Tradition in an ancient land

A donkey pulls a cart through a typical village in northern Ethiopia. PHOTOS: CHARMIAN SMITH
A donkey pulls a cart through a typical village in northern Ethiopia. PHOTOS: CHARMIAN SMITH
Otago Daily Times Fresh columnist Charmian Smith was in Ethiopia  when Covid-19 began to drive countries into lockdown. Despite cutting her trip short and a worry-filled trip home, she has fond memories of a country full of contrasts - an ancient land, riddled with myth and legend, rich with time-worn ruins and age-old practices that still resist the tide of modernity.

Charmian Smith
Charmian Smith
Is this a city of light? I wonder as we drive into Addis Ababa from the airport late in the evening. The highway is lined with brilliant streetlights, the poles flashing green, gold and orange, the colours of the Ethiopian flag. Green is for the land, gold for hope and red for the blood spilt in the past. Behind the street lights are multi-storey blocks, their windows also gleaming.

But just past a dazzling electronic billboard advertising the local telecom company we turn and plunge into an area where there’s a power cut and everything is dark. This is the reality of a country in the throes of modernising.

But outside the modern capital, this country in the Horn of Africa is ancient, riddled with myth and legend, rich with venerable buildings, ruins and age-old practices.

For perhaps four millennia, Ethiopia, thought to have been part of the Land of Punt, which traded with ancient Egypt, has been a major centre in the great Red Sea trade routes, which also included Arabia,Yemen, Persia, the Levant and beyond.

One of the earliest countries to convert to Christianity (even before the Roman Empire in the third century CE), it traces its origins to the Queen of Sheba who, according to the Old Testament, visited King Solomon in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE. The Ethiopian legend has it that she returned to Axum in the north of the country, gave birth to a child, Menelik, from whom descended the Solomonic dynasty of which Haile Selassiewas the last emperor. He was assassinated by the Derg communist revolutionaries in 1975.

The Jewish Ark of the Covenant, said to contain the stone tablets given to Moses on Mt Sinai and which disappeared from Jerusalem some 2500 years ago, is claimed to be stored in a small, ancient church at Axum, although no-one except the priest who cares for it is allowed to see it. Copies are held in churches around the country and many other Jewish practices and symbols, such as the six-pointed Star of David, are incorporated into their religion.

Archangel Michael depicted in an Ethiopian fresco in a monastery on 
an island in Lake Tana.
Archangel Michael depicted in an Ethiopian fresco in a monastery on an island in Lake Tana.
Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, different from other forms of Christianity, has a deep hold on this religious people, especially in the north of the country.

We were there during Lent, here the 55 days before Easter, and most people were fasting, which meant eating no animal products or drinking alcohol. People dressed in white attended Mass every afternoon in the many churches. Sometimes there were processions around the church afterwards, with bell-ringers, and priests in rich robes shaded by extravagant gold parasols followed by monks, nuns and crowds of devout worshippers.

Often we would see a priest in the streets blessing people who reverently kissed his elaborate gold cross hung with an embroidered scarf.

Many churches are filled with treasures — intricately-wrought crosses of gold or silver of a style unique to each region, ancient manuscripts written on goat parchment, rich robes, paintings and, above all, frescos on the walls and ceilings inside.

These depict biblical scenes. The Virgin Mary and Child are popular topics, as well as angels and saints, including St George, who slew the dragon, a patron saint of Ethiopia as well as many other countries.

All the angels and people depicted are African, with brown faces and black hair. Only a few later 19th- or 20th-century paintings show white faces - a result of European influence, according to our guide Afe.

When Muslims invaded Ethiopia after the 8th century, many religious treasures were hidden safely in the decorated churches and monasteries on islands in Lake Tana, the country’s largest lake and source of the Blue Nile.

In the 11th century, the Zagwe kings moved the capital to Lalibela. It was in the middle of nowhere, says Afe.

So invading Muslims would not notice any significant buildings from a distance, churches were hewn out of the living rock below ground level - with the help of angels, so the story goes. The ruse apparently worked and the the dynasty survived Muslim invasions. Now the churches are Unesco world heritage sites, but still very much in use, with groups of devotees clad in white chanting or praying, almost oblivious to tourists. Priests in their robes obligingly pose for photographs with their treasured crosses.

A later capital is Gonder, famous for its 17th- and 18th-century castles built by emperor Fasilidas, after he expelled all foreigners, including Jesuit priests who were trying to convert the country to Catholicism. The compound includes castles built by his successors (although they lived in Fasilidas’ original mansion) as well as baths, breweries, factories for metalwork, pottery, weaving and other crafts, and bridges to churches outside the compound. During our visit we hear chanting from the afternoon Mass, relayed by loudspeaker for those unable to attend.

A fisherman on Lake Tana uses a modern nylon net although his papyrus boat is a design that would...
A fisherman on Lake Tana uses a modern nylon net although his papyrus boat is a design that would have been used on the Nile for millennia.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when European powers were scrambling for African colonies, Italy set its sights on Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia), but were driven out in 1896. Ethiopians are proud of being the only African nation to have beaten a colonising European army. However, the Italians did occupy the country from 1935-42 until expelled by the locals with the help of the British. However, traces of Italian cuisine remain, especially pasta and pizza.

While Ethiopia now has an efficient national airline, rather unreliable internet, and a modern capital, life in the countryside goes on as it has for millennia.

Main roads may be paved but donkeys — and people — trot along loaded with sacks of grain, or yellow plastic jerrycans of water. There’s a 5km radius around wells so women, or donkeys if the family is lucky, have to carry water home. They also carry food to and from market, firewood, and long poles used for housebuilding.

These, surprisingly, are usually eucalyptus which was introduced a century or so ago, and seem to grow almost everywhere, usually coppiced to provide the long poles suitable for walls and roofs of their small houses.

Standing upright, close together, the poles are plastered with a mix of mud, dung and straw to form walls. Power lines may go past outside, but the houses are not connected.

There is no sanitation or water, and cooking is done on wood fires inside or outside, but they sport new corrugated iron roofs rather than the traditional thatch.

Afe says they are trying to eliminate eucalypts as they soak up a lot of groundwater. The idea is that people will cook using electricity from the huge dam being built on the Blue Nile. However, Egypt, worried about a water shortage down river, is disputing the rate at which it will be filled.

Agriculture is simple and rain-fed. Small plots of land marked out by stones are ploughed by a man with a pair of oxen and a simple wooden plough. Grain such as wheat, barley or the local staple, teff, is grown in the dry season and beans or lentils, which restore nitrogen to the soil, in the wet. Livestock grazes on communal ground, the small herds of a few cows, sheep and goats returning home with their herder each night. Dung is collected for burning, mixing into the mud for walls, or for fertiliser.

Threshing is also done in an age-old way: the harvested stalks are placed on the ground, and a couple of oxen are harnessed together — their mouths tied to prevent them eating — to pull a heavy sled over them to separate the grain from the stalks. It is winnowed by tossing it in the breeze, which blows the lighter chaff away while the heavier grain drops to the ground. A farmer we stopped to photograph said he expected to get 200kg of barley from his harvest.

You can’t help feeling weight of tradition that probably hasn’t altered since biblical times will be slow to change.


WE’RE more than 3000m above sea level, higher than anyone in New Zealand except the odd mountaineer. This is the Unesco World Heritage-listed national park in the Simien Mountains in northwest Ethiopia.

Vertiginous gullies and sheer escarpments intersect this high plateau and the ancient volcanic plugs in the distance melt into the haze — a dust storm from neighbouring Sudan is covering the northern part of Ethiopia, and, we will find a couple of days later, preventing flights taking off.

But at this altitude, 13 degrees north of the equator, the air is fresh, pleasantly cool in the shade although increasingly hot in the sun. It’s also thin and it takes a bit more grunt and more rests than usual to walk uphill, but it’s worth it for the views, the flora, and the mostly elusive wildlife.

I caught a glimpse of a hyena when out to see the sunrise. A greyish, dog-like face with large ears appeared over the crest then disappeared. Being nocturnal, it would be heading back to its cave to sleep, Afe, our guide, tells me later. We don’t see wolves, leopards or the rare Walia ibexes, but we do see plenty of the endemic Gelada monkeys.

These curious creatures are the only living grass-eating monkeys, although fossil remnants indicate grass-eaters were once more widespread.

About the size of a large dog, they have brown to buff coloured fur, black arms and faces, and a bright triangle of bare red skin on their chests. Males are larger than females and have an impressive lion-like mane round their heads and shoulders.

We first saw them early in the morning when they were moving to their grazing grounds. Later in the day, we came across several large groups sitting on their haunches, intently pulling up and munching grass. The young scampered around, sometimes stopping to forage, while babies suckled. When very young they cling to their mothers’ bellies, but later ride on their backs, sometimes entwining their tails for support or, perhaps, companionship.

They take little notice of the few tourists, their cameras clicking frantically. They avoid eye contact and we are told to keep at least a metre away.

However, one comes so close I can see its black arms and little hands with thick black nails (or are these claws?) spread out to dig in the earth for grass roots. Pickings are fairly lean as it’s still the dry season, but once the rains come the grass will be lush, even though the weather may be cold and frosty at this altitude.

Gelada monkeys are sometimes called cliff-hangers because of their sleeping arrangements. To avoid nocturnal predators such as hyenas or leopards which find them delicious, our guide says, they sleep on sheer escarpments, of which there are many in this park.

Their sleeping ledges are so narrow their tails drape down the cliff and they hang on with their fingers while they sleep. They obviously have no trouble scrambling up and down the rock faces — we watched a group of youngsters leaping and bounding on the almost vertical rocky cliff. In the mornings they come up to the alpine meadow, take part in their elaborate social rituals for a while, then go off to their feeding grounds.

Above, fantailed ravens swoop, thick-billed ravens gather for food offerings when we have lunch, buzzards hover and a vulture wheels far above, driving the buzzards away. We are lucky to spot the brilliant blue and brown plumage of the rare Abyssinian roller.

We walk back to our minibus past flowering Abyssinian rose bushes, little wild irises, everlasting flowers, wild thyme, the poisonous apple of Sodom with nasty spikes on its leaves, thistles, thorny acacia, and a lichen known as old man’s beard hanging from trees like moss and used by locals as toilet paper — and, of course, lots of coppiced eucalypts.

African angels decorate the ceiling and rafters of Debre Berhan Selassie.
African angels decorate the ceiling and rafters of Debre Berhan Selassie.

Cutting things short and hurrying home

We had booked our trip to Ethiopia and then on to Spain and Portugal last year, before the emergence of Covid-19. Even when we left in early March the spread was limited, although reports of cases in northern Italy were coming out, we still expected to complete our trip to Europe. However, 10 days into the Ethiopian section, in a hotel where the internet was down, we watched on BBC news that Italy was in lockdown and Spain was about to follow. We had no choice but to cancel our trip to Europe and go home with the rest of the group at the end of the Ethiopian tour.

However, three days later the New Zealand Government urged all New Zealanders to get home while commercial flights were still operating. The group decided to cut the last four days off the tour, missing the Awash National Park and Lake Lagano south of Addis, and get home as quickly as possible. Tours Direct back in New Zealand worked wonders changing our flights.

It was about then that we noticed a new hostility from locals, someone shouting, ‘‘Corona virus’’ at us, a woman lashed out at one of our group, and some boys threw stones. Our guide, Afe, cool and knowledgeable as ever, explained that they got information from radio or word of mouth which called it a white person’s disease.

We flew back to Addis Ababa to catch a flight to Dubai and then home.

However, during the day Dubai had closed its borders and they wouldn’t let us check in, even though we would only be transiting and had confirmed onward flights. Our New Zealand guide, Janet, was calm, polite and persistent, and finally got someone to phone the UAE to check. After an hour’s nail-biting anxiety that we would have to stay in Africa, permission to check in was granted and our luggage checked right through to Auckland. At the gate we had to explain again, but we were allowed to board, although many others, including some very angry and probably desperate people, were not. The plane took off with only abut 50 passengers on board. Dubai airport was busy and seemed to be operating as usual, but someone told us it would close in a couple of days.

The flight from Dubai to Auckland was almost full with lots of young people, many coming home from Europe. Several people on that flight were later confirmed to have Covid-19.

We were never so glad to land in Auckland, and later Dunedin where our car had been left for us to drive ourselves home. We are still well and have come out of self-isolation. As the country is now in in lockdown there isn’t much difference.

But it’s good to be home with clean air, vegetables in the garden, bush within walking distance, familiar things around, and the ability to phone friends and relatives.


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