Comboni Lay Missionaries

Mourning and Healing

CandelThe traditions of mourning the death of a loved one here in Ethiopia are some of the most different to us coming from a western culture.  Funerals are significant occasions here that involve the entire community. A white tent pitched alongside a house or the street is a sure sign of a family in mourning. When a person dies, mourners gather at the deceased’s home to comfort the family. The mourning tent will remain up for more than a week and during that time the family is never alone. Friends and relatives (and distant relatives and acquaintances) will come by each day to speak and offer their condolences but mostly to sit in silence with the family.  A typical funeral may be attended by thousands of people.

The family is usually a member of a local community group called an Idir.  It is a self-help funeral insurance club, and members meet monthly to make decisions about funds.  At the committee members’ discretion, funds might also be used for credit or during times of hardship. A typical Idir may be composed of 50 families.  Every month each family in the Idir contributes approx 15 birr (1$) to the fund, and if someone in their family dies, a sum of money will be given to the family to help with the costs of the burial and funeral.  While the family is grieving, the Idir will also quickly mobilize to make decisions for them and provide the mourning tent, large pots for cooking, utensils, chairs, benches and tables.  The Idir’s whole raison d’être is to provide a dignified and proper time of mourning for the family and it does this by lifting the entire weight of funeral logistics and finances from the family.

When visiting the family’s house to mourn, it is amazing that many times no words are said at all.  People will come and go, without saying anything or without even directly greeting the mourning family members. Sometimes in life words are insufficient and Ethiopians abide by this truth when it comes to mourning.  The important thing is to be present.  A few times, my (Mark) whole office has been closed for the entire staff to go mourn.  Our whole group (with women wearing black scarves over their heads) would enter the compound or house and sit down in silence on long wooden benches, with seats closest to the mourning family being presented to the elder or highest respected guests.  We would sit in silence for maybe half an hour with a piece of bread or roasted barley being served to us.  Then after a suitable amount of time, Fr. Sisto, the director of our office and most elder (with appropriate white hair) would stand and say a few words and a prayer for the deceased and the family. Our whole staff would then process out quietly without a word.

Forty days after the death there is another big celebration to mark the end of the main mourning period.  Typically during the forty days, family members of the deceased would wear different garments (mostly black) and hairstyles (widows often cutting off their hair).  Many times some relatives would come and sleep at the mourning family’s house for the entire 40 days to ensure that they are not alone.  A small memorial altar is usually assembled with a photo of the deceased and a burning candle.   The 40 day celebration typically involves a memorial mass at the church (for Orthodox and Catholics) followed by a meal at the family’s home. The white tent will be set up again and members of the Idir will come and help with cooking and preparations.   In October, the father of one of our closest friends died while I (Maggie) was working in the south and being in the rural countryside I didn’t receive the news until a few days after the funeral.  After returning from the South, I really wanted to attend the 40 day celebration to give my support to her and her family.

Our friend lives in Awassa but her family is from the small town of Kebre Mengist about 10 hours away. I stayed at her house here in Awassa the night before our departure so that we could catch the 4am bus together. We arrived two days before the celebration to help with preparations.  We walked from the bus station and were in the middle of normal conversation as we entered the family compound when suddenly everyone burst into tears and wails.  This was a final outlet to release the residual sadness that still remained. We wailed until one of the elders, an Uncle, simply said, ‘it is enough’ and then we moved on.

The next day at dawn an ox was bought and slaughtered and women began arriving in large numbers with baskets of onions, garlic, tomatoes and carrots tied on their backs.  They sat under the shade of the trees, working away at peeling and chopping vegetables or sorting lentils in colourful woven baskets, and chatted as they worked.  The full day they prepared stews and injera for the next days’ lunch.  I joined in and they let me stir the stew in a massive 200L pot. The work was broken up by coffee ceremonies throughout the day. Incense wafted in the air. People sat and people stayed.

They appreciated that I wanted to be there with them, and I was even given a sleeping place of honour in a bed (..with my friend and her aunt!). Eight other relatives slept all around us on various forms of mats and mattresses on the ground.  The mass at the Orthodox Church the next morning was simple and meaningful and hundreds of people came afterwards to share lunch together.  For us, we barely left the sleeping room all day. We sat, and people came, and rested, and told stories and shared memories.  There was far more talking than during the days immediately after the death, which reveals that the 40 days of intense mourning, letting all the feelings and tears out, has brought a healing that may otherwise not have come without this journey.

– Maggie

Maggie, Mark and Emebet Banga, Comboni Lay Missionaries, Awassa, Ethiopia

Nomadic Healthcare

croppedThe mission of Dadim is located in the remote Borana zone in the far south of Ethiopia, near the border of Kenya. The name Dadim comes from “dakkaa diimaa” which means red stone and the origin is obvious after placing your foot on the bright red soil of Dadim for the first time.  The road from Awassa until the turn off for the mission is relatively good because it is the main asphalt road that connects Ethiopia to Kenya. But the final 11 km to the mission takes 1 hour in a good 4-wheel drive during the dry season and becomes impassible in the rainy season.  There are two priests here, Fr. Boniface from Kenya and Fr. Iede, from the Netherlands, and 3 religious sisters, Anila, Annie and Shirley, from India who together operate a parish, school, community centre and clinic.  Fr. Iede has spent the better part of his life here in Dadim – he arrived in 1973 upon the request of the Borana Elders to establish the first education services in the region. He slept the first two years in a tent.  Despite the Borana elders lack of formal education, they identified education as a priority and hoped that a higher educational level would prepare their children to cope better with the changes affecting the pastoralists as a group. After establishing the first school, the focus shifted to health and in 1981 the first healthcare services began.  Dadim’s location was selected since it was in a “no-man’s” land located between the grazing areas and major water points of three pastoralists ethnic groups: Borana, Guji and Ghabra. This would mean that all three groups would peacefully have access to educational and health services with school children remaining in their surroundings and therefore in touch with their indigenous pastoralist life style.

Walking into the Dadim Clinic today, after 30 years of development, we were quite impressed with the polished setup. We were however surprised to see that only 15 patients will come for treatment on any given day despite it being the main health centre in the area serving approximately 27,000 people.  This is because the Borana people are largely pastoralists (semi-nomadic animal herders) and especially now during the dry season they are moving from place to place in search of food and water for their animals.

Cattle and camels are fundamental to their way of life. In the dry season the whole concentration of the Borana centers on water and grass – two vital resources for the maintenance of their herds and consequently their livelihood. The Borana have developed complex management systems and societal rules for the access rights, control and sustainable development of the two precious resources of grass and water. As the dry season causes sources to vanish, they pack up their simple grass houses and few possessions, and simply move closer to the last valuable sources like water bore holes and hand-dug wells.  The Borana diet revolves mainly around milk – from cows, camels and goats.  The annual cycle of rainy and then dry seasons can be seen in the physical appearance (and underlying health) of both the people and their herds.  Both go from plump to withered, from vibrant to emaciated as the seasons roll on.

Given the pastoralist lifestyle, health care delivery is a challenge to say the least.  The Dadim clinic remains as the central treatment hub, but the health care program involves a massive outward deployment into community based health care.  For this reason three days a week the staff go out to find the Borana wherever they are – delivering anti natal care, vaccinations, and some limited acute patient care truly in the middle of nowhere!  Actually, it is not in the middle of nowhere for the Borana (the clinic has a set of 15 health posts with a network of community health workers who mobilize people to the posts), but it sure feels like it is.

When we were visiting Dadim, we accompanied the sisters and staff out to one of these remote outreach health posts.  It was an adventure to find the road (or rather make our own road) through the thorny acacia tree covered savannah.  Nausea was the theme of the trip as the 4WD lurched up and down over the water-chiseled landscape. When it does rain here on the savannah, it rains hard – so hard that the parched ground instantly becomes a flood zone and this violent flow of water scars the land.  On the drive we saw gigantic hares, tiny dik dik gazelles (the size of small dogs), beautiful zebras and of course lots of camels.

Finally we spotted our destination – a small collection of mud huts on the crest of a hill. We parked the car under the shade of a tree and began to unload little tables, chairs, record books, a cooler storing the vaccines and other supplies. We could see woman and children converging, ascending the hill from all directions. When some older children saw the Sisters they affectionately called out “Yoya!” which means I embrace you.  There was one vacant mud hut which seemed suitable for children’s vaccinations, another hut for ante-natal care and the acute patient care would be provided from the back of the truck.

The Borana people here are completely different from the Sidama ethnic group with whom we work and live in Awassa.  The Borana women wear vibrant clothes and large beaded necklaces, and have their sleepy sweaty-faced babies tightly wrapped in colourful fabrics.

The women came from both near and far and stayed most of the day under the shade of the tree, laughing and chatting with one another. There was a public health nurse, a local Borana man, with us and at an opportune moment when all were gathered together he gave an ‘awareness creation’ lesson on HIV/AIDS which included sharing the benefits of voluntarily getting tested.  Throughout the day, upwards of 150 women arrived for this ‘mobile’ clinic.

This kind of health care delivery is not without serious challenges, both practical, financial and clinical. Sometimes the sisters and staff end up travelling on very bad roads for up to 90 km, and then work in the heat all day, without proper lunch. Also, the costs of fuel, trucks and bonuses paid to staff make these trips very expensive. The health care quality offered through the remote outreach posts is low without a proper place to perform patient exams, limited equipment and without laboratory facilities.   The Dadim clinic is working to evolve the health care model by training a network of health extension workers (such as Traditional Birth Attendants) who actually live in the Borana communities. They are also strengthening the services offered through the central clinic. Now after decades of supporting the local people to achieve higher education in healthcare, 20 of the 22 clinic staff are local Borana.  That means that local Borana are serving their fellow people to work together to build stronger society. So as the pastoralist lifestyle inevitably changes, the Borana will be better equipped not only to navigate the change but help plot its course.

– Maggie, Mark and Emebet Banga, Comboni Lay Missionaries, Awassa, Ethiopia

A nomadic population

migracionIn our parish we are in constant contact with about  4,000 pygmy-Aka people who are nomadic by nature: cross borders and change of habitat constantly making difficult our work with them, but we must respect their vital rhythms dictated by the nature around them if you want to work with them. But in these times of crisis, more than ever, I realize that the Bantu population also has an unimaginable mobility: crossing borders without papers or passports, change of family, of village with an ease that makes me suspicious that it isn´t a desire to travel or sightseeing … they are moving from one place to another because of poverty, family instability or dramatic situation in the country.

An illustration will serve as a sample. In October 2010 we made the census of Christians in our communities; now, three years later, we are electing new leaders and we wanted to see that census. The community of St. Augustine had 178 baptized three years ago, today has only 76: 12 died in recent years, 25 has fled as refugees, 32 are moved to another region, 15 changed their religion … in every community something similar happens. St. Kizito had 173 and now there are 78, St. Charles Lwanga had 189 baptized and now there are 111. More than half of the population has changed housing and lifestyle in just three years.

At present about 20% of our population is displaced in neighbors Congo Democratic and Congo-Brazzaville or in another Province of the country … In the meantime we continue with the refugee camp of Batalimo that houses 7,500 Congolese for past three years.

The image that characterizes Africa is people on the go, people from one place to another… Migration is not new, and at the time our ancestors “homo erectus” and “homo habilis” they migrated from Africa to Europe and Asia giving rise to white and Asian people. Yes, although many do not like the idea, the origin of mankind is in Africa, from there we proceed… Africa remains a reserve of life. Let us see if the West would take a benign view on the land of our ancestors.

Africa is moving, Africa is a nomadic continent. Move with Africa!

Jesus Ruiz, MCCJ in Mongoumba. Central African Republic

Perseverance – the race of all Ethiopians


“Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  – James 1:2-4

Ethiopia has been known for her long distance runners since 1960, when a shepherd’s son, Abebe Bikila, stunned the world by winning the Olympic marathon gold medal running barefoot in Rome.  Ethiopians dominate the endurance races, which is particularly amazing for a country well acquainted with poverty, famine and war.  How do they do it?  Some say genetics or high altitude training, perhaps the running culture and presence of role models, or patriotism.  I think there is something more – a virtue that permeates not only the athletic world but all life in Ethiopia: perseverance.

A few months ago we watched Town of Runners, a documentary film about young runners from Bekoji, a small highland town in Ethiopia, which has produced some of the world’s greatest distance runners.  At the heart of the film is Sentayehu Eshetu, also called “Coach”, the man who has formed most of the young runners for 25 years on a voluntary basis.  At dawn each morning he guides an enthusiastic group of 250 youngsters through a punishing workout.  In the film, Coach is asked “what does it take to be a great runner?” and he replies three things:

  1. Food
  2. Rest
  3. Perseverance

His list surprised me, because to be a world class athlete elsewhere in the world, surely the coach would have said talent or natural ability.   The first two points illustrate the challenge of poverty in Ethiopia (which I witness on a daily basis), where food is often scarce and survival means working long hours without rest, farming by hand and ox, tending animals, hauling drinking water and collecting fire wood. Reflecting on Coach’s third point is a key for me to understand not only the successful athletes here but the Ethiopian psyche.

What is perseverance? It is the continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition. It is a virtue that forms the strong character we have witnessed in our colleagues, friends and community here.

One of the first Amharic proverbs we learned upon our arrival to Ethiopia was:Qes be qes enkulal be eger yihedal.”  An English translation would be “slowly slowly the egg will walk on his legs.” Or in other words “perseverance enables one to accomplish great things”.   Haile Gebresellasie, one of the world’s most highly decorated runners, grew up 10 km from the nearest school. There was only one way to get there: run. Be it hot, cold, windy or rainy, he ran ten kilometers to school every morning, and the same back every evening.  This put a lot of miles under his feet.  You may even notice a peculiarity in his running posture that his left arm is still crooked as if holding his school books.  Haile is perseverance and his 27 world records attest to it.

The Ethiopians on the podium demonstrate this trait clearly to the world but it is present in the rural villages, in the mother persevering with a baby tied to her back completing daily chores despite no electricity and water, in the strong faith in God of the Christians here, in the high school student persevering with her homework sitting on the mud floor by candlelight, in the farmer persevering in the heat of the day weeding fields by hand.  It is a virtue taught by the difficulties of life here.  There is no other way but to persevere.

– Maggie

Maggie, Mark and Emebet Banga, Comboni Lay Missionaries, Awassa, Ethiopia