Impressive Community in Impressive Isolation


After a far too long day with an African authority-jungle in Mekelle, the capital city of the Tigray province (administrative tasks for the kindergarten, changing our flight tickets), we are picked up at 5:30 pm to go on our long expected trip to Hagos' mountain village Zikallay. It's far too late by now, because sunset here always is at around 6 o'clock in the evening. Already the one-hour-car-ride until we almost reach the base of the mountains is more than an adventure: we experience the worst Ethiopian dirt road so far and our local driver puts every hobby-mudhole-fourwheel-crawler into deep shade (without even once engaging 4-wheel).

At the end of the dirt road we unload our - as usual far too extensive- luggage from the Toyota. The promised mule for Anouk is still out of sight! A young schoolboy from the village who is on his way home with some classmates and earlier on had jumped on the back of our pick-up truck carries our heavy Ortlieb-backpack.

Between cactus-hedgerows and washed-out hollow ways we direct ourselves to the impressive mountain in front of us. By now it has become pitch-dark and a nearly full moon in the clearest starry sky shines her light on our small "caravan" consisting of us four Stahls, Hagos, his cousin and the schoolchildren on their way home.


At the start of the stony path up the mountains two young boys from Hagos' village are waiting for us with the mule. Anouk mounts, one of the boys leads the mule and the other mounts behind Anouk and off we go: mule ahead and us lonely wanderers trod on behind (Sóley is being carried). The silence and the impressive moonlight on our way up the mountain are rather magical and we all wander in impressed wonder. Out of the steep wall of rock an ancient rock-hewn church looks down on us and supports this atmosphere.
The path gets steeper and steeper and we walk through a darkness not disturbed by any artificial light. In between, the totally tired Sóley has to be carried taking turnsby Juliane, myself and Hagos. Including his "function" as a friend and guide, we could not have done without Hagos on this walk. Still, our children are really brave and seem to be equally impressed by the pale moonlight and the spell of the mountain.

The long talks we had with Hagos during the last few days are going through our heads: Hagos, now university-lecturer, was using this path daily on his way to and from school which took him between six and eight hours in total every day. All the stories about life in the village become alive again and we are mustering all our strength to scramble on across rock and gravel because we really want to experience life in that village.
Only now we realize that the answer for our exhaustion is that us lowland-beachcombers from Spiekeroog island are simply not used to these heights. The city of Adigrat lies at an altitude of about 2,500m and Zikallay nearly 800m higher, 3,300m above sea level! Just before we reach the highplateau, the mule, which is now carrying Juliane and Sóley, runs into a head-high cactus and Juliane's and Sóley's legs and knees are punctured by a multitude of organic acupuncture needles, which suddenly and loudly disturbs the solemn atmosphere of our ascent.

After nearly two hours, we finally reach our final destination and are gorgeously received by many villagers on the "courtyard" of Desta's house, which is currently inhabited by his uncle Keshi Gebremedhin Hailu.The village-community had been expecting us way earlier and had been waiting nearly the complete day for our arrival. The welcoming-ceremony is as if we had just succesfully climbed Mt. Everest or are important celebrities.So far, only very few fair-skinned people have made their way up here and definitely no fair-skinned children have come here! More or less all the villagers dressed up especially for our arrival: the men and women wear white robes and the village's priests wear the traditional white head-dress that only they are allowed to wear. Light comes from a multitude of candles, fires and torches, as up here there is no electricity. The situation is full ofwarmthand happiness and everybody hugs us and wants to take care of us nightly wanderers.


Walking on towards the old farmhouse, our impressions are influenced by stone, adobe-bricks, corrugated iron and a multitude of animals running free or tied up everywhere around us. Through the front door, apparently entrance for both man and animals, we are led into the partly roofed interior part of the farm, passing chicken, goats, cats, donkeys and the cattle and sheep shed. We go on until we reach a room which seems to be bedroom, living-room and dining-room all-in-one. Amazed we take a look around us: with all those colourful religious posters showing Holy Mary and Jesus, this room looks a bit like a chapel. Half of the village seems to be sitting around us and we discover many impressive faces which seem to be telling an enormous amount of stories.


The room is by no means luxurious but has an enormous "spirit". The impressions so far from the open-air welcoming ceremony to our rest here in this room to us appear to be nearly "biblical": an impressive starry sky without any light pollution and happy people in rural surroundings with animals directly nearby. The flickering flames of the fire and the candles throw light beams across people wearing clothes which without doubt would not have been percieved "special" in any kind of way even 1,000 or 2,000 years ago. Do we miss Christmas? No! All this here is the most impressive Christmas setting we could ever have imagined. We are sitting in the middle of an Ethiopian nativity play and seem to be having to take over roles in that play which are still unknown to us so far.

But we don't really have the time to look around or think, because all the people around us are showering us with an immense number of questions using Hagos as their translator. At the same time Anouk's doll seems to be taking over the role of the Holy Child - amazed children and grown-ups enjoy this fair-skinned toy and accompanied by roaring laughter it is being passed on from hand to hand. Children don't have dolls here, it seems. In a community like this one children simply don't need such toys as there are always friends, family members and neighbours (sometimes they're all of that together) having babies, which have to be taken care of by the older children. Have to?

After the first round of questions, we get freshly baked bread and Injera with different sauces accompanied by "Suwa", the home-brewn light beer made from barley and corn. Meanwhile, Sóley is totally exhausted and tired and the important question as to where we will be going to sleep this night is raised. Do we want to sleep in the open or inside the house? Finally, we are given the "bedroom" of Desta's uncle - a great honour for a guest to be given the sleeping place of the landlord. Actually, it was rather a "sleeping-cave", a small room situated on a higher level than the floor, but still more part of the stables and sheds than part of the rest of the building.

The base for the "mattress" made of raffia-mats and old plastic bags is by no means levelled and is rather stony. Anouk is really excited to sleep in this "cave" but Sóley sucessfully refuses to go to bed. Sóley's success is being terminated by Juliane with the help of two girls from the village and, finally, she sleeps exhausted but still peacefully in her sleeping bag.

Parallel to Juliane's hard work trying to bring our youngest daughter to sleep, I am preparing the evening milk for Sóley. This "women's work" peformed by a man gives rise to further questions and brings about more comparisons of cultures. It is striking that people don't seem to judge immediately, but before judging, directly ask for more information whenever patterns of behaviour et cetera are different and not understood. We realise that it's not us that are the observersin a "museum", but that both sides go straight up to each other openly being interested in the different lifestyles and living conditions.

After the traditional Ethiopian dinner all leave the room and get closer around a crackling camp fire in the centre part of the farm building under an open sky next to chicken, goats and donkeys enjoying the later part of this wonderful evening. Nobody tells the children to go to bed and, thus, Anouk and all the other children of the farm-community naturallyare part of this campfire-round. They are even allowed to drink "Suwa" (which Anouk doesn't like, unfortunately). Without anybody mentioning it, the Christmas-spirit is part of our happy and cosy meeting in which, apart from enjoying Suwa and distilled spirits, topics such as family planning (extended family versus core family with one or two children), contraception, abortion, gender roles, our personal philosophy of life, what exactly we are doing here in Ethiopia, our religious background and our families at home are raised. Really strange for the village people is the small average number of children per family in Europe. The orthodox head of priests of the village, who is allowed to have a wife and children, remarks that it is something rather divine that we can "make" children and that he cannot understand that people want to give the unique gift of life only to one or two children.
Of course, the women from the village do not go to a hospital to give birth to their children; all the people around were born and raised here in the village. But, the death of mother and child during the birth process, unfortunately, is not a rare occurrance and medical aid is far away and never on time due to the long and hard way down to the city.

Still thinking about all the impressions, recapitulating interesting topics and interesting discussion partners and sensing the different smells and sounds around us, we try to find some sleep on out stony bed.

During the night we are - in addition to the effectof the rather uncomfortable and hardbed - again and again disturbed by animal noises directly next to us (why exactly does the donkey have to munch his fodder directly next to my head?). An unpleasant animal smell that we had expected in advance does not exist here. At daybreak, we just fell into a deep sleep, all farm animals are driven pastour "sleeping-room" out through the front door: waking up and climbing out of bed, one has to literally be careful not to be stampeded by a fully grown bull.


Stepping out of the front door, we cast first glimpses into the surrounding landscape, which the evening before we only experienced below our weary feet and in the pale shine of the full moon. An impressive landscape opens up to us with a gorgeous view down onto the villages and towns lying up to 800m below us.

We are on some kind of "table mountain", just approximately 100m away from the steep abyss. Why do tourists go to Grand Canyon, when they also could experience this wonderful landscape here?

Now, it is time for breakfast together with the inhabitants of the farm and the head of priests who had spontaneously decided to stay here after our campfire-party last evening.


Actually, we have never experienced a priest acting like this and think this is really nice how he is part of everything, the harvest, the coffee ceremony (where he binds his "turban"). He is by no means unworldly but wonderfully humane and open.

This time, we do not sit in yesterday evening's "multi-purpose-room", but in what I would call the "kitchen", together with the store the oldest parts of this farm building. Hagos' family has been living here for between 1600 and 2200 years. Impressive!


Making butter the village way


Our scrambled eggs are served including home made cottage cheese on flat breadand the traditional Injera. All of us eat with our right hands, the left hand being seen as "impure"- left handed people are, of course, allowed to eat with their left hand. Going with the food, Suwa is served and an official welcome-coffee ceremony is performed. The fumes of the freshly roasted coffee beans are waved into our faces because this is supposed to bring luck and success.

Around us are - apart from the head of priests - only the members of the family. No, this is not exactly the truth: also the former "servants" of the family (it would not be polite to call them "slaves", but that's actually what they were) are among us. People whose ancestors generations ago were bought by Hagos' ancestors but who have been set free long before Hagos' birth. The family has given them a house and land they now own as their property to farm their own products. Also, they have established marriage-relationships with the people from the village-community. Despite their family history as slaves, they still feel part of Hagos' family and live here instead of living in their own house. The grandma, being over 90 years old now, is nursed by this extended-patchwork-family without anybody mentioning it.

Where they are from geographically is not known. They are maybe from Westafrica but, actually, we think that they might also have Indian facial features.

After breakfast with even more interesting and long talks, we go off for a walk to the cliffs nearby. Next to the majestic landscape, wonderful people are influencing our impressions again: constantly somebody comes and wants to help (e.g. the girl, who naturally wants tocarry Sóley on her back) or give us some food (the old lady bringing freshly baked bread still warm from the oven).

Everybody seems to be extremely happy to see Hagos and us and everybody hugs us. On our way, we meet Hagos' family again working together on the field together with the priest siffing chaff from the wheat. They use methods from ancient times: the separation process is made by throwing the cereals into the air so that the wind can blow away the straw and the grains fall directly to the ground.


two types of wheat


Up here, water exists in abundance. Hagos explains what is being farmed and harvested. Six different types of cereal are grown here: corn, two types of wheat (one has nearly black grains), barley, Teff (an ancient Ethiopian cereal which is unbelievably expensive at home in Europe) and Sorghum. They also have beans, lentils, chickpeas, tomatoes, cabbage, onions, garlic, potatoes, carrotts and chili.
Of course, every farm has its own bees for producing delicious honey. Farm animals are donkeys and mules, horses, cattle, goats, sheep and chicken. Milk, cheese and butter are provided by the sheep, goats and cows, and the chicken provide eggs. Apart from these domesticized animals and plants, mother nature provides all other spices and tasty cactus pear, papayas, mangos, oranges, limes and avocados without the people having to do something for it. At the market in Adigrat, one day's walk away, only salt, soap, coffee and sugar have to be bought.


Anouk feasting on cactus pears


Tihlo - production



(nearly) everybody enjoys Tihlo


For lunch we have "Tihlo", another traditional meal from this region here. We experience how it is produced by kneading a dough made of water and watered, rosted and ground Sorghum-grains. This dough is after that by no means roasted or cooked but formed to round balls, which are then dipped into a fermenting sour-hot sauce in a saucer in the middle of the table with the help of sticks everybody is holding in their hands. Even though we liked every type of food so far, this meal is not really something for us. Parallel to the other family members eating the Tihlo, the youngest family member has to go on forming the small dough-balls, but is fed by the others at the same time so that she can participate.

Some of the conversations we had with Hagos during the last few weeks were about an important historical person for the people of this area: Stephanus, who was an Ethiopian-Orthodox priest in the 15th century who refused to bow down in front of the Ethiopian emperor because he was not standing in the same position as God, and thus was persecuted both by the central government and by the Orthodox Church.




Stephanus, quite "modern" actually, gave preference to the division of state and church and demanded that clergy and monks farm the products needed for their everyday life themselves instead of taking half of the harvest from the farmers. Stephanus - Hagos even named his son after him - and his movement which is still alive and kicking are deeply woven into the Tigray region of Ethiopia and especially with this mountain. At the time of persecution of the Stephanus disciplies they were "marked" with two cuts directly next to their eyebrows on the left and right part of their faces after being discovered by the authorities. Today, these "decoration scars" are still a tradition and a lot of parents decorate their children like that being proud of their heritage.

One part of this mountain is called "Munguda" and is supposed to be the place where - according to the legends - the persecuted disciples of Stephanus hid themselves and held their secret congregations. This part of the mountain is viewed as "haunted" by the locals and nobody really wants to go there without good reason to do so. In addition to this, Munguda is quite remote and there are a lot of leopards, so nobody wants to herd their animals here as well. Hagos had told me that there are caves in this area of the mountain bearing human remains, which are known only to a very small circle of persons in the village. Of course, this information made my anthropologist's heart beat louder and louder and we planned to discover that place.

After an intermediate-level climb directly at the mountain's abyss through really enchanted scenery, we reach the first of these caves. This cave can only be looked into after another climb. With Hagos' support, I climb up and in the narrow cave see the remains of six humans scattered around and mixed with stones, pieces of wood and old withered leather.

We speculate whether the bones are scattered around like that and mixed with stones because somebody forced his way into this "grave" or because not complete dead bodies were put there but body parts of several persons. I take some photos of this historical site and am planning to give them to the department of archaeology of the university of Adigrat (we actually talk about this topic on one of the following days when we are out for lunch together with Dr. Alem Mebrahtu, the vice-president of Adigrat University).

On our further way through Munguda, we discover some more caves, which for sure bear more secrets, but without more people helping and without ropes and ladders, we would not be able to go there without putting ourselves in danger. So, sadly, we leave them alone for other people to discover and we make us on our way back to the farm.

While we are in Munguda, Juliane is trying to establish some contact with the women in the kitchen. Unfortunately, most of it is reduced to pantomime because they have no common language to communicate in. Anouk likes it here so much that she doesn't want to go back to Adigrat tomorrow. But at this very moment, she feels a bit lonely, because all her new friends have naturally gone somewhere to follow their daily-routined duties and are somewhere on the village's fields to herd their farm animals or do other farm work. They simply did not think that Anouk would have loved to join them. This, by the way, is by no means "child labour", but children and young people are given responsibility at an early age for certain tasks and they are thus naturally part of the every-day work of the farm and village community just like the adults. The children are proud to serve the guests of the family and it seems that they and their contribution to society are immensely valued by the adults. We are really impressed how naturally work is "seen" and done by even really young children. Certainly because everybody does so, this is why there is always enough time left for talking, coffee ceremonies, drinking Suwa and visiting the neighbours. In spite of self-subsistenceand the physical labour connected with it, life here is really "relaxed".

The bringing in of the wheat and bean harvests has been completed by now and all sit in the field and toast with Suwa to the successful harvest.


Again and again it becomes clear that these undemanding people are convinced that their way of life is better compared to that of us Europeans. Certainly this also because they don't know it differently. Impressive in that context is the openness with which different ways of life are compared and the immense interest in the different life in Europe. Because up here there is - apart from no electricity and no water from the tap - no television, the people from the mountain don't seem to have a displaced perspective on life in the supposed "golden" West. The community and community sense here on the mountain really makes the people "rich", people in the towns and cities are "poor" in comparison. The "villagers" have an balanced diet and need only very little money. Most things they don't have themselves, they can ask for at the neighbours' houses. Exchanging something in direct return is not necessary because the neighbours will also sometime be in need of something. The children take care of the "pension" and the maintenance of the self-subsistence makes possible an independence from all the crises "down there". Even politically viewed nothing is really of any importance here. Still, Hagos remembers when after their seizure of power, Mengistu's henchmen were invading the village at dawn one day to search for partisans but finding only the village's children and women. The unwanted reply from the 7-year-old Hagos that the men were all in Adigrat led to one of the soldiers hitting him in his face. The women were abducted and kept in custody until the situation relaxed because it became clear that there were no partisans living in the village.

We ask the question what life here was like during the famine periods in the 1980s and 1990s - also because since we have been here in Ethiopia, we have experienced wonderfully healthy, nutritionally balanced and cheap food and actually always feel like stuffed Turkeys here. It becomes clear that these famines which made Ethiopia tragically "famous" worldwide, were mainly the results of political mismanagement. Here on the mountain life went on as ever even at that time, without any water or food shortage, because it is normal for the farmers to plan way in advance and because the farmers have enough supplies in their stores for at least five years. Connected with the self-subsistence are a great deal of satisfaction, freedom and independence.

In the evening we sit in a smaller circle around the eucalypt fire which is spreading an hypnotic, even drug-like scent. Everywhere in Ethiopia farmers plant eucalypt trees because they grow fast and thus supply them with readily available building timber or firewood. Unfortunately, people don't realize that these trees need an enormous amount of water to grow and also push out native plants. This circle of people sitting around the fire is smaller today because the men from Zikallay have gone to the neighbouring village to arrange a marriage between one of their relatives with a girl from that village nearby.
There are many cases in Ethiopia where marriages are planned by the parents when the partners to be are still children. A discussion begins dealing with the sense and nonsense of this cultural peculiarity. The community is kept in good condition through that because children don't go far away to live with their partners, but just into the neighbouring village ore one village further away. When the argument that about 50 per cent of the marriages are divorced in Germany is put into account, we are torn. Today, this tradition seems to be vanishing even in Ethiopia. In the special case of this evening, the two possible partners to be are already in love with each other and what is needed is the consent of the girl's father and that's what the relatives of the bridegroom to be are working on this evening.
Hagos and myself stay outside for the night and sleep looking into an impressive starry sky.


After waking up listening to the morning birds and the cackling of the chicken, we sit around the morning-campfire and start tranquilly in this day, which for all of us will bring an unexpectedly hard farewell. After sitting around the fire, we sit in the "multi-purpose-room" described before and enjoy Ethiopian porridge with cheese.


Ethiopian porridge


After breakfast a "farewell-ceremony" follows which is celebrated by the head of priests and Hagos' uncle who, apart from being a farmer, also is a priest. The old former slave-grandmother as the oldest family member is also present to give her blessing in addition to that of the two priests.

Hagos translates the words of the two priests and we are deeply moved by their words which are so very much supporting our personal way of living, are well meant and deeply meaningful. It is really striking that these words are spoken by people who have known us after only two days now. Not only us, but also Hagos seems to be very moved by these words. With a deep thankfulness for us coming to their village, they connect that they know how exhausting and difficult it is to travel up here, especially with so very young children. Our children are described as being very positive individuals who love to share and as being really well-mannered and the two priests promise them a meaningful future in their lives.
For our further travels, whose importance, relevance and deeper meaning is totally clear to them, they wish us luck and endurance and pray that they will get old enough to be able to see us coming back to their village sometime. We are really included in their family and village-community.
All the time this ceremony is not sententiously, but very "down to earth". Not one word is said about Jesus, but everything is about honest ethical backgrounds, about us personally and the people from the village and about their best wishes, connected with what they call "God". Because of that, we can really take in this ceremony without any heasitation.

More and more we are of the feeling that one gets far more from all the personal encounters here in Ethiopia that one can give back to these wonderful people. This really causes some kind of bad conscience in us!

After a farewell with many hugs we are back on our way but have to turn around many times to wave at the villagers. The Priest stands alone on the small hill in front of our home for the last few days and seems to be as sad as we are.

Climbing down, again we don't have to take care of many things such as our children and our luggage - it's really a readiness to help until we reach the last stone on the path. Unfortunately, the midday heat on our way prevents us from taking in more impressions from what's left and right of our path.


Our companions from the village literally run down the gravel-path in a flip-flop-highspeed we cannot possibly keep up with. For us the path is really hard to manage even though we are wearing proper walking shoes.

After a car-ride back to Adigrat in the Toyota-Hilux with 15 passengers alltogether sitting in the passenger compartment and behind on the pick up's truck bed, our small volunteer room at the kindergarden appears to be really luxurious and privileged when together with Hagos and his uncle we unload our luggage. Sometimes it's really healthy to change perspectives. Our children enjoy the Lego which before the trip to the village had become boring for them.

There are many worlds between "their world" and "our world"! Still, these wonderful people have given us the chance to be part of their lives for a while. In many impressive conversations they have managed to be open for our ways of living and our perspectives and have tried to understand this different world without prejudice. It was really a reciprocal interest and "studying" the opposite communication partner and all this in the most wonderful, warm and welcoming atmosphere.

The thought that people should work to make their dreams come true instead of making work itself the most important thing in life doesn't want to leave us. Why, oh why do we put ourselves under so much stress every day to earn more and more money if one could live like them?

A German translation of this blog entry can be found here, on our school's blog.

One thought on “Impressive Community in Impressive Isolation

  1. Jansen

    Näher könnt ihr an das äthiopische Leben nicht herankommen. Mischa, wann schreibst Du das alles? Ich habe ja schon mit dem Lesen zu tun und es ist inzwischen nach Mitternacht geworden. Dein Englisch ist beeindruckend! Jetzt kann ich auch Deinen Text im Telegrammstil auf der Facebook-Seite verstehen.
    Alles Gute weiterhin!


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