Ethiopia, home of coffee and the origin of the species

Ethiopia is a beautiful and fascinating country. A country which defies cliché. Yet the legacy of the vicious Marxist government, and the terrible droughts and famine of the 1980s, still frame people’s perceptions of it and it’s people. It is a country like no other, where received wisdom is hopelessly out of kilter with reality. Our twelve days in Ethiopia, splitting our time between Axum in the north, Bahir Dar on Lake Tana and the extraordinary Lalibela, would only be a taster of this amazing country.

Church in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Church in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

My first impression of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, wasn’t great. I arrived at 2am, and the drive through the dark, silent streets was at high speed. When my taxi arrived at the hotel I discovered my room had been given away. I could see my name on the reservation list, but a European tour group was stranded by a cancelled flight – one of the group was happily sleeping in my bed. Ironically, the tour group organiser came to my rescue, suggesting another hotel. I finally got to bed around 4am.

Not honouring hotel bookings is small fry compared to some of Ethiopia’s more entrenched problems. I was thinking about my trip a few years ago, while reading a recent news article. The only opposition member of the Ethiopian Parliament, Girma Seifu Maru, was quoted saying that the government’s suppression of opposition was storing up trouble for the future. Thats putting it mildly. On my first day in Addis Ababa, a taxi driver pointed out the university, adding that, thanks to a government crackdown on student protests, most of the students were completing their studies in prison.

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Things don’t seem to have improved much between my visit and now. Corruption, poverty, a lack of transparency and accountability continue to blight the country’s 94 million inhabitants. As does the proxy war Ethiopia is fighting in Somalia on behalf of the United States and its allies. Yet if Ethiopia’s present is beset with problems, its ancient history might point toward a glorious future.

A lion in Zion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

A lion in Zion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Boasting Africa’s richest historical heritage, the human history of the country can be traced back to some of the earliest stone tools (around 2.5 million years old). Around 800 BC, when the Phoenicians were founding Carthage, an ancient kingdom existed in Ethiopia. This gave rise to the Aksumite Empire which, by 300 AD, stretched across the Red Sea to Yemen, and was considered one of the world’s great powers (alongside the Roman, Persian and Chinese Empires). The famed Axum Stelae are evidence of the sopistication of the Aksumite civilisation.

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Landscape near Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Landscape near Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Global trade routes, and proximity to the Middle East, meant the Aksumite Empire was heavily influenced by the monotheistic religions that flourished there. There is an ancient Jewish tribe, the Falasha, which has existed in Ethiopia for centuries. The Ethiopian Queen, Makeda, also known as the Queen of Sheba, is supposed to have visited King Solomon’s Jerusalem. Allegedly, Solomon is the father of her child, Menelik, who established Juadism as the religion of the Aksumite Empire.

This may be myth, but it was the foundation stone of legitimacy for Ethiopia’s monarchy. Part of the King Solomon story relates how the Ark of the Covenant was brought and hidden in Ethiopia by Menelik. It apparently remains under lock and key in Axum’s Maryam Tsion Church, and only one living person has actually seen it.

A young shepherd looks over the Blue Nile waterfalls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

A young shepherd looks over the Blue Nile waterfalls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

When Christianity emerged it was adopted by the Aksumite Empire, which in 324 AD became one of the first Christian kingdoms. The legacy of this can be seen across Ethiopia. There are monasteries and churches throughout the country, many over 1000 years old – the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela being some of the finest examples. As Islam spread across the region, Ethiopia became isolated from developments elsewhere in the Christian world. This isolation has bequeathed the unique Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity to the world.

Young girl in a village near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl in a village near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian houses in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian houses in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Given this, it’s ironic that Ethiopia is the site of some of the most significant archaeological discoveries related to human evolution. In 1974, in the remote and dangerous Afar Depression, teams of scientists discovered numerous Hominid bones that are a major piece of evidence that our ancestors evolved in, and migrated out of, Africa. This includes the 3.5 million year old skeleton of Lucy, an iconic human ancestor and an evolutionary ‘missing link’. Lucy wasn’t on display when I was in Addis Ababa, she’d been packed off to tour the United States.

Unique amongst African nations, Ethiopia was never colonised. During the 19th Century ‘Scramble for Africa’, Ethiopia fought tenaciously for its independence from would-be colonisers. The continuity of hereditary monarchy was only interrupted once, between 1936 – 41. The brief Italian occupation left little behind other than second rate pasta and third rate wine. The culture, religion and cuisine remain uniquely Ethiopian.

Rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

The hereditary monarchy held on to power into the modern-era, ruling over a largely feudal society. This all came to a dramatic end when, in 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by a hardline Communist military government, the Derg. Ethiopia became a Cold War satellite of the Soviet Union, and the Derg unleashed a period of terror. It was the failed policies of the Derg which led to the famine of the 1980s. Propped up by Soviet military aid, it was only in 1991 that the Derg was finally forced from power.

Since then, Ethiopia has fought a crippling war against its neighbour, Eritrea; a conflict that still flares up periodically. It also adopted a democratic constitution, but has lurched from one rigged election to another, keeping the same party in power since 1991. New elections are expected in 2015, their outcome may determine the course of Ethiopia’s future and whether-or-not the bottled-up dissent spills onto the streets.

The Blue Nile waterfalls, one of the origins of the River Ethiopia, Africa

The Blue Nile waterfalls, one of the origins of the River Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopia is also the home of one of humanity’s defining pleasures: coffee. The coffee bean originated in Ethiopia, and Ethiopian varieties are considered some of the finest in the world. Coffee plays a special role in Ethiopian society, including an elaborate coffee ceremony – the ritualised making and drinking of three cups of coffee for each person. As a visitor, you’re regularly called upon to drink coffee several times each day. Its easy to spend your entire time in the country permanently wired.

Africa revisited, past wanderings through the beautiful continent

Travelling for work and for pleasure, I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to visit several African countries: north, south, east and west. Some of the most extraordinary cultures, peoples, landscapes and animals anywhere on this planet are on the African Continent. Back in London after a year and a quarter in Latin America, and looking over old photos, I thought it would be fun to explore those adventures again in this blog. It is a travel blog, after all.

A young girl laughs, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

A young girl laughs, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Football shirt sellers, Yaounde, Cameroon, Africa

Football shirt sellers, Yaounde, Cameroon, Africa

Africa is not a place for preconceptions. If there is one truism, it is that a visit to any country in Africa will quickly disabuse you of most, if not all, your pre-existing views about the continent. This isn’t the place to go into it, but Western media coverage of Africa has been, and is, often negative, if not downright neo-colonial. While conflicts and dehumanising human rights abuses rage on in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, to name two, its unlikely that the mainstream media is going to improve.

As with everything else in life, there are many other Africa’s which don’t make it onto the news agenda. For a start, the continent is vast, and the nations and peoples who populate them are as diverse as is humanly possible. Undoubtably, African countries face a range of problems – environmental degradation, corruption and a lack of political accountability, poverty, ethnic tensions and rampant inequality amongst others – but it also possesses the resources, intellectual capital and desire to overcome these issues. For the visitor, exploring the countries of Africa is a vast adventure.

A Tuareg sits on his camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A Tuareg sits on his camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

The King in his jungle, mountain gorilla, Rwanda, Africa

The King in his jungle, mountain gorilla, Rwanda, Africa

It is almost impossible to comprehend the scale and artistry of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia, or the devotion of the priests and pilgrims who come here to observe a unique form of Orthodox Christianity. Yet, Lalibela seems a million miles away when you’re clambering up the side of a volcano with a AK-47 wielding park guard, only to push back the foliage to discover a troop of magnificent mountain gorillas, in the Parc National des Volcan in north-western Rwanda. The AK-47 is for the gorillas’ protection, incidentally.

Women fish in the shallows, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Women fish in the shallows, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Is it time to run yet? A lion approaches in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Is it time to run yet? A lion approaches in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Descending from the volcanoes onto the plains of East Africa, Kenya’s Maasai Mara seems to extend forever and is home to some of the most incredible animals and beautiful people anywhere in the world. Off to the west, the truly extraordinary cultures that inhabit Mali – a country currently beset by problems – are worth travelling the globe to encounter. It is almost impossible to put into words, but the experience of waking in the Sahara Desert to the sight of hundreds of brightly turbaned Tuareg, racing past on camels, is simply spectacular.

A fish seller in Kampala's central market, Uganda, Africa

A fish seller in Kampala’s central market, Uganda, Africa

That doesn’t even touch upon the thrill of tracking chimpanzees through the Kibale National Forest in Uganda; or swimming in the aquamarine ocean off the coast of Mozambique; or sharing a beer or seven with a group of Zambian football fans in a bar in upmarket Nairobi; or exploring an old Portuguese slaving fort one morning, and climbing a vertiginous volcano the next, while stranded on the isolated mid-Atlantic islands of Cape Verde. On second thoughts, this could be quite a lot of work…

Fishing boats line the shore in the former Portuguese slave port of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fishing boats line the shore in the former Portuguese slave port of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

…for the next few weeks I’ll be writing about my African wanderings and sharing some of my favourite photos, interspersed occasionally with more ‘news from nowhere’ here in the UK.