Sunday, 18 January 2009

Letter from Ethiopia

Axum, Northern Ethiopia, January 18th 2009.

Blog entry by RA.

Tomorrow is Timkut, the Ethiopian festival of the Ascension - second
only to Easter in the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar. And Axum, home to
the oldest church in Ethiopia and reputedly the home of the Ark of
the Covenant, is a good place to be spending Timkut.

Yesterday, as we rolled west down the setting sun into Axum, we
passed the seven thousand kilometer mark since leaving Harare exactly
four weeks ago. With satisfying (if meaningless) coincidence, at the
same moment Jambanja's odometer clicked over to 222,222 kms since she
left the factory in Japan in December 1996.

Ehiopia. What an extraordinary place. I get echoes of communist-era
Afghanistan in the cities; of central Asia in the landscapes; of the
fourteenth century in the countryside; of Tibet in the ancient rock
churches and monasteries of Lalibela and the mountain highlands; of
Nepal in the hardy, olive-skinned, skinny, shorts-and-shawl-wearing
Amhara shepherds by the roadside; of the Grand Canyon in the
startling eroded volcanic and sedimentary land between Sekota and

Hardly at all do I sense Africa, though. Despite all the echoes, this
is a very different country.

An independent Christian Kingdom since AD 340, Ethiopia was the only
state on the continent to enter the 20th century without being
colonised. Subsequently she suffered invasion and temporary
occupation by the Italians in the 1930's, but was liberated, with
help from the British, in the 1940's. Emperor Haili Sellassie, Ras
Tafari, last of the 3,000 year old line of Solomonic king-emperors,
was overthrown by a Communist-inspired coup in 1975.

The ghastly Derg communist dictatorship brought with it all the usual
consequence of close alliance with the Soviet Union and East Germany
- concrete architectural monstrosities in the cities, a preponderance
of red flags, stars and hammers-and-sickles on public buildings, and
a countryside littered with wrecked and rusting armoured vehicles,
testament to the . Not to mention tens of thousands killed for
opposing the regime, hundreds of thousands killed in the wars fought
to get rid of the regime, and millions killed in famines exacerbated
by the regime.

This is a complicated country - moving, generally, in the right
direction, but not entirely sure of itself. The government has just
enacted legislation which will make life much more difficult for
NGO's working with human rights, for instance. As the economy has
grown impressively over the past decade, political freedoms have been
constrained, and some of the hundred or so ethnic groups that make up
Ethiopia's demographic patchwork are grumbling.

And there is an underlying religious tension, too - despite
Ethiopia's ancient Christian status, there is a sizeable Muslim
minority, and many of her neighbours are Muslim. At the ethnographic
museum in Addis we noted that the official description of the "Muslim
minority, making up 35% of the population", had been scribbled out
and the number "35" replaced by "55%". In many towns there seems to
be an old church and a new mosque.

Ethiopia has allied herself to the west in the "war on terror", most
notably in a failed attempt, despite the commitment of much blood and
treasure, to prop up the anti-Islamist government in Somalia. But I
fear that the problems she will face in the coming years will be much
closer to home.

Meanwhile, though, this is a fantastic place to visit. Sensible,
sensitive, sustainable tourism can be a tremendous force for good in
a country in transition; and I think that after decades of isolation,
famine, and war, in few places is that more the case than here.

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