The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Timkat in Lalibela - January 2003
Author - Adrienne Hack
Whilst running around northern Ethiopia recently I had the idea of writing a verbal picture of the 3-day Timkat celebrations I was to witness for the first time in my life - and in Lalibela of all the wonderful places too. Feeling happy at the prospect I started planning my notes. We were to watch the tabotat leave the eastern group of churches and would follow the procession for more than an hour while it slowly wound its way towards the field opposite the Roha Hotel where the tabotat would stay in tents overnight - the priests watching, chanting and praying.
You can imagine the scene. Dazzling heat and sunlight, huge crowds, bright umbrellas, priests dancing, hundreds of white-clad people, colour, dust, clapping, noise and happiness everywhere. It was the most wonderful spectacle and a real privilege to be present to watch. However, I suppose that it is that last word that gives me a problem. We tourists, with our big zoom lenses, should surely be aware that we are mere visitors to these ceremonies. Surely we should keep our distance and be respectful in all ways.
On the Saturday as the first procession began to leave Bet Maryam a tourist could be seen lying on the ground at the priest's feet aiming his big zoom up under the cover of the tabot: he almost caused the priest to fall. Another Italian tourist was circling the edge of the procession wearing shorts, bare feet and a white cloth on his head wrapped so that he looked like a priest. Perhaps he thought he was being complimentary. There was evidence of pushy photographers everywhere and, when the long procession had finally wound its way 2 km to the field, an announcement had to be made telling ferengi that they must not try to enter the tents.
The next day, Timkat itself, was equally disturbing. Huge crowds assembled around the cross-shaped pool for the 'baptism' part of the ceremony. Again, zooming cameras took over - tourists were on top of buses, up trees or pushing to the front to get the best shots. Happily some of their cameras got soaked when the water was joyously hurled over the crowds at the end of the ceremony.
On the Monday I was sitting on a big rock along the road to the field to witness the final tabot of St. Mikael, being returned to its church. For some unknown reason a gentle elderly priest sat down beside me and handed me his umbrella to hold over him. For half an hour we sat like this while the people of Lalibela came to him to kiss his hand cross and be blessed. First he touched their forehead and then gave each end of the cross to be kissed.
With a kind Ethiopian lady I shared my feelings about the tourists. She translated for the priest. Yes, they had both seen and felt the many intrusions but could see no way to prevent it happening again. I offered an apology for our behaviour and was rewarded with a smiling blessing.
With tourism to Ethiopia on the increase, I'm left wondering what we can do to make our fellow tourists more aware of their place as spectators rather than film directors in these exotic and special places. Do we need a global code of conduct for ferengi so that local people celebrating their ancient ceremonies are treated with respect and not turned into human zoo zoom lens fodder? For I can't help thinking that if someone stuck a zoom lens in my face as I walked down any road in London I would be utterly and completely insulted, puzzled and offended.