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Published: March 8th 2018
Feb Saturday morning in Gondar, one of the ancient capitals of Ethiopia, developed in the 16th
cent up to the 18th.
After two hours sleep on the plane I could do little more than have a juice drink (layered mango, guava, avocado and pineapple) before I had to lie flat and close my eyes. Saturday evening meal was a buffet in a local restaurant which was as lovely as the food in Iran (my favourite world food). Even the carbohydrate staple, injera, which I’d heard was as inedible as nsima (Malawian staple) was ok. Slightly sour as it is made from fermented tef flour (a type of rye grass) but a most unprepossessing colour – a sort of grubby dishcloth shade. It is made into a pancake which can wrap around meat or veg, or be used to scoop them up. The next night’s meal was disappointing, apart from waiting an hour for it, the vegetables were wrapped up in the grey dishcloth in a square slab so I couldn’t separate them.
A guide showed us round the seven castles of the royal enclosure, each one built by a different emperor from 1635 onwards. We also visited the baptism pool which the emperor Fasilidas built to baptize his people back to orthodox Christianity after their enforced conversion to Catholicism by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. This pool is still used for baptism today, each Jan 19th
. We visited the beautifully decorated Debre Church, the only Gondar church to escape destruction by the Muslims. A swarm of bees attacked them, and they left it alone. The ceiling was covered in paintings of winged angels, and the walls tell stories from the Bible and the life of Christ. We had to take our shoes off before entering and women had to use the side door. The Ethiopian calendar is different from ours, They use the Julian calendar which has 12 months of 30 days and one month of 5 days, between August and September.
Monday morning we go to the Andinet School site in the village of Ayermareffia, which means ‘ plane landing’ as it is near the airport. We will be helping finish the two classrooms which local builders have been constructing with the funds we sent out. The builders are behindhand with the work as the water shortage means they have been unable to make the mud daub for the walls. (The water shortage is because the construction of a nearby road cut through the water pipes leaving the village without water).
Our tents are in the school grounds and we have camp beds. The nursery classroom has been lent to us for the two weeks we will be here, and there are cooking facilities in there. Two girls who have been sponsored by Link Ethiopia, the charity we are working with, are cooking for us. One has already graduated and normally works in a hotel in Gondar, the other is still training. The food they provide is lovely, and we can give orders for chilli-free omelettes (most Ethiopian food seems to contain chilli) and lots of salad please.
The work is quite hard, either ramming down stone and earth floors, or carrying makeshift stretchers of daub and straw from where it is being mixed outside into the classrooms where builders chuck it at the walls and smooth it down. We can’t carry it as much as the builders; where they can carry seven shovel–loads, we can only carry three. Ramming is even harder; a six-foot long fence post is cemented into a tin can, then two of us, in rhythm ram down the floor before the next layer is added.
Tuesday afternoon, appropriately enough as it is pancake day, we are shown how to make injera, shiro (a paste made from chick peas and various spices) and coffee. Coffee is very important here. As well as being the main export crop, the coffee ceremony is something to offer friends, family and honoured guests. The beans are cooked in a pan over a charcoal fire, with extra herbs added. When the beans are cooked the smoke is wafted over the guests, ground in a mortar with a length of piping, boiled in water, then served in special little cups. Then more water is added to the coffee for the subsequent cups. The first cup is very strong, the second less so, the third is the weakest. It is polite to have all three, by which time we are all zinging. There are added rituals about fresh grass spread on the floor as the spirits are at home in nature. The cups and kettles are overfilled and the spillage is for the spirits.
The children are very friendly and try out their English, while we try out our Amharic. We learned how to say good morning, good afternoon and good evening, but mostly stick to ‘Salam’ which everyone understands more easily than our tortured attempts at something more complex. The script is Arabic, but we have been given an English alphabetic spelling.
There are eight of us in the group, and as we were all either in Nepal in 2013 or Tamil Nadu last year we know each other well. The co-ordinator, Gillian was in Malawi just before, and after I was there in 20156, so although we hadn’t met before we know the same people.
Most of Ethiopia is on a high plateau straddling the Great Rift Valley. Flying from Addis Ababa to Gondar in a fairly small plane showed the reddish brown ridges that make up the terrain. At above 2000 metres several of us take a few days to acclimatize and quickly get out of breath.
Our first night under canvas was spoiled by hundreds of dogs barking, howling and yowling from every end of the village. From about 4 am to 6am it sounded as if we were camped next to PMQ’s in Battersea Dogs Home. Haggard and sleep deprived we crawled out of our tents, comparing notes on the noise and the cold. Our two deaf volunteers hadn’t noticed the noise, but were dismayed by the cold. Toni, who isn’t a camper really hadn’t prepared for it, but over the next few days we equipped her. ‘Wear a vest. Wear socks. Get <em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">in the fleece liner inside the sleeping bag, don’t just drape it over yourself. Oh, and zip up the inner compartment of your tent’. By the time she had done all this, she was warm. Stephen had a store of earplugs that he gave out, and after the first night the dogs limited the participants, volume and duration of their cacophony.
Link Ethiopia twins 86 schools there with 100 schools in the UK, and has a staff of eight, six in Gondar and two in the south of the country. They exchange letters with their partnership schools, and run a sponsorship programme.
Wednesday I was poorly and after a few attempts at working gave up and lay in the shade, drinking Diaralyte and eating little. I missed the visit to the family of a child who was sponsored by the charity to attend the posh school next door.
Thursday and Friday I felt full of energy, just as well as we formed a chain gang, moving rocks to make the classroom floor. Toni and I went in to a couple of classrooms and gave them books, finger puppets and balls.
Ethiopia has nine World Heritage sites of which we saw four – the Simien Mountains County Park, Gondar’s castles, Lalibela’s rock churches and Axum’s standing stones.
The weekend in the Simien mountains was an adventure. Thse on the shorter trek got caught in a hailstorm. Those on the longer trek were divided by severe vertigo by one of them, which split the group, half of whom got caught in a heavy rainstorm. Wet and cold we were eventually rescued by our transport (after the guide had managed to get mobile phone coverage) and taken up to where we were due to camp. The experience was bonding, and we upgraded to a 10-bed dorm from the two-man tents we were supposed to have, and spent the night snoring and farting in happy unity. Sunday dawned bright and clear and Dave, Anne and I set off on a two-hour trek along the ridges and round the peaks to the Jinbar falls (dry now, until the rainy season starts). There are magnificent gorges and jagged peaks, formed by volcanoes and sculpted by rivers.. It compared favourably with the Blue Mountains, The Grand Canyon, and Table Mountain – as breathtaking, and less spoilt by tourism. We agreed it expunged the memory of the previous day.
Six days into the project everything stopped. A three-day general strike organised as a political protest halted work. Frustrating for Link Ethiopia and for us, though a day spent reading in the shade of eucalyptus trees or the weaker sun of an African late afternoon with interesting cloud formations I would never count as wasted.
Toni and I went for a walk round the village and had a cup of coffee with an insistent young woman who wanted us to find her a boyfriend. We managed to escape after only one cup of coffee, instead of the usual thee. Two 10-year old boys accompanied us chivalrously helping us across the dry river bed.
Thursday we organised a Games session for the school children, the sack race proving to be the most popular.
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