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Monday, April 14, 2008

Kenya now; Northern Ethiopia: Ancient Land and Corpses

Kenya now; Northern Ethiopia: Ancient Land and Corpses
Now in Nairobi, capital of Kenya. Over the last two weeks, I was mostly in northern Ethiopia, visiting its many ancient cities and civilizations, as well as the East African nations of Uganda and Rwanda.
I began my northern Ethiopian journey from the city of Bahir Dar, a large city and capital of Amhara National Regional State, which was a federal entity created for the Amhara people by the current regime that came to power after defeating the communist regime in 1991. Situated on the southern shoreline of Lake Tana, Bahir Dar is a nice laidback city with palm trees lining its lakeside boulevard.
On Lake Tana are a number of islands, many of which play host to ancient monasteries and churches, manned by monks anxious to be isolated from the outside world, and women as well. Some of them prohibit women from entering their premises. Tourists visit these island-monasteries for their exuberant frescoes and murals, depicting biblical scenes and Ethiopian church history over the last millennium.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with a history longer than most European state churches, was no longer the owner of extensive land holdings worked by tenant farmers as they were under the old feudal state overthrown in 1974. No longer do modern Ethiopia's presidents endowed the Church with land, money and precious stones as Ethiopian emperors and kings once did in era past. Today, the Church live on the generosity of its followers, and had to compete with other faiths making their way into these remote parts, such as the Protestant churches as well as Islam. These days, monks at these distinguished monasteries are always ready to put on their regal best, and hold up ancient bibles for the benefit of the tourists' photo albums, all for a dollar or less of pocket change.

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I went to the local Post Office and made enquiries about sending parcels to Singapore. The postage would cost ETB 108 per 1kg airmail. No sea-mail was available, because, as the post office staff explained, Ethiopia is landlocked. I joked, they do have a port now – Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, which is now under Ethiopian army control. They all had a good laugh but said, no political talk please.
The Ethiopian Army marched into southern Somalia last year to rescue the UN-supported but totally powerless so-called Transitional Government of Federal Somalia, from the fast advancing Islamist militia based in Mogadishu. The Islamist forces, also known as the Islamic Courts, had came to power in Mogadishu and many parts of southern Somalia a few years before and were fast expanding their reach by defeating the brutal warlords of the region. Though extremist in their religious ideas, they managed to bring a great deal of peace and stability in the areas they control, by rigorously pursuing law and order and stamping out corruption.
However, the rise of the Islamic Courts had alarmed United States and Ethiopia, who feared the rise of another Taleban regime, or that this regime might cultivate close links with Al Qaeda. With US support, Ethiopian forces entered Somalia and within a short time, occupied Mogadishu and all the key cities in the south of Somalia. Like the US in Iraq, Ethiopia soon found itself fighting a bitter guerrilla war in Somalia. Most Somalis, whatever their political affiliations, regard Ethiopia as their historical enemy and preeminent Christian power in an Islamic region. Resistance had arose across Somalia, even right at the heart of Mogadishu where Ethiopians were supposed to have easy control over. Fearful of the unknown enemy, Ethiopian troops have become trigger-happy at the slightest provocation. Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed at roadblocks and air raids conducted regularly by the Ethiopians. Somalilanders have also told me of the many southern Somali women who escaped northwards with tales of rampant rapes and looting by Ethiopian troops. The misery of Somalia continues. Is Somalia going to be Ethiopia's Vietnam or Iraq?
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I also recalled meeting an Ethiopian refugee working in Hargeisa's Oriental Hotel. Mikel fled here in 2003 after the leader of the Amhara political party he belonged to, was killed by the regime. He is now waiting for resettlement in Europe as refugee. I was also told about refugees from countries such as Sudan, DRC, Rwanda and Burundi in Somaliland. Africa has many ongoing conflicts and it is amazing how far and how many people had been displaced by these conflicts.
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I met Old Zhang and his wife at the Ghion Hotel in Bashir Dar. He is a businessman originally from Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, China. Zhang has been in Africa for over 20 years, with the state-owned China Construction Company, during which he has been involved in road projects in places as diverse as Sudan, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and Ethiopia. He took early retirement a few years ago and started a number of businesses in Addis, engaging in construction equipment rental and stone-crushing, amongst other things. In a continent where competitors were few and between, his ventures were hugely profitable in the initial years. Payback period for his construction equipment were only 8 months i.e., one dry season, and all the cost invested would be recouped.
However, the honeymoon period did not last too long. Many of his ex-colleagues also set up businesses here. Ethiopia used to have two cement factories but more plants were opened by the Chinese and there are now more than ten. The same trend had taken place with construction equipment rental business. The problem is, despite the rapid growth of the construction industry in Ethiopia, there is so much competition now that profit margins are falling rapidly.
On top of that, the Ethiopian currency, the birr, has been falling against US$ and US$ falling against RMB. The RMB these Chinese investors are getting back to China is now much less than before. Taxes are also outrageously high and some Chinese companies resort to illegal methods to bring money back to China. However, the birr black market rate is much lower which means the Chinese gets very little back the last few months. He does not know for how long he would stay in this business. It might not be worth it to stay on. Or maybe he could, like, some of his Chinese friends here, invest in other ventures. Some Chinese had married local Ethiopian women and was able to invest prolifically in Ethiopian real estate and had benefitted from the tremendous growth in the local economy.
Old Zhang also spoke about a dangerous episode while working on a road in the Amhara region some years ago. The region had not rained for almost six months and one day, a few hundred locals suddenly surrounded the Chinese work encampment. They were heavily armed with guns, sticks and machetes, and made threatening shouts and war cries, which was really frightening. They didn't press any demands but let it known that they were furious with the Chinese road construction, which they said had disturbed God, thus leading to the drought. There was little the Chinese could do. Mobile hadn't reached the region yet and radio communications with Addis kept failing. Eventually, they got in touch with Addis, and the Ethiopian government sent a few hundred heavily armed soldiers over. They fired in the air and dispersed the hostile crowd. Miraculously, it rained heavily that night – first time in 6 months.
The following year rain was scarce too, and their Ethiopian workers reported about possibility of similar problems occurring. The Chinese quickly contacted the local police and both parties paid a visit to the villages, also bringing presents along. This time now, crisis has been adverted.
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Up till the early 20th century, Ethiopia had a curious custom to seek out criminals. When things get lost in a village, a boy would be ritually possessed with spirits, and released into the village. The possessed boy would wander round the village and then ended up at the house of the supposed criminal responsible. The supposed criminal would then be considered guilty and sentenced accordingly. Sounds bizarre? This was how the judicial process took place at one time in this country.
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Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile, one of the tributaries of the River Nile, the world's longest river that also flows through Uganda, Sudan and Egypt, all the way to the Mediterranean. From Bahir Dar, I not only visited the outlet of the Blue Nile on Lake Tana, but also the famous Blue Nile Falls. It was a 45min bumpy bus journey through pathetically poor countryside. Amhara peasants with their rod carried on their shoulders, almost like Christ being crucified.
At the national park office, we paid the entrance, got a guide and then backtracked to the falls by first walking through a very muddy agricultural field and then crossing a river on a very run down boat which looked as though it might sink anytime in the fastflowing Nile. My shoes were clogged with huge chunks of heavy mud. A group of local girls followed us barefooted – the peasants in these parts were too poor even to buy shoes - trying to sell some souvenirs and trinkets. The waterfalls were mediocre - its length were already reduced by half by the hydro-dam nearby. It was a little baby compared to other great waterfalls in the world that I had seen, such as the Iguazu Falls and Kiateur Falls. Back to our mini-van, local kids cleaned our shoes for ETB 2 (or US$0.20).
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From Bahir Dar, I took a mini-bus for the historical city of Gondar, in a four-hour journey through pathetically poor Amhara villages in the high plateau and mountains. Weather was decidedly cloudy and wet, though this also meant less dust. It is amazing how densely populated Ethiopia's highlands are. 80 million people live in this country and at the growth rate of more than 2% per annum, this country's population would reach 120 million in another two decades.
Gondar was the capital of mediaeval Ethiopia under Emperor Fasiladas. Here he built magnificent castles and palaces the remnants of which still stood as UNESCO World Heritage Site. I went to the Royal Enclosure where these architectural masterpieces still stood. More than 500 years had lapsed but these structures still stood magnificent, and they looked just like an Italian castle town transplanted to Africa.
I returned to the hotel, dumped some bananas I bought along the way, and then set off downhill for Fasiladas' Bath, another classical site associated with the emperor and which still play host to important and colourful religious rituals in Ethiopia. As I walked out of the hotel, two teenagers followed me. They claimed to be students working as shoeshine boys at Circle Hotel. This was certainly not the first time I had encountered this. I was sarcastic, and said every Ethiopian I met claimed to be students and all work at my hotel. Nevertheless they followed me for 2-3 km to the Bath – only benefits were pointing the right way when we were at a crossroad and taking a shortcut near the Bath.
When we were not too far from the Bath, I told them I have met too many Ethiopians who all claim to be students learning English, working at my hotel, followed me for extended distances, and then asked for a big tip for guide service, a sob story about sick family members they told me along the way, or that they needed money to buy paper and books. I said all these people spoil holidays for tourists and affect the reputation of their country. And I said I hope they (these two teenagers) would not risk the good name of Ethiopia by doing the same. With this, I walked into the Fasiladas' Bath and the two disappeared from my sight, not even bothering to wait for me as many would have done elsewhere in Ethiopia.
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I shared a table with two Ethiopian office workers at a restaurant during which I mentioned I went to Eritrea. They laughed and said that Eritreans are their brothers - they shared the same languages, cuisine, culture and traditional customs. The war was just about politics between the leaders of the two countries. They were sure Eritrea would one day be part of Ethiopia and Ethiopia would never be landlocked again. It might be true that the two countries share common languages, cuisine and culture, but I am sure most Eritreans would not agree to merger with Ethiopia ever again.
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I flew to Lalibela from Gonder. This is a small town 2630 meters above sea level, in the remote mountains of northern Ethiopia. This was an ancient capital of Ethiopia during the 12th century, where King Lalibela built numerous churches, supposedly with the help of angels and saints, by carving them out from hard mountain rock. Many of the churches as well as natural features of the surrounding landscapes are supposed to represent actual sites in the Holy Land, where King Lalibela once spent many years in exile. There is Bethlehem, Jordan River, Golgotha, among others. For centuries, Ethiopian Orthodox believers have been coming year during religious festivals as pilgrims, visiting the many churches and imagining a visit to the Holy Land itself
Today, the 11 monumental churches of Lalibela are a World Heritage Site and Ethiopians call them the 8th Wonder of the World. Monks clad in ancient robes still run these churches, and guard the many treasures inside. For small donations, they were always happy to show huge 800 year-old goat-skin bibles colourfully illuminated with drawings of biblical scenes, or the many gold crosses bestowed on the monasteries by the emperors and kings of Ethiopia.
I visited a number of these churches. Whilst they are quite interesting architecturally, many of them have suffered from erosion over the centuries and have slippery steps and uneven floors – I was glad that I visited them now rather than in my old age. One other major minus was that one had to remove shoes when entering the monasteries and churches, and most of them had very dirty looking carpets that looked as though they have not been washed in the 800 years since their foundation. The guidebook even warned that they have ticks or fleas.
The most famous of the Lalibela churches is that of Bet Giyorgis, of St George, which is dedicated to Ethiopia's patron saint. Legend has it that after building many churches, St George appeared in King Lalebela's dream and scolded him for not even building any church for him. And so the king built this magnificent building in the shape of a Greek cross. Today its image appears in numerous posters and postcards, as the symbol of Lalibela. A monument it certainly is, but I am puzzled why a number of five-hundred year old mummified corpses of pilgrims are placed in a most undignified manner in the open cavites of the wall surrounding the church. You see half-decomposed dried-up feet sticking out of holes in the walls, and worshippers sitting around in the church compound, totally unaffected by the macabre sight. A guide later told me that these cadavers were of pilgrims from Jerusalem. Expecting the final day of the reckoning was approaching, they appealed to the monks here not to bury them so that they would be ready for the Messiah when the day comes. Nevertheless, this was a bizarre request which was faithfully heeded by the monks for over 400 years.
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According to press reports, inflation in Ethiopia now is 22.9%. The specter of global inflation is overshadowing the efforts of developing countries to build their economy and at the same time remain competitive.
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Axum in Tigray Regional State was next. This was the first capital of the Ethiopian civilization and some say, capital of the Queen of Sheba. Today's Axum is located in the dry highlands very near to the Eritrean border, now under high political and military tension. Nobody knew when war would break out. Some even said it was a matter of when, and not whether it would happen.
Three thousand years ago, the ancient Axumite kings built tall stone stales to demonstrate their power Ancient Axum was the contemporary of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, but these days most of the world, unfortunately, only associate Ethiopia with war and famine.
I also visited the supposed (but very doubtful) palace of the Queen of Sheba, who was said to rule over an empire that straddled both sides of the Red Sea, in what is today Yemen, Eritrea and Ethiopia. (See my Yemen travelogue posted in December 2007).
According to Ethiopian legend, the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon of Israel but was tricked to sleep with him. Solomon told Sheba that she cannot take anything from his palace without asking for his permission. Sheba was served a very spicy dinner but no water. A glass of water, however, was placed in her bedroom. She was thirsty and drank from the glass. Solomon caught her and as a penalty she had to spend the night with him. Menelik was born from this night of dubious passion.
When he grew up, Menelik went to Israel to visit his father. He tricked the guardians of the sacred Ark of the Covenant, on which Moses had inscribed the ten commandments, and took the ark back to Ethiopia where he founded the kingdom of Ethiopia. All subsequent Ethiopian emperors and kings claim descent from Solomon, Sheba and Menelik, although historians are skeptical of such a link. The so-called 3000 years of the Solomonic line of Ethiopian monarchs only came to an end in 1974 with the overthrown of Haile Selassie I by communist army officers.
Today, in Axum, stood an enormous cathedral with a smaller chapel which supposedly houses the Ark of the Covenant. Only men can enter the compound of the chapel though no one but a designated priest is allowed to see the Ark. This guardian lives in the chapel and hardly ever emerges from it. He remains the guardian until the day he was ready to retire, that duty is handled to another specially chosen person.
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While waiting for the flight from Lalibela to Axum, I bumped into a tour group of 20 Malaysian retirees also on their way to Axum. This was no ordinary tour group. At least 5 of them have been to over 100 countries and the rest between 50 to 100. Call it the Malaysian "Century Club" if you want. (The Century Club is an US organization whose members have crossed the 100th country mark). They have travelled together many times, to the most unusual parts of the world. They were surprised to see me (at my country count of 166 for Ethiopia), as I was surprised to meet them. I became an instant favourite of theirs, as they thought there were few people in Malaysia or Singapore like them, and they felt that Africa was too tough to travel alone. They took many photos with me, and then invite me to stay with them at their 4 star hotel in Axum (best in town) sharing the room with one of them, and then joined them on a guided tour in Axum.
These were fairly well-off people who stayed in top hotels wherever they go. We spent much time talking about past travels. These people, in their 50s to 70s, can name almost every country and entity in the world and many are determined to complete all 230+ countries in the next few years. They have a dedicated travel agent who gets exotic visas and contacts for them. They have become intrigued with the Mursis which was not on their itinerary and were contemplating chartering a small plane to fly to Jinka to see the Mursis.
After Axum, I flew back to Addis Ababa and then proceed on to Uganda in East Africa. I will write about my East African journey in my next dispatch.
Cheers,
Wee Cheng

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