The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 27th November 2003

Lalibela, its children and Timkat

Given by - Sue Davies

Reviewed by - Kate Brown


This illustrated talk, given by Sue Davies was a wonderfully colourful, stimulating event which stirred the memories of all of us who have ever travelled in Ethiopia and whetted the appetite of some of us who have yet to witness the amazing spectacle of the celebration of Timkat (Epiphany). Great stamina is needed to attend this festival, which continues throughout the night! The noise, the vibrant colour, the rhythmic drumming and shaking of the sistrums and the solemn chanting of the white robed priests as they swayed hypnotically to and fro, combined to bring the chaotic, crowded scene to life in our dismal lecture room at SOAS. But just in case we became mesmerised by the measured beat of the drums and the rising ululation from the multitude, Sue delivered a loud blast on her Ethiopian horn! The effect of masses of brightly coloured umbrellas was quite stunning and in vivid contrast to the folded specimens which I recollect seeing amongst the dusty, processional regalia in a dark corner of so many of the churches. It would be interesting to learn about the symbolism of the rituals and stately dances that are performed during the ceremonial procession in which a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, draped in sumptuously embroidered cloth, is borne aloft by the hierarchy in their magnificent robes and crowns.

Some of the unique, rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were shown to us, the creation of these unique structures in about the l3th century AD is difficult to comprehend - perhaps the angels were indeed involved! The excavation of the rocky terrain to produce the impressive, monolithic Bet Giorgis has resulted in the symmetrically cruciform church being effectively in a pit, the top of which is level with the top of the church, thus when photographed from a nearby hillock, the dramatic aerial impression is that of a gigantic cross-shaped incision in the ground. Pious pilgrims were seen resting in niches in the vertical rock encircling one of the rock-hewn churches. In response to the arrival of visitors, the appearance of a colourfully robed, turbanned priest bearing the typically curved Lalibela cross draped with a cloth, standing silent and dignified in the entrance to a church, eyes protected from the barrage of camera flashes by dark glasses, may seem slightly theatrical when first encountered but one soon becomes aware of the deeply held Christian faith and religious observance which characterises not only the priesthood in Ethiopia but also the many men and women who walk long distances from their villages to worship in these remarkable churches.

The rock floors of the surprisingly spacious interiors of the churches were seen to be covered in an assortment of old carpets and rushes; drums used in the services were on the floor; goat skins covered the 'seats' - the rock ledges around the walls. The keyhole and swastika shaped windows are interesting architectural features but admit so little light that the brightly coloured paintings on the walls and ceilings are barely revealed.

Sue said something about managing to reach the top of the narrow, rocky defile leading to one of the churches, without falling - so she is evidently not a sinner! Well, fable it may be and whilst I wish to spare Sue Davies' blushes, the video footage of her visit to Emebet (aged 13) and her family, conveyed to all of us the sincerity of the warmth and friendship which she extended to them, and her serious commitment to sponsoring a child in Ethiopia (and in several other impoverished parts of the world!). She is a wonderful ambassador for PLAN, the long established organisation through which sponsorship of a child in Ethiopia, and elsewhere, can be arranged. The ritual of endless, friendly hugs and greetings was exchanged with each member of the family in front of the simple home where Emebet, a happy looking young girl with an engaging smile, was centre stage. Although understandably shy, she did not appear overwhelmed and there was much laughter among the family and visitors. Through an interpreter, Emebet told Sue that she was studying Amharic, maths, biology, chemistry and geography at school (class sizes are enormous by our standards but one suspects that a large number of pupils eager to learn is a lot more manageable than a smaller group of children who do not value education!); she will be able to continue her studies to GCSE level under the sponsorship plan but beyond this, special private arrangements would be needed for higher education. 'A' level study would necessitate attendance at a boarding school which would be beyond the means of most Ethiopian families.

Sue explained that sponsorship is a two-way arrangement: a family must be prepared to work in a way which will prosper their community if they wish for one of their children to be sponsored, and must commit themselves to this end. The family chooses which of their children should go forward and for obvious reasons this will probably be the ablest; regular reports on progress are made by the organisation concerned and ideally the sponsor will stay in contact. Sue's visit to Emebet is a wonderful example of the enormous satisfaction and happiness that this arrangement can bring - to both sponsor and child. Emebet, clutching a little bundle, proudly said that she has kept every card that Sue has sent to her and in the course of the talk it emerged that once a month Sue sends a postcard to each of the several children that she sponsors!

It was interesting and enlightening to discover, from the video and from the commentary given by Sue, the extent of the practical help provided within the local community as a consequence of the involvement of the charity ('PLAN') in Lalibela. Several kilometres of road have been built; houses; a potable water point where the quality is checked every 6 months; a school where 600 children, dressed in the regulation blue school uniform, are taught during the morning and afternoon shifts. The teachers live at school during the week, returning to their far distant homes only at the weekends. A shower block has been built at the school, also play equipment for the children; at the weekend adult literacy classes are held and there are various clubs such as health, nutrition, and plant cultivation. Social issues are addressed and free condoms made available for family planning.

A variety of posters providing public information in a pictorial format are widely used to put across the message that harmful traditional practices of the past, such as genital mutilation, the indiscriminate removal of tonsils, old fashioned ear 'operations', must no longer be performed; others strongly urge the practice of family planning.

Our thanks to Sue Davies for a most informative and entertaining evening.

First Published in News File Spring 2004

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