Black Monuments Matter

Ruby and I had to admit Sampson had been right: the appallingly steep ascent into Lalibela would’ve killed Big Reg’s engine if we’d carried on in the heat of the day before. Even more challenging, the road was still in the process of being built, and traffic was expected to just squeeze around the roadworks despite the terrifying sheer drops either side. It was as nerve-racking as entering Matadi in DRC, but thankfully not as crowded.

We found our way to the main square, ignored the hustlers who flocked round the truck and entered Seven Olives: the oldest hotel, with the best food and the warmest welcome in Lalibela. This haven of 46 rooms was commissioned by Haile Selassie’s granddaughter Princess Hirut in 1967, but we chose it because its carpark was both beautifully shady and miraculously marooned from the unrelenting badgering of the market traders’ street below.

The myriad of birds gathered in the trees surrounding it, and the giant rondavel restaurant decorated with indigenous styled artwork and a woven roof were a bonus. The manager Mr Belay had the looks and energy of an Ethiopian Sylvester McCoy, while receptionist Mr Kenaw was a gem – he immediately took us to a jewellry shop to see if they could help us source some new gas (they use it for cleaning silver). No joy, but on the bright side, the lack gave us carte blanche to eat out for a couple of days.

While Sampson and Zola transferred the rest of the WVO we’d collected in Khartoum into the Jojo tank to settle, Ruby and I sat on Seven Olives’ blissfully shady terrace drinking Ethiopian coffee and bissap tea respectively. After the gruelling last few days, it felt so lovely, like a proper holiday! While I wrote up my diary, she made use of the weedy wifi to greet Uncle Pierrot and her friends. When we heard Afrikaans floating over from a table of hipster tourists nearby we were gobsmacked. They were from Pretoria and it was the first sign that we were nearing home.

A Brief History of Ethiopia part 3

Around 900CE, the Zagwe dynasty established a kingdom which spread from the highlands of Eritrea to Lake Tana. Its capital came to be named after the monarch who was reputed to have commissioned a series of monolithic churches there: King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. During the time of the Crusades, the Zagwe rulers strove to provide peace and stability in a theocratic society – three of their kings were canonised as saints – in contrast with the warlike Solomonic dynasty that followed.

In 1270 BC, nobleman Yekuno Amlak, who claimed to descend from the last Axumite king and ultimately the biblical Menelik I, overthrew the Agaw kingdom of the Zagwe and established the Solomonic dynasty with himself as nəgusä nägäst, King of Kings or Emperor of Abyssinia. The Empire expanded significantly through through the Tigray, Amhara and Shewa regions under the crusades of Amda Seyon I (1314–1344) and Yeshaq I (1414–1429), temporarily becoming the dominant force of the African Horn.

Subsequent rulers Zara Yaqob (1434–1468) and Lebna Dengel (1508-40) battled with neighbouring Muslim kingdoms the Hadiya Sultanate and the Adal Sultanate, who were only defeated in 1543 with the help of the Portuguese. This power struggle centred around the fascinating story of Queen Eleni of Ethiopia, who suffered a fate similar to Helen of Troy, but ended up wielding far more power during the reigns of three subsequent emperors.

* * *

Outside the (closed) Tourist Information office, we met a lady from Hong Kong that we’d sheltered from the hail with in Gondar! Voluble Alex told us she thought the $50 tourist tickets ($25 for under 14) valid for 3 days’ entrance to all 11 rock-hewn churches were a rip off for non-Westerners such as us. She reckoned we didn’t all need to buy one because “they don’t check”.  Her theory was to prove a boon in this month where we’d blown more than half of our rental income on unplanned flights for Ruby.

Sampsons with our friend Alexandra Ming Wai Sin from Hong Kong

We invited Alex back to eat with us at the Seven Olives restaurant, where she entertained us for 3 hours with stories of her extensive travels beyond Asia and Europe, from South America and the Middle East to North Africa. Most fascinating were her photos of the salt pans, hot springs, acid pools and lava lakes of the Danakil Depression in Afar in eastern Ethiopia, a vast volcanic plain 100m below sea level, shaped by the slow separation of three tectonic plates.

The average annual temperature in Addis Ababa is 16°C, with daily maximum temperatures averaging 20–25°C throughout the year. But Dallol in the Danakil Depression has the world’s highest average annual temperature of 34°C. The terrain looked very Star Wars, with crystal pillars and surreal colours of bright yellow, turquoise and neon green, looking more like somewhere on other planet rather than on the border with Djibouti. Indeed, scientists are researching microbes there that thrive in extreme acidity, heat and salinity in order to anticipate investigations of potential life on Mars. Here’s an actual paper on it, Ruby.

We had guessed Alex was around 30 years old but she turned out to be 52! She told us horror stories about the prices of houses in Hong Kong, while the kids ordered roast chicken and Sampson the ‘stuffed steak’. I think I chose best with the traditional ‘fasting food’ platter, a colourful selection of delicious flavours both vegan and gluten-free.

Traditional Ethiopian wat stew is usually served on a pancake of teff flour called injera which you tear and use to scoop up the different sauces. I loved the lentil, split pea and spinach stews but had to leave the ground chick pea shiro when I realised it had MSG in it. All four of us ate for 600 Birr, about R250, and were very full. That night’s episode of This Is Us was so lovely, and the evening ended with a full family pile-on-the-bed hug.

Fabulous presentation of the ‘fasting food’ platter at the Seven Olives Hotel

The rich food gave me a full body sweat and had me waking every hour but thankfully no insomnia. I was relieved that the pain in my legs from walking up the hill yesterday was only about the same as the remaining PEM in my arms. So today was the day to attempt to tour the churches.

Having survived the drive up here, Sampson was also feeling more chipper, cheery at the prospect of inventing a MacGyver fix for the radiator. This morning, he caught me up around the waist and kissed me genuinely for the first time in forever. After T’ai Chi to loosen my hips, helping Zola make EMS revision notes, and another gas-free lunch of tuna and grated carrot, the kids and I set off down the road to the Ticket Office.

Lunchtime with loved ones – note water spray to dissuade PJ from going for the tuna

Our bags were searched before we filled in chits with our details while a rather smug middle-aged monk made a great display of reading his holy book and chanting piously. I registered the kids but not me, explaining that we couldn’t afford $50 each for all of us and it was more important that they were given the chance to see this unique African heritage, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. (Plus there was no way I could physically manage to walk around all 11 churches.)

We went into the next room to pay. An ancient fellow, who reminded me of my great-grandad Albert, was propped on a high wooden bench behind glass laboriously filling in carbon receipts in long hand like some Dickensian scribe. There was one price for Ethiopians and one for foreigners; I respectfully suggested that three tiers with a mid-priced African/Asian tourist level might attract more of us?

A large well-heeled European tour group were ushered through ahead of us and it felt a bit unfair that their pack of blonde brats were allowed in for free, as they bounced about chewing on Haribos, completely oblivious to the precious opportunity being offered to them.

Ruby and Zola followed them on their walk around the Northern group of churches: the largest Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), the oldest Bete Mariam (House of Mary), the chapel Bete Meskal (House of the Cross), the smallest Bete Denagel (House of Virgins) and the twin churches Bete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha and Mikael).

There were no tourist leaflets available, or reading material on the walls, presumably to make hiring a guide indispensable. While I sat waiting, I chatted with the security guard’s children and asked if I could take a picture of Boss Monk’s intricatedly folded palm leaf rings secured with fine gold twine.

From Wikipedia, I have subsequently learned that the churches date from the 7th to 13th centuries, although traditionally assigned to the reign of the Zagwe King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (1181–1221). Lalibela, revered as a saint, is said to have decided to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the retaking of old Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187. Each church was carved from a single piece of rock to symbolize spirituality and humility.

Construction proceeded from the top down to a depth of 20-25m, using basic hammers and chisels to excavate trenches surrounding the monolithic and semi-monolithic structures as well as a system of tunnels out of the scoriaceous basalt which connect the two separate groups of churches with each other.

It is a breathtaking achievement, especially when you touch the rock they were hewn from and feel its unyielding nature. I remember the parable about building your house on rock but this was taking Matthew 7:24 to the next level. Bete Medhane Alem is a three storey high church with five aisles. Whose vision was that? To craft it from one piece of rock?? With a chisel???

Situating the churches underground meant they were not easily visible to invaders; it seems Ethiopians’ judicious defensiveness goes back over a millennium. Their faith is not just built on rock, it is protected by it. There are two hundred rock-hewn churches and monasteries all over the country, some even more hidden.

With funding from the EU, four (shockingly ugly) shelters were erected in 2008 to cover five of the site’s churches in an attempt to provide a temporary mode of protection from the elements until a more long-term solution could be decided upon. However, the shelters have remained in place for far longer than they were meant to, and consequently pose serious dangers to the buildings underneath – there is a risk of collapse due to earthquake among other factors. The Director of the local Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage has indicated that the shelters must be removed; however there are still not yet any definitive plans in place.

Ruby came back very chuffed with the photos she’d taken. She showed them to me as we sat in the shade of some ancient trees at the top of a hill between the Northern and Southern church clusters, rehydrating and eating sesame seed snacks. It was very hot and humid, and we were glad we’d brought both umbrellas.

We walked down the hill to reach the churches on the south side of a massive rock-cut trench accommodating the non-perennial stream known as the river Jordan. The capacity of a very old woman with sticks walking past us over uneven ground amazed me – no wonder everyone was so fit here, going up these hills all the time.

The steep slopes next to each church were full of white-scarfed people celebrating mass. I had never before seen Christians praying like Muslims, up and down on their knees, bending their foreheads to the ground repeatedly and crossing themselves with two hands as the service was intoned by monks over loud speakers.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is more ancient and places more emphasis on Old Testament teachings than the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant churches. Many of its traditions and practices have more in common with Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. Followers remove their shoes before entering holy ground, observe the Sabbath and practice circumcision. Devout believers attend daily services and are expected to maintain 250 fast days per year. The longest period of fasting is the 55 days of Lent prior to Easter and the festival of Fasika, where no meat or animal products of any kind are eaten and alcohol and sexual activity are refrained from.

Zola became increasingly unhappy as the crowds got bigger. I felt he was about to mutiny when we were saved by the rain – as heavy drops began pelting down, we sheltered with a group of small boys under a ruined tukul roof. They shyly greeted and – in the absence of any useful signage – told us the route to the most famous Bete Giyorgis was through the churches below us rather than up and around.

On the southeastern side, the fortified palace of Bete Gabriel Raphael connects via a 35m unlit ‘passage through hell’ tunnel to the cave-like Bete Merkorios, complete with iron shackles; the Bete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos) was, according to legend, constructed in a single night by Lalibela’s wife Meskel Kebra, with help from angels; the Bete Leham (House of Holy Bread) is little more than a monastic cell but the Bete Emanuel is thought to be the former private church of the royal family.

Zola really didn’t want to go, but he didn’t want to walk back alone either. I was so glad Ruby was here with us to persuade him to come along because I didn’t want to force him, and he certainly wouldn’t have been confident enough to proceed with just me. After she gently pep-talked him, we went through a tiny passage into a tiny church and found ourselves surrounded by women sitting together convivially rather than praying. It seemed a pleasant respite from the world outside.

Only once we came out and through and over and down the road and reached the other side did we come across a tourist information map – perhaps we’d come at the whole thing backwards.

Finally we found the way and as we rounded a corner, caught sight of the St George’s cross cut into the ground I’d been waiting so long to see. Bete Giyorgis was constructed last of all of Lalibela’s churches, apparently after Saint George appeared to the King and asked him why no church had yet been consecrated to him?

There were a hundred or so people sitting above it, another hundred or so below, all apparently waiting for something. By complete fluke, we seemed to have arrived in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Our positioning was nothing short of spectacular, so we found a gap, sat down and tried to blend in. 

About 5 minutes later, we were approached by a custodian who asked if we had tickets – “of course!” Ruby and I played it brilliantly: while I fumbled in my bag for my purse with the three receipts folded together (Ruby’s, Zola’s and Alex’s) Ruby passed him the roadblock kit family pic with the explanation of our trip in Amharic and he was so delighted by the story and her friendliness, he didn’t pay close attention to the latter’s dates.

When we looked up again, a procession was approaching. As one, the crowd around us rose and set off down the slope, so we fell in.  A man in a green beanie started sounding on a horn, heralding the arrival of the parade of white-clad figures. Propelled forward by the crowd, again I found myself perfectly positioned to take pics of the procession circling the church below.

The procession was led by a blue and gold velvet-covered umbrella
which we guessed shielded the tabot being carried on the head of a priest
The reverence and the spiritual joy were tangible

Somewhere in the middle of this extraordinary 15 minutes, I realised this couldn’t possibly be a daily occurrence and Friday 6th April 2018 must indeed be Good Friday in Ethiopia – a week after South Africa’s. We had lucked into witnessing the conclusion of the most important service at Lalibela’s most famous church on the most holy day of their year! It really felt like someone had slipped some Felix Felicis in our water during our snack stop.

How blessed were we to be right here right now?
Part of this circle gathered around the cross
The procession went around the church and came back up again
We didn’t want to intrude further by approaching any nearer, but used camera zoom to capture the fervour of celebrants gathering around to be blessed

After the conclusion of the ceremony, the crowd melted away surprisingly quickly; in hindsight I realise that people were rushing home to break their long fast! Zola immediately relaxed and we sat and enjoyed the views of the last golden light over the monument and surrounding mountains.

It was closing time 6pm, just too late for us to enter, but I was finished anyway so we jumped in a bajaj for a 10 minute ride back. This was Zola’s favourite bit of the day, and he was grinning as our daredevil driver, curly Thomas, swerved around goats and donkeys up the long long incline to Seven Olives. Squashed safely between my big babies, I was glowing with the sense of being incredibly blessed to have witnessed this Good Friday and shared it with both my kids. If Ruby hadn’t been here, Zola would never have stuck with it and we’d have missed the finale. I felt like the luckiest woman alive.

Without internet access to allow me to do any research beforehand, unable to read up more than the very basic outline about Lalibela in our Lonely Planet Africa book, I’d felt unprepared for this experience. But it forced us to be more open to clues, operate more like travellers from centuries ago, working out what’s going on from what you can see and hear. (Like Mary Bateson in her Persian garden – that’s just for Kleh.)

I’ve had the added joy of discovering much more about the churches since and filling in the gaps of my knowledge. Once again, as on so many occasions on the trip, I have been shocked by how completely ignorant my ‘topnotch’ Western education is of these treasures of the continent’s heritage. A deafening silence continues to be maintained on the implications of attempting to enslave a sophisticated religious culture more ancient, more constant and more devout than ours.

Bete Giyorgis at Easter, as it has been for centuries

More tragic is the fact that my kids’ African education didn’t mention Lalibela either. Why isn’t Bete Giyorgis as well known and immediately identifiable with Ethiopia as the Eiffel Tower is with France or Big Ben is with Britain?

If African children don’t see themselves in history, as kings and queens, heroes and conquerors and survivors, builders of palaces and cathedrals and libraries and impregnable fortresses of faith, is it any wonder they might grow to lack belief in themselves as potential beings of importance? Of immortal fame? Or even just agency?

There was a tangible feeling that ancient history is alive and well in Ethiopia, being nurtured alongside the present. The slow-burning realisation that this is how visiting the rest of Africa should feel like was beginning to hurt. The awareness that the deep layers of Ethiopia’s cultural richness had been wiped out everywhere else by colonialism was weighing heavily on me. My growing appreciation of the black hole of the appalling Absence of indigenous history was dragging an immense sorrow in its wake.

Ethiopia’s towering culture stands quiet and defiant like Bete Giyorgis, glorious in the sunset, surrounded on all sides by the yawning chasm of its neighbours’ history, still hidden from hegemony, only visible if you make an effort to go and look for it.

Do yourself a favour and check out this impressive immersive tour of Lalibela churches, created by the Zamani Project at UCT in partnership with the Aga Khan University. It’s just one of 65 heritage sites across Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia comprehensively documented in their phenomenal Black Monuments Matter online exhibition to promote awareness and pride in neglected ancient cultures, from the pyramids of Sudan and ruins of Swahili kingdoms to the great mosques of Mali.

If you’d like to get a sense of the atmosphere of that day, please enjoy this beautiful video of worshippers.

We got back to find Sampson very happy with his day’s work of designing a DIY sprinkler system for the radiator. He’d dropped rice and lentils into the kitchen earlier so we went straight into the restaurant where the darling cooks served us big portions of simple dahl with garlic and spinach and only charged us 100Br for 4. It was delicious and just what we all needed.

We had a quick chat to Jeremy and Margot Otty of Silvermine Village – who’d seen Sampson’s last show show at Café Roux in Noordhoek! – before beetling back to the truck to watch 2 episodes of This Is Us while holding hands snivelling.

Afterwards, while Dad was telling Zola how important it was not to measure your self-worth against internet standards of achievement (he still thinks he’s rubbish at everything including unicycling because of YouTube) Ruby came on the bed for a cuddle with me and PJ. I said I needed to see her just as much as she needs to see us, as does Zola.
“Yes” she agreed, “He needs me to knock him into shape or something”.
“To love him the way you do” I amended.
“Yes,” she added; “brutally”.
We laughed uproariously.
(Zola you’ve done so well to survive us.)

The next morning, passing tour guide Mr Gashaw was very interested in hearing about Big Reg running on WVO. He was very well informed about South Africa’s post-apartheid history, right up to our present State Capture crisis. (He slagged off the Guptas and knew Ramaphosa was already rich!)

He told me that Ethiopia’s State of Emergency in 2016-17 had slashed tour bookings by 75%. But he was not disheartened. “Military government is what Ethiopia is used to,” he shrugged. He was optimistic about their (then) brand new prime minister Dr Abiy Ahmed and told me all about his first speech following his swearing in that week in Parliament, which was radical in acknowledging both his mother and his wife, as well as the Creator. Dr Abiy is the first Oromo in that position, and seemed committed to seeking unity between warring ethnic groups inside the country as well as peace with neighbours in the Horn. Mr Gashaw was cautious enough to add “But we’ll see..”.

Regarding the $50 tourist entrance fee (1350 birr or R600 at the time), I asked if the money went to locals and he said “Ah, you’re a journalist I see…”

It was a long story, he said. Although the land around Lalibela has been cultivated for 2000 years, its only industry is tourism. When he started guiding, 8 years ago, the price of the ticket was 150birr, which was first increased to 350birr with a few complaints. A new chief monk of administration came in and built a hotel, and started trying to monopolise guests services – from airport transfer to hotels to church tours. He proposed an $80 ticket and began sending deacons to tourism college in Addis, trying to corner the market.

The local guide association fought back, and the power struggle culminated in a climatic scene at a meal in a local hotel. When the blessing was called for, the owner refused to let the chief monk bless, as he said he would not eat with him. After that the charge was capped at $50 and the church authorities backed off on cutting out local guides. The guides are still campaigning for 10% of the tourist fee to be given to buy oxen for the poor of Lalibela. However (and he dropped his voice to a shocked whisper), he’s heard that the monks just bought a 60million birr building (R26million) in Addis.

Shoo, there’s corruption everywhere people.

Tour guide Mr Gashaw Assefa telling it like it is

In the late morning, Ruby and I set out to the Saturday market. As we tripped our way down the road, studiously ignoring kids hassling us with constant ‘hellohellohello youyouyou’s, half the town was walking fast back uphill, pulling goats or holding chickens by their ankles.

Everyone had a palm frond tied around their forehead. The sellers of green rushes were doing a roaring trade. They seemed to be Easter necessities. We took the right turn to the market rather than the left to St George’s, and wound our way through a scrum of bajajs, past stalls of socks, belts, boxes, the ubiquitous green jelly bean shoes to where Ruby stopped to look for chunky rings for Zola and bought him an Afro comb.

As we came over a rise I was shocked to see, beyond dozens and dozens of stalls lining the steps below us and stretching away to the right, a packed crowd of hundreds and possibly thousands of people milling around the animal fair. It was massive. They must have had 10000 people pass through that day.

Easter Saturday market – like late night shoppers piling down Oxford Street on Christmas Eve
These peacock blues and greens remind me of all the graceful Ethiopian women I didn’t take pictures of

The fresh food was already mostly sold out, with only hot squashy tomatoes remaining. We walked through to the clothes section and I finally found the blue/green dresses I’d been coveting from a distance. It was disappointing to find they were not made of cotton but man-made fibres, impossible for my skin to tolerate. But I was pleased to buy a red, gold and green woven scarf for my Rastafarian friend from Ocean View.

Exhausted and zapped by the heat, we stopped to rest by the empty Bete Giyorgis on the way home
Muppet-features so tired but happy before climbing into a lifesaving bajaj

I could feel all the cells of my body going into shock from overdoing it by this time, so blame my wired mind for coming up with the idea of an African Doctor Who (Prof What?), who time-travels not in a TARDIS but in a colourful TUKTUK (tiny on the outside, massive comfortable velvet-red-and-gold-wallpapered truck on the inside): The Ultimate Kickass Time-Ululating Kombi! I mean look at this magnificent machine – beats a 1960s police telephone box hands down:

When I woke on Ethiopian Easter Sunday 8th April, the PEM had caught up with me bigtime. I felt beaten all over with a stick. But it was a perfect day to rest. The streets below were empty – everyone was at home feasting. Ruby took her Dad to see the churches and they had a lovely time, completely alone. I lay on the bed and reorganised my clothes into cold and warm weather bags, while Zola lay in the nose cone on his phone and didn’t speak the entire day, also in recovery mode. That evening, we binged the last 3 episodes of This Is Us season 1 which had Sampson sobbing, bless him.

That night I was woken from deep sleep by pack of young men in the street below howling. They seem to have gathered especially to make weird shouts and animal noises. Shooed away by security, they proceeded to stop and do the same at various places on their way down the valley. I wondered if it was outside all the hotels.

It didn’t sound like normal drunken twatting about after a few too many beers watching the World Cup which was underway. It sounded more like bottled rage. If my entire town had become a zoo for tourists to be shuttled around with their cameras, I think I might feel equally frustrated. In the daytime, you have to be nice to them at your stall, wheedle their dollars and euros off them, but really you loathe how they march into your mother’s church during mass with their expensive shoes on.

Ethiopia has never been colonised, except by the tourist economy.

PJ on the other hand can sleep anywhere, even in her litter tray

Postscript

In a week where a Benin bronze was finally returned, here’s a suggestion regarding reparations not just repatriations: perhaps all institutions holding looted treasures might start with evaluating what percentage of their collections is made up of looted treasures and extrapolating what portion of ticket sale income that would amount to since the date of the theft?

That chunk should be handed over to the countries in question – Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Egypt, Ethiopia – to allow them to invest in their museum infrastructure and establish world-class tourist destinations that would simultaneously economically uplift those culturally rich areas and banish the wilful ignorance of them from the rest of the globe.

The British Museum could start with footing the bill to restore these unique rock-hewn churches, replace the dangerous canopies over them and build a decent road into Lalibela. We could call it Prince Alemayehu‘s tax.

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Lean In

In Ethiopia, people greet by grasping right hands before leaning their right shoulders to touch each other. ‘Leaning in’ is exactly how you need to approach the country and its people. It’s not for the fainthearted, but very rewarding if you embrace the experience.

Ethiopia is the second most populous African country after Nigeria and its total population grew from 38 million in 1983 to 110 million in 2018 when we were there. There are over 80 different ethnic groups. According to the Ethiopian national census of 2007, the Oromo are the largest with 34.4% of the nation’s population, the Amhara represent 27.0%, while Somalis and Tigrayans represent 6.2% and 6.1% of the population, respectively.

A Brief History of Ethiopia part 2

Ethiopians believe that the Queen of Sheba (or Sabea), also known as Queen Makeda, ruled over swathes of Egypt, Kush, Axum and across to Yemen around 1000 BCE.  Her famous visit to the Israelite King Solomon (first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible) resulted in a son Menelik I, the first of 237 monarchs to claim descent from their union.

The legend was created to legitimise the Solomonic dynasty and written down in the 14th century national epic the Kebra Nagast. Menelik is said to have returned from a visit to his father in Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant, leaving a forgery behind. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims that the original, in which lie the Tablets of Stone upon which the Ten Commandments are inscribed, is kept under guard in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum to this day.

* * *

Ruby had less than 2 weeks left with us. I was sad to have come all the way to Gondar and miss the spectacular Debre Berhan Selassie church but Sampson said we didn’t have time to trek to see it – it was too high, and with the risk of the truck overheating we would have needed a tuk-tuk to get up there.

On the windy windy road through the mountains from Gondar to Lalibela, two things stood out: the vivid green of the spectacular scenery and the wretched poverty of the rural towns.

The Holy Week beginning on Palm Sunday is known as Semune Himamat (week of agony and suffering) in Ethiopia – the faithful carry palm leaves to their houses and make crosses to wear as headbands and rings from it to remind them of the palm leaves that were laid before Jesus’ path on his entry to Jerusalem.

Green seemed to be Ethiopia’s favourite colour. Tall herdsmen carrying sticks with a cotton shawl either wrapped round them against the morning cold or piled on their head against the midday heat were usually in shorts, their thin legs sporting lime green jelly bean sandals. Women wore more sober dark green and blue print dresses, while girls preferred clashing colours – a skirt of thick stripes of turquoise, green and yellow with a faded pink and red floral wrap and a Burberry check scarf tied around the head for example. It worked because the clothes were all so faded the patterns pulled together somehow. They were so beautiful, they looked like Vogue cover girls whatever. Old women draped with embroidered sashes displayed an undeniable grandeur, even when barefoot. Red, gold and green pride was evident everywhere from churches to football tops to café décor.

Our first evening we started watching This Is Us a family drama that Sampson had downloaded without knowing it featured an adopted brother and a fat-shamed sister – the kids absolutely loved it. As usual, Ruby was most eager to chat at bedtime, expressing her indignation on a wide range of issues from bullying at primary school to the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ micro aggressions of high school. We came up with the idea of documenting Everyday Racism at WGHS – such as how her history teacher corrected a Xhosa learner’s pronunciation of her own name – in the same way the Everyday Sexism project does. (Cambridge University subsequently did just that in 2020.)

The next day the exhaust brake got stuck on, and Sampson had me sitting in the driver’s seat pressing and releasing the plunger with my heel over and over while he was underneath tightening the spring. It wrecked my calf muscle. Half a kilometre later, the brake got stuck on again next to a transport hub. A huge crowd gathered to watch Sampson and Zola take it off, clean the carbonate by sanding, and replace it with the brand new joint (gasket) Papi had sourced us in France.

Big Reg finally set off, trundling through the pleasant town of Debre Tabor, full of university residences and pop up cafes with very popular pool tables. In one of the rougher towns, we saw an older guy with a stick beating off some young boys; Sampson stopped for eggs and paid double because he felt so sorry for the woman surrounded by dodgy-looking men.

We were so hot and tired, when we pulled over in a relatively empty spot between villages around 3.30 it felt like 5pm. I was glad Zola came to hold my arm on a brief walk on this last bit of relative flat before the big mountain range.

A group of about 20 kids gathered with the usual demand for attention, the machine gun repetition of “You you you”. Despite our dismal lack of Amharic and their lack of English, as we were staying overnight, I made an effort and got the family photo out of our roadblock kit in an attempt to explain who we were and where we were from. I hoped that would sate their interest and diffuse the relentless haranguing. But as more teenagers arrived, it got worse; they started banging on the side of the truck. So instead of showering we all went outside to greet again – the crowd numbered about 50 by now.

Sampson took this snap on his cell from the roof when the crowd of kids was still small

Ruby was out of practice with being the centre of such persistent attention and Zola was hating the Lord of the Flies vibe, so I stepped forward to brave the most in-your-face prodding. I demonstrated how unimpressed I was with Rudeness by giving the spotlight of my regard to the bright boy and group of quiet girls at the back. When we went back inside it started to get nasty – a knot of kids behind the truck began untying water containers, rattling the surf locker door handles and trying to get the bikes off the bike rack. (This was impossible because of thick chains wrapped round them, but they did slash the tarpaulins.)

Next came the rock-throwing.

This was the last straw for Sampson, who went out to check the bikes holding the machete we keep on hand for recalcitrant tree branches and coconuts, which just riled the teens (and me) further. I decided to rather open the door and challenge the ringleader directly. I called him forward, inviting him closer, reminding him “we just talked!” and shaming him for his lack of courtesy. Thankfully the rain came down, allowing me an excuse to get in the shower at last. Most of the crowd left but enough remained to make it unsettling as night fell.

We ate supper and were snuggled up watching the next episode of This Is Us on the laptop hanging from the cupboard when there was a BANG BANG BANG on the sidedoor. Sampson looked through the tinted window to see two guys. Neither were in uniform, so we ignored them. They carried on banging and shouting “Ethiopian police… go city… thief thief” Whatever. BANG BANG BANG. “We are sleeping” I retorted eventually “We’ll go tomorrow”.

Half an hour later the whole rigmarole was repeated. We decided to carry on ignoring them. If they were the police, it was way too late to move now and we felt safe enough here. If it wasn’t the police, it was a good idea to keep the door shut.

All through the night, a group of guys sitting outside in the dark (whether watchful police or vengeful teens) kept up a bizarre round of singing or chanting every hour or so. Was it to remind us they were there? To keep us safe? To keep us awake? Or both? Sampson put his earphones in and slept. I felt I was the only one left responsible for family safety. To be on the alert was exhausting enough without the cold: I was in jamas plus socks in my sleeping bag under the patchwork quilt, thankfully with PJ snuggled down inside with me like a hot water bottle.

What was most disturbing was that I couldn’t work out what we had done to offend them.

Horror stories about travelling through Ethiopia are common, especially from cyclists, mostly involving kids throwing stones or aggressive behavior of some sort. We had had similar experiences in Morocco and Egypt, but the level of malevolence was more intense here – this wasn’t just naughty boys having a laugh, this felt personal.

Latterly I have come to the conclusion that perhaps Ethiopia is the only country in Africa where your knapsack of white privilege has been so deftly pickpocketed, you don’t realise you’ve lost it until the harsh reality of being exposed to life without it hits you.

Everywhere else on the continent, we had been cushioned by wearing the skin of former colonisers and consequently being treated with undue deference or at least respect. But Ethiopians have a long history of battling to maintain their sovereignty and long memories. Here in the rural areas, it felt like we were seen as descendants of the enemy. Well, we were.

On top of this upsetting experience, that night – just as we reached that point in the mountains when hot meals and hot water had become vital again – we ran out of gas. That Wed 4th April was the coldest day of year so far (14˚C at 6.30am). I couldn’t cope with stripping to wash in icy water so we decided to lock down and get going.

The road climbed steeply and by 10am, we were at 3000m. Big Reg seemed to be crawling along the edge of the world. As the truck chugged higher and higher, swinging round precipice after precipice, we were more and more astounded by the vastness of the vistas dropping away before us, down slopes of arable terraces glimpsed between the thin trees whipping past – it was so IMAX movie-like, it hardly seemed real.

The Big Green Truck crawled through Nefas Meewcha, Debre Zebit and Arbit to Gashena before taking the left turn to Lalibela. The gravelly dirt road was so narrow and rocky we wondered if this were the right route to this top tourist destination. Check the junction out on Google maps to understand how the next 50km took nearly 3 hours as our speed reduced to about 15kmph around hairpin bends up the mountainside. (Later, we realised most of the tourists fly in.)

We saw an occasional Chinese overseer in orange overalls and a big sun hat with an Ethiopian work team excavating the road – it will be a lot better when it’s graded. But for now, it was full of holes that had the Big Green Truck swaying about all over the place and so ridged, it produced a bone-rattling vibration the likes of which we hadn’t endured since entering the Sahara on the west side. I decided to “get my retaliation in first” as my Dad says, and took an Ibuprofen in an attempt to ward off the inevitable brain stem inflammation. Then I braced my feet against the dashboard and just hung on tight as Big Reg inched along bravely up to 3000m, down across a valley around 2000m, then back up again.

Meanwhile Zola was staging a silent protest. It began as a way to show his anger about being forced to get out of the truck yesterday and greet the crowd with the rest of the family – he loathes the limelight at the best of times. Ruby – never the diplomat – made it very clear she was not impressed by his sulking, as a result of which he defiantly stayed in his bedroom and didn’t come down for breakfast or lunch. On the bright side, he must have had the best view of all out of the nose cone windows above us; it would have been like a fairground ride!

When it started getting hot in the afternoon, we stopped so I could walk about a bit to ease my constricted ‘aeroplane legs’, drink pineapple juice and eat some peanuts and raisins as an energy boost. It was a good opportunity to invite Zola to come have a nibble and sheepishly the hungry lad allowed himself to join us.

Soon Big Reg started overheating and Sampson started panicking. He stopped twice to spray the engine with water, then pointblank refused to go any further although it was only another 8km to Lalibela. Without gas to cook, Ruby and I would rather have gone on to eat in town but Sampson said he was too tired.

He then got out and entertained the kids of this tiny hamlet with a range of magic, which the little ones so enjoyed, he ended up pulling silly faces and doing his full range of animal noises for them. Over the next hour, the crowd grew from 8 kids to 30. They were absolutely delighted and I couldn’t help loving him for it until he came back in and whinged about how exhausted he was. I tried to take some pics through the window (despite how dirty it was) just to remember how much friendlier the vibe was compared to the previous evening.

Our host Abraham is the smiley guy on the right:

I wish I’d got out to take a photo of the kids hooting with laughter against the stunning mountain backdrop that surrounded us, but I couldn’t have got down the ladder. I washed in cold water, collapsed onto the bed and ate a bowl of leftover cold rice mashed with tinned sardines and tomatoes dished up by my daughter. Rather than admitting he’d overdone it and made our evening very late, Sampson thought we should be more impressed he’d “made the effort” to win over the kids “for us”. The tears were beginning to squeeze out of my eyes when Ruby took charge and refused to let him strop. So insightful and kind, she saved me from the costly effort it usually takes to dispute his version of events. It was such a relief to remain silent out of the firing line.

I lay awake from 2-4am and in the morning was shocked by disorientating pain – why did my arms feel like I’d been hanging off a cliff all night? The sockets felt particularly wrenched. As I surfaced, I realised that clinging onto the arms of the passenger seat all day yesterday had left me feeling like I’d been on the rack. But worse than the PEM was the head-rattledness and nausea. My balance was completely off. When my husband hugged me it was too much, I felt too fragile. Everything hurt. It took me half an hour to come round, another hour to get up.

I came out to do T’ai Chi just as he finished stretching for the crowd. I think I gained a little respect from Abraham when I explained this gentle martial art was first practiced by monks in mountain monasteries who wanted to defend themselves without aggression. He was thrilled to be given 2 bidons, but I think the genuine clasp-to-shoulder hug goodbye he gave to Sampson wasn’t from gratitude but rather respect for his driving skills. Even me and the kids were marvelling – when Dad had forgotten to put the truck in 4×4, how on earth did he manage to get Big Reg’s 10 tonnes up that short 50˚angle slope then turn sharply back onto the narrow road without falling into the ditch?

* * *

If you can, please help me finish the story and turn it into a book via Patreon.

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Camelot For Real

Ecologically, Ethiopia is a dramatically diverse country, with deserts along the eastern border, tropical forests in the south and extensive Afromontane in the northern and southwestern parts. The Ethiopian Highlands cover most of the territory and have a considerably cooler climate than other regions at similar proximity to the equator. Most of the country’s major cities are located at elevations of around 2000–2500m above sea level, including the historic capitals of Gondar and Axum.

Lake Tana in the north is largest in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. It has many endemic species, notably the gelada, the walia ibex and the Ethiopian wolf.

We’d decided to take Ruby straight to the lake to give both of us a chance to rest up and relax a bit before embarking on any sightseeing. I was absolutely exhausted with PEM – the pushing I’d done to get through the last few days was catching up and klapping me.

A Brief History of Ethiopia part 4:

After Abyssinia lost its access to the Red Sea due to Ottoman incursions and much of the Empire’s southern territory and vassals were ceded to Oromo migrations, Ethiopia started to expand westwards, conquering the Lake Tana area. In the 1630s Emperor Fasilides founded the new capital of Gondar, marking the start of a golden age known as the ‘Gondarine period’ which saw relative peace, the successful integration of the Oromo and a flourishing culture.

The murder of Iyasu I in 1706 heralded the decline of the Solomonic dynasty and the rise of the vassal dukedoms. The overthrow of Iyoas I by Ras Mikael Sehul in 1769 marked the beginning of the Zemene Mesafint (Age of Princes). Over the next 86 years, 23 emperors were anointed in see-saw fashion – many as puppets – as regional warlords vied for power. The long game of musical thrones was finally brought to an end by the triumphant emergence of talented military campaigner Kassa Hailu, a Robin Hood figure who became Emperor Tewodros II (1855–1868), the founder of the modern Ethiopian state. He sought to restore Solomonic hegemony and unify and stabilise the Empire.

His determined commitment to his vision – he was undefeated, committing suicide at the Battle of Magdala rather than surrender to the British expedition – has made him a hero of the nation, symbol of defiant Ethiopian independence. There were statues of Tewedros in the central traffic circle of Gondar and at the airport, and images of him were ubiquitous on the back of tuktuks.

* * *

At 3.30am on Thurs 29th March I woke and tried not to panic because I’d received no Whatsapp from Ruby in Addis confirming she’d got her visa on arrival at the airport. I just had to pray that she’d had time between landing at 10pm and transferring to her domestic flight at 2am. We found out later that the flight was 2 hours late so she’d had no time to do anything but scoot straight through.

We drove down to Gondar airport for 8am, and I started doing T’ai Chi outside next to the statue of Emperor Tewedros. We weren’t allowed inside so I didn’t relax till I saw her beaming face amongst the passengers pouring out 40 minutes later. Ruby ran to greet and gave me the hugest hug, so hard and for so long, I sobbed. Her Dad did the same.

She immediately brought her energy and laughter into the truck. After breakfast fruit, we set off on the 60km journey to Lake Tana, all together in the cab with PJ on my lap. We were ALL SO HAPPY. Zola was also beaming, and kept catching my eye. He just loves her ribbing him. No one can get away with it like Big Sis.

It was conspicuously poorer out here. People on the road all seemed to be subsistence farmers or herders wearing threadbare wraps. There were hardly any shops in the settlement half way. At Gorgora we missed the turn because it was so small, and Sampson walked off to check we were on the right track. He was away so long, Ruby opened her suitcase and pulled out lunch: a huge packet of gourmet crêpes made lovingly for us by her Oncle Pierrot of the Voulez-Vous Foodtruck. Oh my word, they were heavenly! We heated them up and I devoured my gluten-free buckwheat ones with avo and tomato, jam and chocolate spread. I felt loads better by the time Sampson returned with a helper to hacksaw a tree blocking our route.

The Big Green Truck squeezed down the very small road to Tim & Kim’s Village on the edge of the lake. It was the perfect place to exhale: a haven of peace, sprinkled with purple jacaranda blossom, scarlet hibiscus and birdsong. PJ was loving it. Ruby enjoyed helping Dutch owner Kim with her dogs Bari and Narnar.

It was a huge relief to have Ruby in front of my eyes, to be able to see she was OK. It made me realise how much I’d been fretting to to keep in contact with her online with such poor connection all through Sudan and Ethiopia. Instead of worrying about her, she was next to me, making me giggle with delight at her thought processes.

She told us that on the plane to Addis she sat next to a model. This elegant being, who lives in Marseille but was born in Gabon, was thrilled to hear Ruby had travelled to both places. Their conversation turned to racism in France. The model told the story of how she went to Paris for the weekend to stay with a friend whose 8 year old daughter abruptly asked “How did you get so black?”
Without missing a beat, she retorted “From eating chocolate”.
Horrified, the girl lowered the bar she was chomping from her mouth and said “I’m never having it again”!

There was of course a grand present opening: mint chocs and fabulous Batman tops for Zola, stacks of ricecakes and gluten-free pasta for me, biltong, gaffer tape and surf mags for Sampson. Ruby said she loves the process of planning, buying and giving gifts far more than receiving them – she’s so like her grandmother Joy in every way.

Lake Tana is a UNESCO Biosphere reserve in the Amhara region. It’s 84 x 66 km and host to about 230 species of birds including more than 80 wetland birds, and even some hippos. There are several monasteries on islands in the lake, some the burial sites of emperors.

We put our swimming cossies on and went down to the lake – I was thrilled to be able to undertake such an uneven walk. It was much warmer here than in the mountains, which was helping my strength. The water was colder than expected, at about 21/22˚C, so I just paddled, but the dynamic dolphin trio set off swimming to the island that was just within sight.

I found out later that the reed boats made by the fisherman that you can see propped up on the island are called tankwa and last about 3 months. (The zoom on my Nikon, and the steadiness of my arm on this occasion, were both impressive.)

One moment I was applying sunscreen; five minutes later, dark clouds had gathered and the wind was whipping waves out of nowhere. The adventurers returned just in time to get back to the truck before the storm broke. The nap I crashed out into was more like oblivion – finally my tense body had relaxed enough to let go.

Sampson made us a tinned sardine supper with cabbage and rice, and we celebrated our reunion with Doctor Who, Dairy Milk and toffees. I was cuddling my husband; PJ was already on Ruby’s chest. We couldn’t stop grinning at each other.

Those were such lovely days at Lake Tana. Ruby’s arrival made such a change, and her presence made me realise just how much she has inherited her Dad’s sense of fun. The awareness that every moment of every day can be fun. The difference he made when he came into my life more than 20 years ago, she makes now. Ruby brings the sunshine. Her infectious peels of laughter are peerless. Her delight in small animals, in silliness, in science. Her boundless enthusiasm.

I was so chuffed I was strong enough to do my own handwashing once again. It was the first time I’d done the whole lot since Europe. Sampson rewarded me with fried haloumi and tomato galettes!

The second time we walked down to the lake, Zola brought the SUP. After he’d paddled about round bird island, I put on a shortie wetsuit and Ruby helped me get on the board and lie down. We floated off to explore the coves between the reeds. It was soooo relaxing, so quiet. Like Beaverlac but with no one else there. 

There were very few fellow guests, only a departing Italian family from Malaga, also with a biological daughter and adopted son – from Ethiopia – as well as a grandma in Torre del Mar!

Ruby brought me a bucket of hot water and a jug and helped me wash my hair – I hadn’t felt so clean in months, or so cared for. ‘Salon hour’ continued as she insisted on tweezing my eyebrows and giving Zola a facemask and coconut oil hair treatment. I sat in Kim’s restaurant boma and wrote one of their beautiful photo postcards to Ruby, thanking her for the gifts of love and joy she had brought us. It arrived at school 5 months later.

By Saturday morning, I managed a walk through the jacaranda up the hillside, and was rewarded with a wonderful view over the whole village and across another couple of bays. It was too misty for vista pics, but I enjoyed capturing images of the flocks of tiny blue birds with rouge on their cheeks. I was sad Sampson never considers walking with me the way he would with Monte.

On our final visit to the lake, it was so cold it took Ruby ages to get in; I was very proud I screwed up my courage and got my shoulders under before she did. It was so refreshing and I was most gratified that my metabolism was strong enough to handle it.

When we said our goodbyes and thank yous to Kim, she explained that there were no eggs available to buy in town because, in orthodox Ethiopia, all meals are strictly vegan during the 55 day Lenten fasting period. On Sunday 1st April, halfway back to Gondar, I felt blessed to be awoken by the loud chatter of nosy shepherds. It was so chilly on the way back up to the mountains, PJ came to snuggle inside my sleeping bag. Unable to get online, I was unsure if it was Easter Sunday here as it was in South Africa.

The Big Green Truck drove on, avoiding the large number of humped Abyssinian Shorthorned Zebu cattle being driven along the road and, once in town, hordes of white draped people coming from church with thin strips of palm tied round their foreheads.

At the mini-market Sampson was brought nearly to tears by a woman asking only 10Br (R4) for 2 kilos of potatoes. He gave her double. Ruby was battling a sinus infection, but I persuaded her not to stay in the Taye Hotel carpark but come with us to see the ancient Emperors’ compound. We took umbrellas as parasols for shade on the humid walk up there.

Ghebbi is an Amharic word for a compound or enclosure. The Fasil Ghebbi or Royal Enclosure containing Emperor Fasilides‘ castle has been described as the ‘Camelot of Africa’. It says a lot about my expensive Western education that I knew more about the mythical King Arthur and his court than I did about this real ‘King of Kings’ nəgusä nägäst Fasilides.

Without internet connection at the time, we only had a paragraph in the Lonely Planet Africa book to go on. I’m making up for my ignorance now, and it’s proving a great challenge, trying to distill the wealth of history of this proud African nation. While researching several centuries of Ethiopian emperors, it struck me forcefully how heinous is the obliteration by colonial forces of the opportunity of a similarly rich history for neighbouring countries. How poorer we all are for it.

Camelot is just a legend; Gondar is real.

(P.S. In more than one version of the medieval myth, King Arthur’s Camelot is eventually razed to the ground by the treacherous King Mark of Cornwall, who was based on a ruler of Kernow in the 6th century.)

Until the 16th century, the Solomonic Emperors of Ethiopia usually had no fixed capital, but instead lived in tents in temporary royal camps as they moved around their realms while their family, bodyguard and retinue devoured surplus crops and cut down nearby trees for firewood. Emperor Fasilides broke with this custom to found the city of Gondar. Tradition states that a buffalo led the Emperor Fasilides to a pool beside the Angereb, where an old and venerable hermit told the Emperor he would locate his capital there. Fasilides had the pool filled in and built his castle on that same site.

Fasilides commanded the construction of an imposing edifice inside a boundary wall with 12 gates. Subsequent emperors built their own structures. The Fasil Ghebbi complex includes Fasilides’ castle Fasil Gemb, Iyasu I‘s palace, Dawit III‘s Hall, a banqueting hall, stables, Empress Mentewab‘s castle, a chancellery, library and three churches: Asasame Qeddus Mikael, Elfign Giyorgis and Gemjabet Mariyam. The site was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

It was far more imposing than we could have imagined. The buildings were so… castle-y! The thick stone walls were proper crenellated! There were impressively high ceilings, huge wooden beams, vast windows, massive wooden shutters. It was Lord of the Rings meets Hogwarts, although the glowering skies made it look more like the film set for a dramatisation of a Gothic novel. I was so glad Ruby came with us – she was reveling in it. Like me, she wanted to make sure we saw Everything.

The compound reminded me of Gjirokaster Castle I’d walked round in Albania and Kenilworth Castle that I’d visited on school trips as a kid in UK – both built over several centuries in the middle ages.

We were glad of our umbrellas as heavy plops of rain that began dropping from the purple sky became hail. We managed to make it back to the truck before the second pummeling downpour of the biggest iceballs I’d ever seen. The hammering on the roof was deafening. The teens were squealing like toddlers. Sampson had to batten down the hatches – literally – while I cooked a pot of carrot, spinach, sweetcorn, chickpea and tomato soup and mashed potato to warm us up.

 * * *

One hundred and fifty years before, Emperor Tewedros committed suicide on Easter Monday, April 13th 1868, as British troops stormed the citadel of Magdala.

A lock of his hair taken by British soldiers was returned to the Ethiopian government by the National Army Museum in 2019. But not his looted treasure: two gold crowns, crosses and chalices in gold, silver and copper, a huge number of royal and ecclesiastic robes, medieval swords and shields, hundreds of tabots, the great Imperial silver Negarit war drum and more than 500 ancient parchment manuscripts that took 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry away. They still reside in the British Museum, the Bodleian and private collections across Europe, despite repeated requests by AFROMET to restore them to their native land.

Tewedros’ son Prince Alemayethu was also taken, alone, aged 7, to England and died there aged 18. A formal request by the Ethiopian president in 2007 to Queen Elizabeth II to return his remains, interred just outside the chapel of Windsor Castle in 1879, has yet to be honoured.

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Uphill

There is something otherworldly about Ethiopia. It isn’t just the fact that Ethiopians are living seven years and three months behind our calendar or count 7am as 1 o’clock. Or that their churches hewn from solid rock in medieval times look like something from a graphic novel. It isn’t even because driving through the country from the border to the highlands to the capital is like going from Middle-earth through Mordor to Wakanda.

It’s because Ethiopia is simply and utterly unique: the only ancient country in Africa to resist colonialism.

One look at the atlas shows why Ethiopia wasn’t an easy conquest: check the height of those mountain ranges.

A Brief History of Ethiopia part 1:

Around 10th century BCE, a kingdom known as Dʿmt was established in Tigray in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, which spoke the ancient Semitic language Ge’ez. In the first century CE, the Kingdom of Axum emerged. According to the medieval Book of Axum, the kingdom’s first capital was built by Itiyopis, son of the biblical Cush. Axum would later extend its rule as far as Meroe in Kush and Yemen on the other side of the Red Sea. During the 3rd century, the Persian prophet Mani listed Axum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his era.

Around 316 AD, Syrian Frumentius and his brother Edesius from Tyre (modern Lebanon) accompanied their uncle on a voyage to Ethiopia. When the vessel stopped at a Red Sea port, the natives killed all the travellers except the two boys, who were taken to the court as slaves. As adults, they were freed and given positions of trust by the monarch. Frumentius became the first bishop of Axum and converted the Emperor Ezana. A coin dated to 324 shows that Ethiopia was the second country to officially adopt Christianity, after Armenia in 301.

Orthodox, Pentay and Catholic Christians make up 63% of the population today, with Muslims at 34%.

The pride and determined self sufficiency of Ethiopians was apparent from the outset. Back in Sudan, the Ethiopian embassy impressed us both with its superbly modern and efficient visa process and with the adjacent beautiful gardens and tea room. The whole staff came to visit us on their way out of work – it was such a lovely introduction to the country!

I had been looking forward to visiting Ethiopia since meeting a charming guy called Israel Abate at the Soetwater refugee camp, escaping the South African xenophobic violence of 2008. Israel was simultaneously such a bold and twinkly character, I was fascinated to find out what circumstances could have moulded him. Tragically, he ended up contracting TB in his spine due to HIV infection, and died before we could visit him in his homeland.

* * *

On Wednesday 21st March, the 13th day of our fortnight of typhoid meds and our last day parked outside Vision Radio, it was insanely hot in Khartoum – but it was Ruby in Cape Town that had a meltdown. She phoned me sobbing hysterically in the middle of a drama rehearsal a week before the end of term, having found a letter from my Mom slipped in her bag.

I’m not going to go into the details of the row because it was a private matter between them, but suffice to say when these two Leos go head to head there is little prospect of a swift peace and I immediately started looking into flights. Ruby’s upset seemed perhaps disproportionate to what had happened, but Grade 11 was proving much harder going than Grade 10 and I thought it would do her good to get away anyway. She wasn’t supposed to be coming to us for the short Easter break – I’d just booked flights for her to Kenya for the longer June-July holiday – but BudgetAir.com options were relatively cheap via Air Ethiopia (under R5000) and probably much less costly than a complete family fallout.

On the drive out of the Sudanese capital, I finally managed to stay online long enough to book them. We had one week to get to Addis Ababa to collect her, 1300km away. That didn’t seem unreasonable, even for us slowcoaches.

Sights on the road to and from Khartoum 1: so many old Bedfords, mostly blue ones