THE OTHER AFRICA: GHION – PARADISE
Jan 1st 2010, 00:00
published on 05.01.2010
Ghion is where the thundering Blue Nile crashes 40m down from the bed of an old lava stream. Granted, other waterfalls may carry more water, but to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Ghion is Paradise, the place where Adam and Eve frolicked before the fall.
This explains the fervent attachment of the Ethiopian faithful to Ghion. To some, it is holy because it is the garden of Eden. Others praise it as a fountain of fertility, sexual energy, and wisdom. One monastery boasts holy water reputed to heal all ailments. Oral tradition links Ghion to the remarkable legend of a monk who, it is said, surfed upstream on a pillar of basalt until he reached the waterfall. On stepping ashore, he lost his Bible. Devastated, he implored the river to return it to him, but to no avail. Unwilling to leave without his Bible, the monk remained on the riverbank, persisting in prayer and meditation until the river bed twitched, belched loudly, and fl ung the Bible before his feet.
Sitting in front of the thundering wall of water, watching the Blue Nile’s spray settle like dew on the ground, I strain to discern the voice of this land behind the enchanting sounds of its names, and realise that Ethiopia and its people have touched me deeply. Every change of perspective has given me a different glimpse of this land’s soul; every voice has added to its symphony of sounds. Its essence sighs in the singing of its hymns, lights up in its paintings, and whispers in its stories and dreams in its old books. Faces, hands, and feet tell their own story; even the landscape speaks its own, powerful language. Heavenly vistas open up under the earth, on the mountains, and in the water. But above all, they open up within the people.
When I close my eyes, a reel of images unwinds inside my head: a half-blind woman in a fi eld near Gondar, tenderly embraced by her caring husband; white hollyhocks and children playing with marbles on the moist, chilli-coloured volcanic soil near Korem. I remember prickly pears in bloom, fruit bursting with colour, reminding me of juicy peaches back home. Patches of ground that look like a pachyderm. Powdery sand trickled through my fi ngers, fi ne like cinnamon, cool like cocoa, loose like white pepper. I witnessed children perched up high, like hunters, cracking whips to keep birds out of blue sorghum fi elds. Hornbills strutting in the shade of umbrella acacias, like dignitaries taking their constitutional. Green monkeys frolicking among poker plants.
Clouds lazily dozing away in the distance. In Gongora, donkeys were copulating next to the road, a few metres away from people playing ping-pong. A man with a dazzling mustard-yellow scarf, bent over a walking stick made out of mesh wire and shaped like a pilgrim’s cross, was selling Pepsi. I remember a wandering evangelist who, under the blazing sun of the bone-dry Tigre, wore a bulky diver’s mask to shield his sore eyes. A woman crushing coffee beans in a mortar.
Children heaving and hauling sacks of oregano, others gliding down slopes in soap boxes. In a room without windows in Debre Sina, a couple was making love with the door left open. From a kitchen in Maychew came the scent of tea seasoned with fresh tendamin, or rue. I saw boys chewing olive twigs all day, fl ashing the whitest bright smiles that you can imagine. And a dromedary standing alone on a mountain summit. On the satin dresses of girls in Bati, aluminium amulets twinkled like the eyes of a lunar goddess. I saw people walking on Ethiopia’s soil in the moonlight as if they were walking on hallowed ground. Wrapped in white cotton sheets, they drifted under the stars like fi refl ies. As to where they were going, who knows? Suddenly they would take an unexpected turn, cross a dry river bed or circumvent a steep slope.
Winding their way over mountains and through ravines, weaving an intricate pattern of light through the night, inscribing their passage on the face of the land.
I lie down in the grass, surprised by its soft, welcoming texture. Then I wince, disturbed by sounds reverberating inside my skull. As a group of snow-white chickens dart across the road, one is hit by the wheel of a jeep. Under the night sky, crisscrossed by the first jagged bolts of lightning, the mountains gleam. Thunder rumbles across the menacing sky, and trees bow and tremble in anticipation, their branches sweeping over the ground. Then the first black drops begin to fall. I lean back; something is crackling. In the spaces between, yes, the spaces between.
By Bernard Franz