02 October 2012

we don't need no water, let the meskal fire burn

The timing of our group’s swearing-in ceremony could not have been timed better. Rainy season is tapering off, kids are excited to be getting back to school, and it’s holiday season in Ethiopia. The latest celebration was that of Meskal, which marks the “finding of the true cross.” According to our handy-dandy, Peace Corps-produced Cross Culture Workbook, when no one would show [Empress Helen] the holy tomb, [she] lit incense and prayed for help. The smoke drifted and beneath it she dug to find three roses, one of which was the True Cross of Jesus,” part of which resides in a church north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The holiday is only recognized by the Orthodox Christian denomination, which is one of the major religious divisions in Ethiopia.

How is it celebrated? With fire, of course. Lots of fire. And bright costumes. And drums. And chanting. And lots of meat washed down with glass after glass of t’ella.

I was invited by my counterpart, Emebet, to observe the public bonfire and all of the spectacle that surrounded it before returning to her home to light “torches” for a bonfire in her family’s compound, a process replicated by Orthodox families all over the country. I arrived to find a tower of sticks ready for burning, least two stories high, surrounded by people in a peacock assortment of colors. Being the only foreigner in the crowd seemed to garner more attention than the impressive structure that was about to be set ablaze. 

A group of Orthodox priests rattled off various blessings and prayers, many of which garnered bows and audible responses from the gathered masses. I played Simon Says and did my best to imitate. This was followed by a deep, slow, rhythmic drum beat to which all of the brightly-clad individuals marched in a circle around the centerpiece. At random intervals, the crowd would rattle off a high-pitched trill. My attempts provided lots of laughter from those nearby to add to the curious cacophony.

And then, finally, it was time. Fire!!!

Once the flames started to die down, we headed back to Emebet’s to spark up the miniature version as groups of men began to roam the neighborhood singing the Hoya-Hoye song that is a staple of holiday celebrations. I wasn’t expecting this part of the celebration, which had be spending the night completely unprepared. I guess if there’s a time for your first unexpected crash in Ethiopia, Meskal is the way to do it.

Zegeye, Emebet’s husband, insisted that I come to the high school in the morning, where he and a group of teachers would be slaughtering a cow they collectively purchased and performing a “ceremony” around the act. I had no idea what to expect, which I’ve already found is the best way to go into an experience here. 

Warning: scrolling past the next picture will reveal pictures of the slaughtering scene. Continue at your own risk

After an early breakfast, I walked with Zegeye’s son, Abraham, to the school. He lead me to the field in the rear of the compound, which offers a brilliant view of the surrounding landscape. 

Warning: scrolling down will reveal pictures of the slaughtering scene. Continue at your own risk.

A group was huddled in the far end of the field, all helping to divide meat from their beast.

 Zegeye was away from the scene, cooking up chunks of meat on a large pan, using a piece of bone as a spatula. 

Once that was ready, everyone gathered around the pan like vultures. The massive amount of meat was gone in a matter of minutes. For my money, it doesn't get better than fresh meat to which you have a direct connection, rather than it coming from some distant processing center. Simply delicious!

To “help with digestion,” as they always say here, shots of ouzo (similar to Sambuca) and gin were passed around. Cheers to a little medicine at 8:30 in the morning!

Similar comestibles and libations followed throughout the day. Stellar times, indeed. 

1 comment:

  1. sounds almost more festive than 2-Street on Jan. 1! My friend from Ethiopia will be delighted to hear about your experiences with the holidays. I should be meeting with her very soon, and I might also get her husband's uncle's phone number too. Keep on bowing with the crowd, and get your trills going son! Love ya!