We then carried on towards the Eritrean border to the remote mountain community of Alitena, passing huge mountains and deep river gorges on the way. This is the place where ordinary civilians were taken from during the war with Eritrea 13 years ago, and for most no knowledge of them since. This is the place where a lot of the Daughters of Charity are from. A small community, incredible to think that this remote harsh valley could have produced the most amazing witnesses of the Gospel who were basically undertaking the social justice work of such a huge region. We stayed the night with 4 of those sisters who run a clinic, kindergarten and income generating project for women and the youth in the village. Unfortunately Theresa was quite ill with altitude sickness so next day we drove back to Adigrat where she stayed with some other sisters and then we made our way to Axum without her. Geri is an amazing driver, just as well as we weaved our way out of Adigrat on an incredibly steep windy road to the top of the most wondrous of valleys. The road straddled two huge drops into immense valleys that looked like they had been oil painted on to the background of the mountains. The road had been recently built by the Chinese and all along it were farmers and families walking, some going miles and miles to markets, carrying their goods on their backs. Young children played on the side of the road with seemingly no fear of the sheer drops and occasional vehicle. All the women have neat tightly braided hair and both men and women have hessian or off-white coloured shawls. Some carry sticks and the sight of huge rather incongruous multi coloured umbrellas was amusing, though useful for the incredibly heavy downfalls. We enjoyed waving to people as we passed and we always got waves and huge smiles back. These are tall, beautiful, dignified people.
We arrived in Axum after a 3 hour drive and booked into a hotel. There was myself, Paula, Sr Wubeyu and Roman, who is Sr Medhin’s sister. She had visited her father in Alitena and came on with us to Axum. We walked around to get our bearings. More ‘faranji’ here! This is one of the most important places to see in Ethiopia. The centre of the Axumite Empire and reputedly where descendants of Queen Sheba and Solomon lived. Axum was in existence at least three centuries before the birth of Christ, and later emerged as the imperial capital of the Axumite Empire. It has the site of the first Christian Church in Ethiopia dated the 4th Century, as well as the Ark of the Covenant, reputedly kept in a building next to the ruins of that first Church, and adjacent to the new Orthodox Church. Only monks can go in the sanctified building and there is someone there all the time according to the guide we hired the next day. We had an excellent few hours with him. The huge pillars to indicate the importance of the Empire dominate the skyline at one end of the town. One of the highlights was seeing inside the Orthodox Church of St Mary of Zion and having a priest and deacon show us a 1000 year old Bible.
We left Axum and journeyed back to Adigrat, where we picked Theresa up and then made our final trip back to Mekelle after an inspiring and interesting weekend. But now the pressure was on as we only had 2 days left until our departure on Wednesday. There were numerous trips to ‘Foto Desta’, lots of shopping in the town and market to buy gifts, extremely late nights writing out certificates for the students and finishing displays of work to be presented at our final farewell party on Tuesday. But thankfully it all just about got done!
Our final day was incredibly emotional. The emotions had already begun the week before when one of my classes presented me with a gift. For these youngsters who have literally nothing, it was almost too much. So, our final coffee ceremony, lots of dancing, gifts presented and speeches, and giving out of certificates. It was wonderful. We were amazed when presented with traditional Tigray dresses- the region we were in. Naturally we changed into them for the dancing! After lunch we treated them all to soft drinks and chocolate and then with very heavy hearts said our goodbyes.
These young people had affected us so much in so many ways and will never leave our thoughts and prayers. Paula went in for a short visit the next morning to see her students for the last time. We went out for a drink with all the project staff which was very special. They are an amazing, committed, dedicated and professional group of people, and then home to St Vincent’s to pick up the Sisters and take them out for a thank you meal. Their hospitality and support was amazing during our stay with them.
Next morning it was time to pack and get to the airport for our flight to Addis. We spent one night there and saw Cathy from the CAFOD Trocaire SCIAF office for a meal, and then next day in the office for a de brief. We left for the airport at 9.30 that evening and flew through the night to Heathrow, where Paula and Theresa and I said our goodbyes, arriving home via coach to Reading and train to Stockport, to be met by Patrick and Dominic at 1.30. Great joy to see them and Gemma who came home for a few days, and everyone else this week, my sister and brother and families.
An unforgettable experience, a great privilege to have gone, to see the transformation our CAFOD partners, the Daughters of Charity help to achieve, to work alongside inspiring people with students that were full of love and hope. Please keep them all in your prayers.