Menelik’s Window

Not only does Ethiopia’s calendar drag behind a little mulishly, we found 1km there can often feel like 5. The map showed two roads out of Lalibela; the one we’d come in on from Gondar was so rough, we figured the other one usually taken by tourists coming down from Axum had to be easier.

How wrong we were.

The half-scree road east to Woldiya had no other vehicles on it and we realised why after about 15 minutes. The first 30km took two hours, and Sampson went into 4×4 about 5 times. The sharp turns and sheer drops were as nerve-racking as Matadi in DRC, but combined with incredibly long hairpin bends and steep slopes similar to those we experienced approaching Namibe in Angola.

We got through 2 fuel filters in 80km, so Big Reg probably went through the same amount of fuel usually burned up over 300km (at less than 1km per litre). Thankfully the Sampson Patent Truck Radiator Cooling Spray was working super-effectively!

The road was gruelling and relentless. Ruby got thoroughly travel sick when she tried lying in the nose cone. I was just hanging on for grim death. The variegated colours of the landscape reminded me of the layered sandpaintings of Goreé. The beauty of it felt cruel. At 3300m herdsman were wearing shawls rather than wraps, but there still seemed to be no such thing as a coat in these highlands.

When we pulled over by the side of road next to a locked-up house to sleep, there was a layer of thick dust everywhere – I’d forgotten to shut the back window. I had to shake everything and remake my bed before I could collapse onto it. The post-all-day-drive dizziness and vertigo were so bad, I had to take Ibuprofen.

JoJo Da Snail had turned up at the Seven Olives in Lalibela after driving through the Simien Mountains National Park to Axum. We couldn’t risk going to visit the ancient city because the roads were proving more challenging than we originally thought and there was less than a week left to get Ruby to the airport. The following morning we found the Frenchies’ truck parked next to ours. Apparently they had come the same route from 4-8pm with no exhaust brake and several “we’re going to die!” moments.

To combat my aches, I did T’ai Chi watched by a handful of boys aged between 10-14 who were joshing with each other trying to copy me and doing exaggerated kung fu poses. When one of their sisters came past carrying a container of water on her back, I asked “If you’re so strong, why aren’t you carrying it?”

I could tell by their reaction that none of them had ever considered this before. The brother actually ran off in terror at the humiliating prospect of being made to carry water ‘like a girl’. I gestured to his mates “Women are stronger. They carry the water, carry the wood, carry the babies – you just carry a stick.”

Zola’s choice for the first proper day of his holiday week had been to go full teenager – he’d decided not to wash or eat the whole day. It had got so smelly up in the nose cone, this morning Ruby sprayed room freshener around him. Zola retaliated by emptying the neat liquid over her clothes and bed. It wasn’t just the fumes that gave me an instant headache…

We descended the windey windey road into a more tropical green landscape boasting bananas, maize and sugar cane. The tube of cloth men used as a shawl higher up the mountain, they now folded as a pleated skirt. When Sampson checked the fuel filter, he noticed that the bolt holding the grill on had snapped on one of the hard bounces yesterday. This exposed the state of the radiator – eeek, no wonder the engine was overheating.

Just before lunch I noticed Zola had tied back his curtains and put his glasses on – a sign he was angling for re-admittance – so I said “The only thing keeping you up there is you”.  He came down and washed while his Dad was busy cobbling things back together. Before he ate I told him I appreciated he’d been very traumatised by the Good Friday exposure and had needed isolation over the weekend to recover, but please to make the most of family time now – especially when Ruby had travelled all this way because he’d said he wanted her to come.

Zola wasn’t responding so Ruby started fuming and put her headphones on. She missed him vowing that next term was going to be different and if he didn’t get up and exercise, he’d only be allowed his phone at weekends. He then apologised to her for “accidentally” spilling room spray in her stuff. She was so furious he got no worse punishment – “He’s just getting away with it” – that then she took herself upstairs for the rest of the day. Sigh. Zola took over her job of leaping up from the bench on Dad’s command to switch on the overheating spray.

We reached the city of Dessie at 4.30pm and Sampson went on a mission to find gas. Dessie has a majority Muslim population and was a big change from the Orthodox Christian highlands. It was fascinating sitting waiting, watching the teeming crowd, at once more liberal and conservative: there were women in ripped jeans, high heeled boots, big hair and lipstick and women in full hijab. It was vibey.

It was bliss to have gas again at last – we pulled over in a scrapyard halfway up a hairpin bend and had a warm shower. I made my famous sauteed onion garlic ribbon cabbage with fried eggs and rice and engineered a healing conversation tackling how everybody at some time or other feels their sibling is being favoured and themself hard done by. But I firmly put them both in their place, stating for the record that I hotly resent any suggestion I favour either one of them; I just do my best to treat their teenage challenges according to their individual needs – which are very different.

This was accepted vocally by him and tacitly by her. But later Ruby added “I don’t tell you everything because I don’t want you to worry” and revealed she suspected she might be asexual. She told me her friend’s Dad didn’t speak to her for months when she told him she was pansexual and so she had been worried about telling me in case I didn’t approve. Me??? I was gobsmacked. I couldn’t believe she could think for a moment that I might respond in a clichéd ‘conservative parent’ way. Later I crawled up into the nosecone to give her an extra cuddle and reassure her I approve of her 110%, always, no matter what.

A Brief History of Ethiopia part 5:

Tewodros II’s successor Yohannes IV successfully fought the Egyptians and the Mahdists before dying in the Battle of Gallabat in 1889. From his base in the central province of Shewa, Emperor Menelik II continued his predecessor’s policy of expansion, subjugating the kingdoms of Kaffa, Sidama, Wolaytta and Aussa in the west, south and east.

In the north Menelik II was confronted with Italy’s colonial ambition, already established in Eritrea and Somalia. Following some duplicitous translations – which made Ethiopia a ‘protectorate’ rather than magnanimously ‘protected’ as in the Amharic version – the Emperor rejected the Treaty of Wuccale and (with the aid of Russia) took on the invading forces of Italy at the Battle of Adwa on 1st March 1896. Their decisive defeat led to the resignation of the humiliated Italian prime minister and ensured Ethiopia’s independence – the only African country to avoid the effects of the ‘principle of effective occupation’ established at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5.

Adwa secured Ethiopian sovereignty until the Second Italo-Ethiopian War forty years later and became a pre-eminent symbol of pan-Africanism. The victory is still revered as a national cultural touchstone – see the 1999 documentary by Halie Gerima or these music videos of Ejigayehu Shibabaw a.k.a. Gigi’s tribute Adwa and Teddy Afro’s 2012 hit Tikur Sew (Black Man) about Menelik II and the response to him singing it live in Meskel Square.

Menelik’s wife Empress Teytu Betel – said to be the one who tore up the treaty after the revelation of Italian treachery – led her own forces in the battle, and also founded the town of Addis Abeba (new flower).

* * *

The next morning, Zola was up early, bounding about the scrapyard, investigating an old bullnose. He loves having boundaries reconfirmed so he knows where he is. We were all in good spirits, sitting in the front together when we set off.

Big Reg averaged 30/40kmh on the 200km between Kombolcha and Debre Sina as speed bumps every kilometre through the villages slowed us down. Back down in the valleys there were teams of oxen ploughing and camels carrying sugar cane across their back like wings. A Romani-looking trio of beautiful young sisters wearing layers of pink, red and gold reminded me of childhood images of genies. There were more khat-chewing bus drivers, table football and pool tables and and packs of boys not carrying water.

Despite a post-lunch nap, I didn’t recover, so let Ruby hang with her Dad in the cab playing Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Queen and the Pogues while I lay in the back. I was too flattened by the effects of the too wobbly road to write. I reflected that if I wasn’t in the truck that day, looking out of the window at the changing sky, I would definitely be marooned somewhere in bed.

The truck – my moving house, my boat, my cocoon, my cell, my haven, my time capsule, my privilege – was saving me from most of the frustrations of an increasingly bedridden existence.

Around 5.30pm Sampson stopped midway down a steep zigzag because he’d spotted a troop of monkeys with blowdries. We got out on the chilly windswept mountainside to take a look at these extraordinary creatures – and then caught sight of the spectacular view, which looked like Switzerland or somewhere out of the Lord of the Rings.

We’d accidentally stumbled upon one of Ethiopia’s most famous sights: ‘Menelik’s Window’, apparently near the birthplace of the Emperor, from where he could look down on his kingdom from a height of 3260m. It’s one of only four places in Ethiopia inhabited by gelada, often erroneously called baboons despite being their own genus of ‘bleeding heart’ monkey. Although fossil remains of gelada have been discovered as far away as South Africa, today they are found only in the Ethiopian highlands. As we watched the troop lope calmly across the magnificent terrain, taking their time to forage here and there, we felt a bit David Attenborough, uniquely blessed to bear witness.

According to historian Richard Pankhurst, the coronation of Menelik II in 1889 was a subdued event due to the Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-92. The famine was triggered by the African rinderpest epizootic of the 1890s – introduced from Indian cattle brought over by the Italians for their campaign against Somalia – which killed approximately 90% of cattle in the Horn. Lack of rainfall from 1888 led to famine in all but southernmost provinces as locust and caterpillar infestations destroyed crops. Conditions worsened with a typhus epidemic, a major smallpox epidemic (1889–90) and cholera outbreaks (1889–92).

A third of Ethiopia’s population died of starvation. Somewhat puts our coronavirus pandemic into perspective, doesn’t it?

Menelik’s Window

It is interesting to consider how, if the British have built their modern self-image on the stories they tells themselves about World War II, the spirit of Dunkirk and Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” speech, perhaps post-apartheid South Africans construct theirs on tales of the Defiance Campaign through Sharpeville to Mandela’s Rivonia Trial statement from the dock: “an ideal for which I am prepared to die“.

In the same way, being aware of the history of the 1896 Battle of Adwa, and its catastrophic context, offers a window into the foundation of the Ethiopian or habesha character: a defiant spirit of self-sufficiency and fortitude in the face of extreme conditions, manifesting in great pride and fierce dignity.

Ancient perspective

Overnight, it felt like autumn in Northern Croatia. I slept in my sheepskin hoodie under quilt and sleeping bag and wore jeans, socks and boots until Addis. It took about 4 hours on a much better road, getting up to 50/60kmph. I was fascinated by the double vowels of most of the words on the Oromo road signs, and the colourful school uniforms: we saw them in dark green, electric blue, pink, purple, and cherry red – often in combination. Table footie and pool seemed to be national obsessions.

All four of us were sitting in the cab together coming into this most anticipated capital city. Sampson was commenting that he couldn’t believe there was so little traffic on the outskirts when suddenly the oil pressure dropped and he panicked. Thankfully the cooling system worked and the pressure came back to normal. Only the last 10 kms were busy and we arrived outside the enormous South African Embassy at exactly 3 mins to 5pm.

We just managed to persuade the guards to let us in and introduced ourselves to the 1st Secretary of Corporate Services Ms Mahlako who turned out to be the wife of Lebo in Khartoum! While we were waiting to meet the Minister of Corporate Services, we were invited to sign the book of condolences for Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela who had passed away the week previously. It was full of deeply respectful handwritten messages from ambassadors from all over Africa residing here at the seat of the African Union, very formal and very touching.

Minister Munro came back to the truck for cup of rooibos with three sugars and relaxed as the rain came down. He told the story of his growing up in Mitchells Plain with two siblings who took it in turns to make a fire in the stove every morning, and how his sister once set fire to a cat who was keeping warm in the ashes! His Dad saved it with engine oil… He’s only had ‘ice cream’ postings to Paris and London recently, but was glad to be back in Africa.

Next morning we were called in to a meeting in a massive boardroom with minutes being taken. While listing potential hotels to source oil and schools to perform climate education, Counsellor Forster Masuku shared the sad news that Black Panther was no longer showing due to licence issues – we were crushed. I consoled myself with this brilliant essay by Tebu Cole.

We moved on to the Marriott Executive Suites, where Big Reg was gifted an excellent quiet parking bay in the heart of Addis and Ruby was treated to a ‘traditional coffee’ of welcome in the foyer.

Breathing in the intoxicating aroma of Ethiopian coffee was as near as I could get

On Saturday, after the Sampsons had enjoyed the pool and Zola had been given tips from a pro trainer in the gym, Ruby and I set out to see the church across the road as recommended by the coffee lady. Outside Kidus Estiphanos (St Stephen’s) we were found by 22 year old Betelhem Daniel a.k.a. Betty, recent BEd graduate and Sunday School teacher, who extricated herself from her wards to show us round the stalls on the side. Ruby bought half a kilo of frankincense for 150 birr and two packs of incense sticks and sweet Betty came back to visit the truck.

That evening, the Sampsons walked round the corner to the Flamingo Restaurant and ordered a post-lenten meat feast, served with the softest, lightest injera yet. Zola finished my last roll after polishing off three of his own as well as scoffing all the bread and a giant deep-fried vetkoek thing with herbs called a pasti. We came home early for Ruby to pack and watch Dr Who.

While cleaning my teeth I was shocked by a dreadful attack of ‘flashy eyes’ which almost completely blinded me for a few minutes. It was unusual because it normally only happens when my blood sugar levels are low, not just after I’ve eaten. Admittedly I was bleeding heavily – after a 6 week gap, having missed a period due to typhoid in Khartoum.

I woke at 3am with an excruciating headache from the back of my skull to the front, as if my brain was in a vice. It was frightening because it was so extreme, but I guessed it must have been triggered by additives in the food and hoped it would pass. I didn’t wake Sampson, because he had to get up early to escort Ruby on the Marriott’s airport shuttle.

At 5am she came down for a last cuddle. The mossies were merciless. When Ruby left with her Dad, dressed in leggings and her lovely jersey with embroidered flowers on, I felt utterly bereft.

Desolate, I wrote nothing in my diary that Sunday 15th April, but one line:


We are not whole without her.

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