The Heart of Ethiopia

Away from the hustle that is found along the well-trodden tourist path in northern Ethiopia, there is a parallel world waiting to welcome those with enough desire, and a strong enough sense of adventure, to make the journey there.

Those who have made the journey around Ethiopia independently, without the cultural ‘bubble’ of air-conditioned tourist vehicles, will know that Ethiopia is not an easy country to travel. The frequent scams, the constant demands for money, and the occasional unpleasantness in the attitudes of some local people towards foreigners or travellers — can really wear you down.

The first month of journeying around the country by motorcycle left my wife and me disappointed and jaded, with very little faith left in being able to connect with the local people. I say this not to complain or to generalise, but to frame just how special the places in this story are.

These places are far from the well-trodden path, deep in the mountains of Ethiopia’s Tigray province. Some haven’t ever seen foreign visitors. Others see them once every few months, or even every few years.

My journey first took me to Abi Adi — an area in the east of Tigray. It can be reached via 100 km of gravel road.

Like most Tigrayans, the people of Abi Adi area are devout coptic Christians. Part of my reason for traveling into the ‘heart of Ethiopia’ was to see some of the most isolated and little-visited rock churches of the area. In the more frequented parts of the country such churches have become obsessed with the tourist dollar. In Abi Adi, there is still a sense of purity and innocence to these places.

Abba Yohani is a church and monastery carved right into the side of a mountain face. I rode to the church on the motorbike with my friend and guide — Zemenfes.

We moved through the darkness of a very early morning, traversing winding roads made of rubble and sand.

We arrived in time for the morning mass. Morning masses can be magical in these rock churches. There is usually very little artificial light, and the devotees light tapering candles and murmur passages from the bible.

Mass usually lasts for a few hours, and in addition to passages from the bible, the devotees also read from prayer books. By the time all is finished, it is bright outside and the light enters the church through thin windows, creating a dramatic, almost divine atmosphere.

The texts for mass are not written on paper, but rather on goat skin because it can last forever. So says Mosei, who you see pictured below. Mosei is a rare kind of priest who creates prayer books for a living.

Our guide Zemenfes was convinced that Mosei was also a man who should never be messed with. He said that people like Mosei can perform magic and cast spells or curses on their enemies.

Thankfully I didn’t get to find out if this was true, but I did witness how skilled Mosei was at writing the prayer texts in the ancient Ge’ez language on the goat skin pages. His writing is virtually impeccable. The rare mistakes are fixed by erasing the wrong characters with a razor blade.

One book can take from four months to a year to complete. On a more gruesome note, about 70 goats are needed to provide the pages. Mosei will make 3,000 Bir (about $USD 170) profit on each such book.

Mosei’s children are already learning from their father, and in the image you see his youngest son watching closely.

Around each church or monastery there is supposed to be a green area — a mini-forest of sorts. While this isn’t always really the case in the drier regions of the country, there was a beautiful little patch of trees and bush that surrounded Abba Yohani and a neighbouring church.

Near the green area around this church was a water pump, and one morning we met a group of young girls filling their containers from the pump. One of these girls was Zafu, who you see pictured below.

Zafu is only ten years old, but in many ways works like a grown woman, doing many of the chores for her family. After getting water, Zafu loaded the containers onto the back of her donkey and headed home.

Donkeys are used for all kinds of tasks around the Ethiopian countryside. Their main use is to carry water, wood or anything else that is needed around the house.

The most common sight around sunset in these regions is one of a young child and a donkey going to fetch water for the family.

Below is a photograph of one of the church priests in front of Abba Yohani rock church. You can see the church in the distance, blending into the rock face behind the priest’s left-hand shoulder.

My visit to Abi Adi wasn’t just about spending time in the churches and monasteries. I also had the great privilege to glimpse into the everyday lives of the people who inhabit the region. I was surprised by how hospitable even the young inhabitants of Abi Adi were.

In the more famous, often visited places, most of the children we interacted with would try to scam us for money or simply demand it with an outstretched arm. In one small village a group of kids even threatened to throw stones at us, if we decided not to go with them and pay for seeing the church in their area.

Wurko, pictured above, was a shepherd boy who we met along a dusty road. Not only did he not demand anything, he also invited us into his home, fed us berries, and took us to see his family’s tree house.

The tree house was the place where guests slept and it was here that Wurko spent most of his time when the crops needed to be guarded from birds and other “pests”. In the image on the right above, Wurko is pointing out an escaped cow to a crowd of kids below.

This hospitality was everywhere in Abi Adi. When we asked one woman whose house was along a dusty road if we could see it from the inside, she replied, “What else is a house for if not for inviting guests?”

In an area so full of welcoming, hospitable people I wanted to keep exploring. Zemenfes and I decided to simply ride down one of the roads, and to see where it might take us, trying to visit some of the houses and chatting with people along the way.

We ended up at a house of a 90-year-old leather worker. This man used to be relatively rich in his youth. Now his abilities and the demand for leather is no longer the same, but he still worked at his craft. In the photos above he is making a leather baby harness, for which there is still some demand in the areas that are deep in the countryside.

We chatted to the man for a while and soon his daughter appeared. It was clear that the family didn’t have much, but because hospitality is a big thing in these parts of Ethiopia the family insisted that we were treated to some roasted dry beans, a common snack in this region.

For days, Zemenfes and I kept exploring the Abi Adi region. I didn’t have any specific goal in mind. I just wanted to absorb as much of it as I could. It was wonderful to be away from all the hassles and difficulties that Ethiopia had greeted me with.

The trip to Abi Adi was “just what the doctor had ordered” for a jaded traveler. I regained my faith in connecting with the local people and I wanted to share my new, positive experiences with my wife, who missed out on most of our adventures because we only had one motorbike between the three of us.

We managed to get another bike and continued our journey to an even less visited area — the mountain villages of Enderta province. Despite being only about 30 km away from Mekele, Ethiopia’s pleasant northern capital, the villages are a world away from modern life.

You can’t get to many of them by motorised transport. Here, we relied on the trusty donkeys to carry our camping gear and some food necessities. This way we were able to spend time in some of the most remote villages, some of which had even had foreign visitors before us.

Once again, in these villages we were greeted by the most hospitable of people. Our first stop ended with a local dinner and Zemenfes was offered a bed inside the house, while we set up our tent outside.

A funny moment came later when the family’s father instructed his son to sleep by Zemenfes’ side to care for him, should any issue arise.

Being more of a city kid Zemenfes found this rather uncomfortable and odd, as most city people and foreign travellers would. Nevertheless, hospitality is hospitality, and he accepted the kind and genuine gesture.

An imperative part of Ethiopian hospitality is the coffee ceremony. It is believed by some that Ethiopia is home this world famous drink.

During the ceremony, coffee beans are crushed with a sort of a mortar and pestle. The drink is brewed and served to the guests three times. The first brew is the strongest and the last is the weakest.

Any time you visit a welcoming and hospitable Ethiopian household, you won’t be allowed to leave without a coffee. In one village, once word about our presence had spread, we were kindly invited to numerous coffee ceremonies in various houses of the village.

It was rare for the villagers to have any photographs of themselves, and so they were eager to invite us into their homes and often asked if I could take their picture.

I always made sure to pass the printed images onto Zemenfes after I left, so that he might give them to the families when he was passing through.

This man was the head of one of the villages and also a priest, which isn’t uncommon in Northern Ethiopia, as priests are the most revered members of their society.

Quite soon we started to run out of our food supplies, but, this wasn’t a problem as the generous local people invited us to join them for lunches and dinners too. We were even given a taste of the delicious local honey.

In the photo below you see a woman making injera — a type of sourdough-risen flatbread with a unique, slightly spongy texture. It is the main staple food for virtually any Ethiopian.

Traditionally made out of teff flour, injera is a national dish in Ethiopia and Eritrea. While most foreigners balk at the idea of eating so much of it if they spend extended periods of time in the country, most Ethiopians say that they could not live without injera.

Below you see an image of a mother and a young child in the kind of leather harness that the elderly leather maker in Abi Adi was making. Zemenfes made sure to draw my attention to it. He said, “You see, you have to get pretty far from any town to see these things still in use.”

A lot of our time was spent just wandering around the villages and interacting with whoever crossed our path. I photographed everyday life — people going about their normal lives, happy that someone from a far away land was interested enough to make the journey to visit them.

The children here often carry their younger sibling on their backs, and that was the case with the girl in the photo below. We asked if she would mind having her photo taken. Though she was shy, she stood in front of the camera. Ethiopia is definitely a land of a very beautiful people.

During our time in one of these small villages, a family whose house we were staying in was having a christening for their baby boy the next morning. The preparations were already in full swing, and below you can see the village beautician doing the mother’s hair for the big day.

We were invited to attend the christening and were even given the honour of being asked to give the baby a name. The name had to be Christian and had to come from the bible. My wife and I thought carefully about it, and in the end decided on suggesting Samson.

Our knowledge of the bible isn’t that great, but we both knew the story of the strong man with the long hair. We said that we wished for their baby boy to be as strong as Samson when he grew up. So... Samson it was. 

Preparations for the ceremony continued throughout the night. Family and friends needed to cook a lot of injera and curry-type foods to be able to provide a meal for all of the guests, as is the custom here.

With action around the clock I tried to continue photographing through the night, wanting to make the most of the privilege I had been given to share in this important moment for the family. I occasionally dozed off, but was able to photograph the mother comforting one of her children when the little girl woke up from what seemed to be a nightmare.

Here you see members of the family preparing injera and coffee on the morning of the christening.

Some of the women had stayed up the whole night, but christenings are a big deal in their culture, and so it is expected that many of the extended family will help out on such an occasion.

When the time of the christening came, I wondered whether the family was really going to go with the name we chose for their boy. After hearing Samson several times, it became clear that they liked the name. What an odd story the child would hear from his parents if he ever asked them how he got his name. 

The church where the christening took place was tiny, but by now, considering that I gave the boy his name, I was a guest of honour and had the privilege of getting the best possible view of the whole thing.

Christening involves some prayer reading. A priest dips the child into water, which after prayers is considered to have the holy spirit inside it. Plenty of tears follow, but the child is now a Christian.

Christenings are a big deal because before a child is taken through the ceremony he or she and the mother are considered impure.

The ceremony takes place for boys when they are 40 days old, and for girls when they are 80 days old.

Over my time in Ethiopia I saw my fair share of christenings and crying babies, but this one was special because of our little name connection.

I made sure to get the images to the family a few weeks after we left, via Zemenfes. 

Our time in the remotest parts of Tigray changed our outlook on Ethiopia. It wasn’t easy to get to these places and we would have never found them without Zemenfes, but we felt lucky that we did. We saw that there was so much more to Ethiopia than the unpleasant welcome we had initially received.

I suppose I was reassured that if you really, really want to find something you will. I truly feel that the heart of Ethiopia is what we found.