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Ethiopia – no one smokes in public
Traveller, 2005


No one smokes in public in Ethiopia. The Church has never approved of the habit. Memory of famine has reinforced this disapproval and made of it an iron social law. However in a bar, filled with four dozen beautiful statuesque Ethiopian girls poured into their tight white jeans and seemingly keen to befriend a tawdry selection of middle-aged travellers, I felt the situation was sufficiently private for me to break the taboo. Nightclubs require smoke I reasoned, to drift across the strobe lights, to mix with the smell of beer and mingle with the music. I looked across the room. It was much easier to concentrate on youth. They were all so positively post-famine. Anybody my age in Ethiopia looked either a saint or a cynic, and had seen far too much to remain beautiful.

The troubles had began with the secret famines of the 70’s which led to the fall of the old Emperors regime and the first jubilant years of land reform and free schooling. However the revolution began to betray itself with enforced collectivisation and the creation of the Stalinist-like New Villages, this downward spiral further complicated by Cold War power politics that twisted a border war with Somalia (over the Ogaden desert) into something much more lethal. The resulting government Red Terror brought on civil war and the infamous famine of the 1980’s which in turn brought the economically and morally bankrupt Communist Derg regime to its knees, though it was only the bravery of the freedom fighters from Tigre province that ultimately freed the people of Ethiopia. In the background, alternatively raging, then smouldering was the thirty year long insurgency in Eritrea, which has only recently been ended with full independence. However apart from the odd wrecked tank, or half-truck with a tree growing through the windscreen, the wars and tribulations of Ethiopia now seem a whole generation away. And the travellers, like some rare breed of bird, which has had its nest disturbed, are now flocking back. There is good reason.

I know nowhere on earth to match Ethiopia. Amid the scent of salted green coffee beans roasting on iron griddles, the endless spirals made in the sky by its vultures and eagles, amongst its babble of eighty native languages, its dark river gorges filled by the roar of a thousand tributaries of the Nile, its remote highland plateaux, the very air carries thousands of years of history and myth as if it were yesterday’s news. I first came, like so many other travellers, in search of some of this history, some touch-stone from the days of Queen Sheba, of her love-child with King Solomon, Menelik I and the Ark of the Covenant that he first bought to Africa. I was not disappointed, you pick up elements of this story whereever you travel in Ethiopia; at a rock-cut pool basin filled with muddy water, from a hermit-like deacon guarding a church, from a poster bright mural on an island monastery or as you enter a vast monolithic underground tomb. But like following King Arthur around Western Britain, this empowering national myth is both everywhere but nowhere - and tends to evaporate from each specific site when viewed under too close an archaeological scrutiny.

Instead I unwittingly found myself increasingly drawn to another aspect of Ethiopia’s magic which I was quite unprepared for: the power of her Christian faith. The Orthodox Coptic Church has been imbedded in the Ethiopian landscape for thousands of years but like some scarcely credible myth it came here quite by chance; in the shape of a pair of storm-wrecked young Christian students from Tyre in the 4th century, backed up half generation later by nine missionary monks from Syria. The faith in Ethiopia still retains something of the purity and passion of those apostolic saints, in a way that the British Isles has not seen since St Columba dwelt on Iona. Everyone fasts in Ethiopia, not just for the major festivals like Lent, but as part of a weekly pattern of spirituality. While instead of the dirge-like quality of a wheezing organ, Ethiopian services are accompanied by drums and the ethereal chanting of choirs of turban wearing deacons swaying in dance-like movements as they lean on their elegant long pastoral staffs. Instead of being ranked in sterile rows of pews (in the English style) I stood amongst congregations that were scattered under the shade of park-like trees that surround the ancient shrines at the sacred hours of dawn and dusk, so that if you blinked at the white tog-like robes of the surrounding congregation you could be forgiven for feeling yourself amongst the company of saints. But this was just to touch at the first impressions of a land where hermits, monks and pilgrims remain part of the essential tapestry of life. A land which stayed so true to the history of its faith that they never lost contact with the great Coptic monasteries of Egypt, out of which they would send for a new primate, and would cut a copy an African mirror to Jerusalem out of the rocks at Lalibela, surely one of the eight wonders of the medieval world.

The miraculous is seldom far from the surface in Ethiopia, even in smoke filled bars. One evening I was talking to a man during the evening crush at the lobby bar of the Hilton at Addis Adabba, whose silk tie, exquisite suit and clipped Oxford accent helped identify him as one of stars from the UN and international conference circuit. Yet the conviction with which he testified to the power of the ancient liturgical crosses cut through the frothy atmosphere at the bar. He had experienced it at first hand when the touch of a cross at Lalibela had cured him from years of excruciating backache. He mentioned that for the price of five imported cigarettes you could have saved a life during the famine. I stubbed mine out. The Church was right.

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