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February 8, 2011
It was a mass of thousands, everyone dressed in holy white. I was one of the many who had gathered in Addis Ababa Stadium for the celebration of Epiphany, one of the most sacred holidays for Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. The ancient ceremony, commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ, brought the fourth largest city in Africa to a standstill. I couldn’t help but feel like a gawking heathen, gathering snapshots of a party I wasn’t invited to, but the high priest’s voice over the loud speakers assured me of my welcome.
“Let the ferenji (foreigners) gather close,” he said. “We all serve the same God.”
Children kicked around deflated soccer balls, hustlers created make-shift betting games in the dirt, and youth groups representing various Orthodox churches in the city drummed and danced in anticipation of the priests’ arrival with the Tabot, a replica of the famed Ark of the Covenant, believed to represent the manifestation of Jesus when he came to the Jordan River for baptism.
Gaiety momentarily masked the reality of hardship for many in the booming yet still struggling economy of Addis. Solemnity — as thousands simultaneously bowed and kissed the ground — revealed a reverence for the sacred not often displayed in public life in the west.
Although I was convinced many use the religious holiday as a reason to escape work — much like North Americans at Christmas and Easter — a 15-year-old Ethiopian girl with full cheeks and perfect English shamed me out of my cynicism.
“My Lord has sacrificed so much for me, coming here is the least I can do for him,” she explained.
I was on assignment in January for Context with Lorna Dueck TV to produce a documentary in partnership with Samaritan’s Purse, highlighting the plight of prostitutes in Ethiopia. We also met with Women At Risk, a year-long African program to help women exit prostitution.
The women are taught basic math skills, basic English, and receive skill training for the workforce. For those women in the program who have HIV/AIDS, they provide medicine along with home care. They also provide counselling to deal with psychic wounds. By the end of the year, each woman leaves with an employable skill, job, or business. The children of the prostitutes are not forgotten either as the program offers after-school mentoring and pays for each child’s education and medical needs.
One day I listened to the story of a prostitute in a section of Addis Ababa known as the Mercato, one of the largest shopping markets in Africa and also one of the most dangerous areas in the city. At night it transforms into a shopping market for women, where the cheapest rates in the sex trade are found.
She came to the city for a better way of life and found it empty of hope. Sitting on a thin mattress used to service customers, she nervously swung her feet as she told me her story. A poster of Jesus hung haphazardly on the wall behind her. She spoke about physical abuse and rape. She chewed the narcotic plant, khat, to help her escape her memories.
I asked her whether she believed she could one day escape this life. She bowed her head and said in Amharic, “With God’s help, I will.”
Many Western conveniences have been adopted by Ethiopia: the car, the modern toilet and the cell phone. What they’ve yet to adopt are questions of spiritual luxury. Despite God’s seeming absence, even a weary prostitute believes God is still present.
In a city with a population of about 3.5 million, 150,000 women are trapped in the high demand of the sex trade in Addis. With no education and many with mouths to feed, the word option is not part of their vocabulary.
Through a monthly subsidy that is just enough to pay for housing and food, Women at Risk give women an option. However, their capacity tops out at 23 women per program cycle, and as many as 60 women per in-take must get turned away. The founder of the program, Serawit Teketel, said turning women away who are desperate for a way out is one of the most heart-breaking aspects of her work.
“I am actually making a decision on her life. Sometimes they go away after being turned away, and they die.”
Just three months out of prostitution, the women in the program find time to worship. A single drum leads their voices and many burst out in ululation, a high-pitched wailing with the tongue. It’s a primitive shout of joy removed of any Western pretense.
The worship of the former prostitutes is visceral and overwhelming. They worship in a musty, unlit room that is devoid of decoration. There was not even a proper altar.
In feast or in famine, God draws their praise.
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