Timkat!

My poor blog (and readers!)… I’ve been pretty neglectful of posting these last few months, and I do apologize! Part of it has been that internet access is more tricky to come by lately, but nevertheless, I’ll try to post more regularly!

This entry describes a beautiful holiday in Ethiopia called Timkat (Epiphany), celebrating Jesus’ baptism. It’s one of the most important Christian feast days here, with much of the country gearing up for its celebration on January 19. You could sense the excitement in the air days beforehand, with everyone bustling about doing their last-minute shopping, buying sar (the grass spread on the floor for holidays), etc. Finally, the big day arrived. I was a little confused about the exact time and place of the celebrations, as everyone I talked to gave me different answers! So I decided to wander along the streets near my apartment and see what I could find.

With all the luck of the random wanderer, I peered down a small sidestreet and noticed a church tucked away at the end. Seemed like a good place to start. When I got there, it was pretty quiet, but from the policemen roaming around, you could tell something was about to happen. (Plus there was literally a red carpet being rolled out from the church to the street! Interestingly, though, no one was walking on it. I later found out why…) This is what the church’s courtyard looked like when I first got there:

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Gradually, more people started arriving…

Girls at the church

Collecting donations

…And then, almost out of nowhere, a sea of people, nearly all dressed in white, rounded the corner!

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Countless numbers of children emerged, clapping rhythmically and singing energetically. It was so gratifying to see kids who were so clearly excited to be taking part in this ancient tradition. Their voices sparkled like their smiles in the bright dry air. After the children came a number of different priests, wearing distinct robes and tall hats to mark their rank in the church, and looking very distinguished as they leaned on their elaborately-carved staffs.

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Finally we saw what all this had been leading up to: many of the major churches in Ethiopia have a replica of the original Ten Commandments, and on Timkat these tablets are removed from their normal resting place in the church, and carried throughout the town. Two high-ranking priests carry these (very heavy!) objects on their heads, wrapped reverently in fine cloths and shaded under umbrellas from the harsh sun. The red carpet is rolled out as an honor to the tablets, so only the highest priests actually step on the carpet; it’s rolled up before and after they pass by.

The replicas of the Ten Commandments
The replicas of the Ten Commandments

The combination of the clapping, singing, and drumbeats that both caused and echoed the building excitement that was seizing the crowd was invigorating! As the large procession headed towards the street, all the people started following them. The leaders marched slowly up the street, and at most of the main shops and businesses (which were set to welcome them with banners, music or sar grass liberally covering the ground), they would stop and give the store a blessing. With an enormous and ever-growing number of people joining the procession, the crowds were HUGE – luckily the pace was slow! I also had the great fortune, at the very beginning, of meeting an incredibly sweet woman, named Yeshi, and her daughter Dael (Die-elle). The three of us quickly became close, as we traded experiences about the different worlds of the US and Ethiopia. When I asked Dael (who I think is about 12) what she was interested in (thinking she might reply with something along the lines of movies, or a popular Ethiopian singer), she replied “I am interested in math and physics. I really enjoy doing calculations.” Oh, ok! She then asked which university Einstein had taught at in the US, and when I replied “Princeton”, she nodded thoughtfully and declared, “I want to study at that university, so that I can continue Einstein’s work and finish the equations that he has not solved yet.” Wow! And in a country that still has a major gap in literacy & education rates between females and males, to see a young girl in particular with this kind of drive (and in a subject area which even in the US is fairly male-dominated) was pretty darn inspiring! I also loved Dael’s grounded confidence, and the kind way her mother looked out for me.

The street the procession marched along, packed with people! This was one of the largest celebrations in the city, and I heard there were over 1,000 people there! I believe it :-)
The street the procession marched along, packed with people! This was one of the largest celebrations in the city, and I heard there were over 1,000 people there! I believe it 🙂
Yeshi and Dael
Yeshi and Dael

After 4 hours, we reached the end of a road that normally takes 20 minutes to walk! The awesome thing about this celebration was that 1. Nobody seemed to mind this at all – the point was not to get to the endpoint quickly, but to enjoy the experience of the procession. And 2. People were not just trudging along; instead, nearly the entire 4 hours, everyone was chatting cheerfully with their friends. We were also lucky enough to be close to a few groups that were constantly singing! I wish I had better pictures / video of this energetic joy, but by then my camera battery had died. However, before that point, I had at least gotten a video of the children singing, which I posted on You Tube. You can watch it… when I get good enough internet to upload the video to You Tube! Check back in a few days.

So by this point, the entire procession had reached a large open field, which normally serves as a football field… but today was where priests had gathered, about to spend the whole night praying and blessing some holy water. This water would then be sprinkled on those who came the next morning to receive its blessings. Some of the most devout lay people were also planning to spend the night in this field—I saw some women next to me in the procession carrying sleeping mats. It was past sunset when we entered this field, so Yeshi and Dael prayed for a bit, then we headed home. They got up super early again the next morning to receive the holy water, but it had been a long week at work so I didn’t have the energy to join them. By the time I got there at 7am the next morning, that ceremony had already finished. However, when I asked people how the priests managed to “sprinkle” water on such large crowds without it taking all day, I was informed that the water is more often sprayed out of a fire hose!! Blessings with an attitude… 🙂

Here are a few shots from that morning:

Leaving the soccer field after getting blessed with holy water
Leaving the soccer field after getting blessed with holy water
These velvet umbrellas make an appearance on church holidays
These velvet umbrellas make an appearance on church holidays

On the way back that morning, I saw an adorable site. Given that this was such a special day, all the kids were dressed up in their finest, so one family naturally wanted to take advantage of this to take some pictures of their little boy. They’d plunked him down in the parking lot of a hotel that was all decked out with Timkat celebrations, and were getting pictures as he sat there looking cute. They laughed as I asked if I could do the same.

Just chilling out in the parking lot :-)

Huuuuge cheeks (in Amharic "gunch" - isn't that the perfect word for the cheeks of this little guy?!)
Huuuuge cheeks (in Amharic “gunch” – isn’t that the perfect word for the cheeks of this little guy?!)
Who's da man? ME!
Who’s da man? ME!
Another little friend spied in the crowd :-)
Another little friend spied in the crowd 🙂

That next night, Yeshi and Dael invited me over for dinner, and I was once again blown away by the generosity of people who don’t have much, but share what they have. As we slipped through photo albums, reincarnating memories and their feelings, I felt very much at home in this country and culture that is nearly 7,000 miles from my birthplace. I guess that’s what love and friendship can do 🙂

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