I'll get my goat

Donating farm animals to Ethiopian villages is a popular Christmas gift. But when Simon Calder tracked down his festive livestock, things soon turned nasty

Jesus Christ and I have nothing in common, except a star-sign (Capricorn, symbol: the goat) and a birthday. As a result of my accident of birth, the day on which Christians in much of the world celebrate the birth of the Saviour is of personal interest.

I seem to spend most of my life being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a problem that has dogged me since my early days. Or, more accurately, earliest day. I was born beside the A23 in Crawley, just south of Gatwick airport, on a date 25 December when other matters tended to overshadow birthdays. Unless, that is, you are in Ethiopia. Do they know it's Christmas? Yes, but only on 7 January.

This nation may be nine times the size of Britain, but Ethiopia has plenty of similarities to the UK. Both nations have a large and growing population, in which Christianity and Islam coexist mostly peaceably. The national saint, George, is the same as England's (and the label of the nation's favourite beer depicts him slaying the dragon). Thanks to a strong Italian influence in the field of catering, you can get an excellent coffee. And while Ethiopia is embedded between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the high altitude of a fair proportion of the country makes it decidedly green and pleasant. But what Ethiopia does not share with anyone else is its calendar.

Ethiopia may have been the birthplace of humanity, but it is chronologically out of kilter with the rest of the world. Only last September did the nation join the remainder of Christendom here in the 21st century. Ethiopia was last to celebrate the Millennium because the Coptic church retains an ancient calendar that has been superseded in most of the world by the more accurate Gregorian calibration. So 25 December is just another day.

Just another day in Ethiopia, though, is more than likely to be surprising and exhilarating. Most journeys start in Addis Ababa. The city whose name translates as "New Flower" occupies the 60th and last place in today's survey of world capitals. Agreed, Ethiopia's hub scores no points for loveliness nor history, but it is a cheerfully ramshackle place: imagine a city of the former Soviet Union, transferred to the Tropics and endowed with the spirit of Africa. Add a cathedral and museum, plus the best restaurants in Ethiopia (not a demanding target) and there is plenty to sustain interest for the day or two that most visitors stay.

Heaven is waiting upcountry in the form of the Heaven Guest House (the polar opposite, I guess, to Elvis's Heartbreak Hotel). The hotel's sign greets you as you reach Lalibela, two days' drive or a couple of hours' flight north-east of Addis Ababa. On one level this is an enchanting mountain town set amid superb scenery. On another, it is home to some African sights as dramatic as the Pyramids outside Cairo; one is near the source of the Blue Nile, the other close to the great river's mouth.

Christianity arrived as early as the 4th century in Ethiopia, and it remains one of the most devout realms in Christendom. Devotion takes many forms, but it is difficult to think of any that demands such sheer toil and artistry as the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Rather than the standard architectural practice of finding a reasonably flat piece of ground and constructing something above it, in Lalibela, the priests decided to work the other way. From the slabs of stone that help to make up this heavenly landscape, they cut down towards the centre of the earth.

The results are epitomised in the church of St George. I nearly wrote "the majestic church ...", but when you stand on the lip of stone that overlooks a subterranean church stamped with an ancient cross, majesty is not quite the sense. Awe, though, is entirely appropriate when you stumble down the steps and emerge into the space that has been hewn from the rock to allow the church to take shape. This is a mirror image of traditional building: here, the structure is defined by what is left behind. And what is left behind is awesome.

Take a few steps up to the doorway, and peer into the darkness. Strange litanies resound amid a haze of incense, which might sound rather like the Isle of Wight pop festival in 1970, but in fact goes back much further. The Orthodox liturgy practised in Ethiopia has roots that extend deep into the past: you are witnessing Christian worship that has barely changed since the gospel arrived in this mile-high pinnacle 17 centuries ago, and have suffused the place with profound passion ever since.

When they arrive in this warren of stone, most visitors take the standard afternoon tour around the dozen or so rock-hewn churches. This provides an overview of the mesmeric masonry, but it is equally important to rise at dawn next morning and wander alone around the churches. The town may now depend on tourism, but none of this quiet ceremony is laid on for visitors. They do it for themselves, or rather for Jesus Christ.

At on the other side of Addis Ababa, He is celebrated in the name of Hosanna. On the highway that meanders uncertainly in the general direction of Kenya, Hosanna is a sprawling market town. I came here to find out what had happened to my Christmas presents.

Some time ago, the Calder family stopped giving each other gifts at Christmas not due to some family feud, but because the money could be far better spent elsewhere. In my particular branch of the family, the chosen charity is Farm Africa, and we specialise in goats. Over the years we have provided a good number of these creatures (female, for milking) to the continent, but since the donor does not deliver them personally, none of us was too sure exactly where they were or what they did. The charity pointed me in the direction of Hosanna, home to a project of the Capricornian kind. And off I went.

A short distance before Hosanna, the highway swung sharply to the left to reveal yet another broad and beautiful valley. Suddenly a goat charged across the road. Fortunately the driver saw her in time, sounded the horn (his, not the goat's), braked hard and successfully steered around the beast.

To have hit her would have been a tragedy for the owner (as well as the goat). The name of the game is enfranchisement. In a male-dominated society, the poorest women are powerless from every point of view. Farm Africa does not just dish out goats to the least fortunate; it also provides education about micro-capitalism.

You can do several things with a goat, including selling her. But the women learn that it is a better investment to milk her until she is old, then eat her. They can slowly build up enough funds to allow them to buy a donkey; in a continent that walks, this is the beast that bears most of the burdens and very effective and valuable it is, too.

Hosanna is a picture of exuberance amid hardship. The countryside all around is lush, but the land has many mouths to feed. The town itself is, after the rains, a mire of ruddy brown mud. There is one hotel in town, and it is almost empty. Yet throughout Hosanna, the buzz of conversation, music and humanity takes a lot longer to fade than the daylight.

The thrum begins again as the sun comes up. At dawn a Farm Africa representative takes me around a few villages in the scheme. Some distance from the highway, we find a huddle of tightly thatched cones perched above cylindrical walls whose chief constituent is mud. Inside each dwelling, the main ingredient is children, lots of them, but these are not just family homes; the livestock lives here, too. I am introduced to each goat, and learn what its presence has done (besides neatly trimming the grass outside). The women are at last economic players, able to take decisions for themselves and make choices for their families. Plainly some of the menfolk find it hard to adjust to this change of relationship; others are clearly enjoying the benefits of their wives' enterprise.

At the very last home in the very last village we visited, I asked (politely) if I could take a picture of the goat. Unfortunately, I asked the owner, not the animal. It reared, charged and gored me in less time, sadly, than it takes to set an exposure. The goat was fine; I am still nursing my wounds and sporting a Capricornian scar. The photographs were a write-off, and I continued my journey south to Kenya, where I decided to institute a temporary reversal of the "goats to Africa" tradition.

Two words: goat stew.

Travellers Guide

Getting there

You can fly from Heathrow to Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines (020-8987 7000; www.ethiopianairlines.com), which has daily services either non-stop or via Rome. BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.com) flies the same route several times each week, though with a stop in the Jordanian capital, Amman. To reduce the impact on the environment, buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Several adventure operators run trips through Ethiopia. For example, Exodus (0845 863 9600; www.exodus.co.uk) has a 15-day "Discover Ethiopia" trip leaving on 11 January 2008, for 1,799 per person. The price includes return flights from Heathrow, internal flights, transfers, excursions, hotel accommodation with breakfast and most dinners.

Getting around

Unless you are on an organised tour, surface transportation tends to be slow and sporadic. Ethiopian Airlines has a network of flights serving leading tourist destinations.

More information

The Foreign Office says "We advise against all travel to areas off the principal roads/towns within 50km of the border areas with Eritrea, Sudan and Kenya".

British passport-holders require a visa to enter Ethiopia, which can be obtained upon arrival at Addis Ababa airport for US$20 (10); one passport photo is also required.

Lonely Planet's Ethiopia & Eritrea Travel Guide (2006) is priced at 16.99. Farm Africa: 020-7430 0440; www.farmafrica.org.uk. A milking goat costs 27, Ethiopian tourism: 00 251 11 551 2310; www.tourismethiopia.org.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit