January 24, 2009

The light shines in north Africa

A PC (USA) missionary letter from Ethiopia

by Bruce and Lora Whearty
PC(USA) mission workers

ADDIS ABABA ― As one of our final activities in language school, we attended Nationalities Day, a celebration of the different ethnic groups of Ethiopia.

We crowded together with our teachers into the little blue and white mini-buses that serve most of the people of Addis Ababa as vehicles. They are called 'blue donkeys,' and cluster together in herds at particular points around the city. They follow specific routes back and forth between the gathering points, but have no schedule. They wait until they are full before they go.

Each little bus has two workers. The driver's sole job is to keep the passengers alive in the stampede through the city, while the second man serves as a conductor. He collects money from the passengers, tells the driver when a
passenger wants to get off before the end of the run, and hangs out the open door yelling the destination of the bus to attract more passengers. "Piazza, Piazza, Piazza!" or "Mexico, Mexico, Mexico!" (Yes, there is a major square
called 'Mexico,' but no one has yet been able to tell us why.)

The blue donkeys form an amazing network, an above-ground subway system with each 'car' separately vying for passengers so that it can leave first. They move millions of people per day, careening through the city, for prices
between seven and 21 cents, depending on the length of the route.

We got off our blue donkey at Mexico and walked along with the crowd to the center of Addis Ababa, Meskel Square. We passed some groups of dancers from the south, all dressed up in traditional costumes and eagerly warming up, so we got to watch their dances close up.

Then we were swept into the growing crowd and pushed into the main square. We have no idea how many people were gathered. Half a million? A million? Perhaps the entire population of our native Montana, crammed into one sunny,
windy square lined with flapping flags from the different regions of Ethiopia.

There were families with little kids riding piggyback above the crowd, students in their school uniforms, trying to stick together in the press of people, businessmen and women dressed in stylish western clothes, dozens of
different traditional costumes, and pickpockets galore. Stealing is so common in this culture that the index finger is called the "thief finger" ― the one used to hook something out of a pocket.

Abuba, our young, muscular, six-foot-four teacher, watched protectively from behind us. He called out, "Right, right, go right!" when he saw a fight breaking out on our left, and at one point grabbed a man reaching for Lora's purse.

Abuba calmly stood on one of the thief's feet, looked sternly down into his face, and twisted his arm while the thief cried out, "I didn't know they were with you!" That evidently is a reasonable excuse here. It's sort of wrong to steal, like a misdemeanor, but it's a real offense to hospitality to steal from a countryman's guest.

The Prime Minister gave an unintelligible speech, garbled by the loudspeaker system and the breeze, and then the different groups of 'nationalities' paraded in. From our vantage point, we could generally only see tiny, brightly-colored specks across the milling crowd. "That group in red are all holding long spears!" or "Those guys in leopard skins have antelope horns on their heads!" we pointed and exclaimed to each other, and gasped with the whole crowd when two hundred Oromo horsemen, carrying lances and shields and wearing baboon manes in their hair, suddenly galloped the length of the square.

It was an amazing display of diversity, a celebration of tolerance. Bare-breasted young dancers from the south, naked above the waist except for beads and initiation scars, stood alongside completely draped Muslims from the north, their plain robes fluttering gracefully. On this particular day, the southern lances and the northern scimitars were only for show and went unused.

Later in December, a group of missionaries gathered one evening to sing selections from Handel's Messiah, accompanied by a tape recorder. It's a tradition here, a way for the expatriate community to celebrate Western-style

No rehearsal. Only a couple of men. A variety of voices, some creaky with age. And the right to get up between movements to help ourselves to more cookies! The whole idea seemed ridiculous to me.

Then the power failed, and we had to find batteries for the tape player and candles for us to see the music. Hunched over our music in the dark, straining thinly at the high notes, and trying to follow the little tape recorder, we
were touched by the experience. Somehow, crowded close together in the candles' glow, 21 expatriates from eight different nations claimed this great message as our own, and we moved beyond our ridiculous inadequacy to a deeper sense of community and joy.

Lora and I celebrated our Christmas with laughter. We had bought each other gifts at an NGO bazaar, splitting up, carefully avoiding each other, and then glancing both ways like thieves before quickly paying and stashing our
purchases in shopping bags. When we unwrapped our presents Christmas morning, we discovered that we were exchanging beeswax candles from the same booth!

We wish for all of you this Christmas season a celebration as profound as ours. Look out for your more vulnerable neighbors in the crowd and come to their protection. Stand next to someone who offends you, without judgment, and
dance. Claim the right to sing in your own voice, especially in times of darkness. And light your evening prayers with sweetness, given and received. Remember to carry the light forward, week by week, day by day.

Information about and letters from PC(USA) mission workers throughout the world is available on the Mission Connections Web site


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