Saturday, December 18, 2004


Amidst the shuffling and shouting of De Gaulle Square at the Piassa, we squeeze onto a minibus headed toward the Addis Ababa train station. From there, we push our way into the throng of bodies crossing the raised platform traversing the tracks and descend into what I suppose could be called a “shantytown,” except that would suggest a distinction between this stretch of tin-roofed shacks and the rest of Addis. From what I have seen during my first days in the capital, this jumble of makeshift housing and piled rubbish and raw sewage is the norm here rather than the exception, and as people and livestock negotiate their way amongst heaps of rubble, I wonder at the capacity of humans to adapt because there is simply no other option.

Climbing through a narrow pathway piled with rocks, we emerge onto a dirt road lined with small kiosks and shops. Men and women selling small liturgy books, wooden crosses, and thin yellow candles used in Ethiopian Orthodox ceremonies have spread their wares on the ground and now compete for the attention of passers-by, who, like us, are headed toward the local church for a saint-blessing ceremony. Straining to see past the ubiquitous umbrellas—faded, drab normal ones used to hide from the sun as well as vibrantly embroidered ceremonial ones used in Orthodox services—I sight the church enclosure ahead and don my gauze head scarf in preparation for entrance.

For the next two hours, I stand with men, women, and children—perhaps a hundred or more—our bodies pressed against one another under the sun’s intense rays. Lightheaded from heat and wonder, I struggle to absorb all that surrounds me: women in their white scarves, clapping in time with the service chants; priests in turban-like headgear, clasping prayer sticks and sistrums; choir boys and girls dressed in blue and white; the purples and pinks and orange and gold of ceremonial umbrellas and headdresses; the bringing of the tabot and ensuing fervor; the beating of kabaro drums; the dancing and swaying and chanting and chanting and chanting—all a blur of ecstatic movement and celebration and joy and all set amidst such material poverty and physical hardship.

At some point, the movement temporarily subsides and I squat on the ground with those around me. A head priest visiting from Omo valley in the south launches into a sermon that Adana declares quite good—all about the need to remember spirituality as society rushes toward modernization and consumption (this for a crowd that has never witnessed anything resembling the modernization and consumption of the West).

The chanting and drumming and movement then resume, and the priest and choir perform a dance at the front of the crowd. A tiny old woman, permanently hunched from a lifetime of bearing heavy loads, dances and claps with such smiles and happiness. Overcome with fervor, she sways and shakes her way into the center of the performance. Undaunted by a gruff policeman’s brusque efforts to force her back into to the audience’s crowded ranks, she ducks into the center again and again—her smiles and tenacity unmatched and unyielding.


Post a Comment

<< Home