13 Months of Sunshine

When we talk of Ethiopia in the West, we think of famine and drought, civil war, an HIV epidemic, and phenomenal runners like Haile Gebrselassie.

All of this is real. Impressions from a visit to the country in 2006 were of all these things. And so much more.

Ethiopia is dusty and poor, with striking landscapes, bustling cities and a rich and ancient history.  It is also home to waterfalls that feed the Great Nile in Egypt, to lions, elephants and hippos and 13th century rock-hewn churches. Most of the country is more than 2000 metres above sea level, but Ethiopia also has the lowest and the hottest place on Earth, the Danakil Depression.

The Capital, Addis,  smells of coffee; roasted over charcoal with frankincense. Of eucalyptus trees, and injera pancakes, of goats and donkeys on the footpaths and diesel from old blue taxis on the roads, of incense from the churches, of burning rubbish in the marketplace and firewood stoves in people’s homes.

You hear church bells, roosters and prayers to Mecca at dawn. Reggae and hip hop through the day and night.

You see soccer in the Piassa, children on the streets, potholes and Polio. Men in cafes by the road, boys hanging from open taxi-van doors, advertising their destinations to the public; ‘Bole, Bole, Bole’!

You see beautiful women on their way to church in traditional white dress, colourful religious ceremonies that take over the main streets, rows of gold and silver jewellery stores, Coca Cola billboards, early morning athletes, shepherds and open trucks of soldiers.

Ethiopia is a land locked country in the Horn of Africa, which shares borders with Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti.

Lake Tana church paintings. Image: May Slater

Some facts you might not know about this part of the world:

o   Ethiopia is the second most populated country in Africa, with over 85 million people;

o   Ethiopia is one of the oldest sites of human existence known to scientists today. The oldest skeleton, discovered in 1974 and known as ‘Lucy’, is thought to be 3.2 million years old;

o   Amharic is the official language, but there are nearly 80 different local languages spoken in Ethiopia;

o   Ethiopia has the largest number of UNESCO world heritage sites in Africa including the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the Simien National Park and the fortified town of Harar Jugol in the East;

o   Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country. It was occupied by Mussolini’s Italy for 5 years, but has never been colonized;

Epiphany. Image: May Slater

o   The United Nations 2010 Human Development Report ranks Ethiopia amongst the 25 ‘top moving’ countries due to gains in health and education since 1970;

o   36% of Ethiopians over 15 years of age are literate and average life expectancy at birth is only 56 years (World Bank, 2008);

o   Ethiopia is one of the most fertile countries in Africa and is the top coffee and honey-producing country of the continent;

o   Ethiopia is home to 31 endemic species (species that occur naturally only in a certain area) including the Gelada Baboon, the Walia Ibex and the Ethiopian wolf (or Simien fox);

o   Ethiopia was one of the first Christian countries in the world, officially adopting Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century. A third of the population is Muslim;

o   Ethiopia is the spiritual homeland of the Rastafari religious movement.

In September next year, Ethiopians will welcome the year 2004. Ethiopia follows its own ancient Ge’ez calendar, which is 7 years behind our Gregorian calendar, and has 13 months to the year Why Ethiopia calls itself the ‘Land with 13 Months of Sunshine.’

Lake Tana. Image: May Slater

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