by Tim Dawe
Ethiopia is becoming a popular destination for the moderately adventurous traveller seeking the exotic. On my first visit I expect a fascinating – and unique – African culture, stupendous scenery, absorbing religious history and, warm and welcoming people. What I do not expect is Ben Abeba; a restaurant sitting precariously on the lip of a sheer drop to a ravine hundreds of metres below at the edge of Ethiopia’s most historic, culturally important, holy city – Lalibela. It’s extraordinary and unexpected.
For some context, Lalibela is world-famous for its rock-hewn churches that are somehow chiseled out of solid rock – many below ground. Ethiopia’s 12th century king, Lalibela, after visiting the Holy Land, returned here intent on building his New Jerusalem. Ethiopia is the second country to adopt Christianity (340AD) that continues its Jewish-based, characteristics (and church architecture). External changes have been minimal in these formidably inaccessible highlands. The country’s finest and best known rock-hewn church is nearby St George Church where white-draped pilgrims standing in veneration, seem suspended over their below ground church, making an extraordinary image. Lalibela is not only a holy city but also traditional and conservative. That makes Ben Abeba even more remarkable.
Returning from our morning visit to the 11th century monastery Yemrehanna Kristos 42km from Lalibela, my wife and I glimpse this strange shape on the mountain-plateau horizon. The closer we get the stranger it becomes. It looks alien; like an intergalactic starship with curved portholes and landing pods crashed into the mountain – all bent, crumpled and rusty. When told it’s on our itinerary, we decide to stop for lunch, and luckily meet the redoubtable Susan Aitchison, Ben Abeba’s owner.
We wait for our lunch perched high above a void – the open interior of spiralling wooden ramps and alcoves. There are 360-degree views externally, and internally. This architecture is Dalí on acid. A waiter races up a spirally ramp (they all run) to serve us plates of multi-coloured vegetable shiro with Ethiopia’s ubiquitous injera bread that doubles as utensils. Outside a tour group lines up for their buffet under a “landing pod”. Susan joins us for a chat. She’s a charming host, caring employer, and tough as a nut.
Approaching retirement as a home economics teacher in Glasgow, Scotland, Susan Aitchison took a bold step to help a friend set up a remote village school 35km from Lalibela. This necessitated daily transport with local driver Habtamu Bayu, eventually evolving into a business partnership to create Ethiopia’s premier-rated restaurant. One can only imagine the travails they faced to lease government cliff-top land and to establish such an incongruous, Ethiopian designed building. It’s a Scottish-Ethiopian amalgam, even in name; ben, Scottish use for mountain and abeba, Amharic for flower. Yellow flowers bloom in the ravine each September, which heralds Ethiopia’s New Year.
It’s not just a high-end tourist restaurant. Susan employs, and importantly trains, 40 young locals – all under 30. Food is produced locally. But fish is not on the menu. “We tried sourcing fish from Lake Tana, a five-hour drive away. It was too hard to keep fresh but, never mind, we serve what is locally available,” says Susan. This makes Ben Abeba a valuable community resource. Locals facing the hard labour of agriculture are keen to work here.
“We take in groups of up to 10 and look for their social skills and personality. Job skills are less important as we train them,” says Susan.
Restaurant training involves everything from hygiene to customer service. Only a few are offered full-time work on completion but everyone receives a certificate of competency. There’s always work available for Susan’s extended team during the tourist season; it’s a big deal for a villager to work at Ben Abeba. An employee earns 600birr ($42) a month, enough to save for education and the future, while a farm labourer can expect 100birr ($7) a month. And the prices are not inflated for tourists. Our lunch costs $9 for two.
Susan’s community commitment goes beyond investment in a restaurant. She has a foundation that supports those wanting to extend their basic education, and in a countryside largely denuded for firewood, she has planted 30,000 trees – many producing fruit.
For indefatigable Susan Aitchison it’s a long way from being a retired teacher and pensioner in Glasgow. But what a wonderful legacy she leaves for Ethiopia.