Finding positivity in a dark time

It is almost one year since the Ethiopian government confirmed its first case of COVID-19. The global pandemic has had a huge impact on our lives, and on our businesses. The service industry in Ethiopia has been decimated by the virus, and hotels, lodges, airlines, and tour operators are struggling to pay their employees salaries.

When we think about the future, we are uncertain. Today however, I don’t want to talk about the social, economic, and psychological impact of the pandemic. Many others have written about that, and it’s something we’re all familiar with at this point. 

Instead, I want to talk about a story that has uplifted me during this dark time, a blessing in disguise as the wise men say. It’s the story of three professional tourist guides in Ethiopia: Biniyam Hailu, Kedemkachew Wosenseged and Enku Mulugeta, and their unsung contribution to the country’s tourism industry. 

Mr Enku teaching the geological history around the church

Guiding programme

Ethiopia’s tourism industry is still in its infancy, and the quality of guiding in the country can vary dramatically. Biniyam, Kedemkachew, and Enku took it upon themselves to create a ‘guiding training programme’ in Ethiopia.

The programme helped train guides across the country, as well as providing education on the history of Ethiopia, its geology, flora and fauna, and incredible church paintings. The programme had a theoretical and practical component, with field trips being arranged to various destinations across Ethiopia.

Painting of King Menelik with his army

Discovering Balchi Ammanuel

Besides the invaluable training, the platform was a golden networking opportunity for guides. I was lucky enough to attend one of these training sessions myself. During the session, I learned about Balchi Ammanuel, a church located in Shenkora just 3 hours from the capital.

I visited the church on a field trip led by Dawit Teferi - an expert in the field - and learnt all about the history of the church and the stunning paintings found within. 

Getting to the church was easy enough, it is a 3 hour from Addis to the town of Shenkora. Most of the drive is on a tarmac road following the Addis-Adama express road, followed by a short 40-minute stretch on gravel road. 

Field trip to Balchi Ammanuel, en route to Arerti

The original church is said to have been built in the 16th century, and the present church was built in the 1850s by King Haile Melekot, the father of Emperor Menelik. The church has a circular ground plan with a conical roof, a popular church style after the 14th century. Inside, a 12x12 metre rectangular wall encloses the holiest of holies where they keep replicas of the Ark of the Covenant

The paintings here - as with many other circular churches in Ethiopia - are found on the walls inside the church (called maqdas). A few of the painting have had to be restored, but most are the original 16th century paintings, and are in the style of the Second Gonderian paintings. 

Group gathering around Balchi Ammanuel

It’s hard not to be moved by the creativity displayed in these painting, and the quality of the art represented here. The painter of this church came from Gonder, and used traditional techniques to decorate these walls. A traditional adhesive is used to plaster the cotton cloth to the wall, and the painter then outlines the figures with charcoal and colours it all in with locally made paints. You can find about 147 paintings within the church.  

Besides the religious scenes, there are a number of secular paintings that narrate significant historical events and portray historic figures including Emperor Yohannes IV, Emperor Menilek and Fitawrari Nadew. These secular paintings were added during the 19th century. 

The story of Saint Mary and Jesus Christ

Balchi Ammanuel is an undiscovered gem on the doorstep of Addis. The church is a testament to the depth of history and culture in Ethiopia, and shows how much is left undiscovered on most trips to the country.

Bringing new sites like this on to modern day itineraries is only possible thanks to the hard work of people like Biniyam, Kedemkachew and Enku.

Biniyam, Enku and Kedemkachew receiving gift after field trip

In Partnership With

This story was written in partnership with Bennett Gizachew and the team at Wild Expeditions. We've been running trips with WE for years, and always love the fresh ideas and unique perspectives they bring to every itinerary we design for our customers. 

Discovering Balchi Ammanuel

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