Salambo in Addis

Salambo discovering Ethiopia

A country of religious festivals

Religion plays an important role in Ethiopia. Many days on the Orthodox calendar are a national holiday, and from an outsider’s prospective, it seems that the secular is  easily mixed with the religious. Yesterday was Meskel day, an important date here commemorating the finding of the true cross.  On that day, all the streets and shops are decorated with the Ethiopian colours of red, green and yellow; people dress up, wearing the traditional creamy- white Ethiopian outfit, a simple tunic and trousers for men and a more elaborate dress with an embroidered edge for women. The streets of Addis take a colourful turn, everybody is in a party spirit, ready to celebrate.

According to the story (the Golden Legend by Jacques de Voragine), in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena, one of the first Roman Christians, went to Jerusalem in search of the cross used to crucify Jesus Christ. Once there, she asked for a bonfire to be lit, so the smoke could guide her in looking for the location of the cross. The smoke returned to the ground on the exact spot where the cross was buried. The story says that, on excavating, Helena and her entourage found three identical crosses. To find out which one was the true cross, she brought them close to a dead person lying in the vicinity, and when put in contact with Christ’s cross, the person miraculously resuscitated.

selling bonfires on the road for Meskel day

So on Meskel day, or the evening before, people traditionally light a bonfire, locally called Demera, in celebration of the event. They take great care in preparing it.  The streets are lined with beautifully put together bonfires, made with vertically aligned eucalyptus twigs and decorated with a type of yellow daisy, a flower, I was told, which grows only in September. They then gather on Meskel square, the largest square in the city, to watch the bonfires and dance to the tune of traditional Ethiopian music. I feel people have a strong sense of celebration and party in Ethiopia. Meskel Day is particularly important here, as people believe that a piece of the true cross was brought to Ethiopia from Egypt, and was buried underneath the monastery of Gishen Mariam in the Wollo region in Northern Ethiopia. Saint Helena (as she later became) took another part of the cross to Rome, where it is supposedly kept in the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in the San Giovanni area of the Eternal City.

I didn’t make it to Meskel Square, even though I would have liked to see the celebration. Not only do I feel a complete outsider in a country I barely know, but most importantly to us, our container happened to arrive on that very day! So I spent the holiday unpacking some of our 300 boxes and furniture items, putting a lot of energy into unwrapping, emptying boxes and re-arranging furniture and household items into our new home. Although I was happy to see again our familiar possessions, it made me realise once again that we carry too many things around, and yet it is those things and objects that give us a sense of a home. In a way, we need them around and that’s probably why it is so hard to dispose of them. It helps me understand better the need for a house in a chosen homeland. When living in a country where it is unlikely that we’ll ever settle, we long for a home, where we could safely keep all the meaningful possessions gathered along the way.


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