Ethiopia… .. On the Ground

Definitely some of the best food in Ethiopia is at the Gheralta Lodge in Hawsien village,north of Mekale. I knew that the cooks must have been trained by a European so when the manager confided that the owner had brought an Italian chef over for six months to work with the women,I was vindicated. After satisfying food and good conversation,all the guests eventually retired to their elegant stone cottages. These buildings replicated the traditional circular houses built several hundred years ago in Ethiopia. I,on the other hand, spent the night behind the kitchen in my simple cement room with the subtle odor of questionable plumbing. Since this lodge is on every traveler’s must stay list,I took what I could get.

The next morning after another delicious meal, the drivers and vans were lined up waiting to take the guests out to visit the famous stone churches. I was more interested in the remote villages where the churches were located. So Muley,my guide and new friend and I both agreed that he would hire two motorcycles to explore the area only visit one or two of the churches. We were literally left in the dust as huge trucks went speeding by carrying cement for the new Chinese road. The guests from the lodge all waved as they drove by in their air-conditoned four-wheel drive vans.
Churches are no longer only places to worship but tourist sites that have become a huge source of income for the priests. If you are an avid church aficionado, stock up on bir at the ATM machine in Mekale since the priests have raised the price of admission from 50 bir to 150 bir per church
($2.50-$8.50)per person.
We drove out about twenty km on a dirt road past several rural villages, sent a young boy to fetch the key from the priest so we could enter this 1000 year old building. Finally after a thirty minute wait, priest and key arrived and we climbed into the old part of the church which is not visible from outside. The interior was very simple without any detail or carvings, almost like a cave. Most of the other churches were far up on the mountains,and impossible to reach with a motorcycle so I settled for one church on my tour.
As I spent more time with my guide Muley, I learned that he taught himself English, was clever and a quick learner but he had not finished school and his future was bleak. He survives by guiding tourists to the churches, and earns 300-400 bir a day ($18- $22). Unfortunately most tourists arrive with a driver and a guide. If he has clients a few times a month, he will earn more than the majority of restaurant and hotel workers who work at least ten hours a day,six days a week and earn $50 a month.
I met a young Ethiopian on the plane back to Addis who worked as a software programmer for USAID. He confided that he had to work unlimited hours for low pay, while the Americans working with him, had a five day week and were compensated with huge salaries for having to live in Africa. The life style of these people is similar to the heyday of decandent colonialism in Africa . The irony is they are working for a U.S. government agency whose goal is to improve the health, education and living conditions in the country. The sad truth about AID in Africa is that it best serves the non-profits and their employees.

The other sad truth about Ethiopia since I visited this country in 1973, is the abject poverty,the beggars and the abundance of homeless people.. I saw a woman living in the street with her one year old child.
The biggest change is the amount of young educated people who are computer literate and have college degrees. They know what is going on in the world and are outspoken about what they see. The problem is the only decent paying jobs are procured through nepotism. I had many challenging conversations with young Ethiopians, something that was rare in Cameroon. They have access to the internet,and a growing tourist industry so they are exposed to the outside world. Cameroon is so locked out of the modern world; the news and the net are controlled by the government. There is no access to good literature and the school system is pathetic.

As in most African countries, there is a very wealthy class that is emerging while the poor have little improvement in their lives. Unlike Mozambique where business is controlled by foreigners, especially the Afrikaans, Ethiopians are very active in tourism in their country. I had decided to go by road to Lalibela, a journey of 950 km from Mekale. When I finally hired a car and driver, I realized that between the nonprofits, the oil, gas and potash exploration teams and the influx of wealthy tourists, there was no bargaining for a reasonable price. I had to pay $300 American dollars, the round trip drive and all the gas even though it was a one way trip for me. I asked why the rental car owners could make $100 a day while the average salary was $50 a month… and the answer was “that’s how it is”.

In the seventies, the only way to get to Lalibela was by mule through the mountains. Now there are paved roads and an airport. During the ten hour trip, my driver, a very sweet guy, convinced me to try some shira ortagamino, a mashed bean dish with hot pepper. This was the only Ethiopian dish I would eat during my two weeks in the country. The landscape changed from flat plains, to curvy mountain roads, multi-colored fields of vegetables and sugar cane, a blue lake and finally high mountains with terraced plots that are in desperate need of water. Even though electric has been brought to these rural villages and there is a asphalt road most of the way to Lalibela, the people living here are very poor,exist on subsistence farming and seem out of touch with the modern world.
This was an extravagant price for a one day road trip but also an amazing journey through the different landscapes in Ethiopia.

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