Working my way back

It seems fitting that I’m spending my last day in Ethiopia here on Lake Tana exploring churches and monasteries, relaxing at a five star hotel, and preparing to visit two museums in Addis Ababa on my way home.

Coming here from Gondar by car, I crossed into a different Ethiopia.  Even though it is in the same province (Amhara) and only 180 K by car, on a paved highway, the trip through the mountains and across fields were green, something I hadn’t seen in my other areas, where the drought has been devastating (the US AID agent I met said his agency was feeding 2.9 million people), and the monsoons in any case provide a year’s worth of water.  I went from the equivalent of Wyoming to Wisconsin, a transition made easier by the presence of lots of cows.  The highway was also full of people walking (and some hitchhiking or waiting for the tuk-tuks which provide long distance travel, in their Sunday clothes—or at least covered with white shrouds, reflecting the Orthodox belief that Christ ascended in a white robe.  It’s a colorful country for clothing.  The small towns we passed through resembled, as I’ve suggested, 1990s China, complete with the Coca-Cola truck distributing one carton or two to the small shops dotting the street.

When I got to Lake Tana—the third largest lake in Africa (behind Victoria and Tanganyika),  I went for a boat ride.  The first “stop” was the outlet of the lake, which is the beginning of the Blue Nile (it’s pretty brown actually), as it begins its 5500 k descent to the Mediterranean, joining another stream at Khartoum, Sudan, where it forms the Nile.

The Lake is the setting for over 20 monasteries and churches; we visited two dating from the 1th century, and by now I have some of the standard guide descriptions down. There’s a lot of symbolism: the church is round, reflecting alpha and omega; it has four doors for the four apostles (and one fo4r men, one for women, one for priests, and one for the resurrection); the drum is bigger on one side (symbolizing the New Testament) than on the other (symbolizing the Old Testament—remember, the Ethiopian Church, as well as the royalty, has a link to Solomon), etc.  The icons and stories painted on the churches are colorful, and tell stories, which were especially important when you had a literate clergy and an illiterate congregation. This church is one of many named for Mary, who holds a special place in the religion, and since it was her day in the Saint’s calendar, many people had come to the church to pray in the thatched church.

The monastery we visited was founded in 1313, by a saint who also built a nunnery on another island. Only men were allowed in the monastery, and the self-sufficient congregation apparently allows only male animal species on the island.  It had a museum with artifacts, both from the church—icons, chalices, and crosses (there are at least three major varieties of crosses, all quite impressive), and crowns given by royalty and governors, signifying the close connection between church and state in historical Ethiopia; the emperors after all ruled by divine right.

I opted to splurge and spend my last night here (I’ll be on the 10 pm flightMonday out of Addis, and spend the next 24 hours airborne or in an airport somewhere) in a five star resort that I could get used to.  My room has a porch with a man cave, and as part of the reasonable price, I can have a fire lit; my bed is canopied, surrounded by a (needed) mosquito netting.  It has a really nice pool, and I was able to get in over a quarter of a mile before I went to the (included) massage.

I left the masseuse feeling 20 years younger and a foot taller, but I’ll bet that plane ride will close the age gap, and reduce the size.

In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed vicariously my trip to Africa, and I will see many of you soon.

Gondar Castle is a Fred favorite


Gondar Castle

A day amid castles

Those of you who have joined Fred’s expeditions to places like Ticonderoga and Fort Niagara and Castillo de San Marcos can only imagine the joy—nay, ecstacy—I experienced when I toured Gondar today.  A city of half a million people, it was the third capital of Ethiopia (1632-late 18th century), and illuminates a number of historical themes: wars against Muslims (including the Mahdi in the 1880s) as well as world war II (it was an Italian base, and parts of the historic city were destroyed by British bombers in 1941), as well as the capital of Amhara.  Because the last dynasty started here, Amharic is the official language (there are 83 recognized languages in Ethiopia, though my guide assured me that English is the “second language” and one being taught starting in kindergarten).

The first emperor to settle in Gondar, Fasidilas, ruled from 1632 until 1677, and set the stage for the grandeur of the city—the palace compound. Occupying 7000 square meters, the compound houses six palaces, a stable, a banquet hall, an archive (torched by the Mahdi, bombed again by the British since the Italian army used part of the palace grounds for a military encampment), a lion cage (the royal families, whoever they have been, claimed descent from the Solomon-Sheba assignation, and claimed as well to be descendants of the lion of Judah; there were lions kept in the cages until 1990), and two Turkish baths.  Most of the existing artifacts are in a museum which is—alas—under construction, so I can only imagine the splendor that once was Gondar.

The buildings themselves ought to be somewhere in Europe, guarded by knights in shining armor.  I told my guide to be on the alert for damsels in distress—then had to explain what damsels in distress were, and why as a knight, he was bound to be chivalrous, then I had to explain what a knight was, so I kept the medieval dream to myself—but that’s how European the castle/palace looked.

Fasilidas took over from his father, who had invited the Portuguese and other Europeans to help turn back the Muslim invaders; the Portuguese apparently decided they did not want to be allies, but wanted to take over the country, and converted dad to Roman Catholicism (the things you can learn about Europe in Africa!). Fasilidas apparently threw out the Portuguese and steadied the Orthodox ship of state.  He built an imperial swimming pool that is 50 meters by 30 meters and 2.5 meters deep for rebaptizing converts; the pool is used once a year for a baptism ceremony (sometime in January) when 40,000 people frolic in the pool.  The bathhouse is fit for a king, as indeed, it literally was. It also has banyan trees on one wall—the trees whose roots fill in cracks….

Shouldn't this be in central Europe?

Shouldn’t this be in central Europe?

Each of the six Gondar kings built a palace, but none rivaled that of Fasidilas. The architecture borrowed from Europe—and elsewhere. Pediments (I think that’s the word) above the doors have a Star of David (the Solomonic dynasty heritage—plus the Ethiopian Jews who emigrated to Israel in the 1970s—50,000 I believe–lived in a small town near here), Moorish designs, Ottoman designs, and even the evicted Portuguese are featured.  When it come up for sale……see what I put on Facebook and you’ll know why I particularly enjoyed today, a national holiday in Ethiopia commemorating the end of the Derg in 1991, the communists who ended the Solomonic line.

Speaking of royalty, my hotel sits on a hill above the city –at 7300 feet–where I can look down on the Castle.  Like the one in Aksum, it was built under the aegis of Emperor Haile Selassie; therefore, it must be fit for royal guests (like me).

Driving through Gondar, another unfinished town, which I think of as early 1990s China—with similar shops in similar buildings, where donkeys and cows and goats and people and “blue donkeys”—the tuktuks name here—share the semifinished strees with cars and trucks—I saw the “animal” market, where you can buy and sell sheep and goats and…And I thought, “I’ve never bought an animal and brought one home.  What a souvenir!”  I sheepishly considered it, but, even though goated to reconsider, chickened out, happily.  I’ll take home, instead, wonderful memories of a 17th century castle in northern Ethiopia.

I found the lost ark

We covered 3000 years of history today, all within 60 miles of Aksum, demonstrating the importance of the city in Ethiopian religion, politics, and civilization.

The first site was the city of Yeha, which means first city.  The ride, mostly on a Chinese-built highway, ended with a dirt 5K road that took us into a small village, constructing the connector to the highway along with a high school using, among other things, camels to transport debris.

The largest church in Ethiopia, St. Mary of Zion was built near the site of the 4th century church of the same name that was the first in the country. Haile Selassie built it in the 1960s. It can accommodate half a million people. I can hear the mass already--it's five am--and it will last up to 7 hours.

The largest church in Ethiopia, St. Mary of Zion was built near the site of the 4th century church of the same name that was the first in the country. Haile Selassie built it in the 1960s. It can accommodate half a million people. I can hear the mass already–it’s five am–and it will last up to 7 hours.

There were two relics being reconstructed and excavated by a German archeological firm that is an arm of the German federal government.  One ruin is a palace dating from the 8th century, but the other, the Temple of the Moon, has a counterpart in Yemen, which demonstrates that the early civilization drew on South Arabia, using the Sabean script.  The temple, with 3m limestone blocks resting nicely on one another has partially stood the test of time. When the country became Christian, one of the 9 Syrian missionaries who came in the 6th century to develop what became Orthodox Christianity arrived, they converted the Temple to a Church. Some of the history is recorded through artifacts in a small museum (soon to be replaced, I hope) about the size of a wall tent. There are some stones with Sabean writing which indicates the connection to the Arabian Peninsula. Hence, the claim of Aksum to be the birthplace of Ethiopian civilization.

We came back to Aksum for a tour of Mary of Zion, which is a complex containing the site of the first church ever in Ethiopia. Legend has it that God chose the site, but the 4th century edifice was destroyed first by the Jewish Queen, and then by Ahmed the Left Handed in 1535.  Haile Selassie built a modern Church on the site, the third largest dome in the world.  One holidays, it can house half a million people.  It has loudspeakers, which I heard starting at 5 am for mass, which I understand is experienced standing—and lasts up to 7 hours.  The site establishes Aksum as important in the religious history of Ethiopia.

This monastery, built in the 1650s, reflects Portuguese influence. It's monks are keepers of the Ark of the Covenant.

This monastery, built in the 1650s, reflects Portuguese influence. It’s monks are keepers of the Ark of the Covenant.

The centerpiece of the site, and the reason for its importance, is that there is a monastery which houses the Ark of the Covenant.  Supposedly, the Queen of Sheba acquired the Ark when she visited Jerusalem, and brought it back to Ethiopia with her.  It was given to her son, Menelik I, who started the Solomonic dynasty, which ended ultimately with the overthrow and poisoning of Haile Selassie in 1979.

The monastery makes me eager to get to Gondor (tomorrow) because, built in the 1630s, its design was influenced by the Portuguese who came to assist Ethiopia resist the Muslim invasions.  It has a parapet roof, looking like something out of Middle Ages Europe. The monastery provides the monk whose job it is to secure the Ark—he is confined to a building that Emperor Haile Selassi’s wife built.  It’s deteriorating, however, and there’s a new building to house it.  My guide insisted that the transfer will have to take place at night, since the secret of the Ark is as closely guarded as that of Coca-Cola. Nonetheless, there are 50,000 churches in Ethiopia, and each has a copy of the Ark, called a tabot.  On certain holidays, the tabots are brought out and there are processions around the city. They sound impressive.

The lost ark is in the chapel directly behind me with green windows

The lost ark is in the chapel directly behind me with green windows

Two other features of the complex caught my eye, both of them having to do with the political and religious importance of Askum.  One is an excellent museum of royal artifacts—clothing and crowns and crosses; the other, continuing the “c” theme, was the coronation throne in front of the monastery, where every monarch was crowned.

This cross marks the mass grave of 200 Italian soldiers killed in a battle nearby that was the largest defeat of a colonial army on the continent. it kept Ethiopia unscrambled during the "Scramble for Africa." It reads, "we'll never forget you." Mussolini didn't. Forty years later, he occupied Ethiopia, in the first European battle in what became WWII.

This cross marks the mass grave of 200 Italian soldiers killed in a battle nearby that was the largest defeat of a colonial army on the continent. it kept Ethiopia unscrambled during the “Scramble for Africa.” It reads, “we’ll never forget you.” Mussolini didn’t. Forty years later, he occupied Ethiopia, in the first European battle in what became WWII.

Finally, Aksum can put in a bid as an important city in Ethiopian history (and Italian for that matter), because it is near Adwa, where in 1896, an imperialist Italian army was thwarted in its efforts to add Ethiopia to the Italian realm.  The badly-beaten Italians buried several hundred soldiers (it was the worst defeat by a colonial power in African history, and kept Ethiopia as the only non-colonized country on the continent) and above the grave erected a cross pledging, “We will never forget you.”  In 1936, Mussolini remembered that pledge and conquered Ethiopia.  It was the first Western part of World War II, and Ethiopia was the first country liberated.  Today, happily, Italians come as archeologists, helping to find more artifacts that fill in the 3000 years of history I saw today.

Solomon and Sheba: Aksum

The view from my hotel overlooks the royal stele park

The view from my hotel overlooks the royal stele park

My morning began with an early rise to send the blog out.  About two minutes later, I got a frantic email from my travel agent, who had panicked when she read the title: “I went through hell yesterday.”  She assumed that something had gone wrong with the trip, and I had to assure her that while it was her “fault” I had chosen to come to Ethiopia (she had given me a brochure from the company last year, and when I saw the “historical tour,” I knew I had to take it if I were to come back to Africa), I was really having a wonderful time.

That wonderful time continued as I took an hour plane ride one hour north to the town of Aksum, another world heritage site because it was the location of one of the most powerful dynasties in the Greco-Roman world. Aksum was the capital of a kingdom that ruled for nearly 700 years, (early B.C. through the 700s); it was where King Ezana took in a shipwrecked missionary who converted him to Christianity, and where a century later, nine Saints from Syria made Ethiopia part of the “Oriental” (that’s the word they use) Orthodox church.  Forty five percent of Ethiopians call themselves Christians today. It was interesting to see coins at the (modest) archeological museum, because the kings issued coinage with their pictures on one side (there were 53 rulers), and on the other, the moon and sun, symbols of pagan gods, until a cross decorated the other side when the rulers adopted Christianity.

The kingdom had one thing Ethiopia lacks today—access to the rest of the world through the horn of Africa.  At one time, Askum stretched across the Red Sea to Yemen (whose suppression led King Ezana to have chiseled his accomplishments in the Ethiopian “Rosetta stone”—Greek, Geez, and Sabean –enabling scholars to read ancient documents), with a major port in what is now Eritrea to connect the country with the Mediterranean and Asiatic worlds. One of the traded products was frankincense, and the Ethiopians believe King Bazen was one of the 3 wise men who traveled to find the Christ child. Today, the country is landlocked, and my guide told me  that egress (look that one up) is through Djibouti, which exercises its power to extract tolls much the same way the robber barons did in Germany.  Eritrea (and I learned this today) was part of Ethiopia for a while, but when the people threw out the communists, Eritrea sought independence.  I’m only 30 miles or so from the Eritrean border, and while I might be able to cross it, Ethiopians cannot for political (and possibly religious) reasons.

Amid the steles in Aksum

Amid the steles in Aksum

The city is known for its magnificent obelisks, weighing over 100 tons, and up to 125 feet high.  The park in front of my hotel has most of the royal ones, which of course are the highest.  One is called the “Rome” Stele—because Mussolini took it down and shipped it to Italy, where it remained in front of the foreign office until the last ten years, when a treaty brought it back to its original sight.  The obelisks lasted until Christianity considered it pagan—alas—but the stonecutting the Aksumites practiced was perfected in the churches at Lalibela that I saw yesterday.  There are other steles scattered elsewhere in town, but the discovery has been sketchy. Most of the ones uncovered, beginning with a German expedition in 1906, had been covered with dirt over the years, and there is speculation that quite a bit of the ancient civilization remains to be discovered.  I’m tempted to take a shovel tonight…..I’ll resist. Until about 700 AD, it was a dominant power.  The rise of Islam was one of the factors that caused its deterioration and the beginning of the “dark ages” in Ethiopian history. There’s also a story that a Jewish Queen seized power and persecuted Christians, and the kingdom never recovered.

The supposed Palace of the Queen of Sheba is a pile of stones

The supposed Palace of the Queen of Sheba is a pile of stones

The other featured item is the Dongur, the palace of stones, locally known as the palace of the Queen of Sheba.  She was reputedly from the area, and though the palace dates from about a thousand years after Sheba’s reign, her importance in Ethiopian (and Judeo-Christian) history creates a more interesting tale.  After all, who can resist a story of temptation (she was reputedly one of the most beautiful woman of her era), wisdom (Solomon is involved), seduction, and birth of Menelik, their son.  There are markings that could be a throne room, and of course I had to take a picture there!

Forts, palaces, churches and monasteries!  Who needs to go to Europe?

I’ve been through hell

I’ll get to the headline in a minute, but in describing today, a day that resembled yesterday in the exploration of Ethiopia’s Christian past, I’ll share some other observations about what’s happening here.

This morning, I had a campfire breakfast.  It wasn’t planned, but the power went out (a problem throughout Africa), dampening my intention of getting up early and sending my blog.  When I got to breakfast, I found oatmeal (cooked over sterno), and coffee and hot water for tea, cooked over a fire in the back yard here (the monkeys the owners insist on feeding were nowhere to be found).  It was obvious to me that this was not the first time the outage had happened.

My guide had suggested a church that was about 40 kilometers away by road, and 15 if you go on paths over the mountain.  It was his choice, and a substitute for what was on my agenda. As usual, it was a good choice, but on the way:

The road was being paved by Chinese (Railway company #3, or something like that)—100 kilometers for around $10 million, which is not a bad deal, I think. I don’t know how the highway will accommodate the goats, cows (plows), people walking with water jugs, etc.

In one of the smaller towns (with circular thatched roofed homes being replaced by corregated metal roofs and solid walls), there was a USAID food distribution center, passing out food to ease the burden the serious drought is causing here.  The center was mobbed, and while there was some rain a week or so ago that greened up everything, the coming monsoons can make a life or death difference in this country.

St. george is probably the best known church in Lalibela

St. George is probably the best known church in Lalibela

Two of the major churches in Lalibela are being or were being reconstructed by the US embassy. I was glad to see my tax money being spent to fortify enduring cultural monuments.

At the end of our ride was a slightly earlier architectural style church that bridged the gap from where I’ll betomorrow (another flight; roads are questionable. Addis Ababa is 400 or so miles from here, and it’s a two day journey) to the churches at Lalibela; the older style alternated wood and stone, and looked to me for all the world like something constructed using Lincoln logs. My guide said the church was probably the palace of a king (the Ethiopians trace the civilization back to 700 B.C., but the modern state dates from the 16thcentury) initially, but it became and still is a church, complete with mummies from long ago who had come as pilgrims and asked to be buried at the church.  The only new item was a wall that helps secure the cave site and protect the treasures in it.

When we returned to Lalibela, we went to the “heavenly Jerusalem” that King Lalibela constructed, apparently before the “new Jerusalem” I saw yesterday.  Lalibela spent 12 years in Jerusalem, and was so fascinated with it (and so stuck on his belief in his divine right to rule) that he recreated the holy city so his subjects would not have to make the long pilgrimage to the holy land.

In the Heavenly Jerusalem, I went through the eye of the needle (check your Bible) as well as the tunnel from the "manger" to one of the churches which is the passage to hell...

In the Heavenly Jerusalem, I went through the eye of the needle (check your Bible) as well as the tunnel from the “manger” to one of the churches which is the passage to hell…

These four churches are carved in much softer rock, and have suffered more damage than the new Jerusalem group.  On one, the roof has totally collapsed; one of the lessons for future churches here was that the designers had to account for drainage.  And what nature weakened through erosion and time (didn’t the artisans think 600 years ahead?), the Italian occupation hastened with a misguided effort to paint one building a different color, using nails to attach plaster to paint over.  When the Italians were defeated and left, the government took out the nails—hence lots of holes creating a weakened structure.  For me, probably the most interesting church there was built within a cave, but used the top of the cave as the roof, excavated the sides, and rests on the bottom, so it’s not free standing, not completely carved, and unique, at least here.  The churches overall have many similar features, especially the detail work on the windows and some of the interior designs.  It’s impressive how much has survived, despite time and temptation; apparently the first church I saw was decorated with jewels at one time.  No more. Hence, the 1985 security wall that is jarring, almost as much as the UNESCO pillars and roofs that are an attempt to shield the churches from the ravages of time.

My favorite church was probably St. George, the last one Lalibela built, built in basalt which is hard and doesn’t need the protective and distracting roof.  Shaped like a cross, it is 3 stories high, and reflects the experience curve traveled from the early ones I saw today.  If you go to Facebook, I’ll try to post some pictures of it.

My favorite experience? After crossing the river Jordan (Lalibela spent 12 years in Jerusalem, remember) and entering the heavenly complex, you enter a chamber known as the “manger”, and from it, there’s a tunnel (no lights allowed) that runs 80 meters to one of the churches.  It’s known as “hell” , and by taking that route, I went through hell today.



The second biggest country no one knows much about

The second biggest country most Americans know nothing about may well be Ethiopia. (In case you’re wondering, I think Indonesia is first). It has almost 100 million citizens, with an average income of $500, or so I was told.  The country resisted colonization (the only country in Africa to do so, defeating an Italian army in the 1890s at Sadowa which prompted Mussolini’s conquest in the 1930s). Admiration for its independence has made its red, green, and yellow flag colors repeated in other African countries, said my guide. It has had a long series of dynasties, some lasting 8 centuries; the most recent was under Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah, who was deposed in a communist coup in 1971, and the communist rule lasted until 1989.  As in South Africa, the triumphant rebels continue to rule, with less and less justification.  There are 500 delegates to Parliament—and only one opposition party member was elected.  My guide, who proudly associates with the opposition, said he was “jailed” during the election for his political activities! I’m sure it’s ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world—which may well explain why there are one million Chinese in the country, enlarging the airport (much needed) and building infrastructure.

I was briefly in Addis (over 2500 miles from Johannesburg, and 7500 or so miles from you), and what I saw was a reminder that I’m in the third world again.  The city of about 5 million (a pretty small percentage of the population, which means there are a lot of small towns and farmers) seems unfinished, like a Chinese city in the late 80s or early 90s.  Lots of small, temporary type stores selling all manner of goods, from produce to clothing.  Lots of dust and construction.  Building cranes everywhere. As the headquarters of the African union, however, Ethiopian nationalists like to claim it is the “capital of Africa”.  I’m hoping I’ll have some time next week on my last day in Ethiopia to visit the national museum and the ethnology museum (which is Haile Selassie’s ex-palace).

When I got to Lalibela, at 8000 feet, I realized why Ethiopians do well in marathons, but it’s not just the altitude that’s left me breathless.  It’s a city of under 40,000 people, with donkeys and tuk-tuks (3 wheeled covered taxis) the predominant form of transportation. There’s lots of thatched houses in the countryside, with the main distinction between animal and people residences being size. There’s a “Chinatown” housing the Chinese workers who are replacing the mostly dirt roads with concrete; they live in a gated compound in the city—the forbidden city?  I’m staying at the well-named Mountain View hotel, where the left-behind book shelf offers only German and Chinese copies.  I think most of the other guests are German, and I’m happy to say that I was the only one who ordered the flat pancake covered with a variety of vegetables that I remember as “Ethiopian food” in the states.

I came to Lalibela for an understanding of Ethiopian culture, particularly of its 60% Christians, who follow (for reasons I’ve been told I’ll understand better when I go to Askum, which was the capital when Christianity came to this country), the Orthodox faith. In the 16th century, one king invited European help to combat the Muslims; Portuguese came, and he converted to Catholicism as a result.  His successor threw the Portuguese out, and resumed Orthodoxy.  Lalibela was the seat of power of one of the dynasties looking for respite from the Muslim drive in the north, which pushed the Christians farther inland.  Muslims are still numerous (35% or so, more in the east), and either co-exist peacefully, or are getting Middle Eastern money to agitate for separation or superiority, depending on whom you talk with. Lalibela was the most powerful king of the dynasty; he refused to support the Crusaders, for which Saladin reputedly granted the right to guard sacred Christian relics in Jerusalem (to this day, the various sites are guarded by various Churches).  But he did leave 13 churches and chapels and monasteries that are still active today in this heavily Christian town. When I asked my guide about AIDS, he replied, “Not in Lalibela; we’re Christian.”

Ethiopian priest

Ethiopian priest

I spent about 6 hours touring with my guide, a 28 year old young man who wants to go back to school to study criminal justice and then pursue a political career.  As I mentioned, he’s thrown his lot with the opposition party, and paid for it with jail time.  He’s well connected locally, with a grandfather who was the priest in charge of St. George, the last of the rock-hewn churches; his dad, he admitted, was an official under the communists who did a lot of “bad things,” and died in prison after the overthrow of the communist party.

He had a lot of information about the 7 churches/monasteries we saw today, and what fascinated me were the connections I was able to draw with the Byzantine world I’ve been exploring the past four or five years.  In fact, until the 1950s, the Church was under the Patriarch(?) of Alexandria.  Haile Sellasie declared its independence. I could see what was borrowed.  Much of the historical interpretation is hindered by the lack of documentation.  Apparently, the major document was looted by the Italian army and has either disappeared or is in the Vatican library.  The tradition states that King Lalibela had a vision of Jerusalem, and tried to construct similar buildings in two sets of churches chiseled out of rock. The architectural work is fantastic, and it probably drew on stone masons from much of the Christian world, since there are Maltese crosses and other non-orthodox symbols, including a Buddhist “swastika” (it’s not the Nazi variety), and a Star of David, not to mention a Jordan River, and symbolic graves for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  These were carved out of one piece of rock!  St. George, probably the best known one, or at least the most photogenic from above (it’s in the shape of a cross, with no inside pillars, is the fashioned from basalt, a much harder rock, making it smaller, but a beneficiary of all that went before. Lalibela Is deservedly a world class UNESCO site, and part of the reason that I think Ethiopia ought to be more well known.  As one of the early Portuguese explorers wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, “People would not believe me if I told them more.”  He’s right.  I’ll see if I can upload some pictures to share with you why I’m breathless here—and it’s more than the altitude. As an ex Committee Chair noted, “This is Fred Heaven.” Or at least one variant of it.

Summer Camp Is Over

Back in Windhoek from Scout camp—er, Etosha National Park.

In mid-May 1983, I became Scoutmaster of Troop 19.  Accordingly, mid-May 2016, it’s not surprising that I commemorated this auspicious event by camping—albeit in a “rest camp” in a national park in Namibia.

We didn’t get much rest, though, because Etosha National Park is one of the largest preserves in the world.  Created in 1907 under the Germans,, it was once almost 50,000 square miles.  It’s now closer to 15,000, but still substantial.  Etosha means “great white place,” and it is: one of the major features (about ¼ of it) is a salt pan, which does fill if there’s enough rain—but hasn’t for nearly 8 years.  The salt pan shimmers white, looking for all the world like a distant ocean.

But it’s not the salt pan we came to see; it was to work on Nature requirements, and Etosha does have a strong “merit badge” program.  There’s a variety of ways you can study nature:

  1. Go to a museum.Or the National Park variant covered in the story told by Eagle Scout Chris Perillo, who, when we saw an alligator swimming in the ‘Glades,’ told us he’d just come back from the North Cascades where his family took a nature hike at night.  The ranger said she’d been there earlier in the day, and there was an owl—and she pointed her flashlight at the tree, and sure enough the owl was still there.  This continued till the end, when she asked Chris to say behind—and carry the stuffed animals back.  That’s the origin of my comment about “automated” or “robotic” or “animals on demand”on hikes.  That wasn’t a problem for us.
  2. A second variant is to go to a game park.Our guests did this at various stops while we were in our business visits, and got some great pictures feeding cheetahs.  You’re sure to see animals, which is also true if you go to a zoo.
  3. The private preserves like I went to last year (adjoining Kreuger National Park in South Africa) offer a different blend.Lots of animals, but they’re like fish in the sea.  The sea has a lot of fish, but you can’t always find them.  At Sabi-Sabi, the driver plus tracker were radioed in to other vehicles, though, and we were able to spot lots of wildlife, and because it was a private preserve, pursue them off the road.
  4. Etosha was a great challenge (and excitement, really) because you never knew what ou were going to see, and you couldn’t go off road in pursuit.You might be fortunate enough to have an old bull elephant almost close enough to touch as he went across the road, which our vehicle did, or see a leopard dragging a kill, which some of our other trekkers did.

I chose plan A, which was to have “only” three game drives—but one was from 6:15 am until 5:30 pm, and took us from our rest camp across to the other end of the park.

It was easy enough to meet the requirement to identify 10 different animals, and here are some we saw:

Lots of antelope.  Some of their relatives we had for dinner, since they’re vegetarians and generally at the bottom of the predator food chain.  I know why lions love impala (I do too), oryx (on the Nambian seal, but also on the menu as schnitzel or lasagna), kudu (menu item, too, but a big one), and the South African rugby team mascot, the springbuck.

The bigger mammals.  The giraffe has an lovely gait, and it was just fun to watch them.  They move both left legs at the same time, then the two right legs—so they’re always in step, but I wonder why they don’t topple.  Other animals like to hang around with them because they can spot the carnivores a long distance away, and that’s a plus.  The black rhino, who have bad eyesight, (and are an endangered species partly because they can’t see the poachers) are just one of the animals with a symbiotic relationship with giraffes.

The others:  I said our group didn’t see many cats, but we saw their followers—the jackals and hyenas that our guide called “cowardly,” but I think they’re smart—like people, they let others get the food for them; the honey badger, that looks like a skunk and inhabited our campground going from garbage can to garbage can; the banded mongoose, who scurried from a furtive feast in a termite hill when we stopped to photograph them, like boys caught doing something wrong; zebras all over the place, looking like painted horses; and the wildebeest and warthogs. I thought we ought to have an “ugliest” contest, but they’d probably all enter—and all win.  Check out wildebeest and see whether you think all babies are beautiful.

The highlight for me—as those of you who know me might guess—was the discovery at the east entrance of the park of the original German fort, built in 1907 to block the entrance of diseased cattle into German lands.  It’s now a hotel in that rest camp.

Well, summer camp is over, I’ve completed my Nature requirements, so I think I’ll go on a high adventure trip to Ethiopia.  That begins tomorrow morning, as my new best friends scatter, some going home, some staying in Africa for more adventures.

Last day in Windhoek

There's a place for me at CAT Windhoek ... they even have me figured out

There’s a place for me at CAT Windhoek … they even have me figured out

Our two site visits today capped our business experiences in Namibia, and summed up a number of themes we’d heard elsewhere.

The first was to the local Caterpillar dealer, and though I had visited a number of Cat facilities in Asia, I had never visited a dealer before. The dealer was part of a chain that a number of south African countries from headquarters in Johannesburg.  There is kind of a love-hate relationship, I realized, between Namibians and South Africans.  In addition to the over 25 year civil war to create an independent Namibia from an administered province of South Africa, there is much economic dependence today, partly because Namibia is a country of only 2.5 million people, or about the size of Naperville (actually it is larger than Naperville, but you know what I mean).  Because of the mining and the road construction here, this could be a good market for Caterpillar.  And in some areas it is.  Some of the big mines (including the Chinese-owned one) are big purchasers of Caterpillar equipment.  One major drawback, however, is that there is a tariff of 14% on imported goods, and there is an African company with a joint venture with John Deere that is considered African—hence, its products are tariff free. Small wonder Cat champions free trade.

Despite the price disadvantage, Cat sells well because of reliability and maintenance.  Over half the company’s employees are assigned to work at various mines to service equipment.  We toured the warehouse and maintenance facilities, where the tractor used to move equipment was a 1963 model, which ought to say something about durability.  The business suffers from several other drawbacks as well: currency risk (i.e., when you bill in dollars and collect in Namibian dollars the exchange rate is critical on big ticket items—and Caterpillar products are big and big ticket—especially when those items cost $15-$25 million dollars; the dealer writes local contracts in Namibian dollars with the proviso that the price is subject to the exchange rate.  The products are all manufactured overseas and assembled in Namibia (or elsewhere).  20% of the equipment is leased.  Finally, sales depend on industry expectations, which in turn, depend on commodity prices, which right now are down.t

At the CAT dealer in Windhoek

At the CAT dealer in Windhoek

What I gathered is that being a franchised dealer means (among other things) that Cat supplies promotional materials, performance metric standards, and training—as well as the products. The metrics include customer satisfaction and plant safety—the latter was one of the sources of the manager’s pride—0.25 accidents over the last 4 months. As I pointed out when we left, people come to the Namibian game preserves to see the Big 5 animals (lions, etc.)—we had seen the “Big Cat,” and if they wanted to use that as part of their advertising, I’d be glad to talk with them about signing away my rights!

She also revealed something I had not realized.  When Namibia voted on UN Resolution 435 in 1990 (the US brokered a deal in which South Africa withdrew from Namibia and Cuba withdrew from Angola/Namibia (which accounts for the Cold War battles fought here in the 70s and 80s, and the suspicion of the United States by that generation), the country consciously chose English as the national language rather than the other competitors (German, Afrikaan, the 13 tribal languages), making English a foreign language.  She said that at the primary and secondary levels, though, it’s still not taught universally.

A visit to the Ambassador’s house for a reception capped our day and our business visits in Namibia. It was fitting, because also attending were many of the speakers we’d met, and movers and shakers from government (several ministers and the president pro-tem) and business.  We spent a very pleasant evening meeting and spending some time talking with individuals from various background who were essentially curious about what we saw, thought, and expected from our visit to Namibia.

I think I’ve shared my thoughts on the topic with you.

I don’t think I want to be the ambassador, but I certainly loved his house, which, as a taxpayer, I do own.

On to Scout camp—er, Etosha National Park.

Guten Abend Aus Windhoek

In front of Alte Feste

In front of Alte Feste, headquarters of the German army in SW Africa

To answer the question of what’s at the corner of Ludevitzstrasse and Fidel Castro Street, it’s the Goethe Institute which houses the Goethe Café (on one corner) and the headquarters of the Lutheran Church here.  Both the Castro reference and the Teutonic emphases help explain contemporary Namibia.

The German influence, as I’ve suggested earlier, is pronounced, although its history as German Southwest Africa ended in 1915 or 1916.  Part of the heritage is in the architecture.  Cultural relics abound, including the old Christkirche, a Lutheran Church that looks gingerbread like outside and has a Rubens copy painting inside (probably a fake imported from China, like so many other things), the Hochshuele (not sure I got the spelling right) which houses part of the museum of Namibia, and my favorite, the Alte Feste, the old  fort/headquarters of the German army in SWA, with its crenelated castle towers and a huge statue erected in honor of the “Fallen Soldaten” in world war I, nearly half a century later.  The discussion we had at the Embassy pointed out that many German habits still prevail (people stop at the stop lights), and many of the restaurants feature German fare (I had schnitzel the other day).

The Fidel Castro reference is equally important in explaining recent Namibian history (which also has a spillover effect on business, especially on US businesses).  Simply, the good guys who helped Namibia liberate itself from South Africa, as the Namibians perceive it, were Cuba, Russia, China, and North Korea. For example,  I went to the new museum of history, built by North Korea (I’d never before heard of North Korean construction companies going anywhere beyond their borders!).  Inside, what I saw would have made Kim (anyone of the three) immensely proud, because the vocabulary and displays were “socialist realism”.  There were exploited workers both in historical pictures and in artwork right out of the Chinese mold (the founder of the Republic stands statuesque in front, looking for all the world like Mao/Kim with a slightly different face (he does have a beard).  The pictures (and that was most of the exhibit) didn’t give any context, but I could imagine the struggle for liberation from the displays.  The country finally became independent in 1990 (March 21 if you want to win the trivial pursuit game), with the assistance of the United Nations.

That allegiance of SWAPO, the party of the revolution, and the party which has run the country since, is tilted toward the communist bloc.  Many of the businesses are state-owned, and we learned that the sentiment is that “profit is bad,” which has had a salutary effect on the corporate social responsibility of businesses that want to operate in this country.  One of our speakers, from 3M, sells respiratory devices to mining companies, and its entry strategy has been to give free training to mine owners who were convinced that towels and cloth masks were sufficient to prevent silicosis (!)  And, until recently, the parliament members were on the committee to scrutinize applications from companies desiring to do business here, or invest here (most of the mines are foreign owned, the capital requirements being too great for locals to manage, though about 95% of the workers are local—at least 80% have to be—and, the Chamber of Mines economist assured us, at least 70% of the revenue remains in Namibia. I thought it was fitting that her title was “economist,” but her training was in journalism.)  The mines are a major contributor to the GDP.  As I understand it, there is a new $6 b Chinese owned uranium mine soon to open that will add 5% to the GDP of the country.  And the economist also assured us, miners’ pay is relatively high, both within Namibia and in the African mining industry.

At the US embassy in Windhoek

At the US embassy in Windhoek

The bias has some interesting effects.  A government tender for a railroad led to 8 bids, which went to a Chinese company.  The seven losers contested, and the proposal was rebid with 7 bidders.  The result was the Chinese won again.  The port of Walvis Bay is being expanded with Chinese construction (some of the subcontracting is going to Caterpillar). I’m beginning to get the picture now; the battle is partly for the interior-the Botswanas and Zambias and Zimbabwes.  The port will require additional infrastructure, especially railroads, and we saw some plans (there are a lot of plans in and for Africa) for linking Walvis Bay with other countries.  The embassy told us even now, it’s more efficient to ship to Walvis Bay than to the South African ports.

All this may be changing.  There is an American-educated President (the first) who is less skeptical about the motives of the United States (and Obama’s presidency has helped here too), though the commercial attache related a story about telling the Minister of Foreign Trade how important the “ease of doing business in” and other ratings are in attracting foreign investment only to be told, “But countries lower than us get the most money.”  We’re having a reception at the embassy tomorrow, so maybe we’ll get more of a sense of what is happening in this large (think Alaska), thinly populated (2 million) and environmentally varied and naturally attractive country.

Gotta go essen!

Graduate business education in Windhoek

One of the purposes of the FDIB trips is to facilitate cooperation between faculty, not just those on the trips, but with members of universities in host countries.  Today, in compliance with that goal, we had visits at two of the top universities in Namibia (I think there are three).

The first was the Windhoek campus of the University of Namibia, and I confess I’ve never really had a comparable site visit.  Usually, we have something of an overview, then usually a question and answer, then some sort of a reception where we can talk one on one.  At U Namibia, however, the dean of the e school of business launched into a “here’s how you can help us.” Piecing things together, It sounds like the University has too many students (200 MBAs, 26 PhDs) and too few faculty (one full time buecause hiring full time faculty is too expensive!), As a consequence he was looking for research supervisors and thesis examiners, since all advanced degrees require a research thesis.  He pointed to the opportunities for co-publication and collaboration.  His college does hire many adjuncts from both business and the academy, but they cannot both supervise and examine.  This was the biggest of the 12 regional campuses of the university.

With some FDIB members at Namibia University of Science and Technology

With some FDIB members at Namibia University of Science and Technology

The second visit was to the Namibia University of Science and Technology, a more established Management Institute for graduate business education.The school coaxed a !0 million Namibian donation from a local businessman (divide by 15 to see how much you’d have to pay in US dollars to get the school named after you),.  The school is housed in the university, but it specializes in graduate (and executive) education.  It, too, has a small faculty (6) and a large adjunct supplement.  What I found interesting was that the six do not include either an accountant or a marketer, though in talking with the faculty afterwards, they do bring in faculty from the undergraduate departments, including marketing and accounting.  The dean of the total area told me over half of the students at the university came under his care, and the head of the graduate school suggested—only half-jokingly, I think, that we ought to leave a resume with him!

Some other things that came out of the meetings:

Many of the students in graduate business are government employees (expected, this is the capital). All at NUST are part time.

The dean at NUST said that one of the emphases of the school was on improving business in Namibia.  One is tourism, the largest business after mining and fishing.  He mentioned that Namibia is virtually unknown in the US and Australia, two countries which send a lot of tourists overseas, and they are complementary in having summer six months apart!

He did mention that his school hosted a “customer service” seminar that was pan-African, hoping to identify where Africans can use the fundamentals that have been established in services marketing in the US and the Nordic countries over the past thirty years.  That led to some discussions about our experiences in sub Sahara Africa, both good and bad.  I had an episode where I asked a policeman in Swakopmund to point me in the direction of our hotel which also housed a casino, and he replied that he’d been on the force for only two days (which said he wasn’t from the town and wasn’t trained).  In response to our wondering why the mall below our hotel closes at 6, he noted downtown (where we are) closes down and people go back to the suburbs, which stay open till 11.  Thinking about Chicago, it’s about the same in most central business districts.

I had a little time to wander, but I think I’ll save that for another post—and that’s when I’ll tell you what’s at the corner of Fidel Castro street and Ludevitzstrasse (no kidding!)