Highlights from the highlands of Ethiopia
By Rob McKenzie
February 9, 2017

We’re in a guesthouse beside a cliff in the Tigray highlands of northern Ethiopia. After dinner, the farmer who lives in the spartan stone house next door drops by for a visit.

He tells us the story of the leopard. The leopard killed a dog belonging to the farmer’s father. The father said the leopard had to die. The villagers set out to find it. Their search came to a cave in the cliff face. A pair of bright eyes shone from inside. The men were preparing to attack when the leopard pounced, knocked one of them over and ran off.

"He tricked them," says Mulat, our guide for most of this four-day trek.

The men regrouped and found the cat in a tighter cave. This time they penned it in with a quickly constructed stone wall, leaving only a hole for a rifle to poke in. When the leopard came into the line of sight, the rifleman shot it.

Sitting in a dimly lit room, hearing the wind howl as it raced up the cliff, feeling the cold night air, and listening to the farmer’s story is one of the highlights of a week that a friend and I spend in Ethiopia. These are the others:

1. Christmas Eve

We land in Addis Ababa on the evening of January 6, which we hadn’t realised is ­Christmas Eve according to the calendar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

We had planned to visit a jazz club, but our hostess, ­Genet ­Kefetew of Kefetew Guest House in the city’s east end, suggests we consider attending a ­Christmas ceremony at a nearby church ­instead.

So the three of us go to Salite Miheret church, where the ceremony, which can last six hours, is well under way. ­Kefetew and my friend watch with the other women, while I look on with the men.

It’s phenomenal. The colours, clapping, singing and rituals, but most of all the tidal pull of a people’s shared faith.

The worshippers wear white shrouds over their clothes. The priests at the front of the church wear brighter vestments while the deacons are all in white. There’s some call-and-response singing in Amharic, occasional prostration and a sermon about the life of Mary. The singing is like a hum; a buzz; a sound from deep within the Earth.

The walls and pillars of the octagonal, high-vaulted church are entirely painted from shoulder-level upwards. Some of the scenes in the neon-bright murals are familiar to me (the birth of Jesus) and others aren’t (a man with a long white beard rides a rooster and chases a demon, whom smaller roosters are pecking at).

A cheer rises from the crowd as the deacons stride slowly forward from the altar, holding golden processional crosses beneath pink umbrellas held high; then comes a final umbrella, burgundy with gold fringe.

2. A wedding

The core of our trip is a hike in the highlands. It’s organised through Tesfa Tours, a community-­based tourism company headquartered in ­Addis Ababa

This sort of tourism can have its highs and lows. You’re closer to the people, but farther from yourself, or at least your usual self. Take our accommodations for the first three nights. We stay in rough-hewn stone guesthouses, typically with three bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining area, a storeroom and an outhouse toilet, all around a courtyard. Only the third guesthouse has a shower (via an overhead jerry can); but while the outhouses at our first two stops are OK, the third is pretty rugged. There’s no electricity or running water. Lighting at night comes from small devices, about the size of a human hand, with LED solar panels on one side and a flat light on the other. Larger devices, maybe four times the size, are used to charge mobile phones.

Let’s call it rustic. But the ­storytelling farmer’s visit is one reward, and a second is a wedding that we attend near the hamlet of Gohgot.

Mulat knows many of the people there. We sit with him and about seven other people in a small square made of logs. ­Fifteen or so such squares lined the perimeter of the wedding hall, which was outdoors in an area covered by tarps held up by ­timbers.

The father of the bride comes by to welcome us. In that and many other ways, it’s like a wedding anywhere: neighbours catch up on local gossip, people eat and dance, young children run around, and, slightly more surprisingly, a man rides in on a horse.

We share a meal with the people in our square. A young woman rolls a heap of roasted barley flour into balls. These are placed around the base of a bowl that contains chilli sauce with meat, and like an island in the centre, a paste of fermented broad beans with garlic and spices. You use a twig stripped of bark to poke a barley ball, then you dip the ball in the paste and sauce. The results are quite spicy.

My friend and I are a novelty to the people here; we appear to be the only guests from outside the area. People stare. At one point, there’s some ululating, and the Ethiopians laugh at my pathetic attempts to join in.

3. A climb

The churches of Mariam ­Korkor and Daniel Korkor are at an altitude of about 2,500 metres. They’re in the Gheralta ­Mountains – Gheralta means "up and down" in the Tigrinya language. The churches themselves are stark and beautiful, and the 500-metre hike uphill has amazing views that are the result of millions of years of geological upheaval.

Ethiopia’s landscape has been shaped by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tectonic folding, wind erosion and the rising of masses of molten rock from beneath the Earth’s surface. To the observer it feels like a geological mash-up: smooth elephantine hills; cracked-eggshell crags rippling up from the valley like bony hands; cliffs that rise hundreds of metres straight up to plateaus. The result is broadly comparable to the Dubai skyscape: different styles, many standouts and a sort of unified unpredictability.

What strikes me about the churches is why they’re built so high up. An answer occurs to me as I stand by the cliff’s ledge outside Daniel Korkor. Frankly, this proximity to the edge frightens me. It’s not that I’m scared of heights; it’s the depths that get me. All it would take is two steps forward and I would be a goner. The ledge is like a dotted line dividing life from death. But maybe that’s why the churches are here: they straddle worlds – life and death, land and sky, heaven and Earth.

Another question that this journey, which was more challenging than comforting, has me asking myself is: why do this rather than visit someplace easy, with massages and beaches and flower-strewn paths? Life already has plenty of adversity, so why seek out more?

Part of it is about testing myself. But beneath that, it makes for better stories.

rmckenzie@thenational.ae


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