A hideout for Christians

Some places I go, its not too safe to be Christian.  And then there is Lalibela, Ethiopia.  In some parts of Ethiopia, Muslims are gradually taking control, not in Lalibela.  Last year I was in the ancient city of Harar.  You might have heard of the walled city there which has entrances for hyenas to come in at night.  The hyena clean up scraps.  A few guys make money from tourists by holding meat in their mouths which hyenas come and take. 

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, August 2019

My translator then was with a native of Harar who talked of Christian statues being replaced by Moslem statues in recent years.  Harar was one of the many Ethiopian cities which became Jewish after one of their Queens (called the Queen of Sheba in our Bible) visited Solomon.  Many believe the Song of Songs was written by a heart-broken King Solomon after The Queen of Sheba left him[1].

The Queen had heard about the wisdom and accomplishments of Solomon and came to see for herself.  She was so impressed she brought the truths of the great “I am” back with her to Ethiopia.  People all across Ethiopia were also impressed with this truth and converted to Judaism.

A son the Queen had with Solomon, Menelik, is said to have brought the Ark of the Covenant to another ancient Ethiopian city, Axum, where it is still preserved.  The Keeper of the Ark until recently brought out the Ark for Christian holidays, but no longer does due to political disturbances.

The Jewish religion grew and prospered along with Ethiopia for centuries.  Then a child was born in Bethlehem.  The Ethiopian Jews heard of Jesus’ teachings (remember the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by Philip in Acts 8?). Many were transformed by this reformation of Judaism and became Christian.

Christianity grew and prospered along with Ethiopia.  Meanwhile in Europe, the Western center of Christianity, Rome, fell to the invading Goths.  Then Jerusalem fell to the invading Muslims in 1187.

An Ethiopian King at the time, Lalibela, ordered the construction of a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia.  The result was 11 interconnected churches carved into the mountain by hand.  Best known is the Church of St. George, shaped as a Greek Orthodox cross.  The town which has grown up around the churches is now known as Lalibela.

Today Lalibela is still a town with no churches other than Orthodox Ethiopian Christian.  When I visited last month, I stayed in a mountain-side hotel with a view of the plateau where King Lalibela lived.  It’s just an open plain today on top of a mountain connected by a slender ridge to the modern town of Lalibela.

The hotel clerk came in early so I could have coffee watching the sun rise on their roof top terrace.  He stayed to chat a bit.  I heard a sound which I assumed was a mosque issuing the call to prayer.  I asked him about the singing and he was confused and surprised.  “In Lalibela, there are only Christian churches. Does that really sound muslim to you?”  As I listened closer, I realized it was unlike the singing issuing from minarets.  Later the church bells started ringing, affirming that I was in a country which had been Christian a thousand years before America ever had a Christian church.

Lalibela itself is barely connected to the world.  Maybe that’s why Christianity has remained so strong here. Most pilgrims from the West fly into an airport down in the valley and ride a bus up the rocky road to the top of the mountain.  Pilgrims from Ethiopia take the land route.  Some travel by foot for a month to reach Lalibela during the Christmas holidays.  A hundred thousand Christians pack the town around Christ’s birthday, but the churches were pretty empty the Thursday in September I was there.

It would have been even more empty except for another Christian holiday, Ashenda.  Ashenda requires the Ethiopian devout to sacrifice a lamb and feed their relatives and the poor.  My host, the head of a 50,000 member Cooperative Union, set me free to visit Lalibela during this holiday because of this obligation.  When I called him from Lalibela, I could hear the lambs bleating in the background.  All along our route to Lalibela we were stopped by girls dressed with aloe stalks made into skirts who danced into the middle of the road every kilometer or so.  They were singing, clapping and laughing as they jumped out of the way of our Land Cruiser.

My driver was so happy to come to Lalibela again. He had come during Christmas, but never at a time when he could really appreciate all the churches.

In addition to the bands of girls stopping traffic, there were pilgrims dressed in white singing as they journeyed to Lalibela.  Young men’s activity during the holiday mainly involves snapping whips.  In the center of Lalibela, a group of young men dressed in green polka-dots where snapping their whips at all the onlookers as they danced.  A group of white clad girls with aloe skirts was dancing nearby, but never too close to the whip-snapping guys.

A few European tourists were there.  One was a scantily clad blonde (who got hoots and calls of “hey baby”) but most were conservatively dressed. Some in the white shawl worn by all Ethiopians visiting the churches. I didn’t see a single woman in pants except that blonde during my entire visit.  All Ethiopian women wear dresses, except a few Westernized ones in the biggest cities. 

Our four-hour drive back to Ras Gayint Cooperative Union was the same scenic mountain road interrupted by dancing girl bands and whip-snapping boys. What a way to prepare for my assignment helping the Union better market their white pea (navy) beans!

A group of twenty senior managers turned out on Saturday, Sunday and the next week to examine their situation and how to achieve their goals.  We had fun, accomplished a lot, and made me wish it was a little bit easier to get from Almyra, Arkansas to the ancient cities of the highlands of Ethiopia.

[1] https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/andagreeney/files/the_queen_of_sheba_possibly_adored_in_the_song_of_songs.pdf

White male patriarch

Aggressive, obnoxious people are not my favorite dinner companions. I try to avoid them whenever possible. On the rare occasions when I walk in large American cities, I keep an eye out for threatening people. When I am disgruntled, I can understand why people avoid me. I do my best to avoid mean people on the internet too. But recently I failed.

I had just finished a really productive session with several Malagasy men and women. We worked late and identified several strategies around problems that had been plaguing their organization. Back at my mountainside guest house, I had some great Malagasy rice and shrimp and the national Three Horses beer and turned on my computer.

Somehow a social media post appeared which was unassailably logical. It was written by a white American female who contended you should be careful about being nice to white people because they were probably racist and you shouldn’t take the chance on being nice to a racist.

Given her assumption that most white people are racist, her conclusions are very logical. I just questioned whether it wouldn’t be better to just be gentle and peaceful if others are gentle and peaceful. Too late I realized that people who believe such things are living in an echo chamber where everyone echoes the same drivel because questioning it means you are labeled racist and shunned.

She and a bunch of her friends proceeded to make sure I knew how stupid and uninformed I was. I went to sleep. Madagascar is eight hours ahead of middle America, so while I slept they had lots of time to elaborate on why you shouldn’t be nice to white people. When I woke up the next morning, I found that all day these privileged Americans had continued to bash my comments about being nice. I provided them a soft punching bag. I was the scape goat in the Biblical sense. One woman very angrily accused me of being full of anger and being a white male patriarch and probably disliked by all the Africans I’d ever worked with.

Tired of being a punching bag and scapegoat, I deleted all the messages I’d posted about how it’s good to be gentle, nice and peaceful when others are gentle and peaceful and nice and blocked some folks. I thought about pearls and swine.

Then I walked down the street, past beggars, bare-footed porters, home-made push carts, and ragged laughing children to the alley beside the ramshackle market and up rickety stairs past bags of rice seed to begin another productive day of helping a few Malagasy learn market analysis, social motivation and business planning so they can help their villages have a little more income and better lives.

Just after dawn in Malagasy

Just after dawn in this central Malagasy city, carrots, green leafy vegetables, and plants are headed downhill to the market. Bread and eggs are headed up hill to the hotels and restaurants. Mostly on heads. Often with bare feet. Sometimes the women going to market carry their good shoes along with their produce on their heads. At the market they’ll put on their shoes as they change from porters into salesladies.

A few going to market have push carts. The hand-made carts have brakes (a wooden plate jammed against one wheel) to slow them down if need be. Some lucky ladies get rides down hill on the carts along with their goods. Mostly men control the carts because their strength is needed to get the cart up the next hill.

Now and then a minibus passes with vegetables loaded on top, but most of the transportation is by people on foot.

I’m observing all this because I like to go outside at dawn with my coffee before all the good morning air gets used up. The first couple of days, I just stood in front of the hotel. Now, I watch all this from a narrow alley beside the hotel as I drink my morning coffee. The alley provides a good view between buildings of the churches of old town across the valley. Mostly, I like being inconspicuous in the alley, watching what goes by.

If I’m visible to the passers-by, I attract too much attention. I’m strange, out of place. I’m taller and bigger and whiter than anyone passing by. Some are startled by me, others look at me shyly. A very few smile and say, “bon jour”, thinking I must be a French guy since nearly all the other white folk here are Gaullic. A few try to hit me up for a few coins. Sometimes they have a trinket they want me to buy.

But in the morning, just after dawn, the vast majority are hustling to get their goods to their buyers or potential buyers. They don’t give much more than a passing glance at the big white guy drinking coffee in the alley.

Later in the day, I lug my own goods along the same street. I don’t tote anything edible or even very useful to the average Malagasy. I lug the tools of my trade (a computer, a projector and butcher paper) down the hill, mostly walking in the street since the sidewalks are mostly filled with sales booths erected every morning. Tuesday and Thursday are market days and the goods spill off the sidewalk into the street.

The only sidewalks available for walking are in front of the government buildings where machine gun toting guards keep the way cleared.

Every day I walk down this hill past families who have already staked out spots on the sidewalk as their salesroom for the day. One day I pass a mother with two children who look to be about 6 and 4. Their inventory is spread on a blanket on the sidewalk. The children are so cute, I stop just up the street from them to play peek-a-boo with them. The mother soon leaves and the children sell their bananas and cookies to other children and some adults walking by. I stay for awhile thinking the mother will come back, but she doesn’t. The children seem to be doing a good job of making sales and keeping track of the money.

I look in every possible direction at every intersection, trying to anticipate speeding motorbikes and minibuses along with push carts which can get up a real head of steam going down hill.

After about eight blocks of avoiding fellow pedestrians and every possible means of conveyance, plus deep potholes and other obstructions, I get to the alley I must walk up. It’s only about three foot wide and has a rivulet of water running down it. The rivulet is kinda gray and not something I want to step in. I straddle the stream and make it up to a swinging wooden door and then up two flights of stairs meant for short Malagasy, watching my head all the way.

One day as I arrive, huge sacks are being unloaded from atop a minivan. Guys barely bigger than the sacks somehow carry them up the alley and the stairs to the office I am headed to. The sacks are filled with prized certified seed. The organization I am working with will distribute the seed to farmers who will then multiply the seed to provide high quality seed for farmers all across Madagascar.

I don’t particularly enjoy walking up the smelly alley or the narrow stairs built for people half my size and where I bump my head now and then. But I love working with Julienne and her team at Cercle Régional des Agriculteurs Malagasy Fianarantsoa or CRAM. None of them speak English, but they wanted me to come and help them transform their organization, so here I come up the stairs with my equipment led by my translator.

After the first meeting, we decide it would be best for me to see how they work in the field so I visit three communities they work in. All require long, but scenic rides over rough roads. As far as I can tell, nearly every ride in Madagascar is scenic.

Only 5% of the land is flat enough to plant crops. The rest is hills and mountains. So it’s a lot like Appalachia, where I cut my teeth in the cooperative business. Which is fitting because I’m here to help them transform their nonprofit into a cooperative union, a cooperative of cooperatives. Just up my alley.

In two of the communities the local organizations (Cercle Local des Agriculteurs Malagasy or CLAMs) are well developed with warehouses to store seed the farmers produce. They are both close to roads a large truck can get down to haul seed out. The third was more typical of the CLAMS. The village where this CLAM is located is visible from the paved road, but only just. Our vehicle parked in the shade at the end of the passable road, we climb down a trail for several kilometers to be surprised at the quality of their houses. All are made of local brick, two stories high with metal roofs. The bricks are made from local clay, but everything else was hauled in on their backs. Anything they produce for sale also only reaches the road on their backs.

Their compound is composed of four houses which double as storage sheds, an earthen walled corral for their Zebus, and a Christian shrine. They surround a dirt courtyard which is swept clean. In one corner of the courtyard, a teenage girl is pounding grain with a long club-like pestle which she pounds again and again down into the traditional high walled mortar. Her shy toddler hides behind her skirts as she works.

As they learn visitors have arrived, members of the CLAM start arriving from nearby compounds.

They bring out some rugs woven from reeds and place them on the ground under the only shade trees they have. We learn they farm very small amounts of land. An average of two hectares, about five acres. But this land is usually split up in several plots. One farmer we talked to has four different plots which together total five acres.

Their biggest problem is water. They point to a spot across the valley just above their rice and vegetable plots. That is a spring which is their only source of water. It does flow all year, but only a trickle. Any water for their compounds is carried on their heads from the spring up the hills to their houses. We talk a little about checkdams and other water harvesting systems. It’s one of many areas of knowledge that they are interested in, but unfamiliar with.

It’s a peaceful, quiet, isolated spot, with beautiful views down the valley. We joke it would be covered in vacation homes if it was in the US and ask if any French people live in the area. They say no, but one French girl did spend a year as an intern on the other side of the valley. I wonder aloud how I would survive here with my dependency on computers and internet and cold beer and other habits which require electricity.

Only 13% of Malagasy have electricity in their homes and the folks in this valley are in the majority. I’d have loved to stay longer and at least visit the spring, but my minders want to press on to the next village. There we did spot one solar panel and a huge Lutheran church set off by itself from the village. Nowadays the pastor only holds services once a month. He also grows rice seed. “Pastora” marks his bags in the CLAM warehouse. We don’t see any electric poles for dozens of kilometers as we skirt along the ridges heading back to the city.

Now that I’ve got the lay of the land, its time to dig into the fun of helping them sort out how to transform CRAM and the CLAMs. I’m hopeful, but not totally sure, how successful we will be. You never know in this sort of work.


My trip was made possible by CNFA and USAID through the Farmer to Farmer Program. A trip to Madagascar might be in your future. Look at the assignments available and apply.