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Day 11 – Birding/Church Forest Excursion

August 19, 2010

After breakfast, we piled into two launches heading north along the eastern coast of Lake Tana. Two hours later, we arrived at an island that is a breeding ground for many species of birds. The island lacks large predators which leaves the birds in peace to raise their young. We saw sacred ibis, white winged black tern, herons, cormorants, and spoonbills. The birders among us were quite excited and the non birders among us learned a lot, myself included.

This impromptu church was quickly built when the original one - on the circular foundation to the right - burned down

On our way back, we visited a church forest. This was my first opportunity to see the inside of an active church. I don’t have many pictures now, though there are some very fancy DSLR’s among us that perform well in low light conditions.

Members of the church wear traditional cotton shawls. Each church consists of three concentric circles. The two outermost circles are open to the public. The innermost circle houses the altar of the church, religious texts, ceremonial ornaments, and a replica of the ark of the covenant (all churches must have a replica). The outside of the central section is painted with religious imagery (much of it gruesome, featuring the martyrdom of a variety of saints), using natural plant dyes on mud walls or goat skins.

A first look at some common trees in the church forests

Some of these churches have religious texts that are hundreds of years old. The church protects these sacred relics, the forests, in turn, stand to protect the church. Alemayhu says that since the fall of Haile Selassie and the rise of secular socialism, the clergymen have not been receiving the subsidies that they rely upon. This has led to a degradation of these forests out of a desperation. He worries that in a few years there may not be much left to protect.

Today was a light day as everyone is still adjusting to the time change. The long boat ride gave us ample time to get to know one another a little better. I may try to write up everyone on the team, but the collective experience among us is absolutely astounding. Many of the scientists are professors and we’ve had interesting conversations about students and teaching. It’s nice to hear a little more from educators at the university level.

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Day 10 – Back in Bahar Dar

August 19, 2010

I can stop waxing poetic about long bus rides since I took my last one this morning. The team arrived in Bahar Dar this afternoon. We gathered together for an inaugural meal. Alemayhu Eshete Wassie, a tree ecologist, is the man who inspired our work. He brought the plight of the church forests to international attention (Meg spotted him during student presentations at a conference in Mexico).

I will take some time to introduce each and every one of the team members in due time, but I will summarize my first impressions here.  Much of the team is acquainted with Meg either personally or professionally. Upon hearing about the church forests, many were already on board. Meg has assembled a diverse group of experts in entomology, botany, ecology, herpetology, geology, historical fauna and flora, to name a few. Some are academics, scholars by trade, and others are hobbyists. When I say hobbyist, I understate their degree of expertise. These are “hobbyists” who have published books and scientific papers and are highly regarded by their peers in the scientific community. I am always inspired by these auto-didacts who are fueled by an insatiable curiosity and a passion for their subjects, which they maintain in addition to their day jobs.

Alemayhu shares his new Ethiopian tree guide gifted to him by the team

Each member has slightly different research aims, but we are all committed to promoting the conservation of the church forests through our work here.

August 17, 2010

Terefu, Solomon, and Shumet - friends from Sakota!

Serendipity. I try to open myself up to moments like these. Rather than go to Lalibela, I spent some time experiencing village life in Sakota (rhymes with Dakota). Terefu and Shumet happened upon me on my way to catch a minibus to Lalibela. They said that they were going that way and that I should come with them. They’re Toyota 4X4 looked so spacious and comfortable compared to the hypothetical minibus I was on my way to meet. How could I say no?

Sakota - somewhere near the bus station

Sakota is your typical mid-sized town. Two major roads lined with shops bisect the town.  Every walk I took with Terefu took 15 minutes longer than you would expect. Terefu knows everyone in town. Our pace is leisurely, we literally stroll. We stop to talk to everyone: Salaam. Duenanesh? Duenani. Three kisses, cheek to cheek. Hardy handshake for the ferenji: Where are you from? America. But you look Chinese. My parents are from Hong Kong.

Solomon's office

Solomon is a governmental administrator of some kind. I couldn’t get a better description of his work. I know that he is a very busy man and that people of all sorts visit his office. I can only guess at the identity of all of his visitors.

The last shot my camera took outside the rock-hewn church

Solomon took me to visit some of Sakato’s churches. St. Gabriel church, right in town and Waghimra, a rock-hewn church that predates the Lalibela churches by 500 years. My camera took just that moment to crash completely so I have no photos. The church is carved right into the cliff side. The craftsmanship is very impressive, as awe-inspiring as a place of worship ought to be. More recently painted goat skins depicting religious scenes hung from the high ceilings. The church was partitioned by embroidered panels of red cloth. The floors were worn smooth by the feet of bygone pilgrims. Our guide, a young priest in training, showed me a hole in the floor of the church. Two tunnels led from this hole and are rumored to be connected to the churches in Lalibela (over 60 miles away).

Later that night, a few self appointed teachers taught me some traditional Ethiopian dance moves. There was a great deal of laughter over my imitations. As far as I can tell, shoulder shaking is a major component. My friends were pretty entertained that I took to it with such gusto.

Alive and dry!

August 16, 2010

Internet is hard to access here as you can imagine. I have a backlog of entries to post saved on my computer. Lots of photos too. Much of it will have to wait till I’m back in the states, but I will try to post as much as I can in the meantime. The research is going well. I am learning a lot and looking forward to sharing all of it with you. Just wanted to show my face a little.

This is a traditional woven umbrella. We have been getting plenty of rain and I have been able to make good use of my rainboots. We are finishing up our data collection at the Zhare church forest outside of Bahar Dar and will be moving to Debre Tabor to sample the church forest there.

Day 4: Harar Continued

August 12, 2010

I had a nice late morning at Ras hotel after my first restful night of sleep since arriving in Ethiopia. Nure continued to show me around Harar. We visited the house of the poet, Arthur Rimbaud. Though I am not a fan of his poetry, I enjoyed the museum primarily for the turn of the century photos of Harar and the view. We went to Nure’s primary school. He showed me where he sat in the 7th and 8th grade. Nure is now a student at Jimma University, a two day bus ride in northern Ethiopia.

Read more…

Days 5/6 – Back in Addis

August 8, 2010

View from my room I’ve slowed down a bit in the last two days. This is what happens when you go out with your guns blazing. You need to take some time to rest and regroup. The rain I’ve been wishing for has finally arrived. It’s given me an excuse to update the blog. I don’t know how frequent posts will be once I’m outside Addis. You may not see as many photos if any, but I will try to post some text.

I did have a chance to sit on a Rotary meeting this afternoon. They were a lovely group of civic-minded young people. They are working on a variety of different projects: passing out blankets to the homeless, donating school supplies to orphans, and putting on benefits to raise money for the Red Cross. They were an inspiring group of people to be around and I hope to take their spirit of service back home with me.

Conservation of Ethiopia’s Church Forests

August 8, 2010
Closer view of Debresena church forest- South Gondar, Ethiopia (Photo –Alemayehu Wassie)

My primary reason for this trip to Ethiopia is to lend a hand to a team of researchers who are working to conserve the biodiversity of Ethiopia’s church forests. Ethiopia’s Christian heritage is about as old as the religion itself. The land that churches are built on are considered holy land and are spared the harvesting of trees for building material, fuel, and agricultural land. Read more…