After my adventurous stay in Harar, I spent Easter, or Fasika, with an Ethiopian Orthodox family in Addis, hosted by Liya Berhane, a girl I met through Couchsurfing. I met up with her near her house in the affluent Bole Tele neighborhood Saturday morning, and we dove into conversation about her father and aunt, with whom she lived; her university studies in Toulouse; and her imminent plans to move to Maryland to rejoin her mother and brother.
The family’s white-gated house was charming, with a lovely front garden shaded by an enormous spreading acacia tree. The neighborhood was quiet and leafy, and palpably breathed wealth, from the manicured lawns and high walls to the scattering of embassies and consular residences.
I was greeted by two German girls, Johanna and Lisi. Volunteers from Kenya, they were returning to Germany to continue their university studies and similarly Couchsurfing along the way. The last guest was Bez, a family friend of Liya’s from London, back home in Ethiopia for the Easter holidays.
We spent the day wandering Addis, chatting energetically over fresh-squeezed juices in a sunken beergarden. I found the other girls, international and articulate, a pleasure to spend time with.
Liya’s Aunt Babaji, who had accompanied us through the morning, left around 3:00 to take her place at church. Although the mass wouldn’t start until evening, it would be impossible to secure a space inside the cathedral past the early afternoon. Resigned to spending the night outside the walls of the church, we opted to wait until after nightfall to walk over, and spent the afternoon and early evening napping and drinking coffee and tea to prepare ourselves for a night-long vigil.
Around 9:30 we finally roused ourselves and dressed. Liya lent out white headscarves and traditional shamas, gauzy tunics, as needed. Acutely aware of the cold—night on the Abyssinian highland felt frigid to a body used to Cameroonian equatorial heat—we bundled into thick white gabi, wool blankets that doubled as outer robes. We joined a stream of similarly-muffled faithful heading to the enormous Holy Medhedaleim Church, where candles in abundance flickered valiantly against the night. Worshippers stood, knelt, and slept in bundled heaps against the thick stone outer walls of the cathedral.
Lisi and I deposited our gabis outside with the other girls, left our shoes in a pile of footwear outside the doors, and slipped barefoot into the women’s side of the packed church. We picked our way cautiously through the mostly grounded crowd, threading up a staircase until we found perches just below the balcony. From there we had a clear view of the priests in the nave of the cathedral, arranged in a tight circle of beards and robes. They chanted lugubriously, accompanying themselves with clanking iron clappers. To a slow rhythm set by a deep drum, they stepped into and out of the circle, throwing their arms back and forth, that motion setting off the metal bells in a sort of funereal Hokey Pokey.
As I listened to this mournful dirge, I let my eyes wander across the women’s side of the church, spread out below me. Individuals had been swallowed into anonymity, as everyone was dressed uniformly in a thin white shamas and matching headscarf. Only about a quarter of the observant were sitting up, awake; the rest (presumably reaching hour seven or eight of this marathon service) were sprawled in the pews or aisles, asleep, still tightly swaddled in layers of white cotton. I had the sudden, inescapable impression—perhaps influenced by the nature of the holiday, the late hour, and too much incense smoke—that I was gazing over a chamber of corpses in funeral shrouds, awaiting resurrection.
After another hour and a half or so, the heat and the overcrowding on the staircase escalated from irritating to unbearable. Lisi and I nodded to each other, rose, and negotiated our way to the door. A blast of cold midnight air greeted us; we hurriedly found our shoes and made our way back to Liya and Johanna, gratefully accepting the proffered gabis.
We spent the next three hours cycling through an interminable sequence of prayer: standing, rocking, kneeling, and genuflecting, our foreheads to the ground. Once Johanna stayed in that position for quite some time; I thought she was feeling particularly worshipful, but as she straightened her neck with a wince, I realized she had fallen asleep, prostrate. Liya, kneeling behind me and Lisi, reached forward to tap us when it was time to stand, whispering descriptions of the prayers being sung and the sacraments being offered—several baptisms and a wedding among them—in a rapid hiss. When parts of the service were in Amharic, she translated directly. The scripture, however, was in Ge’ez, the ancient and now dead language of the Ethiopian Coptic Church, one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world. During these portions she shrugged helplessly.
|Tired, but powering through the service.|
Finally the service was over. We made our way through the celebratory crowd to the front of the church to find Mr. Berhane and Aunt Babaji, brimming with a sort of elation. Once home, we divested ourselves of our many layers of white cotton, talking and laughing as animatedly as though it were evening and not 4:00 in the morning.
Presently Aunt Babaji brought out a huge platter of sour, fermented injera covered in red lentils and soft white cheese. During the fast of Lent, Orthodox Ethiopians eschew all meat and dairy, making Easter day a long-awaited, anti-vegan embrace of all things animal.
The eating continued for much of the day, interrupted by what in fairness should be called a nap rather than a night’s sleep. Breakfast was thick, delicious, focaccia-like bread, called dabo, made from sourdough and traditionally cooked for Easter; spicy stewed goat; and tella, acidic homemade beer. The two German girls left for the airport, and Bez, Liya and I whiled away the morning roasting, grinding, and brewing our own coffee.
|Green coffee beans|
|I learn to roast|
|Bez grinds the coffee with a mortar and pestle like a pro|
|Our finished product: the most satisfying cup of joe I've ever drunk|
We lazed around for much of the afternoon, reading and going for a long walk to Khaldis, Ethiopia’s Starbucks-inspired fancy coffee chain. As though we needed any more dairy, we indulged in ice cream and large, goopy caramel lattes, an unexpected taste of corporate America. I continued to be impressed by the level of development I was witnessing, at least in the Bole neighborhood: we passed a mall, a movie theatre, an upscale cupcake bakery, and not one but two Pinkberry-style frozen yogurt joints.
The eating continued when we got back with a large Easter dinner. Family from Liya’s father’s side came pouring in as we feasted on shredded chicken dripping with butter and studded with whole hard-boiled eggs, more of the goat cooked with slices of injera and green pepper, soft cheese, more bread, more injera. We waded in meat and dairy, and washed it all down with another round of the curiously sour beer and tej, a potent local liquor. Aunt Babaji delighted in feeding everyone gursha, “little bites” wrapped in injera and popped directly into another person’s mouth. I laughed self-consciously as I opened my mouth, feeling like a chick, but I could feel the love behind the gesture, and was thrilled to be included in the family in such a complete way.
I chatted for a while with Mr. Berhane, a lawyer and an intelligent and well-read man. We talked Ethiopian and U.S. politics; as he had lived through the Derg, the Communist regime that ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist from 1974 to 1987, his lucid commentary on that period provided a nice counterpart to what I had already read and heard. My first day in Addis Ababa I had stopped by the Red Terror Museum, established by victims of the regime to record the crimes carried out under the Derg. There I had entered into a long conversation with Frey, a docent who was imprisoned for eight years with no trial and no idea upon what charges he was being detained. “They were targeting the young and the educated. I had not even finished high school, so I was not educated,” Frey told me drily, “but I was young. That was enough to put me under suspicion as an enemy of the revolution.” He spoke of the constant horror he felt at the possibility that he might now run into his jailors and torturers on the street; all had received amnesty under the Western-supported Tigray government that took over after the Derg collapsed. I was interested to hear that Mr. Berhane’s analysis of the current and in some ways equally repressive tribal government echoed that of Frey and of Jamal, a young engineer and my bus seat partner on the way from Harar: the choices for an educated person are to lay low, to join the regime, or to flee the country. Opposition is not an option. The current government under Hailemariam Desalegn may not carry out open assassinations of its citizens the way the Derg did, but it’s hardly a democratic alternative; the media is controlled, ethnic conflicts have been not only tolerated but encouraged, and people are still thrown into prison without trials or a writ of habeas corpus. All three stressed the support this government continues to receive from the U.S., where it is viewed as an ally against Islamic extremism, a threat posed in the region by Al- Shabaab. As Jamal bitterly told me, taking the sting out of his words with a sad smile, “You fight your War on Terror at the expense of the Ethiopian people.”
Liya’s father and uncle cleaned their plates, then brought out the choicest parts of the goat. These had been kept aside, raw, to be sliced, dipped in spice, and eaten as a final course. On their insistence, I joined them; this was my second time in as many months eating raw goat. I was coming to find it surprisingly appetizing, despite—or perhaps because of—its evocatively muscular mouthfeel.
I tumbled into bed that night full, sleepy, and transcendently happy. I had arrived in Ethiopia a solo traveller with a few contacts and no solid plans, and had found by the end of the week an adopted family and several new friends. I had struck up conversations with strangers, been invited into the house and life of a Muslim gang lord, gone to a wedding, been jumped on-- but not savaged-- by wild hyenas, and spent the Easter holidays with one of the kindest and most effusive families I’ve had the fortune to be welcomed by. It was the least-coherently planned vacation I’ve taken, and subsequently the best. I can’t wait to make it back to Ethiopia for a longer stay.