The Country that will Leave You Awestruck

by Djulia Montana de Veyra

With a history that has traversed across millennia, Ethiopia is worthy of its designation as the “cradle of humanity”. One of the few nations to avoid colonization, Ethiopia has a distinctive culture that offers delightfully new experiences. Home of the sublime Queen Sheba, Ethiopian women exhibit exquisite facial bone structure that bespeak a past ruled by exalted royalty. The country is presently fraught with poverty brought by decades of famine and war. Volunteering in Ethiopia ensures a wonderful combination of exotic cultural experiences and worthwhile service learning.

An Ethiopian village enveloped by forest trees.
An Ethiopian village enveloped by forest trees. Photo by Troy Peden

Be Mesmerized by the Natural Beauty

The Blue Nile Falls is locally known as the Tis Abay, which is Amharic for “smoking water”. Located on the historical Blue Nile River, the waterfall offers a magical sight, with the water creating what looks like smoke as it falls into the gorge. The billions of gallons of water that cascade over the cliff on the way to the gorge also create rainbows that offer a spectacular view. 

The Lake Tana, which is the largest lake in the country, is also well worth a visit. Thirty-seven islands, sheltering splendid churches and monasteries dating as far back as the 13th century, surround the lake. The source of the Blue Nile, the lake is responsible for the annual Nile floods that historically contributed to the rise of the ancient Egyptian civilization.

The Danakil Depression, a desert basin in the Danakil Desert located northeast of Ethiopia, is an extremely hot and dry area that offers a natural source of fascination. Visitors are frequently taken aback by the impressive sight of active volcanoes, a lava lake, salted basins, hot springs, and lunar landscapes dotting the desert. Visiting Danakil Depression can be a tough ride physically, so necessary precautions and preparations should be made.

The Ethiopian Rift Valley offers a wondrous spectacle, with countless hot springs, magnificent lakes, and an abundance of amazing African wildlife. The Rift Valley has a chain of seven lakes, with each one offering a unique identity. The lakes serve as a natural habitat to a rich variety of flora and fauna.

Venture to Places with Astonishing Wildlife

One of the most famous attractions in Ethiopia is the feeding of hyenas. The scavenging hyenas have been a constant visitor within the city walls of Harar for generations and have since grown friendly with the so-called hyena men. During nightfall, people can watch the “hyena men” feed the local hyenas from their own mouths. Visitors can even join in the thrilling adventure if they decide they’d like to give feeding a try too!

The Omo National Park provides visitors with incredible wildlife exposure, with over 300 species of birds and large herds of eland, elephants, cheetahs, leopards, lions, buffalo, and zebra. The Mago National Park is also worth a visit, The Mago National Park is also worth a visit, with herds of buffalo, elephants, kudu and giraffe, and the occasional leopards, lions and zebras gracing the land. Additionally, the Gambala National Park has over 800 species of birds and the Simien Mountain National Park in the North Gondar Zone of the country is home to the rare Simien fox and the uniquely adorned Gelada Baboon (with the “bleeding heart” on its chest).

Be Bewildered by Exotic Tribes

More than its rich and amazing wildlife, Ethiopia is world-renowned for its people. With fascinating tribes that have managed to preserve an ancient way of life, visitors take the mile to set their eyes on traditions and ways of life that are far from familiar. Even UNESCO recognizes the nation as a place unlike any other in the world, that it has been inhabited by such a diverse range of peoples in a relatively small area of land over millennia. Among the tribes occupying the area are the Arbore, Bena, Ari, Bumi, Tsemay, Konso, and Mursi, all with their own distinct cultures and traditions. Visitors must brace themselves for the awe-inspiring tribespeople adorned with lip-plates, scarifications, and the occasional sharpened teeth. Some of the interesting traditions practiced by these tribes include: bull jumping, a rite of passage where a young boy takes four leaps over a line of 15 cattles, and thagine, a ceremonial dueling where tribesmen fight using wooden poles while clad in traditional protective clothing.

Become Immersed in Local Traditions

There are local traditions that are highly practiced all over Ethiopia that volunteers can readily participate in. Time spent in the country is simply incomplete without attending a coffee ceremony or joining in a gursha. The coffee ceremony entails the enjoyment of superb coffee in a traditional Ethiopian way, involving an elaborate ritual of roasting, grinding, and boiling the coffee beans right in front guests who await a taste of the delicious concoction. The gursha pertains to the sharing of a huge injera meal and the hand-feeding of one another, believed to be an expression of love and friendship. It is also in keeping with a widely held belief in Ethiopia that “those who eat from the same plate will not betray each other.”

Be Amazed by the Wonders of History 

Volunteering in Ethiopia is just not complete without setting foot in Lalibela. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are a sight to behold. Sometimes referred to as the eighth wonder of the world, these ancient churches showcase amazing architectural feat, with monolithic churches carved right out of the standing stones. Named after the Ethiopian king, Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, it is believed to be modeled after Jerusalem because King Lalibela attempted to build a new Jerusalem after the capture of the old Jerusalem.

Volunteers must take time to visit Gondar, the so-called “Camelot of Africa”. The Royal Enclosure (the fortress city of Gondar) served as residence to Emperor Fasilides during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Home of the great Aksumite Empire, the ancient city of Axum is another must-see place in the country. One of the oldest cities in Africa, Axum is the site of a number of impressive monuments. This historical city was also the home of the legendary Queen of Sheba. Her ruined royal palace and bathing pool can still be seen in a nearby town. The Ark of the Covenant is also reportedly located in Axum. And there’s the prehistoric site, Tiya, with over 100 archaeological sites and 30 enigmatic monuments to capture foreign interest. 

Make Travel Truly Meaningful

Ethiopia is undoubtedly a must-visit for globetrotters. Volunteers can make the most out of travel to the country by truly immersing themselves in the local culture. After going through years of famine, misrule, and war Ethiopians have been left with gnawing social problems, providing countless ways for volunteers to make a difference.