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Meskel, or Why are People Burning Crosses?

1 Oct Meskel Square, Gondar

Ah Meskel, a holiday that celebrates the toil of St. Helena who traveled to Jerusalem to follow a bonfire towards the true cross. A cozy family holiday where people eat meat dishes, pick yellow daisies… and burn giant effigies to the ground!

lighting the compound meskel

lighting the compound meskel

The day started at 6am when my compound family knocked on the door to let us know that they were ready to burn a cross! Gathered outside of our houses, we watched and took photos of the meskel (cross) as it went up in flames, then sat down to a typical breakfast – coffee (of course), mutton bits with injera, popcorn, and holiday bread.

Later that day, we dressed up in our Habesha best (white embroidery) and headed up to the center of town to watch the big celebration. UNESCO just designated the Ethiopian Meskel Celebrations as a World Heritage event last year, and considering how many people came out to see a giant cross on fire, I can safely say I’ve never experienced anything like it. Using our “ferenji power” we just walked past the line of police and national military towards the priests. Sometimes it pays to have a nice camera. But once the prayers were said, and the cross was ignited (yes, they doused it in kerosene), all sorts of chaos broke. Chanting, young men grabbing burning embers and running through the crowd, mobs and riots and blessings? It was crazy, and we were in the middle of it! I just kept clicking my camera. Here are the  results:

... reasons why I can never run for office

… reasons why I can never run for office

the cross fell towards my house! I think this means something

the cross fell towards my house! I think this means something

if you needed proof of how tall I am

if you needed proof of how tall I am

a two year struggle - EAT! NO!

a two year struggle – EAT! NO!

gathered for Meskel

gathered for Meskel

the cutest gorsha ever

the cutest gorsha ever

no, no, I can talk...

no, no, I can talk…

a typical family photo

a typical family photo

Priests and their umbrellas

Priests and their umbrellas

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#selfie

#selfie

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Meskel Square, Gondar

Meskel Square, Gondar

small riot

small riot

I Am a Strong Girl. Statements from Ethiopian girls.

29 Jul

Last week Peace Corps Volunteers around West Amhara hosted the 6th annual Gondar Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). Over the week the girls bonded, learned, grew more confident and shared their stories.  Two of my favorite/inspiring stories came from one of my Gondar girls who I had brought back in a leadership position and one of the girls I lead through small discussions through out the week.

Tigist, one my campers from last year, who I brought back as a junior counselor this year, shared her past during a “Personal Tree” activity. The activity uses the life of trees as an analogy to think and share about our pasts. She revealed that she had been born in a small town near to Gondar (Tikil Dingay – another PCV’s site) and ended up in Gondar as an orphan after she was put in jail in 8th grade for attacking a man who was harassing her. She was able to put her life back together through a local NGO orphanage program and now rates as one of the top students in her class.

The other girl, really a woman, Asmira is an 18 year old girl in 8th grade. She revealed that she had been married off as an 8 year old girl by her parents. They were married for a few months before the boy’s parents decided she was too young and they should get a divorce and then the family would come collect her later, when she was “older.” Once she was divorced she started going back to school and expressed that “now I am educating myself, I have the confidence to say no! That marriage is over!”

These are just two of the stories form girls in this region. See below for some of their “Strong Girl” statements.

 

I am a strong girl because I can participate any activity. I can learn in the class.

I am a strong girl because I can participate any activity. I can learn in the class.

I am strong girl because first strong me was born female sex. After I learn sometimes then I teach my family. Now I come to Gondar and teach some things so I said I am strong.

I am strong girl because first strong me was born female sex. After I learn sometimes then I teach my family. Now I come to Gondar and teach some things so I said I am strong.

I am strong girl because to participate to education. I have confidence in my self.

I am strong girl because to participate to education. I have confidence in my self.

I am strong girl because I  have good behavior and I am special girl.

I am strong girl because I have good behavior and I am special girl.

I am a strong girl because I can make a thing which can make me happy. Also I have a strong families which are making me to be strong. Based on that I will never give up. Finally I am helping people who have no chance to be strong like me & I am voluntary to make good things to others. No one can stop me to achieve my dream.

I am a strong girl because I can make a thing which can make me happy. Also I have a strong families which are making me to be strong. Based on that I will never give up. Finally I am helping people who have no chance to be strong like me & I am voluntary to make good things to others. No one can stop me to achieve my dream.

I'm a strong girl because I have a self reliant.

I’m a strong girl because I have a self reliant.

I am a strong girl because I believe in myself.

I am a strong girl because I believe in myself.

I am a strong girl because I hopefully for anything and I never give up.

I am a strong girl because I hopefully for anything and I never give up.

I am a strong girl because I am studying anything in a book. I love you.

I am a strong girl because I am studying anything in a book. I love you.

I am a strong girl because I achieve my goals. I know myself. Anything I do it as my self confidence, my self reliant.

I am a strong girl because I achieve my goals. I know myself. Anything I do it as my self confidence, my self reliant.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence to make a decision and I love it.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence to make a decision and I love it.

I am strong girl because I am self acceptable and I know my self.

I am strong girl because I am self acceptable and I know my self.

I am strong girl because I believe myself.

I am strong girl because I believe myself.

I am a strong girl because I have confidence and I am not hopeless.

I am a strong girl because I have confidence and I am not hopeless.

I am strong because I am the one can change the world.

I am strong because I am the one can change the world.

I am strong because I never give my hand to my problem.

I am strong because I never give my hand to my problem.

I am a strong girl because I do what I want.

I am a strong girl because I do what I want.

I'm a strong girl because I say so!

I’m a strong girl because I say so!

I'm a strong girl because I've a big goal & self confidence.

I’m a strong girl because I’ve a big goal & self confidence.

I am a strong because I believe self confidence.

I am a strong because I believe self confidence.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence.

I am a strong because I believe in my self.

I am a strong because I believe in my self.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence.

I am strong because I am a confidency girl. I being myself!

I am strong because I am a confidency girl. I being myself!

I am a strong girl. I have appreciative self and self confidence by education group participation, also I have goals.

I am a strong girl. I have appreciative self and self confidence by education group participation, also I have goals.

I am a strong girl because I have a self confidence and I do everything on myself.

I am a strong girl because I have a self confidence and I do everything on myself.

An Engagement, and a Party

24 May
Morgan and Robel, the happy couple

Morgan and Robel, the happy couple

Oh my gosh you guys!!! My site mate Morgan just got engaged to her long term Ethiopian boyfriend Robel. What does that mean? It means a meat tent, a group of men jumping in circles chanting, being blessed by a priest, and a lot of ridiculous photos at the Gondar castles. What started as an “engagement party” basically turned in to a mini Ethiopian wedding.

I was unofficial photog for the day, capturing all the lovey dovey cute adorable moments, as well as a fair share of “what the hell is going on?” moments. This was the ultimate cross-cultural experience. Though don’t worry Peace Corps, we got some Goal 2 activities in there – I made some hot pink frosting cupcakes and we did a traditional American wedding cake photo :)

had to do a traditional "American" cake photo

had to do a traditional “American” cake photo

The day started gathering at Morgan’s compound to hang out with her “Ethiopian family.” Afterwards we were ushered into vans to drive to Robel’s house, the site of the party. But of course we had to do a little scenic route around Gondar first, just to let anyone who didn’t know yet that Morgan and Robel were engaged. (Seriously though, everybody knows.)

riding around Gondar and honking at everybody

riding around Gondar and honking at everybody, wouldn’t be Ethiopia without a party bajaj/tuk-tuk

After arriving at Robel’s house, we were ushered through the crowd to the inner room. This is one of the few times I have been able to witness what goes on at these things. Being Morgan’s “family” we were VIP front row seats!  This entailed watching the priest bless the engagement and rings (Morgan got a new Orthodox name – Wolleta Selassie, awesome) and then he danced around a bit. Gifts were given, and food was eaten. Always so much food.

this was the cow that was slaughtered for the feast. Clearly, she had to take a photo with it.

This was the cow that was slaughtered for the feast. Clearly, she had to take a photo with it.

It basically says Congratulation Robel and Morgan on your engagement with the date of the Ethiopian calendar (Ginbot 10, 2006 aka May 18, 2014)

It basically says Congratulation Robel and Morgan on your engagement with the date of the Ethiopian calendar (Ginbot 10, 2006 aka May 18, 2014)

so many people at Robel's house

so many people at Robel’s house

The priest blessed the rings and gave Morgan an Orthodox name - Wolleta Selassie

The priest blessed the rings and gave Morgan an Orthodox name – Wolleta Selassie

the rings

the rings – apparently they have to be gold to count in Ethiopia

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Me signing the betrothal papers as a witness, can't back out now!

Me signing the betrothal papers as a witness, can’t back out now!

After lunch, we headed to the Fasil Gibbi (the Gondar Castles) to take the oh so Gonderian castle wedding photos. Morgan is decked out in habesha libs, and Robel looks suave in his ferenji suit (they switched!).

waving off the kids

waving off the kids

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We had a big posse

We had a big posse

Engagement photos at the Gondar Castles

Engagement photos at the Gondar Castles

Morgan's family

Morgan’s family

awwww... their babies are going to have the highest cheekbones eva!

awwww… their babies are going to have the highest cheekbones eva!

So there you have it. Morgan is engaged. When she goes back to the states at the end of her Peace Corps service (she’s leaving me so soon!) she will start the process to be reunited with Robel through a fiance visa. It could take years, but these too can do it! Then they will have a civil ceremony in America and be officially married. Though, I’m pretty sure the events on Sunday were pretty Ethiopian official. I mean, I signed papers in Amharic – do you really think I read them?

 

 

An Ethiopian Wedding

20 Feb

Last weekend I crossed off a Peace Corps bucket list item – attend an Ethiopian Wedding. And boy was this a wedding. Probably one of the biggest events in Gondar after Timket, this was the wedding of one of the Four Sisters. If anyone has been here and eaten at Four Sisters Restaurant, they know how big a deal these ladies are in Gondar. My friend Helen got married to an Australian man named Anthony, who looked a little overwhelmed by the mobs of chanting men at his wedding to be honest. But everyone had a great time, not least due to the copious chunks of raw meat delicacies being offered (I politely declined, been there, done that.)

My invitation on a scroll

My invitation on a scroll

so many people

so many people

Laurissa, Myself, and Morgan

Laurissa, Myself, and Morgan

The wedding lasted for about three days of festivities with my guestimate of over 1,000 people attending at some point during the event. T’ej (honey wine) flowed freely, and it was pretty fun being the some of only white people on the bride’s side. I put on my hasbesha libs (Ethiopian dress, borrowed thanks to Morgan) and we drank and danced. Gondar’s big wigs were all out, almost everyone in the tourist or restaurant or hotel industry was there. Giant tents were set up for the guests and the street kids were out in full force, getting in on the siga wot (meat stew).

so much confetti

so much confetti

Helen and Anthony

Helen and Anthony

This was an interesting event since it was both distinctly Ethiopian, but also she was marrying a foreigner. A white wedding dress, bright pink bridesmaids dresses, and the usual pound of makeup on the women made it a hybrid high school prom, mosh pit situation. We were lucky enough to run in to each of the four sisters as they ran around the guests, though only able to get a photo with Aiden (the youngest, a university student and one of the smartest women I have met).

Myself, Aiden, and Morgan

Myself, Aiden, and Morgan

It was great to mingle with friends and strangers, taking in the spectacle while also a part of it. It typified the existence of a volunteer here. While I was invited and welcomed warmly, there are some traditions I will never quite understand. Both at the party and outside the party, all I could think was, weddings are weddings, in America or Ethiopia. It’s a giant party.

Timket 2.0

11 Feb

Living here for two years you get a few chances to see holiday celebrations. Is this craziness typical? What exactly is a tobat? Do I really have to get up at 3am? These are the questions you have a year to mull over before diving in to the second time on a holiday. This is my second Timket in Gondar. And it’s just as crazy as last year.

watching the parade

watching the parade

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on the way to the bath

on the way to the bath

Priest with an i-pad... yup.

Priest with an i-pad… yup.

Per usual, we started the day before with a parade of the arcs of the covenant down from the 44 Orthodox churches in town. Though not as much of a spectacle as last year, there were just as many people walking right in front of my house.

A priest pouring holy water float

A priest pouring holy water float

We woke up at 2:45am (learned our lesson from last year) and went down to the baths to get good seats on the rickety platforms. Lucky for us, this year they reserved seats for tourists so we just pretended not to speak Amharic for a day. Last year I was right in amongst the crowds, but this year we were more separated. I’m glad I got to experience both. Being in the thick of things last year was a great introduction to my community and the culture. This year, after living her for a while, ya…. I deserved the breather.

dawn prayer

dawn prayer

Fasil Bath at Night

Fasil Bath at Night

waiting for the service

waiting for the service

The rickety platforms

The rickety platforms

Timket in Gondar!

Timket in Gondar!

Timket is Gondar at its best and worst. People travel from all over Ethiopia to worship at the baths, as well as see the sights. A bazaar is set up the week before, tour companies pick up all sorts of business, and professional pickpockets from Addis come up to take advantage. The ceremony is both spiritual and chaotic. Young men jump in with no thought to the significance – one almost fell in before the water was blessed. But as the ceremony moves from religious to more generally cultural, we still get to experience a very unique part of Ethiopian life. This year many of the PCVs who visited jumped in to the pool! I declined, knowing from last year how cold it would be.

 

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jumping in!

jumping in!

the first jumper! right after the priest blessed the water

the first jumper! right after the priest blessed the water

in the holy water

in the holy water

so. cold.

so. cold.

climbing the trees to get a good view - too bad they aren't sycamores, that would have been perfect

climbing the trees to get a good view – too bad they aren’t sycamores, that would have been perfect

Seeing this holiday for the second time, I’ve come to realize how much I really have integrated into life here. Hearing the questions other tourists were asking their guides, I felt pretty knowledgeable. We knew where to go, when to go, and who to schmooze. I ran in to many many friends and acquaintances. It really is a community holiday, and on some level I’m really part of the community now.

so many visitors

so many visitors

priests at service

priests at service

Playing Tourist – The Rock Churches of Lalibela

21 Jan

Christmas Day I walked through the bowels of hell to come out into the light on the other side. Dramatic, non? Well, that’s just how you get around in Lalibela, Ethiopia – tunnels, trenches, on your knees in caves and alcoves. Heading East after the first few days in Ethiopia, my family and I set out to see some of the most impressive monolithic architecture in the world. This is national Geographic stuff people.

At Bet Giorgis, the most famous rock hewn church

At Bet Giorgis, the most famous rock hewn church

through the trenches of Lalibella

through the trenches of Lalibella

my dad at one of the entrances

my dad at one of the entrances

The columns were carved so straight in lines

The columns were carved so straight in lines

Over two days we toured the three compounds of the rock churches in Lalibela, monolithic ones (freestanding), ones that had three sides exposed and one wall attached to the “mother rock,” and cave churches (similar the buildings in Petra, Jordan). Though the monolithic churches were impressive, the passageways, trenches and sheer number of buildings (11 built in just 24 years) made the whole experience unbelievable. King, or Saint, depending on who you talk to, Lalibela built his 11 churches as a 2nd Jerusalem, a place of pilgrimage for African Christians in the 6th or 7th century. Most certainly religious in nature, these churches are still active (with the pilgrims to prove it). The architectural and engineering feet brought the center of Ethiopian political power to Lalibela during that time nonetheless. Today, Lalibela is still a small town, boasting only about 35,000 people, but during holidays like Genna (Ethiopian Christmas on January 7th) the town grows to accommodate 3, 4, even 5 times that size.

praying on the wall, including an ancient swastica style cross

praying on the wall, including an ancient swastika style cross

A priest with his cross

A priest with his cross

around sunset the lichen glows yellow on Bet Giorgis

around sunset the lichen glows yellow on Bet Giorgis

typical Ethiopian Orthodox painting of Mary and Jesus

typical Ethiopian Orthodox painting of Mary and Jesus

wax candles

wax candles

My family and I visited over Christmas, the ferenji kind, December 25th, so not that much was going on. Pilgrims were starting to come in to the town for the big event two weeks later, but really we got a front row seat to these churches. Though orthodoxy really doesn’t come close to my family’s version of Protestantism at all, it was still a powerful experience to walk through and see all the devotion.

an orthodox priest who told me that visiting Lalibela would mean 7 generations of my children would be blessed because it is the 2nd Jerusalem. When I told I had been to the 1st Jerusalem, he changed that number to 14 generations.

an orthodox priest who told me that visiting Lalibela would mean 7 generations of my children would be blessed because it is the 2nd Jerusalem. When I told I had been to the 1st Jerusalem, he changed that number to 14 generations.

A priest with his cross

A priest with his cross

wind erosion

wind erosion

me and the brothers

me and the brothers

priest's drums to accompany the chanting. The leather lashes represent the lashes of the whip on Jesus' back.

priest’s drums to accompany the chanting. The leather lashes represent the lashes of the whip on Jesus’ back.

some amazing carvings and an old Star of David. There is a lot of connection to Jewish history in Ethiopia

some amazing carvings and an old Star of David. There is a lot of connection to Jewish history in Ethiopia

a hermit on pillgrimage

a hermit on pillgrimage

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these trenches provide paths and drainage

these trenches provide paths and drainage

On our second day in Lalibela we took a drive up to Yemrihane Kristos monastery about 40 km north of the town. The monastery is still active as a religious school and houses a few different buildings in a large ivy covered cave.  The priest showed us the carvings by candlelight, bringing us back to when they were first built. Just living in Ethiopia tends to bring you back to Biblical times, with farmers threshing wheat by hand, livestock running over the open air markets and huts that make my theater sets look sturdy. But going through the same unchanged churches and monasteries that people have worshiped in for centuries really brought me back in time.

Ancient Tukul Bets raised and made from stone. Usually they are sticks and mud.

Ancient Tukul Bets raised and made from stone. Usually they are sticks and mud.

our van needed a little help on the sandy roads

our van needed a little help on the sandy roads

Yemrehana Kristos Monastery is in that ivy covered cave

Yemrehana Kristos Monastery is in that ivy covered cave

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Mummies in the monastery

Mummies in the monastery

Yemrehanna Kristos by candelight

Yemrehanna Kristos by candelight

Very different from the historical tours in the Gondar, this was the last stop on our Ethiopian tour. In total we spent just under a week in Ethiopia, which my mom called the “real Africa” part of the trip. Considering how different the culture here is from the rest of Africa, it’s an interesting moniker, but I get what she means. Tanzania was luxury and animals. In Ethiopia I threw my family into the thickest of Ethiopian culture, history, food and even a little language. Recently Ethiopia has been popping up all over the place on top travel lists and best bang for your buck tourism. My home is open!

Nations and Nationalities Day

12 Dec

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Last Sunday was the national celebration of diversity in Ethiopia –Nations and Nationalities Day. There are 87 individual languages and as many cultures in Ethiopia. Most of these are tribal languages that you find on the southern border with Kenya where National Geographic worthy communities like the Hammer Tribe live in the Omo Valley.

But even up north in the more homogenous Amhara region, where I live, there a regional differences and a lot of pride. On the west side, Orthodox Christianity reigns supreme, as well as the typical white cotton dresses. Most cities have their own meskel or “cross,” and the Gondar one looks more like a floral diamond.

Lalibela on left, St. George, and Gondar crosses

Lalibela on left, St. George, and Gondar crosses

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The other common costume is a forest green outfit with white buttons for men. Typical of both the Gondar region and south of us in the Gojam region (which surrounds Bahar Dar) these outfits are traditionally the fancy fare of farmers.

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Amhara has been the seat of power, culture, and ecumenical influence for a significant portion of Ethiopian history. Amhara and Tigray (to the North) are seen as more “traditional” Ethiopia, while the south is more tribal. Tigray boasts Axum, said to hold the Arc of the Covenant, while Amhara has both Gondar and Lalibela for historical and religious clout. Natural beauty also abounds – The Simien Mountains, north of Gondar, and the Blue Nile Falls, south of Bahar Dar are breathtaking and unique.

Amhara Flag

Amhara Flag

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Tigray has the rock hewn churchs of Hauzen, the columns of Axum, and a desert like landscape. Oromia, the largest region in the center and the political rival for the last century, has the lush Awash National park, Wenchi crater, and a lot more beads on their clothing. The South has the Bale Mountains (featured in BBC’s Life), and the most cultural diversity of the regions. Apparently the shakala tibs (charred meat dish) are best down here too.  Afar and Somali regions are majority Muslim, nomadic and have landscape as tough as the lifestyle. Somalia just had a polio outbreak, and I randomly met up the CDC team as they prepared to head out that way… shmerrr. In Afar, the Danakil Depression is the hottest point on earth with lava literally bubbling out of the ground. We can’t visit it as volunteers, but it’s definitely on my list for afterwards!

Muslim student carrying the Ethiopian Flag

Muslim student carrying the Ethiopian Flag

Addis Ababa, Dire Dowa, and  Harar boast their own city principalities, and per my previous post, Harar has an interesting and unique twist to its history.

Other regions in our “no-go zone” include Gambella and BG, on the border of Sudan and South Sudan. I don’t know much about them, besides the refugee camps, but I heard they have giraffes! There is definitely an elephant sanctuary out by Jijiga in the East.

So there’s a quick and dirty run down of the some of the cultural and natural diversity in Ethiopia in honor of Nations and Nationalities Day.

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