Earlier this year, Janke and I went to Lalibela for Ethiopian Christmas. During this time pilgrims from all over Ethiopia flock to the rock hewn churches here, some people walking for up to a month to get here. People also come from all over the world to experience it. The Hotels sky rocket in price and almost every room gets booked out months in advance. Although we were able to find a room for the first night we were there, we were told that there was no accommodation for the 7th of January, which is the night that everyone goes to the churches, sleeps there and prays for long life. Because we couldn’t find a room, we trekked up a mountain to a small set of tukuls on the ridge, operated by an Ethiopian company called Tesfa. Tesfa stands for “Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives”, but in Amharic, it means “hope”. Forty percent of all the profits go to the small village up in the highlands and in return they supply guides and mules, and invite locals into their homes for coffee ceremonies. It took us around six hours to get to the series of tukuls on the ridge that overlooks Lalibela and the surrounding valleys and mountains. The view was absolutely astounding and the tukuls were perched right near the edge of the cliff, so you wouldn’t want to be a sleep walker! There’s a clip of the camp below, which I took while I was up there. It’s kind of lengthy – sorry!
We spent two nights in the camp. After the first night we woke early and set off for a wander to the local village and school. The school is sponsered by an NGO, so it is well equipped, and the children seem eager to learn. It takes children to 12 years only, so once they finish grade 8 (I think) they must move down to Lalibela, about three hours down to continue their schooling. Usually they will live with a relative or a friend down in Lalibela and return to the highland village in the weekends and on holidays.
We also visited the church which is looked after by the priest, a guard and elderly women who have lost their husbands and don’t have children to care for them. “Elderly” is a relative thing in Ethiopia, where life expectancy is only 48 years. At the church we met one woman who stays there. She fasts and eats one meal a day and spends her time praying for the people from the village. In return they give her small amounts of food which is what she survives off. Because her husband passed away and she has no children to support her and she is too old to eek out a living off the land, she doesn’t really have a choice but to do this. I got the feeling that everyone takes care of each other, keeps an eye on each other up there, though.
After visiting the church we were invited to the home of a local family. Extended families usually live together in a series of mud huts and they will work the land cooperatively. They also have live stock. Usually the job of looking after the animals falls with the smaller children, who appeared to herd them to the school in the morning, where there is a field of grass. Then they may take them to water and then home. It’s amazing seeing these children – infants, carrying out this responsibility! While at the school we stopped to chat to three girls – the oldest was probably 8, the youngest maybe 2 or 3. When a dog appeared and started to scare the sheep and cows off, all three of them jumped up, grabbed rocks and started pelting the dog with them while chasing it away! Even the two year old knew what she was doing, and her aim would put mine to shame! Inside the compound of the family we visited we were shown their animals and their various mud homes, as well as a two story communal one, which is used for relaxing and chilling out in. I think the grown ups may come here in the evenings when the children sleep. The mud huts are comprised of merely one room and the whole family will sleep together on a top bunk. Beneath them the cows will sleep, providing warmth in the chilly highlands throughout the night, with their breath. Small seats are crafted from spare pieces of wood and leather which comes from the cows that have been skinned and treated in the traditional methods, by hand. Injeera, Ethiopia’s national dish doesn’t appear to be eaten here. It is made from tef, which doesn’t grow up in their highlands, so a substitute pancake made from wheat is made. It’s a lot heavier than injeera but is eaten in the same fashion. One of the girls in the family took great pleasure in showing me how to eat potatoes. They are boiled and you peel them and eat the fluffy inside. The skin is dropped or spat onto the floor, and the chickens come around later and eat it up. Everyone in the family drinks coffee – even the babies. They are given a small cup (like the yum char ones without the handles) which they blow on with their baby lips before slurping it out of the cup. Maybe this is why when I drink Ethiopian coffee I get the shakes for hours, which the locals barely notice it – they start them young! In the corner of some of the mud houses there is a huge rock and a grinding stone which is used as a mill, to make flour and shiro. Shiro is comprised of powdered chick peas. Spices are added to the powder then water and oil are added and it is boiled until it is the same consistency as gravy. Then it’s eaten with injeera, or in the case of this village, the wheat version of injeera.
It was fascinating learning about the lives of these people. Seeing all of the extended family live together made me miss my family who are so far away, though.
The trek ended after the second night, when we woke at 4am and started to make our way back down to Lalibela. Even in the dark there seemed to be hundreds of people making the journey back up to the village with the animals they had bought from the livestock market down in Lalibela. Villagers were also making their way down for the day. I felt ridiculous with my head torch and heavy duty tramping boots; everyone else was wearing plastic boat shoes and using only the light of the moon. We arrived back in Lalibela at around 8am, in good time to find a bus and move onto Bahir Dar for the next few days.
Here are a few snaps of the trek:
And a clip which shows the camp where we slept: