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Gaining a foothold in the world “for a better life”. Encounters between inhabitants and tourists in Lalibela (Ethiopia), a small World Heritage town

Marie Bridonneau
Traduction de Université Bretagne Occidentale
Cet article est une traduction de :
S’ancrer dans le monde « pour une vie meilleure ». Les rencontres entre habitants et touristes à Lalibela (Éthiopie), petite ville du patrimoine mondial [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Alla ricerca di radici nel mondo « per una vita migliore ». Incontrarsi tra residenti e turisti a Lalibela (Etiopia), piccola città del patrimonio mondiale [it]


This article presents some reflections on encounters between international tourists and local society, based on fieldwork carried out between 2009 and 2011 in Lalibela, a small heritage and tourist town in northern Ethiopia. Beyond the “criticist paradigm” which highlights the harmful effects of tourism in certain social spaces of the South, it aims at showing how the encounter with tourists is a moment of connecting with the World for a local society which otherwise has very few contacts with international flows, or a moment of hybridisation of cultural practices and representations. We will also consider the social and economic dynamics of these relations, which are not built on fortuitous encounters but result from strategies involving certain groups, usually of young men, who seek out the relationship and then make it last. In this context, the emblematic stories of a few fortunate “sponsored” people fuel the fantasies of young people seeking to gain a foothold in the world and a “better life”.

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1Lalibela is a small town in northern Ethiopia which houses a complex of rock-hewn churches. In June 1978, ICOMOS recommended that these churches carved in the rock be registered on the World Heritage list since they met criteria I, II and III identifying the universal and exceptional value of a property by UNESCO. Indeed, ICOMOS associated the site of Lalibela with a (I) “unique artistic realisation, due as much to the scale of the program as to the audacity of the shapes”, recognized it for (II) its “importance in Ethiopian Christianity” and as (III) “exceptional testimony to medieval and post-medieval Ethiopian civilization” (ICOMOS, 1978). Thus, in September 1978, the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the protection of the world heritage certified the churches of Lalibela (UNESCO, 1978). Like many World Heritage sites, today Lalibela has become an international tourist site.

2Ethiopia only opened recently to international tourism. The political context of closure, recurrent famines and wars impeded the emergence of any tourist activity around the different Ethiopian World Heritage sites during the 1980s and 1990s. Although the country is still not yet a destination for mass tourism, Lalibela has gained recognition since the beginning of the 21st century as one of the sites certified by UNESCO, which both fascinates and is more and more accessible for a public in search of cultural “landmarks” (Bourdeau, Gravari-Barbas, Robinson, 2012). Every year, around 40,000 international visitors travel to Lalibela to tour the site and its surroundings. Over the last few years, the development of tourism has resulted in a multitude of new infrastructures to welcome people and has generated public operations of urban renovation which aim at reinforcing the site’s attractivity. It is often considered that if “attracting a great number of tourists can generate income”, this can also “destabilize the local population and undermine the integrity of these sites” (Marcotte, Bourdeau, 2010, p. 271). UNESCO experts have thus denounced, several times, the proliferation of hotel infrastructures in Lalibela (UNESCO, 2007), or again the “urban encroachment” which affects the site (UNESCO, 2010). It also appears that the “local population,” at least in part, is affected by certain heritage conservation and tourist promotion policies. In the countries of the South and in the context of very visible poverty in the public space, the receiving countries must indeed present a “perfectly ‘sanitized’ image of themselves, with the help of strenuous and authoritarian policies, and of drastic regulations if need be” (Cazes, 1992, p. 112). In Lalibela, a program for the destruction of neighbourhoods and the displacement of those inhabitants living the closest to the churches is underway ; the beggars were gathered together, a few years ago, in a camp located away from the road leading to the churches and used by the tourists (Bridonneau, 2013). Thus, the project for developing sustainable tourism in Ethiopia financed by the World Bank (2009-2014) includes the resettlement of around 700 families chased from the surroundings of the churches of Lalibela (World Bank, 2009).

3Although they are rarely integrated into heritage conservation policies and are often considered by the public authorities as harmful for the reinforcement of tourist attractivity, the inhabitants build their own relationships with the tourists and seek to attract part of the income themselves from this activity in Lalibela. The aim of this paper is thus to offer some considerations going beyond the “criticist paradigm” (Amirou, 2012) which analyses tourism in the South through the prism of its “damages” to vulnerable societies and of its “nuisances” to “traditional” cultures. On the contrary, the encounters between tourists and inhabitants are here considered as “connecting” (Amselle, 2005), which is to say as an intercultural communication space, or again, as one of those moments during which the “imagined lives” dear to Arjun Appadurai (2005 [1996]) are constructed. In a postcolonial perspective, it seems to us that the anchoring of the inhabitants in the world through the encounter with tourists shows “the hybridisation” (Bhabha, 2007 [1994]) of cultural practices and representations.

4The identification of different encounters, which is to say first the informal encounter perceived as fortuitous by the tourist, then the business-oriented exchange, and finally the “sponsorship”, will allow us to highlight the cultural, social and economic dynamics of this relatively new way used by certain innhabitants of Lalibela to anchor themselves in the world. This analysis is based on fieldwork carried out between 2009 and 2011, associating interviews and participant observation.

Hosting the Other and imagining an elsewhere: how the inhabitants of Lalibela gain a foothold in the World

5The regular presence of international tourists in Lalibela is a factor in anchoring the latter in the World, which is to say in this “space on a world scale” which globalization makes relevant (Lévy, 2008, p. 110). In Ethiopia, tourist circuits are particularly organized around World Heritage sites. On a larger scale, the characterisation of the country as exotic contributes to the increased tourist flows towards the “remote” destination (Staszak, 2008) of Ethiopia. There have been numerous criticisms of the “reinvented authenticity or the remodelled tradition” (Cazes, Courade, 2004), and of the “staging of the Other” as a response to the wish to “conform the […] remote place to how one expects it to be” (Staszak, 2008, p. 21). Consequently, the tourist space constructs itself and “becomes meaningful through contact with an idealized elsewhere” (Rémy, 2000, p. 37). Certain inhabitants of Lalibela take hold of this search for the “regenerative otherness” (Rémy, 2000, p. 37) by tourists. A game of mirrors is thus implemented in which the inhabitants of Lalibela construct practices and discourses to establish contacts with the tourist and his own “elsewhere”, which is to say this “other’s place” (Turco, 2003, p. 53). For many, this encounter is problematic because “the tourist is always someone who has no functional reason to be there” (Rémy, 2000, p. 48). Furthermore, the asymmetry of this relationship has been highlighted : “the indigenous person” can have the upper hand, since he experiences the tourist exchange repeatedly, which allows him to better know the other’s aspirations and to acquire routines in order to turn the exchange to his own advantage” (Rémy, 2000, p. 49). As early as the beginning of the 1980s, T. Hoivik and T. Heiberg (1980) insisted on the encounter as an unexpected event, perceived as fortuitous by the tourist whereas it is sought out by the “indigenous inhabitant”, in view of deriving benefits from it. How does this take place today in Lalibela ? Are the relationships codified to such an extent from the viewpoint of the inhabitants ?

Document n°1 : Lalibela, haut : 2010, bas : 2011

Document n°1 : Lalibela, haut : 2010, bas : 2011

© Marie Bridonneau.

6The first scene represented in the photograph above took place in Lalibela on the Orthodox Christmas Eve, in early January 2011 (top photograph). Lalibela is a major site of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Every year, at Christmas, tens of thousands of pilgrims converge on the small city to celebrate the births of Christ and of Saint Lalibela, known by the faithful as the king who built the rock churches. For several years, numerous tour operators have offered their clients to travel to Lalibela to attend the Nativity celebrations. The tourist photographed here is surrounded by several of the faithful who are looking at him while smiling or laughing. The visitor, who looks tired, has presumably aroused a reaction of amusement through his friendly or unusual behaviour in the eyes of these pilgrims or inhabitants gathered around the churches for Christmas mass. On this occasion, international tourists encounter both other visitors, the pilgrims, who have converged from the whole of Christian Ethiopia, as well as the inhabitants of Lalibela who never provoke encounters with the tourists. As daily users of the churches in the context of religious practice, they pay little attention to the tourists. On the contrary, a great majority of the tourists are intent on photographing the faithful, whether they be pious young women or elderly men, clothed in white, as they kiss the walls of the church and prostate themselves for hours on end. They are the living dimension of the heritage, they are the idealized Other, this “crowd who, when it is time for mass, invade the underground passages linking the churches to the village squares [and] are reminiscent of the one who thronged the catacombs during the first centuries of Christianity” (Pavan, 2009, p. 118).

7The second scene took place during the rainy season, in August 2010 (bottom photograph). The mud-filled streets and paths of Lalibela meant good business for the young shoe-shiners. On the other hand, this is not a good season for travel agencies, which prefer to organize trips to the North of Ethiopia the rest of the year and more particularly during the great religious celebrations of the Orthodox Christian calendar. From June to September, one encounters mostly individual travellers, who use public transportation (plane or bus) or who rent a private vehicle with a driver. In the streets, these small groups of visitors, who often go on foot, without a guide, are very solicited by the children and adolescents, and namely by the shoe-shiners. On this photograph, one notices the presence, around the two squatting shoe-shiners and their clients, of two other visitors and of four young boys witnessing the scene. Around the cleaning of the shoes, which is the supplying of a commercial service, one notices that the tourists are being carefully observed by these young inhabitants who thus take advantage of a moment of interaction in a public area. The presence of these young boys here is neither passive nor simply attentive. Indeed, they will most certainly try to extend this encounter by soliciting the visitors in order to obtain money, an e-mail address, etc. From this encounter, they will attempt both to draw a material benefit (Hoivik, Heiberg, 1980) and to glean information on the visitor, on his country of origin (Cazes, 1992), thus feeding their imaginary vision of the World.

8Children only attend the primary schools of Lalibela in the morning or in the afternoon. Schools are closed during the height of the rainy season (July and August) but also on holidays or during the break between semesters. The children thus have a lot of free time which some use to play in the streets of their neighbourhood. During my first stays for fieldwork in Lalibela, during which I was usually considered as a tourist, I experienced the way in which some children initiate encounters with tourists.

  • 1 Birr is the Ethiopian currency. In June 2013, one euro was the equivalent of about 25 birr.

9The young people easily use a few basic expressions in English with which they call out to the tourists : “How are you ?”, “How is Lalibela ?”, “Do you like the church ?”, “Where are you come from [sic] ?”, etc. If the tourist responds (and in many cases, even if he does not respond !), a bold and particularly loquacious child may start following the visitor(s). He might then offer the latter to purchase a small leather cross as a “souvenir” or ask him for coins which he “collects” but which he will go in fact very quickly to exchange for birr1 with another tourist. In their doorways or in front of their houses, some children, often little girls, may also invite the visitor to a “coffee ceremony”, which is to say to taste the coffee prepared according to quite a precise ritual which is described as “traditional”, in their home. Through the invitation to the coffee ceremony, the children thus contribute to staging Lalibela, to giving the place an image which “highlights a few idealized characteristics” (Rémy, 2000, p. 39) as well as “stereotypical ones” (Staszak, 2008). Presenting the invitation as an occasion to share a local tradition and to experience the sacrosanct “hospitality”, the host will nonetheless expect, in most cases, compensation in exchange, without necessarily informing the guest beforehand.

10Another recurrent request is for soccer balls. Most of the time, the children of Lalibela play with a ball made of old material and they will frequently solicit a tourist, sometimes with the help of a written request followed by a set of arguments in English to help them buy a plastic or leather ball. To support their request, they extol the famous football players of the countries that their interlocutors come from. They thus highlight their link to the Other’s place. Nevertheless, one should underline that the request for sweets, a ball, a tee-shirt or money is not systematically undertaken in each of the interactions initiated by the child who is often happy if the tourist simply waves his hand at him.

11Moreover, the only children who chant “money money” in the streets when tourists walk by are very young ones. On the other hand, some implement complex strategies in which they anticipate a second encounter, and even the building of a long-term relationship. The latter show their school reports as proof of their being serious students with a good potential, thus implying that helping them would make good sense. Some have fun reciting the capitals of the countries in the world, knowing that this will arouse appreciative reactions. These closer contacts are often initiated by older children or adolescents.

  • 2 Farendj is the expression used in Ethiopia for foreigners, for “whites”.
  • 3 Woldiya is a medium-sized town which is about a five-hour drive from Lalibela.

12A few days after my first arrival in Lalibela, a young man called out to me as I was walking along the Chifrigoch neighbourhood towards the town centre : “I love you”, he said to me. Later, he told me that his wish was to have a farendj2 companion. He is nicknamed “Obama” by his friends. Obama is about twenty years old and rents a small two-room house with his mother. Having lived for a while in the region of Woldiya3, he arrived in Lalibela after his parents divorced. He finds life there difficult, namely because of inflation. He explains that in Lalibela the young men try to be “sponsored” by tourists, and do succeed. He feels that it is an efficient way to benefit from the development of tourism and to have a “better life”. A few months after our first encounter, we engaged again in a conversation about tourism in Lalibela. Obama then confessed his strategy to me, while a friend disapprovingly looked on. He explained to me that he had up to five or six “sponsors” who regularly send him money through Western Union.

13This is a complex strategy. First of all, as he is a student in the high school of Lalibela, he shows his potential “sponsor” his excellent school results, using his school reports. Then, he introduces him to his mother who prepares a “traditional coffee” for the occasion. Sometimes, he offers to guide the visitor to the Asheton church, located a few kilometres from the town, in the mountains. During this whole period, he does not ask for anything and refuses any compensation for his services as a “guide”. The only important thing for him is to obtain an e-mail address : indeed, it is only after the visitor’s departure that Obama will write to him as a reminder and that the visitor may think of sending money to this young man whom he sees as poor, selfless, brilliant and living alone with his mother. However, Obama is still not satisfied. Only by marrying a farendj will he be able to fulfil his dream : to leave Ethiopia and reach the paradise of the United States. As he repeatedly asserts : “I would rather be a watchman in America than a doctor in Ethiopia.”

14Of course, the encounters initiated by Obama and the relations he constructs correspond to the search for a material benefit but also to a concern to anchor himself in the World, to access it. Through the case of Obama, it appears that the encounters with tourists are as much a moment of connecting with “elsewhere” for the young city-dweller who initiates them, as a crystallisation of the differentiation which is established between himself and the farendj, namely in relationship to money. The construction of the imaginary is also at play in these moments, despite their ephemeral dimension. The particular encounter between an inhabitant of Lalibela and a tourist or a group of tourists is generally brief. Apart from precise cases, which are quite rare, of sponsorships or romantic relationships, during which the relationship is developed beyond the visitor’s stay in Lalibela, the relationship is often limited to the time it takes to visit the churches, to have one’s shoes polished or, yet again, to take a short walk in the town or in the nearby mountain. However, such an encounter can take place with another visitor the following day and again another the following week, and so on. These encounters are thus undeniably moments of construction of “partly imagined” lives (Appadurai, 2005 [1996]) for the student or the young guide who takes part in them.

15Arjun Appadurai has shown to what extent, in the current context of globalization, the imagination participates in fabricating the social life of an increasing number of individuals, and that thus “more people, in more parts of the world, can envisage a wider range of lifestyles than ever before” (Appadurai, 2005 [1996], pp. 97-98). If migrations and medias are the vectors presenting to more and more numerous individuals a “stock […] of possible lives” (Appadurai, 2005 [1996], p. 98), there is no doubt that tourist mobilities also participate in this phenomenon. As in the case of the visit of an emigrant returning to Lalibela, or of watching an American action film, or even of being a “friend” on the digital social networks with representatives of the diaspora living in different parts of the world, the interaction with a tourist is a moment in the construction of the imagination of the World for the young people of Lalibela. However, most of the people in Lalibela, whether they are young or not, rarely meet, or even never meet any tourists. In that case, certain individuals, who are particularly capable of entering into contact with tourists extensively and repeatedly, will play the role of “intermediaries” and construct an image of the Other and of elsewhere which will circulate among the whole local society.

“Intermediaries”, as contacts between Lalibela and the World

16In Lalibela, there are “intermediaries” between the local social space and the World. Whatever spatial scale one is considering, intermediaries are individuals who, within fragmented spaces or between compartmentalised spaces, “construct skills in translating […] which allow them to show one world what is happening in another” (Roulleau-Berger, 2002, p. 235). In Lalibela, the “intermediary” disseminates his knowledge of elsewhere and of the World, knowledge he has acquired from tourists, but also from migrants (who themselves play the role of intermediary) or through the media. The concern with meeting tourists is, once again, not unanimously shared by local society. On the contrary, if the interaction between tourists and inhabitants “is equally divided up among tourists”, “it is concentrated on only a few individuals among the local population” (Hoivik, Heiberg, 1980). Indeed, the “intermediaries” are generally young men who speak English, and who are present in the areas visited by tourists. Thus, as specified by Hoivik and Heiberg (1980), the concentration of encounters leads to the forming of a local group specialised in this kind of contact, who ensures the junction between the host society and the tourists, thus drawing a benefit from this contact role.

  • 4 Amharic is both the main language in Ethiopia and the language spoken by the inhabitants of Lalibel (...)
  • 5 Ethiopia has been a federal Republic since 1995. It is divided into regional States. Lalibela belon (...)

17In this regard, the guide and the awwakabi can both be considered as intermediaries. “Awwakabi” is an Amharic term4 which designates a heckler, someone who harasses others. That is the name given to those in Lalibela who follow the tourists in the street and who implement different strategies to obtain a “sponsor”. These young people, who initiate relationships with the tourists, are easy to identify in the public spaces of Lalibela. If they still have not been successful, they are on the lookout for the tourists when the latter leave their hotels, and follow them in the street. On the other hand, if they have succeeded in their undertaking, they may own a minibus to provide transportation to the tourists, or be the owner of a hotel, or again take the plane to Adis Abeba. One may then encounter them in the capital, holding their iPhone. There are many common points between the awwakabi and the guide, namely on the potential outcome of their interactions with tourists. Yet, the departure point of the relationship is different. Indeed, the guided visits are the opportunity for an extensive encounter with the foreigner, an encounter based on a commercial exchange, which is of a different nature from the one created by young people who call out to or follow the tourists in the street. The local guides of Lalibela constitute a group of about a hundred people : their number evolves depending on those who quit the activity, temporarily or definitively, and on those who are entering the profession according to the licences granted by the regional Amhara State5. The local guides thus have a licence, obtained after having succeeded in an exam organised by the Regional Office for Culture and Tourism. Only the people who come from Lalibela (which is to say the city and its immediate vicinity) can take part in it. The qualifications required of the candidates are becoming higher and higher : today, mastering a foreign language in addition to English or obtaining a higher degree in tourism is a requirement. When they work, the guides wear clothes and a badge that identifies them.

Document n°2 : Lalibela, 2011

Document n°2 : Lalibela, 2011

© Marie Bridonneau.

18In these photographs, in the red circles, one can see the work of the guides with the tourists, during Christmas. While the churches are filled with pilgrims, the guides are leading their clients through the labyrinth of trenches which connect the churches to each other. They are thus playing the role of intermediary between the fascinated visitors and the faithful. More precisely, they tell the visitors about the stories of the churches and of Lalibela, by delivering a speech, thus offering them a certain representation of the place. The guides generally propose an image of Lalibela and of its churches which “resembles a stereotype because it implies stable and collectively shared references” (Rémy, 2000, p. 39). While telling the holy story of the digging of the churches, as it is in fact related in tourist guides, they generally avoid talking about the destruction of the Mikael gebbi neighbourhood and, after visiting the churches, let their clients take photographs of the salvaged and restored houses when they cross this space, which has been reconstructed since 2010.

19The incomes of the guides vary a lot and depend in large part on their network of professional relations. Beyond a bottom rate posted at the entrance of the churches and which regularly increases (the price of 150 birr set in July 2009 had doubled in 2012), a guide will be much better paid if he is the official guide of a hotel or of a travel agency. Guides also sometimes substantially increase their income thanks to a good tip. The profession of guide is perceived today as a very profitable activity, as confirmed by this young guide of Lalibela, who is about thirty years old :

“I was a teacher. I earned 800 birr a month. Today, by working three days a week, I can earn 1000 birr in one week. Thanks to the tourists. I really have a better life today. I am the official guide of a hotel. I meet the clients of the hotel at the airport and try to convince those who don’t have a reservation to stay in this hotel. But it is true that the money you earn depends largely on your contacts […]. The better known you are, the more clients you have. I negotiate prices between 15 and 25/30 dollars, depending on the tourists, the groups. In addition, the tourists sometimes leave tips. I am much better off being a guide than when I was a teacher.”

20Some guides stay in touch with former clients who sometimes send them money or various goods (clothes, shoes, mobile phones, computers, etc). More or less long-lasting romantic relationships also sometimes develop. In any case, the guide is one of the very rare people in Lalibela whom the tourist will have a chance to speak with. As an “intermediary”, the guides introduce Lalibela to foreign visitors. Conversely, if one can consider them as intermediaries of the World, it is also because they show the other inhabitants of Lalibela “the World” they rub shoulders with in the company of tourists. Throughout their working day and the discussions they might have among themselves, the guides construct a whole series of images and representations about the visitors. These images combine with those of the media and with the stories of the migrants to construct the image of the farendj that circulates in Lalibela. Furthermore, some guides become local economic actors, especially when they manage to establish “sponsorship relationships”.

Sponsorship relationships: an original way of socially disseminating the benefits of tourism?

21Tourism is rarely considered as a driving force of a fair local development in the South. On the contrary, it appears that the social dissemination of the benefits of tourism is extremely selective and that individual successes are frail (Cazes, 1992). The “service sector development” which is nurtured by the tourist function in the South is “as much a reason for concern as a criteria of modernity” (Cazes, 1992, p. 91). Concurrently, the aim of development projects for tourism promoted by international organisations and funding agencies in the Southern regions is to favour a sustainable economic growth which could contribute to to the enrichment of individuals in order to “reduce poverty”. Within the context of a project such as the Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Development Project financed by the World Bank, communities living in tourist areas are considered as recipients of international aid which should help them, in the end, to become richer. In this dual context, the expression “sponsorship relationship” characterizes relations constructed between a tourist passing through and an inhabitant of Lalibela, whom the former has decided to help out. This help can take different forms : regular transfers of money via Western Union, the funding of school fees, specific donations for the construction of a house, a hotel, the purchase of a car, etc.

22The sponsorship relationship can also be associated with a couple’s relationship. “Sponsorship relationships” mean that certain inhabitants are actors of their own enrichment, outside of the structures and of the projects of international public development aid. Like the “intermediaries” discussed above, the “sponsored persons” are mostly young men. Indeed, they are generally guides who, as we have seen, have a very privileged access to tourists but also young people who hang out in the street, in the public spaces close to the hotels. One speaks of a “sponsorship relationship” when the relation results in a lasting transformation in the life of the “sponsored person”.

23There are various scenarios. Let us evoke the case of a young man in his twenties, from a village situated about forty kilometres north of Lalibela. When, as a child, he was injured, a tourist found him on the side of the road and drove him to Lalibela for treatment. He started to work as a shoe-shiner in the main neighbourhood for hotels in Lalibela. As he still had a limp, he attracted the compassion of tourists. One day, one of them decided to sponsor him. The tourist bought him a minibus so that he could set up a small business transporting tourists. The tourist then gave him enough money to build a house in Lalibela. The house was finished in 2011 and has four rooms, a fully-equipped bathroom, a big television, sofas and armchairs that the young man had brought from Adis Abeba. On the other hand, he does not live in the house and does not really know what to do with it. His sponsor and his friends advise him to rent it. He does not see himself as an active entrepreneur : he spends most of his time with his friends, and lives with the members of his family living in Lalibela. On his minibus and on the wall of his house, he has written in English “Thanks Lalibela”, in homage to Saint-Lalibela to whom he attributes his success.

24The owners of Lalibela’s most popular hotel have also been sponsored. These two young men in their thirties come from Lalibela. Before they encountered a rich businessman visiting Lalibela around 2005, one of them was a local guide and the other was a driver, transporting tourists in the city, between the airport, the churches and the hotel. As in a fairytale, they were “offered” a hotel by the rich man and, within a few years, became very rich men themselves. Neither one of them was trained to manage such a business. A few months after the official opening of the hotel, one of the two owners left for Adis Abeba and started to study trade there in a private institution. The other stayed in Lalibela to build up the business. The latter is now taking advantage of his new standard of living to travel around the world. The other prefers to stay in Adis Abeba and returns regularly to Lalibela. He has become used to always inviting his friends and to lending them money when they request it. The story of these two young men today feeds the fantasies of many young people in Lalibela, who dream of the encounter which, one day, will transform their lives.

25Beyond a few dozen emblematic cases, it is difficult to quantify the number of “sponsored” people since the stories vary so much and the situations are always evolving. The manager of the agency for the Commercial Bank of Lalibela declared in 2010 that they are the main beneficiaries of the money transfers to Lalibela via Western Union. Another indicator of the importance of this phenomenon could be the nickname given by certain inhabitants to the row of hotels being built, with a view on the mountain : the “email hotels”. Some of these hotels may thus have been built with the money from “sponsorship relationships”. The expression “email hotels” refers to the practices of the awwakabi who write to the visitors whose email addresses they have obtained to ask them for “help”. When one asks those involved in the tourist industry for their opinion on the changes linked to the tourist activity in Lalibela, very often they evoke this phenomenon of “sponsorship relationships”. One of them is a young entrepreneur who, contrary to most of the private actors of tourism in Lalibela, does not come from the small town. Having been raised in a wealthy family with investments in the business world, he decided to come to Lalibela to establish himself in order to take advantage of the tourist development. This is his explanation of the phenomenon :

“The money given by the tourists does not transit through organizations, associations, or schools, but directly through the children. Look at the Internet cafe : the children send emails and lie. They write ‘my father is dead, my mother is sick’ and after the tourists send money. Look at the hotels of Mountain View, of Tukul Village…all of them have been constructed with the tourists’ money. This is good, this is development, but as a result, it means that everyone expects to receive money from the tourists.”

26The sponsorship relations contribute to establishing local representations of the relationships between the inhabitants and the tourists in a rich/poor dichotomy. Practices of begging and of charity are very much a part of the Christian society of Ethiopia. They contribute to structuring the hierarchical relationships between the rich and the poor, the rich being obligated to give to the poor. With the development of tourism, this dimension in social relationships appears to be shifting and structuring the relationship between the inhabitant of Lalibela – the poor person – and the foreign tourist – the rich person. Sponsorship relationships are both a cause and a consequence of these representations which they nurture. Personal enrichment becomes the main expectation of many young people in Lalibela. When a local government officer from the Office of Culture and Tourism for Lalibela Town Administration, was speaking in schools to raise awareness amongst young people about the harmful effects of being a “tourist follower”, a high school student answered that neither schools nor the government would help them to one day become the owner of a hotel or to have their own car.

27Sponsorships do indeed contribute to the lasting enrichment of certain individuals. Those who become entrepreneurs employ other inhabitants, mainly in the hotels and restaurants. In so doing, they are perceived and recognized as contributing to local economic development. Furthermore, most of the sponsored people help their family and their friends. However, families and friends rarely become rich through them. In most cases, the latter receive a regular private income, which is more or less important, from the “sponsored person” who will prefer to spend his wealth by investing in new business ventures or sometimes in leisure or charity activities. Thus, individuals who have benefited from an major sponsor and then who have invested in the tourist sector participate in forming a small new local social and economic elite.

28Indeed, with the development of tourism, a group of entrepreneurs has recently formed in Lalibela. They dominate the local economic life and are slowly gaining ground in local political affairs through alliances and negotiations with the hierarchy of the political Party in power and the local government. Some sponsored people, who were raised in the countryside or in the streets of Lalibela, have today accessed this status. As one of them explained, in November 2010 :

  • 6 We have kept the expression “hassler”, a neologism used by the inhabitants of Lalibela for those wh (...)
  • 7 By using the expression “so-called guide”, the young man meant that he did not have an official lic (...)

“I started out in the tourist industry by chance. […] At the beginning of the 1990s, I came back [to Lalibela] to visit my mother who was working in the Seven Olives hotel. […] I became a ‘hassler6 ’. I started following tourists. I was a ‘so-called guide7’. The important thing was to follow tourists and to obtain something from them (a tee-shirt…). But when I was 15 years-old and saw the hardships my mother was experiencing, I decided to become a guide to change my life. In three years, I learned English. […] I worked two times a week. I continued to study and to work at the same time, until I had finished high school […]. I had money. My results were good enough to allow me to attend the prep school for college […]. A year before I graduated, in 2006, I again met in Adis Abeba an American tourist I had encountered Lalibela and with whom I had become friends. My goal then was […] to go to a foreign University (in South Africa, India) but this friend told me it would be better to start a business in Lalibela. Two American friends then lent me money to buy a car […]. My new ambition was to buy a plot of land [to build a hotel]. I am also planning to open a small tourist agency […]. I borrow money from friends, American friends.”

  • 8 These taxes have amounted to 50 US dollars per individual since January 2013.

29When he refers to “loans”, this entrepreneur is in fact alluding to gifts through sponsorship. The career of this young man who is in his thirties today is quite exemplary in terms of upward social mobility and of the progressive construction of a relationship to the Other and to an elsewhere compared to Lalibela. Alongside those who are sponsored, other local tourism actors follow a more progressive path, through a slower and more modest enrichment. Still others are businessmen from other areas. Finally, the local church administration, the sole recipient of the taxes paid by the tourists to enter the churches8, draws on the private income it possesses to establish itself as entrepreneur, and is today the owner of three hotels. Thus, like the Church of Lalibela, the sponsored people who have experienced a swift ascent symbolize the fortune which can be generated by the tourist activity, in a context of great poverty in the north of Ethiopia. Their example reveals that local development can emerge from an encounter, whether a commercial one or not, between inhabitants and tourists, between a World Heritage site and its visitors.


30The UNESCO “World Heritage” label projects a local space into the World and anchors it there (Ouallet, 2009). The case of Lalibela highlights the way in which its individual inhabitants can be actors of this anchoring in the World. Some of them, the “intermediaries”, are even able to take advantage of the flows of international tourism to grow rich and, perhaps, contribute to the local economic development of a World Heritage site. They are driving forces especially in the transformation of cultural practices and representations, of their hybridisation, between the local and the global. It is in such a way that original and hybrid localities are able to emerge during the process of reception, distortion and appropriation of globalized references and models by local societies. By contributing to (re)defining the relationship of the inhabitants of Lalibela to the world, tourism thus participates in producing an original social space in which foreigners are considered as the promise “of a better life”, or more widely as a window on a set of imagined lives, which could be better and happen elsewhere.

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1 Birr is the Ethiopian currency. In June 2013, one euro was the equivalent of about 25 birr.

2 Farendj is the expression used in Ethiopia for foreigners, for “whites”.

3 Woldiya is a medium-sized town which is about a five-hour drive from Lalibela.

4 Amharic is both the main language in Ethiopia and the language spoken by the inhabitants of Lalibela.

5 Ethiopia has been a federal Republic since 1995. It is divided into regional States. Lalibela belongs to the Amhara regional State.

6 We have kept the expression “hassler”, a neologism used by the inhabitants of Lalibela for those who “hassle”, or annoy. This is the expression used to translate the term “awwakabi ” into English. This interview was conducted in English.

7 By using the expression “so-called guide”, the young man meant that he did not have an official licence to work as a guide

8 These taxes have amounted to 50 US dollars per individual since January 2013.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Document n°1 : Lalibela, haut : 2010, bas : 2011
Crédits © Marie Bridonneau.
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Titre Document n°2 : Lalibela, 2011
Crédits © Marie Bridonneau.
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Marie Bridonneau, « Gaining a foothold in the world “for a better life”. Encounters between inhabitants and tourists in Lalibela (Ethiopia), a small World Heritage town », Via [En ligne], 4-5 | 2014, mis en ligne le 26 octobre 2014, consulté le 02 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie Bridonneau

PhD in geography

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