Tuesday 15 September 2009

Sheikh yer body but keep a hold of your soul

One of my favourite moments when visiting a new country (after the initial inhalation of its air when stepping off the plane) is the first dance. Every music has its dance and every country its dance style and even politic. So new year's eve in Ethiopia found me on a crowded dance floor before a   band with keyboard/drum sequencer two lyre/ harp players, bass, sax and vocals  Of course they were excellent, thouroughbred exponents of their form and I didn't even mind the sequenced drums.The venue was a cultural centre decorated traditionally in wood and raffia ceilings, the floor was scattered with a kind of marsh grass specially for new year.  It was a welcoming dance floor and I didn't feel conspicuous as the only "feringe" or foreigner, I could not dance alone for long though and was beckoned to join different circles usually groups of men who enjoyed demonstrating various moves. In the UK we would not dance with such expression and openness with strangers and only gay men would attatch themselves to each other so quickly. Here of course it's different and it feels like a genuine bonding and connection. It helps that this is not a sexy dance no gyrating or hip thrusts this is all about the shoulder shake and head move - very Arabic. The music usually involved  double beats on- and one and on- and three, one beat a closing high hat the other a bass drum a kind of kahzunk kahzah sound. Hand claps on second beat and to lift the energy later in the song a hand clap before the high hat making a groovy triplet tahkahzunk tahkahzah. Simple and effective there are so many moves you can do, feet can move in a skip to the triplet or simply on the down beat the shoulders and head can be used to express any thing else going on but the basic is a double loose shouldered shrug.

This is the tricky bit making sure your shoulders are relaxed but by concentrating making them relaxed you end up tensing them.   Much knee bending is done to accentuate the shoulder moves and often a group would lower to a crouch still shaking.But of course I didn't think about this that much at the time it was simply a game of copying almost a conversation fortunately I resisted the urge to show them my own interpretation. As in so many other countries peope were suprised to see a white man who could dance acceptably, it always suprises me too,why do so many Africans think white folk can't dance ? Have they never seen Fred Astaire or latter day Michael Jackson ?  Is it simply  those types  that go on holiday to Africa generally dance differently ? Whatever I suppose we are all guilty of making stereotypes and it's fun defying them.

Between songs everybody sat down and a new dance was always started by a little girl of maybe fours years dressed like a bridesmaid who skipped in perfect step around in a large circle to be joined by adults and children until the circle split into a full dance floor which then in turn formed little dance circles. It was a joy being a visitor to this event    and strange just dropping in on it not knowing anything about the culture. Fires are lit and people jump over signifying old into new and people go from door to door with burning torches showing the new light to those in darkness. This is the waning of summer and the coming of winter and in true Ethiopian style winter is our equivalent of summer, hotter warmer and more sun. Nothing is as we would assume here.

I left the club and walked around Mekele for a while enjoying other people's party atmosphere but generally everywhere was calm and even the few obviously drunk people were quiet about it. I  wandered home unbothered to my hotel two hours into Ethiopian  2002.

New year's day and the town is quiet I am picked up by Hagas (meaning happy all Ethiopian names have a meaning) on his motorbike and we head off to some waterfalls I have read about. They took a bit of finding but it was a pleasure to drive across the green swaying fields around Mekele, miles of gentle rolling plains with occasional settlements,houses made of limestone blocks but no cement all  with turf roofs brilliantly made and really beautiful.  There is no road as such just paths linking smaller paths to bigger paths. Riding along on the bike in this giant vista bordered by distant limestone cliffs passing herds of cattle the whole thing had a touch of the wild west about it. We find the village of Debre which is on the edge of a three hundred foot cliff looking out over miles of scrub and bare rock, a true wilderness with just paths leading off into the horizon through a tough arid land.  The waterfall is called Chenoqua and is actually two cascades plummeting off the edge of the cliff they can't contain themselves for the extent of the drop and begin to turn to vapour as they reach the bottom where they regroup as one river and flow off happily together  down a gorge. I am spellbound it is the most amazing sight looking down from above and i cant understand why all the world doesnt know about it, I  can't wait to get to the foot of the cliff. We are joined by three young boys who lead us down past an ancient orthodox church that sits above the gorge and down a  vertigous but fun dry river bed to the base of the cliff.

The water is dissappointly dirty looking and I don't risk swimming in it but we lounge around by the pools of water eating fruit and enjoying the peace and cool. The boys are aged between 11 and 15 and really good fun - they are intriged by my skin because I  have taken my shirt off I am catching the sun so when it is pressed it leaves a white mark when I press their's it stays black. They are  shocked to find out how old I am and are impressed by my muscles I squeeze their arms and they are thin and not powerful.    Amusingly they are very excited that their shoulder blades are more pronounced than mine maybe it's something to do with thar dance. But these boys are bright and quick to pick up language one in particular with a mouthful of teeth that are to large for his head but the most amazing tight ringletted hair speaks  enough English for us to joke and find out about each other. He is studying and wants to continue but his family are poor he is growing his hair for a school play about HIV awareness , he is great and I feel the kinship between mates that I used to feel when I was his age It is a memorable way to mark the new year and Hagus and I are really happy to be in the here and now with these young kids in their world, climbing rocks and throwing stones. It strikes me how tactile he is with these  lads and it is with such ease that he boys holding their hands or rubbing their heads it is warm and brotherly. Without asking he gives them things to carry and they just do it accepting the natural order of things, it is the same wherever we  go no fear, people touch just as readily as they help . On the way back up on a more gentle route we come across 4 camels that are untethered and eating cactus that a toung boy is cutting for them. One of the lads climb up on to the back of one of them and I take photographs, even the camels are laid back here I can't resist the temptation to feed it and stroke it like a horse.  We say bye to the lads give them a little money for guiding us and ride back in  in a cliche manner into the setting sun.

I am in Mekele making a film about an organisation called Mums 4 Mums which is run by Tebere Gabriel a  fantastic woman who was exiled during the military dictatorship in Ethiopia to Cambridge. She returned with her husband Solomon Inquai when Tigrai was  liberated. The story of this brave couple is too long for me to relate but suffice to say Doctor Solomon was a major player in the freedom movement and later became speaker in the Tigrai parliament and has a large library of which he has read. I could not stop feeding from his knowledge when we met.I felt like I used to feel with Lester it's so exciting when you get four walls of books all condensed in to one mans mind - I want to mine it and exploit all that information that is so readily available. However ...  On their return they settledon Mekele but Tebere was moved to set up work helping the many destitute  mothers that were left in the area post war and famine. She has now been working for six years offering mothers training in skills that can generate them income and offering them a small amount of money to compensate for their losses from not beggingThey learn to bake , sew and knit.Tebere is very active on introducing the cactus into the local diet. The prickly pear is eaten in Summer but in winter only the leaves grow, in Mexico they are eaten so why not here. I ate loads and even introduced a recipe of my own which was loved by the cooking class and is going to be copies.    In recent years mums 4 mums even offers a creche for mother's young children so they can work without worrying. Orphans are also looked after through supply of uniforms(made by mums) food aid and care. Mums also works with street kids in a hostel they help run. Mums 4 mums have a broad and holistic approach and again I was frequently moved when filming the people they work with. Working with Mums are a dedicated and loving team including Hagas and Asheafi (meaning successful)

It is with these two that I set off next morning to visit a third century church called Abraha Atshbaha.  On a good road wye wind our way up one of the steep hillsides outside Mekele and drive for an hour over a scrub limestone landscape not that different to the land you find in Southern Europe. We turn off onto a dust track and after another half hour arrive at the foot of a steep cliff at the base of which and seemingly growing out of it is the church and its attendant buildings it is basically a monestry. We walk up steps and pass through a gatehouse I copy out of respect rather than faith the boys action of kissing the wall and touching forheads on it. A young boy comes down from an upstairs room and leads us to the double arched entrance of the church. It is an ancient orthodox church so has a touch of Greek or even Turkish in its apperance but it feels old. The boy lets us in through a giant doorway made of single uncarved sheets of wood 6ft by 2ft wide.  As daylight illuminates the interior I see that it is almost entirely covered with paintings and patterns on every surface. Dozens of biblical scenes painted in a style unlike secular art In Europe it's distinctly African, simple, lacking perspective but naive and colorful .

There's George killing the dragon, faces with wings that are angels, the maggi bringing gifts and the most scary devil I've ever seen all decorated with patterns that are not unlike a Celtic knot. On the floor by the entrance a set of large double skinned drums , my kinda church. Kissing and touching foreheads again we move inside there are large solid rock pillars that seperate the inside into different chapels. It is not large but because of the ages it has been a holy place I feel small. It is dark and partly a cave  but as my eyes adjust I can make out more paintings and a large red curtain behind which we cannot pass.  Here is the holy of holies, every monastery in ethiopia has a replica of the ark of the covenant in it and this is where it is kept but I will not see it. It is generally believed that the ark of the covenant is held somewhere in Ethiopia and that it is moved every five years from monastry to monastry and I can believe it, this church predates any found in the uk and has a form of worship unchanged since it's construction.

I could stay for hours I want to go into retreat here, the prayers and devotions of thousands of souls linger and cast me into a state I like. I feel spiritual, holy , peaceful, things have meaning and I feel a moment of communion with a power I'm unable to name.I give myself up to it knowing that nothing is wrong with that.Maybe it is just surrender we need , to a belief or to something we don't need to question. A means to stop reasoning and trying to make sense of things and just be. I find it  frequently in nature but it is especially potent in a plac like this  that has been devoted to prayer,  it can happen whatever faith.it doesn't need a name just respect. Reluctantly I pull myself away as the others need to go and we emerge into the landscape that is even older than the church and the feeling is still there a wonderful world.

My life is blessed , I can't pay anyone  for that, but I am thankful, I try and live a true honest life in honour of my luck. There is little else I can do other than help those I can help and set a good example. I'm not setting up any new religion but I think I just felt an old one.

Peace and love to all.

Sent on the move

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dad...it's beautiful. i love it and i love you. im proud! xxx