/ 18 May 2012

Warm-hearted hospitality sets Ethiopia apart

Religious leaders conducting ceremonies at the historic Lalibela site are closely tracked by camera-clicking visitors.
Religious leaders conducting ceremonies at the historic Lalibela site are closely tracked by camera-clicking visitors.

On an ordinary Tuesday evening in the northwestern city of Bahi Dar, Ethiopia, the ­modestly tarred streets are animated with the sights, sounds and smells of East African nightlife. The roads are lined with men and women and there are teenagers selling sweets, cigarettes and knick-knacks to clubgoers en route to the city’s popular discos.

There are fewer cars than the ubi-quitous Yves Klein-blue minibus taxis. There are cabs aplenty, but many choose to take the popular tuk-tuks, or motorcycle cars, imported from India five years ago. There does not seem to be a single traffic light controlling the flow of vehicles, which to a South African are travelling in the wrong direction. Ethiopians drive with liberty and impatience on the right-hand side of the road.

It is 10pm and our group of seven South Africans is on its way to find the city’s nightlife after spending two days at fancy resorts being waited on as if we were important diplomats. Five of us are journalists and the other two are prominent businesswoman Judi Nwokedi and former Top Billing presenter and doctor Michael Mol.

We stop outside a place with a rickety door and walk into a barely lit room crammed with locals sitting in a big circle. There is a sweaty and nimble drummer playing traditional drums at the back of the room, while two tall men walk around the room playing the masenqo, a popular single-horsehair string instrument shaped like a calabash, with a body made of rawhide and parchment. The place has the charm of a Malick Sidibé photograph of Malian nightlife circa 1962.

The people in the room go quiet and stare when our foreign delegation stops on the circular dance floor to discuss where we are going to sit.

We sardine into a well-lit corner near the drummer and order drinks, which come by the bottle and soon the female maître d’ approaches our table and, with an inviting look, commands Nwokedi to join her on the dance floor. She is burly but feminine. Dressed in a long white sleeveless cotton dress, she has ethnic tattoos on her chin and neck and thick curly black hair. In a matter of minutes, a few of us occupy that small circular space in the middle of the room and try our best to do what we dub the Ethiopian shoulder shake, a difficult dance move that involves a stiffening of the neck and alternate up-down-side-to-side movements of the shoulders while co-ordinating legs and feet to the fast and furious beat of the drums.

Drunk on the novelty of it all, two of us are left teaching the locals how to do the intensive moves with the derrière that we do in Southern Africa region, while they undertake to teach us how to play the stringed instrument — signing all the time because speaking is pointless above the noise. It was the best of the five nights we spent in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country after Nigeria, with more than 82-million people.

Time travel

Our group, led by former ­Ethiopian supermodel Anna Getaneh, arrived in Ethiopia on a Sunday night, after 9.30pm South African time, but amazingly, at 3.30am Ethiopian time.

The time difference was the first thing I noticed as we rode the bus through Addis Ababa, headed for our resort hotel outside the capital. Ethiopia is one hour ahead of South Africa on the Greenwich Mean Time system, but its clocks are set six hours ahead of ours. And, most astonishingly, Ethiopia is seven and a half years behind the ­Gregorian calendar, putting us in the year 2004.

Does this make the country backward or progressive? In the six days we spent in different parts of Ethiopia, it felt as though time was nonexistent. In the mid-1980s, after a decade of viciously repressive communist rule, Ethiopians survived a devastating famine that killed more than 400 000 people. Today, there are about four-million Ethiopian expatriates living in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa and a campaign is being conducted by businessmen like our host, Tadiwos Belete, a property magnate, to encourage expats to come home and rebuild their country with skills learned abroad.

That is exactly what we found: a country under construction. The streets of Addis Ababa were alive and densely populated with people, cars, buses and donkey carts that reminded me of the atmosphere of Noord Street in the Jo’burg central business district on a Friday afternoon. On both sides of the road, there were stocky structures dressed in the armour of scaffolding made from local trees, with men constructing buildings different from the shacks and mud structures at ground level.

Sparse litter gave a pastel palette to the streets and the air smelt of frankincense and roasted coffee, the ­primary elements of the daily traditional ritual of coffee brewing. One was constantly reminded that the world’s first cup of coffee was made in Ethiopia.

On the city streets, the warmth of the locals was inescapable, especially the schoolchildren, who waved hello and asked for our business cards (no kidding). Many of the younger men wore jeans and football jerseys, whereas the young girls with their chocolate-coloured manes from chemical dyes donned shiny tops, jewellery and skinny jeans that bulged on their bottoms where their iPhones were wedged into their back pockets. The older folk wore locally woven white cotton dresses and kaftans.

A fellow South African and I got lost on our way from a spa in the city to the Addis open-air mercarto. Because of the language barrier, our taxi driver took us to what looked like a giant market for Chinese goods instead of the smaller and more tourist-friendly markets of Churchill Street, where one finds an abundance of fabrics, coffee and Ethiopian silver jewellery.

Issues of faith

Before that, we had spent a day at Baha Dir, a small developing town on the banks of Lake Tana, a one-hour flight away from Addis Ababa, and in Lalibela, an even smaller town in the mountainous north of Ethiopia, rich in history and famous for its sunken 12th-century churches.

While on a boat on Lake Tana en route to islands that house 14th-century monasteries, we caught a glimpse of the source of the Nile River, a delta of toffee-coloured water where locals bathe on the shore and pods of pelicans swim in the centre of the shallow lake. On arrival at one of these remote islands, we witnessed the prominence of religion in Ethiopia: the majority practises Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, followed by Islam, other Christian sects and various other faiths.

The monastery we visited on the island, built in a round architectural style, reminded me of the inside of a Russian matryoshka nesting doll. The holy rooms are built inside one another and covered in colourful 19th-century frescoes that tell biblical stories from an Ethiopian perspective.

As a sign of respect, we were asked to remove our shoes before entering the cool, dark structure made from what appeared to be a mixture of mud, manure and grass. Once inside, the tour guide explained the characters and stories in the frescoes, and why Jesus and Mary were depicted with brown skin, black hair and dark-brown eyes.

With keen interest, we moved outside and watched a religious ceremony taking place.

Two rows of about 20 mature priests, dressed in white cotton cassocks, their heads wrapped in white cotton turbans, were slowly moving in the formation of a cross to the sounds of their own hypnotic voices. They were accompanied by huge silver crosses, hand-percussion instruments and a big drum. It was eerie and sacred until one of the priests, in mid-ceremony, answered his ringing cellphone.

It made me wonder about the dilemma Ethiopian religious leaders must face in relation to the country’s developing tourism market. The ancient monasteries and churches have only recently been opened to the public. When we arrived in the holy and remote city of Lalibela, we witnessed a similar religious ceremony, the kind where it seems disrespectful to make oneself conspicuous and all one can do is look on in silence.

Beneath the surface

Yet what could have been a beautiful and sacred ritual with about 50 clergymen was ruined for me by the presence of too many shutterbug tourists hellbent on capturing every moment. I understand the value in sharing this kind of treasure with the world, but not if it is going to be reduced to a theatrical performance.

That said, seeing the 800-year-old  stone-hewn Church of Saint George was an incredible experience. I had only seen it in pictures and did not realise its gravity. It is palatial. The closer one gets to it, the more monolithic it becomes with its viridescent roof tinged with the moss of hundreds of years.

The excursion to Lalibela, with its 13 churches laid out in a symbolic representation of ancient Jerusalem, takes a few hours. The course takes one through gorges and mazes of intricately shaped stone. Inside the churches one is confronted by colossal frescoes and ancient carvings on the monumentally high ceilings. Such a significant piece of global history deserves to be better maintained.

I am fascinated by history and have always been enticed by the lure of a museum. So, when I saw two uncovered human skeletons, thought to be those of pilgrims who came to worship at Lalibela in the 18th century, casually lying behind a thin layer of torn gauze and accessible to anybody, I marvelled at how close I was to tangible history. Yet, simultaneously, I wished that the skeletons, art, religious objects and idols were less accessible, more sacrosanct. Sacred objects in the Vatican are bolted behind bulletproof glass. But this is Africa, as they say.

After the exhausting historical excursion, some of us walked around the little town that is a perfect fusion of ancient and modern. We paid a taxi driver to take us to a restaurant on the hill, one that could be seen from kilometres away. We were hungry and tired. Our small group sat on the edge of a great cliff. The restaurant was newly built, quite extravagant compared with its surroundings, but the food and its fragrance reminded us where we were.

Even when we had lunch at the palace of deceased Emperor Haile Selassie, something that had never been done before by locals, never mind foreigners, the food had the same faithful flavours we had experienced elsewhere: generously served, sincerely consumed and simply delicious.

By the time we retired into our humble huts (fitting into the surroundings but worlds apart from our five-star accommodation in Baha Dir and the Sheraton Addis) and which, thankfully, had no television or wi-fi, there was little time to do anything but enjoy the silence of the countryside.

By the fifth day, I was exhausted from playing the tourist, but I resolved to return some day. There is a wealth of Ethiopian history and nature left to explore: the fourth century Obelisk of Axum; the colourful landscapes of the Danakil Depression (the hottest place on Earth); a trip with camels on the salt route; the home of the Queen of Sheba; and wildlife that included the bleeding-heart Chilata baboons and the rare Ethiopian wolf.

But the thing to return for with the greatest urgency is the country’s hospitable people. It is as though Ethiopians have been schooled in being pleasant. Coupled with their sense of humility is a stirring physical beauty.

The slogan the tourist industry goes by is: “Thirteen months of sunshine”, but surely the real rays of light are Ethiopia’s people.