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Travel Diary, Ethiopia, Day 3

Sunday 16th October 2016

Here we are, all five of us at Axum and we are exhausted but so happy and most of all, so in flow!

Last night, we bought the white scarf that is worn during ceremonies and at five in the morning left off for the annual celebration of Saint Pentaleon- yet again, another coincidence.

We are cradled through the night by songs sung besides a first church where a procession of thousands of people all wearing the ceremonial scarf and holding candles gather. The priests, adorned in relics, stop in the centre of a square to pray, all around them children play amongst themselves with fire whilst the adults are poised and meditative. It’s truly beautiful and there’s no pretence- just the truth of an act of faith.

Above this beautiful tapestry of people in all its unequivocal magic, the full moon shines down and watches over this new day.

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It’s still night by the time we arrive halfway up the mountain. And like millions of people we travel by foot along the path that leads to the top, where lays the church. Day rises, colours change, daylight takes over from moonlight.

Upon reaching the church’s first gate Ara Garwi explains that men can go up to the highest church to see the view but that women must stop here at the lower plateau where there’s a garden and a church for women dedicated to the Virgin Mary. So many people surrounded us that by then we had already lost Tinko and Manu. We lost them to the flow.

Everything is fervour and light.

Suddenly we see a policeman armed with a baton holding a thief by the arm, following the person who had been targeted. And there in front of the church gate, the policeman started to beat and kick the young man. The violence was extreme, the sound of the beating deafening. The thief is skinny but so strong as by the first strike we would all have hit the floor. I can’t hold it, I block my ears and walk away. The situation disgusts Lucy. Peter, Lucy and I are deeply upset and completely shocked. Everyone gathers round and children are encouraged by their parents to watch this scene unfold. It’s a hard teaching. If you steal, this is what will happen to you.

After the required number of strikes, the policeman pushes the young man onto the path. He throws him off the site and there against all odds the young man defies him. He receives a massive kick in his thigh, the noise of which still reverberates through us now.

The last strike seems just impossible. The young man continues walking. The policeman watches him and after 15 metres runs after him, launches himself on his shoulders and delivers a blow to the back of his head.

The darkness in the light… We know we are in the right place even if we are in a state of complete shock.

We pass through the first gate with Ara Garwi but the crowd is too compressed and between the two gates a bottleneck is created. We are in a sea of humans stuck here until we manage to turn around and just like giving birth, we are carried, thrust and thrown out.

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We can’t get through the gate in front of us, so we decide to climb, like many other people, over a little wall, to go around the church. And there, another surprise awaits us. Hundreds of people are taking a tiny path between two cultivated fields. No one puts a foot on the laboured earth. The respect for the work that has been done is fascinating.

We discover an immense, meditative crowd amidst nature. With another plus: everything is impeccable and clean. Like everywhere in this country, not a piece of paper or plastic can be found on the ground as nature is the gift of God, where beauty lives, and therefore, is to be preserved.

At that point we ‘get lost’ and Lucy and I meet up again on the women’s church promontory to watch, right in front of us, the dance of the priests. It’s festive and we notice the respect and attention from all. The women punctuate the ceremony with ululating. It’s beautiful enough to make you cry.

At that exact moment we see for the first time a tourist who, with his guide, is taking pictures on the sly without even looking. He’s sweating a lot and seems so uncomfortable. We realise that he’s scared: scared of the crowd and of the differences.

As if by magic we find ourselves all together. We are filmed and photographed by all those who have the means to. Many of the people we catch on camera have never been photographed before, so when possible we shows them the shot and then for the first time they see themselves. The joy is palpable.

When we finally do make it out, yet another surprise awaits us. Ara Garwi brings us to the closest village, where lives his sister’s family-in-law. Her mother-in-law and her welcome us. We walk through a gate into a courtyard with three cows, two donkeys, chickens and goats.

In front of us, the main building stands with, on its left, a room for the animals and on its right the main room that holds all the essentials: a bed, low benches in stone lining the walls and a small cupboard tucked away in the corner with the sharing plate, its stand and the equipment for the coffee ceremony.

In a corner of the courtyard you can find a round kitchen. Everything is made from the same kind of mixed earth. The three fires and stoves to make the three alimentary bases, a large round stove to cook the accompanying daily dish, a large buckwheat crepe called ingerra. There are two beehives in the walls, with the exit facing outwards for the bees and the possibility of cultivating the honey from the inside. And so, the six of us sit down to share a meal made in the most traditional way.

The first thing to share is the bread and the millet beer that we drink from big rusty cans. Nothing is wasted. As we wait for the meal, Ara Garwi explains what’s commonplace: one man alone cannot do everything, that’s why neighbours and friends help in all circumstances. At that moment, a procession of the colours of Ethiopia passes by. It’s a funeral. All the villagers will visit the family during the day. Pain too is better faired when carried by all.

The meal arrives: an ingerra adorned with boiled beans and spiced meat on the side. This is the meal that is eaten morning, afternoon and evening for those who can afford two or three meals a day.

Then, in our honour, a young man brings through a mobile fire and prepares corn on the cob to share, followed by homemade popcorn accompanied by the fabulous coffee prepared by Ara Garwi’s sister. The first is very strong, the second is softer, and the third is sweet. To filter the coffee you place on the nozzle of the container that is on the fire a small handful of cow hair. Here, coffee is what brings people together and the way to honour. There’s no way around it.

We then leave moved by much gratitude and emotion and come across a wedding being led by a traditional car playing traditional music.

We begin to grapple with doubt as the twelve Masters are not supposed to represent a religion but a culture, a tradition, and the Master that we are going to meet is clearly one of the leaders of the Orthodox Church. Despite that, it’s well and truly him we are after. Suddenly we realise that this Master carries in him two dimensions: the religious and the guardian of the Ten Commandments. Our role is therefore to get him to understand that he’s more than the religious, he’s the point of balance between the light: the tribes that have a direct access to God and the darkness represented by the separation created between men, and between men and God by religions. He’s the meeting point and the guardian of the preservation of the Ten Commandments as upheld by all religions.

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Before the meeting, Peter and I meditate and get told that the Master will at first turn his back on us before engaging in the conversation. We dress up in white and go to the meeting with a special umbrella as an offering.

More to come on the next episode.

Story by Sophie Monpeyssen