Ethiopia a diverse, complex and beautiful land

Karen Isaacs with three young kids.
Karen Isaacs with neighbourhood kids during home visits.
 on June 1, 2015

Church team visits mission to children with disabilities

The air smelled of a unique mixture of dust, smoke, warmth, roasting coffee and incense as we took our first breaths in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We had left Toronto on a grey, chilly spring morning and had stepped off the plane 14 hours later, into the sunshine and heat of a foreign land.

I had been to different countries in Africa – Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Malawi – and so I thought I knew something of what to expect in going to Ethiopia with a small team from my parish of St. George the Martyr, Parkdale. But Ethiopia is in many ways unique, and the food, clothing, coffee, traditions and other aspects of life were not what I had come to know as “African.” I found myself challenged, delighted and intrigued by everything I came across.

There were four of us on our team: our incumbent, the Rev. Simon Bell; our community pastor, Dan Brandsma; our churchwarden, Dale Hawke; and myself. Of the four, only Dale had never been to Africa, and Ethiopia was new to three of us.

Mission and outreach is a strong focus of St. George the Martyr, and while that generally is expressed in local neighbourhood forms such as a farmers’ market and other initiatives, we also want to have a global outlook. In 2014, the possibility came up for a partnership in Ethiopia with an organization called SIM (Serving In Mission). Dan, our community pastor, went last spring to check out SIM’s projects in Ethiopia. He discovered one called Hidden Abilities, which works with children with physical disabilities. He thought this would be a good fit for St. George’s, so in March we went to explore it further.

Hidden Abilities is run by SIM Ethiopia and is largely staffed by missionaries. It was started by John and Phyllis Coleman, long-time Canadian missionaries in Ethiopia who adopted twin girls, Amy and Abby, now aged 10. Abby’s physical disabilities opened their eyes to the lack of support for children like her in Ethiopia. Just over a year ago, Hidden Abilities was created to help them. It is currently helping 27 children, and there is hope to grow that number to 200 over the next couple of years.

Hidden Abilities is in transition, though: the Colemans will be coming home to Canada soon, and a key Ethiopian staff member, Semret, will be leaving in the fall. While local staff are being hired to replace Semret, more missionary support is essential at this early stage of the project.

When we arrived in Ethiopia, we didn’t know what to expect or what practical help we could give. Except for Dale, none of us had been trained to work with people with disabilities. But we quickly realized that we had two roles to play: to provide encouragement and pastoral support to the missionaries and staff, and to advocate for the project back home. The project needs financial support and equipment. It also needs people who are trained in physiotherapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy who can go for short periods of time. Prayers and encouragement from churches and individuals are also welcomed.

On our first day at the clinic, we met Emmanuel—a five-year-old boy, very small for his age, who can neither speak nor sit up without help. But his smile is big and his laughter deep. His mother works in the sex trade on the streets of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. For most of Emmanuel’s life, she was unable to provide him with proper nourishment for him to grow. When he began to attend Hidden Abilities, he was unable to move or make any sounds by himself. With the help of the trained staff, his improvement has been swift: he can now sit up with help. Emmanuel, however, is lucky: after about age eight or nine, the most that the staff can usually do is help a child (and their families) learn to live with their disabilities rather than heal them.

Emmanuel was just one of the many children we were able to meet on this trip. The work that Hidden Abilities does is beautiful and valuable. It is also humble – one stretched muscle at a time and one smile shared with a small child, showing them that they too are precious. It is only over weeks and months that change is visible. Patience is essential.

When people ask me what my favourite part of the trip was, I am at a loss for words. Do I start with these experiences: meeting and laughing with Emmanuel? Blowing bubbles with 8-year-old Rahel and seeing her huge smile? Getting to hear the incredible faith story of Semret?

Or do I speak of meeting with the Anglican bishop of Ethiopia, Grant Le Marquand, and hearing what exciting things the church is up to in Ethiopia? While there is currently only one Anglican church in Addis Ababa – due to a historical understanding of the Anglican Church as a “chaplaincy” to English-speaking expatriates – Anglican churches are flourishing in the province of Gambela, located in the western part of the country. Gambela borders South Sudan and hosts many Somali and Sudanese refugees who are fleeing conflict. Many of these refugees are finding a spiritual home in Anglican churches in the region. As Bishop Le Marquand remarked, new Anglican churches are springing up every time his back is turned.  One newly constructed church in a refugee camp, built to hold 1,000 people, was bursting with almost 2,000 at last year’s Easter service!

Or maybe I could say that my favourite experiences came during the few days when we explored the tourist side of Ethiopia. We went north to see the city of Gondar, where the kings and queens of Ethiopia built their castles in days gone by. It was fascinating to see the kings’ compound, where each king would construct a new castle when he began his reign. (There are 12 castles scattered over the compound.) We also spent a morning visiting ancient island monasteries on Lake Tana, where the Ark of the Covenant was rumoured to be housed in centuries past. It was humbling to watch faithful monks and nuns working, fasting and praying with such dedication, and to know that some of these monasteries had been in existence since the 14th century. On our way back to shore, we stopped by the mouth of the Blue Nile (the main tributary of the Nile), and saw a “bloat” of hippopotami swimming.

But to call any of these experiences my favourite wouldn’t do justice to the particular privilege of visiting beautiful Orthodox churches and learning something of their rich tradition, which saturates everything one sees and does. Ethiopia was one of the first states to officially adopt Christianity (in the 4th century), and the centuries of deep faith are evident across the country. The iconography is beautiful and powerful (eyes symbolize understanding, so any picture of the 12 disciples shows Judas with only one eye visible). Every action and artifact in Ethiopian Orthodoxy is steeped with symbolism, from the four steps leading into the Holy of Holies (representing the four Gospels), to the vertical movement of the priest’s staff, symbolising Christ coming to earth, being raised on the cross, descending to the grave, and ascending to heaven.

And how could I be satisfied that I had properly conveyed my favourite experiences if I didn’t mention the food and coffee? Anyone who has experienced Ethiopian food knows something of what to expect: multiple tasty dishes served on the sour, spongy flatbread known as injera. But we also enjoyed grilled fish fresh from Lake Tana and an assortment of stews and soups. There was also an Ethiopian take on “Western” food such as pasta and pizzas. The food was very flavourful, often very spicy and, in general, a delight. (But be warned: “green peppers” are actually little hot peppers that are green, not our large sweet variety!)

The coffee deserves a paragraph of its own. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and Ethiopians take great pride and delight in their coffee heritage. A traditional coffee ceremony involves coffee brewed in a particular pot over a charcoal stove, and served in little cups with sugar on the side, accompanied by burning incense for smell, grass for beauty and popcorn for taste. But the Ethiopians wisely took some traditions from the Italians as well before they conquered them and sent them out of the country: among other things, a love of macchiato, the flavour and quality of which I have not seen equalled anywhere else in the world.

One final favourite: the weather was lovely, and sitting out on the second-storey, open-air restaurant at our hotel, sipping macchiatos under the stars, is a memory that will warm me for years to come.

We arrived back in Toronto on March 24, landing after a 16-hour flight to another chilly, damp Toronto morning. It was good to come home. We came back enriched by our trip to Ethiopia, with a deep respect for the incredibly diverse, complex, and beautiful land and people; and glad to have been able to share encouragement and fellowship with our Christian brothers and sisters on the other side of the world.


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