by Wanda Sabir
Wanda flew from the Bay Area on June 5 and landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, two days later. She sends these commentaries on the rather rare occasions she has internet access. Enjoy! – ed.
June 13 – I am in Gondar, Ethiopia, left Lalibela this morning. It was a short flight. It is entering the rainy season, so I walked into a storm. I didn’t have my coat and got drenched to the core.
Both the guide and I were so wet and cold, it was crazy. To keep our spirits up, we pretended to be baptized in the spirit of Jesus, who in the Ethiopian calendar rose today. It’s called the Ascension.
Imagine, I never knew there were castles in Africa, but these predate Europe’s. Fancy that, right? Who stole from whom?
I saw these really lovely paintings in a church – angels on the ceiling. All the paintings are of African or Black angels and then there is the story of Mary, Jesus Christ and other biblical tales painted on the walls. I couldn’t use a flash camera so there is much one cannot see. I tried all my settings, the “Aba” or father (priest) was giving me tips (smile).
Everyone is really nice here, in Gondar and in Lalibela. It is not often they see an American Black person. Everyone is still jazzed about our president – to the point of likening his use of his left hand to a famous king, one who built one of the castles I saw this afternoon as well.
It was pretty cool. My guide called in advance and the guards let us in at closing and we had the place to ourselves. We finished just as the sun was setting. Next door at the cathedral, the priest was saying prayers and the congregation was chanting as well. Normally services are in this old language called Ge’ez, a predecessor to Amharic – like Old English to modern – but since the main service was this morning, this service was more for the laity.
I have been living in luxury since I have been gone. Where I am, it is listed in the Lonely Planet Guidebook as one of the hotels on the top end (smile). No water before 5 p.m. and the electricity went out twice while I have been sitting here typing and drinking ginger tea.
I am in the mountains, so the air is thin and I have been hiking, eating one meal a day – what they call the fasting meal, no meat. Today no protein either, well, no beans.
After 60 days of no meat, Ethiopians are not feeling vegetables, but in Lalibela I had lunch twice at Seven Olives, a hotel on the low budget end which was the former residence of Emperor Selassie’s daughter. She left it to the municipality. It’s nice. There is an outside terrace with lots of trees, which are full of really pretty and noisy birds.
I had fun yesterday visiting Yemrehanna Kristos, Ethiopia’s best preserved late-Aksumite building. It is a model for the later monasteries, which I saw half of the day before. My guide was so personable that I got the special tour I am sure not many people get.
The priest brought out the special crosses and regalia associated with special ceremonies. I even saw the cross that came from heaven. Yep, heaven. I was like wow! I even got blessed with it. This priest takes donations to help the older women. You should see these older women, bent over with sticks in the morning.
I noticed quite a few people with deformed legs on crutches in Lalibela and here in Gondar. The young guy was playing soccer – really well too.
You know I love cemeteries and all things dead. I saw the bones of a dead queen, Empress Menetewab, and her two children this afternoon. There in a clear glass case were her skull and large bones, along with those of her children. At the church in the cave, I was able to see a whole field of bones. Then as I was leaving, walking behind the church, there were skulls and prayer caps right in front of my face. It was pretty remarkable.
One has to remove her shoes at all the churches. At the church this afternoon, the one with the beautiful art work, Debree Berhan Selassie Church, we entered through separate doors. The name means Trinity at the Mount of Light. I forgot this was the church where there is a picture of Prophet Muhammad being led on a horse by a devil. Oh well, next time. I needed a better or more sensitive camera to capture these images.
June 15 – Ethiopia is really lovely in all its various aspects and peoples. It has a rich and powerful history I am just dipping a toe into. Maybe next time I’ll spend more time here, like a month or maybe an entire summer to really get a feel for the folks.
I had a great time this past week. I did a bit of traveling to Lalibela and Gondar and lastly to Bahir Dar. These are historic places, at least two former capitals of the country. There are so many churches here, really beautiful edifices. In Lalibela I visited churches carved from a mountain – all connected by tunnels. I then went to see another church a bit further away in a cave. There were skulls and other bones of martyrs who came to the church to die.
The buildings are truly works of majesty and skill. Artistic, each window, arch or imprint means something; and it is all connected to biblical history. In Gondar, there are beautiful drawings on the walls of the churches; however, it is the castles which really blew me away. I didn’t know there were castles in Africa.
Of course I have been spending money on trinkets – guess what, crosses no less. I have four at this writing. No, I am not Christian – yet (smile). I also bought scarves. All women and girls wear long dresses and cover themselves. In their dress, Muslims and Christians look the same.
Yesterday, I saw three hippos when I took a boat ride across the third largest lake in Africa, Lake Tana, which meets the Blue Nile. We sailed to that point. I also visited the Zeke Peninsula and one of two islands in Lake Tana, this one for women monks. I couldn’t visit the other one. There was a prison there – crazy, huh?
What I have enjoyed most about my time away was the silence and solitude. These places of worship are great places to reflect and empty oneself of worries and thoughts of anything other than the marvel of the greatness of the creator and creation, of which we are an important, yet not so important aspect. Seeing a building dedicated to the creator – carved from the outside in?! – just shows me how nothing matters more than one’s faith in something greater than what one can see.
I am sure, while locked up what kept you going was the knowledge that man was nothing and that spirit was greater than the container that held your body. So anyway, I am listening to Quranic recitations broadcast from the mosque nearby. I love it. Similarly, while in the country, in the mountains surrounding Lalibela and Gondar, one could hear the faithful reciting in Ge’ez (old Amharic, the language of services).
June 17, Arusha, Tanzania – I am here! I am sitting in Brother Pete’s parlor. The kids have all retired after telling Baba goodnight. He gave them all sweets and hugs. The kids are all orphans and live on site. The place, UAACC (United African Alliance Community Center, founded by and home to renowned Black Panther Party veterans Pete and Charlotte O’Neal), is a little village, almost a city behind the enclosure. There is art everywhere.
There are sculptures on the trees and along the walk leading to my hut. There are 21 kids here, ages 7-9 up to 13. The kids are really sweet. I am going to give them the books and dolls.
I saw Upesi at the airport in Addis. Can you imagine my surprise. To be walking down the aisle and see someone from home. I will be staying at her place in Zanzibar. Sister Charlotte and I are going to the Zanzibar Film Festival this month.
The place is like camping. I didn’t see any bugs, but it is dark and feels like the wilderness (smile). My imagination is too active. I do not relish walking back to my room from here. It’s nice in Brother Pete’s room. Their friend, Ms. Jesse, is here too. We’ve been talking. She is a former magistrate who is here representing a client on a case, then back to Dar es Salaam.
Compared to Addis Ababa, Tanzania is more like West Africa, except more rural. The people grow corn and sunflowers and beans. It is really pretty driving down the road and seeing all the pretty yellow flowers. The mountains are really distant, the area not elevated.
I am going to do a few day trips and see what exploring can be arranged. I might just shadow Mama C (Charlotte O’Neal). My computer is about to die, but I will type as long as I can.
Another young woman from Sacramento is coming who helps Brother Pete with a grant application to complete a kitchen for the kids.
The kids had a graduation today. The UAACC hosts an after-school enrichment program that uses art for education.
June 19 – Hey everyone! Just checking in briefly to let you know how things are going. It is cold right now and I need to cover my legs, but as long as my battery holds out, I will update you briefly.
Ethiopia was fantastic now that I am gone (smile). I had a few issues with my lodging but over all everything was fantastic. The Libations for the Ancestors was really sweet. We went to a cool community garden and eco-center that works with orphaned children. The community there supports them, that is, houses them.
The children sang songs and performed for us. We ate honey they produced with their bees. It is truly in the ‘hood, yet there are computers and an active green economy, with the children growing food and making decorative recycled goods. They used old shoes as planters.
After the ceremony, I got acquainted with Haben, who used to live in Oakland, and new friends, real powerbrokers. One sister, Addis, is a consultant with the African Union. Another sister is with UNICEF; she is Jamaican. And the last sister runs a program at Addis University called Peace and Security. It is a graduate program. She teaches journalism and had her own TV show.
I hung out with Helen Josef Hailu on Sunday when I was locked out of the Guest House. Well actually, they were not answering their phone and I didn’t know where they were located. Helen let me sleep at her place and her mom made the best breakfast.
They call vegan food “fasting food,” and no one was feeling the vegetarian entree after 60 days of Lent. But at Helen’s house, I had spinach and traditional bread and cabbage and carrots and fresh ginger tea with honey.
Her mother built the mud house in the back of the new house Helen built. She is going to rebuild in that spot for rental property to support her family while she works on a doctorate. When we left the compound, she showed me land she owns across the street with trees.
Addis is being turned into one big ghetto, building up in concrete, demolishing all the indigenous homes, which are cool, sturdy and quite attractive. Now, though, the government is tearing down all the mud houses and will not give permits to anyone who wants to build any.
I then went to work with Helen. She was preparing to leave for Somaliland for a month and so had to prepare her office for her absence. The Guest House sent a driver to pick me up, but not before I had a long conversation with Helen’s colleague about intellectual property and the move to loosen the laws around this so that people can share and use the work of others to advance their work. The only requirement is that people give the creator credit.
This professor is from Benin and we talked and talked. I am certainly getting to Benin. Addis told us about her trip there over dinner the night before. She wore a beautiful white brocaded dress with gold embroidery at the ritual.
I plugged my computer in, so I will keep writing until I am too frozen to continue (smile).
The Guest House (in Addis Ababa) is a joint venture between an American and an Ethiopian man, who runs a drop-in center for street kids. The goal is reunification, but if that is not possible, the kids stay in a halfway house. This is the reason I was staying there. I like the mission.
It is Christian based, seriously missionary work. A couple of Black women were in the second or third wave of volunteers that come through. As a non-missionary, I was not embraced really. I was there, but then not there. Similarly were two other guests, both there to complete adoptions. One couple, Terese and Bill, from the U.S. got a 2-year-old child, while the other woman, Deirdre, from Ireland, got a 2-month-old child.
Helen was telling me about a Black woman, accomplished but single, who was denied when she tried to get a child. One has to be married. She ended up adopting a child in the U.S.
When I got to Arusha, which by the way is really chilly, I gave the rest of the dolls (that hadn’t been given away in Ethiopia) to the children here at the Children’s House. They loved the dolls, both the girls and the boys.
Ann Marie, I think I left your doll at home. I cannot find her. I was saving her for Zimbabwe, but I will give her to City of Refuge for a baby at their orphanage when they return early next year. Or I might keep her and give her to a child in Brazil, which I am trying to get to in December.
This place that Brother Pete and Sister Charlotte O’Neal have developed here in Arusha is so wonderful. They are so connected to community; it is wonderful to see Marcus Garvey’s dream realized. UAACC is what Pan Africa looks like.
Oh, in Ethiopia I went to a play, to the national museum, the zoo, a market where there were cows and goats and sheep, Addis University, where I saw the remains of the oldest human being, and to lots of churches and mosques.
I took a road trip up to Lalibela and Gondar, where there are African castles, and to Bahir Dar, where I was able to see where Lake Tana, the third largest lake in Africa flows into the Blue Nile. In Bahir Dar, I went to a traditional restaurant – my third – and watched the musicians and dancers travel Ethiopia via song and dance. I danced too and then Rasta and I went to a disco and danced all night (smile).
Earlier that day, we spotted hippos four times and a lot of white pelicans. In Lalibela, where I spent two days, we saw 11 churches carved from a mountain, pink granite, really beautiful. We drove to another church further away, Christos, which was inside a huge cave. There were the bones and skulls of martyrs. I was blessed quite a bit, even bought four crosses. It was fun negotiating with a sister monk.
Arusha is so easy. I haven’t taken a lot of photos outside UAACC; Tanzanians don’t like to be photographed, I hear, so I am respecting this.
I am going on a safari Sunday-Friday next week (June 23-28). June 29-July 8 I will be at the Zanzibar International Film Festival with Mama C. I will be leaving there for Dar es Salaam to speak to women lawyers about the situation for women prisoners and children tried as adults. I have lots of films, thanks to California Coalition for Women Prisoners. I will leave them with the women there. I also want to see the slavery museum.
While on my way here from Addis, I saw a sister friend, Upesi at the airport, She was on her way to Dar. I am staying at her place when I leave here June 17. We might see her while at the film festival.
Dinner is served. I guess I will go put on long pants and eat.
Happy birthday, Sister Wanda
I touched down in Arusha Monday, June 17, and it has been a quiet peaceful transition into a new decade. UAACC surprised me with cake and song and a really cool dance party on my birthday, Thursday, June 20. The kids and I traded dances as they taught me some traditional moves, which I hear looked pretty right on. Brother Pete looked out his door and wondered at my age, when he saw me get down like the youngsters (smile).
Arusha is certainly home for Africans in the Diaspora thanks to the work of this couple and also folks like Geronimo ji jaga, whose presence is felt daily as people from the village fill containers with water from the well he dug many years ago. (Geronimo moved to UAACC not long after he was released from 27 years in prison in California. – ed.)
One can’t take a step without “karimu” or welcoming smiles and handshakes from friendly neighbors and from folks on the street. Today, I was a tourist. We went to the market, where I bought some cloth and an English newspaper, ate roasted corn, which was yummy, and I bought several classic Swahili films. They sound fun. I will have to let you know.
Several folks have come and gone (at UAACC). A professor and his sons are visiting now from Ghana via Dar es Salaam. They return to Dar tomorrow. They went on a one-day safari. Tomorrow, Brother Pete and his wife and son and granddaughter and daughter-in-law are going to the Ngorugoru Crater. I will miss them on their return. I will still be on safari myself.
Never a dull moment for sure. Everyone is really nice. One can hear music and laughter all the time. The children, all 21 of them, are so sweet. Today there was a scavenger hunt and all of them got prizes. I don’t know how they found the hidden parcels so quickly but they did.
Bullet, the retired farm horse wanders around the UAACC village. He always seems to decide he wants water when I am washing clothes in the children’s yard. So I just let it run for him. Today, I decided to try and see if my clothes dry faster on the outside line or inside. We shall see.
I am never hungry for dinner if I have a late lunch. The cook is pretty phenomenal. I haven’t eaten this well in a long time. There is always fruit, which is nice – mangoes and bananas. Avocadoes rain from trees which surround the Red Onion, but I haven’t had one in a while with breakfast or dinner. Hopefully, they will come back.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at email@example.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates on her blog. Her radio show is on hold while she’s in Africa and will resume Aug. 12 to their regular schedule: Wednesdays at 6-7 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m., her shows are streamed live and are archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network. They can also be heard live by phone at (347) 237-4610.