By Leon Kaye |

I recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia. I chose the East African nation as I was intrigued with the country’s history, diverse cultures and spirituality, and the impact the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has on much of its population. My destination was Lalibela, a town of 15,000 about 415 miles (668 kilometers) north of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Lalibaba is home to Ben Abeba — arguably the best restaurant in Ethiopia.

One of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, Lalibela is home to many rock-hewn churches, which as far back as the 12th century were chiseled by hand from volcanic basalt. The finest architectural example, the Church of Saint George, is among the most popular pilgrimage sites for Ethiopians. Lalibela is also a base from which visitors can go trekking or view more old monasteries and churches throughout Ethiopia’s Amhara Region.

Susan Aitchison, left, with group of local soccer players

Susan Aitchison, left, with group of local soccer players

One of these famous religious sites is Yemrehanna Kristos, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) from Lalibela, a journey that takes about two hours in a 4×4 along a dirt road. As we left Lalibela, we passed by an outrageous building that soared above the hills, looking like part cooking pot, part flower arrangement. “Ben Abeba,” said my guide, “you have to go there tonight.”

And with another traveler staying at the same lodge as me, I did. I had read Ben Abeba was one of the top restaurants in Ethiopia, but we were treated to far more than a meal of Shepherd’s Pie and carrot cake. We had an evening with a fascinating woman who, on a lark, changed her life on a dime and is making significant impact on a community where economic opportunities are lacking other than in farming and the emerging tourism sector.

Susan Aitchison had a long successful career as a home economics teacher in her native Glasgow, Scotland. At the urging of a friend, “at age 57 ½,” she ventured to Ethiopia to help a friend set up a school. It was a bold move—she had a comfortable life in Scotland, had her pension sorted . . . so why did she move to Ethiopia?

“Well,” she deadpanned, “I was mad.”

Call it madness or compassion, but the hard work and patience of Aitchison and her business partner, Habtamu Baye, are paying off with the success of their restaurant, Ben Abeba. The name itself is a hybrid of the two cultures: ben is Scottish for “mountain,” while abeba is Amharic for “new flower.” And perched on a hill looking over the yellow “September flowers” that bloom annually as they foreshadow the Ethiopian New Year, Ben Abeba has the perfect moniker.

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