The wedding season has well and truly begun. Every Saturday and Sunday, long processions of cars, taxis and minibuses, all garlanded in ribbons, crawl along the lanes of the ring-road in Addis, horns blaring and bridesmaids leaning out of windows waving flowers for the benefit of the camera crew in the lead vehicle. During the long Orthodox Lent, no weddings can take place – and once the rains come, no one wants to get married, so everyone who does want to marry is doing so right now. No one minds when the convoy occupies the roundabout by the Sheraton for ten minutes or so, circling long enough to get the best shots of the newly-weds against the background of the most opulent hotel in Ethiopia.
Sadly, many families put themselves into huge debt to afford the wedding of their dreams – white dress, white cars and white ribbons and flowers decking the aderash, the wedding hall. But clear evidence, if evidence were needed, of an emerging middle class in Addis Ababa. In the countryside, of course, it’s a very different story…..
The annual exams are nearly upon us and the students, conscientious as ever, want to do well. But many of them live in a single room, with parents and many siblings, which means that it is difficult (impossible, even) to get the peace and quiet they need to study. Many of them resort to sitting up all night, burning the midnight oil, at home – and going into School the next day. Something we could never have done – and hardly the greatest revision-plan.
So, imagine how amazed we were when 66 students petitioned us to keep the Community Library at St. Matthew’s open all night, three days a week, so they can study? They’d thought it out – the gates should be locked at 8:00pm, to stop people going out or coming in; they’d take out any books they need before the gates are closed and only study in the long reading room; and they’d willingly sign a paper promising to act responsibly and to maintain quiet in the compound.
We’ve given them the benefit of our doubt – and agreed. Let’s hope they do as well in their exams as they need to if they are to escape the crushing poverty so many live in.
We got it. A large piece of land in Itang, in a place where the Nuer and Annuak peoples’ traditional lands meet. Michael, our Dinka priest there, works closely with Luk, the Annuak deacon. Their synergy is so powerful that the church is growing fast, so on that land, we have started to build a “proper” church – stone foundations; strong wooden walls, mudded, plastered and painted; topped by a corrugated iron roof – and a huge wooden cross mounted to the east wall, outside. When we visited, the walls were erected and the task of fencing the land was about to begin.
To me, one of the most beautiful features of the land is the shade provided by the twenty or thirty mature trees east of the church – already, we can imagine meetings, feasts, TEE classes and literacy training taking place under their shade. But all this comes at a cost – land, church and fence are costing us £12,626. Not much by UK standards – but a huge amount for us. And there are at least five other places waiting for us to do the same for them.
We set off in beautiful light. Orange/gold hues reflected on tree and leaf and turned the red-dust road into a golden thread stretching to the horizon, where iron-grey and ink-blue rain clouds were building up. The first rain came two hours into the journey, turning the now black cotton soil of the road into a slippery, sticky quagmire. So it took us three and a half hours, all-told, to reach Nininyang for the confirmation service that Sunday.
Nininyang – the place evokes images of suffering for me. Three years ago, many of our people had been displaced there without warning; and for the last six months, armed Murle tribesmen, crossing the border from South Sudan have raided cattle, burned homes and taken children to sell in the slave market in Khartoum. On a regular basis. Niniyang – I had never been before and we were both excited and slightly anxious. But the town was beautifully set-out. Newly-built tukuls (grass houses) lined either side of the dusty road and the church, our Anglican church, crested a small hillock, protected by a grass fence enclosing a modest compound.
The church itself is tiny – it probably only seats 40 people, but outside stands a beautiful tree, with long branches that sweep the ground, forming a natural shelter. It was there that Peter, newly ordained deacon, had prepared for the service. 150 of us sat in a huge circle under the tree, as the wind began to stir the dust in the compound and lift the cloth on the altar. The rain started, part-way through my sermon.
Nothing more than a gentle spray at first, but soon so heavy that we all abandoned the tree, to squeeze into the tiny grass church. As all150 wet bodies stood shoulder-to-shoulder, by the light of two candles, I finished my sermon as the rain eased outside. Peter and I decided to brave it and stepped outside for the actual confirmation. Fortunately, the soil there is very sandy so it has begun to drain, leaving only small puddles. But there, one-by-one, 68 people knelt to be confirmed – and as they did so, the heavens opened again.
So, imagine the scene – candidates either crammed inside the church, or pressed close to the fence, waiting for their name to be called – and then dashing out to kneel before their bishop, rain-drenched hair and mud-splashed robes hanging limp as, one hand on my pastoral staff and the other resting on each head and drawing the cope around each one in an attempt at shelter for us both, I prayed those beautiful words, “Confirm, O Lord, your servant N., with your holy Spirit.”
There has been an election at home and we were supposed to vote. We’d arranged for postal voting papers to be sent from the London Borough of Barnet, where we are registered as UK voters, but they never arrived. The volcanic dust plume that brought air traffic to a stand-still had disrupted the postal service and they’re still struggling to catch-up.
So, as the new UK government settles into its stride, we shall, we imagine, receive papers inviting us to play our part in the democratic process – too late. How good to be reminded that, however well-made our plans, nature will not always oblige. And to experience, once again, the inequalities that exist still, today, in our shrinking, globalised world.
We’ve just bought nineteen chickens and a cockerel, all Rhode Island Reds, because “ferenj” (foreign) chickens lay larger eggs than the local hens. We built a chicken house at the back of the house, against the corrugated iron fence separating us from our neighbours’ wattle and daub houses. Paulos and Israel, our two house guards, both come from poor families, so we’ve designed and worked on this project together, with them, so we can share the profits – eggs every week and, at the end of two years, the promise of a hen or two to eat.
Story by Bishop Andrew and Janice Proud
16 May 2010