Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lost and Found in Addis

I walk through the cool, dusty morning toward the blue domes of a nearby church, blurry from a night of insomnia. My camera is heavy in my bag, my skin prickles under my jacket from the chill.

The gate to the Bole Medhane Alem, an Ethiopian Orthodox church, is flanked by women selling incense, their heads covered in thin, white cloth. One speaks to me in Amharic until she realizes I can't understand. A man is kneeling beside me, head touched to the cement.

As I enter the gates, the stained glass windows and pillars come into full view. The church is fairly new, with smooth walls and marble floors. I step slowly, first to snap photos, and then because I realize I know nothing about this tradition or its rituals or how to respect the faithful.

Watching the women around me -- most dressed in long skirts and yards of white cotton wrapped around their shoulders and heads -- I pull out the silk scarf I use to protect my camera lens and cover my hair. I step up to the door of the church where people have discarded their shoes and several are kneeling at the entrance.

I've observed many houses of religion in different coutries, but never seen this kind of prayer. Women cross themselves, and then pray with their hands outstretched to the ceiling, almost as if wailing, but with little sound. They move their palms close and then apart, and bow repeatedly. The bare feet, the incense -- these remind me of temples in India. But the light filtering through blue glass, the gilded altar -- this reminds me of Rome.

I make my way around the biggest church in Addis and enter through the main door.

Sitting in a pew in the church, someone's walking cane at my feet, I am suddenly overwhelmed. There are sonorous chants and whispers and men and women bowing their heads to the ground in every corner, murmering toward the altar. But I also feel a deep sorrow, an ache like hunger in my stomach, a shortness of breath in my lungs. Tears crawling slowly from my eyes.

I sit for minutes that feel like hours, words forming in my mind and then quickly dissipating, meditating on the women before me whose faces seem to be etched with unanswered prayers. I wonder if this is the culmination of the last few non-stop days -- of asking so many questions, of soaking in so many familiar, yet completely foreign, sites. The unrestrained reflection of the hungry children that have always, and will always, circle in my mind in every country.

Eventually, a woman walks over to me and grabs my hand with a smile. "Sit here," she says, leading me to her pew and I realize I've been unraveling on the men's side. We meet eyes and laugh and I sit with her for a minute before turning around to leave.

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