The Lake Tana monasteries

I have joined an excursion that will take me to see the Lake Tana monasteries. Several churches are in fact scattered along the lake shore, on the islands and, in particular, on the Zege peninsula – which our boatman is now steering our vessel to.

We visit two churches consisting of a similar rounded structure covered by a thatched conical roof. They have an outer zone reserved to the faithful and the choir, plus an inner circular gangway around the holy of holies. On the inner walls there are rich colourful paintings depicting the stories of the Bible and the Gospel, along with local legends that have multiplied during the centuries of isolation of the Ethiopian Church.

From this you can infer the importance of myth to this particular branch of Christianity. If, generally speaking, the tales of the supernatural are not lacking in any world religion, here they literally abound. But what can you do, wherever you go, they are the average worshipper’s daily bread, the stuff that takes his mind off the ordinary misery of life. By the same token, they uplift religion to such an awe-inspiring unearthly level that it becomes shrouded in mystery and magic, and makes it especially resistant to all attacks from logic, science and common sense.

Around the monasteries trinket sellers make a living out of the few tourists that happen to pass here.

After two churches the group unanimously decided to call it a day and skip the few others that were included in the schedule. Not because we had grown bored with them, but because the entrance fees would have made the outing too expensive, without our gaining any more insight into this form of art, however remarkable.

A wind had risen on parts of the lake making the water quite choppy, but our rocking boat nevertheless managed to chuff across to the outlet of the Nile. We eagerly looked out for hippos, but none were to be spotted. The Blue Nile fall was not even worth giving a thought to, now that a recent power plant has diverted most of the formerly spectacular waterfall through conduits to turbines.

Today is Wednesday and, being a fast day, vegetarian ingera is on offer. Called ingera bayanat, it’s the same large pancake spread out on the platter, but it comes topped with colourful patches of sauces, bean puree, cooked or raw veggies and sometimes a couple of chips. You eat it with your right hand tearing a piece off and using it to pinch a lump of the topping. It’s my well-deserved break from the past days of ingera with tough meat stripes (tibsi), something I’ve grown fed up with.

In the late afternoon I go for a second stroll to the market, like yesterday. This dusty primitive area, scattered with stalls or vendors squatting on the ground, is still in full swing. A stinging powder is floating in the air where dry chilly peppers are ground with other ingredients into the orange spice called berbere. It makes people sneeze and eyes water. There are surprising rays of sunlight piercing through the dust and making the outlines shine bright. The profiles are thus cut out from their dark background and the space acquires a magic depth and thickness.

Yesterday I was accompanied here by Tariko, a chap I’d asked for directions. He insisted on showing me around for pure sense of hospitality, without being able to speak much English. We were later joined by a would-be guide that stalked tourists. He didn’t mean any harm, mind you, but was indeed tricky when he span a tale of university studies and required me to buy him notebooks. I was sure that any books I’d buy would be resold the moment I turned my back. Instead, I bought some mangoes and handed one to each of my companions, even if Tariko was not expecting anything.

After nightfall I saw Tariko still standing at the street corner where I’d met him earlier, surrounded by a couple of sleazy characters. What on earth was he doing there in such dubious company? At any rate, he hailed me and shook my hand with a straightforward smile, but I didn’t loiter much with all my money on me, although I thought he couldn’t be a crook.