25 May 2019

Ethiopia: Trekking the North

"Nothing enriches you like a journey," the famous Russian philosopher, Nicholas Roerich, once quipped.

In the villages, towns and mountains of the Tigray Regional State, the historical sites that are in between and often neglected but standing, the vulnerable people of the region whose struggle has become their lifestyle and with all the shortcomings that have become of Ethiopia's North - there is much to discover here.

Welcome to Tigray!

"Are you here from Addis Ababa?", an elderly man, who is an archeologist and professor at the University of Axum, asks as delegates led by Ethiopia's Minister of Tourism, Hirut Kassaw (PhD) arrives for the opening of a two-day conference on the historic sites that is set to begin in mere days and how the government can help protect them.

"Welcome home, we are happy to see you," his other colleague from Bezit, a half hour drive from the famous Debre Damo Monastery, said, reminding the visitors of the many places that is worthy of a visit, within the region. "Not just Axum".

There is something overwhelming and humbling about visiting Tigray. With friendly people, a safe, affordable and convenient way to travel throughout the region and lots to see and experience, it is unfortunate that the area has not received the tourists and support it rightly deserves.

Indeed, the area has much to offer, from the historic capital of the Axumite and host of the Obelisk of Axum, Axum, to Yeha, the capital of the Kingdom of D'mt, the pre-Aksumite Kingdom of D'mt, the old churches that traces their roots to hundreds of years, to Debre Damo Monastery, Debre Damo, the ancient flat-topped mountain, founded by Abuna Aregawi in the 6th century, the mountains where the Battle of Adwa occurred and Ethiopia emerged as a victor and many more - the magic and mystic of Tigray is in the open.

"You will climb the Monastery, if you have not sinned," a woman tells a tourist in Bizet, at Ethiopia Hotel putting pressure on him and as he prepares for the eventual travel of the Monastery the next day, which is a 30 minutes bumpy ride on a mini bus and costing 20 birr.

The mountain of Debre Damo is of trapezoidal shape that is 15 meter-high and accessible via rope thrown from the top of the mountain and exclusively made available to men only. With little infrastructures and accommodations, and with electricity provided to the Monastery only courtesy of a businessman with connection to the area, there are much fewer tourists than what the area offers.

The areas of Debre Damo, to the proximity of the Eritrean borders and there has been some noted trade exchanges between both nations, in substitute to tourists whose interest have dwindled. But, there are still plenty to experience and embrace among a population that is welcoming and has taken ownership of the area despite its shortcomings and challenges.

"Would you be kind enough to join us for breakfast," an elderly woman asks, as few tourists pass her mud-hut property, as she is seated next to a traditional oven of injera and as fresh coffee is being brewed by a young girl for her.

A woman in her fifties, looking two decades older than she is, has lived in the area all her life and she is proud to tell anyone, of the history and the milestone of it. She has lived in the area and hosted many who had come for holly water, experienced it in time of war and peace and has even learned words of English and Amharic to help her become its citizen ambassador for those who do not speak the local dialect.

As her guests conclude their late breakfast of 'Shiro' and transition to a coffee ceremony and then to a traditional beer, tela, the local alcoholic drink that is a custom of Tigray, although she has not been allowed to climb to the top of the monastery, she knows the area quite well.

She does not charge for her hospitality, nor accepts any money in its exchange.

For her, she describes it as her duty and a personal privilege to share what she knows with others, specifically young people and she has been taken aback by the flow of traffic the area has been experienced in recent years. She wants more young people to benefit from tourism, as her generation benefited decades ago.

"I grew up being told how this area was once a prison of those connected the Emperor of Ethiopia but it has evolved over the years," she told The Reporter. "The churches of the monastery are made of stones of Axumite relics and while I might not have seen it, I feel like I live in it. I fell blessed to live next to it and grow old watching it."

"I am glad you came," she hugs her visitors, as an aging minibus pulls up, to take her visitors back to Bezit.

Back there, a small ordinary town of extraordinary young people is gathered inside a clean mud-hut in the late hours of the day, there were conversations on politics, culture and the future. The driver of the minibus had invited The Reporter to join him and his friends. With much youthful vigor and potential and little opportunities in the area, there are many young people with much promise but seat idly, waiting for something to change.

It has not changed.

A bit tipsy, Kibrom, the driver, is one of the many people who returned to the area recently, after working in a different part of Ethiopia for a decade. Affected by conflicts and not feeling welcomed there, he returned to Bizet, after working as a second hand cloth salesman and making a better living than his hometown offers, but that became short-lived. "I made enough to support a family of five and extended family members, now, I barely make enough to feed myself and my family," he told The Reporter.

He wishes to get his old life again and feels Bizet is still too small to fulfill his ambition of selling second-hand clothes imported from China.

"I returned to Bezit after being away for a longtime and hopping my return would be a temporary stay, but it's almost six month and I have yet to figure out what to do here," he told The Reporter, as he sipped his cup of tela. "I want to live in an era, where any Ethiopian would be able to live, anywhere he chooses without any unprovoked attacks. That is why it's important for us, Ethiopians, to understand, we are more than our politics, our ethnic group."

His friends nodded in agreement.

Ed.'s Note: Samuel Getachew was recently on a region wide tour of Tigray and this is part of a series of articles he would be writing on his experience.

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