A few weeks ago we witnessed the baptism of a wonderful young man. Athian is literally “standing tall in Ethiopia” as he is 7 feet tall and is originally from Sudan. He is 28 years old and after his baptism he bore a powerful testimony about his journey as a “truth seeker” and how he had come to understand that knowledge and wisdom are intertwined as one seeks for truth. As a past prophet and president of our church, David O. McKay, once said, “Wisdom is the correct application of knowledge.” Secular, spiritual, cultural, geographical, political or even trivial knowledge all have their place but the mere accumulation of knowledge does not necessarily make for a wise person. This was also alluded to in Proverbs 4:7 which amplifies the title of this blog with the observation that “Wisdom is the principal thing: therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.”
Our understanding of this world and the world to come, or the eternal nature of things, can re-order one’s priorities. As one of our apostles, Neal A. Maxwell, once said, “Take away the consciousness of eternity and see how differently your time is spent.” Our time is currently being spent on a mission whose “mission statement” is focused on helping others understand the eternal nature of things and how Jesus Christ is the central figure in coming to know the purpose of life on earth and the glorious future that can await us in the next life as we understand the doctrine of Christ. Athian has been immersing himself in the delicious truths of that doctrine and seeing his life in a more than refreshing new light considering that he spent six years of his childhood in a Sudanese Refugee Camp located just inside the western border of Ethiopia.
Athian is the oldest in his family and after his mother died in the camp he and three of his other siblings spent much of their time trying to keep their three-year old sister alive. They would take turns taking her to the “feeding centers” where she received Atmit, an Ethiopian porridge mixture based on a recipe that is centuries old. It is a blend of oat flour, powdered milk, sugar, and salt that is supplemented with various vitamins and minerals. It helps children and others (many times the elderly) who are severely malnourished and cannot digest whole grains and food made with coarse flour. It saved his sister’s life. Interestingly enough, Atmit is produced in Salt Lake City at Welfare Square and is distributed worldwide to various parts of the world where starvation is taking its toll. The first shipment of 80,000 pounds of Atmit was sent to Ethiopia in 2003, after being verified by Brigham Young University nutritionists, to relieve starvation that was threatening 12 million people. What a marvelous application of life saving nutritional knowledge that has literally saved millions of lives.
Athian is Elder Harline’s Home Teaching companion and since I am also Elder Harline’s companion, the three of us went to visit a young family together. Athian was fascinated with the concept that we would go to this home and make sure all was well with the family and that we would faithfully visit them each month. He asked, “Do you do this home teaching in your country?” He was happy to learn that it is a worldwide effort. We just hope that Athian now gets visited by his Home Teachers as well. He just graduated in Sociology from Gonder University last spring and is here alone with his younger brother waiting to see if his brother can secure financial aid to attend another university. After release from the camp, people were given the choice of staying in Ethiopia or going back to their towns and villages in South Sudan. If his brother cannot get accepted into a university they will head back to South Sudan to be with the rest of the family that is now safely repatriated there. He is excited to share the gospel with his family if he does return. The only branch in South Sudan was in Juba, but because of unrest the missionaries were pulled out of there a year ago.
Two weeks ago we also met another amazing Sudanese man, Daniel (not his real name), who spent this past summer in a jungle in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after walking for 67 days from Juba, South Sudan to the northern border of the DRC. He was involved in a palace uprising this past July where only 17 of the 110 soldiers fighting on his side survived. He walked to the border with eleven other men with little food or water but tremendous will to survive so that they could join another 500 troops across the border. This is the result of a huge power struggle between the president and vice-president in South Sudan, which is the newest African country having fought for independence from Sudan itself in 2011. Daniel is a member of one of our branches and was able to be rescued by helicopter and brought back to Ethiopia to be with his wife and young child where he has also been able to receive trauma counseling.
It is difficult to articulate the flood of emotions that flowed both ways between these men and us as they related their stories. It is one thing to read about the suffering and quite another to stand in the presence of one who is sharing with you first-hand knowledge about that suffering and the horrors of war. These are remarkable real people who put a human face on such tragedies. We were reminded of the recent website set up by the Women’s Relief Society of our church entitled iwasastranger.lds.org which allows any of us to help in our own communities and to meet some of these amazing refugees from all over the world.
In keeping with our proverbial admonition to seek wisdom and understanding, here are some new Ethiopian experiences that have increased our understanding and knowledge of this fascinating country.
Some interesting Cultural Knowledge that fosters greater understanding:
- Save the Date:
While we as westerners will be celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1, 2017 it will be just another day here in Ethiopia as they have already celebrated their New Year this past September 11th, a new year date they have celebrated for centuries before it became a tragically significant date for the rest of the world. Ethiopians use the Julian Calendar, named after Julius Caesar, which calculates time from the birth of Christ. However, the Julian calendar fixes that date about 7-8 years earlier than the Gregorian calendar which is the calendar that much of the rest of the world uses. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII became concerned that continued use of the Julian Calendar would eventually move Easter and other religious celebrations from the spring to the fall (due to leap years and a fixed 30 day month), so he introduced his own calendar which is used by the United States and most of the western world. To make a long and somewhat complicated explanation shorter, on September 11th it became 2009 here in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, we do not look 7 years younger now, nor will we look 8 years younger from January 1st – September 11th when we, in the western world, will say that it is 2017.
The Ethiopian calendar has 12 months of 30 days each and a 13th month consisting of five days except in a leap year which has six days. The names of the months are the same as the rest of the world but the 13th month is called Pagume.
- Time Out:
The Ethiopians also use a different time clock in that theirs is based on the Biblical and ancient Hebrew method of time. The Hebrew time was based on a 12 hour day and a 12 hour night with the day beginning at 6am and ending at 6pm. So, night was from 6pm to 6am. Therefore, 7am western time is 1am Ethiopian time as you go back six hours. You can figure out the math accordingly for the 24 hour clock. Many government and public places will have their clocks on Ethiopian time but almost everyone will look at you as a “ferengi” (foreigner) and tell you the time for an appointment or meeting according to western time. There have been a couple of miscommunications for us with our limited local language where we were thinking it was western time instead of Ethiopian time. Six hours is a big difference so it could cause some problems but our situations were very minor.
- Strictly Speaking:
There are two official languages in Ethiopia. The national language is Amharic (originating from the Amhara people in the north) and English. Many people speak English but the majority of people speak only Amharic. This is especially true among women over 30 years old and in the rural areas. English has been pushed in the educational system for only about the last fifteen years or so. This next generation will be fluent in both. It’s a beautiful language but it has proved daunting for us to learn much beyond the very basic conversational thank you (amesegenalo) and hello (selamneh). It has 34 characters that look VERY foreign but can be romanized so we can at least recognize letters. Each of the 34 characters has the same 7 basic sounds attached. So, you have 238 variations along with about a dozen other “exceptions” to learn as well. Add to that the fact that there are at least 83 other tribal languages and 200 dialects also spoken in Ethiopia and that leaves a lot of room for miscommunications! Some of our missionaries are doing remarkably well with their Amharic with only studying an hour or so a day. Oh, to have those young brain cells again!! Most investigators speak English and when they don’t we take along a member who can translate to help us. We have felt the Spirit in homes where only Amharic was spoken but the translation has always been filled with love and understanding.
- MESKEL CELEBRATION:
A very famous and well attended event in September is a huge festival centered around a celebration called “The Finding of the True Cross” which is held in the biggest stadium in Addis Ababa called Meskel Square. Meskel means cross in Ge’ez which is the ancient language of the priests and is still used in their services today. This is similar to how the Catholics used only Latin in their masses for centuries. The “Finding of the True Cross” is celebrated on other dates in the Protestant and Catholic religions but is always around the 27th or 28th of September here in Ethiopia (depending upon leap years). The celebration commemorates a 4th century visit to Jerusalem by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. She had converted to Christianity and is revered by most of Christendom as being one of the most influential converts responsible for the spread of Christianity in the Early Christian Church Era. Hence, she is now St. Helena and is usually depicted in sculptures and paintings as holding a large cross.
Anyway, it is believed that on that visit she had a dream that she should make a bonfire and that when the smoke from that fire descended it would mark the place where the “True Cross,” or the cross on which the Lord was crucified was buried. After adding frankincense to the bonfire (symbolic of earnest prayer) it was lit and the smoke rose up spiraling into the sky. When it returned to the ground, according to her account, it landed exactly on the spot where the cross had been buried.
So, according to local traditions a Demera (or bonfire) of huge proportions is lit by the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church on the evening of Meskel and it burns through the night in commemoration. Thousands of other little bonfires are lit throughout the country in various neighborhoods and villages as well. The sticks and twigs for the bonfire are many times decorated with the Meskel flower, a yellow daisy like flower that also carries significance for the seasonal change from summer to fall. A twist on this celebration for the Ethiopian Orthodox is that they believe a piece of “The True Cross” was brought here anciently from Egypt and is buried on a mountain top in northern Ethiopia which is called Amba Geshen.
People travel from around the world to experience the Meskel Celebration so we were thrilled that our office friend, Habtu, took us there. We also invited our sweet little friends, Ruth (15 years old) and Yabsra (10 years old) and their mother to come with us as they had never been to the BIG celebration downtown. Unfortunately, their mother, Nigist, had to work but she gave permission for the girls to come with us. It was quite a sight to see thousands of Orthodox choir congregations singing and dancing around the square in a long parade of worship, joy and celebration leading up to the lighting of the bonfire by the Patriarch. It is full of pageantry and many colorful displays and floats. At one point we all lit a small wick like candle as dusk began to descend and we couldn’t help but think of the “thousand points of light” analogy.
meskel-celebration-video of the floats (click the link)
meskel-celebration-video of the burning of the tree (click the link)
meskel-celebration-video of the marchers (click the link)
lloyd-pic-video of Ruth playing her pen! (click the link)
As a side note, Meskel Square is also famous as the training ground for many of the world-class distance runners who hail from Ethiopia. It consistently seems to be the Ethiopians or Kenyans who place in the top three of the major marathons throughout the world. Many of the Ethiopian runners train on the terraced steps at Meskel Square. Interestingly enough, if you run the length of all the terraces you will have run 26.04 miles which is just under the distance of a marathon (26 miles, 385 yards). This exact length of the terraces in Meskel Square coupled with the 7,800 foot elevation of Addis may explain why so many Ethiopians dominate the distances. Apparently, Sunday is a big training day and the local amateur runners are asked to stay off of the terraces to make room for the elite runners.
- Ireecha Religious Festival:
nancys-pics-video of the Habesha dancers (click the link)
This is also an annual festival that centers around many of the southern people’s worship of trees, nature and other animist objects. We saw it depicted in a fun evening with our Mission President and his wife at a local cultural restaurant/floor show high lighting the many different tribes and customs throughout the country. It is called Habesha 2000 and it was excellent. Anyway, this particular year this festival, which is held in a city about 30 miles south of here called Debre Zeit, was marred by demonstrations and protests against the government. Over 4 million people attended. Some died and many others were injured.
It has become a flashpoint for unrest that has riddled the country since last November. We do not make any political statements or discuss any policies as missionaries but, as many of you know from world news sites, the upshot is that there has been a “State of Emergency” declared by the government that will last for six months. In a nutshell, we will remain in Addis Ababa along with all of the young missionaries who have come back from outlying areas. We cannot travel more than 25 miles outside of the capital. The presence of the federal police throughout the city has definitely increased. We feel safe so far and will obey the restrictions and hope our work will continue.
Fun Factual Knowledge about Africa and the Church in Africa:
- Africa is the second largest continent in the world. Just to get a sense of the size of it, you could fit India, China, the United States, Mexico and most of Europe into this continent. Japan would be about the size of Madagascar off the eastern coast.
- It is rich in minerals, gold, cobalt, copper, diamonds and many other resources that have, unfortunately, been pillaged by foreign powers and ruthless native dictators over the years. This should be a continent rich with assets and teeming with possibilities for its people but instead it continues to claim the sad distinction of having the most countries below the poverty level throughout the world.
- Church Stats:
Africa is perhaps the fastest growing area for the Church at the moment. Although it is not easy to find people interested in our message here in Ethiopia, the vast majority of the continent is exploding with baptisms and growth. Some interesting stats:
- 500,000 members throughout the continent
- Our Uganda Kampala Mission which includes Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and South Sudan is part of the South East Africa Area which includes 34 countries. We have a presence in 26 of those countries.
- Three existing temples in Johannesburg, South Africa (1985), Accra, Ghana (2004) and Aba, Nigeria (2005). There are two temples under construction in Kinshasa, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Durban, South Africa. Two other temples have been announced in Harare, Zimbabwe and Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
- An interesting side note in that Africa is situated near the Middle East is that there is a stake in Abu Dabi and a district in Lebanon.
We hope as we continue our mission here in Ethiopia we will not only gain knowledge about the people and their land but that we will follow the admonition in Proverbs 4:7 and remember that “wisdom is the principal thing” so that with all our “getting” we may get “understanding.” Hopefully, that will continue to help us love and relate to our new friends here and be able to share our own “understanding” of His infinite love for each of His children.