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.
Suffice to say the second “leg” of the family vacation was all about animals. It was such a relaxing time, and so nice to be with the family and see their reactions to all these crazy creatures. My mom was a little bit obsessed with giraffes. But less talk, more photos! I’ll try to put up the best of the best, the cutest of the cutest and the weirdest of the weird.
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.
The Crozier family came to visit for the holidays. We spent a little less than a week in Ethiopia, visiting my town Gondar and then seeing the historic monolithic rock hewn churches of Lalibella. Next we jetted down to Tanzania for a week long safari and a few days on Zanzibar Island. I’ll get into more details on all these adventures in later posts, but for now I thought I’d illuminate a funny theme of the trip – animals crossing the road. Our safaria hit all the highlights, the Big 5 (elephants, leopard, buffalo, lions, and even rhinocerous), and plenty of other typically crazy looking savannah creatures. We were guests in their territory, bouncing along on barely used roads. The animals walked where they wanted, and so – a theme post! and a preview of the amazing photos to come.
More to come!
Last Sunday was the national celebration of diversity in Ethiopia –Nations and Nationalities Day. There are 87 individual languages and as many cultures in Ethiopia. Most of these are tribal languages that you find on the southern border with Kenya where National Geographic worthy communities like the Hammer Tribe live in the Omo Valley.
But even up north in the more homogenous Amhara region, where I live, there a regional differences and a lot of pride. On the west side, Orthodox Christianity reigns supreme, as well as the typical white cotton dresses. Most cities have their own meskel or “cross,” and the Gondar one looks more like a floral diamond.
The other common costume is a forest green outfit with white buttons for men. Typical of both the Gondar region and south of us in the Gojam region (which surrounds Bahar Dar) these outfits are traditionally the fancy fare of farmers.
Amhara has been the seat of power, culture, and ecumenical influence for a significant portion of Ethiopian history. Amhara and Tigray (to the North) are seen as more “traditional” Ethiopia, while the south is more tribal. Tigray boasts Axum, said to hold the Arc of the Covenant, while Amhara has both Gondar and Lalibela for historical and religious clout. Natural beauty also abounds – The Simien Mountains, north of Gondar, and the Blue Nile Falls, south of Bahar Dar are breathtaking and unique.
Tigray has the rock hewn churchs of Hauzen, the columns of Axum, and a desert like landscape. Oromia, the largest region in the center and the political rival for the last century, has the lush Awash National park, Wenchi crater, and a lot more beads on their clothing. The South has the Bale Mountains (featured in BBC’s Life), and the most cultural diversity of the regions. Apparently the shakala tibs (charred meat dish) are best down here too. Afar and Somali regions are majority Muslim, nomadic and have landscape as tough as the lifestyle. Somalia just had a polio outbreak, and I randomly met up the CDC team as they prepared to head out that way… shmerrr. In Afar, the Danakil Depression is the hottest point on earth with lava literally bubbling out of the ground. We can’t visit it as volunteers, but it’s definitely on my list for afterwards!
Addis Ababa, Dire Dowa, and Harar boast their own city principalities, and per my previous post, Harar has an interesting and unique twist to its history.
Other regions in our “no-go zone” include Gambella and BG, on the border of Sudan and South Sudan. I don’t know much about them, besides the refugee camps, but I heard they have giraffes! There is definitely an elephant sanctuary out by Jijiga in the East.
So there’s a quick and dirty run down of the some of the cultural and natural diversity in Ethiopia in honor of Nations and Nationalities Day.
On Monday morning this week I was invited to speak to an undergrad gender empowerment class at the University of Gondar. The degree program is Gender Studies, and graduates end up mostly in government jobs working towards mainstreaming gender issues in development work and other policies. It’s a lofty goal, and I was pleased to see the room about half men as well. It’s about gender, not women. It’s about economic development, real strategies on the ground, and not just “empowerment.”
During the course of the morning I was asked about almost everything under the sun gender – from “are you a feminist?” to “why are you so passionate about these issues if compared to Ethiopia women in America are so empowered?”
Am I feminist? No, not really. Not of the 1960s militant theoretical variety anyway. Though the older I get, the more places I live, the more feminist (or mindful of gender inequality) I become.
Why am I passionate? Because we still have issues in the US as well. Because health is one of the strategies to bring women up or keep them down. In Ethiopia, too many women die in childbirth because they didn’t have access or weren’t allowed to go to a health center by family pressure. In America, I won’t even get into the slew of conservative state law going on the books this summer. Because my mother had to deal with a man’s world of upper management. Because I get harassed on the street. Because I lived in Jordan. Because I live in Ethiopia. Because I have had a lot of opportunities these Ethiopian women have had to fight so hard to get. Because I know I’m lucky, and I want those opportunities for others.
So how do you move towards a more equal society? You encourage education, especially for girls. It starts in the family. I certainly wouldn’t be here without the support of my family, and I certainly wouldn’t have made the education and career choices I’ve made if my family didn’t think I was just as capable as my brothers. And that’s a generational, long term answer. It’s exciting because I really think this generation in the universities now is going to be great role models for its kids. Women are on a precipice here, it’s this generation that will get to see that change.
There are still pockets of families in the US who would rather encourage motherhood and housewifery instead of college or work. But as gender norms go, that’s not too bad. And many women choose that path, but at least they had a choice. Some families in Ethiopia are still encouraging early marriage and high rates of female genital mutilation. I’ll take “make me sandwich” any day.
But to switch gears a bit, if gender norms here can be incredibly stiff, gendered symbols are not at all. In America, pink is for baby girls, blue for baby boys. Girls get barbies, boys get tonka trucks.
In Ethiopia, I was sitting in a café that afternoon after talking to the class and two deaf streetkids I know came up to say hi. The boy was wearing a dress and pink rainboots, and his sister had a dark green sweater, no shoes. He got the rainboots, my guess, because he was the boy – colour be damned. My sitemate and I were painting our nails and offered to the kids. No matter, he went for the bright pink. She thought the blue was great.
Men drape over each other in cafes and hold hands or link pinkies as they stroll down the street. Women can be very shy and quiet, even meek, but still wearing the tightest ,most stylish pants. Short hair for all kids is a must during rainy season – better to keep an eye out for head fungus.
So poverty, practicality and no cultural significance to westernized gendered symbols can mean an interesting mix of cultural norms.
So encourage those women in your life. Encourage the men in your life. No matter where they live, they probably face some preconceived notions. And always have a camera, in Ethiopia, it can mean a very fun gender neutral afternoon.