ETHIOPIA: The New Spirit of Africa

– by Ellie Mednick, photos by Lonnie Zwerin

Ethiopia fully represents the New Spirit of Africa, and is a country on the move. Using a “form” of Democracy that seems to work for them, there is  a big push for education (new campuses all over the country), and modernization everywhere (buildings in Addis not always built the best!).

Boys in Rural Ethiopia

Boys in Rural Ethiopia

Unfortunately, there is a 25% unemployment rate with all these young college graduates unable to find jobs! The major dam construction on the Blue Nile will bring much-needed power (rolling blackouts), but is the consternation of Egypt who claim it robs them of their needed water. It is the biggest political situation in the country today.

A major highlight was Shabbat in the home of Dr. Rick Hodes,  truly a saint who gathers kids from the streets of Addis to live with him, even adopted some.With funds from a variety of sources, Rick organizes surgeries with a world-renowned surgeon in Ghana, and other medical help from Canada. Shabbat was in a sukkah with a hodge podge of friends and strangers, all invited by Rick to come by and enjoy.  An emotional moment was when Rick placed his hands on the heads of each child for a Shabbat blessing. Rick asked Jerry and Frank to consult with patients at the hospital the next day, and they certainly obliged.  He is an American doc who landed in Ethiopia on a Fullbright and never went home!

Religion abounds; Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic –  Orthodox Christian a true mash-up of both Jewish and Christian bibles.  The royal symbol is a star of David with a cross in the middle. Ethiopians trace their roots to Menelik the First, the “love child” of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. More legends exist than you can imagine, including the story of the Jews of Ethiopia, the Falashas.

The rainy season had just ended so the countryside was verdant; most noticeable in the South where beautiful green terraces of the Rift Valley and rolling landscape of the Omo Valley were resplendent.

Ethiopian Teens

Ethiopian Teens

Our guides and drivers were outstanding,enthusiastic  and the source of so much knowledge about the history, the culture, the land and current affairs.

The North was fascinating, from a lovely lakeside retreat in Bahar Dar, with a boat ride to an amazing painted monastery on an island, to the queen of all the northern cities, Lalibela, one of the country’s holiest  with it’s ancient churches cut out of rock – similar in feel to Petra in Jordan.  Here we steeply climbed up and down through 11 stunning monolithic rock cut churches, taking in how awesome, and quite aware most around us were younger and nimbler.  But, local young people earn money by taking our hands, and we made it through.  My knee gave me some trouble, and Jerry’s back/leg…but we got better and better at it. 

In Lalibela we feasted our senses on all that is the Meskal Festival, an elaborate religious festival commemorating the finding of the True Cross.  We planned to be there for Meskal  – all breathtaking in scope and ritual.  Our guide, a former church deacon, took us to the huge priests chanting ceremony  hidden away in the rocky recesses of one church, and we were spellbound! And, the only tourists for most of it.  What a highlight! We rocked at a club in Gondor and saw the ancient stelae in Axum.  We  saw where the Falashas had lived, where little kids are still selling souvenirs with Jewish symbols! The last airlift to Israel took place only two weeks before.

The South(see photos) was another matter; a region not explored by many tourists, but accommodations surprisingly good, even a tent lodge that was fun.  Here electricity and hot water at a minimum, so you plan your days carefully. Each couple had their own air-conditioned land rover and driver, and our wonderful guide switched cars each day. The weather throughout couldn’t have been better, sunny, perfect for travel. Only a day or two of rain toward the end.  The main road is paved, but the long roads to remote villages were rutted mud and mighty bumpy!  Here we got another workout, but all worthwhile visiting many primitive tribes, whose costumes and adornments, customs and color were yet anther feast for the eyes!

Some tribal peoples were painted and scarred, some women wore plates in their lips and breasts revealed (mostly with a baby dangling at the teat!). Women and men adorn themselves with all kinds of beads and even trinkets like hair clips seen in our beauty shops pasted to their foreheads! (See the attachment of Mursi courtesy of Lonnie’s camera)

Mursi with  Lip Plates

Mursi with Lip Plates

These remote villages are not designed for tourists, and the tribes  live as they have for hundreds of years.  They have learned, however to ask for money for photos, negotiated and paid by our guide.  The most colorful were the Mursi, the Karo and the Hammer people, and we were lucky enough to see the Hammer Coming of Age ceremony for young men, “jumping the bulls,” where success denotes true manhood and  marriageability.  Here, another tradition exists of men whipping the backs of women friends of the “Bar Mitzvah” until they are scarred and bleeding. Lonnie and I turned away..and were appalled at the practice!  The women were “on something” and seemed to love it, encouraging the men to do it stronger!  Wearing those back scars gives a sense of pride.  OMG!  The government is trying to crack down on old practices like this, but these tribes are remote and follow their own tribal laws.

Crafts are primitive and rare, so only a few collected.  We had a chance to dip briefly into the contemporary art scene in Addis,  in its infancy.

A good sense of humor, patience and similar taste for culture, markets, festivals and tribes made traveling with Lonnie and Frank pure pleasure; not a single “hiccup!” for the entire trip, and a lot of good times!  We all share a deep respect for those on whose land we trod.

And, now home again, still digesting the richness of all the sites and sounds experienced.  Slowly turning the clock around to fit.


Editor’s Note:  Original World offers three annual tours to Ethiopia which coincide with the Timket, Meskel and Tsion Hidar Festivals.  We also offer private custom tours to Ethiopia.

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