I have been fascinated by Ethiopia ever since I learned about Lucy, the ancient human ancestor found there. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archeologist. Or maybe an anthropologist. I struggled between the two, but in either case, I knew I wanted to go to Ethiopia.
And, when I finally did, it was even more magical than I had anticipated throughout my youth.
My guide, Dereje, was fantastic, and did an extraordinary job explaining the rich culture and history to me. I have never before felt so much knowledge flowing forth at me, at such a rapid speed. And I enjoyed every second of it.
Mostly, I think the fire hose effect was because I knew so little. I imagine if I had never studied the Roman, Greek or Ottoman empires in school, my visits to Italy, Greece and Turkey would have been similarly overwhelming. But, when I went to those countries, I had a strong basic understanding in place, and the visits therefore served to fill in the missing pieces, explain the nuances, and add the lively details.
In Ethiopia, it was wholly different. I didn’t know anything. Dereje had his work cut out for him.
Let’s start with the basics. Did you know that Ethiopia is on a calendar eight years behind ours, and starts in September? Or that they follow a 12-hour clock that starts at dawn instead of midnight, and ends at dusk? So 7:00 AM in East Africa Time (EAT) corresponds to 1:00 in daylight hours in local Ethiopian time. 12:00 noon EAT is 6:00 in daylight hours, and 6:00 PM EAT is 12:00 in local time.
Wow I had a lot to learn!
Like, the fact that the Nile starts in Ethiopia. Dereje and I hiked to the Blue Nile Falls to see the start of the Nile River. Having already been to Egypt, this meant even more to me to see where the river begins.
To get to our hike and back, we had to cross the Blue Nile via boat. On the way back our boat (a rickety metal canoe powered by a rusting motor) had a musician onboard to serenade the passengers. He asked my name, and he understood me to say “silly” instead of “Cindy”, which I didn’t correct. So, for the boat ride, as well as the walk back to the van during which he followed us, he kept singing “…..Silly……Silly, Silly Silly….silly….silly…” which was pretty silly to me.
I also didn’t know why so many African flags have the same colors as Ethiopia. Apparently, since Ethiopia is the only African nation that wasn’t colonized, when they each won their independence, the other nations took inspiration from Ethiopia’s flag.
Oh, and I also learned that the whole Jamaican Rastafarian movement is named after an Ethiopian king. He is the same king that was the first black leader to visit the (Nixon) white house. He landed in Kingstown and a 4-year drought ended, which was part of legend in Jamaica about an African king.
And he took 2,000 Jamaicans back to Ethiopia with him and gave them all land. When he was overthrown by the military in the 70s, a lot of them left, but I guess there are still a few hundred.
The King’s name was Haile Selassie, and you can hear him mentioned in a lot of Reggae music.
You would not believe the wad of cash I had in Ethiopia. I traded 3 $100 bills for like 50 bills of Ethiopian money. They had to give me a rubber band! And, I had to break some of those bills into smaller denominations as well. It reminds me of the Shel Silverstein poem “Smart” about the boy who trades his dollar for five pennies.
My dad gave me one dollar bill ‘Cause I’m his smartest son, And I swapped it for two shiny quarters ‘Cause two is more than one!
And then I took the quarters And traded them to Lou For three dimes – I guess he don’t know That three is more than two!
Just then, along came old blind Bates And just ’cause he can’t see He gave me four nickels for my three dimes, And four is more than three!
And I took the nickels to Hiram Coombs Down at the seed-feed store, And the fool gave me five pennies for them, and five is more than four!
And then I went and showed my dad, And he got red in the cheeks And closed his eyes and shook his head – Too proud of me to speak!
Dereje, my guide, and I talked a lot about the politics and culture of Ethiopia. One of the topics we discussed, in depth, was the famine in the 70’s and 80’s.
A quick summary for those of you who remember the famine in Ethiopia that climaxed with thousands of deaths in 1984-1985, but don’t really know much more than that…
There were basically two reasons for the crisis: a drought in Northern Ethiopia, and disastrous government policies that contributed to the famine, which were then deliberately covered up.
In North Ethiopia, people were told to relocate to the south where there was more food. But, the people didn’t want to leave their churches; they are zealous church-goers, and attend every day. They firmly believe that their religion is the most important part of their lives. So, they didn’t move south.
It seems to me that the priests should have done a better job leading their congregations. Church services can actually be held outside the churches, themselves. Of course, I know there were many other political factors at play and I’m oversimplifying things, but it is still seems the priests hold some of the culpability. And actually today, many of the humanitarian organizations working within Ethiopia to stop child labor and marriage for young girls, feel the only way to make progress is to work through the churches, precisely because of the sway they hold over their villages.
Dereje explained the role Haile Selassi (King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia) played in the famine. Selassi reigned from 1930 to 1974, living in opulence and ceremony while his country starved.
Captivated by the whole discussion, I have since read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book “The Emperor”, and now understand the event more clearly. His book is a masterful account, engrossing and informative – a fascinating ride. Kapuscinski does a fantastic job painting as balanced a picture as possible of this horrific period of history.
In addition to being responsible for unimagined corruption and harsh brutality, Selassi also defeated the Italians under Mussolini, made Ethiopia a global political player, and invested heavily in modernizing his country’s infrastructure.
Want to know what really blew my mind in Ethiopia? The religious history. I totally recommend you pick up “The Sign and the Seal” by Graham Hancock, which will do this so much more justice. He’s crafted a spellbinding (and controversial) history/adventure story about his investigation of the Ark.
Ready for this? Ethiopian tradition has it that:
The Queen of Sheeba was Ethiopian (yes, that Queen of Sheeba)
She had a son with King Solomon (yes, that King Solomon)
Their son (King Lalibela) took the Lost Ark of the Covenant (yes, thatArk) from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem to Ethiopia, where it remains to this day
Hancok’s quest to discover whether the Ark is really in Ethiopia, as told compellingly in his book, includes ancient Egypt, Jerusalem, the Bible, the occult, the Knights Templar, and, of course, Ethiopia, itself.
I visited many orthodox churches everywhere we went, but the most awe inspiring were the churches said to be built by King Lalibela in the late 12th century. Some of them are monolithic churches, carved from one single rock. Amazing.
The stories tells that King Lalibela, again believed to be the son of King Solomon, went to Jerusalem to see where he was born (or at least where his father lived — I forget if he was born there or just conceived there), and died while he was there. Then while in Heaven, God sent him back to Ethiopia to build the churches. So, he built one set to look like those he saw in Jerusalem, and another set to look like those he saw in Heaven.
When I went to Israel after my trip to Ethiopia, it made sense to me why I saw a kibbutz of Ethiopian Jews. Without my trip to Ethiopia, I would have had no idea how strong a connection there is between Judaism and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Seeing what a strong role the Church plays in the day-to-day lives of most Ethiopians, I couldn’t help but wish it used that power in different ways.
As I become more and more enamored with the people, history and culture of Ethiopia, it is heartbreaking to learn that the current outlook isn’t so rosy. The major issues that stuck out for me were the political situation, the social issues (education, women’s rights), clean water, and the famine and resulting border tensions with Kenya.
First, the political situation is stable, but not ideal. There isn’t freedom of the press. And although there are elections, I was told they are basically just for show since 85% of the population lives in the countryside and all the land belongs to the government. They need to vote with the government to keep their homes. I also learned that in 2010 international observers said the elections didn’t meet international standards since government funds were used to campaign for the ruling party, which won 545 of the 546 seats in the parliament. Looking back a bit further, the 2005 elections resulted in 200 people dying in election related violence, and dozens of imprisonments of demonstrators and opposition leaders.
Second, there are major social issues, especially concerning women and education. The key problem for women is forced marriage at a young age, at times, as young as 12 years old; marriage, and womens’ rights, in general.
Age at First Marriage or Union for 20-to-24-Year-Old Females by Region
In one village, Dereje was hoping to show me a cow jumping ceremony, a formality prior to marriage where a man has to prove he is worthy to marry by jumping over a cow. That day, there wasn’t one. And at first, I was disappointed because he had told me how entertaining the music and dancing are. But then I realized I was fortunate, because he also said the bride to be is whipped by her mother in law to be so she is bloody — it is “willing scarification”.
I don’t think I could have watched that. Dereje said that first wives in a lot of these tribes are basically slaves because the husband pays such a large dowry to her family. For example, after they serve their husband dinner, they have to sit facing the wall, waiting for him to finish.
In general, it seems hard to be a woman in this area. Female circumcision is common in some tribes. And while a growing percentage, still fewer girls than boys are sent to school.
In these conditions, it is hard to be a first wife; you are a virtual slave. But, families rejoice when they have girls because it means they will be able to get bride prices for them — especially if they are first wives. If you are a first wife, your family does very well by you. But, if you are a second wife, your life seems easier, but your family doesn’t do as well. The same story goes even more for a third wife, and onward.
It’s hard to imagine having to think about these things. What do I pray for: would I want to enable my family to be significantly better off but have an unpleasant life, or screw my family and live more easily?
I learned about the education problems anecdotally when I was trying to give pens I brought with me away to the kids. We had very limited success handing them out the last couple of days, as we only wanted to give pens to kids who attended school, and it seemed that not a lot of kids were doing that. Sad.
One day we gave pens to five boys who were walking back from school. We found out that they walked all the way there to find out that, as usual, there wasn’t a teacher. I was impressed that they kept making the (laborious) effort to get themselves there every day. I wished I could have given them a teacher to go with the pens.
Clean water is another huge problem in Ethiopia. Every time we passed a well, there were people lined up with their yellow or blue plastic containers. And at every stream, people were filling up their containers — the problem was that they were collecting the water directly next to other people bathing or doing their laundry.
People want containers for water. When we drove past kids (children who seem to be as young as 5 in charge of herds of animals) on the roads, they asked for our empty water bottles to reuse them. Some of the kids were really inventive with dances to try to differentiate themselves from everyone else, doing froggy jumps, or looking like Greeks, or doing the funky chicken with their legs.
As we got closer and closer to the Kenyan and Sudan borders, we started to see more guns. I guess these tribesmen can have hundreds of cows to protect, and they trade cows for guns with the Kenyans. Plus, there was growing animosity due to the worsening famine in the area of Kenya that is across the border from Ethiopia.
In rereading everything I just wrote, I realize I haven’t painted a very rosy picture of Ethiopia. So, let me clarify a couple of things.
First, I was awed by my visit there. The people, the food, the culture, the sights. I loved every minute of my trip (ok, there were a few minutes I could have skipped, but, you get the point). Second, because of its history and the role it played in the history of civilization, it has endured many worse moments in time, and come back strong again. Third, a lot of things are improving there on a day by day, and decade by decade basis.
As a travel destination, I was blown away. I just want its people to have the same sense of awe about their future as I have about their history and culture.