I followed Tesfaye around Lalibela for three hours. It was pretty gruelling; it involved hiking up and down uneven, twisting stone steps.
The altitude was 2,600 feet. I don’t know how that compares to Mount Everest but compared to Minnesota or the Netherlands it was up there, and I found myself fighting to catch my breath.
We talked as we hiked. I asked Tesfaye if he was from the town of Lalibela and he said yes, he had been born here and had never been anywhere else except to the town where his wife was from. He talked about his two children, a girl and a boy, and said he had a teaching degree.
“And what does your wife do?” I asked, making conversation.
There was a long pause and then he answered, “She went to visit her parents last year and they would not allow her to come back.”
Oops. I didn’t know how to ask a follow-up question to that. Did her parents keep her because of something Tesfaye did? Did he beat her? Was he an alcoholic? Or maybe they were forcing her to stay to work for them. Maybe I was reading too much into it. He had told me that tourism plummeted after a spate of civil unrest in 2016. Maybe he was just having such a hard time making a living that his wife’s parents decided she should stay with them? I wondered about the children—were they with him or her? I didn’t ask.
Inside one of the churches, Tesfaye told me more about the Jews of Ethiopia. “The Jews were smart and got rich and the Christians were jealous,” he explained. Hmm. That’s a familiar story. “So the Christians took all the Jews’ belongings and made them go away.”
I’m not sure what the timeframe was for this particular episode or where the Jews of Lalibela went. I do know that Israel airlifted nearly every Ethiopian Jew—over 38,000 people—out of the country in the late 80s and early 90s. The secret rescue program was called Operation Solomon, in recognition that Ethiopian Jews believe they are descended from King Solomon.
There are still plenty of different groups in Ethiopia to fight each other. “It’s not religion,” Tesfaye said, “but ethnic tensions. And the government incites it to distract away from itself.”
“And then there are the Rastafarians!” I said.
“Yes,” he laughed. “But they are mostly in Jamaica. They come here on pilgrimages but they’re not Ethiopian.”
That was right. It’s a weird little story, how the Rastafari religion developed in Jamaica following the coronation of Haile Selassie I as King of Ethiopia in 1930. Ras Tafari was the emperor’s name before he was anointed. Rastafaris believe his is/was a god who will come to bring them back to Africa.
That’s about all I know about Rastafari. It’s one of about 437 topics I’d like to spend more time learning about.
Before I left home, I happened upon an old paperback book at the Goodwill called When the Going was Good, by the English writer Evelyn Waugh. I devoured it, because it was about Ethiopia but also because he wrote it in the heyday of old-school travel. It used to be only rich people who traveled. They went by steamer (boat) and it took weeks to reach their destination. They brought trunks of clothes with them with attire for riding, fancy dress parties, G&Ts on the veranda, safaris and so on. Some poor servant had to carry the trunks, of course.
Anyway, in 1930 Waugh went to what was then Abyssinia to report on the coronation of Haile Selassie for several newspapers. He reported the event as “an elaborate propaganda effort” to convince the world that Abyssinia was a civilised nation that concealed that the emperor had achieved power through barbarous means.” Some things never change.