So how does fact compare to fiction?
At the time of my visit to Ethiopia, I'd already used it for the setting of two of my books in the form of the sixth century kingdom of Aksum. In April of 2004 I visited some of the places where A Coalition of Lions
and The Sunbird
are supposed to have taken place. Since then I've also used some of these settings in my recent novel Black Dove, White Raven.
Ethiopia seems to me a land of contrasts, a land of extremes; there is no middle ground. My own impression of it, visiting schools and historic sites, was very different from the impression you get from the media, where so many images are thrown at you of sick and starving children. It is true that HIV is rife, that there is very little irrigation anywhere, and that the land is almost uniformly unforgiving. But it is also true that in every town we visited, children were learning to read English in the desperately poor schools, and modern construction projects were going up. The roads were unpaved; but they were carefully maintained. My aunt, Susan Whitaker, who travelled with me and was seeing the country from the perspective of a Peace Corps volunteer returning for the first time after 35 years, kept saying: "If they could only go for ONE GENERATION without a war or a drought, they could make it work."
Everywhere we went there was frenzied activity as people tried valiantly to improve things. The young man who drove us from Lalibela to Woldia was building his own hotel, but had not yet managed to get past laying the foundations because of lack of water. Every single person that we met on a personal basis — guides, former students of my aunt and uncle, their former landlord, drivers — had lost a cousin, brother, sister, friend, or property to the Mengistu regime of the 1970s, to AIDS, to conscription in the recent border war. One guide had been lashed for drinking a beer in Khartoum, having walked for 10 days to get there.
But then we would come across a stunningly verdant valley where some irrigation project was at work, and you'd see what it could be like. Even in the most desolate place I visited, the monastery of Debra Damo near the Eritrean border, the children who surrounded us were literate in at least two languages. They wrote in my notebook in English and Tigrinya.
Ethiopia today is distanced by time and fortune, by climate changes and deforestation, from its noble cultural ancestor, the civilization of Aksum. That kingdom flourished from the 1st to the 7th centuries AD. But the evidence, and the inheritance, of Aksumite civilization is all around. It exists in the church, in its rich trappings and its ancient language; it exists in lasting stone monuments and archeological ruins, evident throughout the land; it exists in traditional foods and traditional dress that continue to be used in everyday life.Coffee and Frankincense
I thought that everywhere we went there was a lingering scent of burning incense, or something like it, outdoors and in. They do put incense on the table before they pour coffee; the shops and cafés in Addis Ababa, and sometimes just the air in general, smell faintly of frankincense. The roads in the country smell of eucalyptus. This fast-growing tree, introduced from Australia in the early 20th century, grows everywhere, and is constantly being cut for firewood and building material.
People I met, on the whole, were pleasant and outgoing. Above about the age of ten, they all shone with a remarkable veneer of politeness, extended to everyone — to me, their neighbors, the person in the next car, the beggar on the street. It made me feel like a clod in comparison. Small children are generally pretty relentless in their badgering of foreigners, but nevertheless appeared to be very thoughtful of one another, and of their elders. We saw a little boy run out to help an old man off the road when he appeared not to hear our car approaching. Small things, but courteous; and the courtesy extended to us as well. Oddly, this characteristic is something I think I have unconsciously captured in my books, particularly in the character of Telemakos. Who knew? Like the faint smell of burning incense, it’s there and it’s real.Hello, can we take a look at your school?
Our hosts in Addis Ababa, the capital, were Rick Stoner and his wife Elizabeth. At the time, both worked tirelessly at running Save the Children across a 12-country region in East Africa. My aunt and uncle, Susan and Roger Whitaker, taught in Ethiopian schools in the late 1960s. Between the school-builders and the school-teachers (not to mention the hanger-on who writes historical fiction for children), we were interested in SCHOOLS, and we visited several. We didn’t plan any of these visits; we knocked on the gates and introduced ourselves. We were uniformly welcomed with open arms. At the Chirri school, near Addis Alem (“chirri” apparently is a kind of bird that sits on a cow and sucks its blood!), there were 300 students and 10 teachers — a good ratio (the Addis Alem school had 1000 students and 30 teachers, each teaching two shifts a day and earning about the equivalent of $30 US a month). At Chirri, half the staff turned out to give us a tour, delighted to have interested visitors, and we ended up visiting every single class there (grades 1-8). The children were as excited about our visit as their teachers; they were at once heartbreakingly shy and desperately eager to show off. In each class, one or two children were made to speak to us in English.
There was no running water here and no toilet — not even a latrine. The classrooms were dark, the textbooks decades old and woefully dog-eared. The teachers were immensely proud of their pupils, though. In 2003 the Chirri school put eleven of their students through the national exams and all of them passed; one scored 100%. The star student that we met was a fifth grade girl whose unprompted parting shot to us was, “Will you help my school?”“You are half now; you’ll be full.”
That’s what our guide in Lalibela commented about the spiritual benefits of cultural travel. Before we got to Aksum we toured the 12th century group of rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, the “New Jerusalem.” We were there during Holy Week (the Western Easter and the Ethiopian Easter happened to coincide in 2004, on 11 April). There are 11 churches to discover at Lalibela, and every one of these was filled to capacity with worshippers and tourists while we were there, so it was a fairly intense experience. The churches are remarkable. They are together designated a World Heritage Site, each one cut from solid rock.
I did not like walking through Beta Medhane Alem, the church of the Redeemer, during the Good Friday service. I felt like a heathen invader barging up the wrong aisles, my head uncovered, standing right in the way of people bowing at the altar. I would never be allowed to do this in a Western church service, and neither would a visiting Ethiopian, so why should I be allowed to do it here? I thought: If Jesus was here, he would kick all the tourists out of the church and break their cameras. I liked seeing the churches in operation in all their glory, though. The whole population of Lalibela was at worship, all in their best clothes, going about their prayers with focus and intensity. I saw an old man on crutches hobbling up to the entrance to Beta Mariam, St. Mary’s. He had no feet, nothing more than the stumps of his heels. He reached the steps of the church and bent down to kiss the stone.
You take your shoes off when you enter an Ethiopian church, and so I ended up barefoot in the Redeemer, and oh, the electric touch of that bare, smooth, uneven old stone under my feet, and the dry grass spread all about to keep the floor clean, and the rough silk texture of the woven palm mats.
I found all the churches I visited in Ethiopia to be crazy, dusty hodge-podges of the ancient and beautiful side by side with the modern and tacky (not to mention the occasionally downright ugly). Their material inheritance is rich, but their wealth seems to exist only in their ancient trappings, which do not earn them any money for upkeep or modern facilities. Wouldn’t a wooden clock be more in keeping with 16th century wall hangings than a plastic one with a beer advertisement on it, which chimes the hour by playing an electronic version of a German folk tune? And to my complacent Western brain almost anything is better for holding holy water than a plastic jerry can (although I think Christ would probably disagree). One Lalibela church had had the cracks in its outer wall mended in the 1950s with iron staples, which had then been chopped out again because they didn’t look nice. So… the aesthetic integrity of the façade is perhaps preserved, but what happens to the already damaged structural integrity of the wall, when an iron staple is ripped out of it?
I don’t have any answers to these questions.Retro Research
Aksum was warm and dry and windy. Driving to our hotel overlooking the Stele Park — the Necropolis as described in A Coalition of Lions
— it seemed all exactly as I had pictured it, the avenue of thrones (scattered in careless ruins now), the cathedral square (a traffic circle!), the reservoir Mai Shum on the hillside above the city. Of course, it makes sense that it looks the way I imagined it, after all those hours spent with maps and photographs. The main square is dominated by a massive spreading fig tree (or d’aro; these figs were referred to as “sycamores,” because of their piebald bark, by early European explorers, and even our local tour guide called them sycamores). Underneath the branches of this one camped a small market selling brightly woven mesob baskets and lettuce. Camels passed frequently, singly or in trains. The older houses of the modern city are built of wood and stone, half-timbered with flat roofs, and echo the architecture of ancient Aksum.
On arrival in Aksum we went straight to the mercato — the market. The first section we picked our way through was all women selling eggs (and a few chickens). You had to take care where you stepped as if you were walking through a mine field, because each egg-seller demonstrated her wares by spreading them about on the ground, or occasionally more elegantly in a little handful of grass. The vendor sat protectively next to her half-a-dozen to two-dozen eggs, and buyers could pick up an egg and hold it up to the light to test its acceptability. We didn’t buy any eggs. We were interested in coffee pots. Here in the north they don’t have spouts — you have to keep adding cold water to keep the coffee from boiling over. The pots, like the eggs, lay in a big heap on the bare ground. They are pottery, and you tap the side with a stone to make sure it’s sound before you buy one. Mine cost about 40 cents. We also bought gabis (a heavier version of the ubiquitous shamma shawl). Each comes in two narrow lengths which have to be sewn together, and we had ours made up by the tailor across from the gabi seller, who worked in the open air with an ancient pedal operated Singer sewing machine.
The typical “cultural tour” of Aksum consists of the main Stele Park above the city, the churches, the Aksum Museum, and two excavated palace sites. What I found remarkable about the Stele Park was that I had not really painted in the color in my mind’s eye view of it: the ochre earth, splashes of greenery, magenta bougainvillea, soothing washed-out indigo of jacaranda, blazing blue sky and sunlight. Among all this the ancient granite monuments jut tall and sharp and gray.
After the Stele Park, the church tour is a bit of a let down, as women aren’t allowed in the 16th century one, and nobody is allowed in the chapel where the Ark of the Covenant is supposed to be. But you get to see the ruined foundation of the 6th century Aksumite cathedral, which I hadn’t realized (or remembered) was visible.
The excavated mansion at Dungur is referred to locally as “the Queen of Sheba’s Palace.” It is more likely 4th-6th century AD in date, and was probably not a royal residence. This mansion is the one on which I based Kidane’s house, where Turunesh lives and Telemakos grows up. When I was there, there were two kids playing cards in the shadow of one of the villa’s outer walls.Debra Damo
My uncle, Rog, and his friend, Rick, were both absolutely psyched to make the climb into the monastery of Debra Damo. Elizabeth, Susan and I knew that we wouldn’t be allowed up ourselves (the monastery is off limits to all females including nanny goats and chickens), but two whole chapters of A Coalition of Lions
take place there, so I was psyched to tag along — in fact I could hardly believe my luck, because I knew that getting there would be something of an adventure and I hadn’t expected so much enthusiasm from my fellow travellers. We made the trip on Easter day.
The countryside of Tigray is very dry; it was the area hardest hit by the drought and famine of the 1980s, and it showed. Many of the villages we passed through seemed only to be half inhabited, with scattered houses abandoned, boarded up, or in ruins. The fall-out from the recent border war with Eritrea showed up here, too. One road (the road most definitely NOT taken) had a sign posted at its juncture which, pictorially, warned clearly, “DON’T GO DOWN THIS ROAD OR YOUR LEGS WILL BE BLOWN OFF BY MINES.”
In A Coalition of Lions,
the road to Debra Damo is policed by armed guards for fifty miles around it. At eight kilometres or so from the Eritrean border, the road to Debra Damo is policed by armed guards today also, an aspect of it which had never occurred to me would prove true. I saw very few guns in general while I was in Ethiopia, but the border patrols had them. The first two guards we passed simply waved at us and we drove on ignoring them, but the third one had put up a token blockade — a string roped across the road at waist height. He wanted us all to show our passports, which some of us didn’t even have with us (having left them in the hotel in Aksum). Fortunately he settled for just our guide’s ID, which he confiscated until we passed by again on our way out.
Debra Damo is about ten miles off the main road, at the end of an unpaved track, up and down hairpin bends and through riverbeds, a road not navigable during the rainy season. The last half mile or so has to be climbed on foot, over steep, sheer rock with no soil or foothold, to the base of the amba (like a mesa) where the monastery is. There is another sweeping sycamore fig perched here among the rocks, and that is where we waited for Rick and Rog while they made the climb up the leather rope to the monastery itself.
It seemed curious to have come all this way and not actually get to finish the journey — to miss the ancient church built in the Aksumite style, with its coffered wooden ceiling, and the rock-cut water tanks, and the monks’ stone houses all described in A Coalition of Lions.
But I had my own remarkable experience at the foot of the rope. As I sat sketching the surrounding mountains and making notes, I attracted a little audience of interested children, ranging in age from about 3 to 12. It is unnerving to be watched closely while you write. What a novel idea, that the very act of writing is fascinating, the idea that ownership of a pen and a notebook makes you rich.
What happened next was that I started writing things for my audience to read (along the lines of “Hello, my name is Elizabeth”); and after a while the notebook and pen ended up in their hands. The boldest of the group was a boy named Berihu, who said he was in 4th grade; he wore an Easter crown made of a twisted palm frond, and was desperate to communicate, to find out about me, to show off his expertise in writing. The boldest of the girls was Mebrihit, a third grader, thin and nearly too modest to catch me looking at her. Her hair was plaited against her head and loose around her neck in the ancient style typical of Tigray. I had to put the notebook and pen on the ground before I could get her to write her name in it — she wouldn’t take it directly from my hands. The oldest of the children, a handsome seventh grade boy also called Berihu, lurked quietly behind the more aggressive and younger Berihu, taking it all in with great interest. The older Berihu was the one who rebelled against our communicating in broken English and tried to teach me words in Tigrinya, his own language.
We had simple things in common: our respective places in our families and schools; familiarity with words and pens and paper. The terrible fact emerged that I had spent 24 YEARS OF MY LIFE AS A STUDENT.“If he talks to you, you have to pay him.”
That’s what our hired guide told me when I whined about not being able to shake off the adopted guide who trailed me all around the magnificent 2500 year old pre-Aksumite Sabaean temple at Yeha, on our way back from Debra Damo. However, annoying as this person was, he did tell me the best story I had heard all weekend, namely that there are three tunnels leading away from the temple. One goes to Aksum (35 miles away), one to Lalibela (200 miles), and one to YEMEN (on the other side of the Red Sea!). I also discovered (from the same source) that the Saint Aragawi disappeared down a drain spout in the temple after being on earth for 150 years.
I don’t think people really believe half the stuff they tell you. I think there is a sense that Westerners cannot be taken very seriously. Witness the incredulity of one of our guides who, when I told him that I rang the church bells in my home church, demanded in astonishment, “Who gave you this authority?”
A sense of, We can show you all these things, and you can see how wonderful they are, but you will never understand them. And to a certain extent, it is true.
Did I ever feel hated or resented because I was white, rich or American? Never. Did I ever feel afraid? Never. Did I ever feel like I was being made a fool of, or laughed at? Not really — not over my looks, or my language, or my bad habits; or if so, only with gentle nudges toward educating and improving me. I was annoyed, many times, by the children who pestered and pestered for pens; but even that I felt was loosely my own legacy to Africa, for unthinkingly giving out handfuls of candy ten years earlier in Kenya. I was annoyed by the wretched man who attached himself to me in Yeha, tried to impress me with tales that were pure unbelievable garbage, bored me to death, then demanded to be paid for it; I was annoyed by one individual’s assumption that I had no faith of my own, no religious education or personal beliefs. So some things annoyed me. But I was never afraid, never treated cruelly, never treated rudely.Some random and subjective observations…
One of my strongest impressions of Ethiopia is of how desperately, hopefully hardworking people are. They seemed so energetic, so forward-looking, in general so generous, so kind and polite to one another — and to us. No where else in the world have I ever been saluted by a soldier.
Every town we visited that was more than a collection of huts had major construction projects going on, all meant to be shops, banks, hotels. All the roads, no matter how basic, were carefully maintained, the drivers all astonishingly courteous to one another. Every school we visited was proud of its attendance and of the number of children who passed their leaving exams. It seems as though Ethiopia has been struggling and struggling over the last century to create an infrastructure, and every time another war or drought hits they are set back, and then they go about patching things up with as much vigor as they can muster, without enough food or any raw materials.
The Harari Nationality Cultural Center, in Harar, was simply a house; and as a result of its simplicity I thought it was one of the best ethnographic museums I’ve ever visited. It was furnished as a typical house, any Harari house, only they have left out the silk flowers and sequined velveteen baskets you might find hanging on the walls in a modern Harari house; instead they have collected furnishings known to be old and used those instead, and replaced the modern spice jars in the spear rack with a few spears, and added a few artifacts such as Koranic school writing slates and examples of Harar’s unique coinage. Nothing is labelled very well, but the guides are well-informed about most objects in the museum because they are familiar with them, often through actual use.
It seems to me that the museum’s success is due in part to its self-sufficiency; it has not had to depend on a benevolent European foundation to come to its rescue and provide funds for its restoration, nor does it rely on misinformed locals to curate unfamiliar antiques dug up by foreigners who left thirty years ago. The Harar museum originates within the community, and can be maintained by the community; all the resources and materials and knowledge for such a museum were and are right there. And I wish, somehow, this could be applied to the country as a whole, that the nation could become more self-reliant, self-sufficient, and self-confident.
“I seem to have learned so much in the last month, so fast, that it will take me years to assimilate. I have been so busy learning that I haven’t done anything else, jumping from day to day and from hour to hour, up one more step. If only I can hold it, if only the thing has time to harden, to set, before another emotion rocks it or before the small vanities rise up again.”
—Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Locked Rooms and Open Doors (Diaries and Letters 1933-35)