I’d been introduced to Professors Shiferaw and Berhanu two weeks earlier on the steps of Emperor Haile Selassie’s former palace within the stately manor which today houses the University of Addis Ababa’s Institute for Ethiopian Studies. Here Berhanu is the institute’s director and Shiferaw is considered among the nation’s foremost historians. In polite two-handed fashion they welcomed me beneath a portico frieze in which an imperial crown hovered over a Star of David and where the archangels Michael and George stood sentinel alongside lions of Judah.
The professors were curious about my reasons for being in Ethiopia, which were “so strange and improbable,” I told them, that they were, “beyond even my own comprehension.”
The Star of David hovers over the Ark of the Covenant
“Coming to Ethiopia,” I told them, “wasn’t something that I’d planned … it just happened … what’s more, this isn’t the first time I’ve been here.”
“Is that so?” They asked with increased interest.
“I first came almost ten years ago,” I explained, “with my then partner Antonia.”
“No, not exactly. Technically she was what’s called a ‘UN spouse,’ a sort of non-legally binding status for unmarried couples living together but which essentially has no relevance outside the U.N. system.”
We’d met at an upper-east-side Manhattan art opening. I was a successful illustrator known for my witty three-dimensional New York Times Book Review covers, and she was a captivating United Nations Development Programme Officer from Brazzaville. Interest was instant and mutual. One thing quickly led to another, and after a hasty romance she conceived an adorable little girl. I assisted in the birth. Indeed I was the first to see this little miracle enter this world. We named her Muila – a name I quite liked, meaning breath of life in Antonia’s Congolese dialect.
To be sure, the sudden change was terrifying at first, but being a father gave me a previously unknown sense of joy, love and purpose. I didn’t doubt the sanctity of nature’s plan and was determined to submit to whatever was called upon of me to fulfil this, my new role as father and spouse.
Life’s changes didn’t end there. A few months after Muila was born the phone rang. It was the UN. They wanted Antonia to relocate to Ethiopia. At the time my first children’s book was selling quite well – it didn’t come as a complete surprise therefore when the phone rang again just one half hour later. This time it was for me. It was my editor. She wanted me to write and illustrate a book about Ancient Egypt. The book’s subtitle would be, The People of the Nile.
I quickly visualised a map of Africa in my head. How bizarre I thought, the Blue Nile courses through Ethiopia – in fact it originates there! I still remember the astonishment in my editor’s voice when I asked if I could write the People of the Nile from the Nile (albeit the Blue one). She agreed, and the next thing I knew our young family was living in Ethiopia.
Muila wasn’t even one year old when we moved into the General’s villa near St. Urael Church. There I set myself up under a blooming waera tree sculpting various moments from Egypt’s glorious past. Here in the company of sphinxes, pyramids and pharaohs she took her first steps. Life was as sweet as the fruit plucked from our trees, and soon there arrived a second cherub – a boy whom we named Alexander – my mother’s maiden name.
Living in Ethiopia, I told the professors, was fascinating. Ethiopia’s traditional dress, its agricultural tools and method, observance of traditional rites, musical instruments et cetera all bore clear familial resemblance not only to other African sources, but also those of ancient trading partners, such as Egypt via the Nile, Arabia via the Red Sea and the Asian sub-continent via the Indian Ocean.
These cross-cultural connections, and the mysteries enveloping them, engrossed me. But things in my personal life were crumbling. After four years the UN once again transferred Antonia – this time to Kenya – and there she left me. Berhanu’s face expressed sympathy, which I appreciated, but I didn’t want to rummage through personal matters with people I didn’t really yet know. Mentioning it alone was prickly. Having not done so however would’ve left a glaringly conspicuous gap in my story.
Resolving to stay in Kenya, and to remain close to my children turned out to be largely in vain when Antonia moved with them shortly thereafter – first to Rwanda, then New York, and then to Benin. The impulse to follow my children around the globe would be impossible to fulfil without each of those countries granting me residency. Work visas would be also be required, as I no longer had financial recourses this would unquestionably require employment.
On the other hand, if I left Africa and went back to New York I feared I’d never see my children again. How moreover would I support myself back in New York? In my absence I’d lost my home and career. I’d have to start all over again from scratch – this not only during a recession but also during a period of the worst unemployment figures in recent U.S. history. I was almost fifty – ancient by New York job-candidate definition. This only exacerbated my odds. So, unable to bear the thought of leaving the continent where my beloved children were, I found myself alone, broke, homeless and at mid-life in the unfamiliar city of Nairobi.
I mourned the loss of Muila and Alexander. For months I had no appetite. For a year I drenched my pillow with tears. During this gloomy phase however I endeavoured to start up Nairobi Arts, a modest newsletter, which I authored, edited, designed, photocopied and distributed on a shoestring budget. Miraculously a Belgian art collector named Marc became my most avid of readers. After a meeting he and his artist wife Chelenge agreed to take me in, until I could get back on my feet – an intervention, which looking back now almost certainly saved my life, not through shelter alone but through their humanity and kindness. During this time I grew close to a Kenyan lady named Jacinta who, unknown to me then, was Chairperson of Kenya’s Gender Commission. My heart would never cease to mourn over the loss of my children, but Jacinta’s goodness, strength and encouragement answered my despair with hope. In time life once again regained beauty.
Jacinta came from a large family, not unlike my own – decent people who accepted me in spite of my lumps and bruises. We married and settled into a Nairobi neighbourhood called Westlands where I found a job as managing editor at a publishing concern called Camerapix, founded by the legendary Mohamed Amin. ‘Mo,’ as he was known, was the cameraman who brought the world’s attention to Ethiopia’s devastating famine of 1984. His heart-rending images of human suffering mobilised an unprecedented global awakening of compassion, which led to the largest humanitarian-aid effort in history. It was perhaps mankind’s finest hour.
Amongst other things Camerapix published Selamta, the in-flight magazine of Ethiopian Airlines, thus furnishing me pretext to keep my thoughts in the land that had so grown on me. There I was in Nairobi, authoring feature length articles about Ethiopian history, drawing enormous satisfaction from the fact that I was following in the footsteps of distinguished earlier Selamta contributors such as Graham Hancock, who wrote the best selling The Sign and the Seal, and Richard Pankhurst, academic mentioned earlier for his journal essay about Barara and who, although in his eighties, continued to submit regular articles. I was dumbfounded to find myself preparing Pankhurst’s virtuoso compositions for publication.
Kenya, although Ethiopia’s neighbour could hardly have been more dissimilar with its highly commercial tourism, western-style malls, fast-food chains and mega supermarkets. I longed for Ethiopia’s more Spartan lifestyle rooted in tradition. At home I listened to Ethiopian music, plastered my walls with Ethiopian posters, and cooked Ethiopian food. Then one day, several years into our marriage, the phone rang. It was the U.N. inviting Jacinta to a gender development meeting in Addis Ababa. It’d been almost five years since I’d been there and it goes without saying that she didn’t need to twist my arm too much to get me on the plane.
As I walked the streets of Urael and Kazanchis friends and neighbours greeted me like a long lost family member. Never in a million years did they expect to see me again and they couldn’t believe their eyes – nor could I, especially when I found myself standing before the General’s big green metal gates.
I knocked – then stood in anticipation of Jalata’s surprise. But an unfamiliar zabanya opened instead, glaring at the soliciting stranger before him. I introduced myself. When I asked for Jalata he explained that there’d been cutbacks and that Jalata had been one of them. “He now live [in] Gurd Sholah.” He told me. It took me the better part of the afternoon to track him down, but when I did the reunion was joyous. “You are home Mister – you are home.” He said clapping, laughing and welcoming me into his adobe one-room home.
We brewed traditional coffee on a small charcoal stove as we exchanged updates on the developments in each other’s lives. I pulled photos of Muila and Alexander from my wallet to show how big they’d become. He’d been like an uncle to them, and was saddened by the news of separation. “Chigre yellum Mister. Chigre yellum. Everything it will be okay.”
He too had gone through a breakup, but he too had met someone new – a lady named Sara – they were talking marriage. He confided however that he’d been struggling. Work was scarce. Whenever they could scrape together enough money to purchase grain Sara made Ethiopia’s unleavened bread called injera, which Jalata in turn went out onto the streets to sell. When there wasn’t enough money to buy grain he did occasional construction work – hazardous, backbreaking labour for less than a dollar a day. There was no grievance though – none at all. “Chigre yellum Mister.” He said. “God, he [will] provide.”
“Jalata,” I said. “You no longer work for me, so why do you still call me ‘Mister?’ I always loathed that darned word anyway, especially from an age-mate. “We’re friends,” I said. “Ibako (please), just call me Bruce.”
He laughed awkwardly saying, “Ishi (okay) Mister,” then disappeared through the stove’s billowing smoke – only to reappear moments later with two bottles of Coca-Cola. “America people I think they like,” he said popping the cap with a broad smile.
I had to return to Kenya the following day, and as daylight dwindled I realized that I’d better start heading back to my wife Jacinta at the hotel. It’d likely be some time ’til Jalata and I met again – if ever, I thought to myself as we strolled along Gurd Shola’s dim paths back towards the bus stop. Along the way a little girl and boy approached me beaming ear to ear, presenting their tiny hands for shaking. “They [look] like Muila and Alexander!” Jalata said, and indeed it was true, the resemblances were striking. All but forgotten muscles in my face suddenly swung back into action as I found myself one again smiling – the sensation of being Papa re-infusing my being for a glorious moment. I wanted to lift them, hug them, and kiss their cheeks, but of course I didn’t dare.
As we waved good-bye through the bus window I heard Jalata pronounce my name. I was so thrilled to hear him call me ‘Bruce,’ instead of ‘mister,’ and just then I speculated that I’d probably never see him again, but that coming back to Ethiopia and revisiting this bit of my past had been a precious gift. Friendship and goodwill had endured. I even got to shake hands with my children!
The following morning my wife Jacinta and I received devastating news – the lady heading Ethiopia’s UN gender development office had passed away. Her name was Atsede. We’d known of her illness but had understood that she was recovering. She was an exceptionally decent human being whom everyone adored. The loss was a blow. Jacinta was heartbroken.
Headquarters asked Jacinta to fill the position until they could find a permanent recruit. It was sudden. Jacinta accepted, not knowing how long the process would take – a month, possibly two, maybe even three. Never could she have imagined it would take a whole year. But it did, and once again, completely by stroke of inexplicable chance, and by design not of my own making, I found myself living in Ethiopia.
The professors were taken aback to hear all of these things. Being brought to Ethiopia once as a UN spouse was already unlikely, but twice? Bizarre indeed! Professor Berhanu, who made little effort to conceal his religious conviction, may have interoperated this as the fulfilment of some sort of destiny – others certainly did, and to be sure even I thought the word, ‘coincidence’ only began to explain the strange fate.
To engage myself during this indeterminate time I pursued several employment leads, but ran into the same problem again and again. As a foreigner getting permission to work in Ethiopia is next to impossible, moreover when prospects did arise, the potential employer would naturally want to know how long I’d be staying, to which I was of course unable to provide a sufficient answer. With these looming impediments I decided to volunteer some energies to the cause of promoting conservation of the rock-hewn church that Jalata and I had stumbled on five years earlier while wandering around the Yeka hills east of the city.
So neglected were these ruins, I told the professors, that they’d become a flood prone, root infested, shrub overgrown hyena den, which hadn’t even yet been listed as state inventory.
“What makes this site so significant,” I added, “is that it landmarks the southward progression of rock-hewn architecture in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
This grand statement caused Professor Shiferaw to do a bit of chin rubbing. “But surely you are aware of the Adadi Mariam rock-hewn church?”
“Yes,” I answered, “and true, Adadi-Mariam is somewhat further south, as are several other medieval churches and monasteries of note.”
“I’m also aware,” I added, “That unlike Washa-Mikael, Adadi-Mariam has already been nominated for U.N. World Heritage Site status. But Washa-Mikael is not only greater in scale than Adadi-Mariam, it also exhibits a higher degree of construction skill and more pronounced traces of post-Axumite style – factors, which accord it greater significance. At any rate,” I added, “All of these sites are certainly worthy for World Heritage protection.”
“And how do you plan to set about accomplishing this?” Berhanu asked.
“Well, as you know, Washa-Mikael is under joint church and state jurisdiction, and that I therefore have no authority to implement any type of process without cooperation from both.”
The professor’s faces tried to look responsive, but scepticism could also be read, as though they’d heard it all before. Such cooperation was famously uneasy to orchestrate. Furthermore, when it came to conserving cultural heritage both the church and state were cash strapped. Ethiopia is after all, still a developing nation. Complicating my initiative further was the fact that I was not only a foreigner but also a non-believer, automatically classifying me as an interloper with both institutions. Nonetheless, I trusted that this wouldn’t be a factor once the greater common goal was established.
“My aim,” I told them was to, “raise public awareness through the media. Surely if we generate enough interest the authorities will act.”
“But you’re an artist aren’t you?” Berhanu asked.
“Well yes. I was. Uh, and I still am – sort of.”
Berhanu’s head tilted off axis at my vague response.
“Back in New York I used to illustrate covers of the New York Times Book Review – historical portraits mostly. I’ve also written and illustrated history books for children. Now that I’m based here however I’ve had to adapt to the African market – to sort of reinvent myself. I’m doing more writing now – arts and cultural reporting for newspapers and magazines mostly.”
These credentials didn’t seem to impress the professors too terribly. White writers, ad-hoc artists, and self-styled explorer-adventurers have been features of the African narrative since time immemorial. Indeed an excerpt from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness suddenly flashed through my mind – this when Marlowe is challenged to describe Kurtz, and his tongue-tied response is that Kurtz was “either a painter who wrote for the papers, or a journalist who could paint.”
I’m no Kurtz, still the irresolution did hit home. In truth I’d been struggling to find my place in Africa. And frankly the professors had every right to question me. Under what authority does a sometime-artist, part-time writer from New York have to stand on Emperor Haile Selassie’s front steps, and put forward unto eminent Ethiopians that he’s interested in protecting their national heritage?
But this, to answer my own question, is one of the rewards of casting oneself to the winds. Unthinkable self-discoveries may, and do, occur. Unknown qualities may surface, and when this happens untold prospects come to the fore. And just then I remembered something quite remarkable.
“Oh,” I added, “I’m also co-authoring a piece about Washa-Mikael for Annales d’Ethiopie with Professor Pankhurst.”
“Richard?” They asked.
Born in London in 1927, this twice earlier mentioned academic was a co-founder of the Institute for Ethiopian Studies as well as the author of a multitude of texts on Ethiopian history. Indeed it was he who first brought our attention to the ‘lost’ city of Barara through the before cited journal essay, and it was his compositions that required so little if any red editing ink at my Camerapix desk in Nairobi. Moreover Professor Pankhurst was a leading advocate for conservation and repatriation of cultural heritage. It was largely to his credit that the great Stele Number 2, seized from Axum by fascists during their four-year occupation, was returned. And it was his petitioning that persuaded British authorities to return artefacts seized during Napier’s 1868 expeditionary incursion to Makdala.
I’d first met Richard and his wife Rita, ten years prior at their home near Addis Ababa’s Old Airport. As stated, I was writing and illustrating a book about Ancient Egypt at the time. Consequently my imagination was quite taken by the mystery of a different ‘lost’ African kingdom called Punt, which was particularly renowned for having millennia ago engaged in high-volume of trade with Ancient Egypt. Scholars suspected that Punt was located somewhere in the region of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Richard had been kind enough to entertain my inquiries over several cups of coffee in his garden gazebo. Here, a decade later, we were once again sipping coffee in the same shade of his gazebo, this time discussing how to conserve the forlorn rock-hewn church of Washa-Mikael.
Wife Rita, colleague and scholar in her own right, again joined us, and after presenting my assessment both she and Richard were surprised that a site of such significance, which lay within the nation’s capitol, could remain so dejected for so long.
I explained that I’d already launched a modest blog upon which I regularly posted info and updates, that I’d made television and radio appearances and that I’d written a number of newspaper and magazine articles. My proposal to Richard then was that he write an essay for academic publication, to which he at once agreed, suggesting moreover that we co-author the piece – a suggestion that came as a complete surprise. When I asked him by what stroke of madness he was disposed to put his well-established name alongside that of mine, he answered simply that it would only be right given that I’d been the initiator.
Receiving Richard’s support was critical – moreover it made an impression on the professors. It may also have impressed them that among the many well-known perks offered to U.N. office heads, which my wife had just unexpectedly become, one was a brand new four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser with driver.
“Your project sounds interesting indeed.” Professor Berhanu said. “Might I also suggest however that there are several other sites of relevance that might enhance your understanding of Washa-Mikael?”
With this I withdrew a map from my pocket, indicating rock-hewn churches throughout Ethiopia’s Shoa region, which I’d found inserted in a book at the institute’s library several months before. Just as I was about to photocopy the map one of Ethiopia’s all too routine power failures occurred, leaving me no alternative other than to duplicate it by hand, which I did by candlelight. Worn, torn, taped, rabbit eared and stained from repeated use out in the field, it’d taken on a distressed scroll sort of appearance, which my calligraphic hand only heightened, and as I unfolded it onto the portico’s ledge it’s hard to imagine the professors not finding me spectacularly eccentric for having such a thing.
“In fact,” I said, pointing to one of the various dots, “I’ve already investigated a number of other relative sites, such as the Kistana Cave Basilica, near the Awash River.”
“Indeed? You’ve been there?”
“Yes, just a few weeks ago. You could never imagine finding such an elegantly carved basilica,” I reported, “inside of what appears to be nothing more than a natural cave.”
“Ah hah. So you’re a sort of scout.” Professor Shiferaw remarked.
“I suppose you could say so.” I replied laughingly.
Pointing to another dot I remarked, “And these grottos along the Tefo River are also quite remarkable. Apparently there was a sizable monastic community there up until the 16th century.”
“The Abba Nebero cave complex over here is particularly noteworthy because it contains a variation on the distinctive design element also found above the west door of Washa-Mikael.”
“Yes. And to my knowledge this particular design occurs no where else.”
“Are you familiar with the ruins on top of Mt. Yerar?” Berhanu asked.
“I’ve not yet made it there.” I said, folding my map up and stuffing it back into my pocket, “But I once dined with priests near Dukem whose tongues loosened after a few of cups of tala (traditional home brewed beer). They described the mountain as ‘sacred.’ In no uncertain terms they told of how a king named Atsbaha ruled southern Abyssinia from there during the fourth century.”
According to tradition King Atsbaha co-ruled from 307 to 333CE with his brother Abreha. These brothers, amongst the most celebrated in Abyssinian history, were the first Abyssinian kings to officially adopted Christianity. Mention of them however produced a sudden differential expression in Professor Shiferaw’s face.
“This is a good example of what we historians would call foundation myth,” he said, pointing out that there exists no evidence to support such a claim. “It’s more likely that these structures were built sometime after the 13th century – long after Abreha and Atsbeha.”
“Isn’t it conceivable though” I asked, “That an earlier structure lies beneath?”
“Of course anything is possible,” He replied, “But historians are a cautious breed. Our reputations are attached to everything we say, and while we respect the priests, if their claims can’t be upheld scientifically we can’t admit them as fact.”
Professor Berhanu then suggested, “Why don’t we investigate Mt. Yerar’s ruins together?”
“That would be fantastic!” I answered, barely able to contain my excitement.
“There’s just one thing.” He said motioning towards a tattered vintage Toyota Mark II parked at the foot of the palace steps. “As you can see my vehicle isn’t quite fit for off road duty.”
Nothing about the sedan’s hodgepodged appearance suggested that Professor Berhanu was exaggerating. But like Ethiopia and its professors, I too was on a budget, and there was no way that my wife was going to allow us to use the UN Land Cruiser for unofficial business. Still, I couldn’t turn down the rare opportunity to team up with experts such as these. I’d just have to shell out the cash and rustle up a rental.
“No problem Professor Berhanu.” I said. “I’ll arrange transport.”
“Oh,” Professor Shiferaw added, “And just one more thing.”
“I think we can drop these titles now. Please just call me Shiferaw.”
Berhanu nodded. While chuckling we shook on it.