It’s been a while since I posted some portraits, but since I just went all touristy all over Africa I had my trusty camera in hand. Here are some of my favorite photos of people over the past month, Ethiopian and Tanzanian.
Christmas Day I walked through the bowels of hell to come out into the light on the other side. Dramatic, non? Well, that’s just how you get around in Lalibela, Ethiopia – tunnels, trenches, on your knees in caves and alcoves. Heading East after the first few days in Ethiopia, my family and I set out to see some of the most impressive monolithic architecture in the world. This is national Geographic stuff people.
Over two days we toured the three compounds of the rock churches in Lalibela, monolithic ones (freestanding), ones that had three sides exposed and one wall attached to the “mother rock,” and cave churches (similar the buildings in Petra, Jordan). Though the monolithic churches were impressive, the passageways, trenches and sheer number of buildings (11 built in just 24 years) made the whole experience unbelievable. King, or Saint, depending on who you talk to, Lalibela built his 11 churches as a 2nd Jerusalem, a place of pilgrimage for African Christians in the 6th or 7th century. Most certainly religious in nature, these churches are still active (with the pilgrims to prove it). The architectural and engineering feet brought the center of Ethiopian political power to Lalibela during that time nonetheless. Today, Lalibela is still a small town, boasting only about 35,000 people, but during holidays like Genna (Ethiopian Christmas on January 7th) the town grows to accommodate 3, 4, even 5 times that size.
My family and I visited over Christmas, the ferenji kind, December 25th, so not that much was going on. Pilgrims were starting to come in to the town for the big event two weeks later, but really we got a front row seat to these churches. Though orthodoxy really doesn’t come close to my family’s version of Protestantism at all, it was still a powerful experience to walk through and see all the devotion.
On our second day in Lalibela we took a drive up to Yemrihane Kristos monastery about 40 km north of the town. The monastery is still active as a religious school and houses a few different buildings in a large ivy covered cave. The priest showed us the carvings by candlelight, bringing us back to when they were first built. Just living in Ethiopia tends to bring you back to Biblical times, with farmers threshing wheat by hand, livestock running over the open air markets and huts that make my theater sets look sturdy. But going through the same unchanged churches and monasteries that people have worshiped in for centuries really brought me back in time.
Very different from the historical tours in the Gondar, this was the last stop on our Ethiopian tour. In total we spent just under a week in Ethiopia, which my mom called the “real Africa” part of the trip. Considering how different the culture here is from the rest of Africa, it’s an interesting moniker, but I get what she means. Tanzania was luxury and animals. In Ethiopia I threw my family into the thickest of Ethiopian culture, history, food and even a little language. Recently Ethiopia has been popping up all over the place on top travel lists and best bang for your buck tourism. My home is open!
So I finally did it. I took a tour of the Fasil Gibi Castles in Gondar. It has been 13 months of avoidance, excuses, bad timing, and stinginess, but I held off for my family. The irony is, the one time I was actually being a tourist in Gondar, no one treated me like one. The tour guide at the Fasil Castles lives in my neighborhood and recognized me. Walking around Gondar I had street children hanging off my arms. We were invited into friends’ homes for buna ceremonies and wot. It was really fantastic to introduce some idea of my life to my family – there is only so much blogs, emails and phone calls can relate. We even stuffed all five of us and a duffle bag into a bajaj (tuk tuk). Real life, sorta.
I finally put together the mish-mash of histories I had heard while living here over the year. Apparently, the ruins in the compound aren’t from age, but from British bombs in World War II. The Italians had used the compound as a military headquarters. There at six castles inside all built at different times over a couple hundred years, the oldest built in the 1600s by different rulers when Gondar was the seat of power in Ethiopia. They draw from architectural inspirations as varied as Portuguese to Moor/Islamic to Indians.
After the castle tour we took a half day hike to a Simien Mountains look-out. I could even see my friend’s site from there- Tikel Dingay, noticeable by the unique split rock that looms over the town. We chased baboons through the forest, and of course had to take some jumping photos.
We ended the Gondar part of the trip with a dinner at my favorite local cuisine restaurant Four Sisters, who of course brought us up to dance. My mom held her own, but David definitely showed me up for local integration – he can skiskista with the best of them.
7 girls, 5 days, 1 goal. To summit the highest point in Ethiopia. Ras Dashen. Or as it’s known locally, Ras Dejen.
The only thing they don’t tell you is, you aren’t just summitting Ras Dashen, you are summitting the 6 peaks between here and there in addition to the valleys, rock scrambling, and gorges you have to scale along the way. Kilimanjaro? Piece of cake. This is the Roof of Africa.
We stayed at three separate camps. Starting at Sankober, we spent the night at Gitch, then Chenok, then the base camp for Ras Dashen. The food was amazing and the trip was well organized by Simien Trek (simientrek.com), owned by our good fried Shiff. Highly recommend them to any Simien hikers!
Over the course of our trek we saw some amazing views, walked through a huge troupe of baboons, spied the Walia Ibex, and even saw the Ethiopian red wolf. To see all the endemic species of the SImiens was a real treat and quite rare.
We finally made it to Ras Dashen (about 14,900 ft) on Day 4. While some of the views were more epic the first few days, it was still a major accomplishment to summit. It was cold and windy at the top so we took a photos, had a quick lunch and then headed back down the 3,000 feet to base camp.
So we did it. Still alive. Only a few bloody blisters, broken toes, a small case of dehydration, a medium case of dysentery, and a lot of windburn. This trek will go down as one of my more epic experiences. I mean trekking is cool, but when you trek three feet from monkeys… this is trekking in Africa.
Walking through the Amhara regional capital, you tend to notice a very interesting trend. Every 20 feet or so there is a clay bench, with a different theme. I don’t know if they were commissioned or if 1 person did all of them, but there has to be about 50 in the whole city. Here are a few on the way to the regional Peace Corps Office… with or without strangers
For the past week or so I have been in Senegal on the West side of Africa learning about best practices for malaria prevention programming both broadly and for Peace Corps volunteers. Waaay over here:
Over two weeks we are learning more about malaria and mosquitoes (anopheles female variety of course) than I could ever want to know. Did you know they rest perpendicular to the wall? Did you care? But in the middle of the science, the entomology, and the details of funding schemes, we are also sharing best practices, practical programs and visiting a beach or two.
More on the conference later, but Monday night we had the opportunity to attend the launch of malaria prevention program in one of the villages outside of Thies (pronounced Chezz) lead by a man who has a personal connection to the cause.
Monsieur Elhage has started malaria prevention programming in Senegal in over 10 villages around the area. Starting by walking door to door, he garnered support from village chiefs, women’s groups, and community leaders so that in a country where malaria is endemic, these villages have had 0 reported cases this year.
But these results have been the blood sweat and tears of over a decade of advocacy. One morning in 1999 his daughter fell ill, and asked her father, then a photographer for UNICEF, to pick up apples and oranges in the market. He went to work, bought the fruit, and mid afternoon received a call from his sister telling him of death of his 12 year old daughter Ami only 10 days before the start of school. A severe malaria epidemic rocked the region that year with children and pregnant women dying for no apparent reason. After a gathering with the health workers in the area, Elhage began to understand his daughter had died from malaria.
What was worse, she could have been saved had she been treated quickly, or prevented the bite. So Elhage rededicated his life to malaria prevention education. Working at the village level he employed a few different strategies to get buy in from the community. He worked with the women’s groups, youth, and village leadership to develop a health community committee and fund. The fund would pay for education supplies as well as treatment costs for malaria cases.
With push from village leaders and a mass bed net distribution from the Senegal government (in partnership with the US’s President’s Malaria Initiative), confirmed malaria cases dropped in these villages. But there was still a hot spot of infection – students coming back from summer vacation who had visited families in other villages or towns and were coming back with malaria. To combat this migration effect, the schools developed a “vacation card” and kit that gave the kids nets to take on their trips with them.
In addition to the health education and bed net distributions, village chiefs put together a “night watch” group that would go around to houses in the evening to check if bed nets were up. If they were not, the household would be fined $5 (USD) – a LOT for the villagers. The fines would be added to the community health fund. This was a completely internal idea, and worked to keep usage rates high, even in the dry season.
As malaria rates went down, funds needed to treat cases also shrank, freeing up the community health fund to dream up bigger and better projects. Elhage began to advocate larger development goals, and he developed three philosophies needed for moving forward: politeness, cleanliness, and punctuality (a frustration for any aid worker across the continent).
For his hard work in malaria prevention and social behavioral change, the head of the President’s Malaria Initiative (Admiral Tim Ziemer) presented Elhage with a medal. Elhage has continued to promote vigilance against malaria infection and other small scale development goals.
As we hear about best practices in malaria prevention across the continent, it is always important to connect with the people who have poured their lives into the cause. People, like Elhage, who have worked for decades and pursued his message and worked with community members to affect change. Change that was home grown, and sorely needed to protect against a deadly disease. His story, while tragic, was one of the most motivating moments of the conference. With stories of his success, we volunteers can head back to our own communities and hopefully support people like Elhage.
I just returned from a quick weekend trip to the old city of Harar on the East side of Ethiopia. Close to the Somalia border, Harar is the 4th Holiest City in Islam and the root of much of Islamic culture in Ethiopia. Having lived in a highly Orthodox area for the past year, it was a nice break and a trip down memory lane to my time in Jordan. The old city of Harar had a much more middle eastern feel and some more recognizable market spices.
Harar is the site where a part of the Umma (original muslim community in Arabia) immigrated for refuge from the Mecca – Medina conflict in the late 600s. The ruler of Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) opened his doors to the Muslims and started the tradition of religious tolerance in Ethiopia. Islam is the second largest religion here after the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church.
Picking up a guide for a tour of the old city we walked through ancient city walls and toured some of the local homes and more famous residents of the town. Haile Selassie used to have a “palace” here (Ras Tefari’s house), and the interior decor of the homes was famously “Harari.” Tasting street food along the way (I am in Peace Corps after all), we finished the afternoon with some Hakim Stout – the local brew.
The main attraction in Harar though are the famous “hyena men.” These local guys sit outside the city walls every night around sunset to feed wild hyenas fatty camel meat. These hyenas have basically been domesticated over years of guaranteed food, and consistent feeding has made them huge! I did not realize just how big these animals would be. I thought big dogs, the reality was more like small bears. But, I screwed up my courage and we all volunteered to feed them ourselves, with help from the hyena man.
This is one of my first trips outside my immediate region, and it was great to see a very different part of Ethiopia with different culture, food, and infrastructure. After Harar I headed down to the Southern Nations to do a training in a city called Butajira for the new group of education volunteers. So over a few days I was able to see the Harar region and a part of the south, expanding my understanding of Ethiopia as a whole.
Only 30 minutes north of my house are the beginnings of one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the world – the Simien Mountains. At least according to Planet Earth, their “Mountains” episode features the Simiens. Truthfully, I had never heard of this range before I came to Ethiopia, but that could because I had Colorado snob syndrome and will only ski on powder and hike the Rockies in the summer. I even caught myself saying “Ras Dashen isn’t even a 14er…” to someone… Rocky. Mountain. Snob.
But there is nothing like this topography in the Rockies. They call this area the “Grand Canyon of Ethiopia,” and for good reason. The sheer cliffs, crevices, and peaks are anything but typical.
So since the Cameroonians were in town, we jumped on their half day hike with our good friend and tour guide Robel. (Family, we will do this hike… bring yo boots!) We were able to see three endemic species (Lammergeyers aka vultures, Chilada baboons, and Colobos monkeys).
We hung out with some of the local farming kids (this whole Amharic speaking thing can be awesome). And circled around a herd? group? gaggle? of baboons. And clearly we had to do some photoshoots.
So I still love my Rocky Moutains, but I won’t complain about mountain withdrawal during service. In October we tackle the “big one” – Ras Dashen – the highest peak in Ethiopia. And turns out I was wrong… it is a 14er at 14,928 Ft (4,553 meters) though google seems to be conflicted (I saw one estimate at over 15,000 ft). Even the most solid things are contested here. I mean, I am still in Ethiopia.
Living in a tourist town has its pros and cons. Pro- Lots of people are always coming through. Con- My excuses not to tour said people around are becoming incredibly feeble. But, my good friend Chad cracked my tour aversion and finally got me to go to Debre Birhan Selassie Church, one of the more famous churches in Ethiopia, a hop, skip and jump away from my doorstep.
Debre Birhan Selassie loosely translates to Mountain of Light Holy Trinity Church. That fact alone got me star tourist status immediately. Gotta love Peace Corps language training. The Australians thought me and Chad were super gobez.
The typical big eyed floating head paintings you see in many hotels and restaurants around the country are modeled after the artwork in this church. It is one of the more famous orthodox churches in the country, and for just 40 birr they will doctor your birth certificate too! (Seriously. The lack of record keeping here means you can pick what year you were born if you need an ID).
Painted in portraits from top to bottom, scenes of biblical characters and some not so biblical characters cover the walls. This is actually one of the only places in the world there is a depiction of Muhammed, since in Islam you cannot draw living things.
Being some of the only tourists who can speak Amharic, I was able to get a student discount on my ticket (what up no date on the BU ID) and got a personal tour from the priest, who seemed to like me… a lot. Could be a difference in personal space thing though.
St. George is thought of as the patron saint of Ethiopia. We have Georgis draft beer, about 100 churches named Georgis, and of course a prominent spot on the wall of DebreBirhan Selassie.
And some other photos of the grounds:
Last week I headed to Aykel for a combination helping Peace Corps do site identification, visiting Morgan, and running into my counterpart who was at a training (if he’s there, it means it’s work right?).
Aykel is the site of the other G8 volunteer in the North Gondar Zone, the lovely Morgan Davison, check out her blog here. It’s about 1.5 hours southwest of Gondar on the road to Metema (border of Sudan 120km away) and the capital of the Chilga region.
A sizeable town of about 45,000 Morgan is the only volunteer in her site. There are plenty of connections between her town and “the big city” that I live in. Many of her friends have family in Gondar, and the owners of my favorite juice place are cousins of her landlady.
Aykel also has many connections to the US. There are pockets of Aykel Diaspora all over the country, and talking to some of the people, they knew exactly where everyone from that town was living (a rundown of 10 in Denver, 30 in Seattle etc. ensued).
But the history of those immigrants is unique for this city. While people leave for many different reasons, a large group came through refugee camps in Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s during squirmishes on the Ethiopian-Sudan border. On a hike outside of the town, Teddy, the tourism officer, took us to a cave on the outskirts that a couple hundred people used as shelter during the conflict for about 3 months.
During the rainy season, the entrance to the cave becomes a roaring waterfall and the water at the bottom is believed to have holy healing powers since it sheltered so many refugees during the war.
Some walked from Aykel all the way to the border (about 120 kilometers) to safety. One such guy lived in America for years before coming back to invest in his small town, and now owns one of the best cafes we visited. An example of Diaspora development, returned investment and America’s role in refugee support finds a success story in this small town.