The question was posed by a young Ethiopian man after he had attached himself, uninvited, to our small party at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. The question seemed rather incongruous after leaving the church where the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife, Menen Asfaw, had been viewed.
The grand mausoleum was incongruous too – in a way – if the viewer was thinking about Haile Selassie’s first burial, in a cement casket, beneath a kitchen and a bathroom, across from the office of the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had reputedly ordered the murder of the Emperor. Some reports say Haile Selassie was smothered to death; one of our young ‘Guides’ claimed he was given a lethal injection.
‘Guides’ 1 and 2 turned out to be rather professional con men, like many other opportunists who see the chance of making money from the tourists who flock to various sacred sites in Ethiopia. This pair proved, in retrospect, to be quite useful to two ageing Australian tourists who had set out bravely through the melee of city traffic to visit the Holy Trinity Cathedral. They had stopped at the Hilton Hotel first, an oasis of Western order and calm efficiency in a crazy world of overcrowded streets, impossible sights and general mayhem. The excellent coffee and croissants restored the nerves assaulted in the fray on the roads.
‘Your driver should be able to take you to the church!’ remonstrated the concierge when asked for directions. When informed that the tourists had a vehicle and intended driving themselves, he relented and tried to explain the best way, with the help of a map.
Maps are all very well, but in Addis Ababa, for those used to driving on the left hand side of the road and seeing clearly identified street names, they just fail to do the job (not that ‘She’ has ever been a competent navigator). One wrong turn and a zealous soldier, with gun, wanted to move the van on. He did try to point the vehicle in the right direction, but it and its occupants ended up at the wrong church.
While the passenger fretted about leaving the van (a borrowed one) in the street, where a resourceful thief would probably remove at least one wheel, the driver was hell bent (figuratively speaking) on checking out the location. The church was rather unusual, octagonal in shape with blue and gold paint enhancing the stonework. It even had the shade of eucalyptus trees to beguile the antipodean visitors. It was here that Guide 1 approached and asked if help was required.
‘Where is the Holy Trinity Cathedral?’ asked She.
‘Where are we?’ asked He.
This was music to the ear of Guide 1, who offered to show the way.
‘How much?’ asked both.
‘We’ll talk about that later,’ Guide 1 was smoothly reassuring. ‘First I will show you another church of interest.’
Ba’eta Le Mariam was magnificent, although the incense from morning devotions hung heavily in the air. Descending to the tombs of the Meneliks, famed imperial family of Ethiopia in the 19th century, was an eerie experience. The vaults are huge, cold and intimidating.
After parting with some birr (the local currency) to various acolytes, She expressed a need to use a toilet. Guide 1 ushered her in to the dreaded squat toilets, which are rather difficult for the aging female to negotiate effectively. The presence of Guide 1 just outside the door offering water also inhibited proceedings.
The expedition continued. It turned out that we had been very close to Holy Trinity Cathedral on the first sortie from the Hilton, but Guide 1 was tenacious and before long his associate, Guide 2, had glided up to join the party. Unlike his accomplice, Guide 2 was well-dressed, well-spoken and personable. He spoke intelligently about the cemetery that surrounds the Cathedral, including the graves of Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette and fervent supporter of Haile Selassie in his campaign to dislodge the Italian invaders from his country in the 1930s. Haile Selassie called Pankhurst ‘an honorary Ethiopian’ and she was the only foreigner buried in front of the Cathedral, until her son Richard was buried with her in February 2017.
The most sobering memorial is to the martyrs of the Derg, the brutal regime that took orders from Mengistu in a reign of terror following the ousting of Haile Selassie. The ‘Red Terror’ Martyrs’ Memorial Museum is another destination for visitors to Addis Ababa, but not on this day.
The museum at the Cathedral houses priceless historical and ecclesiastical relics. The abundance and opulence of gold and silver – the contributions of Emperors, Empresses, and church fathers – maybe ill-gotten gain, troubling to the viewer who has been a witness to the endemic poverty of Ethiopia. How did the church hide all this wealth from the Derg? Haile Selassie’s huge mausoleum is also a visual assault, after seeing pictures of a man short in stature and knowing that the downfall of the King of Kings and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah was brought about largely by his ignoring the hunger of the common people.
The grounds of the Cathedral are spacious and blessedly quiet. Guide 2 confided, when She commented on the number of people sitting around, that this place offered respite for men and women having problems at home. ‘At home we call these domestic troubles,’ said She, while He noted down the Guide’s observation for future use.
Time for home anyway, declared She. Guide 1 wanted to get more money than the amount yet to be discussed, but agreed to end the excursion with a souvenir shop which he was sure sold mementos of the churches. The grubby little cave yielded very little, and She sat in fear on the way to it, sure that a gun or knife would now appear and the intrepid Australians would be obliged to part with all their birr and the van, not just one wheel. Guide 2 told us cheerfully, as we bumped and jolted along, that we were experiencing the African Massage; the treatment to which all travellers are subjected on the uneven roads.
Her fears were further allayed when Guide 2, in his next conversational gambit, commented on the tourists’ British accent. She bristled, indignant on behalf of her native land and She promptly corrected him. Then came the question, ‘How Much Do You Have to Pay If You Hit a Kangaroo?’ This was not so surprising as He and She know that many callous locals leave their poor old horses and donkeys out on the roads in the hope that they will be hit by motorists, who would then be obliged to pay for the dead beasts.
With visions of the horrific road kill on Australian roads, She said that there was no cost, except for the repairs to the vehicle that hit the kangaroo and medical treatment for the driver. Guide 2 then asked, ‘Do you eat kangaroo?’ No, She replied primly, She had an aversion to eating the animal that was featured on Australia’s coat of arms. Guide 2 thought this was hilarious and so the outing ended happily, until the price was negotiated with some indignation on both sides.
Several hundred birr poorer, the tourists retired for tea and buns at the Hilton bakery, glad to be in one piece and none the worse for their adventure. So weary were they and so keen to get back to base that He left his Akubra hat under the table. Better there than lying in a dusty Ethiopian street, into which murky depths its owner had vanished. Next time we may see the sights in a bajaj, regardless of the African Massage.
Next time I visited a tomb in Ethiopia was when I went to St. Joseph’s Cemetery, to see the tomb and statue of the legendary runner, Abebe Bikila, childhood hero of ‘my’ runner, Feyisa Lilesa.