Sitting in the famous Addis Ababa Restaurant, a landmark for traditional food and culture in Ethiopia’s capital city, I feel like I have been here before. People shout and joke, onlookers smiling at the scene, laughing together at jokes casually made on a stranger’s account, all in good fun. A playful, communal spirit flows through the heavily seasoned air. The potent scent of berebere and shiro spices, cooked meat, and injera bread create a smell that only a true Ethiopian restaurant can obtain. It could have been that the local tej, a “rustically fermented” honey wine, was getting to my head, or that the lack of sleep (departed Cairo 3am, arrived Addis 8am) was making me delirious, but I felt at this moment a deep sense of happiness and peace that defies explanation. I am in Africa. I am surrounded by strange smells, drunk Ethiopians, and half-rancid concoctions that contort my stomach. I feel truly at home.
I am blessed with the best friends a traveler could ever ask for. After waiting in the hour-long line marathon to secure my transit visa, I find Asrat Ayelew, percussionist from Ethiopian funk group Debo Band, and my good friend, patiently waiting for me outside baggage claim. It is good to see him in his native country, having met him only the previous month in Egypt, where we were both working on The Nile Project‘s music residency.
Ethiopia is a country that seems simultaneously separate from, and inescapably a part of Africa. The ancient and biblical kingdoms of Kush, Sheeba, and Axum still occupy the cultural memory, with populations of Christians, Muslims, and Jews all representing a uniquely Abyssinian take on their respective religion. Sacred chant resounds across the city out of churches and mosques throughout the day, each singing in distinctively Ethiopian scales and melodies. Like many aspects of this culture, the musical traditions in Ethiopia reach far back, to around 700 A.D when an Abyssinian saint named Yarid received the melodies in a revelation from God. The Ethiopian Orthodox church has sung his music ever since, and contemporary Ethiopian music, popularized by the great jazz saxophonist Mulatu Asateke, still draws upon Yarid’s distinct scales.
We take a taxi to Asrat’s neighborhood in the heart of Addis, and walk down a series of cobble-stone streets with low, multi-toned tin roofs peeking up above white walls, finally coming to a large metal gate. Inside is where Asrat and his sister live, in one room apartments with several others living in the communal-like compound. I deposit my bags, feeling welcomed, safe, and excited. I only have ten hours left in this country, and I want to see as much as I can.
We start by walking to a Christian Orthodox church in his neighborhood- a massive octagonal building painted gold and turquoise, with red, yellow, and green highlighting every corner. Pilgrims, priests, women, and many children populate the church’s shady courtyard. The place is blissful. We walk out the next gate, and come to a beautiful view of a distant valley. I take a picture.
Immediately someone calls to us, and I notice a guard tower and a military-like structure to our left. We walk through the gate, to where they called to us, and a man walks down the road in a military uniform. “Uh-oh,” I joke. When the man arrives, it is clear he is not joking. With a face a stern as steel he shouts at my friend in Amharic. Calmly explaining, my friend apologizes, as we didn’t know that pictures were not allowed in this area.
Suddenly, and without warning, the military officer smacks my friend across the face with the hard and lightning-quick strike. My friend is dumbfounded and open mouthed, and I am equally as shocked. Without a word, we walk away.
We walk in silence. After some time, Asrat speaks up: “I’m sorry. This is a government place. I should have known better… I’m sorry.” “It’s okay man,” I say, “you don’t need to be sorry. I took the picture- I’m sorry.” “No- this is not Ethiopian culture. This is not how we are… That is not our culture.” We talk more, but my thoughts replay the incident in my head.
My mind wanders to Ethiopia’s recent past, the 1970’s and ’80s, during the time of The Derg, when the country turned to Communism, ousted emperor Haile Selassie, economically imploded, and began a series of atrocities that included torturing and imprisoning anyone suspected of political opposition. Many were imprisoned without trial for years, many were hurt, and many died. It was a dark time for Ethiopia. “I’m sorry,” he says, again and again.
We decide to clear our head, and walk out of the city. We catch a small van-turned bus, vehicles known all over East Africa as matatus, which I would come to intimately know in the coming months. Then we walk, and walk, and walk, up a winding hill covered by groves of eucalyptus trees. The scent brings me back to San Francisco, and the sun and the hills take away the heaviness that was recently thrust upon us by an insane military brute. We climb, passing brigades of donkeys laden with sticks galloping down the hill, carrying away with them the any sense of gloominess that had remained from previous our encounter.
Midway up we pass an orthodox priest, who blesses us with his smile and his staff. Near the top another man sits by the side of the road, writing intently in a notebook. Though not dressed as lavishly as the last man, my friend informs me that he too is a holy person. “He is a man of church, but not a priest. He is a…” “Monk!” I say. “Yes, like that. We call them Menaksi.” He was the first of many of these peaceful beings I was to encounter on my short stay in Ethiopia.
At the top of this hill is a place called Entoto, a national park-type area where King Menelik II built the first church in Addis Ababa, and made his royal home in the late 19th century. We pass clusters of simple mud huts, with chickens and goats and children in enclosures. At the top is the famous Entoto Church, a beautiful crown on the mountain.
“People move up here because they want to be close to the church. Also, many people are coming up here to be healed,” Asrat says. “They are sick and they know the church will take care of them.”
After several hours of exploring the area, we follow a local boy named Yayu, who must have been around eight years old, into the forest to find a famous spring that is known for its healing “holy water.” The walk is sunny, quiet, and very peaceful. I am in total bliss, grateful to be surrounded by trees after being in Egypt for a month.
We finally reach the spring, deep in the forest, and ask Yayu to go in and collect some water for us (we were not allowed, either out of respect, or because we were not practicing orthodox.) We leave the spring, and start our long walk out of the magical forest. Apparently this peaceful place drastically changes after sunset. “At night there are many hyenas around here… Very dangerous,” Asrat tells me. The reality of Africa is ever present, even in the most idyllic of places.
On our walk out we come upon a couple who were leaving the spring when we arrived. Their pace, a fraction of ours, is slowed to the point of a crawl, with each step seeming to take great effort. Weakened by sickness, they support each other, as they slowly struggle up the long and rocky trail. I suspect HIV/AIDS, due to their middle age, their mutual emaciation, and the diseases prevalence in the region. I can tell that this trek is extremely difficult for them. We walk behind them in respect for some time. The forest is deeply quiet, the only sound is the wind blowing through the trees. Not even the birds make a sound, I felt in this moment as if a layer of reality was peeled away- that just being in the presence of this specter-like couple was enough to thin the veils between the worlds. We pass them, and they smile at us kindly, both nearing death. The reality of Africa is ever present.
Addis Ababa (means “New Flower,”) though the capital city, felt more like a large and friendly town to me. It seemed as if everyone knew one another, and that (military psychopaths aside,) everyone strives to treat people with great respect. There is a palpable sense of community that connects the Ethiopian people, at home and abroad, like a big family. Perhaps it is Ethiopia’s long legacy of tradition, of cultural heritage, and its ancient roots that gives people this sense of pride that I saw often translate into grace.
Back in the Addis Ababa Restaurant, I am swirling amidst the spices, the tej, and the laughter. The joy, humility, and devotion expressed by these people is almost overwhelming- nowhere in Egypt did I experience such a boisterous and lively bunch of locals. Evening is nearing, and both Asrat and I are in dire need of some rest before my 11pm flight. As I stand up to leave, and smiling man from a nearby table approaches me, and slips me a small piece of paper. “You are most welcome,” he says.
The scrap of paper, I realize, is a note the man had written to me, apparently during the happy scene in the restaurant. I open it, and read: “I know what you think. You see Ethiopian people having such happiness. You are to think, do people in own country having such happiness?”
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