November 19, 2010

Holes, Lakes, Vets, and My Own Private God (oh, and more coffee) (Also, longest blog EVER--sorry!)

I probably should be at least slightly ashamed that today began with me falling in a hole, and nearly concluded with me being locked in a bathroom, but anyone who knows me would probably expect nothing less—I am absurdly clumsy, and I haven’t fallen in public in a few months, so it seems fitting that my fall would be in broad daylight, on the biggest street in Debre Zeyit (and consequently witnessed by many, many people), into a sudden 6-foot drop, because I’m busy looking across the street, trying to avoid getting lost, and resulting in two huge welts, a bloody pant-leg (which would stay with me for the rest of the day), and slightly less embarrassment than I probably should’ve felt (but I have become quite accustomed to the mishaps that my lack of coordination and easily distracted temperament have afforded me).  Nonetheless, today is among the better days I’ve had—an I-need-to-pinch-myself/how-did-I-ever-get-this-lucky? kind of day.

Today a friend of my host family offered to take me out on some hikes and to show me more of Debre Zeyit.  We were to meet at 2:30 and then spend the day exploring the village .(Incidentally, 2:30 really means 8:30am—Ethiopia operates on a 12-hour clock like the us, except 12:00am in Ethiopia is the equivalent of 6:00am in the US, and 12:00pm in Ethiopia is the equivalent of 6:00pm in the US.  In other words, the clock starts when the sun rises and ends when the sun sets.  Overall, I think it’s a much more rational system, however it creates significant confusion for visitors if you forget to specify whether an agreed upon meeting time or event is using the Western or Ethiopian clock.  [Incidentall, Ethiopia also operates on a different calendar, and it’s currently 2003 here…woohoo, looks like I’ll be turning 21 in a week instead of 28!] But I digress…)  At roughly 2:15 I fell in a hole, but still managed to find our meeting spot on time, and we were off. 

We began the day by visiting Lake Bishoftu, my new favorite of the three lakes in Debre Zeyit.  It is the least developed (farenji [foreigner] hotels have a knack for sprouting up on the edges of most of the lakes here, creating beautiful views for tourists, but destroying the serenity for everyone else, at least in my opinion).  All of the lakes in Debre Zeyit are volcanic lakes—meaning they are essentially circular, quite deep, and enclosed by the rim of the former volcano.  Bishoftu is the largest of the lakes and has by far the steepest slope to reach the water.  Navigating the dusty, narrow, near-vertical path down, which is almost entirely free of switch-backs (read: it goes straight down), felt more like scaling a two-hundred-foot cliff than taking a stroll to a lake.  (Normally this would’ve excited me, but I will confess to feeling a tad of anxiety following my display of grace and dexterity earlier in the day.) 

As a result of the sharp incline, Bishoftu is the second-deepest lake in Ethiopia (or so I am told).  Its depth, combined with the difficulty of access and the demon that is fabled to live in the lake and occasionally cause many fish to die and float to the surface (we were in luck and did not encounter any such creature during our visit) render it a fairly unpopular spot for locals to wash clothes and bathe, or to visit in general, for that matter, apart from a few daring swimmers (many of whom were clad only in several pieces of discarded Styrofoam strung together by a rope and strewn around the waist as a sort of lifevest).  Because of its lack of popularity with the locals, it is remarkably clean, relative to the stagnation of the water (since it is a volcanic lake, it is not fed or drained by any rivers or streams), and because there are only a few hotels on its rim, it is almost entirely un-landscaped, so the native plants remain in-tact nearly all the way around the lake.  One of the many things I love about Ethiopia is how many endemic (exclusive-to-Ethiopia) species there are, and Lake Bishoftu is home to many, including many brightly colored flowers, which create bright flecks of color throughout the ridge which surrounds the lake.

Following our descent to the shore, we loitered for a bit, wandering around and observing the various birds soaring from the trees to the lake, and bobbing atop the water, then we scuttled back up to the top of the hill, trudged past the fancy hotels directly adjacent to the slums and shanty homes which are prevalent throughout DZ, and continued our tour of the village.

As fate would have it, Debre Zeyit is home to one of the ten veterinary schools in Ethiopia, and my new friend is a graduate student at the school—both pieces of news delighted me of course, given how much I love animals.  One thing I’ve eluded to before, but haven’t had a chance to write about in detail, is how incredibly impressed I am by the Ethiopian culture’s respect for animals.  Companion cats and dogs are nearly ubiquitous, and unlike Botswana, where any animals you see—regardless of species—are starving and terrified of humans because they are badly abused by almost everyone, in Ethiopia, nearly every animal you encounter, from goats to chickens, to dogs and cats, is entirely comfortable around people, used to being pet and treated kindly.  Many people allow animals in their homes, and all animals I’ve seen are generally as well-fed as their human guardians. 

The only exceptions that I’ve noted are the horses and donkeys used for transport and hauling goods.  These animals are typically overworked (incidentally, this is the case for most horses used for carriages in America, too, so I am not in any way pointing fingers).  However, it seems to be the case that most people here hold a certain level of respect even for these animals—for instance, while I was running, I saw a horse fall down while pulling a cart.  The man driving the cart began to beat and whip the horse trying to get her to stand.  All of the people around, myself included, looked on in horror, but after only a few seconds, nearly a dozen men (and I, of course) rushed to the scene, made the driver stop beating the horse, and gently helped the horse stand.  I’ve seen far worse atrocities toward animals take place publicly in the States, without even a hint of such a reaction, so if Gandhi was right and “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” then I think by that account, Ethiopia is doing quite well.  But again, I digress... 

As I was saying, Debre Zeyit is home to a veterinary school, which also houses an SPCA and horse and donkey sanctuary.  These facilities provide veterinary care free-of-charge for working and companion animals (but not farmed animals which will generate profit for their guardians).  Once my friend discovered my love of animals, he insisted on taking me for a tour of the school.  It was remarkably similar to a University in the States—complete with co-ed dormitories, a computer lab, several cafeterias, and a volleyball and soccer field (none of which are commiserate with Western standards, of course, but they are very nice nonetheless [and the more traveling you do, the less important Western standards of living seem {apart from hot showers, that is…I stand firmly by my adoration of hot showers. And toilet paper}]).  Although I was not allowed into classrooms, the academic facilities seemed excellent and comprehensive, containing everything from a pathology lab, to a surgical lab, and vaccination clinic (and many, many other departments, which I cannot recall at the moment). 

As I’ve mentioned before, another thing I really love about Ethiopian culture is the attention to detail.  As my friend and I were exploring the campus, I noticed something I’d seen almost everywhere throughout Debre Zeyit—most of the large windows had white “X”’s painted on them.  I’d been curious about this for a while, but this was the first opportunity I had to ask what the X’s signified.  I was expecting that they had something to do with construction or window-cleaning.  In fact, my friend informed me, they are to prevent birds from flying into them and dying.  How often does this happen in the States—ALL the time—but our culture is either too callous or vein (or some combination of both) to even permit putting big X’s on windows, let alone making such an act commonplace.  I don’t mean to vent about American culture (as I’ve said before, on a whole, my travels have made me far more appreciative of it), it’s just that it’s nice to experience a culture which has such respect for animals, and which takes the care and effort, even when resources are scarce, to look out for the “little things” like the wild birds. (Another cool random fact: the headmaster of one of my schools has even started a global warming club, working to promote tree-planting and environmental awareness, and his work has dramatically shaped the school campus, but that’s another story…)  It almost makes up for the man who sells goat heads right outside of one of the schools where I teach.

Following our visit to the veterinary school, we proceeded to the second of our three-lake tour: Lake Hora.  This is the one lake in DZ that I had visited before, as was evidenced by the several locals who shouted “Chelsea!” a la Cheers, once I arrived (as a Farenji, most people talk to me and ask my name, and since my name happens to be shared by a football team, most people I meet easily remember it, making such greetings less infrequent than one might expect).  Despite my prior visits to the lake, however, today something quite different was in store.

One thing which distinguishes Lake Hora from the other two lakes in DZ is that it is a holy spot for one of the local ethnic groups.  As such, it is the site of periodic religious ceremonies (I say “periodic” because every time I have asked one of my local friends how often the ceremonies are, I am told anywhere from every 6 months to every year, but each of the three times I’ve been to the lake, there has been some sort of ceremony taking place, so your guess is as good as mine…).  When we arrived at the lake we were greeted by the sweet, spicy scent of incense burning, and smokey smell of roasting coffee wafting up the hill.  These fragrances have become quite familiar in the month or so since I arrived in Ethiopia, as coffee ceremonies are a common way of welcoming a guest (among other things), however my experience today was far from ordinary.

Now, before I proceed with my story, it is incredibly important to me to clarify something: one of my biggest pet peeves is when people go other countries and turn traditional activities and ceremonies into a spectacle, a curiosity; a tourist attraction where other cultures are perceived as strange, na├»ve, and with (usually subtle) condescension.  I do not know how what I write will wind up sounding, and I have no control over how you choose to read it, however I want to make it clear that my intention in writing this arises purely out of respect for the culture, and a wish to share the beautiful experience that I was very fortunate to have.

Anyway…as my friend and I proceeded down the hill towards the lake, we were greeted by a slightly less familiar sight: a crowd of people gathered around a large tree near the lake shore, women adorned in brightly-colored skirts and dresses, with large shawls draped over their heads and shoulders, sitting in several different circular groups.  Several women were standing at the water’s edge, burning incense and pouring perfume, milk, honey, and barley into the water, then walking to the tree and covering various spots on the tree with the leftovers, all the while chanting rhythmic prayers.  Not wanting to intrude, I suggested to my friend that perhaps we should proceed to the next lake, however almost as the words were leaving my mouth, an elderly man from the group approached my friend and began to speak to him in Amharic (or Oromic, the local language—could’ve been either as far as I know…).  I was immediately worried that we had caused a disturbance, but quite on the contrary—my friend informed me that the gentleman from the group had invited me to join them.  I asked my friend if he thought it was a good idea, and he said yes—their invitation was sincere and they would not do anything “weird” to me—so I agreed.

I was ushered into one of the larger circles of people seated near the trees, and immediately cloaked in a shawl—apparently showing your head during the ceremony is very bad—and just like that, I was a slightly puzzled participant.  Inside the circle was a large tray with twenty of so of the traditional small espresso-sized coffee cups adjacent to a pot of coffee already roasting atop a bed of freshly cut reeds from the lake, a dozen or so sticks of incense stuck in various places on the ground, slowly burning away, a large variety of breads—from two-sided injera to the traditional LARGE (2-3’ in diameter) circular white bread, and various others that I am unfamiliar with—and a tray full of roasted barley, peanuts, popcorn, and other grains.  As one of the women roasted the coffee, the others in the circle sat cross-legged with their hands on their knees, palms open to the sky, and heads bowed.  One member of the group chanted a prayer while the others chanted rhythmic “Amen…amen…amen”’s.  After a while, the members of the group began singing an upbeat song and clapping; throughout the song, random members of the group burst out hisses and gutteral sounds, as the rest of the group continued singing and clapping. 

As I sat there rather bewildered, brimming with questions, but not about to ask any of them, for fear of disrupting the ceremony, one of the women in the group presented me with some of the grains, then an elderly man passed around a plate of bread, and the woman preparing the coffee handed me a cup.  I looked to my friend to be sure that it was alright for me to partake in the food and drink offered to me, and he nodded.  As I was drinking the coffee, I was given a large branch of chat—a green leafy plant that many local people chew because it is allegedly a stimulant, slightly less potent than coffee.  Again I looked to my friend, and he nodded that it was okay, and I recalled speaking with a fellow volunteer from England who had tried the chat and said it had no effect on him, other than tasting rather bitter, so I felt it was alright to give it a try.  As I chewed a piece and rapidly concluded that my English friend’s analysis was correct, the group switched back to praying and chanting “amen,” several more women got up to walk toward the lake with offerings of perfume, milk, honey and barley, and the woman began preparing more coffee (indeed, the Day of Six Coffees [see earlier blog] was no anomaly). 

I sat, breathing in the smoke from the fire and incense, hypnotized by the rhythmic chants, and gazing upon the sparkling water in front of me and I suddenly became overwhelmed with gratitude—how lucky was I to be sitting in a country, thousands of miles from my home, amongst people I had just met, and to be welcomed in such a manner—not simply to observe a living culture, so different from my own, but to actually be allowed to participate in it; right now I could be sitting behind a desk doing data entry, but here I was in Africa, having this amazing experience.  And along with the gratitude, I began to feel almost guilty—what had I done to deserve all of this? 

Exactly as these feelings began to swell up inside of me, a middle-aged woman next to me leaned over with a smile, and began to explain the ceremony.  In rather broken English, she explained that the ceremony was about expressing gratitude toward their god for all of their good fortune, and for asking forgiveness for their flaws—remarkably, exactly the sentiments that the ceremony incited in me, without any knowledge of what was being said or done around me.  Possibly a coincidence, possibly I picked up on some subtle nuances which conveyed these ideas, but I have to admit it brought me chills nonetheless.

As the ceremony proceeded, more coffee, more breads, and more chat was served, and the kind woman next to me began sharing more information about the group’s beliefs, and little by little, I gained an understanding of what was going on around me.  Apparently, they believe a fusion of traditional religion and either Christianity or Islam (the woman said that believers of each were present).  They believe that each person has their own private God, a child of the biblical God and a traditional Godess, who takes care of them and acts as a sort of liaison between each person and the biblical God (which varies, of course, depending on whether you are Christian or Muslim).  She was quick to inform me that this personal God is not racist, and even though I am white and do not believe in him, I have one taking care of me as well.  She said that the people at this ceremony all share the same mother Goddess, and she lives at Lake Hora.  When the women pour the food into the water and onto the tree, they are making offerings to their Mother God and her children, and she said that this ceremony is done twice a year: before the winter, to pray for help surviving the season, and after the winter, to thank the private Gods for keeping them safe (incidentally, it’s the end of winter in Ethiopia now).  Occasionally during the songs and prayers, she would translate bits of the prayers to me, and when one elder man let out a startling hissing sound, she informed me that that was the sound of the individuals casting out the devil.

I honestly have no idea how long I sat with the group because the ceremony really is quite meditational and magical, even when you don’t know what’s being said (every time I’d glance at my friend to see if he was ready to leave, he signaled that it was ok—he had already told me he wanted me to learn all about Ethiopian culture, so I think he was actually pleased I was able to have such an experience), but when I got up to leave, I expressed profound thanks, and everyone smiled and waved.  I still cannot get over how incredibly welcoming Ethiopian culture is to guests—and my friend told me that they really liked me, and could tell that I was genuinely interested in learning about them, not just a farenji tourist—which delighted me, as that was my intention.

Following my “religious experience,” we went to the final lake, lake Babu Gaya (I am sure I butchered the spelling there), which was much like Lake Hora—entirely touristy, surrounded by expensive hotels, resorts, and boat docks—although slightly less polluted.  We had a soda as the sun went down—not a bright, colorful sunset by any means, but pretty nonetheless—and then took a bajaj (the correct name for the three-wheeled enclosed motorcycles) to a fairly posh restaurant where I had salad with injera (everything’s better with injera), and almost got locked in the bathroom forever (as soon as I was inside and shut the door, I realized that the inside handle was broken off, leaving me with absolutely no way of getting out; fortunately a staff member quickly came to my aid and opened it from the outside, so it was not nearly the calamity that the day began with, but still demonstrative of my luck, nonetheless), and I returned home.

All in all, it was an incredible day, and entirely exemplary of what I love about Ethiopia—it is full of natural beauty, profoundly rich living culture, and simultaneously evolving with modernity.  Also, it has a lot of coffee.


  1. I love, love, love this blog. How absolutely touching to read how respectfully Ethiopians regard animals and religion. I am so happy that you are diving right into the culture and soaking it up. I wish I could be there with you!! xoxox

    Oh!! I got my card in the mail!! I feel like that was fast!!

  2. Wow, that is really interesting about the calendar and the clock. And how AWESOME that you got to experience that hike! I'm so jealous.

    -Stephanie Cox


Thanks for reading my blog. Let me know what you thought! Respectful comments only, please. :o)