Our Spring issue’s “Imagine That” wasn’t just a story about the past successes of Imagine1day, the organization that’s helping to build schools in Ethiopia. It was a call to action that we hoped would inspire you to create change. Writer and climbing guide Majka Burhardt, who wrote the accompanying essay we’ve re-printed below, is also calling folks to action and recruiting a few more folks for Imagine1day’s fall trip to east Africa. Interested in joining? Participant sign-ups and info about the October 23-November 5 trip are up at: imagine1day.org
The Other Ethiopia
By Majka Burhardt
Ethiopia is an unlikely climbing destination: much of the rock is soft; it’s more in want of a viable economy than an identity as a tourist hotspot; and it’s been virtually off the adventure map for the past five decades. But none of that stopped me from tossing my climbing shoes into my luggage on my first trip there, in 2006. Rock, I knew, was everywhere. Why should the Cradle of Humanity be any different? On that first trip, I was part of a larger group on a mission to understand Ethiopia’s coffee story-but I got a sore neck from cranking to scope the vertical mounds and sandstone faces we passed. I carted those shoes around southern Ethiopia for an entire month and, though I climbed zero rock on that trip, I saw possibility. That possibility, I now know, wasn’t just a desire to climb in Ethiopia, but to know Ethiopia through climbing.
Four years later, as the adventure guide for Imagine Ethiopia, I helped bring 17 people to this country for their first time. I also took many of them climbing for their first time on its sanguine, orange-tinted vertical faces. I’d spent the previous years climbing in, and writing about, Ethiopia. But this was the first time I’d said yes to a group when they asked if I would take part in a larger project there. We were going to Ethiopia, in part, to build a school. We were going there, in part, to climb. We were going there in part for it, and in part for ourselves. The world wants to help Ethiopia. I’ve wanted to, as well-ever since I was eight and plastered myself to the television during the coverage of the 1984 famine. But what we sometimes forget is that Ethiopia wants to help us, too. And it will, if we let it. For me, that happens when I allow myself to be myself within its borders. It happens when I adventure.
I often tell non-climbers that they are right-on in their basic assumption about climbing: it’s dirty. Perching on, torquing into, and grabbing a hold of rock is not a tidy business. But that gritty contact is part of why I like it. I want to experience the rock and land, the way it is, up close. I want to absorb it at a pace that is human-propelled. I want to smell the earth-vertically. Imagine Ethiopia 2010 allowed me to bring that same opportunity to a group of others.
And so we went climbing. We top-roped new routes on the side of a 2,000-foot sandstone massif. We climbed to thirteenth-century churches carved into sandstone towers. And we biked and hiked and walked, and did it all over again during a span of almost three weeks. In between those activities, we visited communities with new schools, as well as communities about to get a school because of the fund raising work of our group and the work commitments of the community itself. You could say that either activity-climbing and community development-was the balance for the other. But together they created a singular experience.
To travel in Ethiopia is to open yourself up to extreme emotions. Abject poverty and utter beauty exist here side by side, and destitution and opportunity are forever paired. To help Ethiopia-and allow it to help you-you have to be open to both. The secret to opening up and truly knowing the place might be pacing and exploration. Vertical or horizontal, the gritty closeness we’ll develop lets us begin to find our own place within its unlikely story.