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Ole Miss in Ethiopia: God’s Country

maggie mcdaniel

It’s a holy day, it’s hot, and there are people everywhere.

Amharic for baptism, Timket commemorates in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. In Bahir Dar, anticipation is tangible. The day before is marked by colorful procession: tattooed mothers with children and umbrellas in hand, unruly teenaged boys tossing lemons to young ladies who catch their eye, and solemn and beautiful clergy leading the pack in ritual rigidity. On the day of Epiphany, priests swathed in snowstorms of white robes stand on stage, microphones in hand, and worn Amharic syllables tumble over their lips and wash over the crowd. So does the holy water. From hoses connected to a hidden source, the blessed liquid sprays forth like T-shirts from a cannon, and the people rush forward eagerly to scrape their hands over their faces and cup it into their mouths. The reprieve on the faces young and old is the money shot, the epiphany — the eureka moment. Everyone is revitalized by the promise of God in the water.

But there is God in the ground here, too. From the flesh of the animals that feed from the earth, from the spongy injera farmed from there, the people eat. God is so soaked into the bones of the people here that their very posture sings with millennia of identity colonized only by the love of black Jesus. There is not, however, a homogenous Ethiopian people. More than 70 ethnic groups live inside Ethiopia’s borders, encompassing national and racial identity. A burgeoning economy and infrastructure — the latter funded largely by Chinese businesses — has attracted international workers from Asia, mainly India and China. Highways carve a route for the growing number of tourists who visit Ethiopia each year for its religious significance, from
the Lalibela churches to monasteries that whisper with ancient knowledge of the Ark of the Covenant. And although the country has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, wherever you are in Ethiopia, it’s six years and a day later than whenever it is in Mississippi. It is January, but on this side of the world, it is summertime, and like summertime at home, it is hot. People will still have Christmas decorations up, a friendly man in a fedora says at the airport. Fresh off of the plane and wobbling around on nearly 24 hours’ worth of accumulated jelly in my legs, I am surrounded by brothers and sisters loaded down with plane cargo that turns out to be gifts that I have never met before. The tongues in the mouths cartwheel over syllables in a language I have never met before, but the faces are like mine.

The man in the fedora speaks of his family, and of the diaspora. “I’m from California. I’ve worked there very many years, but I was born here,” he says, gesticulating to the air in the baggage claim. “This is home. And yours, too, sister,” he says, nodding emphatically at me and the other students around me. All of us in this particular conversation are black, and all of us but one born in Mississippi. His laugh at our expressions is not condescending. “No, sister,” he says. “All of this. I try to tell my son that this is his culture. All black Americans need to see this. This is culture. This is the beginning.”

Addis Ababa, with its skeletons of scaffolding awaiting flesh standing tall in its downtown, is the nation’s capital. The roads are paved, but cracked, and people drive with rules unspoken unless they’re uttered as epithets in the questionable safety of your vehicle’s interior. But like other big cities, Addis Ababa promises to boom. The busy sidewalks bustle with some of the most beautiful people you’ve ever seen, and, like in many other major cities, the class distinction that separates people is as close as a designer-shoed foot stepping over a sleeping body on
the side of the road. Stores and markets are flooded with shoppers. Every few miles, the ghostly images of cornrowed Alicia Keys and micro-braided Beyoncé of the late 1990s and early 2000s appear on signs for hair salons the size of American convenience store restrooms.

The restaurants are numerous and offer delicious, cheap food — spicy stews made from a variety of chopped meats, tasty vegetable and bean-based dips, tej — acurious, honeyed wine that at first taste recalls Tang and at last taste requires a designated driver. And, of course, the vinegary pancakes of injera to sop them all up with. Tap water, where it is available, is not safe for tourists to drink, so beverages come served inside bottles, most of them with Coca Cola emblazoned on the side — the ultimate testament to capitalism. You can open happiness literally everywhere in the world. You can open the door to music everywhere in the world, too, and that is especially true in the restaurants of Addis Ababa. Troupes of young people garnished in the traditional dress of their ethnic groups tour venues, performing songs in Amharic and shoulder-heavy dances to a watchful and sometimes forcefully participant crowd.

Outside of the traffic of the city and atop Bet Entoto rests miles and miles of lush green. Except for the road that snakes up the mountain, the scene is an uninterrupted paradise of forest. The Horn of Africa Regional Environment Center and Network erupts two stories high above its cobblestone driveway. Inside it is a modern treehouse hub buzzing with interdisciplinary research that intends to mobilize environmental restructuring projects to improve life for Ethiopians, spatially and socially. With a focus on “regreening” the Ethiopian slice of the Horn of Africa, the Center towers above all of Addis Ababa as a beacon of the future. In the Cradle of Civilization, everything from the preservation of the lush past and the betterment of the future begins — and ends — with the manipulation and repurposing of the land.

The truly inalienable beauty of Addis Ababa is in the roles of the very young and the very old. Ethiopia is one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, and boasts the beginning of all of Earth’s people, with the Eve gene and the skeleton of the very first human Dinknesh, commonly referred to as “Lucy,” exhumed from the Cradle of Humanity and interred right at home in an Addis Ababa museum.

But Ethiopia is also very much invested in its more immediate progeny. Addis Ababa University is ensconced in a well-gardened few acres of beautiful main campus, and 12 other locations throughout the city. With its modern and imposing buildings and fashionable student body, it looks like almost any other university, except for the hundreds of blind students — many of whom are helped by the university’s disabilities service center.

Just a few minutes away, other youth work diligently, too. The School of Tomorrow in Addis Ababa educates some of Ethiopia’s best and brightest from grades kindergarten through 12th grade. The students are taught and tested rigorously, and many graduate to go off to the best universities in the world. Addis Ababa is faced toward tomorrow.

Gondar, on the other hand, is an incredible bastion of the past, with a quaint beauty. If Addis Ababa is a magnified Jackson, Gondar is a nice little Canton — same trucks, same houses, same solemn men grouped together as if every conversation is a very secret and serious meeting. There are more horses. The livestock trot in the street, briskly, and purposefully, as if they are late for secret, serious meetings, too. The former capital of the Ethiopian empire, Gondar is known as the “African Camelot” — a problematic term in that Gondar, even with its breathtaking remnants of stone castles, does not recall a time of European grandeur. The now-unoccupied Fasil Ghebbi, a looming testament to the old kingdom, is a spot for tourism because of Africa’s rich historical mythology; the Ethiopian romance stands on its own to explain the rich cultural history and identity of its people and pushes forcefully against the idea that Ethiopia’s history is merely an extension of the xenophobia of ancient historian Herodotus.

The tour guides are already hip to this knowledge, and all walk and talk with earnestness and a special insistence that their usually American charges listen to their words rather than focus on photographing the admittedly incredible scenery, inside and out of the still-furnished castles.

Our own guide, David, is short and wiry with a smile unwavering in its beauty and its fixture on his face — that is, until he pulls me aside to speak to me, and the urgency in his low voice is more compelling than his smile. Once again, I am someone’s sister, charged with taking home a message to my displaced brethren.

“You, sister, more than all must listen,” he said into my shoulder. “You, go home, tell all to come here — tell Black America to come here. This is your past. This is your royalty. All of you must see. This and more you have not seen is your beginning. Humility is good, but you are not so humble as your enslaved grandparents. Your history does not begin in America. It does not even begin with the beginning of these castles. The ancestors of your grandparents’ grandparents — kings, and queens. You. Make sure you pay attention.”

Like Gondar, Lalibela is also famed for its incredible past and kingdoms that once were. Lalibela is the beginning of the world. The people here farm from right in front of their feet. The little kids are like little kids everywhere, opportunistic and snot-nosed and small, who always wave back. Mountains fringe the skyline like eyelashes, and the chocolate drops of high technology that spot the landscape are alien technology compared to the great ancient churches hewn from the great red rock.

Morgas the tour guide looks like statuary of Alexander the Great, but his words more than his appearance recall centuries of the ancient greatness of Lalibela, named for a 12th century king whose legendary piety established a city symbolic of Jerusalem, with 11 churches carved from monolithic rock erupting from the ground.

Besides the tours, the churches still operate as places of worship and are maintained by monks and nuns — some of whom are married. There is no glamour in traveling amongst the churches, which are grouped according to the four cardinal directions; to clamber from church to church is to scale walls, to scamper from rock to rock, to feel your way through dark tunnels — it’s a mission trip of rock climbing. One tunnel, 50 feet in length, is completely dark, suffocating, symbolic of the soul’s travel through hell. Blind and lonely you go, until the tunnel slopes gently upward, and there is light at the end of the tunnel — literally. With physical manifestations of leaps of faith at every turn, there is poetry in climbing your way to God.

Proof of King Lalibela’s fortuitous spirit is carved into the rock. Symbols of world religions — Hindu swastikas, stars of David, Latin and Greek crosses — pattern the buildings in which only Ethiopian Orthodox is practiced, but the entire world is celebrated. Ethiopia is the helm of all things, and black excellence is alpha and omega, which is curiously, refreshingly normative.

In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is bordered on the east by Somalia, the south by Kenya, and the west by Sudan. Eritrea is its most northern neighbor. Unlike the nations it borders, Ethiopia, for as long as it has been Ethiopia, has never swung resentfully from the plundering fingertips of European colonists. This is not for lack of trying on Europe’s part. For millennia, the West has done its best to interject beyond the usually harmless effects of the cultural diffusion that comes with trade. The 16th century saw Portugal in the blossoming of the slave trade seek diplomatic bonds with the Christian nation of Ethiopia; and in the late 19th century, a just-unified Italy thirsting to bite into glory like it hadn’t tasted since Constantinople shoved against Ethiopia’s defenses, both cultural and physical, and spawned the Italo-Abyssinian Wars. But Ethiopia shoved back, and shoved into the following centuries with pride at its helm; regardless of political upheaval, leadership has been Ethiopian only.

In this place where the world is very old and still looks so new, the rest of the world just looks like fruit from its garden. To bathe in the sunshine here is to connect to all in existence, right in the womb that nurtured it in the first place. Visiting Ethiopia is less branding the place into your heart than it is surrendering your heart to the ultimate spiritual subpoena. Blood and flesh snatched from my heart lie there and yank my soul back piece by piece each day. Ethiopia is God’s country, the rib from which all is molded, heart of the motherland and womb from which all is birthed. To have a chance of understanding the world, you must first understand a place like this.

Story by Sierra Mannie as part of The Depth Report by the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

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