African Testament – Ethiopian Journey

African landscape

Abby and I extended our time in Addis Ababa and flew north to Lalibela. This rural town, 2,500 feet above sea level, is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. We toured three of the monolithic rock-cut churches that were built during the 12th and 13th century in the second holiest city (Aksum being the first) in the country. Our guide’s energetic pace led us through the open market which has been said to be more chaotic and dense than any market in India. The sun was piercingly hot and my “sea level lungs” were grasping for air. I told our guide I needed to sit down. While crossing the street to the shade Abby noticed my wobbling legs and she and our guide caught me as I fainted, catching me before falling into a foul looking ditch. Surprisingly, a rare taxi was driving by and turned around to help. The driver took us up the steep road (thank heavens I did not have to walk it!) and we requested to have some food before our 2 hour and 40 minute donkey trek up to our lodging.

As Abby and I waited for our food, I was overcome with gratefulness for rescue and safety. I felt so weak and vulnerable after fainting and the comfort of a friend and food was a gift beyond compare. The reality of being safe and cared for was a kindness I had yearned for in hearing stories of rape and trauma for the previous five days. Kindness is not a common reality for women in Africa.

Abby, Jan, Dan and I had been hearing story after story of women and girls who were not rescued at vulnerable moments in their lives. The privilege of being with leaders from six African nations who give their lives to helping women and children involved in prostitution was still very present in my heart and mind as I drank mineral water and hoped for strength to return. Serawit  Friedmeyer, founder of Women at Risk in Addis says that 10% of women over the age of 15 live through prostitution in Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa, estimates as high as one out of four women are prostituted! (Ethiopian Review April 19, 2007). Ethiopia is called the Thailand of Africa. It is hard to know how many prostituted women and girls there are in Addis but it is estimated to be at least 400,000.

The problem is too complex to be explained in a few sentences but a few are worth highlighting. Poverty is a factor and a growing middle class is often a hope for parents in rural areas. They hope that the skills their daughters acquire will enable her to support them. There is often abuse while being a domestic servant. If this takes place she can never return to her family since being a virgin is the only way to marry in this culture.

Sexuality in Ethiopia, as in all traditional societies, is a very private matter, not displayed or discussed in public. Marriages are commonly entered into unwillingly by young girls in exchange for money, cattle or land which often leads to abuse and violence. Early marriage is illegal but traditions are traditions and there is weak law enforcement.  One of the women in my group (All Ethiopians) said that for safety reasons she always walked to school with no less than nine other girls with her! The long walk through sugar cane fields meant it was never safe to walk alone as rape is common and consequences dire for a girl but not for the boy. Another woman in my group said that even in University she would never go to the library without three other women with her. Virginity is something the girl must protect and if “it” is taken from her everything is lost: family, marriage, a future.

A common custom on a wedding night is for sheets to be shown to the families and if the bride is not a virgin she will be banished. Options are few after such disgrace and the city holds hope of not having to starve. Tragically, many young girls come to the city after having been raped by brothers, uncles, or abusive husbands. Rape is always the girl’s fault and means banishment from the family. It is not uncommon for a victim of rape to commit suicide since the only option is fleeing from everyone she knows and loves.

Research on trauma shows that when a victim is able to share their story of abuse with a caring person or group that healing and wholeness may happen. Before coming to Ethiopia we met with Cherry (Serawit Friedmeyer) and she said that in Africa people do not like to tell sad stories. Especially, leaders do not tell sad stories because it lowers their status. This being the case, we went as a team to hear stories of the clients and sometimes the leaders of abuse and trauma.  Why did we do this? Because we believe that keeping silent prohibits healing and wholeness.  In the West we are familiar with people telling their stories and help and care happening because of their openness. This is new for Africa, a traumatized continent, and the leaders we were with have seen the importance of this in their work with the most vulnerable of victims. Change is beginning in Africa, but it is slow and hard work.

In my group of Ethiopians it was evident that the older generation has paved a way for the young. It is similar to the women’s movement in the U.S. in the 1960’s. When I asked if women could report abuse to authorities, the older women said why bother. The police were corrupt and this is how it has always been. The younger woman said, yes, she and her peers would take the time to fill out complaints of abuse. It is clear that university education is empowering a generation of women who do not support arranged marriages and are passionate about claiming new rights for their gender. In the past, Ethiopian women were to be ignorant of sex and virgins at marriage. Now they are beginning to at least talk about sexuality with their married peers and read about sexual matters in magazines. Hope is there but unemployment and poverty continue to overwhelm my heart.

Our lunch had fortified Abby and myself and the “donkeys were getting restless” we were told. We paid our bill and followed our guide to yet another guide. Quickly we were boosted up on our donkeys and backpacks and luggage were hoisted up on our porter’s shoulders. As soon as our feet were in the stirrups a shushing sound was made and switches were swatted on the the rumps of our white and brown dear donkeys. The lulling gait was surprisingly calming. I had never been on a donkey before and instantly fell in love with this beast of burden. Children and women sometimes came to the rocky trail to wave at us as we passed. Eucalyptus forests and fields of blowing golden wheat were all around us. The donkeys sometimes slipped on rocky steep terrain and keeping our ankles from being cut by jagged rocks was a constant concern. Since it was market day, we literally had hundreds of people overtaking our arduous climb for almost three hours. The people passing us were shepherds in patched clothing and white gauze turbans or white shawls draped many times around their bodies. Women and girls wore long dresses and necklaces with crosses. Children were everywhere walking alone and always carrying a wrapped shawl for a backpack. Sometimes our white faces caused toddlers to cry with fright! The masses of strong, skinny leg, muscled frames could have been the same scene a thousand years ago. Tears flowed as I felt so privileged to be experiencing this parade of beautiful humanity. The week and been so intense I had not had time to ponder what a donkey ride for a three hour climb might entail. I was mesmerized.

My thoughts were transported to Jesus and what he must have experienced as he walked or rode rocky roads such as these with masses of people walking along side him. He would have known the stories of people. He loved women. He loved children. He loved men. As I pondered the sorrowful stories I had heard I was comforted that our Savior lives. He hears. He loves. He bore the shame of all sin and all abuse. He understood the plight of women and he broke all codes and received them as friends and stood up for their rights in a culture that had little value of them.

How do these lovers of mankind continue to battle year after year for the mass of women and children who are prostituted and damaged? How do their small cottage industries of card making, jewelry making, scarf weaving stand against the cost of counseling and caring for so many? The answer is barely. Why do they continue a battle with little hope of winning? Because of love. Because they have been gripped by the hope of love and the promise of the gospel. They are a scorned people with work that is misunderstood. Yet they have been elevated to understanding of grace that is staggering. One life at a time is their focus. I know no other group of people who live the following in a richer way:  “In all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God…as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.” 2 Corinthians 6:4, 10.

Money is needed. Workers are needed. Prayer is essential. I am convinced more and more that the hope of change must be covered in prayer. If you are reading this may you be impressed upon the righteous and mighty and mysterious power of your prayers being the soil of change. The hope of glory and healing and change on the streets will only happen under a canopy of prayer. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. May we remember to pray for the laborers of love.