Aboard a Tankwa on Lake Tana in Ethiopia

Bahar Dar lies on the shores of Lake Tana and is commonly regarded as Ethiopia’s most attractive town. Tourists come from all over to see the twenty-nine island monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls. We were here to see the tankwas, the open ended papyrus canoes.

Touts at the Ghion Hotel were eager to sell boat tours and warned that tankwas were dangerous. I suppose they had a point. These boats, constructed of lengths of papyrus lashed together, are no more than a few feet long and a typical tankwa will last no more than a month before it begins to fall apart. Despite the threat of falling overboard into a lake infested with Bilharzia, we were not to be put off and soon had a trip organized for the following morning.

Early the next day, we met our captain, Paulos, at his house and walked to the port. We watched as the boat was strung up with frayed, fragile twine and as seats were carried on and covered to keep us dry. I climbed aboard rather delicately and sat, legs crossed, at the bow. In the early morning sunshine, we passed through a reedy passageway, speckled with magnificent lillies and rife with stunning birdlife. Crowds of boys assembled at various points to swim. They screamed at the sight of a white woman in their midst. Others sat quietly on the lakeshore washing clothes. As we passed onto the lake proper, we saw tankwas, laden with goods, returning home after a three day journey to the Northern end of the lake. In the distance, large flocks of pelicans gathered in a pink haze and further off we could see the island monasteries themselves.

We visited the Church of Saint Mary that day, Debre Maryam. The building dates from the twelfth century. Our captain told us all about the church in broken English and explained that because his father is a priest, he knows the history of every church on the lake. Paulos is one of a large family and has completed his secondary education. He is just two months married. He had a government job in the city but works as a fisherman now, earning under ten euro a week. As we sailed across the lake, he sang songs and told stories and asked questions and was the perfect host.

Arriving back to the village, the port was a sea of overflowing tankwas. Dozens of boats were lined up waiting for their chance to unload their goods on the lakeshore: charcoal, wood and papyrus ‘jewellery’ (the leafy, green tip of the plant) for the most part. As the men of the village worked with the boats, the women stood by with large sacks of grain. They would fill woven, straw baskets and hold them high overhead, waiting for gusts of wind before pouring the contents onto open sacking, thus separating the (heavier) seed from the chaff. While all of this was going on, the children seemed content to swarm around the two farangis (foreigners) and follow them about the place.

We’d had a wonderful day with Paulos on the tankwa and had thoroughly enjoyed the activity at the port but it wouldn’t end there. Paulos invited us back to his house for an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony. we were delighted. At his house we met his parents and siblings and also his new wife. As we chatted in front of his house, his mother spun cotton into thread. It was quite a sight. He invited us into his home, a single room whose wooden walls were covered in plastic lining to keep out the rain. The furniture consisted of a bed, a table and a charcoal cooking box. We sat on their bed and watched with delight while his wife started the ceremony. The charcoal fire was lit and the coffee beans roasted before our eyes. They were then taken outside to be ground in a wooden cylinder by a long metal rod. The coffee was brewed in a black, clay pot and served in tiny cups first with sugar and then with salt (as the locals drink it). Scrummy. All too quickly, we’d had the minimum three cups of coffee and our visit was at an end. We said our goodbyes, swapped addresses and promised to write.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People

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