In the Ethiopian Orthodox church, almost every day of the year is a feast day or holy day. Unless it happens to be the feast day of your local church, many of these days go unobserved by the average Christian. One exception to this, is the celebration of St. Mikel on the day following Timket.
When I woke up Sunday morning, the last thing I was expecting was the early morning phone call from my good habesha friend letting me know that my site mate and I had been invited to join a St. Mikel’s celebration. Unbeknownst to me, it was a St. Mikel’s in a nearby tiny village, not the large church in Bure Mado—on the other side of town. Having witnessed the city’s celebration of Timket, it was time to experience a feast day in a small rural village.
We caught a bus toward Shindi—a rural kebele on the road to Nekemte—and hopped off at the first collection of houses we passed. Tewelde lead us down a dirt road heading west, toward a collection of trees off in the distance. Although people will cut down any tree for firewood, it’s a sin to cut down trees near churches and it’s always a safe bet that where there are trees, there is a church.
Upon arrival at St. Mikel, not much was going on and we sat down with Tewelde’s landlord and landlord’s uncles. His family was donating several massive rolls of sheet metal to the construction of the new church, and it arrived by gari shortly after we did.
It also wasn’t long before we had a collection of children surrounding us, watching what we jokingly call “the farengi show.” In bigger towns, we will often get stared at and have a couple children here and there follow us around, but in this small rural village, we had no less than fifty following us around at all times, surrounding us in a circle just to stare. Our habesha friends were in shock, having never seen the staring that extreme.
Around noon, it was time for the celebration. The Sunday students began singing and dancing as the priests and deacons brought out the Tabot (replica of the Ark of the Covenant) and began the procession. Unlike the Timket celebration, this time the Tabot lead the way, followed by the Sunday students singing and dancing and the young men with sticks bringing up the rear. We followed the Tabot through the harvested fields, down the dirt road that lead back to the main road. Finally, we stopped under a large tree for the congregation of priests and holy men to sing and dance.
After awhile, the procession headed back toward the church—they had simply brought the Ark out to party for a little while. We stopped one more time on the way back for more song and dance. Finally, upon arrival at the church, the priests laid out a mat in front of the Tabot and members of the church came up to give money. The singing and dancing continued in front as the Tabot was taken back into the kidist.
We left shortly afterwards, walking several kilometers in the mid-day sun to reach the landlord’s uncle’s houses for the feasting. It was my first visit to a rural farm house, and the kindness and hospitality of each of the families we visited (I think 5 in all) was overwhelming. At the first house, we had an amazing meat and lentil wat along with several glasses of tella (local beer… also known as “dirty water”) and a shot of arake. The next couple of houses served us “nech tella,” or white tella made with teff instead of barley or wheat like the darker, “black tella.” Walking between the houses, we chatted with the children, played with a puppy and enjoyed the general excitement and celebration about the day.
Light was fading as we left, and we walked the several kilometers back to town. It was hard to believe that we’d spent the entire day away, celebrating in a small rural village, walking multiple kilometers between the church, the houses and my town. It was the perfect end to a long, but extremely fun, weekend of festivities.