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Adrian Chalker, Ethiopia

Travel to Ethiopia with Americans for UNFPA 

Beauty is common to Ethiopia. You see it in the eyes of the children and in many a gentle Habbisha soul. It glows in dawns light and it is sprinkled liberally throughout the mountains and the valleys. You see it in the fields and in the simple honesty of the people. It is evident in the dazzle of white teeth that fire off like camera flashes with each sunlit smile. The manifest physical beauty of the Ethiopians seems entirely appropriate amidst the breathtaking terrain, the balmy climate, the inhabitants compassion and calmness, each to the other. It is almost as if this beauty is an organic product of something much deeper - a personification of the balance of nature, terrain, culture, behavior, compassion and many other things, all blended into a single, close to perfect whole - a true beauty, if you like. This larger, deeper beauty shines everywhere. True beauty of being is absolute. It inspires. Whether it is a human example to emulate, the compassionate act of a child, or present in a vista of such drama and scope that the observer is humbled and in humility rejuvenated - we all benefit by its presence. One comes across it only occasionally in a face, a hand held out in a crowd, in the way a village responds to an event, in panoramic view at sunset. You just cant miss it. And such beauty is commonplace in Ethiopia. It leaves you breathless.

As the flight from Khartoum curved its final approach and dropped towards Addis Ababa, a patchwork of verdant green countryside spread out below me. There was no desert. No denuded landscape echoing famine and disaster. The agricultural fertility turned out to be only the first in a long series of surprises for me. Over the next three weeks I was to discover that almost everything I had ever imagined Ethiopia to be - was wrong. It was a revelation. And it felt like love.

I arrived in Addis Ababa to lead Wildland Adventures' Americans for UNFPA Ethiopia Leadership Delegation tour. Delegates traveled to view projects and sites run by the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund). The object was to raise money and awareness, specifically in support of the rights of Ethiopian women and children, and to see where previous donations were being spent. A large part of the premium the travelers had paid for their tour was a donation to the activities of the Americans for UNFPA, whose president, Ms. Anika Rahman, presented generous cheques to several of the sites we visited along our route.

Travel to Ethiopia: Discovering the unexpected. . .

Ethiopian geography is often stunning, frequently awesome and full of surprises. Its highland isolation has produced several distinctive cultures, each with a population immediately recognizable, and all of noble bearing. Ethiopia is one of the worlds oldest Christian countries, with rites and ceremonies as recognizably Judaic as they are Christian. The close-knit and traditional cultures for there are many peoples in Ethiopia, create strong personal identities and a robust sense of self. The obverse side of tradition is cultural taboo. In contemporary Ethiopia there are many problems for women and children, including one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. The causes are numerous: poverty, early marriage, genital mutilation the lack of family planning and health services. In fact, half of Ethiopia's population still has no access to any medical services at all. The UNFPA address many of the issues facing these proud and strong women. But the emergence of such a deeply rooted society into the modern world is not without turbulence. Working in these organizations are a dedicated cadre of individuals who spend their lives in the pursuit of the greater common good. Fortunately, most UNFPA officers are locals who know the culture and peoples.

Biruh Tesfa, Addis Ababa Hospital and Planned Parenthood

One site in Addis we visited was the Biruh Tesfa (Bright Future) Project, a program which helps protect poor urban girls from abuse and exploitation by offering a safe house, some food, and an education. Another was the famous and well-funded Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, dedicated to protecting woman from the crippling effects of fistula and preventing the disastrous consequences when the disease is not treated promptly. Some 1400 Ethiopian women out of every 100,000 die because of complications related to pregnancy. In Europe, the figures range between 10 and 60 per 100,000. The Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa has become a beacon for the cause of eradicating such a preventable catastrophe. The Planned Parenthood Project at Hosaen is a 210k drive through Oromo country. The people of Oromo constitute the largest regional linguistic group, perhaps 30 million of the 55 million inhabitants of the Abyssinian region (Ethiopia and Eritrea). The Oromo are famed for the cultivation of Enset or False Banana which is their staple food rich in carbohydrates.

Picturesque Bahir Dar and Birhan Hewane Program

Next stop was Bahir Dar, a short flight away on the shores of Lake Tana, one of Ethiopia's more picturesque cities, with wide avenues, palms, jacaranda trees, and lake views. For centuries the regional trading center, the tankwa, traditional papyrus dhows still transport trade goods across the lake, adding a sense of timelessness to the city. Some miles from Bahir Dar we visited the UNFPA Birhan Hewane Program. Amharic for light of eve, Berhane Hewane is designed to impart to adolescent girls in rural areas the knowledge, skills and resources they need to avoid early marriage, and to give support to girls who are already married. It took and hour or so of driving to reach Berhane Hewan, half of it across road-less fields, our driver and various pedestrians discussing our route at great length. As we approached our meeting place we bumped across a long open meadow. The entire community sat waiting for our arrival. It was clear they had been there some time, although the absence of impatience so alien to Westerners and so common in Africa and the Middle East was here apparent. They sat under the shade of trees in three sides of an open square, one side empty but for chairs and stacked umbrellas. These were for us.

We disembarked and walked to our seats, where the headman and various UNFPA field officers stood to address the assemblage. The sun was high, and the umbrellas unfurled. Giving birth before a woman's body is sufficiently developed is the major cause of fistula. Underage marriage is therefore one of the UNFPAs main targets for reform. But to reduce underage marriage is not a simple issue. For any lasting change to be effected the attitudes of the entire social group must change. Marriage must be seen less as a family alliance with girls as pawns in the game. All must be educated - all must understand the consequences of current attitudes before improvements can be made. The UNFPA dedicates its resources to exactly this education. In Berhane Hewane they have clearly made much progress.

We could not leave Bahir Dar without a boat trip on Lake Tana to visit the Island Monasteries. We cruised past a variety of bird species and traditional tankwa trade dhows as we crossed the lake. After a short hike through local villages and coffee farms, we reached the monastery of Ura Kidane Meret, home to an important collection of crosses and crowns dating back to the 16th century, and festooned in colorful painted maqdas, which tell the stories of many Ethiopian saints.

Lalibela and the Rock-Hewn Churches

We reached Lalibela by flying over rust colored canyons and high jagged peaks. It is a small town set in the stunningly beautiful Lasta Mountains at an altitude of 8,500 feet. Although not well known in the West, Lalibela is one of the most important religious and historical sites in Africa, and certainly in the Christian world. Ethiopia adopted Christianity long before the Catholic Church was born and the roots of the Ethiopian orthodoxy are as recognizably Jewish as they are Christian. Lalibela has been a Christian pilgrimage destination since the 16th century and is now one of the Ethiopia's top tourist attractions. Yet the town is remarkably undeveloped. There are no banks or pharmacies, and few other facilities to speak of. UNESCO paved the main road from the south in the 70s, and only recently has a regular electricity supply arrived. The smoke of cooking fires is still the dominant announcement of dawn, and water shortages remain a daily occurrence. Lalibela is also one of Ethiopia's poorest region, vulnerable to the great famines caused by crop failures. The remarkable Rock-Hewn Churches are said to have been constructed during King Lalibela's reign in the 12th and 13th centuries when Lalibela (then known as Roha) was the capital of the Zagwe dynasty. Today the Rock-Hewn Churches are a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only examples of their type on earth. They are a must-see on any Ethiopia travel itinerary. The most well known is St. Georges Church, Bet Giyorgis. It is in the shape of a cross, perhaps 70 feet in height, and carved out of a square hole dug downward into the plateau a church in a hole, if you like. It is preposterously remarkable, and like many of the churches in Lalibela, entirely unique in world history, both in concept and design.

There are many theories as to how these architecturally extremely advanced churches were built, and who built them, and why they were built here. Some claim they are so unlike anything on earth they must have been built by angels, other say they were built by the Knights de Templar who came here to protect the Arc of the Covenant, a quest that gave birth to the legend of the Holy Grail. The 12th century was a period in which the almost constant religious upheavals of Ethiopian history coalesced to create a strong, unified empire out of previously warring tribes. The legend of the Arc of the Covenant was conjured and history rewritten. This new historical precedent supported the emperor as he traced for himself a direct lineage to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Arc was the living proof that his ancestor was in at the beginning of Christianity. Quite a pedigree for the new emperor, and it worked, for a while at least.

Africa's Camelot, Gondar, boats the Castles of the Royal Enclosure, ornate churches and resplendent bathing pools, including the Bath of King Fasiledes, where modern-day Timkat ceremonies are performed. It is easy to imagine Gondar, in all its glory, as capital of Ethiopia in the mid 1600s. The modern town spreads across valley and hillside, low buildings, wide streets dotted with historical markers that belay the 1930s art deco tinged look of the place.

The Simien Mountains of Ethiopia

The region possesses spectacularly beautiful scenery. These mountains must be the most beautiful on earth. The Simien Mountains are home to several of Ethiopias endemic wildlife species, including the walia ibex, the gelada baboon and the rare Ethiopian wolf. Ras Dashen, the fourth highest peak in Africa, rises to its lofty height of 4,000m and hovers as a spectacular backdrop to any visit. An excursion to Chenek to stand on the top of the escarpment and look over valleys that stretch in waves as far as the eye can see, each as deep as the Grand Canyon, is one of life's true high points. And another must-do Ethiopia travel experience.

Axum, former capital and Ark of the Covenant

Axum is a simple frontier town. It is also a city of great historical significance and once the capital of Ethiopia. According to legend, Axum was home not only to the Queen of Sheba, but is the resting place of the lost Ark of the Covenant. The St. Mary of Zion Complex is an unexpected blend of ancient and modern. The original church was built in 1665 CE by Emperor Fasiladas, the founder of Gonder. It is thought this church is built on the original foundations of a temple built by King Ezana or King Kaleb in the 4th or 6th centuries, making this the oldest Christian site in Africa. The guarded chapel is located in this complex, said to be the home of the Ark of the Covenant. The modern St. Marys of Zion Cathedral dates from the 1960s when Emperor Haile Selassie had it built. The architectural style is painfully out of place in the ancient city, but the contrast between the old and new is an insightful glimpse into a country with a history that is a living, breathing thing.

Just north of Axum, en route to Mekele, is Adwa, where Ethiopians patriots routed an Italian colonial army and became the only country in African to defeat the Europeans and retain their national independence. Ethiopian pride is entwined in this achievement, in the nations history, and in the uniqueness of its culture and the beautiful rarity of its mountains highlands. The quiet confidence, unaffected naturalness and evident compassion, mirrors the calm tranquility of the environment.

Taken altogether, Ethiopia is a beautiful place.