"I hope that we will get old enough to be able to witness you coming back one day!", was what the village priest of Zik'allay said in his farewell blessing for us when we had to say "Goodbye!" for an indefinite period of time to the fastly embosomed villagers 10 months ago.
At that time, we had worked for a German/Ethiopian NGO in the northern Ethiopian city of Adigrat just a few kilometres away, further educating nursery school teachers. Hagos, the "country representative" of the kindergarten, who is teaching sociology at the University of Adigrat, took us to the mountain village Zik'allay where he was born and raised and where his family has been originating from for countless generations. Electricity, water from the tap or even cars do not exist here!
While our three hours' ascend with donkey-assistance the conditions of Hagos' way to school became apparent to us. And not only this ... read more in our post from winter 2014/15.
Hagos and many other people grew very dear to us during the time we spent in Adigrat and especially our two daughters Anouk (6) and Sóley (3) developed deep friendships. Anouk cried on the way to the airport in Mekelle. Never ever, she said, had she made friends so easily!
Until that trip, our plans for the next following summer were "fixed": it would be a twelve months overland trip to South America. Meeting our new Ethiopian friends again seemed impossible, not only from a childs' perspective. But that especially Ethiopia, being one of the most challenging countries in Africa in so many ways had been possible for us as a family with relatively young children really made us hesitate after having come back to Germany. It was not only the magnificent and majestic landscape and the impressive culture, steeped in (human) history, it was definitely the many really warm personal encounters with Ethiopians - not least in the mountain village - which apart from the deep wishes of our children made us adults rethink our travel plans.
After a virtual travel with friends in the "Klimahaus Bremerhaven" along all climate zones the 8th degree of longitude the new destination for our overland trip was a fixed plan: it was going to be Spiekeroog (Germany) to Capetown (South Africa) along the eastern route which had not really been completely traveled by overlanders going from North to South for a while until then. "Greaaaat! Then we can meet our friends in Adigrat and the mountain village Zik'allay again!", Anouk and Sóley happily stated. And suddenly, there it was: a common decision on the travel destination for our sabbatical year which for our kids was not as "abstract" as traveling to South America, because they did not have any imagination of how it would be.
Especially Anouk's motivation was increased by that, which - now in November 2015 and back in Ethiopia during our overland adventure through northern, eastern and southern Africa - culminated in the fact that converted her thrill of anticipation into energy and motivation for the long and exhausting ascend to the village: this time she managed to hike all the way completely on her own, without donkey-assistance (and without cactus-acupuncture in the middle of the night like last time). Her iron will does not move the mountain, but it gives her perseverance, which she never had until then and which makes both us and herself immensely proud.
Again, we wander into the magical mountain darkness.
In the mountain village we are not received as the "foreign" family who has the courage to travel up here, but as family members everybody is happy to meet so unexpectedly soon. The small presents we take up here are more suitable this time as well ... the very few things the villagers do not produce "up here": coffee, salt and a bottle of locally distilled "Ouzo".
Apart from that, we also bring paper copies of the villagers' portraits we shot last time which cause a lot of cheerfulness and laughter.
Anouk brought a new deck of her favourite card game UNO which does not only attract the children of the village: just like at a family celebration of a big extended family, children and adults alike are gambling round after round in spite of all language barriers.
After having dinner together - as usual it is Injera from a commonly shared plate - we sleep in the kitchen of the farm, the oldest part of the 1,500-year-old farm building owned by Hagos' family. There is not much privacy but instead there is the smoke from an open fire in the middle of the room, farmyard smells and animal noises and so very much cordial gregariousness. For hundreds of years, people have sat together here, shared food and stories, have quarrelled and loved. Oh how wonderful it would be if those adobe walls and beams would be able to tell all the stories they have witnessed over those many years!
After a long and relaxing time breakfasting, dreaming and talking (... and countless rounds of UNO!), we go on an excursion together with Hagos.
Last year Hagos and Mischa had explored "Mundugu", the "enchanted" part of the mountain guarded by leopards and had discovered a cave here containing the remains of at least six humans. This part of the mountain and Zik'allay as a village is deeply connected to the stubborn and rebellious monk Stephanus, who at his ordination did not accept bowing down in front of the emperor to receive his blessing because the emperor is a human just like Stephanus and certainly no person nearer to God. A long persecution by the official Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the state was the result of this disobedience. Later on Stephanus demanded the separation of state and church and also demanded that clergy and monks farm the products they need instead of taking half of the annual harvest from the poor farmers as church tax.
This year we go to "Be'ati Goitana" ("the cave of the lord"), the old cave dwelling of the family, which had been used as the family home until about 1,600 years ago for about three to four hundred years, but was still used every now and then in the time of Hagos' grandmother to produce certain home made products or for storing money and other valuables in times of insecurity. Still, just like more than a thousand years ago the well "May a'Ewaf" ("the water of the birds") in the middle of the cave's kitchen provides fresh spring water directly from the heart of the mountain.
With wide-open mouths we try to catch water drops falling down from the stalagtites hanging from the cave's roof and listen to the family-stories Hagos is reciting. "About 2,000 years ago, a man from this region came here and built the first settlement on this mountain. He was with his wife who came from what today is Yemen and their son. After a while they separated and he married new, this time a lady with Jewish descendancy. With her, he had another son called "Shum se Essad" (governor of the fire), the first family ancestor known by name."
Again, we are impressed by the long orally transmitted family history. History is old here and the people have a close connection to land and ancestors, something that has unfortunately mainly been lost in the cause of individualisation and modernisation in our "developed" world.
Again, we take in the breathtakingly beautiful view from the mountain plateau down into the canyons deep deep down below us which is really ditching Grand Canyon.
We enjoy and take in the relaxed atmosphere of life in the mountain village ... everybody just follows their everyday work but still has a lot of time to chat with us or simply laugh and enjoy.
In the afternoon, we are visiting the neighbors together with Hagos' family members because they just recently married. It is the tradition that for the following thirty days all the neighbors, friends and family members are invited to celebrate. We are sitting in a dark room, drink "Suwa", the home-brewed sourly-refreshing beer common here in the Tigray province and on the party goes. With several drums the friends of the newly weds dance around the room and sing newly invented songs in tune to the drums. Again and again, we hear our names all the while the other listeners smile a bit embarrassed. Supposedly because they think our names sound so funny, but we are sure that there is something else behind it as well. But here everybody has the ability to laugh about themselves! Our daughters get sweets and their fingernails are being painted in glaring colors. Cheery and tired at the same time we go back to our "home" and enjoy the wonderful evening mood in this world so different to ours.
Heavy heartedly we leave our friends after two nights. Again, especially Anouk is so very sad because she would really like to stay here a bit longer and could maybe even imagine staying for ever because she so very much likes it here - apart from the food here in Ethiopia which our daughters do not really like.
Still we guess that Zik'allay is in so many respects a happy "island" in Ethiopia, not having known hunger, famine and other major human problems for hundreds of years. Diseases of civilisation are not known here but still the medical support is a big problem and issue here as many mothers die while giving birth or during childbed. Because of that Hagos thinks about ways to be able to build a small clinic for the village which might be financed with the help of a small tourist lodge owned by the village community.
On our further journey through another 2,000 km of Ethiopian roads we will have to experience that the mountain village Zik'allay is only the "romantic paradise village" of Ethiopia. The "life along the road" shows different faces and flushes in queer and nasty noises with the sreams "Youyouyou!" or "Moneymoneymoney!", which makes the people you meet so very inapproachable compared to the people up there in Zik'allay.