Bernd Bierbaum

Bernd Bierbaum writes books, paints, enjoys photography, and travels professionally across the world. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

Latest: Searching for the aardvark. Based on my idea and story, a 45min documentary was recently broadcast on ARTE TV and ZDF in France and Germany.

Why Ethiopia?

Published in the weekend edition of the Cape Argus (Cape Town) on July 1/2, 2006

Try this one at your dinner table: "I've just come back from Ethiopia." Instantly conversation stops and a very rewarding question to any storyteller emerges from your guests.

"Why Ethiopia?"

Well, let me take you on a virtual tour of Ethiopia. Picture yourself flying via Addis Ababa to Lalibela. You fly over the ambas, Table Mountains that rise 4000m in the provinces of Wollo and Lasta. You land in a gargantuan canyon, a desert it seems, yet upon closer inspection it comes alive. Birds sing, the smell of rich volcanic earth fills the air, farmers sow their fields with indigenous grains, children and women wear traditional costumes and carry water in clay amphores on their backs. Your Jeep passes old trees, before you reach the central village built of double-storied round huts. You get to the hotel, check in, turn on the warm water in your room, but the tab remains dry. "Water comes only back at sunset," the receptionist smiles, as if talking about somebody whose mysterious wanderings are only known to him. Fantastic! Let's not waste our time with showers then!

You are in Lalibela, an architectural treasure of Africa, home to 17 medieval churches and chapels all carved and chiseled into pink volcanic rock. You walk into the village and follow people clad in long white scarves through a wide ditch into the underground. You take sharp turns and go through tunnels. Before you can ask yourself why people dig churches into the ground, somebody walks by with a rainbow-coloured umbrella, and a man kisses a stone wall. You emerge into a deep courtyard, witnessing the baptism of a woman in a papyrus pool. A procession passes by, with drums and sistres, rattling ancient instruments from the times of the Pharaohs. You add your shoes to a long line of others and step into a church. You see a column draped in linen which humbly guards the mysteries of mankind from the beginning of time to its end. Throughout the labyrinth, hermits live in tiny rock holes, praying all day, their hands holding honey-coloured rosaries.
Ethiopia naturally evokes the feeling of walking through ancient, biblical times. History here is not all relegated to what happened in the past, but it is very much a continuing affair, and you are a part of it. Just listen to what people call you: faranji they say, the term derived from the "francs", early French crusaders and Portuguese discoverers trying to set up an alliance with the Christian emperors of Ethiopia. You are a faranji, a traveller, irrespective of your ethnic origin.
Next is Axum, only slightly larger than Lalibela, but three times its age. Huge granite stone slabs of ancient times rise like skyscrapers above holy fig trees. You hear the legends of the Queen of Sheba, and your eyes gaze upon inscriptions older than Rome. A temple houses the Ark of Covenant with the Ten Commandments Moses received. Can it be? At 10am you walk by the Post Office, where the clock reads four. What is wrong? Nothing is. As in biblical times, Ethiopia begins its day at sunrise (6am our time) and sets its watches accordingly. Besides, according to the Ethiopian calendar, you live in a different month (possibly the 13th) and a different year.
At Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, locals will tell you about Mary, Joseph and Jesus. According to their records the three lived at Lake Tana, together with their donkey. Difficult to believe? But everyone you encounter believes it. People look at you in the same way the dark-skinned angels, the lions and the whales look at you from painted church walls and ceilings. Big, curious eyes monitoring your every move. You are never alone, feeling exclusive within a network of attention.
Then the ultimate in biblical travel: Ghion, near the Blue Nile Falls. Ghion, according to the Ethiopian scriptures, is Paradise, the place where God created earth and where Adam and Eve tasted the apple.
There are moments, when the Highlands of Ethiopia feel like another planet, albeit one that is more familiar than you thought. A kaleidoscope of ancient and modern, of biblical and African.
But why Ethiopia?
Because Ethiopia paints a smile on your face for a long time to come. My last day in Addis Ababa, before soaking in the natural hot springs, I went for a jog. Under the tall Eucalyptus trees, however, I surrendered to another kind of adrenaline rush - kids ran with me to see how long they could keep up. A group of Ethiopian marathon runners paused in their training session to cheer me on. A procession of orthodox believers crossed the street, stopped in their prayers, and waved. University students giggled. Farmers walking goats and carrying chickens to the huge central market laughed. I laughed back, not knowing why. All of a sudden, the whys didn't matter anymore.