Where life is governed from above

If you are a vegetarian and happen to be in Addis Ababa at this time of year, you will be feeling very lucky as almost every restaurant will be serving vegetarian buffets and little else.

It is the season of Lent for Ethiopian Orthodox believers, who make up more than 40% of Ethiopia's total population of 80-million. So fasting in this season is not only for the deeply religious Christian Orthodox families but also for almost everyone else—even the Muslims, who make up 35% of the population, and the Protestant Christians, who make up the remaining 20%, have a hard time justifying why they are not fasting.

You see, much about the practice of religion and the participation in religious festivals is about the unquestioned existence of God, which is omnipresent in Ethiopia.

Take the town of Mekelle where I teach—the selling of meat in the area during Lent is a sin. Establishments that dare to sell it will be cursed and shunned; priests will ban their followers from going there until the restaurants or butcheries have asked for forgiveness and been sprayed with holy water.

Even someone like me, who has a typical Muslim name, is governed by the season, as meat is rarely available.
If you do find some, it might be cheaper than usual. After all, supply is not necessarily controlled by demand in my part of Ethiopia; God also lends a helping hand.

He also takes responsibility for everything positive that is going on at the moment and whatever positive thing might happen in the future—starting with the "good morning" every day (to which the standard reply is "praise be to God") to the national economy, which is dependent on agriculture and, in turn, rain. God gets praise for bringing the rains or, if they were not sufficient, it will be said: "It is not his will."

You do not have to look hard for God in Ethiopia. Just sit cramped in the back seat of an old blue-and-white minibus in Addis, dubbed blue devils because of the drivers' reckless driving and rudeness. But it is not for the lack of God's presence—the first thing you will notice are all the biblical quotes scrawled on the insides and outsides of the taxis.

"al-Qaeda" on the roads
The Muslim drivers post their praise in a series of quotes from the Qur'an. The lists of saintly quotes are posted alongside pictures of Madonna, Angelina Jolie, the rapper 50 Cent or some random young American pop singer's naked body.

The younger drivers are said to have a "reserve soul" at home because of the dangerous risks they take. They are estimated to be the cause of more than 80% of the accidents in the capital, for which they have been nicknamed "al-Qaeda".

They will even try to convince you that their confidence comes from "above" and the quotes on their taxis somehow provide protection for their bad driving.

But it is not just the taxis or their drivers screaming for godliness; it can also come from the guy sitting next to you. Most ardent worshippers believe their right to worship extends to turning up their cellphones to maximum volume to let you listen to their music. This is in addition to the song that is coming out of the old broken speakers of the taxi that spit dust with every beat.

Sometimes the speakers will be just under your feet, blaring, while you are on the phone with your boss, and the guy next to you will be swaying with emotion to his gospel song. Give them as much as a look and you will get a scornful one right back for not appreciating their sharing of their blessings with you.

Once you get off your taxi and are on your way to wherever you are going, the chances of being presented with a flood of white are high. Those wearing Christian neTelas and Muslim jelebiyas will be coming out or going into a nearby church or mosque, even if it is a working day.

But if it is Sunday morning, or Friday noon, the picture will be different. Those going to churches and mosques will be wearing white shawls and will be followed by vendors selling religious books, crosses and the black- or red-and-white pieces of thread called mateb, which are tied around the necks of members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is taboo to be without one.

Then there are the minibuses again. But this time they are empty and are linked to oversized speakers, which are sometimes also fitted to pick-up trucks. The vehicles are covered on all sides with the CD covers of a new gospel or Islamic song.

The sellers sit in front of their vehicles calling on the faithful to come and get the latest CD, with bits of the song being blasted out, while the vendors explain the deep religious meaning in pleading voices.

The believers rush towards the vans as though they were selling entrance tickets to heaven.

The cocktail of sounds mingle with the prayers from churches, which echo through the streets from speakers pointing outwards, mixed also with the voices of the street vendors, shouting out the prices of all sorts of goods.

Then there are the priests and sheiks who claim they are from poor rural churches or mosques that are in need of a new building or some other support. Hundreds of birr, Ethiopia's currency, are displayed, usually under a colourful, life-size picture of the patron saints of the churches, to encourage the devout to add their donations.

Key to Heaven
During the Friday Jum'ah prayer in the biggest mosque of the country and one of the biggest in Africa, the Anwar mosque, which lies at the heart of Addis Ababa, hundreds of beggars line up at the main gate, trying to get Muslims to give them a few cents so that Allah will give them back the key to Jennah, the Arabic term for Heaven.

Eventually, you will arrive home for a good night's sleep. That is until the call from the churches and the mosques start at 4am for subihi prayers. You will wake to a vege­tarian breakfast prepared by your maid, whom you can hire for just R120 a month, which is considered a good wage in Addis.

Then you might talk to her about doing the laundry, but she is likely to reply politely that she cannot do it as it is St Gabriel's Day. So you suggest maybe tomorrow, or the day after that? And she will reply that tomorrow is Sunday, the Sabbath, and she cannot do the washing, and the day after that could be St Mary's Day, so that is out, too.

You might try to be funny and tell your maid that perhaps she should be paid by the saints - but you have to remember that you are not allowed to joke about religious issues as other people might not be so tolerant, as a good friend of mine, Bewqetu Sium, who is the prominent satirist and novelist in the country, learned recently. A deacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church punched him in the face after he wrote in a story for a popular magazine that "we are losing our lands while praying towards the sky".

You see, the busy Gods of Ethiopia dominate life here, from your waking hours to your dirty laundry, your vegan feast, your transportation and even your good or bad fortune.

Mohammed Selman, a journalism lecturer, lives in Ethiopia. In 2009 he won the Excellence in Journalism award from the Foreign Correspondents Association in Addis Ababa. In 2012, he published the national bestselling Amharic book of essays, Piassa

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