The core of our trip is a hike in the highlands. It’s organized through Tesfa Tours, a community-­based tourism company headquartered in ­Addis Ababa.

By Rob McKenzie (The National) |

We’re in a guesthouse beside a cliff in the Tigray highlands of northern Ethiopia. After dinner, the farmer who lives in the spartan stone house next door drops by for a visit.

He tells us the story of the leopard. The leopard killed a dog belonging to the farmer’s father. The father said the leopard had to die. The villagers set out to find it. Their search came to a cave in the cliff face. A pair of bright eyes shone from inside. The men were preparing to attack when the leopard pounced, knocked one of them over and ran off.

“He tricked them,” says Mulat, our guide for most of this four-day trek.

The men regrouped and found the cat in a tighter cave. This time they penned it in with a quickly constructed stone wall, leaving only a hole for a rifle to poke in. When the leopard came into the line of sight, the rifleman shot it.

Sitting in a dimly lit room, hearing the wind howl as it raced up the cliff, feeling the cold night air, and listening to the farmer’s story is one of the highlights of a week that a friend and I spend in Ethiopia. These are the others:

1. Christmas Eve

We land in Addis Ababa on the evening of January 6, which we hadn’t realized is ­Christmas Eve according to the calendar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

We had planned to visit a jazz club, but our hostess, ­Genet ­Kefetew of Kefetew Guest House in the city’s east end, suggests we consider attending a ­Christmas ceremony at a nearby church ­instead.

ALSO READ: Forget the Big Five – Visit Ethiopia’s Wonderful Wildlife Instead

So the three of us go to Salite Miheret Church, where the ceremony, which can last six hours, is well under way. ­Kefetew and my friend watch with the other women, while I look on with the men.

It’s phenomenal. The colors, clapping, singing and rituals, but most of all the tidal pull of a people’s shared faith.

The worshipers wear white shrouds over their clothes. The priests at the front of the church wear brighter vestments while the deacons are all in white. There’s some call-and-response singing in Amharic, occasional prostration and a sermon about the life of Mary. The singing is like a hum; a buzz; a sound from deep within the Earth.

The walls and pillars of the octagonal, high-vaulted church are entirely painted from shoulder-level upwards. Some of the scenes in the neon-bright murals are familiar to me (the birth of Jesus) and others aren’t (a man with a long white beard rides a rooster and chases a demon, whom smaller roosters are pecking at).

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