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30th January 2013

Timkat and the return to Gondar

Last Thursday was all about one mission - to complete the 220 mile ride all the way back to Gondar for the annual Timkat festival. Once back onto the main road, the riding was easy and very soon I was cruising along at a steady 90kph and singing along with Donkey to our all time favourite road-tripping theme tune duet, Rawhide! It was half way through the second round of “move ‘em on! Head ‘em up! Head ‘em up! Move ‘em on, move ‘em on, head ‘em up, RAWHIDE!!!” that at the last moment I made the rare sighting of an Oil Libya petrol station and swiftly manoeuvred off the road. The forecourt was deep but lacking any concrete, instead made up of a thick carpet of rocks and rubble, so we made our way slowly and gingerly over to the fuel pump where a large flat-bed truck was being refuelled. There were quite a few men overseeing the filling process - I’m not quite sure which were the employees and which were the truckers, but each to a man gave me the standard issue weirded-out look as I pulled in. Undeterred, I waved heartily. “Hello! Benzin? You have benzin? Petrol?” I asked. One of the blankly staring men nodded and suddenly burst into life, dashing over to the other pump, signalling me to follow. It’s not easy backing up a heavily-laden bike over rubble and it turned out in any case to have been a fruitless mission given that this was clearly labelled as a diesel pump. “no no”, I yelled over the sound of the revving truck to the attendant, “petrol! I need PETROL. Benzin.” In response the man just gave me a slightly sideways glance, making me fear that he didn’t know what I was on about, but then gestured for me to follow him once again - this time around the far side of this truck, next to the shop. I wasn’t entirely keen on this, not least because I couldn’t see where the petrol would be coming from and I was now blocked from view from any passing traffic, squashed up with a load of truckers. Very shortly however, all became clear as a lady, clearly the owner of the petrol station, came out from the shop to manage the situation. I was greatly surprised to see her here but smiled warmly at her and nodded a Hello, which she returned with probably the same degree of surprise. I can’t quite explain it, perhaps its the fact that we both in our ways were playing a “man’s” role in very much a man’s world, but somehow it was that with just the exchange of a look and a nod, we both understood each other perfectly and a current of mutual respect passed between us. Had we shared a common language, perhaps this would have been translated into “you go girl!”, but in fact it was one of those beautiful moments in life where truly no words were necessary.

The lady commanded one of her boys to sell me petrol at a rate of 1 litre for 20 Birr (roughly 66p) and continued overseeing things as the boy scurried between my bike and the shop to fill and refill his old and rather battered metal 5 litre jug. After 3 jugfuls I had all I needed, so paid up, waved goodbye to them all with a particular nod once again to the lady, who returned a lovely, proud smile, and bumped my way back onto the main road.

Two hours later, despite my best efforts at ignoring the growing numbness in my posterior, I had to admit defeat and pull over. I had been reluctant to stop up to this point, in part because there hadn’t seemed like a particularly safe spot to so on the twisty road, but more particularly because it seemed to be lunch break time for all the local school kids and as a result there were even more of them than usual on the roads. Call me a sissy but I was actually quite nervous of stopping amongst all these kids. It might sound rediculous, but when you are riding along, they all wave confidently, most smile, some shout something and a few brandish large sticks in the air in a rather threatening manner. I’ve heard many stories from many travellers about Ethiopian kids throwing stones at them (for fun, apparently), so I just wasn’t sure how they might react to me when I was stationary. Would it be friendly waves or a stoning? Now was the time to find out. I pulled over, dismounted, pulled off my helmet and rummaged around in my pocket for my snack. Within minutes two boys came running excitedly up the hill towards me, but then once they were within 10 metres of me, they slowed right down and surveyed from this safe distance. Deciding as always to get on the front foot and send out the love, I smiled and waved, saying a cheery “salaam!”. One boy beamed and asked “how are you?”, while the other one gave me the weirdest look I’ve ever seen, literally as if I were from outer space. And definitely not human. “hello!” I said to him, grinning. He looked a little bewildered then looked at me, rubbing his bare arm. I think it was my white skin that was freaking him out. Given how few tourists ever drive this route, I guess it’s very likely he’d never seen a white person before. Very shortly, more kids came running up the hill but similarly stopped at a safe distance. There were about 10 kids around me now, half of them grinning back at me, the other half clearly worried. I tried to break the ice by taking a few photos and showing them, which worked to an extent, as did Donkey’s contribution of making a few comedy hee-haw noises, but they were definitely a tough crowd to crack and I failed to get smiles from all of them. Deciding it was best to leave them to mull over this strange new spectacle, I waved heartily, mounted up and rode off towards Gondar, amazed to consider what it meant that my mere presence had completely blown some of those children’s minds, but also hugely relieved not to have been mobbed or stoned! In due course I arrived back at Gondar and once I had rather dicily negotiated my way through a couple of cordoned off roads and festival parades, arrived at my hotel for a well deserved shower and rest.

Next day I met up once again with Eve (who I’d previously spent time with in Aswan) and her friend Abi, the man who had helped find somewhere safe to store Suzi. After a warm reunion we headed off into Gondar to watch the start of the Timkat festivities. Timkat, by the way, is an orthodox Christian celebration of Baptism that takes place once a year in Ethiopia. On the first day, a replica Ark Covenant is brought amidst great fanfare from each of the three churches down to the Fasilidas Bath on the outer edge of town. This bath was built 400 years ago for King Fasilida and is an enormous deep stone bath (more like a large swimming pool), in the centre of which is a rather beautiful 3 storey stone building, all set in beautiful, tumbledown gardens. The festival continues on for 3 days, but more of that later.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Eve told me we were going to watch the parades of each church carrying their Ark, but when we arrived on the scene it was a bustling, lively and jam packed street party of drummers performing in the street, large crowds of women followers, all wearing their traditional floor length white muslin dresses (signifying purity) and at the centre of it all, a large group of priests and clergy. These men were maybe 50 strong in number, all wearing a vivid variety of robes and headdresses in greens, yellows and reds, with usually the most important amongst them shaded by tasseled parasols of brightly coloured velvet. It was quite a spectacle but certainly a slow moving one, as it was of extraordinary importance that the holy men carrying the Ark should never be standing directly onto the ground, rather on a freshly rolled out wide panel of red carpet. As a result the holy men would shuffle slowly along on one length of carpet as runners would hastily roll up the length they had just trodden over, scurry to overtake the priests then unfurl the carpet once again in front of them and give it a stiff sweep-down to ensure a continuous covering of clean carpet. This was taken extremely seriously and woe betide any passer-by who trod on the carpet in an attempt to scoot around the enormous crowds of women-followers wielding enormous golf-umbrellas as parasols - a lethal brigade entirely oblivious to the preference of other passers-by not to have their eyes gouged out by umbrella spokes.

We stayed watching the parades and attendant carnival floats for some time in the packed streets, then followed the flow of people down towards the baths. By mid afternoon it was clear that some people had been drinking and the mood had changed into one more similar to the Notting Hill Carnival - fun but with a crackle in the air like something could kick off to change all of that in an instant. Alas that’s exactly what happened - I don’t know what triggered it, but all of a sudden a man started running as fast as he could away from the crowds, down the street with 5 or 6 blue-t shirted festival staff in hot pursuit. A large scuffle ensued, soon surrounded by a crowd, and then no sooner had it started than it was finished - one of the staff was carried away by his arms and legs, bleeding from the temples. The crowd parted and very shortly all that remained of what has happened was a small rock on the road and a pool of blood next to it. I turned to Abi. “What was that?” I asked. “I’m not sure”, he replied, “I think that man who ran away is a Muslim and he had done something sacrilegious against the festival. There must have been a fight”. I was a little surprised - up to this point I’d been led to believe that the 60% of the Ethiopian population that are Christians lived in quiet harmony with the 35% Muslim community. Clearly things weren’t that simple. I then heard another story. “A few years ago at Timkat, a man, a suspected Muslim, threw a piece of rubbish from a cafe balcony at the Ark as it was being carried to Fasilidas bath. Immediately the crowd stormed the cafe and ran up to the floor where the rubbish had been thrown from. They didn’t know who threw the rubbish so 4 people were thrown from the balcony and they all died.” In part I was shocked by this story but having just witnessed the speed and intensity of this fight, I wasn’t. It was clear from Timkat that the Christians in Ethiopia take their religion very seriously and if any attempts are made to defile their icons or disrespect their religion, rough justice is swiftly executed.

We decided it was best not to hang around at the scene of the scuffle so continued to walk down to the site of the Bath. However we soon noticed that many of the locals in the crowd seemed to now be staring at the sky and taking videos with their mobile phones rather than watching the passing parade. Looking up, I spotted a black helicopter, presumably from a tv station, hovering in the sky, recording all the activity. “ah yes, that’s it” said Abi smiling. “we don’t see helicopters here very often, the people here like them a lot”. Given how strongly the Ethiopians felt about Timkat, the fact that a helicopter could distract them all so easily must have meant it was a serious novelty!

Shortly afterwards we passed beneath the stone archway that marked the entrance to the walled grounds of the Bath and I was able to catch my first sighting of this beautiful landmark. Standing proudly in the centre of this tussock ridden, grassy pasture fringed with tall, shady trees, this place had a very magical, medieval feeling to it. All around, brightly coloured bunting of reds, greens and yellows had been suspended across the building, and the Bath had now been filled with water, ready for the next day’s main event. Around three sides of the Bath, a huge tiered seating area had been constructed out of slender tree trunks in a most beautiful fashion, most probably unchanged for hundreds of years. With great care we scrambled up the ramp towards the walkway to get a better look at our surroundings. From this viewpoint we were able to spot that the trees surrounding the high walled enclosure of the Bath had actually grown into the wall, with their roots cleaving to them and spilling down the sides in an identical manner to those at the temples of Angor Wat, adding to the other-worldly quality of this place. It really was something else. After a further potter around the grounds, we decided to call it a day as the next morning we would need to be back here at 3am for the start of the main event.

Unfortunately that night I barely slept at all given the extraordinarily loud drum and bass party that had kicked off at 10pm very close to my hotel. Feeling distinctly groggy, I went down to meet Eve and Abi who had kindly come to pick me up in a TukTuk (or Bajaj as they are known here). Squashed up in the back of this TukTuk (which to me always feels like sitting in a dodgem - in every way), we bumbled our way down to the Bath through the chilly darkness of the night.

Passing through the stone archway once again, the scene at the Bath blew me away. All around, the ghostly white robed figures of the communion were moving gracefully throughout the grounds, each lit only by the gentle glow of a tall taper candle that each held in their hands to guide the way. As we walked towards the main tent, from which chanting and song could be heard, we were careful to watch our step for the many white mounds lying curled in the grass. At first I mistook these for large sacks of grain, but then I realised that they were actually the slumbering bodies of worshippers who had slept there overnight, curled up in the grass, keen to be as close to this holy celebration as possible. After spending about 30 minutes in this tent, watching the prayer and song, I began to feel slightly giddy. There wasn’t much air at all in there, packed tight as it was with many bodies, and a rather warm, earthy scent hung in the air, so I was quite relieved when it was time to move outside and take our seats on the tiered wooden seating area. The air was fresh but chilly, it now still only being 4am, and as Eve and I sat huddled together for warmth, we watched as the crowds started to take their places on the planks next to us, excited for the main event to start.

The next 3-4 hours passed rather slowly as we waited for the start of the ceremony. The cold and early rumblings of hunger began to take hold, interrupted only by the occasional dismayed cry of a tourist as he or she realised that their bag had just been magically subsumed by the internal workings of the seating area. Alas with so many Faranjis at this event, all laden with cash, smartphones and expensive cameras, the site was a petty thief’s dream. The supporting construction of this seating area wasn’t sealed and therefore was being used as a giant secret climbing frame for agile, opportunistic youths to navigate and discreetly steal any items unwittingly left at tourists’ feet.

At long last, the sun began to lift the darkness of the night, marking the start of a rather lengthy series of sermons and chants from the most senior priest. Eventually, to a palpable crescendo of pent-up excitement from the crowd that even the finest x-factor presenter couldn’t have topped, the water was blessed. The very moment this act was completed, hundreds of young men who had stripped off to their underpants in preparation, hurled themselves into the water to great shouts and whoops of celebration from the crowd, then began swimming and splashing the water at the onlookers with joyful abandon. The men (and very occasional woman) who threw themselves in the water were incredibly excited to be bathing in this holy water, signifying a joyful rebirth and all-consuming holiness. In fact, the overwhelming desire to take part in this event means that a large proportion of those who jump in can’t actually swim (very common in land-locked Ethiopia), but trust that the other swimmers will help keep them afloat. By and large this appeared to work well but it was clear that more than a few of these swimmers struggled to haul themselves out of the high-banked Bath and required a helping hand from those waiting on the edges (there were no steps). Much as I saluted the spirit of this carefree celebration, as I watched wave after wave of men dive bombing the water, I asked Abi if there were ever any accidents. “oh yes”, he replied fairly casually, “usually one person drowns every year, they find the body after everyone has gone”. Not long after, the crowds began to part and we also made our way back home for a well-deserved breakfast and bed.

Next day Eve and I took it easy, strolling around the town and pottering around some shops. I was on a rare mission to buy a skirt (I am the world’s most reluctant shopper) and once we had traipsed from shop to shop in the smarter end of Gondar, we decided to head down to the market end of town to take a look. The atmosphere down there was quite different to the main part of town. This was not a place where tourists seemed to go and the atmosphere was very different. Mostly we were just stared at but at one point I sensed real danger and felt like we were being followed, turned around quickly and saw a young man walking very closely behind Eve with his eyes fixated on her handbag. “Watch it, Eve” I blurted, extending a protective arm around her shoulder and looking the man very coldly straight in the eye. He walked away  immediately. It didn’t feel safe here but we kept walking, now holding hands, as we weren’t just there to browse the shops, we were there for a reason.

Eve and I had talked a lot about the street kids and poverty in Ethiopia and that I wanted to see the truth about how people were living. Eve has spent quite a bit of time in Gondar and knew that there was an orphanage at the furthest edge of the market, which she thought I needed to see. As we proceeded through the very narrow streets of lumpy cobble and dirt, the endless alleyways of stalls gave way to what was clearly housing. On each side of the pathway were endless rows of tiny, one roomed corrugated tin or mud shacks with doors handing loosely on make-shift hinges. Small families of dirty women and children sat mutely, huddled together on the dirt, some cooking on simple metal burners out the front, others trying to wash their children’s faces in buckets of grey water. Everything was blackened by soot, dirt and filth and the whole place stank of urine. Mange-ridden cats covered in sores roamed wonkily amongst the dwellings. I could only imagine how many rats lived here. It was such a grim place, I don’t think I’d ever been anywhere so devoid of hope or even colour. Trying my hardest not to register my shock on my face, I tried to focus on offering a polite “salaam na” to those who glanced at me as I passed but I was struggling to process what I saw. I squeezed Eve’s hand. “just wait”, she muttered to me under her breath. “it gets worse”. “Eve”, I muttered back in disbelief and dread, “how can this get worse?”. She squeezed my hand and led me on, deeper into this ghetto until eventually the path emptied and suddenly we were standing on a barren wasteland of dirt, filth, faeces and shredded tyre fragments. The air was filled with a swirling haze of dust here and grit was soon lifted into our eyes on the breeze. As I blinked to clear it, I looked up and as my eyes focussed on what was before me, I was frozen with shock.

There before us was a small group of dwellings made up of many sheets of plastic packing materials, old sacks and pieces of sheeting, all lashed together in a rough patchwork to form a kind of yurt-style hovel. This construction was clearly not waterproof and there was no kind of door to these dwellings. Thinking back to my conversation with the taxi driver in Addis, I dreaded to think what it must be like to live here in the rainy season. As I stood there, speechless with horror, a tiny little body appeared at one of the doorways. It was a little boy, probably only 3 years of age, with a snotty nose and rounded tummy. He stood watching me for a moment, then came tumbling over to us in great excitement together with some of his friends. Beaming out a huge smile, he stretched out his filthy, damp little hand towards me and waited for me to offer him mine. It felt like I’d had all the air sucked out of my body, I couldn’t believe this place, it was one of the bleakest places on earth, forgotten and left to rot on the fringes of town. It was completely beyond my comprenshion this child, all these children, we’re living like this. It didn’t seem real. But it absolutely was, it couldn’t be denied, right there before me was a real little boy and he was waiting for me to return a simple act of human unity and touch his hand. With the saddest heart, I crouched down in the dirt and gave him my hand, smiling at him and doing my best to resist the tears in my eyes. His friends all wanted to touch hands with Eve and I and we stayed with them for a few moments, holding hands and returning their smiles. After a little while it was time to go. It felt almost like a betrayal to leave them there, but I knew that there was nothing I could do to really help them there and then, I just needed to think.

On the way back home in the TukTuk, I didn’t say very much at all and was deep in thought. “I’m sorry”, Eve offered gently, “I just thought you needed to see that”. “Don’t apologise” I replied, “I wanted to see that, I just can’t believe it. I can’t forget what I saw.” “I know”, Eve replied. “But what are you going to do? You can’t help all of them.” “You’re right”, I conceded, “But does that mean I shouldn’t help any of them? I don’t know what to do exactly but I can’t do nothing.”

After a lot of thought, I decided that it would be a good idea to make a start by seeing what was already in place here by visiting a local project I had read about called Yenege Tesfa (“Hope for tomorrow” in Amharic). , YT is a NGO based in Gondar to help local street children in Ethiopia and is quite unique - it was founded and is still run today by a local Ethiopian, a woman in her twenties called Nigisti Gebreselassie. Eve and I tracked down the office, a tiny room crammed with 3 desks and about 8 staff all busy at work. We were greeted warmly and offered a low stool next to a huge filing cabinet, where we sat engrossed for the next hour or so, hearing all the answers to our questions.

Nigisti modestly explained that she had started her work when she was still in school because she wanted to help the street children, so started off by helping kids to set up their own shoe-shine businesses. This was successful but as the charity slowly and steadily grew, Nigisti realised she wanted to do more, so founded the first of four orphanages. It houses 16 children, all boys, and there is a full time model mother, father and big brother living there to take care of the kids and provide them with stability, love and a nurturing, safe environment. The boys are thriving in this environment, with two thirds of them coming in the top 3 in their class. I was astonished. “they really want to work and change their lives”, Nigisti explained, “and now one of the older boys has won a scholarship with Ethiopian Airlines to become a ground engineer, so he goes to university and comes back to the orphanage during the break, he has really inspired the other boys”. I was impressed. “Why did you decide that your first orphanage should be for boys and not for girls?” I asked. Nigisti gave a careful response. “you know, when we first started this project, we thought it was the boys who really needed help. The girls don’t sleep on the street, just the boys, they seemed in the most need. Not just from the cold and the hunger. These boys would come here to the office desperate for help and we noticed that they all had their belts on so tight around their waists, so you know, no-one could get in there. We have a growing problem with paedophiles.” I felt completely sick.

After a moment I collected myself. “Ok, but now you said that two of your orphanages are for girls, so I guess they aren’t safe either. What was happening to them?”. Nigisti explained. “The problem for the girls is different. Some are adopted by families and treated like their own children, it’s very good, but most are taken in and used as house-slaves for jobs around the house, they aren’t ever allowed out of the home and they are very often raped. We didn’t used to know about this but we heard about them from (the Ethiopian equivalent of) social services so they were referred to us.” Both Eve and I were horrified. “So there are only 16 children in each of your 4 orphanages, but so many more children out there, do you plan to build many more orphanages?”, Eve asked. Nigisti nodded, “Yes, but we have to be careful. I am not a professional, I just try this and try that and see what works. The orphanages like they are now, they work because they are small and we can really focus on each child. I would rather make a big difference thoughtfully to a few children than do a bit to help lots of children and not really achieve any lasting change for them. It is so, so hard, sometimes we have to turn children away from our office here, choosing which child gets a place in our orphanages is almost impossible, how do you choose which of two children in equally terrible circumstances gets help? It’s so hard but we have to do it.”

We talked through all of the amazing satellite projects that Nigisiti and her team were also involved in, from micro-lending to single mothers to teaching effective agriculture techniques to families in the countryside (the logic being that if the crop yields are improved, the family can be fed properly and therefore the children won’t be forced into the city to live and beg on the streets). Eve then asked if there were any other new projects that Nigisti wanted to get involved with. “yes”, she replied, searching for an image on her computer. She selected one and up sprang a photograph of the hovels we had seen only the day before. “These are the plastic houses, you know them?” she asked. We nodded. “Here the very poorest people live in the whole city. They really have nothing. Their homes aren’t waterproof, it is very unsanitary there and there is no security - often people attack the houses and take everything from inside them and abuse the people living in there.” I thought of the little boy who just wanted to touch my hand, living in such constant threat of danger. Nigisti went on. “the government have given us a piece of land and we want to build secure housing for them there, the university are helping us with construction materials. It takes time though, you know.”

Eve and I had been in the office for a long time by this point and felt it was time to let Nigisti get back to work. We gave a donation and told her how incredible she was to have achieved so much for other people. She thanked us and smiled saying “I don’t do this because these kids are Ethiopian or because they are from Gonder, but because they are fellow humans and they need my help. I believe we only get one life and it brings me real positive energy to spend my time helping people to change their lives so much. It makes me very happy”.

We spoke briefly after that and she asked what I was going in Gondar. I explained about my bike trip and after a few moments of disbelief, she sat amazed, saying “Wow, you really inspire me! You are proving that anything is possible, we can make anything happen!” I was a bit embarrassed that she should find my little venture inspiring, after all in my mind it’s just a long bike ride really. By contrast this young woman is changing childrens lives beyond all recognition and giving them hope again by providing them with a future. Truly, what could be more inspiring than that?