The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

A Church in Tembien, Tigray, 2005

Author - Dorothea McEwan


In front of the old church
In an olive grove
In a round made up of stone blocks,
Lined by eucalyptus trees,
Bright blue starlings flit to and fro.

In the church,
Paintings painted on cloth, stuck to the walls.
Torn tattered curtains hang in front of them,
a sign of reverence for the stories depicted on the four walls
enclosing the Holy of Holies,
in fact, a biblia pauperum, full of torture scenes.

We enter through the women's door
opposite the men's door,
in between the priests' door and opposite that for god,
which is either only a window or a door which is simply always locked.

Priests and pious faithful touch the wall of the church,
kiss the wall or the doors, cross themselves before entering.
Men and women are wrapped in their white-ish gabis,
two rectangular pieces of cotton,
sewn together.

A priest approaches,
The white turban frames his deeply furrowed face,
leather tanned
broken by bright white teeth.
He brings the key to the iqabet,
The treasure house, a round hut,
Made up of roughly hewn stone blocks,
With one door, but without windows.
Gradually other men approach,
Barefoot, in thick old jumpers and
Trousers with many patches,
A blanket slung round their shoulders and upper torso,
Under which the hand cross is carried,
In a little pocket, ready to be whipped out
To be kissed by the faithful.

A long palaver follows,
Slowly the objections melt away,
The man with the key to the treasure hut
Is allowed to unlock it
And is allowed to carry the treasures
Out into the sunlight
And to show them the foreigners.
The ferenji admire the brightly painted manuscript books, age old,
The processional crosses, the crowns worn by the clergy,
The holy water ewers,
The bells in silver and brass and wood and stone.

We take pictures,
What else can we do?
We smile and thank them, we bow
And we make a donation, followed by a group photo.
Sometimes we are given food,
As an extra,
Bread or an alcoholic beverage made of sorghum and barley sugar
And served from plastic watering cans,
It is opaque, yellowish, even brownish and,
Despite its off putting colour, refreshing.

We look at each other and cannot begin to understand each other,
To comprehend how each other lives,
Only sense what the treasures mean to one group
And what the photographs mean to the other.



First Published in News File Spring 2010

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