Standing on the edge of an escarpment nearly 9,000 feet high in the Simien Mountains, I was puzzled. Stretched out below me for miles and miles was lush vegetation, interspersed with cultivated land and cattle farms. It could very well have been Switzerland, only it wasn’t. I was in the Amhara region, Northern Ethiopia. How can a country with such a lush landscape be struck with famine, I asked?
Anyone familiar with the music scene in the 1980s would know the music and the concerts inspired by the Ethiopian famine. Media was awash with terrible images of the calamity which ended up taking more than a million lives. I mean who could forget Do they know its Christmas time? It even got Bob Geldof a knighthood, though very few people know of his songs.
The face of my guide Fasilnu, generally a genial fellow, darkened. He explained that the famine was a man-made occurence, as many calamities tend to be. Despite being an agrarian economy, Ethiopia did not have an irrigation network to manage water supply. The country was in throes of civil war and the opposing forces burnt crops wherever they went. This was further exacerbated by an accompanying drought to form the perfect storm. A storm that consumed a generation of Ethiopians.
Ethiopia has come a long way from those dark days. It is one of Africa’s emerging economies and while the political troubles are never far, they are not as deadly as they were in the’80s.
It is also a hidden gem on the global tourism map. I must confess it wasn’t near the top of my list of places to visit, perhaps it was the pressure from my cousin working for the UN in Addis Ababa that made my mind. He really wanted me to bring some canned desi food. I now thank him for his cajoling.
Ethiopia is a large country (10th largest in Africa, larger than Pakistan) with a 100m population. Ethiopians are a proud nation with graceful physical features that set them apart. As the only country in Africa that was never colonised (save for a few decades of Italian presence), Ethiopians hold fast to their cultural roots. The country is a rich mix of ethnicities, languages, religions (one-third Muslim) and history.
The word ‘historical’ does not do justice to Ethiopia. ‘Lucy’ one of the oldest known human skeletons lies in the National Museum in Addis Ababa (the capital). Ethiopians were one of the earliest adopters of Christianity. It was also the first sanctuary for early Islam. Under the instructions of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), Muslim sought asylum and protection in Ethiopia from persecution in Mecca. One of the earliest Islamic mosques in the world sits in Africa near Aksum, built by the same asylum seekers.
Yet there is a lot more to discover in Ethiopia.
Addis Ababa, where my journey began, is the capital city nestled amongst green mountains. Addis and the former capital Gondar, in the north, are high altitude cities. Early morning, it is not uncommon to see young long-distance runners honing their skills in these excruciating conditions – their successes in international events a source of national pride.
I drove around the central and the northern parts of the country. It was almost always lush green with pretty villages dotted around. The south is drier and more of a desert. The roads were metalled until you ventured out to remoter locations. The drive to Blue Nile Fall was at best jarring but worth every bounce. Similarly, it’s a long drive to get to the most well known of Ethiopian destinations: the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. There are flights to shorten some of these trips (including one to Gondar). But I had time and an amiable guide with a comfortable van. I was able to explore this country at relative leisure.
The north is very green with rolling hills and generally inhabited. The feel is natural, but I did not see large wildlife as one would imagine in Africa. An exception was the area around Lake Tana where I spotted hippopotamuses and crocodiles. The villagers were curious and welcoming, clearly, tourism has not taken root yet. I found Ethiopians to be conservative and generally quite religious. On Sunday I saw rows of people, dressed in white, walking patiently to the local churches. The majority are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The faith is more reliant on the Old Testament, even the churches are designed more like synagogues with room for the Ark in the middle. One can find monasteries and churches everywhere. None more stunning and beautiful than Lalibela. It is a series of churches dug out of the rock, around 800 years ago, by King Lalibela as a homage to his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There is no other architecture like it.
The food is interesting as well. I found the Ethiopian staple of injera bread with cooked meat and vegetables delicious, though it can be an acquired taste.
Lastly, my favourite: the hidden gem of Ethiopia, Harar. An hour’s flight east of Addis takes one to the Eastern corner of this large country. It is close to lawless Somaliland and on the ancient trade route between Africa and Arabia. Coffee and spices were plied between Yemen and Ethiopia for centuries and Harar was a natural stop along the way. Famed French poet Arthur Rimbaud spent years as a coffee (and arms) trader in Harar and his house is wonderfully preserved and a highlight of a trip to the city.
“Salamnu”, said Rashida, my hostess in Harar (the city is 90 percent Muslim). She had converted her house into a bed and breakfast. It was one of the wonderfully colourful houses within the ancient city walls. I felt comfortable and at home in her lounge. The walls were lined with colourful local crockery much like in villages I had seen in the Punjab. Her mother was shy and charming at the same time. Her children (except my hostess) had all settled in the West, a story familiar to many of us.
Harar is also known as the Sufi capital of Africa. Sufi shrines are dotted around the city. The main mosque – Jumma Mosque – is reputedly 900 years old and is still packed at prayer times. Graceful Oromo women set up shop around ancient city walls. If anything it is the most colourful market I have ever seen. It was very easy to imagine that this scene hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.
Later in the evening, I experienced something unique to Harar: the city’s symbiotic relationship with hyenas. Normally considered a dangerous wild animal, it is a symbol of good luck in Harar. City walls have small holes to allow hyenas to roam the streets freely at night, there is no recorded hyena attack in living memory. Every night, the ‘Hyena Man’ takes what’s leftover from the meat market and feeds, by hand, the wild hyenas who gather for the feast. I decided to join him for the experience, where else could I hand feed a wild hyena? With the sound of bones cracking in one of the strongest jaws known to nature, I decided it was a time to bring my Abyssinian adventure to a close.