A Trip Through Lalibela (And My Identity)

by Tiya Birru

The rock was orange and it reflected the hot sun, so hot that our group began to bring out fans or use their shawls to cool themselves. Looking up at the building,  I didn’t care that it was hot or that I couldn’t understand what the guide was talking about. I felt a powerful spirit flow through me and one look at others’ faces told me that they felt it too. That was Lalibela church. 

I was visiting Ethiopia, my birthplace, for the third time to see my family and Lalibela, a church created in the 12th century by King Lalibela. The church is famous for the fact that it is made of one huge rock that some people believed to have like a spirit in it. Visiting culturally and historically significant places like Lalibela was particularly special for me, because of the lack of African history taught in schools in the United States, where I live. Except for the history of slavery, of course, Americans don’t know much about Ethiopia, or any other African country.

I moved to the U.S. when I was only 2 years old so I practically grew up here. But there’s always that pull between staying true to my East African culture and embracing my new identity as an “American teenager.” I love the Ethiopian culture I came from, and enjoy learning more about it. For example, the fact that Ethiopia is the only African country to never be colonized. Learning about these things has made me feel full of pride for my home country’s history and culture.

I know that I have to figure out that other part of me, the U.S. teen part of me. But with those of us struggling with cultural identity, it’s important to always keep your roots with you because that’s part of who you are.