I never thought that here in Addis, at a church, with the faithful kneeling and bobbing their heads, this week before Easter, I would come to see my relatives, my grandmother and her sisters, some of my cousins, even my own children, in the tone of skin, the slightness of frame, hook of nose. I started to imagine how the supposed Eastern origin of the Yorubas is ingrained, inscripted in the cells. That is what cellular memory is. The difference is that we Yorubas are taller, pagan even if Christian, and infinitely more aggressive.
Addis is built on and surrounded by mountains. At dawn the mist hangs on the peaks and in April, the air is cool like the Harmattan. It has the sleepy indolence of all African cities that have grown from villages.
Religious devotion marks the people out. Churches are places of worship, not museums to be visited and photographed. The attitude is of intense faith, meditative communion, humility, and modesty. These elderly, elegant women, chanting and bowing, typify the antiquity and beauty of Addis.
Talking about beauty, the women are the most beautiful of any in the world. The faces are symmetrical, the eyes bright, luminous and exciting, the features delicate and sensual. What flowers are these, planted as they are, in the horn of Africa?
All their movements are easy and effortless, not unlike a perfectly pitched voice, intimate, warm, full. Even in Cuba, where beautiful women abound, and the sexual and sensual intermingle, an absence of a rooted organic identity depletes somewhat what in all other respects is a temple to beauty.
Addis is perfect in this regard the miscegenation is as long as human history, whereas in Cuba, it is built on slavery and rape. Here it is the handiwork of history and evolution. Lust teasing out the most pleasing features, shaping the eyelids and eyebrows, tipping the bridge of nose forward, plane-ing the bones to a fine, no, the finest waist or ankle. Evolution always triumphs, it selects, it designs and re-designs, led by lust and desire to make what will last and endure, what will leave even more trace in the sand. Here evolution has made the feminine form fit for the male eye.
At Bahar Da, we arrive to a festival of birds. Uninvited, we arrive to witness the flashes of colour, radiant, iridescent colours. Not only colour but also the swoop and dive, the hanging in the air, the wings flapping or humming and the knifepoint beaks and bills. We watch and name, classifying, pointing, what a show, a gay exuberant play and the sky is African bright, a gentle caressing breeze blowing in from Lake Tana. I manage to identify a few weaverbirds, a glossy starling, a speckled dove, bird of paradise, sunbird, pied kingfisher, oriole. But was that a plover, a hoopoe or a bee-eater?
After lunch, we go to the monastery on the peninsula. This allows women in. The frescoes at Ura Kidaae Mehret are bright and vivid. The biblical stories, some familiar and others not, speak directly and simply: a cannibal who had eaten 76 people but was allowed into heaven because he gave drinking water to a leper & stories of Mary who was pregnant out of wedlock and would have been stoned to death but for the intervention of Gabriel. This is a tradition well before Nicea. And then for the male only Kebran Gabriel, an austere yet impressive monastery of 6 monks. 400 year-old manuscripts, illuminated and diligently copied, medieval crosses and silver goblets. Ethiopian Christians have a certainty and assurance that anchors their identity in a self-effacing, deeply modest self-confidence. They know who they are and have no need for muscular pretension.
At the Blue Nile cataract, the local men are far too desperate. They are like leeches or limpets, too close and for too long, unduly solicitous, importuning. They talked and pointed out all manner of things: “Walk here, don’t walk there, can I help you? Hold my hand, that’s the waterfall, that’s a bird and so on”. After a while it all becomes tiring, wearying and wearing. There are donkeys and donkeys, loaded with goods, and elderly women, bent over, truly mules, and children whose filth does not diminish their beauty.
Even more birds, glossy starlings, bee-eaters, carmine. Egrets everywhere and a nation of cattle- zebu with single humps, with ribs so visible that they might as well be skeletons.
The men and boys carry sticks everywhere for want of a gun. The people are in the main quite small and slim. Their colour ranged from the reddish brown of my cousins to a glossy black that does not exist among the Yoruba.
It is astonishing to see so many people living as we have done in Africa for millennia, walking briskly covered in shawls or blankets, gossiping and talking, living life without much luxury, actually without any luxury. Yet, modest and unself-conscious in the habit of work.
A beautiful, young woman spinning cotton with the cataract for background. A young man, sitting on a tree branch, playing a flute. These two iconic images of un-spoilt Africa, carefully and artfully orchestrated for the interested tourist’s camera, for a fee!
In Bahar Da, I was mistaken for an Ethiopian by an Ethiopian. I pointed out that I was considerably taller than most Ethiopians. There is something healing and healthy about coming to Ethiopia to see Africa, our continent, through unfamiliar landscape and to see the utterly indescribable beauty of the land, and the people. To see how, even the poverty fails to corrode dignity.
Photos by Jan Oyebode