NOTES FROM TWO WEEKS OF TOURING IN NORTHERN ETHIOPIA

David B. Brooks

15 November 2011

 

These notes are compiled from observations during two weeks in late October and early November 2011 when Toby and I toured the northern part of Ethiopia. This is the region of the country where most of the earlier capital cities B ranging in age from a few centuries BCE to the late 19th Century CE when the modern capital of Addis Ababa was founded, allegedly because it was warmer and was near some hot springs. We had previously spent a week in Addis, but during most of that week I was at the UN Economic Commission for Africa Conference Centre, my notes focus on the next two weeks. Addis now has a population of nearly 3-1/2 million and, in addition to UNECA, is also home to the African Union, which sometimes leads to its designation as the political capital of Africa.

 

Apart from time in Addis Ababa, our itinerary first involved a flight from Addis to Lalibela, and then driving in a big arc (convex to the north) to Mekele, Gheralta, Yehe, Axum, and Gonder, before flying back to Addis. We also spent a couple of days driving and walking in Simien Mountains National Park, which was a pleasant break from all the churches and monasteries and monuments. After some generalizations about Ethiopia to provide context, my notes appear under four headings: Highlights of Touring; Farming, Water and Famine; The Jewish Legacy; and Miscellaneous.

 

Generalizations and Context

Ethiopia is a nation of contrasts. It boasts of being the only African nation to escape colonization. (The only exception was the Italian occupation in the late 1930s.) Prior attempts by Italy to take over the area had been repulsed by Ethiopian forces, notably in the Battle of Adwa on 01 March 1896 (the one date known by every Ethiopian school child), in which Italy lost four of its five generals and much of its fighting force. The country has one of the best airlines on the African continent (Ethiopian Air), and has a reasonably well developed tourism infrastructure as well as a modern financial sector. On the other hand, Ethiopia remains near the bottom of the rankings for human development (174th place out of 187 nations ranked in the 2011 survey). There has been some improvement since the 2006 survey, but roughly at the same rate as with the all-Africa numbers. Over 40% of the population is illiterate, and one sees many children of school age acting as shepherds. Finally, Ethiopia is the source of the Blue Nile, which joins the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan, and it has several other sizable rivers. Yet the country, which is semi-arid in the north and arid in the south, periodically suffers from serious famines (more about that below).

 


Ethiopia has had a number of periods of relatively stable (which is not at all to say democratic) government, with some dynasties extending over several centuries. In some periods, Ethiopian cities dominated not only the surrounding country and down to the Red Sea, but had empires that extended into Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Its modern history begins in 1974 with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, the last leader to claim direct descent from King Solomon (more about that too below). The revolution was supposed to be socialist but turned out to be more Stalinist in character. It lasted only about 15 years when the northern parts of the country (which is generally called Tigray and where Tigranya rather than Amharic is spoken) broke away and gradually extended their influence to the whole country. The Tigray People=s Liberation Front morphed into the Ethiopian People=s Revolutionary Democratic Front, and this government remains in power today. (The situation was of course a lot more complex with more competing groups than indicated here.) It has decentralized government along ethnic and linguistic lines, but is not much more tolerant of opposition than previous ones.

 

Almost all the borders of Ethiopia are in dispute to one degree or another, but the only recent war was in the 1990s when Eritrea broke away and therefore left Ethiopia as a land-locked country. The borders with Eritrea remain closed, and most of Ethiopia=s imports and exports go through the tiny country of Djibouti. Happily, one does not see much of the army, but there are lots of civilian guards, all with Kalashnikov rifles. My guess is that, after the war with Eritrea, the army found itself with a surplus of soldiers and rifles, so they were demobilized as guards for villages, tourist sites, religious institutions etc.

 

Well over half of the population of Ethiopia considers its religion as Abyssinian Orthodox, which is similar to four other groups B Coptic Christianity in Egypt, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Indian Orthodox B but according to our informants quite different from Greek and Russian Orthodox rites. One finds churches and monasteries, along with priests, almost everywhere, and it would appear that, at least outside Addis, people are relatively devout. However, so far as we could learn, women have no significant role in Abyssinian Orthodoxy. About a third of the population of Ethiopia is Moslem, and in some areas Moslems predominate. Relationships between the Orthodox and Moslem religious establishments are said to be good.

 

Finally, the single most obvious characteristic of both urban and rural Ethiopia is high population. It is the 2nd or 3rd most populous country in Africa, after Nigeria and perhaps Egypt, even though it is 10th in size. There are people everywhere and, because wealth is often measured by animals, also goats and sheep and donkeys and cattle B_as often as not in the centre of the road. No matter what the time of day or night, the roadsides and shops are full of people. And, not surprisingly, every bit of potentially arable land is already farmed, mostly in tiny plots.

 

Highlights of Touring


What brings tourists to northern Ethiopia is the remarkable development of monuments, monasteries and churches, many of them cut from solid rock. Any tourist book will describe the huge stelae in Axum, much like the obelisks in Egypt, and especially the rock churches in Lalibela. Some of these churches were cut into cliff faces, which took a lot of work but is not so special. However, others were carved out of horizontal surfaces, so that the roof of the church is now at the level of the ground, and the church was literally extracted from the rock. They are an extraordinary feat of engineering, of architecture, and of sculpting. They must also represent centuries of patient work with primitive stone cutting tools. An estimate cited in The Lonely Planet is that 40,000 labourers worked on the churches at any one time. Unfortunately, when I tried to find out how the Zagwe dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries could have afforded to devote so much of its resources to non-commercially useful activities, I could not get beyond the legend / belief that most of the work was done by angels at night.

 

Suffice it to say that every one of the cities had its own stupendous buildings and castles and monuments. In age, Yehe is the oldest, and clearly pagan. Axum is next, and its sites range from pre- to post-Christian with the height of its power in the 3rd to 6th century CE. It is also home to what is alleged to be the Queen of Sheba=s castle, but that hardly conforms to her purported liaison with King Solomon, which would date her at roughly 1000 BCE. Lalibela was dominant in the 12th and 13th century. Then there was a Adark@ period with no one area dominant and no fixed capital city, before the nation was then brought back together with the magnificent castles and stables and swimming pools of Gondar in the late 19th and early 20th century, which were built by King Fasilidas and his descendants after he brought all of the warring nobles and petty rulers under his unified command.

 

Farming, Water and Famine

I will admit from the start that my thoughts about the linkages between water, food and famine are confused. From what I have been able to see in two weeks, I cannot make good judgements about the sources or and remedies for the periodic famines that have devastated northern Ethiopia. It is worth remembering that the rainy season is from April to October, and we were traveling in November, when one might expect things to be green. Also, this year was reasonably good for rainfall, and everywhere we saw signs of a good harvest. The websites of some aid agencies make reference to famine in northern Ethiopia in 2011, but nothing I saw justifies such a claim.

 

To start, here are a few general observations about household water:

$    Piped water is available in urban areas, and quality is supposed to be good B though we did not drink from the taps. Bottled water is universally available at about $1 per litre in the city and 75 cents in rural areas.

$    Improved water sources consisting of sets of taps in a concrete stand appear in most villages. In more rural areas one finds hand pumps well protected from animals.

$    Sanitation is much less well developed than drinking water supply, but that gap is typical of lower income developing countries.

$    Most rural housing consists of rondelles of stone or mud brick, depending upon the location, with thatched roofs. I saw no evidence of rooftop rainwater collection, which is of course particularly difficult with thatching. Slightly more prosperous structures will have two stories with the bottom level for animals. This design provides warmth to the living quarters above, which is welcome as night time temperatures drop to 10 or below.

 


Turning to agriculture, farm plots are visible everywhere, from the bottom of the valleys up the slopes and covering even the tops of hills. For the most part, individual plots are small, though in some areas, as around Inda Silase west of Axum, they are larger and the area gives the impression of being more prosperous. What is most impressive is the intricate use of field-level water harvesting with beautifully laid out terraces and micro-barrages (small, hand-constructed dikes that direct water from one place to another). Every bit of rain water is used and re-used. On the other hand, despite the presence of a rivers of varying sizes, I saw few indications of modern irrigation B at best shallow ditches that draw water off at one location and spread it onto fields at a lower level.

 

In short, what I saw was traditional rainfed agriculture at its best. The variety of crops being grown on the plots suggests that planting is adjusted to water availability in a particular part of the field. In a number of areas, donor-funded projects for fruit orchards and other higher value crops were present. There even seem to be three levels of harvesting: first, a major harvest; second, a secondary gleaning (whether by the owners or someone else, I do not know) in the corners and steeper slopes; and finally the animals who get whatever is left.

 

My problem is that I cannot bring together what I have observed and the regular occurrence of serious famine. What follows is just a series of hypotheses on my part that begin with the more evident problems and go on to more speculative:

$    I feel that almost all problems go back to the large and growing population B over-population to give the phenomenon its pejorative name. There are simply too many people for the land to support except in very good years.

$    Compounding the overpopulation of people is the number of domestic animals, particularly goats and sheep. Though they provide a regular supply of income for farmers, who mainly raise the animals for meat, as well as fertilization for the fields, they are the source of over-grazing with resulting erosion of soil and gullying in many areas.

$    Unfortunately the two types of overpopulation compound one another, as young boys and girls provide a source of labour as shepherds for the animals, and, as indicated above, when children are working in the field, they are not in school.

$    I had trouble gathering information on the land use system. In the Haile Selassie era, most land was owned by nobles or other rich people, and most farmers were share croppers with few rights and large debts. When the Communist Derg regime took over, all land was made the property of the state, and it was allocated to families on the basis of family size B but the allocation was always uncertain and there was no tenure. Some kind of mixed system now exists, with land tenure still uncertain so there appears to be limited incentives for land improvement or addition of infrastructure.


$    Finally, the traditional farming methods, which depend on lots of labour and minimal capital (other than the animals themselves), appears to be adequate for years of average rainfall. However, when the rain is limited, or when there are successive years of low rainfall, there is simply no back-up. Storage facilities for food are small or non-existent, and, from time to time, farmers do not even get a subsistence crop. The only option is international aid. Clearly my observations are not adequate even to begin to suggest ways to reduce the threat of famine, so all I will say is that the best recent reports on increasing food supply suggest that future gains will come more from improvements in rainfed agriculture than from new sources of water or additional irrigation.

 

The Jewish Heritage

Most of us think of the Jewish heritage of Ethiopia in terms of the Falashim, who lived mainly in the region near Gondar (and who prefer the designation of Beta Ysrael, as Afalasha@ apparently is somewhat pejorative). However, with the several waves of emigration to Israel, that community is now almost totally gone. The so-called Falasha Villages to the north of Gondar are little more than tourist traps selling souvenirs. This is really a pity as it would be possible to show much more about how this community, which had the Torah but not the Talmud, lived and worked and worshiped. In the last couple of centuries at least, they were forbidden from owning land (as a punishment for not converting to Christianity) so many of the Jews became skilled craftspeople. It is said that they carved many of the beautiful royal buildings in Gondar, but that is all that one can see today of what was once a proud Jewish people. Perhaps when Ethiopia discovers the economic value of Jewish tourism, some effort will be made to restore the Falasha villages.

 

Strangely, the Jewish (more commonly described as the Solomonic) heritage of the Ethiopian royal family is celebrated. Indeed, with the exception of the Zagwe dynasty based in Lalibela, all of the successive kings of claimed direct descent from Menelik I, who was the offspring of the happy times that Solomon and Sheba spent together. It seems that they were not wholly focused on trade routes and import tariffs. Indeed, it is widely believed that Sheba, if she really did ever exist, came from Axum. (Many scholars believe that she more likely ruled in what is today Yemen.) The story goes on that when Menelik grew up, he went back to Israel to visit his father and was received royally and given many gifts etc. What happened next is not clear, but it is very firmly believed that when he returned, Menelik brought with him the Ark of the Covenant. It does not seem likely that Solomon would have allowed this to happen, so it must have been taken by some subterfuge. Whatever the circumstances, the great majority of Ethiopian Christians firmly believe that the Ark now resides in Axum in a special building with special guards between the new and the old Churches of Mary of Zion. The legends go on, including the belief that anyone who looks at the Ark is struck blind, a belief that rather inhibits research into the subject.

 

Of course, every church has its replicas of the original Ark, and small replicas are sold in every souvenir shop. Remarkably for something that it is supposed to be Jewish and that, one would presume, rejects any representation of human beings, the replicas are full of pictures of this or that saint. Also, one of the more common icons show the death of Judah Maccabee at the hands of the Roman army (or more particularly by a Roman king named AMecurious@), which is explicitly described as the end of Judaism. So much for us! True, many of the religious and royal buildings have stars of David carved into the decorations, but they are not celebrating any Jewish heritage but rather emphasizing the divine right of that ruler to be king, given his descent from Solomon and his titular possession of the Ark of the Covenant. This sort of triumphalism has no place for Jews as Jews, which is why the Beta Ysrael were barely tolerated.


There is one more aspect of Judaism about which I can only cite very limited information. It appears that in those early years of Christianity, there were a number of Jewish kingdoms in the horn of Africa and southern Arabia. One story tells of Gudit (possibly Judit), who was a warrior queen in the 6th century, and who may have been Jewish or may have been married to a Jew. In any event, it seems clear that she sacked Axum in the late 6th century when its power was on the wane. Also, there were powerful Jewish tribes and the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar in what is now Yemen, many of which carried on military campaigns against Christian sites. There were even some links between the groups on opposite sides of the Red Sea. They were powerful enough to oppose Christianity but not Islam, and they were eventually all conquered in the 6th and 7th centuries.

 

Miscellaneous

$    The Simien Mountains are a high plateau with most elevations above 3000 metres, so one notices the altitude. Some 179 square km have been set aside as a national park. Trekking of one to several days is common. The highlight is the views, as the mountains are built of several thousand of metres of mostly basaltic lava and one often looks out from dizzying heights. Also, it is surprisingly easy to see some of the endemic wildlife, as with the Ableeding heart@ baboons (they have red markings on their chests, not on their bums) and the Walia Ibex.

$    Remarkably, when the national park was created, local people were allowed to remain and to continue farming and grazing, but with restrictions. For example, no tree cutting is allowed except for eucalyptus, which were introduced to Ethiopia a generation back and have become an important source of local income for poles and firewood. Despite the enlightened goals of the policy, evidence of over-grazing and erosion from hillside plots is not hard to find.

$    Most of northern Ethiopia is above 2000 metres, so mosquitos are not a problem, and malaria is uncommon. Not so with flies, which are everywhere in great numbers, and which cause eye diseases in much of the population.

$    Northern Ethiopia is quite mountainous and the roads (mostly unpaved outside urban centres) wind up and down some of the most precipitous drops and the sharpest curves that I have ever seen. Apparently siting for most of the roads was done by Italian engineers who got their experience in the Alps. Hats off to them, and their beautiful stone arch bridges. The roads are gradually being improved with funds from the Chinese, but they are not changing the original routing of the Italian engineers.

$    If one piece of modernity is evident in Ethiopia, it is the cell phone, which seems to in the hands of almost everyone.

$    On the other hand, apart from hotels and restaurants, rest room facilities are few and far between, even in tourist sites. A minor problem for men but a more serious one for women. Even those toilets that are available are not necessarily accompanied by hand-washing facilities.

$    Eco-tourism is discussed but not much in evidence from what we could observe. One major exception is the Gheralta Lodge about 100 km northwest of Mekele, which is owned by an Italian devoted to ecological preservation and local food. We stayed for two nights at this location, and it was one of the highlights of our trip.


$    If you do follow our example, do not miss the pleasure of a traditional coffee ceremony, which is served with popcorn and other nutty treats, as well as with tej, the mead wine that comes in individual flasks of more-than-individual size. AEthiopia has a well-founded claim to be the original home of coffee . . .@ (Lonely Planet, Ethiopia & Eritrea, p. 68).

$    If you want to know what to expect by way of food, go to any Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant and order injera along with sauce berbere, meat and vegetables. One or another variation on this dish is standard fare, and very good (if more than a bit oily). Once in Ethiopia, do not expect the meat to be tender; it spent a lot of time walking before getting to your plate. On the other hand, expect a lot of it. We are big eaters, but seldom could we finish everything that was give to us. Italian dishes, including pizza, are also widely available and typically very good.

$    If you are in Addis Ababa, the national museum is well worth a visit, partly because it gives a good history of the nation but also because it has models of the remains of ALucy,@ who lived some 3.2 million years ago and may be our oldest ancestor. In fact, human life as we know it may well have started in the area around and south of modern day Addis Ababa.

 

Addendum

I have no further information on this issue, but shortly after returning to Ottawa, I read an article in an environmental newsletter that charges that Ethiopia is on a dangerous course by agreeing to sell or grant long-term leases for over 3.6 million hectares of land to foreign investors, including both private companies and government agencies from India and from Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the country is said to have agreed to provide water for that land by diverting it from existing rivers and from new or planned dams. None of these activities has been subject to any kind of assessment: environmental--social, or even economicBat least none that has been made public. Much of the land will be devoted to sugarcane plantations, which is a remarkably un-ecological crop for a semi-arid country. The Gibe-3 dam on the Omo River, which is under construction, has been heavily criticized by the United Nations for its expected impact on local people. The reports note that past land sales, and earlier dams, have resulted in large population displacements and consequent impoverishment of people in the Awash River basin. It seems that Ethiopia may have avoided classical colonization based on military troops, but is opening itself to a newer based on foreign dollars.