The rock-hewn churches at Lalibela are so incredible, so seemingly impossible, that the unbeliever standing awestruck in front of them must withdraw his arguments and accept the miraculous. the only thing that broke the spell and saved me from, er, being saved, was the particularly hideous scaffolding that UNESCO saw fit to erect, safely detracting from one of the most spectacularly beautiful man-made structures I’ve ever seen.
UNESCO may have removed the supernatural beauty of these 12th-13th-century churches, but they are still amazing. Detailed buildings with fine porticos, window and door frames, carved out of the very earth. Accessing them means descending into the rock through corridors and tunnels, past cubby holes and cavities containing mummified pilgrims with yellowed skin, above and below arches until each church door reveals itself like a secret. Inside, the churches are also detailed. Some contain wonderful frescos like the Three Wise Men depicted like startled schoolboys with wide-eyed uncertainty, others are decorated with flowers and animals. Little is known about how or why these churches were built (legend has it the angels helped), but it is clear that it is some attempt to build an African holy land to rival Jerusalem: there is an Adam’s tomb, Calvery and the local stream is called the River Jordan.
Reluctantly emerging from this subterranean, troglodite world, we find ourselves in little more than an overgrown village. Lalibela, 2,600 metres above sea level, has a geologically marvellous setting on one of the strangely flat plateaus of the Rift Valley, with views for miles. Most of the houses are one-room circular stone structures with a thatched roof that rises to a gathered tuft at the apex. Some of the poorer ones are made simply from thatch and mud, bonded with cow dung. The door is either of knotted twigs, or a lashed-on sheet of corrugated metal. Out of these basic hovels can emerge most surprisingly cleanly dressed men and women, though. With few facilities, including no running water, people manage to look perfectly respectable.
There is, like everywhere in the developing world, abject poverty here too. People in scraps of rags, malnourished and vacant-eyed sit pathetically in dust piles at the side of the road, some trying to sell their meagre wares, such as rotten potatoes, to penniless goat herders, who pass through carrying nothing but a wooden staff and a shawl. A number of the smaller children are bizarrely shod in rubber boots, even though the daytime temperatures are high and it hasn’t rained in months.
Poverty and corruption make this one of the most trying places to visit for a Westerner. Walking down the street, we are plagued by children and adults asking for money and other things, and everyone tries to cheat us out of what little money we have. As a result, we can’t visit some apparently lovely sites, because it is ridiculously expensive for us and too stressful. Every conversation I have with a local person, however interesting and cordially it begins, soon runs to requests for money or whatever, in a tedious cycle that makes me curse every well-meaning tour group that comes through here distributing wads of dollar bills. Many children actually think “Money” or “Pen” or “Candy” is an English greeting, I think. To my knowledge, there is no shortage of pens in the developing world, so the universal clamour for pens by children is mystifying.
Here, as elsewhere, China is the big developer – last year it overtook the World Bank as the biggest sponsor of development projects. New roads, hydroelectric systems, telecomms are all on the way or realised. “We’ll have broadband in three months time from the Chinese,” I was told today. Despite all their infrastructure efforts, the Chinese are not popular here (or in other ‘helped’ countries), and one of the main reasons is not that elected governments are cashing in on nationalised industries, but that the Chinese companies ship in Chinese workers, rather than providing desperately needed employment for local people.
“Chinese workers are very strange. They live in roadside places and eat everything. First they eat the birds from the sky and the lizards and people’s goats. When they have finished, these animals, they will start to eat children from the villages,” is one typical opinion. But, as elsewhere, while nobody else is providing basic infrastructure, the Chinese schemes, which are allowing them to effectively colonise much of the poor world, are changing people’s lives. Decent roads, as those consumate colonisers, the Romans knew very well, are the most important communication tool a country can have. Internet and telecomms are the icing on the cake.