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The Caveman of Ethiopia, digging out a dream

SHASHEMENE, Ethiopia - "Then a man as big as four men pulled a tree from the ground. Thus began the construction of my cave."

Mohammed Waiso, “the caveman,” at the mouth of one of the Caves of Deneba. Waiso has used day laborers, but the mere scale of the complex boggles the mind. (Auke Hulst)
Mohammed Waiso, “the caveman,” at the mouth of one of the Caves of Deneba. Waiso has used day laborers, but the mere scale of the complex boggles the mind. (Auke Hulst)Read more

SHASHEMENE, Ethiopia - "Then a man as big as four men pulled a tree from the ground. Thus began the construction of my cave."

Somewhere on a busy road, south of this bustling city, lives Mohammed Waiso. The part-time farmer shares a hovel with some of his six wives, a handful of children, and free-roaming livestock. It's a house as common as muck - there's the thick smoke of burned coffee beans and the sour odor of injera pancakes.

The garden, though, tells a different story. There, Waiso has been digging away for 30 years at an intricate system of man-made caves.

"All because of a dream from Allah," he says.

I heard the name Waiso - "the caveman" - for the first time in nearby Awassa. A wealthy entrepreneur from the capital, Addis Ababa, apparently offered Waiso 750,000 birr, more than $55,000, for his caves. The offer was respectfully declined.

My Ethiopian friends could hardly contain their laughter. What kind of nut-job would say no to such a fortune? I wasn't so sure. Maybe Waiso was crazy; maybe he was the exact opposite.

In a country as poor as Ethiopia, you would have to be seriously disturbed not to understand the simple language of money. Did Waiso understand the language better than others? Was there a long-term perspective?

"Only one way to find out," local teacher Zemelak says. We agree to visit Waiso the next day.

The Caves of Deneba, as Waiso's life's work is officially known, aren't hard to find: A hand-painted Pepsi sign is beckoning from afar. Straight away, Waiso emerges from the park behind the house, wearing a soccer jersey and donning a baseball cap. He makes an impatient gesture. Yeah, yeah, all will be explained, but quick, first a tour of the caves. Above us the sky is threatening to burst into rain and thunder.

Our tour guide is Waiso's son, a young boy carrying oil lamps and electric torches. The son's youth is surprising - the bony features of his father are those of an elderly man, even though Waiso claims to be in his early 50s. Most likely, he's mistaken - math is not a known Ethiopian talent. Or his looks could be the result of a strenuous life, in which Waiso chipped away at thousands of tons of rock and buried seven children.

Stooping, we enter the dark caves. The ceiling is brittle. Dust settles in our hair.

Waiso's creation is a succession of underground rooms and corridors. One corridor measures 49 feet, a second one at least 330. Connected to the corridors are larger spaces, niches, and small passageways. There's an office with a stone desk, bedrooms with stone beds, and sitting rooms with stone chairs. Here, friends can hang, drink coffee, and chew qat, a leafy narcotic. It's a place for parties and weddings.

Everything seems thought through in detail - spaces to put TVs or refrigerators, a "flooding room" that keeps the other rooms dry during the rainy season. Even though Waiso has used day laborers during his decades of digging, the mere scale of the complex boggles the mind.

Comparable projects north in Lalibela - where in the Middle Ages a king had churches hewn from solid rock - took the sweat and blood of a workforce of 40,000.

Later, sitting in his hovel near Route 6, Waiso leans back to answer questions in Amharic, the country's official language. An Ethiopian friend translates for me.

It all began with a number of dreams, he says, one every 15 days, for a year or so. This was the late 1970s - or early '70s if you were using the Ethiopian calender.

"Allah ordered me to build three caves," Waiso says. "One a mere 15 meters long, two measuring a hundred meters. I've finished the first two. Less than a hundred meters to go."

The dreams were a recurring cause for conflict within the community.

In one dream, he saw a Christian Orthodox church. How could this be, since Waiso was a devout Muslim? The community ostracized him, convinced he was possessed by evil.

Other dreams were less controversial. "They would tell of Allah's wish that people of every denomination could visit the caves," Waiso says.

Financially, a savvy position to take.

The Caves of Deneba have to be seen as a morality tale in the shape of a building. The shorter corridor represents the daily life of people: eating, working, family. The first of the longer ones represents an entire lifetime and all the forces that shape it: war, politics, morality, man's relationship with Allah, education. The third, unfinished corridor, shall remain empty. It's the seat of Allah.

"Between two of the corridors, there's a small passageway. I have built it of my own accord, in defiance of Allah's plans," Waiso says. "It shows the inherent aptitude of man for being naughty - for deviating from Allah's path. For a moment, we try to slip from view - for sex, liquor, or other kinds of evil. But Allah sees everything."

In the park, one can ponder life, Waiso says. He has erected wooden elevations for prayer and meditation, "unbound by Earth, with a clear view of the surroundings," Waiso explains. Thus enlightened, one can, only if one so wishes, of course, make a donation to Waiso. "Some people give me 500 birr [about $37]; others, 300 [$22]," Waiso says, smiling. "And those who are really poor, only 20 [$1.50]."

So what is it - a religious obsession or a clever money machine?

The location of the cave was inspired by a dream of a fat man unearthing a tree. Waiso did likewise and started using the crater as a watering hole for his livestock. People from across the plain were drawn by the water, and Waiso became a community leader. Then he decided to follow his dream, and started digging.

"When I was four meters [13 feet] deep, the villagers started cursing me. 'The sky is the realm of the divine,' they said, 'the Earth the realm of evil.' And I thought: Go to hell, all of you! I'll just make it into a tourist attraction!"

Waiso's son smiles sheepishly while his father tells his stories. He has heard them all before and has his own, unspoken opinions. But Waiso probably has some unspoken opinions of his own.

He claims to have spent more than $6,600 on his cave, only 10 percent covered by donations. The rest came from working the land.

"I've suffered and sacrificed a lot," he says. "That's the will of Allah."

At the same time, he tells us his caves get at least 10 visitors a day. Even if every one of them donated only one birr (7 cents) - and most give more than 20 times that amount - the cave would have garnered an income of more than 100,000 birr, or about $7,400. It didn't make Waiso a rich man, but it's fair to say he's more of an entrepreneur than a religious zealot - someone who understands our craving for a good story, and is aware of the possibility of turning it into cash.

And so Waiso has bigger plans. His final cave has to be completed and the 10 beds increased to 100. He has filed for permission to build an even larger cave - one to put an entire freeway in.

Drive-through tourism - something unique for Ethiopia.

"And that's no joke," he says.

"Is this why you didn't take the offer of 750,000 birr?" I ask.

Waiso nods. "I made a counterproposal - 5 million birr for licensing the cave, keeping a controlling percentage of stock myself."

It is doubtful Waiso will live long enough to see the completion of his life's work. In Ethiopia death comes early in the evening.

What will become of the caves?

Waiso says earnestly: "A Western man traveled around the world, seeking a cure for his impending death. In Ethiopia, he met a sage. 'A cure is at hand,' the sage said. 'But how?' the Westerner asked. And the sage answered: 'The cure for death is children.' "

Waiso puts a hand on the head of his sneaker-wearing son. The boy is not smiling anymore. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few years, 750,000 birr will turn out to be quite sufficient to obtain the Caves of Deneba.

Caves of Deneba

Ethiopian Airlines, Lufthansa, United and US Airways fly to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from Philadelphia with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $2,173.

The best way to get to the Caves of Deneba is by taking a bus south from Addis Ababa to Shashemene or Awassa, and then take a mini-cab from the local bus station. The mini-cab driver will drop you off in front of the caves, which are clearly marked.EndText