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Emails from Africa, a journey through  Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo
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A Heathen on Pilgrimage

Addis Ababa 7 April 05

I was in Aksum and I had to get to Lalibela, famous for its rock-hewn churches.

It is a site of pilgrimage for the Christians of Ethiopia but I was going there for reasons of my own. From Aksum it is a three day bus journey, which is as horrible as it sounds.

Fortunately I wanted to stop at one of the cities on the way anyway. A bus journey in Ethiopia is not to be undertaken lightly.

Broken stela, Aksum, Emails from Africa, a journey through  Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo
The forgotten empire of Aksum attempted to erect this stela: the largest stone ever raised by human hands. It fell over and broke.

The buses have bench seats only and Ethiopian people have a morbid fear of opening windows (they think they'll get sick), no matter how hot it gets. It's like being slowly cooked in a particularly crowded oven.

Anyway, the city I wanted to stop at was Mekele. I had been hoping to do a trip from there into the Danakil Depression - one of the hottest, lowest, most inhospitable places on earth, where the Afar people mine salt.


I saw some of the salt at the market in Mekele but that was as close as I got to the salt mines. It's not a journey to do alone, and there was no one else in Mekele who wanted to go to the Danakil Depression.

In fact there were no other tourists at all. The single tour operator in town, who'd been dragged from his day off by a helpful shopkeeper to answer my questions, muttered darkly that if I did go I would want armed guards. The Afar people, he said, were "not civilised".

Some would find that statement politically incorrect, but everything I heard afterwards - notably from someone whose friends had done an insane two and a half week camel trek into the Depression - confirmed that the Afar are in fact a bunch of savages with no respect for the law and could have benefited from the Big Stick that Ethiopia successfully resisted...


But so much for them. I would never have to deal with their brutal way of doing things. I retired to a hotel restaurant to consider my next move.

I found myself sitting next to a man who said he was in the army. Somewhat sinisterly - given his obvious wealth - he claimed that though he was a soldier he had "no rank".

He wore the classic oversized gold-rimmed shades of an African dictator. I questioned him on the Ethiopia-Eritrea troubles, which are threatening to turn into war again.

Instead of the jingoism I expected he said that the war was unnecessary, a total waste of lives and resources. "All war is unnecessary," he said.

"Borders too are not important. Africa is one. The world is one. There is no need for war. All people are one."


He expanded on this theme for some minutes. When I could get a word in edgeways I pointed out the possible contradiction between his chosen vocation and his pacifist philosophy.

He waved away my paltry objection with such practised skill that I could just imagine seeing him on the news in a few years time as the prime beneficiary of a coup in some underreported country patiently explaining to slow-witted reporters concerned about minor issues like democracy that he acts only on behalf of the people.

I went to another restaurant for dinner and there had the pleasure of meeting an Ethiopian-American, back visiting his mother's family for only the second time in his life.

He explained that Mekele was his "real home" and that the man with him was his best friend from childhood. After a few more drinks he began ignoring his "friend" entirely and referring to Mekele as a "shitty-assed town", but who was I to bring him up on these minor issues?


After all, he wore a gold medallion in the shape of Africa round his neck (next to a gold medallion with a picture of his girlfriend), with a ruby marking Ethiopia.

In fact, all his friends back home in Alaska call him "Africa", so authentic are his roots. For reasons I now forget, he revealed to me that he believes there are aliens frozen under the ice in Alaska just waiting to be discovered.

For reasons even less clear to me he also launched into a long story about an extraordinarily hairy Australian girl he once slept with.

Perhaps he tells the story to everyone he's just met for the first time. Anyway, the key point is that he is definitely used to shaved pussy.

The finale to his fantastic performance was to ask me what language we speak "over there in England".

It was all very gratify, but when he asked me to join him as he went to meet the prostitute he was cheating on his girlfriend with, I regretfully declined, despite his assurances that another girl could be found for me - and a "clean" one at that.

It was a long road to Lalibela, beset with Ethiopians with hard luck stories, some of whom extracted money from me and some of whom did not.


It's an unfortunate fact that now when an Ethiopian says to me "my life is very hard" my eyes begin to glaze over.

The Portugeuse fort guarding the port at Mombasa. Emails from Africa, a journey through  Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo
The Portugeuse fort guarding the port at Mombasa

It's not that I doubt these people's lives are hard at all, but they are probably no harder than other Ethiopians - possibly less so since they speak English - and it is invariably a build-up to what Henry Miller called the "touch" i.e. the request for funds.

No tourists I've met here have stayed unhardened to these stories, even if they don't like the change in their own attitude.

The churches of Lalibela were well worth the long journey.

Not only the churches themselves are cut from solid rock, but also a maze of passageways, tunnels, storerooms, priestly abodes and hermit-holes.

However I was tired from the long road and very, very tired of the child-beggars, persistent hawkers, jokers shouting inanities from the side of the road, dodgy "guides", touts and confidence artists that spring up round every tourist attraction in Ethiopia. In Lalibela these problems were worse than anywhere else.


I decided to become Danish because no one here knows anything about Denmark. Anyone who approached me on the street was greeted with "I Danish" and "No spik English", whatever it was they were trying to extract from me or sell to me.

It may sound a harsh way to treat people who are desperately poor, but in the end you have to preserve your own sanity.

You can quite easily be approached or shouted at by a hundred people walking down a single street.

I began wearing shades a lot so that people couldn't tell when I was lying.

I was halfway through a second, more leisurely, tour of the churches when I met a woman who wanted to talk to me. I knew she had an ulterior motive but agreed to stop, partly because the churches were shut up for lunch and partly because I hadn't met many women in Ethiopia who spoke good enough English to converse with.


We talked about this and that for a while in the shade of a tree.

She asked me my religion and did not like my answer of "none". "How do you live?" she asked.

I shrugged and grinned at her, which she seemed to find infuriating.

Usually I leave people in poor countries alone about their religion (however I might wind people up at home), but I'd been sorely provoked over the last two weeks by people pretending to be friendly for the sake of a few cents (it's possibly egotistical of me to assume they would want to talk to me rather than my wallet I suppose, but if you've experience it you'll know how it can get to you).

When she began describing her typical day as an illustration of how hard her life was, I saw that it was merely a prelude to an attempt to sell me a shawl from a big bag of them at her side.


I broke in at the point where she described how she goes to church every morning before beginning work. "If you didn't go to church in the morning," I said, "you could get more sleep and have an easier life."

She looked at me in horror. "But all my life will go wrong," she said. "I will get sick and bad things happen." Then, disgusted with my immorality and keen to end the conversation, she tried to sell me a shawl.

I finally reached the main church I had been heading back to. Next to the church was a gully cut in the rock to separate the church from the surrounding rock.

It was twenty metres deep and sheer-sided, and local legends say that the climb from the bottom of the cutting to the roof of the church symbolises the climb from hell to heaven.

Anyone who manages the climb on earth is assured their place in the next life.

What interested me a lot more than the climb however was that my guide in the morning had not taken me to the bottom of the trench, and that several dark, unexplored, man-made openings could be seen at the very bottom of the place that locals call "hell".


It behooved me I felt, in accordance with my own tradition of some years now, to explore these lower regions. It took only a little effort to escape from the decreed path, clamber over a rocky wall and get into the shallow end of the gully.

I moved cautiously up it. There was a pool of stagnant water ahead of me but I thought I could get round it. Before I could get that far though I reached the first of the side-tunnels.

I fought my way into the tunnel through a thick cloud of tiny flies. But I only got a few yards in before I heard, from just around a corner in front of me, a deep, ominous, insectile humming.

Either the flies further in were far, far larger than the ones at the entrance, or there were billions upon billions of them. The noise was monstrous - my courage failed me and I backed out of the tunnel.


I was just about to continue on to the next side tunnel to seek out the horrors therein when from heaven above a guard shouted at me to get back to the path.

I couldn't tell if this was for religious reasons or because I'd failed to tip him for something earlier or if he was just being an officious nazi like security guards the world over, but I had no choice but to retreat.

Once again, as on so many previous occasions, my journey into hell had been foiled.

I vowed to try again as soon as possible - they can't keep me out forever.



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