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Lalibela is wonderful; I want to come back here. We explore the one street and meet some of the local boys with their football knowledge; school was just coming out when we got home last night and the street was teaming with students in their red uniforms. We see a tour group at our hotel with their waists bulging with cameras and money belts; a big change is going to come here. The Lal hotel is building a spa and conference centre and the wooden scaffolding is just outside my window. The rooms here are lovely with rush ceilings and hot water; the air is fresh and clear as we are so high.

We were fortunate enough to have the most amazing and uplifting experience today. A visit that was spiritual and fascinating – and that probably will not be possible in a decades time.

We were up at 6 to go with a guide to visit Lalibela’s churches – churches that have literally been carved by hand out of the rock in the 12th Century. Mohammed is up to greet us and to help us negotiate with the guide.  We try to persuade him to come with us but he has work to do.

Mohammed’s family live over 100kms away in Dessie  so he only sees them infrequently as he needs to take a public bus which takes 3 hours each way if he’s lucky. His family have stayed in Dessie because so many of our staff are on contract – we are so reliant on donors to fund projects which in turn fund staff who deliver operations – but donor funding is insecure which means that some of our staff are potentially insecure. We are lucky to have people with the commitment and passion of Mohammed and I think about a new funding model to help secure some of our most committed staff. 

The churches are dug out by hand from sandstone and stop where the sandstone meets granite. Every door-step, door and wall has been smoothed by thousands of hands and feet. Many of the churches have layers of carpets underfoot. It is dusty and hot – I am glad to have yet another scarf to put over my face and head.

Our guide, Douglas and myself at the churches in Lalibela
Our guide, Douglas and myself at the churches in Lalibela

 The churches at Lalibela are stunningly beautiful – and for me special because they are ‘living.’ These are not overly visited places for tourist reasons but for genuine worship.

Nuns and monks are praying throughout the site – some are living in the caves and hollows dug out of the sandstone, some are praying facing into corners. Every part of the site is holy. I see one woman kissing and worshipping at a nearby tree which by virtue of being at the site is holy.

The churches are cave like – I try to imagine what they are like in December when people come from all over the country to worship here. As we follow an elderly woman down a narrow ravine alongside one of the churches I have a sense of how claustrophobic it must be but also how extraordinary the energy must be.

We are all charmed by this wonderful place.  Our guide tells us that this ‘village’ is going to  be moved so that people don’t have to walk through the ditches and mess. How sad: in a decades time I am sure this place will have opened up to the world and there will be barriers and facilities. I try to take a balanced view between the chance to bring more money into the area and the potential damage to the spirituality of the place. I am not sure what is right.

What I am sure is that I will never this place as it is now and I feel deeply privileged to have seen it.

Frustratingly my camera battery has run out (my son delights in using it at home) so I rely on Sam and Douglas for pictures. Perhaps this makes me look harder at the place and see things that I would otherwise not see.

We stop at a hotel for chai. I go to the loo and have a guided tour of the ditch and latrine at the back of the hotel behind a washing line before a man comes racing towards me takes me by the hand and leads me down a narrow alley. I have a fleeting question in my head about what is happening but he leads me up some dirty stairs and into a glass door and the cleanest lobby imaginable. He says ‘special guest’ and points me into an immaculate bedroom with an en-suite western bathroom. I wonder if the others know where I am as I rejoin them!

Into the Land Rover to the airport. Mohammed updates us on the report he has done on the feeding centre we saw yesterday he is hopeful of some progress. We have all been deeply moved by the plight of women with their children and listen to what he has to say with interest.

I feel sad to be leaving this wonderful place and these wonderful people who, in such a short time, have shown us so much. At airport security we are passed through and Mohammed and driver are searched. We say formal farewells and I make a modest speech of thanks.

There are bottle brush trees at the airport. These and the gum trees seem very familiar. I have seen some amazing birds here – there are lots of red kites soaring over the towns. I saw two startling bright blue birds like starlings pecking in the shade outside the health centre, a small bird with a bright blue underside; pigeon like birds with rufous underbellies.

I look for the bearded vultures but don’t see any. I have also noticed the cacti that are cut to make fences for goats. There is no rubbish or plastic and there is no waste. Feral dogs roam the countryside and we have heard packs of dogs at night in Addis.

At the airport I write up my blog, drink 7UP and reflect on our experiences. We talk about our strategy for how to show this work to corporate supporters and how to bring what power their support could bring to the communities we have seen.

 When we arrived Sam was carrying a bag of equipment for our emergency team here – water treatment tablets and some plastic piping. At the airport there was some consternation about her luggage; she was intrepid in getting forms filled out in triplicate so that the equipment could get through.

There are lots of westerners waiting for the plane – as we rush across the airfield one jokes that this is like Ryan Air as it is ‘free seating’ which causes consternation amongst some passengers. The flight is bumpy – I immerse myself in a rubbishy book to distract myself from the fear.

Addis airport and a delightful lady from the hotel is waiting to greet us. We feel like old hands as we check into the Queen of Sheba. The view of a ditch, building site and earth flattened by many feet into a football ground seems familiar. There is hot water in the shower. I borrow a can of mossie spray from the bar and count how many I get – they are big but move very slowly.

We spend what is left of the day catching up on emails and work. There is an email from Jasmine saying that the Alliance strategy has been approved at the recent members meeting – this is significant news and critical for the future of Save the Children internationally.

There are some urgent issues in the office and the internet connection is patchy. My phone seems to have given up. I finish my presentation for the SMDP adapting it to refer to the field work we have seen. We get lots of work done.

We all eat together – Nile Perch! I think of Cleopatra.

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