AFRICANGLOBE – Ethiopia – the proud, deeply religious, fast-changing former realm of Haile Selassie is something like the Tibet of Africa (if Tibet had managed to oust China by now, instead of, as Addis Abeba does, whole-heartedly welcoming the Middle Kingdom’s investors and merchants).
Ethiopia is also, like Tibet, a place that many Western tourists are disappointed to see in the flesh, because it’s a thriving and full-bloodedly commercial country, rather than a poor, austere charity appeal film where proud but famished people scratch at subsistence crops in the shadow of rock-hewn churches.
The point is that Ethiopia is still poor, but that that poverty is being fought back with all the deliberation that saw the Emperor’s cavalry and muskets see off the Italians at Adwa in 1896, very unexpectedly drawing a stripe under the total colonisation of Africa by Europe.
In line with this disparity, Ethiopia receives two sharply divergent types of tourist. First there are the well-diggers, especially Church groups but also the acolytes of Saint Angelina J, come to uplift the poorest of the poor, to be seen high-fiving over bottled water at hotels.
Then there are fairly well-heeled, well-educated bourgeois bohemians who know all about Harrar and njera and the Battle of Adwa. Addis Ababa’s Big Aid caring classes tend towards the latter Bobo type, who fit carefully-wrapped Ethiopian Orthodox Church icons into overhead compartments on planes and pronounce everything perfectly; I was among all of these people representing a nice mix of the two groups and hoping no one would notice.
I was from South Africa, the Texas of Africa, inclined to just speak English louder at any uncomprehending local, but here for the architecture (Bobo) but living on something like $5 a day (very much, I imagine, in the tradition of Ethiopia’s mountain hermit monks, even if I am not, like the sixth-century Abba Garima, able to spit on the ground Adwa and create entire new life forms).
I was a Capetonian in Addis Abeba and Asmara for research on the two countries’ totally unique architecture – both ancient and modern (yes, Eritrea, of which Asmara is the capital, has one of the richest concentrations of Modernist architecture outside Tel Aviv).
What I knew of Ethiopia was that the food is one of Africa’s great cuisines – rich, layered, and accompanied by a coffee ceremony of quite effortless grace. I also knew, due to using the distinction against people whose deadlines I had missed, that their calendar is the Julian, which England cast off (in favour of the Papist Gregorian calendar) only in 1752, by declaring that the day after Wednesday 2 September would be Thursday 14 September. I also knew a something about Ras Tafari, acquired in equal parts through a misspent youth and an early-2000s government-school matric syllabus.
That last part was probably the most permanently striking thing about Ethiopia. They were never colonised, really. The tortured relationship Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone Africa have with their metropoles and the languages carried here with the rifle and the whip simply doesn’t exist here; beautiful, semitic Amharic is Africa’s Ancient Greek, and that unbroken living tradition infuses everything in Ethiopia with a self-sufficiency that enthrals.
People are poor, but the poverty is just a detail; Ethiopian culture is so rich and echoing and legible in Western terms – with its distinct Christian iconographic tradition, its written literature, and its long and involved history with other Christian and Near-East civilisations that one is able to engage with it thinkingly and feelingly, rather than snap at natural wonders to a tight itinerary.
By far the greatest such wonder are the churches at Lalibela. It is hard to think of them as something entirely built; they are closer to being eternal forms liberated from the surrounding solid rock, like Michaelangelo said of his marble sculptures. Unlike Renaissance marble, however, the Lalibela churches remain in situ, adding a heady elemental quality to the rustle of worshippers. Awe always makes me hungry, and being hungry in Ethiopia as a visitor means you are about to have a very good time.
Given the usual quality of Ethiopia’s cuisine, which is thousands of years in the making – I’m talking about floury white njera (savoury pancakes) made from highland tef, fragrant doro wot (the national dish – a chicken stew) – I have never yet been disappointed by the food in this country that many South Africans over 30 still remember as a synonym for famine.
But, even so, the experience of dining at Ben Abeba encapsulates most of what I love about this country. The restaurant, just down the Sekoto Road from the rock-hewn churches, spirals up from an entrance ramp to crest over a valley that stops where the horizon stops.
Inside, or outside, you consume the view while fresh Ethiopian and Scottish dishes are brought to you – the restaurant being a labour of love for a binational couple. It all ends with the coffee ceremony, traditionally accompanied by a bowl of popcorn. Imagining the grace and ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony applied to what Starbucks sells, I relaxed when I remembered that coffee is Ethiopian.
Even today, a few decades after the overthrow of the Derg dictatorship, coffee is a quarter of Ethiopia’s exports, with that from Harrar the most prized. I sipped my coffee, I looked out at the view, and I knew for sure that if Africa’s culture has its deepest roots here, we’re all going to be OK.
By: Brett Petzer