12 Hours in Ethiopia

I feel like I have been here before. Sitting in the Addis Ababa Restaurant, a landmark for traditional food in Ethiopia’s capital city, people shout and joke, laughing together. A playfully communal spirit flows through the air, heavily seasoned with the rustic scents of berebere and shiro spices, cooked meat and fermentation.

It could have been that the local tej, or honey wine, was getting to my head, or that my 3am departure from Cairo was now making me delirious, but I felt in this moment, a deep sense of happiness and peace that defied explanation.

I am in Africa, I thought. I am surrounded by strange smells, drunken strangers, and questionable concoctions that may invert my stomach. And somehow, I feel truly at home.

Ethiopia is a country that somehow feels both separate from, and essentially a part of Africa. But as anyone who has been here can tell you, there is an amorphous ingredient that distinguishes this country from its neighbors, creating a fiercely proud and distinctly beautiful culture that defies all expectation.

Sacred chants resound out of churches and mosques throughout the day, each singing in unique musical scales found only in this country. Ethiopia’s ancient biblical kingdoms of Gondar and Axum still occupy the cultural memory. Christians, Muslims, and Jews all comprise a uniquely Abyssinian take on their respective religion, and manage to live together in peace.

I met my host and friend, Asrat, just a month prior in Egypt, on the banks of the Nile. In the brisk morning air, I found him waiting for me outside the Addis Ababa airport.

After a short drive we began walking down a series of cobblestone streets surrounded with low, tin roofs peeking up above earthen, whitewashed walls. We finally came to a large metal gate, opening to a peaceful courtyard enclosed by several one-room dwellings, where my friend and his family live. I deposit my bags, feeling welcomed, and safe.

We started by walking to an Ethiopian Orthodox church in his neighborhood- a massive octagonal building painted with vibrant turquoises, along with the national colors of red, gold and green. Pilgrims, priests, women, and children populate the church’s peaceful courtyard. We walk out the next gate, and come to a beautiful view of a distant valley. I take a picture with my phone.

Immediately someone calls to us, and I notice a guard tower and a military-like structure to our left. We walk through the gate, to where they called to us, and a man walks down the road in a military uniform. “Uh-oh,” I joke. When the soldier arrives, its clear he isn’t joking. With a face a stern as steel he shouts at my friend in Amharic. My friend apologized calmly.

With a strike as hard and quick as lightning, the military officer smacks Asrat across the face. My friend is dumbfounded, open mouthed, and I am equally shocked. Without a word, we walk away. The reality of Africa again occupies a central place in my mind.

As we walked in silence my thoughts wandered to the 1970’s and ’80s, during the time known as “The Derg,” when Communist provocateurs murdered Emperor Haile Selassie, and began a series of atrocities that included torturing and imprisoning anyone suspected of political opposition. Ethiopia’s economy imploded, resulting in the images of poverty most of us now have of this culturally rich country. It was a dark time for Ethiopia.

We decide to clear our heads, and leave the city. Catching a small transport van, we gradually ascend the mountains that surround Addis. Getting out of the van, we continued to walk up a winding hill covered by groves of eucalyptus trees. We climb, passing brigades of donkeys laden with sticks, clopping down the steep hill, not a shepherd or driver in sight.

We pass an ornately dressed orthodox priest, like a character out of some fantasy novel, who blesses us with his smile and his intricate staff. Near the top, another man sits by the side of the road, writing intently in a notebook. Though not dressed as lavishly as the last man, my friend informs me that he too, is a holy person. “He is a man of church, but not a priest. He is something like a…”

“Monk?” I say. “Yes, like that. We call them Menaksi.” 

Dread-locked and clad in simple blue robes, these religious wanderers are of the strictest sects of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Similar to India’s wandering holy men, the Menaksi are ascetics, and devote their entire lives to their faith. Their tradition is ancient.

We pass clusters of simple mud huts and fences made of sticks, containing chickens and goats and naked children. At the top is the famous Entoto Church, a beautiful crown on the mountain.

“People move up here because they want to be close to the church. Many people come up here to be healed,” my friend explains. “They are sick and they know the church will take care of them.”

Yet despite these people’s suffering, I found it profoundly peaceful atop this hill. The sound of clucking chickens and children playing in the distance, as skinny mothers swept their yards of pounded red earth.

We reach the top- a magnificent church called Entoto, a historical area where King Menelik II built the first church in Addis Ababa, and made his royal home in the late 19th century.

After several hours of exploring the area, my friend informs me of a sacred spring located deep in the forest. We make our way down a road, and soon meet a young boy who could have been no older than eight. He leads us into the forest, shy, yet clearly excited at the prospect of being a guide for such strange-looking folk.

Asrat tells me that diseases even as dire as AIDS can be cured by the spring, and that people come from all over the country for its healing waters.

Descending deeper and deeper into the eucalyptus forest, the trees become wild, grizzled beings, which began to feel more like guardians for this sacred place. A palpable energy emanates from this forested valley, until finally we reach out destination at the bottom of the gulch.

A small white hut sat beside the stream, a gentle cascade flowing to its left. The only sound is the softly flowing water, and the wind through the trees. “At night there are many hyenas around here. We must leave before it gets dark,” Asrat tells me. The reality of Africa is ever present, even in the most idyllic of places.

Walking back to the church, we came upon a couple, their pace a fraction of ours, slowed to the point of a crawl, each step taking great effort. Weakened by sickness, they support each other, as they slowly struggle up the long and rocky trail back to the church. I suspect HIV/AIDS, due to their age, their mutual emaciation, and the disease’s prevalence in the region. We walk behind them for a time.

The forest is deeply quiet- not even the birds make a sound; only the eucalyptus leaves rustling in the wind. It was as if a layer of reality was then peeled away- that just being in the presence of these two old people was enough to thin the veil between the worlds.

We pass them, and they smile at us with kind eyes, nearing death.

Addis Ababa means “New Flower,” and though its a capital city, it felt more like a large and friendly town to me. There is a palpable sense of community that connects the Ethiopian people, at home and abroad, like one big family.

Perhaps it is Ethiopia’s legacy of tradition, it’s religious heritage, and it’s ancient roots that gives people this sense of pride that I saw often translate into grace.

Back in the Addis Ababa Restaurant, I am swirling amidst the spices, the tej, and the laughter. Evening was nearing, and both Asrat and I were in dire need of some rest. As I stood up to leave, a smiling man from a nearby table approaches me, slipping me a small piece of folded paper. “You are most welcome,” he says, vigorously shaking my hand, all smiles.

Scrawled on the scrap of paper, I realize upon stepping out of the reeling restaurant, the man had written a note.

It reads: “I know what you think. You see Ethiopian people having such happiness. You are to think, do people in own country having such happiness?”

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