Traveling back in time to ancient Ethiopia

MEQUAT MARIAM, Ethiopia Fri May 8, 2009 11:27am EDT

1 of 4. Ethiopian tour guides chat at a valley in the remote Mequat Mariam, northern Ethiopia, November 29, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Barry Malone

MEQUAT MARIAM, Ethiopia (Reuters Life!) - A giant eagle glides gracefully over a remote mountaintop in northern Ethiopia as a barefoot man draped in goatskin watches.

"It's a big bird that makes a peaceful sound," he says in the local Amharic language to two foreigners who have approached the cliff edge. "Where is your country?"

Until a few years ago, most people who live in these small villages surrounded by dramatic scenery and rock-hewn churches had never even seen anyone from outside Ethiopia.

But now tourists are beginning to come and communities are changing.

"We've helped the people set up hosting facilities -- a place where tourists can sleep and stay," says Mark Chapman of Tesfa, a charity that brings tourists to these areas but encourages locals to manage the business and earn money from the visitors.

"They look after the tourists, then the tourists trek from one place to another, each village providing a service, with a donkey to carry luggage and a guide to come along."

Ethiopia boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites but decades of hunger, conflict and political instability have kept its palaces, obelisks and castles off the beaten track for even the most intrepid visitors to Africa.

Tourism represents just 2.5 percent of the Horn of Africa nation's gross national product -- something the government of this desperately poor country is trying to change.

"There is a very important community tourism experience in Ethiopia under Tesfa," Tourism Minister Mohamoud Dirir told Reuters. "That experience would bring income to marginalized communities, where an appreciative, responsible tourist could live with the communities. It is an open-ended opportunity."

"TOURISTS ARE THE ENTERTAINMENT"

A straw-and-mud hut stands at the edge of a vast meadow where cattle graze and farmers thresh grain much as they have for thousands of years. But learning to grind grain -- while a horse and a cow watch from the corner of the room -- is German tourist Susanne Wolfgarten.

"The special thing is you really meet the people in a natural setting," said Susanne.

"We had lots of interesting and funny meetings along the way. People were coming from church, farmers were working, women were outside washing clothes."

Susanne and her guide leave the house and walk through a field of corn by a cliff edge as boy shepherds stop shouting at each other across the valleys to greet her in English.

"To some extent it's a throwback to our own history in Europe in the middle ages with fields of wheat and barley growing," said Chapman. "So I think one thing that fascinates people is this throwback to historical -- even biblical -- images."

The guides who walk with the visitors introduce them to communities, explain the way of life and help to search out wildlife such as baboons and the rare Ethiopian wolf.

"The work makes me healthy and I meet different people from different countries," said Addisu Abebaw, a former soldier now working as one of the guides. "I get different knowledge from different countries. I can't describe how much I love it."

Chapman says part of the reason Tesfa was set up was to ensure that local communities were not exploited by the arrival of the tourists -- something that worries some charities.

"There is a need for alternative incomes here," he said. "Farm sizes are getting smaller, farmers are plowing less and they can't get enough food to feed their families for a year. Tourism is an obvious idea when you're in a very beautiful area."

Yeshiye Getu, who cooks for Tesfa, says that since the tourists started to come she has been able to pay for the education of her two daughters and buy them shoes.

"I can say that life has changed," she said. "It is good now."

Her daughters approach two Irish doctors and begin to laugh.

"There's no TV out here," says Chapman, smiling as the children practice their few English words. "So I think to some extent the tourists have become the entertainment."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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