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Culture & Religion

Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Lalibela and a Mule Journey across Ethiopia

Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Lalibela and a Mule Journey across Ethiopia

The Easter week break in our teaching schedule at Haile Selassie Secondary School in Gondar, Ethiopia afforded us time to pursue our fantasy of visiting the historic carved churches of Lalibela.

Richard Lyman with John Stockton and Jeff (Dallas) Smith

There were some complications, however, as there was no scheduled airline service nor roads leading to Lalibela. I urge you to Google “Lalibela” to see for yourself why UNESCO includes Lalibela on its list of World Heritage Sites. In the mountain village of Lalibela there are eleven large orthodox churches carved out of the volcanic rock. They are three stories high, carved on the inside as complete churches and are linked with passageways and tunnels carved from the rock. The origin of the churches is thought to be from the 14th. Century Reign of King Lalibela. Miss Marjorie Paul, a veteran USAID nurse/educator at the Gondar Public Health College used her connections to convince Ethiopian Airlines to fly us from Gondar to Lalibela. Miss Paul and three of us Peace Corps teachers who had saved enough money from our small monthly cost of living stipend from the Peace Corps to pay for only one way tickets.

John Stockton, Jeff (Dallas) Smith and I shared the expense with Miss Paul. The airline agreed to let us bring along four additional passengers. We immediately asked Aba Gebre Meskel (the respected orthodox priest/morals teacher at our school) to join us. I intend in a future article to tell more about Aba Gebre Meskel. Three reliable students, Yimer Mekonnen, Kassahun Negussie and Ayalneh, rounded out our party of eight. The opportunity to see the churches of Lalibela was a lifetime thrill, but the journey to and from Lalibela was worthy of Canterbury Tales. I make no claim to being a Chaucer, however, what follows will be my diary account of our “Journey to Lalibela.”

On Saturday April 13, 1963 I wrote:

As we prepared to leave for the Gondar Airport, two priests who carried embroidered umbrellas and large silver crosses arrived at our house chanting and asking for money. After we complied they gave each of us a reed cross to be worn around our heads. The airport is about eight miles south of Gondar and four times a week a plane arrives there from either Addis or Asmara. The DC3 from Asmara landed on its way to Addis. The airline informed the through passengers and those waiting to board for the flight to Addis that they would have wait for a few hours in Gondar while we were flown to Lalibela. The land between Gondar and Lalibela to the east is crisscrossed by numerous river valleys. As we approached Lalibela which is situated on a high plateau, the pilot buzzed the village to let them know someone was coming. At some distance down the mountain was the landing field which had been plowed and harvested since the last flight the year before. Shepherd boys were herding cattle and sheep on the field. The pilot made several passes over the field in order to chase the cattle away. It was a safe although somewhat bumpy landing. We were met by about thirty people. Most of the men were dressed in skins. They brought mules for us to use to haul our 350 pounds of baggage (water jugs, sleeping bags, Miss Paul’s tent, clothes, food and primus stove). We haggled for half and hour before we hired enough men and mules to haul our gear to the top of the mountain. The trip up the mountain to Lalibela took us three hours. We found people washing their clothes in the streams which we forded in preparation for the Easter feast. Most of the people wore reeds on their heads. We could see Lalibela perched on a plateau in the distance, always several valleys further on.

We reached Lalibela just before the rains began. Ato Affework, Director of the Lalibela Health Clinic and Ato Berhanu let us camp in the storeroom of the clinic. The building was constructed of mud walls, a steel roof and a dirt floor.

After eating wat and ingera and drinking talla (beer) and teg (mead), Aba took us to the church called Lalibela. We crawled around in dark passage ways and sensed we were in the catacombs. After gaining permission to enter the church (it was given only because we happened to bring along a small green card we were given in Addis telling Ethiopians everywhere that we were to be “well treated” and signed and sealed by some important unknown official) we took off our shoes and entered Lalibela Church. The inside had a high vaulted ceiling with a series of carved pillars that gave the appearance of supporting the ceiling. In the first room women were seated on the floor in front of paintings of St. George with His Majesty Haile Selassie and another painting of Christ on the Cross. In one corner of the latter painting was a small image of the devil who was painted as a black man. All of the other images were painted with light skin. We then entered the second room where men were reading from holy books in Geez (the liturgical language) by light provided by burning twisted leather tapers. In the room was the grave of King Lalibela. The head priest seemed quite upset by our visit so we retreated to the Health Clinic to spend the night.

The sanitarian at the Health Clinic is responsible for collecting census data for the village of Lalibela which he shared with me. He tallied the Lalibela’s population as 1405 (900 female and 505 male). He further broke down the population by age groups, family size and occupation. I copied all the information into my diary. The most interesting set of data which I will repeat here relates to occupation.

Talla sellers: Females 298
Housewives: Females 205
Farmers: Males 115
Tailors: Males 23
Students: Males 63 Females 4
Priests: Males 44
Weavers: Males 14
Merchants: Males 44 Females 1
Monks: Males 4
Nuns: Females 50
Teachers: Males 2
Servants: Males 18 Females 49
Others: Males 189 Females 282

The one school in the village goes through the fourth grade. After that the students must go to a larger town in order to attend school.

(Photos: Lalibela)

Altogether, we visited nine of the stone churches. Two more are located some distance from Lalibela. Children followed us around all day. Every time we reached a wonza tree they would climb it to pick the yellow berries. The berries are extremely sticky when broken open. One form of celebration on Easter in addition to feasting is the hanging of rawhide swings from trees for the children to use. The boys and girls had separate swings. The little boys brought us interesting crystals they found in the hills around Lalibela. On a hill above Emannuel church was a bell made from a large piece of basalt hanging from two wires. When struck with another stone it made a wonderful ringing sound. In most of the churches were electric wires with a few green light bulbs. I was told that Lalibela does not have electricity but when His Majesty visited several years ago a portable generator was brought in. In carved niches in passage walls were the bones of monks and priests. The bones were often exposed and at times were just lying around in dirty corners. From the ceiling of some of the churches wooden doves were hanging.

On Monday, April 15, 1963 I wrote:

We got up at 5:00 to visit several churches while services were in progress . We chose to attend during the service so we could avoid the demands of the priests for money. After breakfast as we were waiting for our mules to arrive for our journey back to Gondar a number of priests came to the Health Clinic compound asking for money. Our mules were delayed because the Health Clinic sebana (guard) was trying to charge us $13 Eth/mule while the going price was only $10Eth/mule ($4US) for the trip to the next village of Gergera. Because we could not afford to have the DC3 return for us we planned to travel overland for five days in order to reach the city of Debre Tabor where we could take a bus the final 100+ miles back to Gondar. We had no map and there was no road so we had to rely on the mule men to guide us from village to village.

As we waited for the mules to be assembled we watched several men slaughter a calf at the edge of the market. By 12:15 we had two pack mules and three riding mules and we set off for Gergera. With us were three mule drivers. We retraced our route to the landing site before heading to the Tekeze River. Because it was the end of the dry season all the rivers we encountered were easily forded. Most of the way we journeyed down to a lower elevation. Around the Tekeze and the Abebe Rivers there was no human activity. About 4:00 we began to look for a village in which to spend the night. We journeyed on until 8:30 (two hours after dark) and finally told our mule men to unload the packs and we camped for the night in a plowed field.

On Tuesday, April 16, 1963 I wrote:

We arose at 5:30 and were ready to leave by 7:30. For breakfast we ate oatmeal/teff porridge and tea. In the distance we could see Gergera perched atop a plateau. We crossed quite a wide plain cut by several streams from which we quenched our thirst.

Overhead we could see the Ethiopian Airlines jets on their way to Addis from Europe. Although we didn’t see any, we noted evidence of hyenas from their white stools. Two of the river valleys we had to cross were the Deremo and the Twota Bahir. After crossing the Twota Bahir River we began to climb upward to the Gergera plateau. On the way we rested outside the Degas Mariam Church. Walking with us were several Ethiopian wood carriers on their way to Gergera. Wood carriers are often extremely poor older women who are bent over from bearing large bundles of wood on their backs. Once we climbed onto the plateau we discovered that there was still another one we had to climb in order to reach Gergera. Our mules couldn’t negotiate the final climb so we all had to dismount and lead them up the mountain.

In addition to the usual volcanic rocks there appeared to be a chalky sandstone material. All of the villages are concentrated in the highland regions because of the fear of malaria. On the way up the cliff we passed 100’s of monkeys which live undisturbed on the slopes. When we reached the top we rested outside of St. George Church. All the mule men devoutly went to the wall and kissed it. Gergera itself is run by a priest while the neighboring village of Feleka has a sub-district governor.

The whole plateau was green as the rains had already come. After stopping for Teg and Talla in Gergera we carried our belongings to Feleka where we met the sub-district governor. We were assisted by a young Air Force officer who was returning to Feleka for a 21 day visit with his family. The sub-district governor whose name and title is Fitarare Tefere Yimer invited us in for teg, talla, araque (distilled spirits – strong!!) and wat and ingera. Because it was dusk he prepared a camping place for us on the edge of his compound by spreading rugs and putting up a canvas awning. Ato Negussie, the director of the school, invited us to inspect the school and have dinner at his house. The school goes through the fifth grade, after which the students go to Dessie to school. As we prepared for sleep Fitarare Tefere checked to see that we were comfortable. He left six guards to look after us all night. Ato Zewdu Tekle, the secretary to the governor, brought out a five gallon earthen jug of Talla for us to consume during the night.

On Wednesday, April 17, 1963 I wrote:

By 8:00 we were ready to leave, that was until the governor invited us in for tea, araqua and alecha and lamb wat. The governor had three young boys as servants. The governor’s wife sat in one corner on a straw mat while he sat on sort of a low couch.

As is the custom Aba delivered a prayer at the conclusion of the meal. The region is quite cold so there are small fireplaces in most homes. We followed the governor’s example and threw our bones on the floor. We finally left at 9:30 after taking the governor’s picture. He conferred the title of fitarare upon us. Fitarare is a noble honorific title reserved for those who are “up in the front” or we might say generals in the army. The four mules we rented included one of the governor’s which was so spirited that Dallas fell off of it by 10:30. Dallas became ill in Lalibela so he rode most of the way to Debra Tabor. Miss Paul also was a frequent mule rider. The rest of us found the mule saddles so uncomfortable that we walked the distance.

Although it was Wednesday we were served meat. After the Easter fast there is an equal period of no fasting – not even on Friday or Wednesday. As we crossed the Debre Zebit plain we could see Mount Guna in the distance. Often when men riding mules would pass us they would get down from their mules to greet us. As is the custom, several mule riders offered those of us who were walking the use of their mules. That was even the case if it meant that they would have to journey with us back to where they came from. We politely thanked them and declined their offers.

On the plain which is poorly drained and not cultivated were hundreds of head of grazing cattle. Most cattle herds were small consisting of eight to twelve head. Each small herd was watched by boys who were wearing skins if they had on any clothes at all. They may have never seen foreigners because they ran away when we approached them. After ten miles we reached the end of the plain and descended onto the remains of an old Italian road. The road wound around the mountains and is little used except by mules and people on foot. The road was constructed of large stones placed closely together. Near the end of the trail as we approached the village of Nafas Moche we saw many acacia trees. At one point we rested near some brushy trees and Kassahun broke a branch off the shinshina tree and presented me with a piece to use as a tooth brush. Nefas Moche is atop another plateau and we were told the name relates to its windy nature. We slept on the concrete floor of the school house. Aba and John walked into the town and ate at an Ethiopian hotel. In the hotel people were gambling with dice which greatly interested Aba.

On Thursday, April 18. 1963 I wrote:

We arose at 6:00 for our usual breakfast of oatmeal/teff/raisin porridge and tea. Our water cans were filled from the river and treated with iodine tablets at the rate of 1/pint. At 8:00 the secretary to the governor invited us to his house for alecha wat, talla, teg, beef steaks and quantro (strips of dried beef which are fried). The trail out of Nefas Moche was very poor, badly eroded and full of boulders. About an hour out of Nefas Moche we came to a wooded waterfall with monkeys all around. The trail doesn’t follow the old Italian road instead it follows a telephone line which we assume is the most direct route. Along the way many people passed us en-route to Nefas Mocha for a feast given by the governor.

Several times we were overtaken by government couriers. They were dashing young men dressed in white riding the finest mules. They rode straight in the saddle with the help of their big toes through the stirrups. They would dash off over the next hill in a cloud of dust with red tassels flapping from the raw hide harnesses across the back of the mule. At one point the expected happened and our pack mule threw off its load thus tearing Dallas’ sleeping bag. John, Aba and I walked on while the two mule men fixed the pack. We were joined by two lean, weathered country men who were walking from Dessie to Gondar. They each carried a long wooden staff upon which at one end they had secured their goods and food for the journey. When country men walk with such a staff they frequently place it across their shoulders behind the head.

Then they walk along with their wrists draped over the staff on each side of their head. The two men stopped and shared with us a taste of their lunch of dabbo kola, little balls of dough cooked with roasted grains inside.

The dabbo kola was somewhat spicy because berberi had been added to the dough prior to its being formed around the grain. We were walking on the south rim of a large valley when we saw several miles away on the north side of the valley a large encampment of mules and merchant traders. For safety reasons we decided it best to avoid them and not make them aware that we were traveling without an armed escort. Hours later we could see a small settlement off to our north. Yemir told us it was his village. We asked if he wished to stop to see his family since he had not been home for years. He declined saying “The visit would be too short that it was better to not stop at all.” Late in the day we came to the village of Kemer Dingay (pile of rocks) where we spent the night. We were joined by a thirty year old judge from Nefas Moche who was traveling with his wife and young son to Debre Tabor for a feast at his brother-in-law’s. We arranged to sleep in the house of the local chief. The house had a radius of about ten feet and in the center next to the main pole was a fire pit.

Although the outside walls weren’t plastered the inside walls were plastered in mud. The door was a mat of woven split bamboo. The local governor brought us eggs, chickens and talla. The judge’s wife prepared the food. She cleaned the chickens in a very unusual fashion. After they were killed and picked she removed the legs and the wings. Then she made a slit in the back and broke the chicken in half thus removing the insides. Our old mule drive came into the house looking for food and drink. Aba and Ato Mulugeta (the judge) sent him away by insisting he check on the mules. The old man was from the Feleka governor’s court. We discovered that he was something of a court jester with plenty of songs and jokes. We sat around on the dirt floor to eat our meal. Prior to being served a servant surprised us by bringing a basin and pitcher of warm water with which to wash our feet, a truly Biblical experience. A man from the village approached Ato Mulugeta about a parcel of land in another province that had been taken away from him.

He had spent a year in Addis trying to get it back from the government. The government had finally given him a gasha of land in the Southwest that was taken from the Gallas. Land reform in Ethiopia thus far seems to mean taking land from the Gallas and giving it to Amaharas. The man estimated that he can earn $1,000 Eth. /year ($400 US) from the gasha (100 acres). During the night we heard a religious fanatic yelling around the village.

On Friday, April 19, 1963 I wrote:

We got up at 6:00 with the rest of the village. The chickens were the alarm clock. We slept quite comfortably on the floor of the house in our sleeping bags. Once or twice during the night a small rat came out of the wall to visit us but never stayed long. We did, however, find the chicken bones on the floor somewhat bothersome. During the meal the bones had been cracked open by our student travelers to extract all the marrow. The rather wild mule got away from the old mule man so we got a late start. It didn’t matter as it was only five hours to Debre Tabor over relatively gentle land.

We sojourned on led by the wife of Judge Mulugeta who rode first carrying the child who held the most beautiful red flower I had ever seen. With her was one gun bearer. The judge followed on another mule followed by a second gun bearer. Judge Mulugeta’s father is a district governor.

The Judge related to us that he had gone to Addis to find his beautiful wife at the Ghion Hotel. We entered the town of Debre Tabor which is surrounded by huge eucalyptus trees. We stopped at the Seventh Day Adventist Mission and were warmly received by the Andersens from Denmark. He is the director of the school which runs through the eighth grade. After that the students go on to our school in Gondar. The mission was started in 1932 and operated during the Italian occupation. There is also an affiliated hospital run by Dr. Hoganva from Norway. He has designed and is supervising the building of a lovely new clinic. We were met at the mission by some of our students who took us into the center of the town. Prior to the Italian build-up of Gondar, Debre Tabor was the principle city of the province. In one of the tea houses we drank sweet tea and were amazed to be served Parker House rolls. We learned that the tea house is owned by the father of one of our students and that he learned to make the rolls while living in Addis.

The Andersens eat no meat so they have huge gardens containing tomatoes, ground cherries, passion fruit and all kinds of greens and flowers. They served us a superb meal with many kinds of cheeses and pastries. During the day we learned that a dead man had been brought to the hospital by an excited crowd of people who claimed that the man had caught a hyena in a trap and that as he killed the animal it breathed into his face thus causing his death. As we were finishing our meal the bell rang for the Friday night religious service which we attended. The auditorium was quite large with rows of backless benches. It had all been freshly scrubbed in the afternoon by the students. All the boys sat on the right side with the girls filling the middle and the left side. The hymnals were in Amharic and English but most of the songs were belted out in Amharic. We slept the night on the floor of Dr. Hoganva’s house.

On Saturday, April 20, 1963 I wrote:

We were ready to leave at 6:00 when the bus to Gondar arrived on the mission compound. We had made arrangements the day before but never dreamed that it would be on time. The 100+ mile trip to Gondar usually takes seven to eight hours. The bus was mounted on the back of a Fiat truck. When it was fully loaded it contained about 40 people. Between Debre Tabor and Adi Zemen we had to ford twelve streams because the bridge timbers had been removed from the old Italian bridges. The road itself is seldom repaired and is barely passible in the dry season.

The trip to Adi Zemen took five hours. All along the way we stopped to pick up passengers including two of our students who were patiently waiting beside the road to catch the bus to return to school in Gondar. On one mountain stretch we came upon a Mercedes truck loaded with kerosene drums headed in our direction. We parked on one side of the narrow road and the truck passed us on the other with one to two inches to spare between the vehicles. The five most interesting people on the bus were seated in the front seat facing backwards. On the left was a two star army officer who was so heavy he couldn’t get his jacket buttoned. He wore an open yellow shirt covered with a green sweater. Around his neck was the familiar red string showing he was a Christian. Next to him was a student with a shirt from England which proclaimed in splashy letters “Elizabeth,” “Africa,” “Ghana.”

He carried a liter bottle of araque but it soon was broken by the rough ride. The liquid flowed under all the seats and was so strong that some passengers threw their shamas over their faces. Next to the student was a farmer with the fiercest eyes and expression which mellowed when he got sick and dove for a window. He wore a peppermint stripped string around his neck. In addition he wore a khaki jacket and shorts with a shama and finally an ordinary bath size towel. The last two people were a ras (local village leader) and his young wife who was sick most of the trip. The ras wore the usual khaki slacks and jacket, a British army wool overcoat and then a shama. We were warm in just our tee shirts and shorts. We were very touched by the concern he showed for his wife. At Adi Zemen we met the bus going to Addis. Our intended one hour rest stop stretched into two hours when our driver was hauled before a local judge. He was accused by someone of carrying chickens on the bus on a prior trip. There are rules against hauling livestock and passengers together (thank God). Also there is another rule that berberi cannot be transported on a bus.

From Adi Zemen the American built road to Bahir Dar is almost completed and while only gravel it is like a freeway. On the final leg of our journey from Adi Zemen to Gondar a wizard boarded the bus and promptly became bus sick. He had mud caked hair, rings on every fingers and strings and strings of charms around his neck. Late, late in the day we arrived home in Gondar and fortunately because our house was directly on the north/south highway we were dropped off exhausted and dirty at our front door.

Special note: Lalibela is a magical place so please Google it.

Tommy Neuman

An amazing look back in time.    A wonderful read.  Thanks  Richard...you tell a magical story...