The People of Lalibela

The Children of Lalibela
We've been gone from Lalibela more than 2 months, and we were only there for 24 hours, but this town and the people have been with me every day since then.  I've heard other people say the same thing.  There's something unique about this mountain top UNESCO Heritage site and the people who live here.  It's a sort of Brigadoon, in that very little has changed for them in the past hundred years. It's the kind of place that once you've seen it, it can't be unseen. I'd have to say the most memorable time we spent in Africa was the safari at Maasai Mara and our day here.  Though totally different experiences, it's the raw natural state of things that stay with you.

We arrived in the morning on a flight from Axum.  We had a guide waiting for us- someone our guide from Axum had called in advance.  It's a great way to travel.  You can ask your current guide for a recommendation and he sets it up in advance, if you're doing a multi city tour.  Or you can just choose someone at the airport.  There are always people waiting for the incoming flight to suggest a hotel or transportation services.  It's a long drive from the airport to Lalibela.  We had not made any reservations at a hotel, but had one in mind- The Top 12 Hotel.  The proprietor from that hotel was at the airport, so it was an easy decision.  We paid for transportation to his hotel and it turned out to be the best hotel stay of our entire trip through Africa.  It was modern, clean, had spectacular views, and a distinctly Ethiopian feel to it as all the decorating had been done by his wife. Since it was on top of a mountain, there was an extra bonus- NO MOSQUITOES!!!  Like most places in Ethiopia, breakfast was included in the price.
Our room at Top 12 Hotel
It wasn't that I didn't want to see the historic churches, because they are amazing and I had seen a few photos so I knew they would be interesting.  I was really more interested in getting to learn about Ethiopia- its food, culture, way of life, etc.  Our guide was happy to oblige by spending the entire first day walking through the village.  He knew the people and could tell us about anything we saw.  We started with an authentic Ethiopian lunch of injeera and a variety of vegetarian sides like lentils, at the Seven Olives Hotel Restaurant.  Everything was very tasty and a bit spicy.  Remember to tell them if you don't like spicy, because they have a higher tolerance for heat in food. Someone said kids are raised on chili peppers there. I should mention that the restaurant has wifi, which is a rarity in this area.
The vegetarian platter
After lunch Omar found an impromptu soccer game with a handmade ball of cloth, and then an outdoor foosball table.  The locals let him join in the fun.  Kids were happy to shake hands with him. He learned the Ethiopian way of greeting- shake and then come in for a shoulder bump.  We met many school kids.  The kids go to school in 3 shifts of just a few hours a day.  The schools would otherwise be crowded and the kids often have to walk long distances or work to earn money for the rest of the day.  The surrounding area is full of farmers growing teff and raising some animals.  During the season we were there, the fields were being tilled using a couple of oxen attached to a wood harness with a stick dragging behind.  Most of the oxen were being led by barefoot young men.  Children led goats. Young girls carried enormous loads of sticks on their backs to be used as firewood.  The firewood issue is problematic.  Most homes still cook with wood fires and few have electricity in this region.  Trees are cut which leaves nothing to hold the soil during drought.  Nearly this entire part of the country has been deforested and there are few efforts to replant at this time.
Outdoor foosball

Soccer with a makeshift ball

Omar loved meeting the kids

A young man working in the fields

Girls carrying firewood

It started to rain, so we stopped in at a place where teff is ground to make the flour used for cooking injeeera. It was a small place with an overhang and there were many people crowding in to stay dry.  Even a few goats and chickens joined us.  The process was pretty simple and no safety equipment was in use.  Dust from the grinding was everywhere.  Mostly women sifted the grain in large baskets in preparation.  Babies rode along with older sisters or moms, worn on the back in a harness with leather fringe that made a comforting sound as the women walked.
Preparing the teff for grinding

The grinding room was very dusty

There's a cute happy baby in there

Goats sharing the shelter

We saw road construction happening using local labor.  Each block was hand cut from local stone and placed in a pattern to form streets.  Rocks were glued together with concrete to form bridges.  Some men were making steel tools over an open fire using rocks to sharpen and hone edges.
All labor done without machinery

Making tools in the fire

Road construction

Homes were a very simple construction using sticks, mud and manure.  I'm sure there were plenty of homes with puddles inside during the rainy season.  Without running water and toilets, a pit toilet constructed of sticks was at the end of one roadway for public use.  In some cases animals shared living spaces at a room attached to the main house.  A separate cooking house was often the case where you could cook over an open fire and smoke escaped through the roof.

This girl showed us the animals beside their home

The public latrine
Inside the cooking house

The further we walked, the longer the parade of children and teens became who wanted to walk with us to practice English.  They were very curious about our thoughts of their village and asked intelligent questions about where we came from.  Some of the boys asked for email addresses so they could correspond in future and practice their English, but to be honest, nearly every one of those requests eventually turned out to be requests for sponsorship to help their families, continue their education, get material goods.  Because we are American they assumed we could afford up to $350 per month for the next 5 years to "help them out".  Now obviously poor in America and poor in Ethiopia are totally different, but we felt it impossible to honor all the requests from these village boys, and once we said we couldn't help them, the e-mails to "practice English" stopped. It is a tough life where kids come to Lalibela from the surrounding farm villages for first grade and sometimes live with a family member or friend until they are older.  The boys I chatted with lived alone and they were in 7th and 11th grade.  They shined shoes and carried bags from the bus station to earn money to support themselves and lived on just a couple of meals a day which were no more than injeera or bread. Everyone is thin in Ethiopia.  Even the animals.  You will naturally want to help them create a better life and that is what has haunted me most about this visit.

After an entire afternoon of walking up and down through the town, Omar was exhausted, so we caught a ride back to the hotel with a tuktuk, which is a taxi of the simplest kind. It was a day full of learning and fun.
Riding in the tuktuk taxi

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