ETHIOPIAN EPIPHANY: IRABUNTI STORIES
A female monk was passing by a small town. Tired and thirsty, she asks a local woman who sat by a small hut for help which the lady refuses to offer. The monk, upset by the response cursed the woman,
“Bal Echi!”, “Never find a husband!”
According to an old woman I met during the Ethiopian Epiphany celebration in Irabunti, “Balchi”, a town about 150km North of Addis Ababa was named after this myth. It is said that the town will never grow or change because of this curse. “Husband” stands for not just a companion of life but of growth, development and prosperity.
Taking the small distance it has from the capital city into account, Balchi was far from my expectations. It is a town with poor road facility, poor phone network, and poor electricity with no sign of infrastructure under progress. As I’ve come to understand later, the single and most important thing that was welcoming about Balchi was the friendly people you can find on every corner of the town.
Getting off the bus and standing on the unpaved dusty road with my purse and a shoulder bag, I told myself to be ready for whatever was about to come.
There are only three restaurants in Balchi and only two of them provide rooms to spend the night. “Fana” and “Workeye” both named after the ladies who own them, offer beds from 30 -50 birr ($1.50 – $2.5) per night. I haven’t had the chance to check at Workey’s but the bed at Fana’s was not bad at all except that shower and toilet are not provided in the room. If you want to shower, the servants will bring you water in a ‘baldi’ or a jerri can.
As I put my bags down in my room, I felt a sense of relief. It was like part one of my journey has ended safely and with no problem at all. Lying on my back on the bed, I started once again recollecting and reforming how I ended up here at Balchi in the first place…
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.”
– Freya Stark
I woke up at 6am the next morning feeling great as if everything was all like a dream.
“Where am I?”
“Did I really spend the night alone in a 50birr room?”
Were the kinds of thoughts in my mind! It does feel pleasant to wake up alone and wonder about what is going to wait for you outside.
After fifteen minutes of getting ready, I arrived at the church on time to photograph the beautiful ritual. Teens at the service of the church sing while walking on lines to the left and right of the Ark whereas other followers of the church dance and celebrate at a 50 meters distance.
Many Elder women and men sing verses like
“እስኪ ወ ንዜን ልቃ ኛት…ወንዜን ልቃ ኛት….
እመ ቤቴን ባገኛት….ወንዜን ልቃ ኛት….
እስኪ ወ ንዜን ልቃ ኘው…ወ ንዜን ልቃ ኘው…..
መ ድዬንም ባገኘው….ወንዜን ልቃ ኘው…..’’
“Let me go to the rivers
Let me go to the rivers
If I can find his mother and Jesus
Let me go to the rivers…..’’
As the ark passes through the houses in the village, the women will go out of their homes to put leafs on the ground for the ark to walk on. And the ark will pass by blessing the gifts of wheat and other grains on its way. This walking, pausing and singing along continued at least for 5 kms and before the sun completely sets, we reached to the grass field where the celebration will take place.
At the riverside, hundreds of people gathered around the tent where 37 arks of different churches are. Every year, the faithful spend the night here at the river side praying, singing and watching at the priest’s service.
Later at night, I wore the thin blanket I had and tried to have some sleep on the grass by the river side.
Considering my phobia for spiders, I can say that I barely slept the whole night. Around 5:30am, just before the sunrise, a few priests and the crowd walked to the river. After a small prayer in Geez, the ancient language of Ethiopia which is now spoken only in the Orthodox churches, the priests blessed the river with a cross. This was followed by a crowd jumping naked into the river which is now as cold as ice.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever have that much faith in me to do the same, but I honestly felt the level of spirituality that the Christianity followers keep in Ethiopia.
After all, what is Epiphany without the Baptism? And where can you find a baptism as original as the one that is in Irabunti where men, women and children jump naked into the holy river?
A few days spontaneous visit and I made friends in Irabunti. A farmer I accidentally met made sure that I got home safe and even called to check up on me from time to time. Two kind women, whom I photographed in the local market, baked bread a week after I returned home and carried it all the way to the market in a hope of finding me there again.
I also made friends with two young men, Lishanu and Mandefro. We met during the celebrations and they made me forget that I was a stranger. They were kind enough to even have a dinner with me and carry my bags to the bus station the next morning.
It was such a pleasure to find myself in a town full of strangers and still be counted as a local. I’ve spent celebration of Epiphany in Irabunti for two years in consecutive. No doubt I’ll be there next year as well.
Maheder H. Tadese, January, 2015