We rang out 2009 and rang in 2010 with a two-week trip to Ethiopia.  We actually left Denver on Christmas Eve and spent December 25, mostly with our eyes closed, in the Frankfurt, Germany, airport.  Just getting there was an adventure: Colorado had about 10 inches of fresh snow the morning we left; the plane touched down in Chicago with the city bracing for an ice storm; and the Frankfurt airport was recovering from a complete shutdown as a result of Europe’s deep freeze.

We flew from Germany to Ethiopia in the daytime, and for hours flying over Egypt and Sudan we saw a monochrome landscape of sand dunes with only the rare oasis changing the scene.  Finally, arriving over Ethiopia, some greening appeared, though not much.  The landscape is rugged and mountainous, something like Nevada or Utah.  Approaching the capital, Addis Ababa, the ground greens up, fed by rainfall and a few major rivers.  About 85 percent of Ethiopia’s population still works in rural agriculture, which explains why a bad rain year can cause so much drought and devastation.  (The original Live Aid concert raised funds on behalf of a horrific Ethiopian famine in the 1980s.)

You need only glance at a map of Africa to realize the challenges of Ethiopia.  Its neighbors include Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia, all sites of ongoing warfare, and it sits just across a gulf from Yemen, training site for “the Christmas day bomber,” the man who tried to bomb a US-bound plane the day we were traveling in the opposite direction.  Ethiopia’s own history is chilling.  After a coup in 1974 disposed of Emperor Haile Selasse (who went by the titles “King of Kings” and “Lion of Judah” and inspired the Rastafarian cult that awaits his Second Coming), a dictator named Mengistu took over to lead the country toward Marxism.  Mengistu launched a Red Terror that Amnesty International estimates killed half a million people, mostly students and intellectuals.  At one point the director of Save the Children counted 1,000 bodies of murdered children lying in the gutters, fed on by wild hyenas.  In a pernicious policy, the government required parents to pay for the bullets used to kill their children before releasing the bodies for burial.  Another group of Marxists overthrew that government after fierce fighting in 1991, and things have been calmer since, although purges still occur and 13,000 people were arrested after the last election.  Understandably, Ethiopians don’t talk openly about politics.

We had come to meet with a group of about 200 SIM missionaries who were holding their biennial retreat in a “resort” two hours from the capital.  I put the word in quotes for good reason.  When we checked into our room, the toilet tank lid was off and all working parts were missing.  A maintenance man came and hooked up a coat hanger contraption that made it work some of the time.  When Janet pointed out a light that was also not working, he pointed to a sink light at the other end of the room: “But Madam, you already have a light.”  “Yes, but we need a light over the tub and toilet.”  Looking befuddled, he repeated, “But Madam, you already have a light.”  He could not comprehend why anyone would want more than one light.

Mercifully, SIM found another room for us with a working toilet, and we then turned our attention to the spider monkeys, who travel in packs throughout the resort, climbing on cars, preening in side-view mirrors, grabbing candy out of children’s hands, and sneaking into rooms if anyone dares leave a window cracked or a door unlocked (they’ve learned to turn the doorknobs of unlocked rooms and to unzip luggage).  The monkey plague subsided considerably after some missionary kids pulled out their BB pistols and slingshots.  Our room overlooked a muddy river the color of caffe latte, and we were advised to watch out for crocodiles, monitor lizards, and hippos.  Each morning we woke up to the jungle sounds of tree frogs and screaming fish eagles.   Welcome to Africa.

Our meetings with the missionaries went very well.  The rustic accommodations were far better than what some of the doctors, nurses, and midwives encounter in remote areas, and to them it did seem like a resort.  We heard stories of poisonous snakes, scorpions, rabid dogs, Muslim fanatics, and 120-degree temperatures.  Some missionaries work among the lip-plate people you’ve probably seen in National Geographic; some among battle-scarred Somali refugees; some among nomad tribes who wander the desert, wear minimal clothing, and drink nothing but camel’s milk.  Like other mission organizations, SIM has had to expand its work to address such modern challenges as the orphans resulting from HIV/AIDS.  My, how I respect these people.

After the conference we spent a week traveling on our own.  Ethiopia’s natural wonders and wildlife lie mostly in the South and are not easily accessible.  We chose instead to make a circuit of the historical sites in the North.  Ethiopia was the third nation to embrace Christianity, after Armenia and Syria, and is by far the oldest Christian nation in Africa.  The book of Acts tells of the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch, but the national conversion occurred sometime in the fourth century.  Ethiopians have their own cherished history, which doesn’t always align with anyone else’s.  They believe that the Queen of Sheba hailed from there, whereas most scholars place her in Arabia.  According to Ethiopians, King Solomon “pregnacized” her on her visit to Israel.  The resulting son returned to Jerusalem to meet his father, and one of his company spirited away the Ark of the Covenant.  No one can explain how he got past the Jewish priests to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple, but that’s what Ethiopians believe, and they insist that the Ark now resides in a special chapel in the town of Axum (if only someone had told Harrison Ford…).  A single priest guards it day and night, for life, until a new priest gets appointed to take over the job.  No one can view the Ark, though many have attempted; a long and informative book, The Sign and the Seal, tells of one determined British journalist’s efforts.

Funny thing, Axum, Ethiopia, happens to be a sister city of Denver, Colorado.  We visited the Denver City Souvenir Shop on Denver Street and were warmly welcomed by the proprietor who was wearing a Denver Broncos T-shirt.  Proud to say, Denver is sponsoring a major clean water project there.  Axum also has an impressive group of huge stone monoliths called steles, and boasts the Queen of Sheba’s bath (a muddy pool now used for locals’ laundry) and the ruins of her palace.

From there we visited Lalibela, a mountain town which features more than a dozen “rock churches” carved out of granite.  To protect this World Heritage Site, UNESCO has erected rather hideous nylon tent structures over some of them, which tends to spoil the effect.  The churches date from the 12th century and are truly wonders to behold: full-size churches carved straight down through solid rock—so that you have to descend steps to enter them—then hollowed out into several rooms.  You shake your head in amazement at the workmen who toiled with hammer and chisel to create such marvels.  Historians estimate as many as 40,000 workers were employed; Ethiopians claim that angels did most of the work.

Although we spent December 25 in the Frankfurt airport, Ethiopians use a different calendar (they’re in the year 2002, not 2010) and celebrated Christmas on January 7.  As a result, more than a hundred thousand pilgrims were gathering in Lalibela, normally a quiet town of 14,000.  They sleep outdoors, on the ground, and we wandered among them watching them roast nuts, grains, and other modest meals.  Some of the pilgrims had walked 30 to 40 miles to be there; a platoon of buses brought others from long distances.  Their devotion was something to behold.  In ragged clothes, barefoot or wearing flip-flops, they climbed a nearby mountain to visit another rock church 10,000 feet high.  Our tour guide tried to insist that we ride mules, but Janet convinced him we were from mountainous Colorado and wanted to walk with the pilgrims.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not what you’d call seeker-friendly.  Prayers, readings, and many parts of the service are conducted in an ancient language, Ge’ez, which only the priests understand.  They read from ancient manuscripts hand-written on goatskin and darkened by thousands of fingerprints.  We looked in on part of the Christmas Eve service, which goes all through the night, and watched white-robed men shake an instrument like a tambourine, beat a drum, and chant the same prayers over and over.  Ethiopian churches have their own icons which, oddly enough, always include a rendition of St. George killing the dragon.  Parishioners kneel, kiss the floor, then kiss paintings of Mary and an elaborate cross held by the priest.  The women were sequestered in a separate room, and when Janet strayed too far from there a guard with a club came over to scold her.  Many monastery churches ban women completely as the monks take a lifetime vow not to see a woman’s face.

On Sundays, way too early in the morning, long sermons start blaring out from scratchy loudspeakers, and the locals say they express mostly hellfire and damnation.  Even so, hundreds, even thousands of people fill the churches and gather in the courtyards almost every day.  Some of the SIM missionaries work with Ethiopian Orthodox churches, helping to encourage a nascent renewal movement that presents a more relational faith; in other parts of the country, though, the Orthodox strongly oppose any Protestant activity.  Both groups view with some alarm the one-third of the population who are Muslims; Saudi Arabia has funded the construction of thousands of mosques in Ethiopia, and Muslims increase their numbers when the men marry three or four wives, requiring them to convert.  So far, however, Muslim fanaticism has not taken hold, except near the borders of Somalia and Eritrea.

Compared to African countries like Kenya and South Africa, Ethiopia presents some challenges for tourists.  I don’t know how they assemble plumbing, but most hotel bathrooms smell like an open sewer.  Tiles fall off the walls in the middle of the night, bare wires dangle from outlets, and you have to ask repeatedly for a towel and toilet paper.  Few hotel rooms have television and the lamps don’t give off enough light to read by, which limits evening options.  You’re lucky if they have dialup internet: I waited six minutes for Yahoo to load, and never did get graphic-intensive ESPN to appear on a screen.  Email is heavily monitored by the government, which further slows the process.  Airplanes sometimes leave an hour late and sometimes an hour early—that is, if you’re lucky enough not to get bumped from your flight.

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, you do feel like you’re in an authentic, exotic place, not some Disney re-creation.  You hear rural sounds all day long: a donkey braying with a sound like a wounded seal, roosters crowing, cows bellowing, baby goats bleating, dogs barking, babies crying, children laughing, drums beating.  We visited a donkey market and a sheep market where villagers gather, bargain in low tones, then assemble three eyewitnesses to verify each sale agreement.  We stopped for fuel by the side of the road where a teenage boy hoisted a five-gallon plastic jug to his shoulder and another attached a tube to run into the gas tank.  We saw children doing handstands in plowed fields for the sheer joy of it.  On Christmas day the hotel staff celebrated by butchering a cow (they had been fasting from meat for 40 days), and gathering in the lobby to cut up the raw meat which they dipped into spicy sauces and ate with much chattering and giggling.  An hour before, their meal had been walking around.

Though desperately poor, Ethiopians are friendly, generous, and gracious.  Beggars and street vendors abound, yet they do not press too hard.  And Ethiopians do know how to make a good cup of coffee.  We visited a guide’s home for an authentic “coffee ceremony”: they roast the green beans over a charcoal fire, grind them with an iron pipe, mix them in a pitcher heated over the same fire, then pour the mixture back and forth until just the right blend of dark, dense coffee emerges.  A pound of coffee in Ethiopia goes for the price of a small cappuccino at Starbucks in the U.S.

Ethiopia takes pride in being the only African country never colonized.  It was occupied for a few years by Mussolini’s army, though, just before the Second World War.  As a result, you can get a macchiato, an espresso mixed with a little steamed milk, most anywhere for the equivalent of a quarter, and virtually every restaurant offers macaroni and spaghetti dishes along with Ethiopian fare.

When I visit such countries, I enjoy the immersion in village life.  Donkeys walk through the streets carrying loads of rock, grass, bags of grain, and firewood.  Eight-year-old boys direct cattle by whacking them with a stick, men carry goats slung over their shoulders, and sheep wander dazedly through the streets.  Drivers soon learn how to cope with animals on the road: goats run from the vehicle; donkeys keep going in a straight line, making them easy to avoid; camels stand their ground and sneer; sheep respond in stupid and unpredictable ways, so you’d best slow down.  We often saw oxen threshing wheat in fields, a scene straight from the Bible.  And one morning at the “resort” we went on an early bird walk, spying gray hornbills, bright and tiny sunbirds, and large plantain-eaters, which look like a cross between a hawk and an overgrown pigeon.

Back in Addis Ababa after our travels, we had most memorable visits to two hospitals.  The first was the Fistula Hospital founded by Catherine Hamlin, a remarkable Australian obstetrician and gynecologist who came to Ethiopia 50 years ago.  She soon observed a tragedy among Ethiopian women who have no access to health care.  A percentage of childbirths result in obstructed delivery, in which the pelvic bones are too small to allow the baby to pass through—a circumstance which in developed countries would call for a C-section.  Ethiopia, though, has barely one obstetrician for every million women.  (There are probably more Ethiopian doctors in Washington, D.C., than in all of Ethiopia.)  Poor nutrition, the young age of mothers, and an odd cultural tradition of virtually starving the mother during the months of pregnancy complicate childbirth for many Ethiopian women.  They endure many hours of agonizing labor, and 99 percent of their obstructed babies die.  When the fetus is finally extracted, rather grotesquely, the woman is left with injuries: the baby has pressed long and hard against the bowel and bladder, causing a wound that opens into a fistula.  Feces and urine now drain out the vagina, creating a constant running stench.  Typically, the women are kicked out of their homes and forced to live in a hut outside the village.  They can never remarry or hold a job, and must live at the mercy of already poor villagers—outcasts in every sense of the word.

Catherine and her physician husband founded the world’s only hospital dedicated to repair of these fistulas.  She devised many noninvasive medical procedures to repair the wounds, giving new life to the women.  We heard amazing stories of women who take days and even weeks to travel to the hospital, as they are often banned from buses because of the smell.  In sharp contrast to the isolated mud huts they come from, the hospital is sparkling clean and beautiful.  It has treated 35,000 women, and almost all the nurses’ aides are former patients.  Catherine had been warned that no one would work in the hospital because of the smell; to the contrary, it’s as antiseptic and fresh-smelling as any hospital you can find.

More, Catherine is an avid gardener and the grounds resemble a lush English garden.  When Janet commented on her hydrangeas, Catherine said, “Yes, I could tell that we needed a little more blue in this part to round out the colors.”  She is 86 years old, still performs surgeries one day a week, and leads devotions for the women in the ward every day.  She’s somewhat of a legend in Ethiopia, has been called “a modern day Mother Teresa” by the New York Times, and in 2004 was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s television program.  Hearing Catherine’s stories of lives reborn, Oprah’s tearful staff started digging in their purses for donations to the work.  Oprah later donated a new building to the hospital and filmed a documentary there in 2005; the PBS program NOVA did a further documentary on five women patients, A Walk to Beautiful.  You can read Dr. Catherine Hamlin’s story in the book The Hospital by the River.

We also visited the leprosy hospital and training center founded by Dr. Paul Brand, my coauthor on three books.  As he researched where to locate the hospital back in the 1960s, he narrowed his choices down to three apparently stable African countries (Kenya, in the throes of the Mau Mau rebellion, was out of the question; South Africa, everyone expected to implode).  He suggested Nigeria, which soon broke out in the Biafran civil war; Uganda, soon to be ruled by Idi Amin; and Ethiopia, which became a brutal Marxist state a few years later.  Africa poses its challenges!  He decided on Ethiopia, and the ALERT hospital there survived the various political intrigues to become a world center for the treatment and training of leprosy patients.  It too has spacious, leafy grounds, where leprosy patients are treated with care and dignity.  Many of the tendon transfer operations Dr. Brand devised are still used here, and leprosy patients are trained in crafts and occupations that keep them from a beggar’s life.  Jogging through the streets of Addis, I had noticed many beggars with stump fingers and claw hands, the mark of leprosy patients who have not had such treatment.  Doctors come from all over Africa to train in leprosy treatment.  Several years ago the Ethiopian government took over the hospital—with decidedly mixed results—and expanded its services to include HIV/AIDS and TB.

These two hospitals shine as bright lights, the best fruit of dedicated missionaries who were motivated by their love for God and their conviction that every person on earth reflects God’s image.  To see smiles on the women in the large open ward of the fistula hospital and to watch the leprosy patients studiously exercising their refurbished hands is to see a sign of resurrection.

And, to complete the circuit, in Denver we have befriended a man who was one of the guerrilla fighters who overthrew the Mengistu regime.  He served as Prime Minister for five years until, like so many, he fell victim to an oppressive regime and spent the next twelve years in a horribly overcrowded prison for political prisoners.  After five years there he read Chuck Colson’s book Born Again, became a Christian, and served the remainder of his sentence.  Before leaving Ethiopia he went to each of the men who had wronged him and said, simply, “Though we both know that you wronged me, I assure you that I forgive you.”  Now he has rejoined his family in Denver, where his wife works as a convenience store clerk.  We passed the walled compound of the luxurious Prime Minister’s house, and also the miserable political prison, and then met with his sister in Addis Ababa, who gave us some of his clothes to take back to Denver.

Africa has many problems, yes, and also much hope.  We had a hard trip in many ways, but a real one.  Now we must reinsert ourselves into a materialistic, celebrity-obsessed culture that offers many comforts and yet to the average Ethiopian must seem as strange as their culture does to us.  It occurred to me, as we walked through the Frankfurt airport to our final flight, that not once had we heard the names Tiger Woods or Britney Spears.

Copyright © 2010 by Philip Yancey