Monday, April 13, 2009

Holiday in Ethiopia? Yes!

When I was out for dinner at Marco Pierre White's new Dublin Steak House (yum!), last week the subject got on to my travels, and one of my favourite topics - Ethiopia. I informed my lovely fellow diners that is a wonderful place to go as a tourist. They were amazed. "Nobody ever told us that about Ethiopia", they said. Of course not! - that's not the media image we are fed (excuse the pun - but it's a good one). So in case you're thinking of an offbeat and eye-opening time-shuttle holiday, here are some of the things I discovered while I was there:

Ever wanted to turn the clock back?

Tardis-like, reaching remote Lalibela in Amharaland, Northern Ethiopia feels like landing in medieval times. Despite the 4 X 4 that picks you up from the airport, the time-warp feeling is partly for real, too, as here it is 2001, making you, yes, 8 years younger. (When we adopted the Julian calendar, contrary Ethiopia, which also has its own alphabet, stuck to the Gregorian). To be in step with the locals you’ll also have to synchronise your watches to the daylight-driven Ethiopian daily clock: our 7am is Ethiopian 1am, their 1pm our 7pm. There is so much more to this wonderful country than our limited image of famine.

Take Lalibela, Ethiopia’s answer to Petra, named after the 12th century King Lalibela who dreamed up this ‘new Jerusalem’ after a visit to the Holy Land. He built 11 rock-hewn churches after a 3-day drugged sleep (his sister tried to poison him) in which ‘the angels’ allegedly showed him how. Carved out of one single piece of rock, their interiors strike a romanesque pose, making Lalibela a UNESCO world heritage site. When I asked my guide, Goshu, who repeatedly smothered priests’ hand crosses in kisses as we proceeded from one church to another ‘who really built the churches?’, he looked at me, all incredulous, before conceding, matter-of-factly ‘well, King Lalibela was helped by the angels’. Ethiopian Coptic Christianity is deep and extraordinary, and these mysterious churches function as the living breathing heart of this community. Masses last 5 hours with standing room only.

With your shoe-bearer in tow, as you progress from one church to another, spread over two complexes separated by a symbolic ‘River Jordan’, don’t be scared if you brush past spooky shrivelled-up pilgrims’ bones protruding from the occasional crevass. Within the churches, priests emerge, troglodyte-like out of the shadows of the ‘holy of holies’, and pose for tourists with the church’s own specific cross. In Saint Golgotha church, a good-natured priest holding King Lalibela’s original processional cross in one hand, and praying stick in the other, donned groovy shades to protect his eyes from my flash.

Mobiles don’t work, and it’s difficult to get an internet connection, This brought on mellow moments, reclining on a pair of reincarnated bus-seats taking in the village din and spectacular mountainous backdrop from my Jerusalem Hotel balcony (just like I imagine former visitors Bob Geldof and Brad Pitt did too). But, always a spectre, across the road is an abandoned warehouse with a faded red cross on it – an erstwhile food distribution centre during the 1984 famine. Things are better now, thanks, in some way, to the tourist industry.

A bumpy two-hour drive out to 11th century rock-hewn church Yimrahim Christos, tucked like a ginger-bread house under a remote rock, complete with bats, and a pile of pilgrims’ bones, brought us through the spectacular Lasta mountain landscape. The road was lined with locals trudgng for miles and miles to and from the market, lugging things. Bustling Lalibela Saturday Market, with its sugar cane, chat (a local hallucinogenic leaf), mounds of salt and other wares was a welcome break from all that extreme religion.

A short flight away, you’d never guess that modest Axum was one of the most important and technologically advanced civilisations of its time. Christianity took hold in this fascinating place of pilgrimmage for Ethiopian Coptics, who believe that the Ark of the Covenant (the ten commandments), is in the little chapel next to St. Mary of Zion church in 330 AD – before Rome. Keeping up the mystery, the only person allowed in to verify that is a camera-shy priest in yellow (see picture).

But who needs scientific proof, when you’ve got madcap theories? Graham Hancock’s ‘The Sign and the Seal’, offers fascinating explanations involving the Knights of the Templar, the opera Parcival, the holy grail, and even the freemasons - making the Da Vinci Code look unimaginative. For a Hollywood version, there is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It all started in the 10th century bc, when Menelik, the illegitamite son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba allegedly brought the Ark back home to Axum. This Ethiopian royal dynasty lead from there right down to the flamboyant Hailie Selassie. Axum is so ancient that farmers often stumble upon valuable archaeological treasures while just out ploughing their fields.

Axum’s mysterious obelisk-field – the world’s tallest obelisks carved from one piece of rock - made me think of Newgrange. But the guide had heard neither of Newgrange, nor of Stonehenge. We can feel free to invent our own theories, as even Prof. Richard Pankhurst, founder of University of Addis Ababa’s ‘Institute for Ethiopian Studies’ who I visited for coffee and biscuits in the ronadavel gazebo in his Addis back garden doesn’t claim to know the answer.

He did however get the 24 metre obelisk, pilfered by Mussolini in 1937, back from Rome (albeit in three pieces), in 2005. Now impatient to stand it up again, he’s also campaigning for the return of a 1930’s Ethiopian airplane from Rome’s aviation museum, and ancient Ethiopian manuscripts from The Chester Beatty Library and Trinity College, Dublin – ‘on microfiche please’. Pankhurst who claims to have been here ‘since Lucy’s funeral’ (‘Lucy’s’ 3.5 million year old skull was found in Hadar in 1974), is the son of lefty feminist Sylvia Pankhurst, whose support of the Ethiopian cause earned her a state funeral in 1960. Sylvia upset her mother, sufragette Emmiline Pankhurst, when she refused to marry Richard’s Italian father, on the grounds that she would never take any man’s name, or sign a marriage contract, on priniciple.

Back in the capital, what I thought was Islamic chanting blaring out from a Friday Mosque woke me. But it was Sunday, and this was Coptic Christian liturgical singing throwing its weight around. Addis Ababa, which means ‘New Flower’ in Amharic was founded on a whim in 1887 by the empress Taitu when she decided to move down from the nearby chilly Entoto hilltops, to spend more time in the spot’s natural hot springs. You can still stay at Hotel Taitu, Ethiopia’s down-at-heel (there was no water the night I stayed there) first hotel, where the Empress first taught her guests the concept of paying. From this remnant of former splendour to the fabulous five star plus Sheraton Hotel (Addis Ababa’s answer to the Four Seasons), this great crossroads between Middle East, Africa, and Europe offers the full gamut in terms of accomodation, nightlife, food, and ‘Merkato’, Africa’s largest open-air market. And it’ll take years off of you – eight to be precise.


Irish Aid, Ethiopian Quadrants, and the one and only Tony Hickey:

By visiting Ethiopia, not only are you having a wonderful trip, but you are also boosting the Ethiopian economy and creating jobs. Irish Aid, which is not just about relief, but about economy building, is planning to fund a 12-part tv series to be broadcast on Ethiopian television trouble-shooting, and promoting the tourist industry. Tony Hickey, the London-Irish ‘tourism activist’ behind it, has been married here to his Ehtiopian wife Terhas Mamo for over 33 years, and fancies Ethiopia emulating what the Irish tourist industry did for Ireland. Known to many as Ethiopia’s Crocodile Dundee, Hickey looks like he has lived in the Sahara desert for years, and he probably has while with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front during the Mengistu regime. In 1968 he took part in Civil Rights marches in Belfast before doing Middle Eastern Area studies at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and moving to Saudi Arabia, where he bought a car and started his career in tourism, showing visitors around. An elected Board Member of the Ethiopian Tour Operators Association, he and his wife have their own travel agency, ‘Ethiopian Quadrants’, and part-run an eco-tourism lodge in the Afar region.


• So, you want some sauce with your chopped green chilis? Ethiopians eat extremely hot meat or vegetable sauce with grey-ish flat, spongy, fermented injera bread, made from local grain Tef - an acquired taste.

• Due to altitude and proximity to the equator, the temperature hovers pleasantly between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius (just a rainy and dry season). Any place above 2500 metres is malaria-free due to the altitude.

• €1 = 10/11 birr. It’s very rare to find a place that accepts credit cards, even in Addis Ababa. There are no ATM’s, the only place to get cash on your credit card is at the Sheraton Hotel.

• For the famous ‘coffee ceremony’ (Coffee originates in ‘Kaffa’, in Southern Ethiopia), which entails sitting around for a long time drinking 3 cups of coffee from the same grains try Yeshi Buna coffee shop, or even ‘Arkie’s Business Centre’ in Piazza’s former Tigrai Hotel.

• Safety: Benign scammers who invite you back to their house for a coffee ceremony (don’t do it!), are about as tricky as it gets in this non-threatening place you can really feel at ease in, unlike in other African cities like Johannesberg or Nairobi

• Try the Crown Hotel, for an array of unique Ethiopian dance styles - all rhythmic shoulders and head-banging meets l’Oreal ad.

• Go to an Azmari Bait, a traditional public house where the singers sing about the world and their audience, in the ‘wax and gold’ style of the royal courts. We went to Taji Bait, but there are hundreds such places in Addis.

• Listen out for ‘Ethiopian groove’ in the Ethiopiques series produced by French Francis Falceto of

• How to get there: KLM via Amsterdam, Ethiopian Airlines (Africa’s oldest indigenous airline), Lufthansa via Frankfurt, from €770 approx. return. Try Concorde Travel (01) 8727822,

• Time difference: 2 hours

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"Life's More interesting when you tell the Truth"

I love those Dutch banking ads. That's the latest Dutch banking catch-line
that caught my eye.

Charles Atlas' World

I went to see an interesting conversation between Charles Atlas (no, not the bodybuilder, but a dance and video artist!) and John Scott upstairs in the Abbey
theatre foyer on Monday evening. Fascinating! Here's the blurb:

"MAN TO MAN: American voices, Charles Atlas

Pioneering film and video artist, Charles Atlas (collaborator with Merce Cunningham, Michael Clark, Marina Abramovic, Diamanda Galás and Leigh Bowery) in conversation with choreographer, John Scott."

We watched an excerpt of Atlas's very funky and diamond-encrusted choreography, to give us a feel of his Andy-Warhol inspired world. He's a close collaborator of Merce Cunningham (film-maker in residence 1978 - 1983), the illustrious list above, and now the extraordinary Anthony of Anthony and the Johnstons too. I can't wait to see the result of that collaboration! Here in Dublin at the moment Charles is collaborating with John Scott and his Irish Modern Dance Theatre - the fruits of which we can look forward to in 2010. Watch that space.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Turning the TIde on FGM In Ethiopia - Bogalech Gebre

The rather gruesome topic of FGM came up at a dinner-party I was at last weekend,
thanks to the Pamela Izevbekhai coverage lately (she's applying for asylum in Ireland on the basis that her daughters will be subjected to FGM if she returns to Nigeria, and that another daughter of hers died as a result of FGM), and in particular Ruadhan Mac Cormac's feature in last Saturday's Irish Times (p. 4. Weekend Review). It's simply unthinkable for us here in the West, but in Africa, they really need some extreme feminism to tackle this horrific manifestation of misogyny (hatred of women), and, of course, with that, immense fear of women. Right, see some photographs I took of Ethiopians in Lalibela, and Tigray, Northern Ethiopia. When I was in Addis Ababa, I had the extreme good fortune to meet an amazing Ethiopian woman who is succeeding in turning the tide on FGM. Bougalech Gebre's Kembatta Women's Self-Help Group is a heartening story, of change from within (the only kind that will work in this culturally sensitive area, in my opinion):

Bogalech Gebre & Kembatta Women’s Self-Help Group

The one thing that struck me on my 12 day trip Ethiopia was the plight of women. It just left me feeling a little uneasy. There they were, doubled over, lugging firewood, water, foodstuffs for miles and miles to the market and back. Something was just not quite right, and I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. One Irish Aid worker told me how ten years ago she was trying to convince rural village men to invest in donkeys to carry things for them. One asked ‘why would I buy a donkey when I have a wife?’ She says things have improved since then, but still Ethiopia is 142nd out of 146 countries in the UNDP gender-related index.

It wasn’t until the day I was leaving though, that I discovered the real story behind my uneasy feeling, when I visited Addis Ababa’s Fistula Hostpital, and Bougalech Gebre, who unusually was in the Addis Ababa Kembatta Women’s Self-Help Centre, which she founded in 2000.

This was when I heard about the things you don’t see, such as the fact that 9 out of 10 Ethiopian women are circumcised between the ages of 6 and 12, so they will be considered ‘marriageable’. I didn’t hear about it, because it’s taboo, and the women perpetrate it upon themselves. But there is hope, and change afoot.

Visionary women’s health activist Bogalech Gebre has ignited a cultural revolution 350 km south of Addis Ababa with her Kembatta Women’s Self Help Group. Not only has she broken the taboo on this sometimes fatal widespread practice known locally as ‘removing the dirt’; but she has also created consensus within her community that it is harmful, and must be stopped. The first girl in her village to get beyond grade four at school, she went on to be a Fulbright Scholar in the States where she became a Public Health expert, before eventually returning to her home community on a mission.

Flanked by Kembatta Women’s Self Help Group, the first marriage of an uncut girl took place on Ethiopian Television in 2002. The bridegroom wore a placard announcing ‘I am happy to be marrying a whole woman’. The bride’s read ‘I am happy to be married uncut’. During October, traditionally ‘harvest time’ when the communities celebrate the newly circumcised girls, instead men and women in their 100,000’s are now celebrating ‘the whole body’. Ready to upscale her mission, this tide is set now to sweep the country,

How did she do it? Exposing the myth that this harmful practice is condoned nowhere in the Bible or in the Koran, Gebre’s approach is to let the community build consensus themselves. ‘Those who practice female genital mutilation do so believing it is in the best interests of girls’, she says, as only someone who grew up in that community, and went through the procedure herself could. She was 6 years old, and her mother had to leave the room, as all mothers do. ‘This belief must be stopped’. But how?

Movies were shown in rural areas on the back of a pick-up truck on a generator-run video recorder showing an actual cutting. Men in the audience fainted. Schools were built for the education of boys and girls, incorporating awareness of FGM, alongside their regular education. Thus bit by bit, accessing the deep psychic life of the region, and letting them take ownership of their decisions themselves, Gebre worked, and works on the basis that what is good for women is good for everyone.

Aside from its monetary problems, if Ethiopia is to have half a chance at achieving its full potential, the whole empowered woman must be re-introduced to the equation. Thanks to Gebre, this is a process that is already underway.

* this was picked up and published in the "Ethiopian Review" - here's a link:


& here's another "in progress" piece that has been living, albeit forgotten, in a file on my computer for a while now. Isn't this what BLOGS are for? :)

I am so glad that on my last day in Ethiopia, I got a taxi out to visit Bogalech Gebre to hear how she has quietly ignited a culutral revolution

I listened to her good news story at her Addis NGO office the Kembatta Women’s Self-Help group. Kembatta is the name of the area where she grew up, in southern Ethiopia. She was the FIRST girl in Kembatta (south of the capital, Addis Ababa) to get beyond Grade Four (fourth class) in school

Now Bogalech Gebre, after going on to be a Fulbright scholar, and finding her way to Berkely university where she became an electronic engineer has come home to set a revolution in motion. Real change is afoot.

She may have been living in liberal California, but she could never forget the homeland she grew up in where nine out of ten women are circumcised. Indeed, the women perpetrate it upon themselves, even if the mothers have to run out of the room while their 6 or 11 year old is being cut by an old woman, with special unsterilised knives for the job. ‘No mother can watch their child being hurt’, says Bogalech, who recalls her own mother uttering ‘this shameful practice must be stopped!’ when it was her turn. One day, Bogalech stood up in front of a hushed Stanford lecture hall and told the story of her own mutilation. Two of her sisters died from the ‘operation’. Others die later in childbirth due to the scarring. Yet there is a big festival prepared for girls when they go through this rite of passage. The whole community participates, and the girls themselves are keen to have the operation to accede to the adult world of cut women.

Bogalech’s approach was first to gain consensus in her community by showing her fellow-Ethiopians that it is a totally unecessary operation that has no foundation in either Muslim or Christian religions. \We have succeeded in breaking the silence’ explained Bogalech. The operation is referred to as ‘cutting the dirt’. Many girls died during the operation, but they all wanted to have it done because otherwise they risked ostracisation from the community, and would not be considered to be marriage material for any local boy. Without the operation, they are considered to be ‘too unruly, and out of control’ explained Bogalech who is herslef a victim of this practce which she is now educating her community about. She teaches them that the practice is condoned nowhere in the bible or in the Koran.

Her work has shown fantastic results. The first wedding of an ‘uncut’ woman took place in 2002 – on national television. The bridegroom wore a placard around his neck reading ‘I am very happy to be marrying a whole woman’. The bride’s placard read ‘I am very happy to be getting married uncut’. In 2004 100,000 people, men and women, demonstrated in celebration of ‘the whole, healthy body’. The demonstration tok place at the end of October, traditionally ‘harvest; time for the newly circumcised girls, in which the whole community celebrates this so-called rite of passage to womanhood.

Schools are being built for the educations of girls – and boys – in these matters alongside their regular education. Gebre is also literally lightening womens’ loads by devising new methods of water carrying. Women doubled over with loads of firewood or water on their backs, walking for miles to bring them home or to the market is a regular sight in Ethiopia. One Irish Aid worker who was here in the early 90’s recounted how she was trying to convince some village men to invest in donkeys for carrying things, when a man piped up ‘but why would I need a donkey when I have a wife?’. On the bright side, that attitude is changing now, women are speaking up, expressing themselves more, and taking steps on the road to equality.

But change can only come from within the community, from people like the extraordinary Bogalech Gebre, who began this journey when she stood up in front of a full-lecture hall in Stanford university and told the story of how she was brutally cut at the age of 6. Her mother had to leave – no mother can watch their child being hurt, she says – and she remembers her saying ‘this custom must be stopped’. It’s a custom unfounded in any real tradition.

Based on the success she has had in the South, Gebre is keen to spread her work across Ethiopia. Change is possible – from within the community – but you need a person with vision to ignite a cultural revolution. A person like Bogalech Gebre.

It’s so much better for the men too because they have a partner instead of a possession.

They put up a screen on the back of a pick-up truck in the countryside, and showed a circumcision taking place. Many in the mostly male audience fainted. This is how, through raising awareness that Bogalech Gebre is empowering her people to change the tide – themselves.