Ethiopia Final Bulletin.
I have finished this last bulletin from home! We simply ran out of time in those last two weeks as things were so busy.
The week leading up to our trip away with the students was mainly wondering whether we’d be going to the hydro electric dam or not! Things move slowly here and permission needed to be sought from Addis Ababa. Even the morning before we didn’t know, then a fax arrived with permission. But the cheers didn’t last long as it was soon discovered that despite the request giving full details of adults involved, we weren’t actually mentioned! So with time running out it became clear that we couldn’t go. But the sheep had been killed and the stew made, the injera had been baked and the coaches booked. So plan 2 was soon put into operation. We would go to the mountains north east of Mekelle and see at least one of the amazing rock hewn churches, we would do a mountain walk, have a picnic and visit Negash, the site of the first mosque in Ethiopia.
And so it came to pass. The excitement in the morning was palpable. Food was passed to the top of the Geri bus, lovingly named by us. Geri was our incredible driver throughout our time in Mekelle. His vehicle would carry the main supplies and us: Paula, Sr Abeba, myself and Roisin, another volunteer from Co Sligo who had been working on another project with the Vincentian Fathers. Sadly Theresa was not well enough to come. The students had arrived about 6.30 and were very patient as we didn’t set off for a good while after. The coaches brimmed with smiling faces. Uncomfortable looking bench seats were not a concern. They were already singing and full of anticipation of the day ahead.
It was a wonderful day, certainly the best school trip I’ve ever been on! The first Church we visited was Abreha we Atsbeha, traditionally believed to have been excavated in AD335 -40 by the twin kings for whom it is named. It is reached by a stone staircase and is partially free cut from the cliff and reputedly added to after a fire. It lies behind a more recently added Italian portico. We were lucky enough to find the priest so had a detailed description of its history. It was quite large inside and cruciform in shape with a beautifully carved roof supported by 13 large pillars. It was both magical and moving to be in such a special sacred space where people were still worshipping 1600 plus years later. We clambered above the church on the sandstone coloured rocks to get some fantastic views. Then we left and made our way in our little trail of vehicles along a rough track through the river valley where the river was full to bursting.
Next stop was Gheralta where we had our picnic. The kitchen staff soon had everything organised. Large drums of stew and traditional straw carriers of the staple bread here, injera were being divided up. The students danced or played while they waited. After, we gave out chocolate that we had bought as a treat. The project staff were equally desperate to get their share! Then we played football and parachute games. Some students I later found out sought a quiet spot to drink ‘teff’, which is a fairly murky coloured alcoholic substance! Not to be recommended as it has a strange herbal taste.
We then made our way to the area of Megab where carved into the top of the tall perpendicular rock pillars that dominate Megab’s southwestern horizon is Abuna Yemata Guh, regarded by some as the most spectacularly situated rock hewn church in the whole of Ethiopia. The final ascent involves clambering up a sheer cliff face using handgrips and footholds, so Sr did not want myself and Paula and Roisin to do it! We were happy to take advice! Health and Safety inspectors would have had a breakdown at this point! However some of the students did get up there with one or two of the staff, although did not get to see the inside of the Church, which is described in the guidebook as small but very beautiful. We made it a fair way up the mountain and just watched the trail of figures disappear into the mist as they made their way to the Church. Awesome. Thank God all was well and we made our way back to the coaches across shallow river streams and amidst fields of maize, meeting farmers on the way with whom we managed a conversation with assistance from the students. And having ‘discussions’ with a local ‘guide’ who turned out to be trying to get money out of us!
Then of course the coffee ceremony, a fantastic part of the culture here. Small china coffee cups in a box were revealed and we sat in a circle to drink it. Then the dancing before leaving. We drove through a village where 2,500 people in the marketplace were killed by a bomb during the time of the Communist Derg. A truly shocking episode in their history. Then to the mosque in the hilltop village of Negash. We could see the Mausoleum but not inside the mosque. The students enjoyed listening to the guide. Negash was the site of the first Muslim settlement in Ethiopia, granted to more than 100 early Islamic refugees including Mohammed’s daughter Rukiya, by the Axumite Emperor Asihima in AD615.
Then our final journey home. One of the tyres burst on one of the coaches but thankfully it happened in the town of Wukro and it was soon fixed. It was an incredible day.
The following morning, Sunday, we went to an inauguration of a new wing of a school that was run by the Vincentian Fathers. Despite the long day Saturday some of our students were there with a special show of traditional dancing and singing to mark the celebrations.
And then the beginning of our last full week in Mekelle. We didn’t dare to think how we would feel the following week when we would leave these amazing young people.
Teaching that week was the follow up to the trip of course, and work on Faith, Festivals and future as well as Ethiopia and its future development. We had some good discussions. Then we went away for the weekend to Adigrat, Alitena and Axum. We stopped in Adigrat, about 2 and a half hours drive away and met Sr Abeba’s brother who is the priest at the beautiful Cathedral there. There is a theological college too. He told us of the amazing work that is done in the Diocese. We were very impressed to hear of the work done with other faith leaders – Muslims and Christian Orthodox- and that their congregations sometimes worship in each other’s buildings. There was a beautiful mural behind the main altar depicting the 3 faiths. One of the areas that they tackle is the stigma, effects and rebuilding of lives because of HIV/Aids in their communities.