Medical Mission in Ethiopia - Month 8

April 12, 2015 Kristen A. Austin

Today is Ethiopian Easter. It is the culmination after 55 days of penance. 55 days of fasting, no animal products. Mark, the kids and I have not been fasting, we have found ways around this cultural practice. We could have immersed ourselves in the culture and participated, but we didn’t. Instead we discovered what it is like to live as a minority and our slightly different cultural beliefs within another dominant culture. Interesting. During those 55 days I just wanted to figure out how to get around my surroundings. Today I wonder what it would have been like to just immerse myself in it.

Last week was our Easter by the Gregorian calendar. Our American friends received an Easter care package complete with Easter egg dying kits, Easter bunny crafts, and Easter candy. They graciously invited us over last Saturday to partake in the fun. Mark boiled 16 eggs and Laura boiled 24. We have propane, they do not. And as has been so typical of late, the power went out in the middle of boiling eggs. On Sunday morning our family had a fun Easter egg hunt. We then discovered that many of the eggs had not been completely cooked. Ewwww! Aw well. Maybe this is why Easter bunnies and Easter eggs have not permeated the culture here. Santa Claus has made it, but not the Easter bunny and his eggs.

After our Easter egg hunt Mark and I decided our family should try to go to church. It was Ethiopian Palm Sunday. Laura (mom of the American family) had told us of a good experience last year when their family had gone to church. She told us of all the palm branch jewelry the people made during the services, and that her girls had thoroughly enjoyed participating. Josh and Sonja knew about the palm jewelry from their school mates. Josh said that many of his classmates have been making palm rings, crowns and necklaces all week, so this was not anything new. We decided to go to Ledette Mariam (“The Birth of Mary”) Church, near the Guest House. Only, we didn’t exactly know how near it was. About an hour of wandering around and we finally found the church. By this time Josh and Sonja were tired, hot and complaining. We stuck out as foreingees and felt very awkward. There are old castle-like stone walls surrounding the church, and a few gates. It was crowded and we were unable to enter, so we tried to join the crowds circling the crumbling stone walls. This lasted for about 30 minutes before we decided to go home. On our way home a kind-looking older man stopped and greeted us and asked us how we “saw Gondar.” We told him we had just been to Ledette Mariam and his face just lit up. He was so pleased, told us that he was going there to pray, and he wished us a very good day. In the span of 60 seconds this older man turned a very unsatisfying feeling into a calmer, contemplative one. At home, “going to church” usually means that we enter a structural building and try to find a connection with God and other like-minded people in this defined space. I pondered what “going to church” means here, when there are stone walls and gates, no space to enter, crowds of people amassed outside the actual church. Definitions are based on the circumstances I guess.

So today is Easter. It is 1am. I can’t sleep. Neither can the priests chanting for hours and hours and hours. Today is the break of the fast. Today is celebration day. Today people will be relieved of suffering. I have never seen a people take on the suffering of Jesus Christ like the Ethiopians do. This Holy week has been truly incredible. Josh and Sonja told us that many kids went to school without shoes this week, in addition to fasting all day until 7pm. There were many doctors and nurses truly fasting all day as well, although they did wear shoes around the hospital grounds. On Thursday night many people started a three day fast that they will break in just a couple of hours. Friday was a complete day of penance. No school. No hospital clinics. No work. Just prayer. Laura, John and their two girls invited us to join them at Gabrielle Church for Good Friday’s service. Mark and I did not make the same mistake again, and this time hired a bajaj to drive us directly to the church. We were able to meet our friends and enter the gates. Sonja and I joined Laura and her two girls, Lilly and Seybrielle, in the back of the women’s side of the church. Mark and Josh went with John to the men’s side. Again, we don’t actually go in the church, but surround the church. We joined the people who had been at church all day, praying. Actively praying. Standing, crossing themselves, kneeling, forehead touching the ground, then up again to cross themselves and repeat. Over and over and over and over again. For hours. I felt like I was watching hundreds of people solemnly do “burpee” exercises without food or water. Confessing their sins, suffering. Sonja, Lilly and Seybrielle joined the active praying which absolutely thrilled the ladies around us. At one point priests came outside and started swatting people with branches to re-enact Jesus’ lashings. Around 6pm the solemn chanting changed to a fast and high pitched, excited yodeling. Everyone grabbed rocks and started pounding them into smithereens. John (who speaks Amharic fluently) told us this symbolized beating the devil. Based on the exuberance of the yodeling and rock pounding I can assure you the devil has been beaten. Soon after we collectively beat the devil people started leaving the church, but not everyone. There are some truly devout followers who stayed all night praying.

My friend and gynecology general practioner, Semenawit, invited our family to her home for Easter celebration today. Her mother is cooking and several other family members and friends have been invited as well. I am looking forward to this day. Yesterday I tried to make brownies to bring over, but they turned out completely flat. I don’t know if it is the altitude? 6500 feet elevation may do something to brownies. Maybe it is the many little eggs. While in the oven the concoction looked great…all big and puffy. Then it deflated, like a sad soufflé. Maybe we will just bring a bottle of wine.

Work still goes on. I was assigned to give all of the medical student lectures last week and this week and I have spent hours preparing. This is good for me, as I am forced to read text books that I have not read for years. My CME (continuing medical education) usually consists of reading articles and listening to conferences, so reading the standard text books is healthy. We gave oral exams to the medical students the previous week and continue to give “bedsides” and “rounds” three days a week. All in all, it has been a lot of fairly formalized verbal teaching.

The ob/gyn department chair is still absent for a family emergency. Given her absence, I asked the blessing from the remainder of the department to proceed with my project idea to improve the referral system and to expand cervical cancer screening. I have now met with the CEO who promised transportation support. This is huge. My ideas received a boost from Dr. Mulat who told the University Public Health department about my presentation. Due to Dr. Mulat’s endorsement, last week I presented my referral study to the public health directors, Drs Solomon and Abebaw. I so enjoy talking with them. They are enthusiastic and kind people who truly believe we can make a difference, even here. They told me this referral information needs to be presented to the University, so next week I hope to present to the Dean of Medicine and the Health Sciences Academic Committee.

Mark finally came down with one of the Gondar viruses. He had been the only family member to avoid getting truly sick here. The viruses here are tough. They take you down. Mark succumbed and couldn’t get out of bed for two days, but he is fine now. In fact, he is blissfully sleeping while I am up at now 2 in the morning. It is time I try to get back to sleep. I still have another couple of lectures to prepare before Monday. Good night.

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