Going Back (page 2)
Going Back
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Click on any of the photos shown here to go to a site where there are more than 40 photos from the trip. The password is "lalibela."
Each photo can be clicked on to see a larger version
There are also many photos taken by John during his Peace Corps service in Ethiopia from 1963 to 1965.

The beggars
Besides the children there are the beggars, many of them truly destitute, some old, some very young with their mothers sitting on the street nursing them, some horribly crippled or disfigured-straight out of a painting by Breughel or Bosch. We saw obviously mentally ill naked men in a couple of places. In one case we drove past a naked man half lying in the road with a grossly enlarged scrotum hernia. In Gondar, the second city in the historic tour outside of AA, I tried to give something to a couple of beggars and was quickly besieged by perhaps a dozen beggars and children, to the point that Regina and I had to jump in a taxi to escape back to the hotel. By the time we reached Lalibela, the holy city with its ancient churches, where dozens of beggars were lined up at the entrances to churches, I learned that one must make sure that any beggar is truly alone and unseen by others before you can give something. Even at the end of our tour, at the shrine of Debre Libanos, to which we made an excursion on our last weekend in Ethiopia, I set off a line of beggars in our direction when they saw me give something to one old woman who had approached us.

Perhaps the saddest sight among the beggars was that of the apparently homeless orphans begging in the Piazza, a busy shopping district of AA. There was the young boy with apparently an older sister, there was the group of 5 or 6 children, some older, some younger, who seemed to "work" the streets together — all under the age of adolescence.

Friendly and curious
I do not want to convey the wrong impression, as if we were under constant siege or harassment. Most people we passed in the street were friendly, often curious — especially outside of AA, they often stared at us, but it was not a hostile stare, and I found that they usually reacted with humor when I would stare right back. Young women seemed especially willing to make eye contact, smile shyly and say hello — something that never happens to this balding gray-haired old man in the U.S.! Some people, especially it seemed in Axum, did not even stare or seemed not to notice us as we passed in the street.

Nowhere did we meet hostility, and nowhere did we feel insecure or threatened, even walking the streets in AA in the evening. Although one taxi driver in Gondar did cheat us and most charged us much more (taxis have no meters but we always agreed on a fare in advance) than they would an Ethiopian, which is understandable and not unfair, we found people to be exceptionally honest. At the end of our tour when I attended the celebration of the anniversary of the battle of Aduwa in AA as the sole white person in a densely packed crowd of Ethiopians, I did have my back pocket picked, but all the thief got was the extra tissue paper that I kept there instead of a wallet, which I do not carry.

Other interaction with Ethiopians came with the employees at the hotels where we stayed and where we ate nearly all of our meals. Overwhelmingly, people were extremely nice, warm, and friendly. Most tourists seem to stay only one night in each of these towns, so our longer stay as well as our attempts to speak Amharic and our previous experience in Ethiopia marked us off from the other guests. One of the most moving occasions was the morning when we were leaving the hotel in Lalibela and the man and woman who served us in the restaurant came out to the lobby to say good-bye to us: I was deeply touched by this. In AA at the Ghion, the woman at the desk offered us a discounted rate for our room and was willing to mark our reservations for when we returned to AA with the same rate. In fact, when we returned to AA and asked for a room on the quiet side of the hotel, we were given a suite, the only room available on that side of the hotel, for the same discounted rate, and I believe this was all just out of friendliness toward us.

Whether it was because the known stereotype of Tigrean women versus Amhara women that influenced our perception or whether it was a reality, it did seem that in Axum women, such as the waitresses at the hotel, were more forward or even coquettish in dealing with us.

Lengthier conversations
Since unfortunately none of us had any contacts in Ethiopia from 40 years ago, our most extensive conversations with Ethiopians were necessarily with our guides and secondarily with our drivers, and it was therefore good that we had a different guide in each place we visited (in AA we had no guide and did not really need one). All but one of the guides were Amharas and all but one were Orthodox Christians, and this no doubt skewed the opinions we heard, particularly the complaints about the current government, which is dominated by Tigreans, and which pursues a policy of ethnic autonomy for Ethiopian minorities instead of the Amhara domination and even Amharization of minorities that we knew 40 years ago. The complaint is nevertheless a serious one, claiming that the policy contributes to dividing the country rather than uniting it by encouraging people to think of themselves primarily as members of one of Ethiopia's 80-some ethnic groups rather than as Ethiopians, a debate not unfamiliar to Americans. All seemed dissatisfied also with the economic policies of the government, especially its policy of leasing land to farmers, not allowing private ownership.

Debre Zeit
We experienced this policy of ethnicization on our first excursion outside of AA, to Debre Zeit (DZ), where we had taught and lived for two years. We hired a taxi for the day to take us the short distance from AA. We learned that DZ is part of the Oromo autonomous district. Whereas I was
aware 40 years ago that some of my students were Oromos — then known to me as Gallas — I was not aware that DZ and the surrounding communities were predominantly Oromo.

We found DZ almost unrecognizable because of the enormous growth in population. The hill overlooking Lake Bishoftu that was virtually empty 40 years ago — I taught summer school in a community center at the top overlooking the lake and I recall us PCV's discussing that it would be a great location for a restaurant — was now so overgrown with houses, huts, and shacks that the car could barely find its way to the top, where there is now a restaurant and small hotel, no community center.

Debre Zeit school
Debre Zeit public school

We also had difficulty finding the public school where we all taught because of the number of dwellings between it and the main road that were not there before. When we found the school, it made a depressing impression. It looked as if it had been subjected to 40 years of neglect. A closer inspection of classrooms and buildings we remembered teaching in only confirmed this impression. Unfortunately, by chance we had come to DZ on a Muslim holiday, so that the school was not in session, and there was only the watchman and couple of young students whom we found studying in one of the classrooms. One of the students had a biology text he was studying — written in the Oromo language. The driver, an Amhara, blamed the neglect on Oromo autonomy. We then went to look for the Lutheran mission school where I taught and used its classrooms for our evening school for adults. It had apparently been confiscated by the military during the Derg, the revolutionary government that overthrew Haile Sellassie, and now was used as quarters by families of the military, a sad end for what was once a center of education.

Despite the build-up of houses in the area, I was able to find the two houses I lived in during my stay 40 years ago. The gate was locked at one, but at the other the gate was unlocked, and I walked in. Once the family inhabiting the house understood why we wanted to come in, they welcomed us and offered us coffee, but we did not stay. The house looked the same, though more cared for than the schools. Inside the large living room-dining area was now divided in two by a wall, but otherwise it looked the same. Our driver was in a hurry to get back to AA, claiming that the road was unsafe at night though it was still early.

Buying teff
Buying teff
In this way he dampened my desire to visit the other lakes in the area. We tried to stop at the Ras Hotel on Lake Hora, but the military kept us away: apparently some visiting dignitaries from a recent Africa conference in AA were enjoying the hotel and restaurant. As we headed back to AA, the driver stopped along the road to buy teff, the special grain used to make injera, the pancake-like sour dough "bread" for Ethiopian cuisine: supposedly the best teff is grown in the DZ area, something that again I was not aware of 40 years ago.
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