the people, particularly the country’s emperor, Haile Selassie. He is still very much in the minds, if not hearts, of the people as he wasn’t deposed until 1974. To me he was a fascinating figure as was the country.
The second reason is the people and tribes of the Omo Valley in the south. Like so many peoples throughout the world they are being displaced and relocated by the vicissitudes of their own government. There are about eight main tribes in this area; we visited at least three of them: the Mursi, the Karo, and the Hamer although in many of the villages there was a mix of other tribes as well. In the case of these tribes they are literally being kicked off their traditional lands so that multinationals can come in and establish large non-indigenous plantations – eg., palm oil, cotton and maize. As well, the government is building another dam on the Omo River which will displace a number of tribes and end their pastoralist way of life. Some peoples have already been forced to move into tenements in places far from their homelands and contrary to their former way of life. It’s a familiar, sad story which is taking place throughout the world. I urge you to read about this situation here:
And so in my own small way I want to document their story and help in any way I can.
But there is so much more: the Queen of Sheba, the Ark of the Covenant, a Christian nation in the midst of Islam (Eliza Griswold, in her book ‘The Tenth Parallel’, illustrates how much of the world is divided between Muslims who live north of the tenth parallel – about 120 miles north of the Equator – and Christians living south of it in countries such as Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines and the continuing [and often] conflicts they experience. However, Ethiopia is Christian with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church displaying a strong presence), churches hewn out of the rock, wildlife, birds…. and, again, the people.
I was very fortunate to arrive in Addis Ababa, the capital, a few days before their Christmas, January 6. After having paid homage to the capital with the expected tour of the university and museum, we travelled to Axum in the north, the former capital. The great mystery of Axum is its claim to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. This claim is connected to the legend of the Queen of Sheba (and, yes, we saw what is believed to be the ruins of her palace) and King Solomon, whose son Menelik is said to have brought the Ark to Axum some 3000 years ago (Menelik founded the Solomonic dynasty, of which Haile Selassie was the last emperor).
Ark of the Covenant Chapel
I was still waiting for things to happen and my holy grail began to be filled to overflowing. It began in Lalibela whom many of you will recognize as the place where a number of churches are hewn out of the rock and lie below ground level. It’s quite a sacred place for the Christians of Ethiopia and even more so on Christmas Eve where many were camped out waiting for the all-night services to begin. Lots of people!
These monolithic churches are majestic – the term “monolithic church” is most often used to refer to the complex of 11 churches in Lalibela, believed to have been created in the 12th century. A monolithic church or rock-hewn church is a church made from a single block of stone. Because freestanding rocks of sufficient size are rare, such churches are usually hewn into the ground or into the side of a hill or mountain. It is said that the then emperor had these churches constructed in such a way so as to escape the gaze of the invading Muslims. However, the Muslim conquest of North Africa and surrounding regions took place in the 7th Century and, again, an attempt was made in the 16th Century. It is more likely that the emperor wished to construct the New Jerusalem, having made a pilgrimage to that city and in his zeal to promulgate the Christian faith.
From Bahar Dar and Lake Tana (which is the source of the Blue Nile and is the largest lake in Ethiopia) with its nearby ancient round monastery well preserved with rich religious paintings and illuminated manuscripts and other treasures, to Harar with its 1,000-year old city walls and the former residence of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, to flamingos along the way and Marabu storks and ostriches and baboons and women at a well, a tribal kaleidoscope of communities …. and, of course, cattle and goats along the road. And here is where my Holy Grail began to be filled to the brim!
In the bushy savanna of the Omo River Valley live a fascinating mix of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, from the Mursi and Karo to the Bume and Harar, co-existing in a harsh land that is all but forgotten by the rest of the world – except the government and greedy multi-nationals, of course (see above). For the most part the tribes have separate languages and they mainly interact at markets. The lower valley of the Omo is currently believed by some to have been a crossroads for thousands of years as various cultures and ethnic groups migrated around the region. They depend on the river to practice ‘flood retreat cultivation’ using the rich silt left along the river banks by the slowly receding waters in September and October. Huge tracts of sorghum can be seen along the river’s edge. Chewing on a stalk of sorghum is much like chewing on a stalk of sugar cane although not as sweet. I never did like chewing on a stalk of sugar cane…. The sorghum wasn’t much different!
As an added bonus we were privileged to view a Bull Jumping Ceremony at a small Hamar village. When a man is ready for marriage he must prove his worthiness not only to the village members but also to his intended bride’s family by jumping over the backs of a bunch of bulls (horns bristling and all). It’s quite a ceremony with the women of the tribe dancing and being whipped by the groom’s best man (yes, whipped!) and ending up with the man running up and over the bulls’ backs.
Back to Addis Ababa the capital to witness another Christian celebration – the Timkat Festival in commemoration of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist at the River Jordan. Once again, hordes of people but in a more orderly fashion, i.e., processions of choristers and priests and acolytes and crucifers and who knows what, all being led by the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I thought my life had come full circle!
It was a long ceremony, from early morning to night. Fortunately we didn’t stay for the whole thing but much preferred to go and have a cold beer! Which was an apt way to end a wonderful trip.