My husband and I have been waiting for our children to grow up so that we could travel to Ethiopia. A land of many contrasts with its fertile forests, densely and dangerously crocodile populated rivers and arid areas that are proud to be the hottest on Earth. As a country, it is a fascinating place to visit, not only because it hosts the biggest amount of Unesco sites, but also because of the diversity of its people. In contrary to what most people believe it is a country that is mostly Christian, and we felt privileged to be able to visit during Easter time as we were able to immerse ourselves into their fascinating traditions.
We started with Gondar nicknamed the Camelot of Africa, once the seat of Ethiopian emperors the city combines Indian, Portuguese and local architecture. Its open spaces are fabulous to have children running around and the beauty of the place does the talking.
Our next destination was Lalibela, which is known for its very distinctive rock-cut churches dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, which are pilgrimage sites for Coptic Christians. The history of it is fascinating. In the 12th century, the Christian King Lalibela ordered the building of a second Jerusalem on Ethiopian soil when the original was captured in a 1187AD raid by a Muslim faction. His vision was to create 11 churches interconnected by tunnels and trenches that were carved into the rose-gold mountain rock, and dug into the ground by hand. An extraordinary achievement that common belief says was assisted by angels who helped build these churches (I was told it took on average of 15 years to build each church). The churches are in perfect condition and their interiors are surprisingly delicate and monumental. Words cannot explain the experience of spending the night before Easter Sunday in Lalibela. Regardless of your religion, this experience does not leave you indifferent, in a sea of pilgrims praying, (there were thousands of them) being a witness to these people’s spirituality was powerful to see and very heartwarming.
We spent the last week of our stay removed from everything else fulfilling a lifetime dream of my husband and I, which was to visit the tribes in the Omo River valley. The Omo River is one of the most important rivers in the country and is nearly 800km in length. This southwestern corner of Ethiopia is home to seven primary tribes who coexist in varying degrees of peace. The land is largely dry savanna and the discovery of human remains dating back nearly 2.5 million years prompted Unesco to dub the Lower Valley a World Heritage site in 1980. These tribes have lived for centuries in a permanent state of warfare, however, things have become calmer in the last few years. AK-47s have replaced bows and arrows, and are a source of security and pride for families. But if you scrape beyond the surface you will discover how incredibly warm these people are and how much they love children.
We were extremely lucky to have the best of guides, Lale, an important member of the Karo tribe who kindly held our hand during our trip. I will never forget his big smile and his astonishment when he saw all of our children. When I asked him why he was so surprised he replied that we were the greatest gift to the tribes, as the places he was taking us to, people had never seen white children before. Once you visit the place you understand why nobody knows anything about what goes beyond the Omo River, there is no tv, no electricity, no running water, no mobile phones, no cars.
But today the Omo Valley is also a region that lives under a very big threat still unknown to most of its inhabitants, who are completely unaware of the project. The Ethiopian government has approved the construction of several dams upriver. The dams threaten to alter the lives of the communities and the ecosystems that have inhabited this valley for thousands of years. The Omo Valley depends on the river to survive, this will mean that people will soon be left with no water until the damn fills in. Making it in the short term an impossible place to live, and possibly forcing people to migrate to more developed areas. Afterward, how can you ever go back and live how you used to?
Without detailing every single step of our trip all I would say is that the visits to the different tribes has been a truly enriching experience. I loved finding what we had in common and realised that when it comes down to things we all hold the same values (the love of family and their wellbeing). The experience through children (both theirs and ours) made it all that more memorable. Our children played endlessly and we learned so much through them. I have many Peter Pan-like memories that keep coming back in my mind up to this day, a memorable 6 hours spent in the middle of the forest with the Mursi Village people where we all danced to people singing, our children sweating and shrieking with joy. Not for a second we felt unsafe and I am touched by the generosity that these tribes showed towards us, I hope one day I will be able to give back to them.