Ethiopia For Beginners
Ihala At Dawn

Ethiopia is a unique country in Africa, rich in history, culture and natural beauty. Currently there is a population of nearly 100,000,000, more than half of which are below the age of 18 years. It is the second most populous country in Africa. There are more than 80 different population groups and more than 90 indigenous languages are spoken. A true rainbow nation.

There are many religious groups, but Christianity and Islam are the most common. Christianity is dominantly the Ethiopian orthodox church, an oriental orthodox sect of Christianity, dating back to the first century AD and unique among sub Saharan African countries. This accounts for the religious persuasion of most of the highland areas in the north and west. Islam is practiced by 27% of the population in the lowlands to the east. Traditional pagan cultures predominate in the south around the Omo valley



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Mystery, religion and mysticism define the rhythm of much of Ethiopian life. Religion is deeply ingrained in the fabric of society and the myths and stories of kings and saints are interwoven with accepted historical facts which define a unique and colourful reality. The Queen of Sheba is the matriarch of their identity. She is a myth shared by Christianity, Islam and Judaism but with uncertain historical facts leading to a variety of cross cultural interpretations. In the Ethiopian version Axom, an early capital, was founded by the great grandson of Noah, Axumawi. He was eaten by a great snake called Wainaba which then ruled for 400 years living off virgins and milk, popular staples in those days apparently! A traveller, Anagbo, offered to kill the snake in exchange for the crown and the locals agreed. He killed the snake with a poisoned goat. He married and his daughter, Makeda , became the Queen of Sheba. Sheba valued knowledge above all things and decided she would travel to Jerusalem to meet the wisest man in all the world, Solomon. She bought him gifts and set him a series of riddles. When she left she was pregnant, and he gave her a ring as a symbol of his esteem. She bore his son, Menelik the first, who became the next king of Ethiopia. He later returned to Jerusalem to visit his father with the ring and stole the Ark of the Covenant which was transported to Ethiopia on wings by the archangel Michael. This story was later recorded in the holy book Kebra Nagast which remains an important religious text today. Legend has it that the Ark is still in Ethiopia in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axom, and there is a copy of the Ark in every church in Ethiopia each dedicated to a particular saint.

Many of our personal heroes have travelled to, and adventured in, Ethiopia.

The great explorer and linguist Richard Burton (no not the actor!) was the first non Muslim to travel to Harar. He was an amazing explorer and, after being thrown out of Oxford University, he mastered 28 languages and travelled the world. He describes his journey from Aden across the Somali Peninsula to the forbidden slave city of Harar and back again, in a book titled, First Footsteps In East Africa.

James Bruce, a Scottish Lord, travelled to the source of the Blue Nile and then followed the river down to Cairo. He was a 188 cm tall, a mountain of a man, who spoke Arabic and learnt Ge'ez, the religious language of Ethiopia. He was ship wrecked, imprisoned and returned home with so many stories that no one believed him, and he was ridiculed by the gentry and intelligentsia of London. He retired to his manor in Scotland very embittered. Despite this, his descriptions of life in Ethiopia in the late 1700's, are now considered to be the most comprehensive and complete documentation of life in Ethiopia at that time. He also brought back three of the Books of Enoch, the grandfather of Noah, and canonical in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Nelson Mandela travelled to Ethiopia during his exile and received military training in Harar. He was even issued an Ethiopian passport under the alias of David Motsamayi. He wrote in his autobiography "Ethiopia always has a special place in my imagination, and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African"

The Beginning

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The landing gear is down and we are descending into Addis airport. It's 9 o'clock at night after a very pleasant flight. I have had my reservations and fears about Ethiopia. Such an unknown. It has been a long held dream to come here because of the mystery and history, but still it's out of the familiar comfort zone. When I tell people we are coming to Ethiopia for 5 weeks you can chase the expressions on their faces, envy and incredulity. Are they mad? Thoughts of Ebola and bandits and Somali pirates. Still the Ethiopian airlines airplane was modern and comfortable and the crew have been professional and attentive and the food fabulous. That must count for something.

The airport is cavernous and quiet. Passport control is quick and we hurry on to the deserted visa counter. There are several people lounging behind the counter in casual clothes and one lady who deigns to help us. We are going along so well it is hardly surprising that we are about to hit our first hitch. She issues the visas and we pay over our $20 but the visa is only for 1 month. We point out we are staying longer and plead with her to issue the 3 month visa, but apparently this has just been withdrawn and no longer exists. Not an advertised fact but this is Africa. There is a man behind us from the UK who is working in Ethiopia and he tells us his visa was valid for 3 months but they cancelled it on his arrival and now he is queueing for a 1 month visa again. "What should we do? " we ask her. "Get an extension at immigration in Addis" she says. "But we are not staying or even returning to Addis" we wail. Our itinerary is tight. She shrugs her shoulders. "Go home early" is the reply. Clearly we will have to make our own plan as sympathy is in short supply for our dilemma. Not feeling so confident now we move along dejectedly and make some currency exchange at a little kiosk. The rate is surprisingly good. Armed with the local money we move into the baggage hall. After all this we have been overtaken by every other passenger and we find ourselves in a big hall full of people and trolleys piled high with luggage. There is an alarming number of blankets and we begin to wonder if we are going to be cold or maybe they don't sell blankets in Ethiopia!?

Oh well. Our luggage is going around and around the nearly empty carousel and we claim it and get in line for customs. The queue is painfully slow because all the luggage is being x rayed. Finally, and about 3 hours after arriving, we make it through. We eagerly look around for our lift but no one steps forward. It is nearing midnight in Addis and we are on our own.

There is a smallish crowd of people being met. Many have bunches of grass and yellow flowers in their hands. These are Meskel daisies in celebration of the festival of Meskel which began today. This is an important festival in the Ethiopian orthodox church celebrating the finding of the true cross. There is sure to be celebration in the streets of Addis tonight.

A First Glimpse of Addis

The taxis are asking if we need a lift but we hold on hoping our driver will appear. The taxi operator has warned us not to go outside as they will not let us back in. We dig out the Satelite phone but there is no signal. I investigate a whole bank of pay phones only to find they are broken and defunct. Finally we power up the cell phone and find signal. We phone Osman, from whom we are hiring cars, and he tells us the driver is coming and to wait. So we wait, and wait.......... We phone Osman again and he tells us to go outside as the driver cannot get in. We are to meet him in the parking area 200 m away. We load up and set off into the warm night and sure enough as we approach the parking the Kettle Club sign is up. ( We call ourselves The Kettle Club after Dudleys precious 7L volcano kettle, which incidentally. we have schlepped all the way to Ethiopia in our luggage!). Relieved, we climb into a very comfortable minibus. Apparently you may not enter the airport building once you leave, and the locals are not allowed in which is why we did not find him earlier. An important piece of local information for next time I'm thinking.

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The journey through Addis at night is interesting. The streets are in bad repair with potholes and rubble. There are many people and bars and coloured lights probably because of the Meskel holiday. I see more of the Meskel flowers on the streets. There are many incomplete and broken down buildings. Indeed it seems like most multi-storey buildings are incomplete. The scaffolding is wooden and looks very rickety and insecure. In truth the city appears to be more of a bomb site than a capital city. Still maybe we are on the outskirts, we have not got our bearings yet. After about 30 minutes, and a very rutted potholed side street, we pull up to the Ag Palace, our hotel for the next 2 nights, and tumble out of the car. The light blinking on top of the building is reflected in the puddles on the uneven street. The locals skip along gracefully, clearly long used to the uneven surfaces and hazardous road conditions. The faces inside were bright and cheery with a warm welcome. We paid the porter to slog the gear up 4 floors. No lifts. Why is that not a surprise? We repair to the bar for our first taste of local beer. We've arrived more or less intact!

The first night was for sleeping the second night we went out to celebrate the arrival of the rest of the Kettle Club team. Vicky, Ian and Carmen from New Zealand. The evening was busy at the restaurant, Abbysinia 2004. The night out cost 83 birr (about R50.00) each for the buffet but the wine was 420 birr per bottle. Ouch, a taste if things to come. Ethiopia is not for drinkers. Except that the New Zealand team bought a medicinal volume of airport gin. That should keep us going!

The restaurant was crowded by the locals who were still celebrating Meskel, and the floor was strewn with the now familiar daisies. The story of Meskel is that the Roman Queen Helena had a dream that if she lit a bonfire the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. She did this and found the cross. A section of the cross was brought to Ethiopia and is said to be at Ambo Geshon, a mountain palace/prison in the north highlands. At Meskel bonfires are lit in celebration and future fortunes are predicted by how it burns and falls.

Next day we picked up our vehicles. In Ethiopia foreigners cannot drive hire cars outside of Addis but must hire drivers. Anyway it means we will be chauffeured on our adventure around the four corners of Ethiopia, a first for us. We have hired 2 4X4s and camping gear for $ 7500 for 5 weeks between the 5 of us and we hit the road with anticipation. The drivers Joel and Gedeyon are cheerful and speak good English They are experienced drivers and guides, Joel is often hired for birding parties but we will be forced to hire local guides as well everywhere we go. I am beginning to get the hang of job creation schemes in Ethiopia. It is a finely tuned process and you may as well give in now as it cannot be beaten. Well not often anyway.

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