Signposts to Lalibela

Published in Africa Geographic, September 2003

Sometimes it really is the journey not the arrival that matters. And when the arrival is at Lalibela, arguably sub-Saharan Africa’s most stunning man-made site, then the journey must be pretty astonishing.

There were two aspects to this 40 kilometre walk that made it utterly memorable: the adventure of striking off into the unknown with only a hazy idea of where we were going, and an encounter in a village on the way.

First the adventure. In 1976 Ethiopia was in the grip of a Marxist regime which was in love with itself. Outside the capital with its strident political placards and constant reference to “the broad oppressed masses” life carried on much as it had in Haile Selassie’s era. The countryside was infested with shifta (bandits) and drought further blighted the lives of rural peasants. Wollo province, which we would walk through to reach Lalibela, was the poorest of all, frequently beset by famine. The trickle of tourists who made it to Lalibela went by plane, but the airport was closed during the rainy season. We walked there in September, when the airport was closed, but the rains had ceased and the countryside was green with new grass and yellow with Meskel flowers. Every one warned us against making the journey on foot. They said the shifta would get us, if we didn’t lose our way first. We met no shifta, only astonished villagers who wanted to walk with us, carry our packs, and practice their English.

Then we came to the most isolated village, two days walk from the nearest sizeable town. The mud houses were clustered on a hill above the track, and as we walked past a trickle, then a stream of villagers poured down the mountainside. They gathered around us displaying their ulcerated limbs. They thought we were a medical aid team, these being the only white foreigners they’d seen before. We rummaged in our packs, found our iodine, and started painting the sores with this disinfectant. I remember the feeling of pride: for once we were being useful, doing our bit to help a local community. It felt good! Then the crowd parted and a boy of about 12 was led by the hand towards us. His closed eyes were hugely swollen and pus trickled down one cheek. Flies clustered on his face. The crowd watched us expectantly. We shook our heads and spread our hands to show we had no cure. The crowd continued to stare at us, back at the child, then at us again. We closed our packs and walked away down the track. Neither of us spoke for a long time.

We reached Lalibela two days later. We saw the town as we descended the last ravine to cross the final river. And the town saw us. “Houlet faranji!” shrieked an excited voice. Yes, two foreigners! The boys raced down the road towards us. “Lalibela is quite a town!” I wrote. “It’s got a hospital, a first class tourist hotel with another being built, plenty of tejabets, a few eating places, and a flea-ridden hostel.” It also had a few churches…

© Hilary Bradt

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