Ceremonies, Ethiopian style


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Africa » Ethiopia » Amhara Region » Gondar
October 30th 2013
Published: November 20th 2013
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2nd day of building2nd day of building2nd day of building

The school in Ategaye rose a few more levels before we waved it a final farewell. Photo cred to Isaiah
Welcoming the benefactor

Our second and last day of service finished yesterday. I dressed appropriately that time and set to work continuing to build the school in Ategaye. After three hours of slathering, mooshing, and squishing cement between the cinderblocks, my arms were on fire. I couldn’t help but admire Shuli whose perseverance never flagged and who ended up working longer than any of us because she just wouldn’t quit until lunch was right in front of us. By the time the morning ended, the walls were high enough that we were balancing on cinder-blocks placed on top of raised wooden boards (also balanced on cinder-block stacks) that bowed and shook with passing movement. I started to feel distinctly unnerved about the prospect of falling because a) it was becoming much more likely and b) if we fell, what did we have to grab? Grabbing the “wall” would have toppled the entire structure! We ended our work at Ategaye with a lovely home-made ceremony that Isiaiah and Dan (a JDC Service Fellow) initiated. With some help, they made a wooden Magen David from scrap sticks with a paper sign to mark the Jewish cemetery. We trouped together back to the cemetery to hang it. A fitting end to our very brief time in that village.

Today, we have ceremonies of another kind waiting for us. The first is the official opening ceremony of the Gondar Science Center. The center is a walled-off white complex (all buildings of any substance here are walled and guarded) next to a broad dirt football (soccer) field. We are very early or perhaps we are just on time but whatever the case may be, we wait for about 45 minutes or so before any dignitaries start arriving. The American benefactor is arriving today along with the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia. The JDC and this individual benefactor were the ones who funded and provided the support to build the school but I am still unsure of how the Israeli gov’t was involved. The Gondar mayor and other elected officials are present as well as all the key JDC employees working in Ethiopia. In fact, quite a nicely sized crowd has gathered. A musician playing the one-stringed masenko appears in addition to a woman dressed in the traditional loose-fitting white dress with woven embellishments and a hanging sash.

The benefactor and Israeli ambassador pull up and the ceremony starts with singing and music and the beginning of many many speeches. The benefactor, dressed in a muted tropical-esque shirt and an REI hiking hat, seems oversized in this crowd with his height and broad shoulders. The crowd moves along to unveil a sign and then troops into the main building with all the lab rooms. Each room has been dedicated for some type of science, physics, chemistry, engineering, and even plant science. I get temporarily distracted when Judith asks me about a bird in the backyard and I see a lovely black and white bird with an enormously long tail fluttering beyond the windowpanes. It’s gone by the time we’ve scampered outside for a better look, but I identify it as a male pin-tailed whydah (in the bird book that I splurged on in the hotel gift shop).

The ceremony slowly moves into the main lecture hall where there is much speechifying, mostly in Amharic. The Israeli ambassador briefly translates her speech into English and tells us about her struggle from her small village (the one with the intact synagogue we visited, Ambober) in Ethiopia to Israel where education quickly allowed her to achieve her dreams. We are served bottled cokes and a Fanta-type orange soda and the puffy white dabo (bread). The benefactor is gifted with a white robe that is far too narrow for him, but he graciously puts it on and sits for the rest of the ceremony with pinched shoulders. The dancer and musician (both of whom sing) often play and sing a small snippet after introductions or speeches and I gather that the words describe about the event and the people. At one point, there is a long interlude of dancing where the dancer goes over to the various guests of honor and shoulder-dances with them. I have stationed myself on a stool against the wall, turned so I can see the whole of the room easily, and so despite the length of this ceremony, I am quite content to observe and enjoy the breeze coming in from all the wide-open windows.

A country ceremony

After lunch in the city, we journey to another village, Walaj, where one of our service groups was painting a mural for the past couple of days. Here there is another dedication ceremony, for the opening of a new school building. The same benefactor spread his largesse here at the urging of the JDC’s country director. This school is larger than the Ategaye one with two or three long, low-slung buildings and children ranging from five to late teens.

The mural spreads out on a long wall of one of the school buildings, and the non-painters are thrilled to see it. It’s quite well done featuring the periodic table, a diagram of the human body, the solar system, and a map of the world. All these images were brainstormed about during our nights at the hotel and copied free-form from iPhones (we had wifi at the hotel which was a blessing and a curse…mostly the latter, in my not-so-humble opinion) and print-outs from the hotel printer. Quite an accomplishment! While there had been some musing debate about the usefulness of this particular service project, I do think that it was a worthwhile endeavor for its atmospheric purpose. It clearly designates the school as a place of learning and does so in a beautifully colorful and interactive way. While no one can doubt the need for wells, schoolhouses, medical services, and other first-order needs, there is also an imperative to foster a sense
Prettiest solar system you ever seenPrettiest solar system you ever seenPrettiest solar system you ever seen

The painters...with some models. :)
of place and aesthetics. If that mural did that, then kudos to the painters indeed.

While we’ve been taking pictures of the murals, more and more children are appearing. The ones in school wear pink button-up shirts as a “uniform.” (In Kenya, schoolchildren had to wear complete uniforms which I imagine was a costly venture for rural parents.) The little ones start to tug at us and hold our hands, wanting to see the cameras and sometimes asking for our water bottles. A large troupe in full uniform appears, dark green with red and yellow scarf and hat, and we’re told that they are the Ethiopian Scouts. They spread out in two columns facing each other and sing group songs. At one point, they clap their hands to their mouths and howl, in a clear imitation of 50’s-era cartoon images of American “Injuns” howling at the moon and such. My mouth drops open a bit in amused astonishment. Their matching backpacks are stamped with USAID, and I presume the uniforms came from the same place. I wonder how old the Ethiopian Scouts are, to have learned what is now a decidedly non-PC (politically correct) call.

On the other side of the scouts, adults swathed in white being to assemble. Old men lean on wooden walking sticks, men and women wear white scarves loosely wound in layers on their shoulders, some mean sport rounded cloth caps, and teachers come in white lab-coats to denote their profession. I learn that this ceremony has attracted village elders and leaders from many kilometers around as this school is their education hub in the fractured agricultural landscape. A large shade structure has been set up at the far end of the courtyard between school buildings and slowly, with small children dogging our steps and holding our hands, we shift over to the main ceremony. The community leaders have sat themselves in the arranged chairs but I feel at a loss for where to go because I do not want to assert seating precedence over someone more deserving. So most of my group hangs toward one side, near the front of the shade structure. Once again, the dignitaries have lined up in the front, this time facing their audience. While there is still ample movement and shifting about, Isaiah, never the shy one, starts to strum his guitar for the community’s adults. He’s been entertaining the children immensely and quite soon he has the adults laughing and clapping and nodding as well. Then the speeches start and we try to make our hangers-on quiet. I look up and see that Isaiah is now sitting with the dignitaries!

The little ones (and some of the older ones) make it increasingly difficult to pay attention to the ceremony so I steadily unwind myself away and get out into the courtyard where I won’t be rude to not pay attention. I admit I’m getting a little overwhelmed with the attention of the children and would like to be still and observe. But I know that as soon as that happens, some adorable wee one will wander my way and want to play. Ach well. It’s been a long day of standing and sitting and watching and waiting. I’m glad we’ve seen these ceremonies and been here to witness the people who are drawn in to commemorate and celebrate. But I’m ready
Isaiah pleasing the crowdIsaiah pleasing the crowdIsaiah pleasing the crowd

Photo cred to...someone in my group
to have something a bit more personally interactive and educational.

Eventually we do leave and spend our last evening in Gondar at the hotel. After a posh dinner with all the honorables, the Israeli ambassador shares with our group about her experiences emigrating from Ethiopia to Israel and the link she sees between Ethiopian Jews and their homeland. When we ask her about the falasha mora (the group of Ethiopians who claim to be Jews as their immediate ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity) and her reaction is exactly the same as Manlio’s, the JDC Country Director for Ethiopia. She throws up her hands and says “Thank goodness I am not involved with that decision!” (Referring to the recent Israeli ruling that the falasha mora are not Jewish and thus do not have the Right of Return to Israel.)



After our group session, many folks go to bed but I, along with other foolhardy souls, stay up, savoring our last night all together in Ethiopia. We drift in and out of the hotel’s bar, lobby, and outdoor patio, singing songs, playing the guitar, and just chatting. I routinely chastise people for being on their smart phones. But eventually, practicality tugs me toward bed as we have to be ready to go, breakfast in our tummies, bags packed, by 7AM.


Additional photos below
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Homemade memorialHomemade memorial
Homemade memorial

Bringing the wooden Jewish star to the old cemetery. Photo cred to Isaiah
Isaiah in the place of honorIsaiah in the place of honor
Isaiah in the place of honor

After winning over the community with his singing and unflagging energy, Isaiah got to sit with the big-wigs at Walaj ceremony


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