The Lalibela Pilgrim and other Tales from Ethiopia

The Lalibela Pilgrim and other Tales from Ethiopia


The Lalibela Pilgrim – Lalibela, Ethiopia

The boy told me that it took him three days on bleeding feet to walk to Lalibela.

Lying in northern Ethiopia’s Lasta Mountains, Lalibela has long been a center of pilgrimage. In the 12th century, King Lalibela, envisioning a second Jerusalem so that Ethiopian Christians would not have to brave the Nubian Desert and its Muslim armies, oversaw the construction of a dozen churches carved from the rocky soil.

Today, Lalibela is an African holy city and one of the great wonders of Christendom. In a town that only recently received electricity, Lalibela attracts pilgrims from every corner of the globe.

This boy is a pilgrim, too, in that he came here seeking. He never knew his father and so after his mother died it was up to him to feed his sister; in Lalibela he hoped for a helping of the modest tourist dollars that trickle through.

He told me his name was Enyew. “It means, Let us see him.”

I asked Enyew to be my guide. A month before, I had been gaping at pictures of these churches, unsure if they were real. Staring at them now, wondering at the sheer detail and engineering of turning stone into sanctuary, I still didn’t believe. I had to touch.

I’m not sure what I expected, but the stone was cold. And seemed to moan. Louder now, a cascade of celestial moans flowed past me, echoing in the passageways. “Young priests,” Enyew said. He took me over to them. A dozen young boys sat in the dust, rocking back and forth, holding tiny Bibles to their faces and singing the words of God.

We went inside the churches. In each one, thin carpets covered the stone ground in patches and the air was woven with frankincense and centuries of candle wax. Colorful portraits of saints slaying dragons and Mother Mary cuddling her son were hung from the walls. A half dozen people curled over on the floor, softly murmuring prayers.

At one church, Bet Golgotha, a priest in white cloths emerged from behind a curtain with a tall black cross. Enyew explained how the markings symbolized the 13 saints of Ethiopia. The priest laid this aside and pulled back the curtain, revealing a faded green and gold sheet draped over a tall stone structure.

“King Lalibela,” Enyew said. “His tomb.”

Enyew told me that when people feel sad they come here for the dust that holds the king. It cures them, they believe. He must have seen something in my stare because without asking he scooped a handful of the red dust onto a sheet of paper, folded it neatly, and handed the package to me.

We walked to the final church, the one separate from all the others. Just before you step off into the air, you see the rooftop of St. George’s. Shaped like a resting cross, it is the masterpiece of Lalibela. We walked down a winding path to the church door. We knocked and waited.

Rotting feet caught Enyew’s eye and he brought me over to a hole in the wall. “A pilgrim,” he said. “People came to Lalibela to die.” Without getting too close, I looked into the hole and saw wisps of gray rags and piles and piles of white bones.

He did not want to end like these pilgrims, Enyew said, more to himself, I think, than to me. His future was Addis Ababa, where he could go to school to be an electrician. “This is my country,” he said, “and my country has no light.”

I asked the meaning of a small pool of water colonized by green weeds beside the church. Enyew told me that the priest of St. George’s had baptized him here when he first arrived. He asked if I had been baptized: when I told him no, he said that he would hurry back with the priest. I tried to explain why it wasn’t necessary but Enyew only stared back at me.

His voice trembled a bit, and I was reminded of how separate we were, how although he was still young, he had felt lifetimes of darkness while I was still in the beginning stages of my first.

I could not answer his question: Why would I not want to be saved?

I thanked him for his help. Enyew untied from his neck a small black cross, fashioned in the Axumite style, with the diamond shape and design of a snowflake.

All the children give me crosses. I’m not sure why. Many, I expect, hope for a small donation in return; others may be fulfilling an African tradition of gift giving. No matter, by the very end I had enough crosses from the children of Ethiopia to fill a bowl shaped by two hands.

The Hamar Outcast – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

When he was a child, Julian fell and broke his two front teeth. As punishment, an elder of the Hamar people, a remote tribe from the Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia’s southwest, decided that Julian would be thrown down a hill and never return.

“Breaking those teeth is considered a bad sign,” Julian told me over bottles of Pepsi and lumps of fried dough. He had seen me sitting on a curb by Churchill Road in central Addis Ababa, the capitol, and invited me to share his breakfast. “Breaking those teeth is bad luck for the village.”

Julian said his mother pleaded with her husband to protest the ruling. But he beat her for not respecting the culture. He carried his son up the hill himself and threw the boy down the hill.

Julian remembers the blood, and how he felt his arms and legs and found them broken. He remembers how his mother rushed to him and held him together. He was young but he knew her hug meant that she could never go home.

Julian smiled and for the first time I noticed his teeth. They seem fine, whole. “A French doctor drove by and found me,” Julian said. “He took us to a hospital and he fixed me.” Later, the doctor brought Julian here and enrolled him in school. Julian chose a new name to begin a new life.

Last fall, Julian said, he graduated from the university with a degree in accounting. But he cannot find a job and he worries about supporting his mother. Still, as he watches bundles of rags on the street shift about in their sleep, he can say he is happy. “I never would be here if I didn’t fall and break my teeth.”

The Khat Chewer – Harar, Ethiopia

The leaves were a bit bitter at first, but then the fear bleeds away and takes with it most of the world. “This is my favorite moment,” Solomon told me, “when nothing seems to matter.”

Solomon offered me my first taste of khat leaves, the intoxicant of choice in the Horn of Africa and a wild plant outside the ancient city walls of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. He found me wandering the incense-laced alleyways, seeming a bit lost in a Muslim city that for most of its life was off-limits to Westerners.

So when Solomon offered the gift of angels and promises of unity with Harar, I said yes.

In his small dim room, we chewed the leaves and talked. We chattered. We babbled. There’s so much to tell you – and all at once. The body’s circuitry begins to buzz and touching any object your fingertips find its pulse. Solomon told me about his life, how he feared being honest with people and yes, yes, me too. I told him I was scared to be alone and he told me never to worry, that God is great and we exist in his love.

Without coming to any kind of consensus, we stopped talking: content to know that the universe had approached harmony and that any action might ruin it. I lay on my back and felt my fingertips trace paths in the dust covering the light bulbs, swaying ten feet above my head. I can’t quite recall all the thoughts that swam through me, only the vague notion that life would never be quite the same.

I shot up and felt my dream world dissolve in screams. The screams came again and I stared at Solomon and dreaded what leaves helped him conjure a voice so animal.

“Nighttime,” Solomon said. “Hyenas are outside the walls.”

The screams stopped in time and left us alone in the dark room. It was a silence, but an elastic one. It never broke but rather wrapped itself around the only sounds left: the footsteps that grew louder as they approached outside the door and softer as they continued away.

I had been warned about this phase of khat. Some call it the melancholy phase. But this is a poetic word to describe something that is not poetry. Sadness can be rotten, but six hours after chewing khat, there’s nothing left to rot. The most honest description is that you feel very far away from the world, immune to emotion, which some might say is a bad thing. And some might say that it is not.

The Road to Debre Damo – Debre Damo, Ethiopia

In the gray dawn light, the refugees pass by.

My driver and I were headed in the other direction, on our way to Debre Damo, a monastery in the far north of Ethiopia. The monastery is perched on a mountaintop, six-miles from Eritrea. The refugees are more earth-bound, fleeing the border, where war prowls.

In the first days of March, near the end of the dry season, the earth is dead. I watched from the jeep window as the sun rose to cook the rocks and sand. Shreds of green curled around the tan-colored mountains in the distance. Barefoot girls with braided hair walked by the roadside carrying empty plastic jugs to fill with water.

The road is dust, too, and winds its way by the edge of steep drops and up and over waves of disintegrating hills. The journey can be nauseating and for most of the morning I felt sickness welling up inside me as my driver discussed war.

The two countries fight ovasked him why they fight over Badme and he said he was not sure. I asked him what Badme looked like and he said it looked just like it does here.

Here doesn’t get any nicer as we approach the monastery. The road goes completely to ruins and the only vehicles left are the military trucks shrouded in exhaust and the gleaming white four-wheelers of aid agencies, stuffed with worried faces.

“Debre Damo,” my driver said. A group of kids opened the car door, grabbed my hands and brought me to the mountain. The legend goes that Abuna Aregawi, an Ethiopian saint of the 6th century, came to the mountain in a vision. It looked like a nice place to escape the world, he thought. God agreed and lowered a snake for the saint to climb.

The monks tossed me a frayed leather rope. It’s a 70-foot climb and even when the rope seems to groan or your hands slip in sweat or your feet lose themselves in the air with a flowering of pebbles, it’s best not to look down. Stare at the wall, whisper calming lies, and you make it to the top.

A monk pulled me in a window and I collapsed. When my breath found me, the monk waved his hand to follow. He showed me the church, the oldest in Ethiopia, with tall walls of intricate stonework. Inside is a replica of the Holy Ark of the Covenant, but only a select few may see it. He pointed to the tiny stone houses where the monks live, named the different animals they tend, waved his hand over the green pool of water they all drink.

It’s odd to visit a monastery. The purpose of a monastery is to ask for blindness in order to cultivate a newborn’s sight. A visitor has not outgrown his old eyes and so exists in a kind of limbo. This was my reasoning as I approached the edge of the mountaintop and its view of the world.

I wondered what they were fighting for. There was simply nothing a speck of land named Badme. “One hundred thousand people died,” he told me. “And then many more.” I

Time to go. I’m not sure why but climbing down the rope was different: my hands stayed dry and I was no longer afraid. At some point, without any warning to me, my body had reached an acceptance with the world, granting me a descent – or even a long fall – without feeling.

The kids were waiting by the car. They opened my door and I handed out birr, Ethiopian money, and we drove away. An hour or so later, we turned a corner to find a cloud of people wrapped in white cloth. Like a current of air they broke at our touch and flowed past us on both sides. A raw shapeless prayer, choked from a hundred throats, took hold of us. And then, silence.

My driver and I watched the procession fade in the rearview mirror. As our focus shifted, our reflections locked eyes in the glass. “Someone must be dead, or something,” he said.

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