Monday, March 26, 2007

holy water fears

Sunday I attended mass at one of the local orthodox parishes. It was quite interesting. This church is currently being built to replace a parish church that was located inside a prison. The church was popularly known as imprisoned Michael. The prison, which was in the center of the city located right next to the African Union., was torn down along with its church. This new church is not yet opened, so in this case, the entire church compound became the church. I don’t think I have ever more fully felt the symbolism of the sunrise liturgy as here, for often enough, the simple experience of sunrise is lost on me within churches that have no windows. Filling the entire compound and pouring out into the street were people wrapped in thin white shawls. I was in a living church, despite the fact that the church was not yet built.
Without any place to sit nor a translator for the liturgy, I followed a group of men and chose a discreet spot next to the holy water spring.
I was invited by a man who did not seem altogether with it to enjoy this sacred water. It is quite uncommon for Ethiopians to take Eucharist, so the ultimate sign of participation is this self anointing with the holy water. People were lining p outside the church to collect this miraculous water. I stood to the side, not knowing if there was a more appropriate time than another to take this. I was later approached by a man who did not seem all together there. His Amharic, which I did not understand to begin with, wsa quite broken. He mimed to me, however, that I should partake. I felt overcome with gratitude at this invitation. He came by minutes later with a can filled with water. I took it and threw part of it over my face and anointed my legs, but he signaled that I should drink it. You can understand my hesitation, but in a leap of faith, I took quite a big swallow. I must admit, I did posess a certain fear the rest of the day, that somehow this holy water would lead me to another temple made of porcelain. My fears, however, remained unfulfilled.
besides standing for the next hour, the service proceded quite normally, which is to say, exotic and ancient.

Wound dressing at mother Theresa’s

Warning: graphic blog below
Before you continue reading, be warned that the description below is a bit graphic. I wrote it as a purging activity to get the images and smells of the clinic out of my mind.

A few days back, I caught a ride with phillip to Siddest Kilo. As a last decision I decided to make my way to the mother Theresa clinic. I have 4 jesuit novice friends who I know from Arusha who have been living there over the past two months. I have made my way there probably four times before now and each and every one offers its own challenges and surprises. I have already written about my experience with those children with mental handicaps the other day. This day, I was back to dressing wounds.

Upon arrival, I met another American third year med school student named Thomas, who had become connected to the clinic through Dr. Rick. He is just another tribute to how many people get connected to this clinic through rick.

The first patient brought in was a boy who had a tumor in his head. It had pushed his entire eyeball outside of his head. It is continuing to grow and the only thing that we can do in the meantime is protruding eyeball to at least prevent infection. I have no idea how the doctors might handle the situation in the US. Leaving most of the actual cleaning work to the med school student who faces this every morning, Paul (my Jesuit friend from Uganda) held his legs down, while Thomas braced the screaming boys head. I stood to the left, handing over gauze and the cleaning liquids. Even thinking back to the experience I cringe. As desensitized as I have become in my few visits there, it is still difficult to hear the suffering of one who is so young. Sadly, he will probably not live another few months.

From there, Thomas, Paul and I moved to the TB ward to dress bed sores. Bed sores are caused from one laying in one position too long. Often these are quite deep. One of the first men that we treated was paralyzed from the waste down due to TB, so he didn’t have to suffer as we cleaned the wound on his backside. The true surprise was when we expected the wound closer only to find that within it there were whit maggots. Defying my own expectations, this is not such a bad sign, because they dispose of the dead flesh. All throughout the dressing, the room was filled with the sound of one man whose cough sounded far to substantial to be anything but TB entering into the lungs.

Another man proved to be quite difficult.
When arriving in one of the normal wards, we were directed over to this man by the other patients. He had covered his head with the blanket and even upon shaking him, he wouldn’t wake. We proceeded to cut off the bandage covering the exposed flesh on the side of his knee. I had to hold him still to prevent him from being harmed in the process. He never regained full lucidity, but he was nevertheless quite forceful in his unconciousness, and it took two of us to hold him down while Paul addressed the wound. Paul had to remove some of the flesh that had died. After seeing him remove two pieced merely by pulling (which typically works, but not this time) I fetched a blade to cut the dead flesh. At one point, I am quite certain the man passed his bowels as the smell distinctly cut through the scene. It was strange seeing such a wound, but his reaction, while certainly honest, was greater than some of the other wounds that we have treated that were certainly in worse condition. All the same, the tendons, muscles and flesh facing us was a difficult site to see. At that point however, you just have to plug your nose and dive into the situation….
I wish indeed I did have a free hand to plug my nose. Long after I leave the mission, what sticks to the roof of my mouth is the smells. A few weeks ago, as paul and I were dressing wounds together, a man entered into the dressing room to have his calf addressed. It was slightly swollen and the moment paul took off the bandage, the stench of rotting flesh filled the room. This man’s leg was gangrene, and thus rotting away. When I was last working at mother Theresa’s, the smell of latex gloves stuck to my hand for the entire day. This continued to provoke in my mind the smell of the TB ward, the clinic, and the wounds. Following our morning of dressing wounds, Thomas (a med student from Vermont) and I discussed with some incredulity the wounds that we had seen that day. I even treated the Jesuits to a beer, solely for the opportunity to purge the smell from my system. I wish I could say that it worked, even four hours and a cold shower later, the smell still stuck with me. I do not, however, want to over dramatize my experience there. There is still some amazing capacity within those of us who work there, while on the spot, to do what needs to be done and leave the reflecting till later. Perhaps, however, it is as my friend Paul says to me: Some things are best left forgotten.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

I've got photos up!
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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Bringing MEW to mother theresa

Yesterday I spent the afternoon in the mother Theresa Clinic. When I have gone before, I have always just tagged along with the Jesuits or the med students dressing wounds, but as that is a morning duty, I was able to get assigned to another area. I was encouraged by the Jesuits, who were technically still on retreat and thus not working, to head up to the disturbed children's ward on the women's side. After getting permission from the sister on duty, i made my way in, introducing myself to the children. They are really quite precious. There is one child, who pushes herself along and grabs forcefully to your legs, hands, whatever is in reach to pull herself up to her feet. She will keep a tight grip and won't let you set her on her rump, so this, ideally, is a situation to be avoided. I kept her occupied instead by singing the opening lines from an old MEW song we did called Pie R Pie. The song would simply begin with basic beebop words: budum way, bu way bu way doo. budum way, bu way bu way doo...." and i would then make up the rest. This kept her thoroughly mesmerized. I also met a young beautiful girl in a wheel chair, who with her frail hands, simply held my hand and smiled when i talked to her. Another girl approached me the moment i came in and just grabbed my hand. She was all smiles. It is wonderful to be somewhere where one can just be present. Their presence is also quite healing for me. Encountering suffering and poverty daily, I feel as if i put up shields so as to protect my own sanity. I fear sometimes that this leads me to have a cold heart. Being with these children was rejuvenating for me, awakening my own heart, and allowing me to share it with them.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Dhadim: out of addis and into the land of Abraham

Dhadim: out of addis and into the land of Abraham

My first introduction to Borana land and Borana culture came by way of a book launch fir the aadaa boraanaa cultural dictionary, written by Fr. Ton Leus, a Spiritan priest form Holland. The book launching took place on Tuesday night. Joining us at the book launching as special guests of honor were six elders from the Borana community down in Dhaddim and Yabello. They were there in their full cultural dress. The wife of one of the male elders present was wearing a full leather dress made out of goat. They began the ceremony with the lighting of the new fire. This requires 7 first born males who are elders. After returning to the Spiritan community house and enjoying a few glasses of whisky, I was invited to join Ide, another spiritan priest from Borana, to head down south.

On the way down to Borana land we had to spend two days in Awasa awaiting news on Ide’s broken car. The oil had not been changed in the car, and on his way up to Addis Ababa, the engine seized. We spent a two relaxing days there, enjoying the local scenery and talking about the church in Ethiopia.

After a 3 day journey south, I finally made my way to Dhaddim, a small mission town about 32 kilometers away from the main town of Yabello, and about 7 kms away from possible cell network. I had stepped out of the modern city life and into the ancient world of the bible. I felt as if I suddenly had entered into the tribe of Abraham with all of the intricacies of ancient life there.

I do not mean to say that there did not exist some of the regular modern amenities of life. The cultural landscape, however, changed suddenly from the modern urban life of the city, to the life of the pastoralist. The Borana are a pastoral people living in the southern part of Ethiopia and the northern part of Kenya. The Borana have

The Borana language is a southern dialect of the larger oromotic language group. The Borana people are considered to be, however, part of the original ethnic group from which all other Oromo derive. They still today maintain many of their own traditional customs and are considered, somewhat, to be a “pure” culture. That of course is a debatable term, but the truth behind the perception that the Borana are a people who have strongly held to their traditional culture remains true. As Fr. Ton Leus put at the book launching, globalization is not a word that has entered into their vocabulary.

The Borana are a pastoral society. Walking away from the town of Dhaddim, one can see in the distance large herds of cattle. Since the famine in 1985, the Borana have also started farming. All the same, this pastoral aspect of their society has broadly shaped their culture and customs. Anaani is their general word for milk. They have, however, over 20 different words for all the different varieties of milk. Milk serves as the main diet for the Borana people.

The spiritans were some of the first missionaries to leave the towns and enter Borana land. It was refreshing to enter an area that did not have the “missionary baggage” that many of the other countries I have visited exhibit. It was really an opportunity to see what a Vatican II era mission might look like. Hearing Ide’s tales of his early days among the Borana were quite interesting. He had spent the previous 10 years in Tanzania among the Catholics in the moshi area. Moving to the Borana area, he encountered a people with whom he shared no frame of reference.

The Borana, while believing in God, God is the blue sky and remains far from their daily life. In addition to that, death means death for the Borana, and there is no consideration for anything beyond it. The only afterlife there might be is the continual existence within the lives of your children and their children, for your name lives on in them. This is one of the reasons for the practical polygamy of the Borana. If a girl is born, it is immediately known that one day she will leave and no longer be a part of the family. This is strictly held, with attached customs, and when visiting the village for sharing in the coffee ceremony (see below) I witnessed one such way this strict separation between the wife’s family and the husband are held. The son in law is not allowed to see the mother in law. Now this might be practical in avoiding conflict, but it is certainly mystifying to see in person. We were in a small two-room hut with about 15 people within it, waiting for the Morning Prayer and coffee ceremony to begin. The mother in law was about to enter the room, so the other Borana grabbed a sarong and covered over the son while she passed into the second room. She spent the entire morning on the other side of the doorway, just around the corner from her son in law, but out of site. This happened once more with another Borana man and his mother in law. Were they to meet on the road, they would turn in opposite directions, one going one way, the other going the other. Never shall their paths cross.

The woman goes to join the husband's family, so it is only through sons that a man can live on. I don’t know what this would mean with regards to women. Because bearing children is so important, a woman is valued or judged based on how many children she has. If a woman is unable to bear children or to bear sons (which in traditional Borana culture is the same thing), he will marry a second woman. You are not allowed to divorce within Borana culture. When a man and woman marry it is for both their whole lives. If a man dies, a woman is not allowed to remarry. This does not mean, however, she will stop bearing children. She is in fact encouraged to do so, as each child, even though not biologically from the dead husband, will still bear his name. Thus a dead husbands brother might inherit a wife. This woman, however is never to marry again. Thus, there is also a strong “lovers system” present among the Borana. This can be evidenced by the fact that they have a specific name for the person who is the biological father, but not the contractual father. This lovers system is also encouraged by the fact that Borana do not view it possible for a man to live without a wife. Thus a man of 80 might take on another wife after his first had died. Often it is preferred that she is of the same family as the first wife, and, by circumstance and perhaps by custom, she is also younger (15). I say by circumstance, because it is not common to find an older woman who has not been married.

The missionaries here have had to deal with all these various issues of culture like polygamy, the lover system and the strict notions of gender roles. They have also found ways to include various cultural religious practices like everyday blessings, rites of forgiveness, rites of peace and many other rituals into the catholic life. I had a chance to partake in two such rituals: the Eucharist and the Morning Prayer led by the catechist.

The Eucharist church service was similar to the western church service in all ways but one. At one point during the mass, the community came forward and passed their hands over the Eucharist. This is a sign of participation and a prayer for internal cleansing. The same gesture is done over a goat that might be sacrificed.

The other ceremony was the Morning Prayer. This was my last morning in Dhaddim and I was invited by the catechist to join him in one of the local villages to partake in this. We gathered at the house of one of the members of the Small Christian Community, and soon all the adults of the village (Christian and non-Christian alike were there. The catechist at one point left the hut and with the bible raised over his head, he re-entered the hut proclaiming that this was the good news. Then, following a reading from the scriptures and a song, he led everyone in a morning prayer. After this action the traditional coffee ceremony began. Each person was passed a handful of coffee beans and we cracked the ends of them in our mouths. Then the coffee beans were roasted in oil. Normally this is done in butter, but as it is the dry season, there is not an abundance of milk to make such butter. After the beans had been roasted, the coffee beans were added to milk and the oil was distributed for self-anointing. This is the ultimate sign of participation within the prayer and I happily applied this oil, to the joy of my companions, to my face and feet. Following this gesture, the eldest of the community took the bowl of “coffee” (buna) and blessed it, praying for peace among the family, the village, the larger community, all the Borana and the world. Then the cups were distributed amongst the males from eldest to youngest (me) and then to the women. This was crunchy coffee, as the beans were never ground. You instead were encouraged to take a few of these beans (still in their cracked shell) and to chew them in your mouth. At that point it did indeed taste like I was eating coffee grounds. This coffee ceremony signifies a sharing of peace amongst the Borana. I remember Abba Ide telling me that if Christ had been born among the Borana their coffee would likely have been the species by which the Eucharist was shared.

My week in Borana can hardly do the culture and society justice, but I am so grateful for my experience there.

shabbat dinner in ethiopia

Here is a blog that should have been written a while ago:

I’ve recently had the opportunity to meet and spend some time with Dr. Rick Hodes. Dr. Rick is a Jewish American doctor who has been working in Ethiopia off and on for the past 20 years. He works for the American Jewish Federation with a group of African Jews indigenous to Ethiopia called the Falashas. The Falashas historical have “mythically” traced their roots back to king Solomon. Up until the 3rd century there were prominent Jewish communities in Ethiopia. At that time, the ruling king of what later became the Axumite kingdom converted to Christianity due to the work of Abba Salama
Since that time the country has largely remained under the domination of Christianity, with the exception of a brief period when a Jewish warrior queen took over.

Anyways, almost all of the Falashas were airlifted out to Israel during the great famine, but there are also a group of people who are claiming to be Falashas who at some point and time converted to Christianity. They are also demanding the right of return. Dr. Rick helps with their medical issues.

He has also played quite a prominent role over at the Missionaries of Charity clinic here, dealing with his own special projects of cancer patients, etc. He is even the personal doctor of the mother superior of the missionaries of charity, the successor to Mother Theresa. That is what I call interfaith work.

Dr Rick’s work these past 20 years has also included a one-man operation of securing funds to transport children with polio of the spine to foreign countries to undergo surgery. Apparently the best spine surgeon in the world is currently living in Ghana.

Dr Rick is a practicing Jew and was once a Watson candidate. I became connected to him through Gerry Jones, who I volunteer under over at CNEWA.

Attending Rick’s Shabbat dinner two weeks ago was quite an enjoyable experience. There were perhaps over 50 people within his house.
Every male has to wear some sort of hat, as this is a Jewish prayer ceremony. We did not wear, however, the typical Kippah. Instead Rick passes around an assortment of hats. One short elderly Ethiopian man was wearing perhaps the largest cowboy hat I have ever seen. Another man from the Israeli embassy was wearing what would seem to be a giant sponge. I was handed a hat that was made out of the same material as our local Santa Claus hats. It was blue, and on top was a giant fabric menorah. Then, to call everyone to prayer, Rick began singing “If I had a hammer,” the 70’s folk song once made popular by Peter Paul and Mary. Rick also led in the traditional Hebrew prayers, a reading from scripture in both Hebrew and English and the traditional breaking of bread, which was then thrown to you across the room. Rick regularly has about 10 children living at his house recovering from various surgeries. In addition, he has his two boys who he has adopted as a single father. Many of these children will well versed in both the 70’s folk song and the Hebrew prayer. When I asked him why “If I had a hammer”, he simply replied because we like it. The prayer is followed by excellent kosher vegetarian soup. It really was quite an extraordinary experience.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

the visit north, the trip south

I am now heading south to visit missionaries amongst the semi-nomadic tribe, the boraana people. Once again, lady luck has rolled the dice, and a group of spiritan fathers arrived from the south, inaugurating a cultural dictionary that they put together. I will be back in contact around the 15th.

It seems I have been slacking on my blog again. I will fill you in on the details of the final part of my trip through the north.

On Monday we began our journey out of axum. On the roadside we saw a caravan of camels. These camels were carrying bricks of salt. Important to know is that salt used to be the currency of the day in Ethiopians history. Salt bricks, mined in the denkil region, were carried by camel by a people called the afhar (recently infamous from the kidnappings). The afhar are known to be quite an aggressive bunch, and up until the 1920’s there were still reported cases of them cutting off men’s testicles who entered their lands. Seeing this salt caravan is just as historical as seeing an ancient 6th century church ruin.

Before reaching axum, we stopped off for a bite to eat and some drinks. When we finished, the woman asked us if we would like some coffee. In Ethiopia, the home of this wonderful drink, you don’t refuse this act of hospitality, if only because it will be the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had.
She then went through the entire process of making the coffee. She roasted the beans over a coal stove, shaking regularly her hand held pan to get a thorough cook. After having roasted the beans, she carried the pan around the room, allowing us to smell the aroma.
She then hand ground the beans in a gourd with a piece of wood. next she placed the grounds with hot water in a ceramic kettle, specially made for coffee. Finally, placing a piece of plant in the spout of the kettle to filter the beans, she poured us each a hot cup of coffee. It was excellent. The whole process took about 30 minutes, and it was given to us free, as a gift of hospitality from the restaurant.

An hour away from axum, we stopped in a small town that held the ruins of Yeha. In this town were the ruins of an ancient temple, that was at one point converted and rearranged for the purposes of a chrisitan church. The temple is attributed to the sabeans, a group of people who traveled from the Saudi Arabia peninsula to Ethiopia. The temple thus predated Christianities entrance into Ethiopia. Walking around the temple, I felt like a real archeologist. We were, in our own amateur way, making observations about the temple, what it might have looked like before the Christians adjusted it, and even how it might have been used as a Christian church. The stones had been rearranged at some point in the south eastern corner to create a baptistery. There were also several holes purposively cut into the walls, for some unknown purpose. Inside the church, the floor had tracts cut into it. From this, one might assume that it didn’t have a roof and the inlaid gutters served to transport water outside of the church. The main exit point for this water was a hole in the middle of the south side. This was blocked over by rocks that we had to move in order to get our photo. Walking around the structure, I also noticed that the base of the temple extended out slightly. It was thus sitting on a slight podium base. This is an influence that was carried through to axumite structures. The sabeans had intermixed with the indigenous people there and slowly became absorbed into local culture.

Returning to the other side of the water spout from the temple, we noticed that it was covered by a sheet here. Behind this sheet, within the walls, we noticed melted wax. It would seem that this ancient non-christian is being used for equally obscure purposes today. From the exterior, we also noticed a gargoyle protruding (architecturally, meaning a spout extending from the wall). I traced this to the interior and found the corresponding block. I surmised that there must have been some sort of additional level. One can always guess. We spent a good amount of time examining the structure. I never thought I could have so much fun staring at stones.

Entering into the museum of the monastery, we were shown very well made, but relatively recent drawings in books. We also were shown ancient artifacts that might have been a part of the temple. On one incense altar were inscribed sabean script that tied the temple to them. On this altar was a horseshoe symbol with a circle inside. This represents the moon and Venus, the ancient symbol of the god of the sabeans. This same symbol would later change my life, or rather, the size of my wallet.

We arrived in axum, ready for hot showers and nice beds to wash off the dust from the road. I have probably been covered by more dust on this trip than even the most ancient of grandfather clocks. After cleaning up, we drove around the town, seeing by car the ancient sites of axum. Axum is a city that was very influential in Ethiopia starting from the 6th century. Today it is one of the most important religious sites in Ethiopia. It is, in fact, illegal to even build a mosque there. The town houses, supposedly, the ark of the covenant.

Axum is an ancient city in the northern part of Ethiopia that once had an empire stretching from red sea to the lakes in the south. Visiting the small museum here, I began to appreciate just how ancient ethiopia’s tradition is and how interconnected the ancient world was. We saw coins that were dating back to pre Christian times. Christianity arrive in Ethiopia in the 3rd century. These ancient coins have pictures of the king on both faces. Sometimes the kings head is bordered by pieces of grain. This is to symbolically tie the prosperity of the land to the king. As Christianity became the state religion, one can see how these symbols become newly appropriated, and the cross now replaces the king surrounded by the grain. On the other side of the coin, the king sits in profile, holding the cross scepter. We also saw ancient greek pottery vessels that would likely of held olive oil. The world was much smaller than we might think.

We visited an ancient stylite field. These are giant, monolithic obelisks, used to mark the graves of ancient kings. We later visited the area where they were quarried. It is difficult to imagine how these monstrous stylites were transported almost 15 kms. When the Italians stole the smallest one during their occupation, they cut it into three pieces to carry it to italy. It was only just returned within the past few years.

We also drove on to visit the ancient tombs of Kaleb and Gabral. Father and son were both part of the Christian dynasty. We saw the very sarcophaguses where they and their family would have been buried. It was odd to walk in such an ancient and sacred place. It

In Gondar, we entered into a new era of ethiopia’s history. It was here where the country was almost split apart by the well-intentioned, misguided and arrogant missionary work of the Jesuits. It would be unfair to make such a generalization, as the first Jesuit here was quite a genius and was doing good work. He was followed by a prouder sort, however, whose efforts to sway the king led the country nearly to civil war.

We visited the ancient castles of gondar. At this point, I would not have minded having a guide to explain the history of these dynasties. The people who pose themselves as guides, however, would be much better at fiction writing than history. Their accounts are often simple (due to the language barrier) and false.

More impressive than the castles, was an 18th century church, whose interior was completely covered by icons. It would be wonderful to capture each and every icon. The messages hidden behind these ancient paintings are quite fascinating. For example, there was one icon that was above the entrance to the church on the inside that revealed a very large glorious mary. Surrounding mary were many people falling in prostrate, the king david, ancient priests of Ethiopia, and mohammed. Mohammed led by a demon, arms tied, sitting on a donkey, looking towards mary. We asked the priest the meaning behind it, and he said that ti was from an apparation of mary in Egypt where even the muslims saw her. The church was the perfect example of the function of Ethiopian iconography however. Every wall was covered with icons. Even the ceiling was painted with over 100 faces of cherubs.

We visited the baths built by king…..
While I am sure there is great historical merit to this location, I enjoyed it purely for the scenery. I felt as if I could be in central park during the autumn. The leaves were dry and falling in the empty pool. As the wind blew, the leaves rustled across the ground. Not having seen much by way of seasons since I have arrived here, dry dead leaves were a welcome sight.

On our way to Bahidar, we got in a car accident. I already spoke of it, so I will spare the details of that, but I will recount an experience I just had over the weekend. I was driving with phillip again and a group of sisters down to Sodo to see an ordination. We were overtaken by another priest from the region. 10 minutes later, we arrived on the scene of an accident. We saw a group of some 50 road workers on the road and a truck that had fallen into a ditch that dropped some 20-30 feet. Upon arriving on the scene, one of the sisters realized that it was in fact the priests car. More surreal, however, everyone around was wailing. A man had walked in front of the car and had been hit. Seeing another accident, which included life threatening injuries, I began to realize just how lucky I was so many weeks back. It was also strange to compare the way that we mourn. I was so struck by this wailing, I felt as if I had stepped into another world.

Arriving in bahidar after the accident, we found the first hotel we could. The next day, we searched for cheaper venues. We stayed at the Ghion hotel, located right on the lake. We were in bird paradise. There were beautiful giant trees with purples flowers filling the courtyard. Inhabiting these trees were black horn billed tucans.

I finished up my visit of the lake with a tour of 3 monasteries located on islands on the lake. While we had a completely inadequate “guide”, my experience with emmanuel served me well in understanding the church structures and icons. I happily shared this knowledge with my comrades on the boat.

Well, I’ve run out of time to recount more as I now need to catch a taxi to the distant south. Hot weather and nomadic tribes, here I come.