Monday, January 28, 2008

We have returned from Axum to Mekelle, and from murderously slow and expensive internet to cheap and plentiful (yet still agonizingly slow) internet access.

Axum was very interesting- it is the holy city of Ethiopia, so much so that when a group of Muslims requested to build a mosque there, they were told the day there would be a mosque in Axum was the day they would allow a church to be built in Mecca.

There are many fascinating historical sites (an archeologist's daydream!) perhaps most notably the towering obelisks which pepper the landscape. There was one in particular that I liked, the Ezana stone, which amounts to an Ethiopian version of the Rosetta Stone- a tablet inscribed with Greek, Ge'ez, and Sabaeab. Inscribed on a stone is a prayer to God giving thanks- and also a warning that any one who attempts to remove the stone will die instantly! Needless to say, the stone has stayed quite put :)

My meetings with Fisseha, the director of tourism there, were not as fruitful as I had hoped as he was very busy and was also dealing with a recent death of the mother of a friend of his. I was actually walking with him when a trumpet sounded, and I got a little bit excited hearing a new instrument, until he informed me that the trumpet signified that someone had just died- he walked over to a person standing nearby and asked who it was, and it was someone he knew, and so our interview was cut short. Now that sound is quite haunting.

However, before all of this he did take me early one morning for a saint's day and I managed a short interview. The next day was a candle ceremony, which happens every 7 days in Axum to give thanks and to ask for a good harvest. The streets are packed at four thirty in the morning, lit only by the candles held by the worshippers. The priests come out from the church of the four animals (human, sheep, lamb, and bird) burning incense and ringing bells, and people gather at one of the 5 sycamore trees there (each designated with a specific purpose for different types of meetings). Prayers are said, and then the entire body of people began to sing and then proceed to walk around in a circle, singing the entire time. This lasts until just after sunrise, and it was quite mesmerizing walking through the city, surrounded by singing people (shrouded in white as always). In my recording there is also the sound of the cane that the woman next to me was using, which I think is quite beautiful, that even someone with a great difficulty walking rises early to sing and give praise.

Axum is also rumored to be home of the biblical Arc of the Covenant, which remains jealously guarded and hidden inside the St. Mary of Zion Church. Unfortunately, women aren't allowed in the chappel, and no one is allowed to actually see the Arc, except during the St. Mary of Zion Festival (which were are incredibly sadly missing by about 2 weeks) when the monk comes out and shows it to a sea of white robed pilgrims who have come for St. Mary's day.

On the downside, the city of Axum was quite a bit more 'touristy' and things were quite expensive (comparatively) and I am tired of being called faranje (foreigner) and asked for money. And the food I'm sad to say is pretty awful, especially for someone who doesn't much care for meat.

The medical students benifited from meeting a Canadian doctor from the organization Doctors of the World, and it was very interesting hearing about his initial naivity about coming to this part of the world and being able to change things, and diffifult to hear that since his arrival (he is the only surgeon in Axum, a pretty major city and a major hospital that serves hundreds of thousands of people) not much has changed or improved. As he put it, 'Ethiopians have a severe tendency towards inertia'. I don't quite understand why this is so, but it does seem to be true, not only with the hospitals, but also with the schools. It is difficult to improve things without basic items of need (like basic chemistry in the hospitals, or books in the schools- so that in the Axum hospital a doctor can't order the most basic of bloodtests and children in the schools can't read their lessons or even write notes for lack of pens).

It seems that after the first couple of weeks, when everything is so new and so different, and so amazing, and the people so heartwarming and kind, the magnitude of so many of the problems here were somehow not fully realized by myself, but as I stay here longer they become more apparent and real. There are children here Lilly's age carrying infants Abby's age on their backs. I don't really know what quite I'm trying to say, just mostly that the poverty is so deep here I don't know where one would begin to fix it- espcecially after talking with the Canadian doctor, who lived here for two years and felt nothing got any better despite his best efforts.

On a brighter note, I'm looking forward to tracking down Tamrat and Kibron and completing some more interviews, and to one last Sunda Service at the Tekla Haimonut church (where Tamrat is a deacon).

After that, it's off to Addis Ababa, where the national archives as well as a private library are located (and hopefully a few English books on Orthodox Church music if I'm lucky, but if not I'm sure I'll be able to find some interesting things, including zuchini and assorted other vegetables, thus finally replenishing my rapidly increasing vitamin defeciency.
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I hope all is well at home, and I am going to be posting new notes on Facebook right after I finish this email (thanks for all of the new friend invitations!)
Take Care

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Monday, Nov. 19th,
The last few days have been a little difficult. I am frustrated by my inability to communicate effectively, and am also troubled by the fact that almost everyone I have met has asked me for money- and sometimes a rather significant amount.
The stories are sad, but you can’t help everyone and also we have our own debt to consider. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, that it’s ok to ask for help and for money from friends or people you know. And, maybe it’s because of my own cultural baggage that it’s so off-putting to be approached in that way for that reason- pull yourself up by the bootstraps, don’t rely on help, and certainly don’t ask for handouts.
But I also think that people here see us and think “money.” Often times, just walking down the street, people will call “money, money” “give me money” “give me a pen” “give me _____,” often accompanied by “faranji, faranji, faranji!” at first this wasn’t so much of a problem but it has started to become quite off putting. It’s not that we’re dressing richly- t-shirts and casual pants, and often I have been wearing the local head covering/shawl, which seems to earn me slightly better treatment. I just think that, with television and perhaps also the legacy of US AID in Ethiopia (it’s a common sight to see a building with a US AID sign, or bags of food at the market labeled likewise (also it reads ‘not for resale’ but this is in English and not in Tigrinya, and it gets sold. There are often US AID tins that have been made into decorative items, or into coffee containers or other types of kitchen ware for sale in the market.
On the one hand, this aid has certainly helped a lot of people and as a result Ethiopians generally love the United States. They generally have only positive things to say about our country and I believe they deeply appreciate the aid. On the other hand, they also associate westerners with AID, and just assume that we have plenty of money, more than we could possibly use, and so it wouldn’t be a problem to ask.
I can understand this, because they see us and the fact that we bought plane tickets to be here, that we’re staying in a hotel (one that is infested with rats and has sporadic water availability, dingy, stained carpet, is sorely worn with holes, mildew, but is still a far cry better that the living situation of those living around the hotel in dirt floor shacks with metal roofs and no toilets). And, I understand that many of these people are paid one, maybe two dollars a day (or less), and that any point I have in my pocket the equivalent of an entire month’s pay (or more).
The guard from our hotel is a person who is paid about a dollar a day, and he sits in front of our stairwell, taking his work very seriously, and giving us a gap-toothed smile that stretches across the entire plane of his weather worn face.
We are rich. We turn our water faucets on and water streams out, in such a quantity that it never occurs to most Americans to wonder where such a miracle comes from, or what they would do without such incredible luxury.
I think that living in a hotel is also a barrier in some respects to my research. My relationship with Tamrat is a bit strained after not being able to buy him clothes.
Part of the problem is that in Ethiopia there are no ATMs, nor, outside of Addis Ababa, is there a way to get a cash advance on a credit card (and in the capital they charge a steep minimum fee on top of a 6% commission). So when you travel here, you have to budget in advance and simply take your cash with you, in some combination of dollars and traveller’s checks. The point is that even if I did want to buy Tamrat a new wardrobe (and I’m not entirely sure that I would…its hard to think about buying new clothes for someone who already has decent clothing when there are so many that have more holes in their shirts than threads) I don’t have the available cash to do it if I want to eat and pay my hotel bill.
Perhaps if I somehow had a different living situation, perhaps renting a house like the Italian NGO people or the Doctors of the World guy, it wouldn’t be as much as a problem.
Then last night, a medical student who we have gotten to be friends with, and have bought dinner for several times, asked each of the medical students individually if they would sponser him for $100/month for three so he can finish school (right now, he is supporting his family (his grandmother is paralyzed on her right side from a stroke, a common problem here). He is working as a nurse for a few months until he has enough money to go to school for a while, a process that will take him a decade instead of three years.
They don’t see or understand that we are all in so much debt ourselves- med school and grad school isn’t cheap!- one day that will be different, but right now we just can’t do that.
The other thing is just that there are so many sad stories. It’s difficult to know how to best help. I think, like Dr. Carl, we had some na├»ve ideas about coming to Africa “to help.” That somehow, just by wanting to, just by being here, you can make a difference. I still think that being a doctor or a teacher here can do a lot of good
topics for later:
Eating lunch with Kibrom at his home.
Single room- eating, sleeping, talking
His time in an Eritrean prison
November 18th
For the past two nights we have been dealing with rats. Sightings have been numerous and frequent- and I have located the entry way to their layer, which I suspect is widespread and expansive. I have seen black ones, gray ones, and white ones, and they are not small.
To save money we have a little stock pile of bread, peanut butter (not exactly JIF) and other little things to eat. With a live and let live attitude, we attempted an improvised bear-bagging system (in Africa backpacking skills come in handy even in hotel rooms) but inevitably there are crumbs lying around, which makes for an awful lot of scurrying during the night.
Last night I could not sleep because of the constant scratching and scurrying noises emanating from underneath the bed (which is actually only slightly above the ground itself). Apparently our system failed miserably, because upon further inspection, the rats had somehow (I still don’t understand how) retrieved crackers from somewhere, which were then pulled underneath the bed and stockpiled in the very center. There is ring of rat excrement surrounding the prize.
So, we drew a very artistic likeness of a pointy nosed creature with a scaly tale, and took it to the reception. I caved, despite J's assertion that should "live and let live. I packed my things up and asked for a different room. Now we are two doors down, but at least there isn’t a hole providing direct access to our room and crumbs, and I was finally able to get some sleep.
Also, J thinks I might have giardia. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that when an informant offers to take you to a tej beat (honey wine bar described in a previous note) to talk about Ethiopian culture, just say no. The tej we had left over that was poured into a plastic water bottle is expanding daily, which confirms the idea that we had that it is chock full of active yeast culture, and so our natural flora is, er, adjusting.
Sunday morning looking over the balcony of my hotel room (the new one two doors down) I stood in the sun, trying to warm up, and realized that what I thought was a storage shed for the hotel is actually someone’s home.
There was a metal shack with a US AID tarp for a front door, and someone came by and “knocked” then reached behind the tarp to shake someone awake. He rolled over, pushed the tarp aside, and rubbed his eyes. He reached over and put on his shoes and then, wearing the same clothing he had slept in, got up and left for wherever his life is taking him today.
Then I realized that actually, a whole family lives there, and I watched a girl with pink rubber shoes use a cement block to boost herself into a little crawl space.
Tej Beat- whole new world
Talking with Kibron, we asked about the local honey wine they call tej, and Kibron promptly offered to escort us to a local beat (bar). Mostly our time in Mekelle has been spent more or less on main, wide roads, mostly because of navigational issues, but also because most churches, hospitals, and generally the types of places we go to have been on main roads.
Kibron led us through alleyways just beyond the main road, and we entered a different world entirely. The center of the path was full of large rocks, making a crude irrigation system. The smell was strong- most people simply place their garbage and waste in the street (it is washed away during the rainy season). There were impromptu business, mostly fix-it shops or vendors of assorted goods or foods, and it seems like these often double as homes for the owners. Other little holes in the corrugated metal walls were peoples homes, the front door a hinged piece of scrap metal swinging in the Mekelle wind.
The looks on most people’s faces were of surprise- it isn’t very often they see a white face come down their street. For the most part, though, we received smiles, and the tone of “faranji” was more of curiosity than the harassing/accusing tone sometimes heard on the main streets.
We walked into the tej beat, which had no sign to speak of, just another metal box lining the street. Inside was packed from wall to wall on long, picnic style tables. Many of the men were older, and holding canes, ____ (white wrap….find the name in the journal…) flung across their shoulders.
The flasks containing the tej were large large and globular on the bottom, and narrow to a long, cylindrical neck at the top. Tej is the only thing available for purchase in the beat- those seeking food or a beer need not enter.
Waitresses, the only women in the joint, wear crosses and walk from man to man, filling flaskes with the thick amber liquid. Bees fly around overhead, looking for their share of the sweet stuff.
I felt odd being the only female patron, and doubly self conscious because of my skin, and not without reason. Every head was turned towards me.
Once Kibron had a taste of the tej he had to drink two more (he later said three is too much but four is enough), and over the course of an hour and a half we discussed Ethiopian culture over sips of fermented honey.
He invited us to his home on Monday to see how he lives, something I am very much looking forward to.
It made me nervous to see the procedure for cleaning the flasks- the waitress scoops up empty glasses then cursorily dumps water (where it comes from, I have no idea) in and then out again, and fills it with tej for the next customer.
Climbing up the mountain to the church
Today we went back to the orphanage, where Connie had prepared a feast for us of tuna fish canned in water and toast.
It was wonderful to have crunchy warm bread and a nice lean protein for a change. This was actually very sacrificial of Connie, who explained that typically you can only find tuna canned in oil here, but every once in a blue moon you can find it canned in water.
After lunch she assigned one of their workers (the older orphans under employ for the orphanage) to take us up the nearby mountain to see a couple of Orthodox churches.
It was wonderful to stretch our legs (Ethiopians are very conservative in dress and although Ethiopia is famous for its runners I have not seen anyone jogging, and certainly haven’t seen any women wearing shorts. Therefore my only form of exercise has been a little yoga and walking around Mekelle, so going hiking was absolutely wonderful).
When we reached the church, I was a little disappointed that there were no priests around that we could find (I was hoping to find some of them and perhaps learn a little of the history behind the churches and take photographs inside- the light was really hot (2PM) when we got there, so the pictures of the hilltop churches aren’t that great.
However that little disappointment was easily compensated for by the amazing view. Perched up on the little summit we could see Mekelle in its entirety.
Game etched into the big stone
Kindness of the young men who were our guides
November 14th, (4th of the month in the Ethiopian Calendar)
Every seven days in Axum, the town gathers around the sycamore tree by the ___ church (the church of the four beasts, which are cow, man, bird, and lamb) for the candle ceremony, to ask for a good harvest and give thanks.
At 4:30 AM we left the Africa hotel
November 12
Sometimes it is difficult , I want to write but I’ll just stare at this screen and I don’t know what to say.
Ethiopian greetings: When two people know each other in Ethiopia, usually they greet each other with big smiles, a warm embrace, and then at least three kisses (kisses in the air next to the cheek), alternating from cheek to cheek.
Sometimes a person takes another’s into both of his/her hands, and accompanied by a slight bow. Other times a person draws another closer and reach with the left hand behind the back and across to the right shoulder.
Greetings are often accompanied by “sister” or “brother”, “my sister”
There are over 120 rock hewn churches in this area, only about 35 of which are frequented by tourists, and these only rarely. Many of them are thousands of years old, and each has a priest who holds the key to a church. Sometimes it is difficult to locate a priest, as he might be working out in the fields, or may be at market.
Many are located in remote mountainous areas (many churches are completely monolithic, while others are semi-monolithic, the point being they are carved directly into the stone itself, which translates arduous climbs to even reach some of the churches. Of course, a guide is needed to do this type of thing. I’m not sure how much it would cost.
Churches Fisseha recommended that I see:
St. Mary of Tsion: there is an old one, and a new one. The old one is rectangular in shape and a good example of traditional architecture. It was build by Emperor Fasiladas (founder of Gondor) in 1665.
There is a chapel here in which many Ethiopians passionately believe holds the Ark of the Covenant. Women are not allowed inside.
There is also a new St. Mary of Tsion church which was built by the Emperor Haile Selassie, and would not be considered traditional architecture.
I’m told that with a guide it is possible to see 3 churches in a day (of the rock-hewn variety).
Abba Garima Unfortunately, women are not allowed inside. It was founded by one of the nine saints in the sixth century, and known for its collection of religious artefacts including Ethiopia’s oldest manuscript (dating to the 8th century).
The other churches I have not yet been able to find any information on, but their names are 1.2 Debre benkol
1.3 Debre abay

Fisseha told me he would be by today “this morning” but it is now 10:00 AM and I have yet to see him. I suppose I’ll go give him a call now.
What would be a really awesome project would be to get a grant to write an English book about the rock hewn churches.
I would love to do this type of study but it would require at the minimum having a translator (or spending at least a year learning Tigrinya) and a vehicle to drive around quite frequently, which could get to be quite expensive. I would love to go see more rock hewn churches and spend more time at them but unfortunately I just don’t have the cash.
Here I also think an expense is paying people for their time for interviews. People are so poor here I think it’s the right thing to do to compensate people for their time.
Why do beggars stay by churches? Is it because they think that is the most likely place to be given a few birr, or because they know they will at least be fed there? Or do they feel like being close to god is the only thing that makes continuing to live bearable?
There was one beggar in particular that I saw outside of the rock hewn church, sitting on the cool dirt, back slouched unconcernedly against the stone wall of the church,knees drawn to stomach, his chocolate brown bald head cast downward nearly to his tucked in tired legs (in prayer? In desperation?) shoulders and body shrouded in ratty, coffee with cream colored shawl. Human camouflage against the light tan stone. Forgotten.
Yet even this man, when it was time rose and lifted his hands toward heaven, and when he was done knelt and kissed the holy ground of the church.

Taking Photographs in places of worship:
I didn’t anticipate feeling badly or guilty about photographing people worshipping. I feel like I am stealing something, like the moments are too fluid and important to be stopped in time- but I want to show other people what worship is like for other people, I want to see for myself, and to remember.
Although I had permission, people were still curious and craned their covered heads to peer at me from behind their shawls- I felt like I was distracting them from their connection with God.
Is it worth it?
Silence in the Churches:
In other churches in the Anglo traditions, and I’ve been to several of them, there is more than just the preacher doing talking. There are distracted children writing notes to one other, chewing bubble gum, checking the second hand on their watches until the obligatory hour is done with.
Not so in the rock hewn churches of Tigray.
Church isn’t a once a week social obligation. There are certain days which are more important than others- the main service is held on Sunday, and there are special saint days which always draw more people and prayers.
But, there are services everyday, in the morning and evening. Throughout the week, large groups of people come to pray, or to be counseled, or to worship.
Often the services are come and go- people will come, bown, kneel, pray, chant- and when they are done, they leave. In fact several people opt not to go into the church at all, sometimes because they feel that their actions over the previous days (or weeks) have made them unworthy to do so.
Or, maybe it’s because no one is looking at you. People might notice if you’re standing next to them, but there are so many people, and services are generally crowded, and every one is clad in the same white head coverings (differing only in the hem of the garmet, which sometimes posess elaborate designs). No one is completing a roll card.
Everyone is utterly silent except for the priest, unless it is time to chant, in which case the entire congregation lifts their voices heavenward.
This learning process begins very early, while practitioners of the Orthodox faith are quite young. During the week, after the 5 o’clock service (at least this is the case with Tekla Haimonut church) are taken to a separate area of the church in which there is a singing teacher who demonstrates the various chants. The two main ones I have observed are St. Yared’s chant and a Thank You chant. I have not been able to find someone who is able to translate these songs for me yet.
Frustrations! I called Fisseha, who is supposed to come by and talk to me about the church today, at 10:30 (he very generally told me yesterday that we would talk tomorrow morning, which is today, damn it!) and he said that basically he would see me this afternoon. So all freaking day I have been waiting for this contact (because in the past I have missed him because I wasn’t in my hotel room and because he is the director of Tourism, speaks excellent English, and is potentially my most important contact, especially in terms of future possible research! So I have to be here when he comes, only now it is 3:30 and STILL he has not shown up and I’m just wasting away the day in the hotel room debating whether or not I should call him again (I don’t want to irritate him) and dwelling over how many churches I could have photographed this morning (one of only a short few here in Axum!!) IF HE HAD ONLY TOLD ME AFTERNOON INSTEAD OF MORNING< Y E S T E R D AY !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I suppose I did edit photographs and work on some writing, and read a bit about the history of Axum, but the day still seems lost to me. I know the medical students encounter similar occurrences working at the hospital. The whole attitude seems to be, don’t worry, it’ll happen. Like the foundation that was built for a new school room but hasn’t the money for additional building materials (or teachers for that matter) or the hospital that was built 10 years ago and is just sitting there, wasting away, unused, becoming dirty and dishelveled from a decade of neglect. Maybe it’s an attitude of faith that more funding will come along? Is this in anyway linked to religious beliefs? I don’t know.
November 11th,
Axum is a holy city, full of stelea and obelisks inscribed with thanks to God in three different languages. Today was spent visiting the stelae fields. We also went by the St. Mary of Zion church, which is the location of a holy pilgrimage to take place shortly after I must leave to the states. Sisay said that the whole fields are crowded with pilgrims, camping and sleeping amongst the tombs, waiting for the day.
It costs 60 birr to go in, and I am debating whether or not I should pay it. I probably should, and might do so tomorrow , depending on what Fisseha has planned or how much time he has to talk with me.
It’s quite frustrating to not be able to speak the language. I’m just relieved that I finally have a few good pictures to show for my efforts.
Fisseha came by our hotel today and I am going to meet him tomorrow morning to talk some about the churches here. I specifically would like to know more about the church structure.
There are so many children here working….selling Kleenex “soft soft soft soft” I don’t know what to do to change it, to make it better.

Demographics: I have mostly observed slightly more females than males at church services, although the clergy is made up entirely of females.
They seem to be the poorer spectrum of society- there aren’t a lot of suits at services, and there are always beggars present- crippled or blind (usually from a treatable bacterial infection).
Physical actions- sometimes during the chanting members of the congregation bow, but there are varying degrees of bowing- some are merely an exaggerated nod, while other times people are bent over at the waste. I do not know what precipitates what degree of bowing.
There is a section of the chanting that is marked by a slow forward descent to the ground, knees tucked under the stomach. The upper body is lowered gradually until the forehead touches the ground, and sometimes the ground is kissed first.
When priests are seen walking down the street, it is common for a person to walk up and touch their forehead to the cross, and then kiss the cross.
When entering the Tekla Haimonut church, the wall is kissed three times (reinforcing the trinity) and then the sign of the cross is made.
Concluding the prayer you take one hand in your other and touch each of the three sections of your finger (marked by knuckle creases) and repeat ‘father, son, holy spirit’ each time, and then repeat the process saying ‘st. mary, st. mary…..’
I’m not sure if I can videotape a service or not. I’ll have to talk to Tamrat when I get back to mekelle.
How does tourism, trade, population patters affect church services, music?
What are they saying??
What symbols? Does the chanting, the circular, continuous nature of the chanting, help people enter a meditative state that helps them detach from normal, everyday state of consciousness to an elevated one that helps them communicate with God, or helps them feel they are communicating with God, or are in a suspended state between earth and God?

Saint Yared- Ethiopia’s patron saint of music- often in the murals, shown holding a sistra, drums or prayer sticks. St. Yared’s chant at Tekla Haimonut- is this the same everywhere?