They look like they could be Halloween ghosts, these thousands of people walking through the town of Aksum in Northern Ethiopia. All wearing clean white shawls, men and woman alike, they are devoted followers of the Ethiopian orthodox church. This chilly 5 am morning, we follow the Ark of the Covenant, of Indiana Jones fame, from its home in an Aksum chapel, through the village in an old town loop. Actually this is a replica of the Ark, because the true one never leaves its chapel, and people wonder whether it truly exists. We pass the mighty stelae that mark the Axumite tombs of kings that governed from here more than two thousand years ago. They rise above the street in the candlelit dawn. The Ark is on top of one priest’s head, with ceremonial umbrellas gracing the procession. When the candles get too short, the devotees drop them onto the street, and I step on a few to put them out. But then I realize that maybe they should burn out on their own, because no one else attempts to step on these mini-fires. While they are walking the men and women chant, in their ancient Tigrinya language that uses the squiggly script used everywhere in this country. One hour after its beginning, the procession ends, and the city returns to its business, the white shawls disappear like apparitions.
I simply love Ethiopian food. I have never been in such a vegan friendly country. Ethiopian orthodox Christians are required to fast some 180 days of the year. This means they eat a vegan diet, and drink no alcohol for a large part of their lives. In Addis Ababa, I enjoyed just walking into any restaurant and getting a delicious meal. The same is true in Aksum, the food is flavorful, and I even risk getting sick by eating fresh salads. I love the spongy injera and I think I could eat it every day. What am I doing in Ethiopia? Well, it turns out that Ethiopian Airlines is the cheapest way to get from Stockholm to Douala, Cameroon. Why not stop, eat and explore for a few days? What I experienced is a true pride of the people for their country and their culture, and genuine friendliness and helpfulness.
A 14-year-old young man living in Aksum was my guide. He found me at the holiest church in the country, the St. Mary of Zion church, next to the chapel that houses the Ark. Most of the boys want to earn some money. I told this young man when he approached me that I wouldn’t give him any money, but he simply expressed that he wanted to accompany me for the day, and be friends. And that is exactly what he did. He showed me the Tomb of Akeb, and the Palace of Queen Sheba. He showed me where to eat lunch, and helped me bargain for my white shawl. And at the end of the day, he said he would try to get an email address so that we can communicate, but even when I offered to give him some cash, he refused. This generosity of spirit has struck me with many of the people here. Perhaps it is the home-grown religion, or the lack of colonizers, but to me, Ethiopia seems different than the other countries I have visited and worked in. But still TIA – This is Africa. That is the acronym that I learned from one of the taxi drivers in Addis. There is corruption, there is poverty, there is exploitation, there is overpopulation, there is the terrible history.
The museums in Addis Ababa are nothing to really write home about. Lucy, the Austalopithecus afarensis skeleton is the highlight of the National Museum. The Ethnographic museum is dusty, but housed in the University of Addis Ababa. More interesting to me was watching the students celebrate their graduation. I spoke with one woman who had just completed her engineering degree, and had so much optimism, and vibrancy, but little hope of getting a job soon. Many boys line the streets working as shoe shiners, for the walkers in the wet streets of these somewhat chilly rainy July days. Taxi drivers are plentiful, and they complain about the corruption in the government while they try to cheat me for a little extra cash. I didn’t see many tourists, but I would easily like to explore more of Ethiopia.