January has been a “New Year” filled with lots of new experiences for both of us. We celebrated our “second” Christmas on January 7th, the Ethiopian Christmas, and ate a traditional Christmas dinner with our church employee, Habtu, and his family. His wife, Zinash (aka Hana), is an excellent cook and made wonderful injera complete with lamb and other “wots” which are deliciously spiced meats and vegetables that you wrap up in the injera (a spongy type of bread made from the teff grain) and shove in your mouth with hands only. They provide water in a small basin to wash your hands before and after you eat. There are dozens of shepherds herding hundreds of sheep and cows roaming the side and main roads and filling the medians on special holidays. Unfortunately, their price is elevated. The normal price for a lamb is 80.00 USD or 1800 BIRR but during these holidays it can be as much 200.00 USD. So, most neighbors pitch in to buy a lamb or a cow. A cow can be as much as 900.00 USD or 20,000 BIRR. If there are not others to help in the holiday sheep/cow purchase, then another Christmas treat is to have a chicken. A live chicken is about $7.50 but it is $12.50 during holidays. We have no idea how to usher a live chicken across the eternal veil but we just bought a bag of frozen chicken breasts for 32.00 USD and there were only eight breasts in the bag. Costco is such a deal!
The lamb, cow or chicken must be bought on the morning of Christmas since it cannot be slaughtered before then due to the fact that the Orthodox Christians complete their 45-day holiday fast (no meat or dairy during that time) on Christmas Eve. A man does the slaughtering and must be Orthodox. By the way, when Muslims have their holidays and kill a lamb or cow it must be a Muslim man who does the slaughtering. It is VERY important that an Orthodox person not eat meat which has been prepared by a Muslim and vice versa. This has been one of our best Christmases ever and we will always remember it.
Other exciting news this month is that we have received six new elders and will soon be receiving four more elders who are being trained in Uganda before they come. This will bring our missionary numbers up to 12 and we are so happy to be back where we were (we had 10 before) when the State of Emergency shut things down last October. We have only been able to have four elders here in Addis for the past three and a half months and they have been working very hard. Now we can open up the outlying areas again as things have been very calm now for the last two months. These six elders added to the two staying here are all from America and the next four are all Ethiopian young men who were adopted by USA families and are now coming back to their homeland to serve. Two of the Ethiopian elders speak Amharic as they were adopted when they were older. The other two were babies when adopted so they are excited to learn their native tongue and we are excited to meet them and serve together.
We also had a new Branch President called in our Hawassa Branch (about 5 hours away from Addis) and he is a young returned missionary who served in Ghana returning six months ago. His name is Geleta and he was called two weeks ago by our Mission President, President Collings, as that branch is under the Mission. He is only 23 years old, and has been in the process of applying to BYU-Idaho (not an easy process). But, President Collings felt inspired to call him. He is like young David of old and has such a good heart that he said, “I want to do whatever the Lord wants me to do.” Eventually, he wants to be a medical doctor. The branch is struggling and some of these young returned missionaries have served as branch presidents and have revitalized several branches in the mission. Most branch presidents serve for two to three years as the demands are so high. Well, he is the only member in his family and it is a very big thing to get accepted and go to school in the USA. He just received his acceptance a week ago. His family is NOT happy about this delay in his education even though President Collings will try to make sure there is a deferment for him at BYU-Idaho. This was an amazing experience to watch the process of revelation since President Collings had never met Geleta and it certainly didn’t look like he would be the next branch president on paper. Geleta lives about 30 minutes away from Hawassa and his transportation is by bus. He rides to church on Sunday with several youth who live in an orphanage and their sponsor provides the van to church. Geleta is an inspiration to all of us.
Last week Lloyd also released a young Ethiopian elder from his mission to Ghana Accra West only to learn that he was in the same mission as our own Elder Scott Herrod from our home ward in San Clemente. They both know each other well and Elder Desta, whose name means joy, said Elder Herrod was a terrific missionary. It was a “joy” to meet this good young man and have such a “small world” moment with him as we discovered that Scott was even taking his place as Assistant to the President there in the mission.
We also had a VERY unique experience this month in that we were able to travel to southern Ethiopia and visit “The Tribes” as they are called. This area of Ethiopia is called the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region. They live as they have always lived for hundreds of years in very primitive conditions and immersed in cultural traditions, dress, and lifestyles that have never changed. As senior missionaries we are occasionally allowed to travel in areas of our mission away from our daily office and other responsibilities and this was a special treat. I remember reading about some of these tribes in a National Geographic magazine when I was about 13 years old and I was fascinated that they lived in such remote areas and under such primitive circumstances. I mistakenly thought that they were in several countries in Africa but have learned that they are ONLY here in southern Ethiopia. Lloyd remembers reading that same article but little did either of us realize that we would actually meet some of these people someday.
I remember being particularly struck by a picture of a young girl who was also about 13 years old and who had a large terra cotta plate fastened into her lower lip. This was considered a thing of beauty and is still practiced by the Mursi and Suri Tribes but it was horrifying to me as it had said this was a mandatory rite of passage for a young girl. Today the government has intervened and it is no longer mandatory. But, many young women still choose to do it as their culture does view it as enhancing their beauty and, their “bride price.” The bride price is another cultural tradition that many governments in Africa are trying to abolish but these things die hard and that is especially true with these primitive tribes. Most men have, on average, three wives and the dowry or bride price for each wife can range from 30 to 125 cows.
These people live isolated, extreme, and particularly harsh lives in the very arid part of southwestern Ethiopia. Many are nomadic and, like the Massai in Kenya, their existence is dependent on their cattle which they use for milk, clothing, dung mixed with mud for their huts and cow hides to sleep on. However, some huts are only made with wooden poles providing some ventilation and escape from the heat. They eat beef only on special occasions and largely subsist on cow milk mixed with sorghum or maize to make porridge. Some tribes also keep poultry and donkeys as livestock. Beekeeping provides food and generates some income as well.
The men daily tend to the livestock and the women manage the huts on the home front which is usually a happy playground of dozens of young children from babies to about five years of age. The little ones wear no clothing which heat and lifestyle dictates. We have a couple of young grandchildren who would love those conditions! The older children and adults decorate themselves in bright colors with beads, red clay face and body painting, feathers and even scarification. Their clothing is mostly worn on the lower part of their bodies. In some tribes, the men wear only a light weight blanket tied with a knot over one shoulder. Most own only one shirt which they will wear once a week to a market day where they will sell goods and socialize with other clans and tribes. Many times they will walk several miles over desolate terrain to go to market.
Hamar woman with necklace that signifies that she is the first wife
The women in different tribes also distinguish themselves from one another by way of hair styles and adornment. For example, the women of the Hamar Tribe have distinctive rows of braided hair that they “highlight” with ochre or red clay and then smooth over with butter giving it a glistening effect. Except for scant coverings of beaded goat or cow skins which signal if a woman is married or single, there is very little clothing worn. It is very hot, dry and dusty where they live except for some who live by the Omo River which also affords them some fishing perks.
Some of the tribes are friendly with one another but many have inter-tribal conflicts and war “heroes” who have not only defended their village but have been honored as great hunters if they have been able to provide food for many in the village. These men are distinguished in many of the tribes with unique ornamentation, such as designs in their hair augmented with red clay and feathers. Sadly, the current neighboring conflicts in Somalia and Sudan have introduced guns, as in left over AK-47’s. Now, the inter-tribal conflicts are more deadly and even the bride prices can include a gun. However, some of the tribes do co-exist quite peacefully with one another and even help each other at times when there is severe drought or over grazed land.
We noticed that there were many different spellings of the tribal names so we have used those we saw most frequently. Here is a list of some of the tribes we visited and some of their cultural distinctions with pictures to illustrate:
- Dorze Tribe
The Dorze live where false banana trees are plentiful, meaning they do not produce bananas. They use these trees for almost everything from house construction to “banana” bread. Their beehive shaped huts have ceilings 25 feet high to compensate for the onslaught of hordes of termites that will eventually eat away at the hut’s foundation. Within 30 to 40 years the walls will deteriorate and the hut will shrink to about ten feet! They are called “elephant huts” since they resemble the face of an elephant complete with eye holes for ventilation. The Dorze are also remarkable weavers creating many brightly colored fabrics. Lloyd modeled one of their “warrior” fashions.
- Hamar Tribe – As mentioned before, the women are well known for their distinctive red clay hair and butter shine. The women wear many beaded necklaces, arm bands and waist bands. They are pastoral and share their land among the group. The young men also participate in a cattle jumping ceremony when they come of age by running on the backs of cattle, sometimes as many as thirty. They need to do this three times without falling to marry their bride. This ceremony then qualifies him to marry, own cattle and have children.
- Karo Tribe – The Karo women also dye and butter their hair but they cut it very, very short and tie it in bulbous knots. They are famous for their artistic face and body painting and layers and layers of beads for necklaces. They live by the river and fish and hunt. As with most of the tribes their huts are rounded, made of sticks and mud and stand about 5-6 feet high.
- Mursi Tribe –This is the tribe where many of the women wear the “terra cotta” lip plates. They also remove their two front bottom teeth so that the plate fits better. They do take it out to eat. The Ethiopians and many others affectionately call them the “Big Lipped Tribe.” They also pierce their ears with large plugs. As previously mentioned, this is considered to enhance their beauty. For ceremonial or special occasions the women also adorn their heads with cow or goat horns. The men do stick fighting called Donga and it is at once a dangerous, fierce and artistic confrontation involving combat with a long wooden pole. The Mursi are tall and striking and these are the men who only wear a blanket tied over one shoulder. Both the men and the women wear their hair very short, almost shaved. They have more conflicted relationships with their neighbors than any other tribe.
- Dessanech Tribe – They live in the Omo River delta and we reached their village in a dug-out canoe. Their name means “People of the Delta.” Their round huts were actually a conglomeration of tin, plastic tarp and twigs. For special occasions the women adorn their heads with pop bottle tops strung together in a headband and the men (like many others in the region) always carry a very small, curved, and many times intricately carved, wooden stool to sit on and even to rest their neck. The women were very friendly and even invited me to dance with them.
- Ari Tribe – The Ari are agriculturalists and produce a wider variety of crops than any other tribe and they live in a more fertile area called Jinka. They do not use modern firearms but will defend themselves with spears. We watched a craftsman make a 6-inch blade knife using hot coals over an open fire fueled with bellows made from rubber inner tubes. The knife itself was made out of 3/8-inch re-bar. Another woman shaped a ceramic bowl in record time. The Ari get along with most of their neighbors except sometimes they are not so neighborly with the Mursi. When they are at war with the Mursi they do not allow them to come to their weekly markets.
- Konso Tribe – This unique tribe lives in huts on hillsides they have terraced for crops. They have been declared a UNESCO site and have received help in maintaining their culture and terraced farming. They also build large rock walls to delineate boundaries within their settlements. Another rock tradition involves a man being able to lift a huge rock weighing at least 200 pounds and throw it over his head. If he accomplishes this task he is eligible to become a warrior. The children love to receive small bars of soap so we had some fun “soap dispensing” moments.
Another highlight was a boat ride on Lake Chamo where we stopped at a crocodile sun bathing spot. We saw at least a dozen of the biggest crocodiles we have ever seen rather up close and not so personal! The lake was also full of hippos but everyone knows that no one should get very close to a hippo or the boat could experience a severe “hiccup.”
We left with deep impressions as to the “worth of a soul” and with a reverence for the diversity of cultures not only here in Ethiopia but all over the world as people have carved out their own survival methods and individual expressions and interpretations about the meaning of life. The common denominator remains that we are all His children and He loves each one of us.
Finally, this month on January 19th we witnessed perhaps the most colorful event of the year for the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church. It is called Timkat (also spelled Timket or Timqat) which means “baptism” in Amharic and is the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany commemorating the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. It is also celebrated by Orthodox Christians all over the world but in Ethiopia it is an elaborate three day celebration. Here, each Orthodox church has a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (which anciently housed the 10 Commandments) and it is only brought out from the church once a year for Timkat. The Ark is called a Tabot and is their focal point of worship. On Timkat it is covered with brocade or velvet and is carried from each church in a grand procession replete with hymns, dancing, chants, and accompanying horsemen as several priests offer brocade umbrellas to protect the Ark and the main priest who carries it on his head.
Several church congregations can converge but all are heading to a river or other body of water (such as a pool) where the Ark can be immersed in the water not only symbolizing Christ’s baptism but commemorating one’s own baptism. It is NOT a re-baptism, however. The theme of Timkat is actually one of forgiveness, peace and foregoing any past grudges and the people are happy, friendly and dressed in their very best. Once the water destination is reached the priest offers a 2am prayer (like a mass) to the faithful who are spending the entire night camped out there. After the Tabot is immersed the water is blessed by the priest and then at dawn the holy water is sprinkled on those in the assembled crowd. Some people even jump into the river or pool of water, the largest being in a city up north called Gonder, where a pool which is 10 feet deep and about 60 feet wide and 120 feet long is filled with water as hundreds jump in. The Tabot then makes a triumphal return to the church the next day in all of the congregations except those churches named for the Ethiopian’s favorite saint, Saint Michael. For those churches the Tabot is returned on the third day once again amidst joyful dancing, singing and much jubilation until the Ark replicas are brought out next year on January 19th (20th during Leap Year).
We viewed the procession not far from our home and had one of the missionaries staying with us as he was awaiting his companion coming the next day from Uganda with all of the other new missionaries. He is Elder Quinton and he is a great missionary who will soon be going to Hawassa. We also celebrated the day with our dear Orthodox friends, Ruth, Yaebsra and their mother Nigisti who made a fabulous meal for us in their home. She is a terrific cook and provides us with the BEST bread and injera in Ethiopia! Ruth is 15 years old and told us of an old Timkat tradition when young men would notice a young woman in the crowd and would express their interest and admiration by throwing a small lemon at her. But we didn’t notice any lemonade making when we went. It was a wonderful day and now we look forward to their Easter (Fasika) traditions as the next big holiday.
We remain deeply grateful for all of these “New Year” experiences that continue to broaden our love and understanding for these wonderful people and their unique cultures. Most of all, we are truly excited about the gospel work moving forward with these terrific new elders who “have desires to serve God” and are “called to the work.” We know that these humble young men will continue to “serve him with all (their) heart, might, mind and strength.” (D&C 4:2)
We hope you are all having a “Melkam Addis Amet”, or Happy New Year in Amharic, and that 2017 will be a great year in your lives.
Lloyd and Nancy