ETHIOPIA

Mothers, Lucy’s Diamonds and Solomon’s Sun Star

by Jheri St. James


     Mothers in Africa: Lucy is called “the Mother of Mankind;” the Queen of Sheba’s son began the dynasty that ruled Ethiopia for centuries; our soil collector in Ethiopia is Dawn Bryan, an elementary school teacher, TV producer of one of Ethiopia’s first children’s programs, and a busy mother of three sons. “Ugh – I really feel like I’ve dropped the ball on this soil thing! I’m so sorry that you’re in the position where you have to encourage me to get it in . . . We were just told recently that our landlord is increasing our house rent. The increase is to such an exponential degree that we will be unable to pay and so therefore have just under 30 days to pack up and find a new house in Addis (a very difficult market, believe me!). I’ve also got two more TV programs to produce, while also teaching part time and being a mom to three boys—all while getting ready to come to the US for six months. It’s been a crazy time . . .”

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     One wonders if Lucy had these kinds of challenges during her life in Ethiopia. We can hardly imagine her domestic issues of 3.5 million years ago—dinosaur burgers for lunch? The national museum in Addis Ababa is ranked among the most important sub-Saharan museums in Africa, because it contains fully preserved fossils of “Lucy”, believed to be our earliest ancestor. Lucy was a female hominoid who lived in what is now called the Awash Valley in Hadar. Ethiopians refer to her as “Dinqnesh” and in Hadar she is known as AL 299-1. She probably did not live more than 20 years and weighed around 60 pounds, standing three and a half feet. But why was she called Lucy? Because the expedition crew of Donald Johanson, the anthropologist from Chicago University who discovered her in 1974, was listening to the Beatles “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” when the question came up.

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     Ethiopian Christians tell this story about the Queen of Sheba: Sheba was an Ethiopian sovereign named Makeda (Magda) who returned from her journey to the Court of Solomon in Jerusalem pregnant with his son David, who became the first king of Ethiopia, ruling as Menelik I. “Solomon had raised for her a throne covered with silken carpet bound with fringes of gold, of silver, of pearls, and of brilliants. He had his servants scatter about the palace all sorts of perfumes. When one entered one was satisfied without eating, because of these perfumes.”

     After the evening’s banquet, Solomon tricked Sheba into succumbing to his desire for her but, while sleeping afterwards, he had a vision. “He saw a dazzling sun which came down from the heavens and shed its rays upon Israel. This brilliancy endured a certain length of time, then the sun moved away. It stopped in its course over Ethiopia and seemed that it was shining there for centuries. The King waited for the return of this star to Israel, but it did not come back. And again he saw a second sun which came down from the heavens and which shone upon Judaea. It was brighter than the sun which preceded it, but the Israelites blasphemed it because of its ardor. They raised against it their hands with sticks and with swords. They wished to extinguish it, so that the earth trembled and clouds darkened the world. Those of Israel thought that this star would not rise a second time. They had put out its light. They had buried it. But in spite of their watchfulness the buried sun rose up again. It lighted the world. Its light illuminated the sea, the two rivers of Ethiopia and the Empire of Rome. Further than ever it withdrew from Israel and it mounted upon its former throne.

     “ In the morning, Queen Magda said to King Solomon: ‘Send me back to my country.’ He went within his palace, he opened his treasure, he gave splendid presents for Ethiopia and important riches, dazzling raiment, and everything that is good. Then he got ready the caravan of the Queen: The chariots numbered 6,000. They were laden with precious things. Some of them rolled upon the ground, others moved by the aid of the wind. The King had built them according to the learning which God had given him . . . When they had gone a certain distance he wished to speak alone with Queen Magda. He took from his finger a ring. He gave it to her and said, ‘Take this ring and keep it as a token of my love. If thou shouldst ever bear a child this ring will be the sign of recognition. If it should be a son send him to me” (www.bethel.edu). The Queen of Sheba’s son Menelik I is regarded as the first emperor of Ethiopia. His dynasty ended with Haile Selassie, who ruled from 1930 to 1974.

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     Unique among African countries, Ethiopia has historically maintained its freedom from colonial rule, with the exception of the five years of Italian occupation in World War II. Formerly known as Abyssinia, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is in Eastern Africa, bordered by Eritrea on the north, the Sudan on the west, Kenya and Somalia on the south, and Somalia and Djibouti on the east. It is a high plateau with a central mountain range divided by the Great Rift Valley, the most fertile part of the country. The seven lakes of the Rift Valley sit in a wide, fertile valley between Addis Ababa and the Kenyan border. Lake Lagano is blue, Lake Abiata is silver and Lake Shala is brown. Ethiopia lost its coastline at the time of Eritrea’s declaration of independence on May 24, 1993.


     Today’s life expectancy is 48.83 years, due to the many infectious diseases on the rampage in this country—diarrheas, hepatitis A and E, typhoid fever, malaria, meningitis, rabies, schistosomiasis and AIDS. There is a constant turnover in population because of repatriated Ethiopians who fled to Sudan for refuge from war and famine in earlier years, and the emigration of Sudanese and Somali refugees returning to their homes.

     Three major crops are believed to have originated in Ethiopia: coffee, grain sorghum and castor bean. These crops are watered by the Blue Nile, the chief headstream of the Nile. But war and drought have buffeted the economy, in particular coffee production. Many farmers are switching to raising qat (khat) to supplement their incomes, a legal drug in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Qat (prounounced “cot”) is a natural stimulant found in the flowering evergreen tree or large shrub, which grows in East Africa and Southern Arabia. Khat is chemically similar to amphetamine, and produces a mild cocaine or amphetamine-like euphoria. Khat has been used since antiquity as a recreational and religious drug by natives of Eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and throughout the Middle East. The government owns all land and provides long-term leases to the tenants; a system which hampers growth in the industrial sector, as entrepreneurs are unable to use land as collateral for loans.

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     According to local tradition, ancient Ethiopians were Jews, and a community of Ethiopian Jews lived in the country until the late 1980’s, when the last of them moved to Israel. Christianity was brought to the then Kingdom of Axum by St. Frumentius in 330AD, right in the path of the armies of Islam, which set out from Mecca on a holy war of conversion in 632 AD. Over the next thousand years the kingdom came under attack from pagan tribes, Muslims, Ottomans, rival local warlords, the British, Italians, Soviets and Cubans. Today over 80 languages are spoken in Ethiopia from a variety of families—Semitic, Hemitic, Nilotic and Omotic. Children are taught English from junior high onward, and many people can speak it. Perhaps this cacophony of tongues is the reason Ethiopia knows something about war. But, as with all the countries of Common Ground 191, we celebrate the serious truth that the quiet soil beneath Ethiopia knows everything about being peaceful.


     Dawn Bryan contributed two soil samples, one from Menagesha Suba National Park, claimed to be the oldest national forest in Africa, located about one hour outside Addis Ababa. “This is a place we go several times a year with our three sons for camping and hiking. Endemic wildlife—like bushbuck, Colobus Monkeys, Vervet Monkeys, Gelada Baboons, hyenas, warthogs, and numerous birds—can be seen in abundance. Because of deforestation elsewhere in Ethiopia, this carefully protected forest is one of the last places in Ethiopia to see such great, old examples of endemic trees, flora and fauna.” Menagesha-Suba State Forest could be called the “oldest park in Africa.” The Emperor Zera Yacob (1434-1468) designed the forest as one of the “crown forests” of the country. He arranged for it to be planted with seedlings of the giant junipers found in Wef-Washa forest between ankober and Debre Sina. Today the biggest trees in Menagesha-Suba are over 500 years old. Emperor Menelik II in the late 1890’s developed the first national forest policy for Ethiopia. Located on the southwest facing slopes of Mount Wechecha, Menagesha-Suba is an extinct volcano. The crystalline cone, Dhamocha, at the summit reaches 3,385m. Several rivers flow from the mountain, including the Akaki River that runs through Addis Ababa, the capital city. A survey in 2001 found 32 species of mammals and 186 species of birds in this nature preserve, including aardvarks, hare, mongeese, rats, cats and leopards.

     The other soil sample came from the historic city of Lalibella in Northern Ethiopia. “Lalibella’s rock-hewn churches, carved right down into the ground in the 12th and 13th centuries, are known as one of the wonders of the world, and play a very significant role in Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia. An Ethiopian Orthodox priest collected this sample from the largest of the rock-hewn churches in Lalibella, St. Georgis. The sample was collected from the interior of a cave in which lie the mummified bodies of pilgrims who traveled to this sacred site, some of which you can see from the cave’s entrance. Only religious leaders with the Orthodox Church have access to this cave because of its significance. Without the help of this priest this sample could not have been gotten.” Lonely Planet describes Lalibella as “Africa’s Petra” another famous rock-hewn city.”

     The mothers Lucy, Makeda Magda (Queen of Sheba), and Dawn Bryan . . . Solomon’s dream . . . Ethiopia’s richly diverse flora and fauna . . . the endless cohabitation of Earth and Sky; female and male. The timeless tale of women raising sons, later to weep as men kill and conquer each other in wars. Ethiopia is an ancient, complex, evolving country; sister to all the countries on our Great Mother Earth. Even as many aspects of Ethiopia and her people appear to be physically wasting away, the spirit of Ethiopia endures. As of this writing (June 2005), many of the world’s industrial nations are pledging monetary support to Africa through the G-8 Agreement, aware that without help the 18 proud African nations on their list will collapse finally and forever. Common Ground 191 hopes that the venerable history of Ethiopia will be preserved by this aid, and that Ethiopia will become the land foretold in Solomon’s dream. “Those of Israel thought that this star would not rise a second time. They had put out its light. They had buried it. But in spite of their watchfulness the buried sun rose up again. It lighted the world. Its light illuminated the sea, the two rivers of Ethiopia and the Empire of Rome. Further than ever it withdrew from Israel and it mounted upon its former throne.”

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