Gonder: Africa’s Camelot
Reputedly designed by an Indian archetect, and displaying elements of Mogul, Moorish and European influence, Gonder’s Royal Enclosure is one of those highlights that comfortably surpass expectations.
Constructed of reddish volcanic stone and golden brown sandstone, the complex looks like a fantasy amalgam of elements from a maharajah’s palace in Rajastan, a renaissance Florentine stronghold and a medieval castle in the south of France. It was constructed mainly in the mid-1600s by King Fasilidas, to serve as the first permanent capital of the kingdom of Ethiopia, and was augmented by subsequent monarchs. The complex is dominated by the castle of King Fasilidas, around which are positioned the chancellory, library and various smaller but equally ornate castles, linked by raised walkways.
The Church of Debre Berham Selassie: a highlight of any visit to Ethiopia according to the guidebook. For once, they got it right. The church (unusually, rectangular in shape, most orthodox churches are round or octagonal), with a singularly uninspiring exterior, was locked when I arrived, and by the time I had located the keeper-priest, the sun was setting over the mountains. As the priest opened the western door of the church, a ray of evening light illuminated the gloomy interior, revealing the magical wall paintings and famous ceiling. The effect was heightened as the priest opened the other two doors: fantastically colourful cartoon-like depictions of Ethiopian saints, sinners, angels and devils cover the walls. Meanwhile, 80 cherubs (each with a slightly different Ethiopian face) stare down perpetually from the ceiling. Truly breathtaking: anywhere else this would be a World Heritage Site, removed to a museum or closed to the public. Here, it’s a functioning church on the rustic ouskirts of a provincial town.
Papa was from Bari
It’s was hard to leave Gonder’s sleepy colonial charm: grinding out sublime machiatos amid the faded elegence of the stage-Italian Ethiopia Hotel, the incongruous art-deco aggrandisment of the Telecommunications building and the cinema on the piazza, Muslim/Christian harmony (although an overwhelmingly Christian country, every town I’ve visited features a prominently positioned mosque), the occasional UN jeep speeding through town like a dazzling-white apparition of modernity, rotund cops, the simple but clean(ish) Roha Pension, the barefoot shepherd boys in Barca shorts and traditional green shawls driving teams of stoic miniature donkeys.
[Ethiopian joke #2: a donkey, a dog and a goat take a taxi together. When they arrive at their destination, the donkey pays his share, the dog pays, but never gets his change, and the goat runs away without paying. That’s why whenever a car passes, the donkey ignores it, the dog runs after it to get his change, and the goat runs away.]
Coffee ceremony (featuring coffee so strong it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, even as someone who likes to think he can handle his coffee, the lucky third one is tough), temperate climate (torrential afternoon showers notwithstanding) and gorgeous light.
And where else would you experience the juxtaposition of at least three historical eras (Iron Age, 1640s, 1930s)?
Not to mention the old-timers who venture a friendly “bongiorno” (Italian speakers, get here quickly: the stories that disappearing generation could tell! Gonder was nominated as a provincial capital of the short-lived Italian East Africa, along with Addis, Asmara, capital of present-day Eritrea, Mogadishu (Somalia) Harar and Jimma. Because Ethiopians don’t have second names as such, rather a Christian name followed by their father’s name – ie. I would be Donal Niall – there are plenty of white-haired, middle-aged and elderly Ethiopians in Gonder sporting names like Tewodros Giuseppe, Yohannes Marco or Kifle Antonio).
Hard to leave, that is, for a 12-hour bus journey to Shire, hoping to catch a pick-up truck on to Axum (under Ethiopian law, buses have to be off the road by 1800 hours) with one rest stop in some god-forsaken, dust-blown village, where conversation with the local children will be limited to humourless exchanges involving the words “you”, “money” and “give”.
Evo With The Gonder Massive
Ireland 3 Brazil 2
Ireland manager Donal Hickey was last night dedicating his victory to the power of tchat after his team came from behind twice to overcome the world champions, in front of a packed house of fanatical Ethiopian brothers roaring on the home-town champion. “You’ll never beat the Irish” he had predicted somewhat optimistically before kickoff, but thanks to a Clinton Morrison brace either side of an Ian Harte free-kick (!) he was able to pull off one of the jammiest wins ever, and retire undefeated.
The Gonder Massive are a brotherhood of street kids who hang around the piazza, hussling for a few birr, attending school on a staggered basis and dreaming of finding a way out of Ethiopia (“I’ve been to Canada you know…last night in my dreams!”)
Kindu, Petrus, Arage and Mondy (all 16) and Girma (“Girmachu”, 14) are already men in all but name, taking responsibility for themselves since they were variously orphaned or left to fend for themselves. Remember the names, if they ever make it to Canada.
I like Arsenal, Manchester, Liverpool and Chelsea. You?
Ethiopians are football mad: Sheffield Wednesday against Brighton (!) attracted a knowledgable and vociferous crowd last week, and the Champions League is endlessly rerun.
Almost as popular is this weird pool/billiards game, played without cues, al fresco babyfoot (foozeball) and tabletennis, and remember that kind of ping-pong game they had in the Square, outside Quasar, with the disc hovering backwards and forwards across a black table? Here they have something similar, except it’s played with timber blocks (and they don’t hover).
Flora & Fauna
I’ve been chewed up and spat out by, chronologically, bedbugs, mosquitos, fleas… not to mention the nawing and pitter-patter of tiny feet from the ceiling…never mind, it’s probably those cherubs…at least the cockroaches here haven’t lost their fear of man, and as for the mystery bites: “urgh…is that dengue fever or am I just hungover?”
“Faranji bodies are weak”, I’m told professorially, “but only when they’re in Africa.”
Also, I now have enough religious paraphenalia hanging off me to dec out an Orthodox christmas tree (don’t worry, I haven’t had my lack of faith shaken, for Ethiopians the giving of religious trinkets is a sign of friendship).
Travelling independently in Ethiopia is certainly challenging: almost complete lack of tourist infrastructure, practically no tourist information offices, maps, sporadically functioning running water, electricity, telephones and communications, the tourgroups whizzing around the historical circuit are mainly specialist interest groups (amateur archeologists, university lecturers etc.) insulated from their surroundings, even postcards are a rarity…fantastic! One of the reasons I came here now was to get here before the inevitable tourism deluge (and it is as inevitable as it will be welcome).
Connection alle? Yelem.
Is there a connection? There isn’t.
Salam now. Dena ne?
Aishi!(okay), konjo! (beautiful), gob-bez! (brilliant)
Ever the cunning linguist, the only problem is that now I’m in Tigray, where the lingua franca is, well, Tigrayan. Modesty demands that I limit my mastery of obscure semitic languages to one per annum.
Do you trust Tigrayans in Ireland?
Er… Tigray forms the northernmost province of Ethiopia, and has always borne the brunt of external aggression (Italians in the ’30s, Eritreans in the ’90s). Tigray is also the most drought-afflicted area of the country, and was worst affected during the notorious 1985 famine. Like northerners in many countries, Tigrayans compensate for the harshness of their environment by being hard-nosed, industrious and shrewd. Meles Zenawi, the prime minister since 1991, is a Tigrayan, and is universally despised.
[Although Ethiopia was the only African country to escape colonisation – worldwide only Afghanistan, Persia/Iran, Japan and Thailand are exceptions – unless you count Liberia, settled by freed American slaves, it was also one of the last to experience any form of democracy. Haile Selassie, the last emperor, ruled from 1930-74, and Mengistu Haile Maryam fronted a maoist regime from then until 1991].
Conversely, Tigrayan music and dance (the ubiquitous shoulder-shaking strut) is popular throughout Ethiopia.
DV 2008 (US diversity visa programme lottery)
Ethiopians reckon this is the world’s poorest country, although I reckon Nepal, Laos, Cambodia or Bolivia might dispute that), although with typical Ethiopian perversity, they’ll go on in the same breath to tell you it’s the world’s greatest.
You can’t avoid the poverty all right: it’s crawling towards you on a skateboard, propelled by the stumps where once were arms and legs; it’s staring wide-eyed at the crumbs on your plate; it’s crying bitterly at its swollen stomach; it’s in the throngs of homeless huddled under plastic sheeting against the chilly rain; it’s standing naked in the middle of the road, ranting day and night at its invisible tormentors; it’s in the old man who has coughing up his life on the side of the road overnight; it’s dropped out of school to wait tables 16 hours a day, seven days a week for 10 euro a month, and glad of the work.
How can I reconcile this with my concern about whether I’ll be able to go on-line today, or where has the best machiato?
Answers on a postcard please.