I recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia. I chose the East African nation as I was intrigued with the country’s history, diverse cultures and spirituality, and the impact the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has on much of its population. My destination was Lalibela, a town of 15,000 about 415 miles (668 kilometers) north of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Lalibaba is home to Ben Ababa — arguably the best restaurant in Ethiopia.
One of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, Lalibela is home to many rock-hewn churches, which as far back as the 12th century were chiseled by hand from volcanic basalt. The finest architectural example, the Church of Saint George, is among the most popular pilgrimage sites for Ethiopians. Lalibela is also a base from which visitors can go trekking or view more old monasteries and churches throughout Ethiopia’s Amhara Region.
One of these famous religious sites is Yemrehanna Kristos, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) from Lalibela, a journey that takes about two hours in a 4×4 along a dirt road. As we left Lalibela, we passed by an outrageous building that soared above the hills, looking like part cooking pot, part flower arrangement. “Ben Ababa,” said my guide, “you have to go there tonight.”
And with another traveler staying at the same lodge as me, I did. I had read Ben Abeba was one of the top restaurants in Ethiopia, but we were treated to far more than a meal of Shepherd’s Pie and carrot cake. We had an evening with a fascinating woman who, on a lark, changed her life on a dime and is making significant impact on a community where economic opportunities are lacking other than in farming and the emerging tourism sector.
Susan Aitchison had a long successful career as a home economics teacher in her native Glasgow, Scotland. At the urging of a friend, “at age 57 ½,” she ventured to Ethiopia to help a friend set up a school. It was a bold move—she had a comfortable life in Scotland, had her pension sorted . . . so why did she move to Ethiopia?
“Well,” she deadpanned, “I was mad.”
Call it madness or compassion, but the hard work and patience of Aitchison and her business partner, Habtamu Baye, are paying off with the success of their restaurant, Ben Abeba. The name itself is a hybrid of the two cultures: ben is Scottish for “mountain,” while abeba is Amharic for “new flower.” And perched on a hill looking over the yellow “September flowers” that bloom annually as they foreshadow the Ethiopian New Year, Ben Abeba has the perfect moniker.
The result is a venue that is architecturally stunning while offering a menu that offers classic Ethiopian cuisine, Commonwealth fare such as Bubble and Squeak and the pasta dishes that are ubiquitous throughout Ethiopia. Ben Abeba is described in travel guides as not only the top restaurant in Lalibela, but often as the best of all in this country of 94 million.
Nevertheless, what is important about Ben Abeba is the difference it is making in the local community. First, Aitchison and Baye are committed to sourcing food locally—nothing on the menu is imported. Part of the reason is logistics. Fish is not on the menu as the closest source, Lake Tana, is almost 200 miles (320 kilometers), or a five hour drive, away. “We tried serving fish, but it is hard to keep it fresh, so never mind, we serve what is available locally,” said Aitchison.
What Ben Abeba offers locals is skills training and the opportunity to work in a field other than agriculture or manual labor. Many workers are eager to work at Ben Abeba, and it is not easy to make the cut. “I am not worried about job skills, as that is what we train them on,” said Aitchison. “What we do look for is personality and social skills. Then everything else can fall into place.”
The current class of recruits, for example, includes 10 people. For a week, they are trained on just about everything necessary to know about working at a restaurant, from hygiene to customer service. Not everyone becomes a full time employee: Aitchison mentioned that probably two within this class would be hired full-time. Everyone, however, receives a certificate upon completion of the program, which he or she in turn can present to another local business proving that they have a certain level of training and experience. Their contact information is kept on file as there is always the opportunity to work a few days in the event the restaurant needs help during the high tourist season. Currently about 40 people are employed at Ben Abeba, with the vast majority under 30 years old. Most entrees on the menu are well under 100 birr ($5).
For those who do land a full-time position at Ben Abeba, those workers make about 600 birr ($29) a month. As the monthly cost to rent a room in Lalibela is about 100 birr ($5), such a salary leaves plenty of discretionary income so that workers can save for their future or an eventual investment in education. In comparison, a farmworker or manual laborer clears about 100 birr monthly. A job with Ben Abeba is a big step forward for many of these workers. Many are from the countryside, where they are often discouraged from moving out or continuing their education as their families insist they work on the farm.
Aitchison’s commitment to the Lalibela community reaches beyond the restaurant. Several years ago she set up a scholarship fund, which supports locals striving to extend their education. The restaurant financially supports local youth soccer teams as well. The hill on which Ben Abeba sits had long been stripped of trees for firewood, but has since been replanted with over 30,000 trees, many of which produce fruit.
Although Aitchison was largely self-deprecating and modest about her accomplishments, the fact is that she has founded a social enterprise that offers hope and is building a stronger community, while offering visitors the chance to learn even more about one of the oldest and complex civilizations on earth. In the end, she is leaving a legacy far more meaningful than the former teacher had ever imagined.
Image credits: Leon Kaye, Ben Abeba