The Amhara region has multiple districts known as ‘woredas’ (also spelled ‘wereda’) and each district is subdivided into wards called ‘kebeles’ - the smallest unit of local government. There are over 1000 sacred forests in the Amhara region and to work in them, the team needed written permission from the federal government and each level of government beneath it for all 44 forests they wanted to access. One morning, when we were in the town of Mekane Eyesus (also spelled Mekane Yesus), I went with the team’s lead social scientist, Dr. Peter Klepeis, and a student, Birara Endalew, to get these permission papers.
We’d spent an hour at the district’s woreda office the previous day to receive permission for four forests and our task now was to get the kebele’s permission for the same ones. From the hotel, we walked along unpaved roads with muddy ruts, filled ankle-deep with water from last night’s rain. There were piles of rocks everywhere and I wondered how anyone with mobility issues could possibly get around.
We entered an unmarked courtyard where a row of doors opened into various government offices. Birara communicated what we needed to an official sitting behind the desk of the first office we checked and it seemed to be the right person. Unfortunately, the names of the church forests vary depending on the map you look at and the names used locally are different still. Nothing matched the names the woreda gave us and as far as the map in the office was concerned, the forests we were looking for didn’t exist.
Eventually, the official made an executive decision as to which forests to give us permission to and we sat for 40 minutes while he drafted up letters to enter each one. We left with all the papers but only half certain that they were for the right forests.
The final stage was getting the priest’s permission in the forest itself. We’d try to get the each forest as early in the day as possible to begin the process and ask the forest guard if the head priest was around. Since it was planting season, the priests were often tending to their fields nearby and the guard would have to call him on his cell phone and tell us that the priest would be there soon and we could wait. So we’d wait for one hour, two hours, however long it took. Once the priest showed up, Peter and a local student who would also act as interpreter would explain why we were there and they would be invited to sit and eat injera bread and served a warm beer that the priests brewed. The rest of us waited outside the forest with an ever growing number of kids who had come to see us. It could be 15 minutes or 45, but every time we were graciously and generously allowed into their sacred forests.
It’s no surprise that they’d need permission to work there. The bewildering part was that the convoluted process worked. We always ended up with permission for the right forests and could walk into a government office, foreigners without appointment, state that we wanted to do research in their sacred forests, and somehow walk out with permission to do so. Imagine walking into a government office in Yosemite or Banff National Park and asking for the same thing - I don’t think you’d have much luck.