By Michael L’Heureux, Global MBA student 2012-2013, Canada
After 30 days of fasting, the end of Ramadan, the 'Eid el Fitr, came as a relief on August 7th. For Matthias & me, this meant a few days off work and a chance to learn more about the Horn of Africa with a 4-day trip to Ethiopia.
Contrary to images of war, starvation and strife that most people would associate with the region, what we found in Ethiopia was a country rich in culture, people and potential, if not in wealth. Ethiopia is the cradle of humanity: where the first fossils of human ancestors have been found and also home to a rich and ancient culture, descended from the kingdom of Axum, which ruled during the time of the classical Romans and Greeks. It was also the only Sub-Saharan African country to never have been colonized by a European power.
With a young population of 80 million in a territory twice the size of France, Ethiopia is poised to become a powerhouse in Africa. Leaving behind its troubles of the 20th century, Ethiopia is set to boom in the 21st, with major new infrastructure being built, helping to complement its traditional agricultural exports with hydroelectric power generated by new dams on the Blue Nile and increasing tourism.
Ethiopia is a bit off the beaten tourist track, but shouldn't be. We visited several well-known tourist sites, but were surprised to hardly see any foreign faces during our time there. The sights, though, were world-class: 16th-century monasteries with original paintings, manuscripts and artifacts intact; wild hyenas, monkeys and other African wildlife; incredible mountain vistas and hikes; not to mention excellent, cheap and spicy Ethiopian food every day.
The lush green landscape of Ethiopia and the fresh, even slightly cool, weather, was a welcome relief from scorchingly-hot Djibouti!
Our first stop, brought us to the city of Dire Dawa, the mid-point between Djibouti and the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. We were well-received by Idriss, the financial manager of the Economic Development Fund, who had a house and family in the city and invited us over for a traditional Somali Eid breakfast of yellow flatbread and sweet yogurt.
Next stop was the ancient fortified city of Harar, nestled in between low, terraced mountains and coffee fields. The old city of Harar is an incredible place to wander, with over 110 historic mosques & tombs of Islamic saints nestled among the narrow, twisting alleys between its walls. In Harar, we were invited to lunch at the home of our guide. He was an Orthodox Christian and his sister had married a Muslim, so everyone came together to celebrate the 'Eid. We enjoyed an excellent Ethiopian meal, followed by a traditional coffee ceremony and shisha.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and the drink plays a very important role in the local culture. The mother of the family prepared coffee for us in the traditional way: starting by burning frankincense over a briar, then roasting the green coffee beans over the same coals, filling the room with a lovely smell. After grinding the freshly roasted grains, she boiled them in a long-necked ceramic pot an served us each a small cup of some of the nicest coffee I'd ever tasted, topped with a sprig of a local fragrant herb.
Once night fell in Harar, we headed back to just outside the city walls to watch locals feed wild hyenas. Apparently they do this traditionally to prevent the hyenas from coming into the city at night. It was quite a sight: the hyenas came out from the fields, they were definitely very wild-looking, very big and very imposing. There were other tourists around to watch, and we even got to feed the hyenas a few scraps of meat ourselves... a bit scary, though, as we wondered why the hyenas didn't realise that they could get more meat by eating all the bystanders instead. We were told there were two kinds of hyenas in Ethiopia: the black ones which weren't dangerous and the yellow ones, which were. The ones which we fed were the yellow ones.
The next day, we hopped on a flight to Bahir Dar, passing by Addis Ababa. There, we spent the day on a boat on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, visiting several ancient Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries on islands on the lake. At the Ura Kidane Mehret monastery, we were guided by a local deacon who explained the meaning and the history of the 15th-century frescos inside, before inviting us to taste some locally-brewed "tej" (Ethiopian honey wine).
We got back to the city just in time to catch a bus to Tis Abay, were a hike through the mountains led us to the Blue Nile falls: the second-largest waterfalls on the African continent.
We returned to Djibouti a couple days later, a bit tired out from an intense schedule, but glad we'd gone.