Maaany years ago, when I was in high school my history teacher wanted me to read a book entitled African Genesis. It wasn’t on our reading list but he had discovered that I was one of six Mormons in our school of over 3,000 students in Northern Virginia and he wanted me to look again at the Christian doctrine regarding creation and whether Adam and Eve were our first parents versus the then current evolution theories. I only remember that the premise was that humanity evolved and originated somewhere on the African continent. Less than ten years later in 1974 the world was introduced to Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old woman whose remains had been uncovered in, of all places, Ethiopia. The story goes that the anthropologists working on the site were playing the Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” when the discovery was made. Hence, her namesake! Her Ethiopian name is Dinknesh which means, “you are wonderful.” She is still here in Ethiopia and her bones lie encased in the National Museum in Addis Ababa. Not long ago we went to visit Lucy and I thought she looked pretty “wonderful” considering her age but Lloyd thought she was a disappointment in that he had expected more bones …. “them bones, them bones, them dry bones” as the old tune goes. Since Lucy’s discovery there have been other bone discoveries which are even older in sites in Kenya, and more recently in Morocco, which make Lucy appear to be a younger relative but still “no spring chicken.”
Then, as now, I subscribe to the other Genesis account found in our Bible. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) and later he created Adam and Eve. In thinking of this “African Genesis” discussion with my teacher it has occurred to me that our mission here in Ethiopia now has a different connotation for me in that our time here has provided us with many African genesis “moments” – “beginnings” of new thoughts and new understandings. We arrived a year ago in May and marvel at all the new cultural and unique experiences we have had. The most meaningful moments have involved deeper awareness that has also produced a greater desire to see things with new eyes and changed perspectives. It is very humbling to see the pervasive poverty and the incredible resilience, fortitude and sheer determination of so many who not only survive but thrive. Ethiopians are wonderfully sincere and loyal friends who help one another with life’s challenges and have a sense of community and neighborhood that the west could more fully emulate. They have inspired us to be better friends, to simplify and reduce our needless dependence on so many material “things” in our lives.
We have also learned many new lessons about patience. Before we came we talked to others who had served in Africa. I distinctly remember one man saying that the greatest lesson he learned on his mission in Africa was patience. I thought at the time that that was an unusual response but now I totally concur. Just like I remember thinking that I was a very patient person…until I had children! Then, I saw a whole different side of myself which, at times, was less than stellar. Living where the Internet can inexplicably “go out” and hours or even days can be spent disconnected has challenged us to not only be more patient but to find more joy in many of the “old school” habits of reading from books or handwriting messages when the systems are down. In fact, as we are writing this we are experiencing a total Internet block out which will last for the coming week due to the fact that it is the week for the National Exams for all graduating high school students. Hmmm, wonder if they were required to read “African Genesis?” This particular shut down is due to the fact that last year some copies of the final exam were posted on social media. The government had to re-write and re-schedule the exam which was a huge headache. This year they solved the problem on the front end by shutting down the Internet for the entire week of the exams. Some embassies have their own servers and are okay but the rest of us will remain silent while the students test out. And this includes limited bank access, government services being significantly reduced and absolutely no data which has remained in effect since the State of Emergency declaration last October. Some people have VPN or other ways to get around the data blocks but not us. For most Americans, it is hard to imagine a few minutes, let alone a whole week, without Internet access. Of course, the government is the only service provider for the entire country.
The electricity goes out at some point each day and now we simply reach for our head lamps and continue on as though nothing had happened. Of course, this was not our immediate reaction a year ago when we wondered just how we could function without the lights on! Our generator was not working for 6 months due to construction at our house so that helped us bridge the shock of no electricity during those days and nights. Now, it’s a quiet, peaceful time and our lamps allow us to do pleasant things like read or just visit together. Hopefully, the genesis or beginnings of these new experiences will translate to a better quality of life when we go home towards the end of this year and drop off in the midst of the holiday hustle and bustle. I admit that the thought of re-entering parts of my former world are a little daunting given this detour from the “fast lane.” As Robert Millet, an LDS scholar, once said, “It is so easy in our hectic world to be ensnared by the peripherals and lose sight of what matters most.”
The month of May traditionally celebrates Mother’s Day, which was duly noted when we spent the day at a hotel where the chef brought out a decorated “Mam’s” cake and invited one of the “Mam” guests to ceremoniously cut it for all the other women present. It is also a month for college graduations and commencement ceremonies. Here in Ethiopia if you are a student body president of your college or university you are tasked with the responsibility of providing the actual graduation day ceremony. This not only involves raising thousands of dollars with your student committee of 10-12 people but it also involves every aspect of the graduation day replete with caps, gowns, food, venue and all of the logistics associated with the day. The Administration of the college or university is not responsible!
On a personal note, one of our young single adults, Jote, will graduate in two weeks from his college where he is student body president and he is feeling the push to get everything ready for the “big day.” He is hoping his next graduation will be from BYU-Idaho. He is a wonderful young man who served his mission in Ghana Accra West where Elder Scott Herrod from our home ward is currently serving. Jote is sharing the same graduation year with our 4-year-old granddaughter, Alice, who just graduated from Miss Megan’s Pre-School! We’re pretty sure Miss Megan provided the mortar board hat!
Ethiopia, as a country, is also hoping to “graduate” by 2025 from its current status among other nations of the world who are listed as LDC (not to be confused with LDS), or Least Developed Countries. The goal is to move from LDC to LMIC, or Low Middle-Income Country status. The metamorphosis involves key sectors of the economy and a benchmark income of $1,000 (USD) as the average yearly income per person in order to move from LDC status. Ethiopia is one of 48 countries on the list. At the moment, the average income in Ethiopia is $780 per year which is up from $505 just two years ago. Middle Income Countries have a per capita income range of $1,036 – $12,615. These guidelines are set by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) whose criteria is designed to ensure continued economic sustainability after graduation. The three main criteria for graduation are Gross National Income (GNI) per capita income, Human Asset Index (HAI) which measures such things as the percentage of the population who are undernourished, the under-five mortality rate, mother’s mortality rates, the number of students in secondary school enrollment, and the adult literacy ratio. A country needs a score of 66 for graduation and UNCTAD scores Ethiopia at 39.2. The third criterion is the Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) which has several categories like population size (Ethiopia has over 106 million people; second only to Nigeria’s 167 million in Africa), remoteness from world markets, merchandise export concentration and how much of the economy is based on agriculture. More than 80% of Ethiopia’s population depends on agriculture. The top percentage should be no more than 60%.
So, the government is working hard, building lots and lots of high rise condominiums in efforts to move the population into better housing and provide employment. They are also attracting foreign investment, particularly the Chinese, in trying to build up their manufacturing sector. There are hundreds of greenhouses lining many country roads which supply the flower market. Roses are the main flowers grown so here is definitely where you want to buy your two dozen red roses for Valentine’s Day since it is about $3.00 (USD). Lloyd splurged and bought me a bouquet this year. There is a huge manufacturing complex AND Outlet Mall that is being built in Hawassa which is about five hours south of Addis Ababa. Big names like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger are coming here to take advantage of cheap labor in their factories. China is no longer the big market for cheap labor. Places like Ethiopia and other African countries are now their target. Workers will make less than $5.00 per day here.
We had some good mission news this month in that there was a baptism of two young brothers, Eebba and Moti. They are 8 and 10 years old and were taught by Elders Schweitzer and Neff. Their father is a member but has not attended much until recently and he wanted his boys to be taught by the missionaries while he sat in for some nice review for himself. They are such good young boys. We also experienced one of those delightful moments when someone finds you rather than you finding them and asks to hear more about the gospel. Two men just appeared at our office door and asked if we had missionaries they could talk to about our religion. They had heard about our church from a friend and were interested enough to look on line and not only find out more about our beliefs but also if there was a church here in Addis. They took several taxis across town to find the church. Their names are Emmanuel and Thomas and the missionaries are having fun teaching them as well.
We also had a delightful Primary experience in Hawassa this past month as we were serenaded by three darling children singing “I Am a Child of God.” They even had a little dance going. Primary Kids video (click on) A far more interesting dance was one we witnessed in heavy traffic and performed from the back of a big truck. “Dancing in the Truck” video (click on) We think they were celebrating a sports victory but we are not really sure. They were having a great time, though. These trucks also pick up day laborers and just pile them in the bed of the truck like sardines and head out to a construction site. We see them every morning on our way into the office. People ride on tops of hay stacked donkey carts, trucks with well stacked loads that the driver would like someone to “watch over” from their perch on the top of the truck, and even on tops of buses. No one ever gets stopped by any policeman as it is just one more mode of transportation for goods and people.
We have now experienced some of the unique Ethiopian holidays, many of which we have already shared with you, and we have learned a lot about how they honor and celebrate such universal experiences as birth, marriage and death. As we have been shopping for food or other items in some of the local stores we have always noticed a rather extensive birthday party isle. It may be hard to find other party items but there are always a LOT of children’s birthday items. We found out why this past month when we attended a fun birthday party for two of Habtu and Hana’s children. Party Fireworks video (click on) Habtu is our office manager who keeps things running smoothly while navigating through tons of bureaucratic tape for missionary passports, work permits and residence cards just to mention a few of his responsibilities. Of course, the very poor do not have these elaborate birthday parties. But, it is very common for families to combine the birthdays of children who were born within a month or so of each other. This is somewhat due to the many days of fasting that are observed in the Orthodox Church where members fast 45 days before Christmas and 55 days before Easter each year. There is also a significant Muslim population (30%) who co-exist very peacefully with the rest of the community and who also observe their yearly Ramadan fast. It is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, such as uttering the Shahada or profession of faith, prayers, almsgiving, a pilgrimage to their sacred city of Mecca and then Ramadan, which marks the onset of revelation to Muhammad and is held in the ninth Islamic month. The Ramadan fast just began the end of May and lasts for 30 days. It is observed from 6am to 6pm meaning there is no water or food during that 12-hour period. So, Ethiopian families have to use the in between time of Orthodox and Muslim fast days for birthday celebrations. Habtu’s little girl, Mekeda, turned 1 year old on April 11th and his son, Abel, was 7 years old on May 29th. So, they split the difference and went all out with a party on May 6th. There were probably 60 people there, tons of food, firecrackers, party favors and lots of fun. The attached videos explains it better than we can. “The Noise, Noise, Noise, Noise!” video (click on)
We are grateful for the diversity that surrounds us. Each morning we awake to the rhythmic chanting of the local Orthodox priest offering prayers and scripture readings for the services that begin at 3am and continue on throughout most of the day. Usually these are amplified by megaphones. When we first arrived last year, we would wake up at 3am and wonder how we were ever going to get a full night’s rest for 18 months! But now, we don’t really hear it until we are ready to get up a couple of hours later. Kind of like buying a house next to the Amtrak tracks in our hometown of San Clemente – after a while you don’t even notice that the train has gone by! Amazing how the cultural adjustments eventually integrate rather seamlessly.
Just down the road from us is a green domed mosque where the faithful are being called to prayer five times a day. Within walking distance of our office there are also two evangelical churches, The Glorious Life Church and The FBI Church which in the USA might raise suspicion but which actually stands for Faith Bible International Church. They use loud microphones to magnify their sermons. They are generically called “Protestants” but we have yet to see a traditional Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian church. If someone says they are “Protestant” it almost always refers to membership in an evangelical or Born Again church and their membership signifies their “protest” of or disagreement with the Orthodox Church doctrine. We are clearly the silent minority with regard to megaphones and microphones but we are always grateful to be able to speak up and share the powerful message of the Restoration of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with Christ himself as its head. It is this diversity that weaves such a rich tapestry of thought and religion and which is so wonderfully stimulating. We have come to know and love so many people of different faiths and persuasions. Truly, it is an “African Genesis” that continues to educate and uplift us.
Lloyd and Nancy