I never imagined that Ethiopia produced wine until I arrived jet lag and weary at my hotel in Addis Ababa, went to the bar and ordered a drink. “Do you prefer red or white?” the gregarious bartender asked with a smile. “What do you have” I replied, being kind of a wine connoisseur. He rattled off the different wines starting with South Africa and then asked if I’d like to try an Ethiopian wine. Ethiopian wine? I was shocked. “Is it good?” I questioned trying not to sound like a wine snob. “Try for yourself” he replied with a knowing grin. I began with a glass of dry white wine and proceeded on to a delightful glass of smooth red. It was delicious! This would become my five o’clock ritual for the next two weeks in Ethiopia; a ritual I dearly miss since being back home where I have yet to find a bottle of Ethiopian wine.
It is impossible to understand Ethiopia without visiting the countryside. In a country of 90 million people, the rural land of Ethiopia is where over 90% of Ethiopians live and catching a glimpse of their way of life is absolutely fascinating.
During my two weeks in Ethiopia as a fellow with the International Reporting Project, my favorite times were when we were outside of the cities and venturing along the bumpy, cattle-filled roads of rural Ethiopia. For me, the countryside is where the true heart and soul of Ethiopia and much of Africa lies. While some of the other fellows used our lengthy drives as time to catch up on much needed sleep, I sat at the edge of my seat with camera in hand, mesmerized by the world around me. A world I had never experienced yet a world I had imagined in my dreams.
Tucked inside a tiny island in the middle of Lake Tana in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia lies the island monastery of Entos Eyesu and its people. It is a magical place that feels like another planet given its isolation and centuries-old traditional way of life for its tiny population. The monastery is not as beautiful as some of the other better known ones such as Bete Maryam, however, experiencing this tiny island is like taking a step back in time seeing a way of life long forgotten.
“Faith is a grand cathedral, with divinely pictured windows -standing without, you can see no glory, nor can imagine any, but standing within every ray of light reveals a harmony of unspeakable splendors”. – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Lake Tana is bejeweled by over thirty-seven islands scattered about its 3,000 square kilometers (1,860 square miles) of water. Around twenty of these islands are home to Ethiopia’s sacred monasteries some dating back to the 13th century. Inside the monasteries is a wealth of culture, history and art found among the beautifully painted murals on the walls and ceilings, all depicting religious scenes from Biblical times. Stepping inside one of these mystical places is like stepping back in time.
“You cannot find peace by avoiding life”. Virginia Woolf
A few hours after my morning encounter with the papyrus boat fisherman and the hippos off the shore of my hotel, it was time to explore the beauty and mysticism of Lake Tana for myself. I convinced a few friends of mine from our reporting trip to join me on a boat tour of Lake Tana in search of hippos and ancient monasteries. 37 islands dot the waters of Lake Tana which are home to over a dozen monasteries dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. I had heard that the monasteries were magnificent and contained treasure troves of beautiful artwork inside their mysterious doors. The idea of walking inside one of these ancient monasteries piqued my curiosity and imagination.
Given Lake Tana’s enormous size (over 3,500 square kilometers ), there was no way we could possibly see everything in one afternoon. We opted for a three-hour tour with the goal of visiting 3-4 monasteries and driving out to the source of the Blue Nile in search of hippos. Our boat left directly from our hotel off into the calm, milky brown waters of Lake Tana.
In the Amhara region of northwestern Ethiopia lies Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. Flowing over 1,500 kilometers, snaking through Sudan, the Blue Nile joins the White Nile and is one of the world’s longest riverways. Lake Tana is a mystical place where time and history run deep. Nothing on that lake is more sacred than its flotilla of papyrus boats gliding across its waters like the wind.
I had read about the papyrus boat fisherman in Selamta the in-flight magazine of Ethiopian Airlines. The article “Papyrus and Lake Tana” captivated my imagination of this mystical land and inspired me to get out of bed at the crack of dawn despite my jet lag and fatigue.
I rose at dawn to the muezzin call to prayer reflecting off the shores of Lake Tana. Although it was almost pitch black, I jumped out of bed in excitement knowing that the early morning hours of daylight was when the fisherman set off on their papyrus boats just like they have been doing for centuries. If I moved quickly, I’d be able to catch the thousands of traditional fishermen heading out across the mystical glossy still water of Lake Tana.
As much as I craved my morning cup of coffee, there was no time to waste because there in the distance I saw him. Like one of hundreds, the fisherman was heading out across the murky blue-brown waters of Lake Tana to start his day.
Our first trip outside of Addis Ababa was to Bahir Dar in Northern Ethiopia. I rose early to catch our short one hour flight and could hardly contain my excitement at finally being able to see the Ethiopian countryside. I had many pictures in my head of what I imagined it would be like and I was in no way disappointed.
I had been in the thick of the chaos and crazed life of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital for four full days when it was time to head out and see the more rural parts of the country, where over 85% of Ethiopia’s population of 90 million live.
Northern Ethiopia has a wow factor that cannot be denied. Known as the Historical Circuit, this region has bragging rights to over two millennia of ancient history ranging from the world-famous tombs of Aksum, to the captivating castles of Gonder and the jaw-dropping Danakil Depression whose lava lake and plains is a must-see for adventure travelers.
Tucked away in the heart of the Piazza, the old Italian district of Addis Ababa, lies the enchanting St. George Cathedral, one of Addis’ most beloved treasures. The St. George Cathedral was commissioned by Emperor Menelik II to commemorate his extraordinary defeat of the Italians who fought to take over Ethiopia in 1896. The victory marked a huge success for Ethiopia. The nation was able to retain their sovereignty and today remains one of the few countries in Africa that has never been colonized.
The church was designed by Greek, Armenian and Indian artists and completed in 1911 named in the honor of St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia, whose relic was actually carried in the 1896 battle against the Italians in Adwa.
Today, St. George cathedral and its museum are important places for Orthodox Christians and tourists alike to visit. While the outside of the cathedral is rather striking in its neoclassical, octagon-shaped structure, the inside is a true delight of brilliant stained-glass windows, colorful religious paintings and carpets. The museum next door holds some of the ancient relics of the church where the Empress Zewditu and Emperor Haile Selaisse were crowned.
“A Loving Home for Every Child” – Motto written on a sign at the entrance of a SOS Children’s Village in Ethiopia.
One of the most heartwarming afternoons during my two-week trip to Ethiopia as a fellow for the International Reporting Project was spent visiting a SOS Children’s Village. SOS Children is an independent, non-governmental international development organization that provides loving homes for abandoned and orphaned children in 133 countries for almost 82,100 children. It was founded in 1949 by Austrian Hermann Gmeiner with the first SOS Children’s Village built in Imst, Austria as a home for children orphaned by World War II.
Today, SOS Children works to provide abandoned, destitute and orphaned children with a loving, family based home. Every child in a SOS Village belongs to a family and is provided with a SOS Mother and “siblings” who are the other SOS Children living under the same roof. This allows the children to grow up in a family being loved and feeling secure. Within each village, there are up to fifteen families living together in a community and each family has up to ten children per house. It is a wonderful model and has had a huge impact on the children’s lives and futures.
SOS Children started working in Ethiopia in 1974 with the opening of the first village in Mekelle and over the years it has added six other villages caring for 1,645 children in SOS families. SOS Children’s education and training program unit has also benefited over 3,400 children and youth as well as children coming from the neighboring communities who are in need of services.
Addis Ababa, which translates into “new flower”, was named by the wife of Emperor Menelik II in 1886 when she saw it looking down from Mount Entoto, the Emperor’s military base. Today, Africa’s highest capital at 7,546 feet (2,300 metres) is a chaotic, bustling city of around 3 million people.
Known as the political capital of Africa, housing the African Union, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and numerous other African and international organizations, Addis is in the midst of change. Everywhere you turn, there are buildings going up and new roads being built thanks to the Chinese and other foreign investors. A pell mell of slums, notoriously rundown, dirty and overcrowded weave in and out the city even up against some of the newest luxury hotels, buildings and homes.
“If she wasn’t bleeding, she would have suffered like I did and delivered at home,” said Fasika’s* mother Menesch at a Lie and Wait center for expectant mothers in rural Ethiopia.
Menesch was inside the room with her expecting daughter Fasika while nursing her three-month-old daughter on a chair. It was Menesch’s eighth child who, like all the rest, she delivered at home with no trained labor assistant.
Fasika was a mere 15 years old with baby fat still surrounding her cheeks and a shy smile that often looked down at her largely pregnant belly. Meeting Fasika and her mother on the last day of my trip was the defining moment of my two weeks of reporting on maternal and newborn health in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia, a magical land of over 90 million people, is one of the most diverse nations in the world with over 83 distinct languages and 200 dialects. What stunned me the most about Ethiopians is how such a diverse group of people live in peace and harmony. Over half the population is Orthodox Christian and the next largest religious group is Muslims making up around 45% of the population. Despite their different religious beliefs, Muslims and Christians live side by side and oftentimes there can be a mixture of religions within families due to marriage. The main eight ethnic groups also live together peacefully which says a lot about this poverty-stricken nation in the heart of Africa.
While I was in Ethiopia these past two weeks, Oxford University released The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), ranking Ethiopia as the second poorest country in the world just ahead of Niger. The report claims that although Ethiopia has made some progress, Ethiopia is still home to more than 76 million poor people, the fifth largest number in the world after India, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The report also claims that the highest percentage of poor live within the rural areas which is no surprise given the fact that over 85% of Ethiopians earn a living off the land.
Despite the often heartbreaking, overwhelming poverty of the Ethiopian people, the one thing they all seemed to have in common is resilience and resolve with their place in this world. I had never seen so many genuine, welcoming smiles upon their faces despite the hardships they face. I was always greeted with curiosity, warmth and kindness by the Ethiopians I met. Here are some of my favorite faces of Ethiopia.