Most Ethiopians Believe. In fact, I haven’t met one yet who doesn’t.
According to my pre-departure Ethio-Info package, the population is made up of about 45 percent Orthodox Christians, 35 percent Muslims, and 20 percent “Other”. These three groups live together in relative peace, although people tell me that tensions are rising because of the global climate.
As an agnostic with no history of religious affiliation, I wondered what such a pious population would think of me, and whether it would affect my work environment. When asked about my religion, I get different reactions from different people. Some want to take me immediately to get baptized. Others don’t quite understand it, “does that mean that you are a pagen?” as they can’t imagine not having at least some sort of god in life. And others take my lack of spirituality in stride, saying that they’ve met other Canadians who have the same attitude, and they think it’s normal for us.
Since I’ve been here, we’ve celebrated the Christian holiday of Meskel, lived through the month of Ramadan and experienced the Islamic holiday Eid. But it’s not just these big holidays that get the faithful riled up here. Each church has a patron saint and a certain day of the month when that saint is worshipped, bringing in crowds of people, praying, selling and begging. Driving by, you can tell what saint’s day it is by the number of people around the church. It’s possible to follow the celebrations around the city from church to church, if you like the crowds of people and loudly broadcast messages from the Bible. The poorest people in Addis follow them too, knowing that Ethiopians are more generous on holidays.
Yesterday was the annual worship and celebration for Medhane Alem (“Medicine of the World,” or Jesus) which is the church across from my house. When I stepped out of my compound onto the street yesterday, I wasn’t expecting to end up in a sea of begging bodies, bright umbrellas and ladies in white head scarves, a sermon blasting from the huge speakers. A coworker took me inside the church compound after work. I’d been nervous to go, as tourism in other people’s holy places makes me wonder, but she encouraged me to come and see the festivities. The scene was a strange mix of serious and celebratory. I was surprised at how individual the worship and prayer were, not with a priest in a pulpit, but one broadcasting over the loudspeaker from the front steps. Inside the church itself, worshippers got down on their knees or raised their hands in the air without direction from a member of the church hierarchy, and the sheer emotion of faith that many exhibited was quite moving. As I moved outside again, I realized that of the thousands of people in the compound, there was a careful division between men and women. The aesthetic result was powerful: white clothed women on one side, and men in dark suits on the other.
As I walked through, with my own white head scarf falling back from my forehead, I made mental notes of the practices, trying to fit the whole situation into my world view. The Saints, and the sign of the crucifix made me think of Catholicism. The people with their heads pressed up against the wall of the church in prayer made me think of Judaism. And the division of men and women, and the head scarves, reminded me of Islam. How did I end up in such a unique country?