Ethiopia: land of humanity and spirituality


There are countries that last three seconds. We read their name on the newspapers. 1,2,3. We turn the page absently. The next day we reread that name. 1,2,3. It reminds us of something. ''Ah yes, it's yesterday's''. But what was the one yesterday? Why is it in the newspaper? ''Obviously, for the war.'' Where is Tigray? Why is there a conflict going on? ''Well, because it's Ethiopia''. So, what? ''Yes, Ethiopia, that African country where they die of hunger and where there are always wars''. And the conversation ends. 1,2,3.

Today I want to count to at least 4. I want to tell you about Ethiopia, not the country of war, but of peace. I want to tell you about Ethiopia, not the country of hunger, but of generosity. I want to tell you about Ethiopia, not an African country, but the African country of origins.

We all remember on our textbooks Lucy - Dinqnesh for the Ethiopians, "you are wonderful" - and the Rift Valley, the cradle of civilization. In the highlands that surround it, there’s Lake Tana, home to 37 monastery islands, as well as the source of the Blue Nile, which supplies most of the water to the Nile River Valley in Egypt. In two sentences millennia, or rather, millions of years of history. And then perhaps Ethiopia is not only "that African country where there is always war and where people die of hunger", but it is above all history and culture. The very name Ethiopia, ''the land of the peoples with the burned face'', was given by the Greeks, holders of culture in ancient times. Aeschylus and Homer described it as a distant land favored by the gods for its beauties. The tangible wonders of Ethiopia are many. There is the Ethiopian Jerusalem, Lalibela, where the eleven rock churches built by men and angels stand. Axum, city of stelae and capital of the empire of the Queen of Sheba where, according to tradition, in the garden of the Church dedicated to Mary of Sion, there is the Ark of the Covenant, brought as a gift by Menelik I to his mother, the queen, after visiting his father Solomon in Jerusalem. And then there is Gondar, the African Camelot, defined by ancient visitors as ''more beautiful than Solomon's house''. And then again Harar, the fourth holy city of Islam, an independent sultanate and theocratic kingdom, the nerve center of the road for the coffee and the slave trade. Ethiopia is therefore a land of freedom of faith and worship. Nature, with the depression of the Danakil, a desert that contains the lowest dry point on earth, volcanoes, forests, plateaus, rivers, waterfalls and lakes also contributes to making Ethiopia unique. Then there are the intangible heritages. 80 ethnic groups, each with their own language and cultural practices. Yilugnta, a reflection of the ethics and morals of the Ethiopians, generous, selfless, hospitable and inclusive people. And then there is art, poetry, music and dance, personifications of a proud country, the only one in Africa with Liberia that has never been colonized. It is undeniable that famines, the Derg regime, the Red Terror, the wars with Somalia and Eritrea and the current tensions in Tigray are part of Ethiopia. But it should not be forgotten that Ethiopia is above all culture, peace and faith. It is in this Ethiopia that we will go. Accompanying us on this journey will be Melaku Belay, the ''walking earthquake'' of Ethiopian music.

Melaku Belay is one of the most virtuous dancers in Ethiopia and leader of the Ethiocolor, a renowned ensemble based at the Fendika Azmari Bet music club, in the Kazanchis district of Addis Ababa. He is winner of the Alliance Ethio-Francaise award for excellence in dance, Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and Communications, nominated by the DireTube Award for introducing Ethiopian music to the world, nominated for the Ethiopian Person of the Year 2018 award, winner of Visa for Music Award 2019 and of the 2020 Prince Claus Laureate and also, he managed to obtain a globally competitive grant from the UNESCO International Fund for the Promotion of Culture. But Melaku's life in dance was not easy. As we will learn from his story, what made him successful was above all his love for people and his deep spiritual strength. Today Melaku is not only the best dancer in Ethiopia, but he is also the cultural ambassador of his people in the world. With the Fendika Cultural Center - he is the director - Melaku has created a crossroads of traditional and contemporary cultural expressions, where visual artists, poets, musicians and dancers can interact, experiment and make Ethiopian culture known to the world. I am convinced that Melaku is the best person to accompany us on this journey through the colors of Ethiopia. Love, kindness, the spirit of sharing, respect, unity ... these are the values that Melaku wants to pursue, the same values on which Ethiopia, a land of culture and spirituality, is founded.

Melaku, would you like to tell us your story? 

I’m Melaku Belaly. I’m a dancer. I started dancing in my mother’s tummy. The daily life of my society feeds me with rich culture. When I was 3 years old, my mother went to Sudan as a refugee. I was raised in Addis Ababa by my cousin. When she passed away, I had to live on the street. I grew up dancing in festivals such as weddings, Timket, and other festivals. Dance is my life. 23 years ago, I started working in Fendika as a dancer, earning tips only. There was no salary for dancers or Azmaris - the poet-musicians of Ethiopia, comparable to our medieval bards. Still living on the street, I shared my tips with the street children. After a while I asked permission to sleep in Fendika. I slept under the bar in Fendika for 7 years. I made a living by teaching private dance lessons and continued my high school education at night when I wasn’t working. I was working a lot in Fendika. During the day, I went to National Theatre, Ras Theater, Hager Fikr to give free service as a dancer, hoping to get professional work at one of those theaters. But when I went up for audition, they never chose me because I had my own style. To them, I was not modern enough; I was too “country.” The irony is, 12 years later, they invited me to be a judge at their competitions. When I started running Fendika in 2008, I started giving salaries to Azmaris and dancers. That was a first in Addis Ababa. I also started composing music and choreographing with Ethiocolor, which I created in 2009. My love for music comes from the people, from the culture.

Timkat - in Amharic, ጥምቀት- is the Coptic Epiphany that is celebrated in Ethiopia every January 19th to commemorate the baptism of Jesus (in 2019 it was included in the list of intangible cultural heritages of humanity). During the ceremonies, which last three days if you include the Keterà (the eve of Timkat), the Tabot, a model of the Ark of the Covenant present in every Ethiopian church, is carried in procession. Priests and faithful wrapped in traditional netela (a long white cotton scarf), head for pools or streams that are blessed. Following the sprinkling of the faithful, the Tabot is brought back inside the churches, where it remains until the next Epiphany. As on the occasion of Coptic Christmas (Ginna) and Easter (Fasika), the streets of cities and villages are filled with music, dances and colors. The major center of this heartfelt religious celebration is ancient Roha, today's Lalibela. The timeless charm of this holy city is given by the presence of 11 hand-carved churches in a single block of rock. Both the construction of these buildings and the name of the one who renamed the city are the protagonists of ancient legends. According to tradition, at the birth of the future emperor of Roha, a swarm of bees surrounded his body without leaving any marks. Then the queen mother decided to call it Lalibela, which means "the bees recognize its sovereignty". His older brother, seized by jealousy and envy, ordered Lalibela to be poisoned. The young prince sank into a deadly sleep and was taken to heaven by some angels, where he saw strange constructions, the future rock churches of Lalibela. God told him that if he built these churches, he would bring him back to life. Lalibela accepted. When he became emperor, he ordered the construction of churches. Again, according to legend, these buildings were built in just 24 years thanks to the joint effort of men who worked during the day and angels who continued the human work at night. Even today, more than eight centuries later, the churches of Lalibela are among the most beautiful jewels of Ethiopia, as well as being ideal places to feel the sacredness of Timkat.

In the West, Ethiopia is known only for poverty and wars. In reality it is much more ... What do you think is the true face of Ethiopia?

For me, Ethiopia not only cradles the past of humanity, but she also holds the seed for a future of peace. People only know about hunger and war in Ethiopia, from the news. What they don’t see is the spirituality and the sacredness of the place. I love my country I love Ethiopia, not because of material things. I’m happy to be born here, and I’ll be content to die here. Our rituals of prayers and meditation help us survive everything. I wish for the world to understand what I feel about my country. We have a lot to share, to give. It’s true we don’t have enough food. But we have rich spirituality and deep connection with humanity. We’re ready to give to others even though we don’t have enough for ourselves. We give love without expectations of return.

What role does dance play in this?

I was born with dance. Dance helps me feel the richness of our spirit. Dance is my language. When I dance I don’t need to speak another language. I connect easily with human beings through the body language. Dance helps us communicate our culture and facilitate human connections.

What are the most recurring themes and the most popular dances?

Most people would say Eskista is the most popular dances. But I disagree with that. There are many other kinds of dances in Ethiopia. To me, all dances are equally amazing and powerful: Wolayita, Afar, Guragegna, Oromegna, Tigregna, Kunama, all are amazing.

Unlike our conception of dance and music as two complementary worlds, in Ethiopian culture they are strongly connected and one is not separable from the other. Throughout Africa, dance-music constitutes a fundamental part of culture and self-expression. The Eskista, literally ''dancing shoulders'', is a traditional Ethiopian dance, originally from the Amhara region, performed by men and women usually in groups. The dance involves the rolling of the shoulder blades, the bounce of the shoulders and the jilt of the chest. It is typically performed on traditional Ethiopian music, which is produced with traditional instruments such as krar (a six-stringed lyre), washint (flute), masinqo (a single-stringed bowed lute), negarit and atamo (two types of drum). The dancers wear the gabi, a handmade cotton fabric painted in various colors.

Thanks to your determination and commitment you have brought artists from different ethnic groups to Addis Ababa. Do you believe that music - and culture in general - can be a weapon of cohesion and social equality? 

Yes, I do believe music and dance bring us together. I believe they are the only solution to our problems. They bring us together as equal human beings. Despite all the problems we have - poverty, racism, gender inequality, politics - in music, we are equal, if we come with our honest selves, and express without ego, through the spirit of sharing and learning. I feel this spirit especially strongly during Timket celebration. For 7 years I have been bringing musicians from different ethnic groups to participate in Timket – it’s an amazing feeling. Groups that are usually excluded and marginalized in society – the Gamo women, for example, have beautiful music to offer and make Timket an even richer experience for all.

Fendika Cultural Center projects involve other forms of culture, such as poetry and visual arts. In previous interviews we have seen that unfortunately in many countries there are still forms of censorship. Do artists in Ethiopia enjoy freedom of expression?

Prior to the current government, there was stricter control and censorship. Amarhic poetry, however, uses the method of wax and gold that can evade censorship. The current government allows more freedom but offers very little support to artists.

What does ''wax and gold'' mean? Melaku refers to the Qene, a traditional Ethiopian poetic form built on two semantic layers. The analogy with wax and gold derives from the goldsmith's art. He creates a first image with wax, then covers it with clay or plaster. When the molten gold is poured into the mold, the wax melts, leaving the gold with the desired image. Similarly, the Ethiopian poetic-artistic tradition plays a double layer with words. While the apparent and surface meaning is known as Sem (wax), the true underlying meaning is known as Werq (gold). According to various studies, the tradition of wax and gold dates back to over 1500 years ago (the first written attestation is traced back to Saint Yared, an Axumite cleric who lived in the fifth century AD) and would have spread thanks to the monks of Lake Tana. These sacred waters from which the Blue Nile originates, are still today home to 37 islands that host hermitages and monasteries.

Being able to have a complete view of the great ethnic mosaic of Ethiopia is almost impossible: 80 ethnic groups in a single country, all with their own cultural practices. How are the relations between the various ethnic groups? Do they feel part of a national unity? Does politics foster dialogue and a sense of unity?

For me, Timket celebration is an example of how people of different ethnic groups and religions live together and celebrate life together. It is the politicians who try to divide us. In everyday life, we are not separated. It’s common to see people marry across ethnic or religious differences. We are one. We are together.

In 1998 the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia officially broke out. This war created borders where bridges previously existed. However, Eritreans and Ethiopians are historically and culturally interconnected. In many studies, there is talk of habesha, or a pan-ethnic cultural identity. Is the use of this term correct?

Ethiopian and Eritrean cultures are not very different. There are so many familial connections between the two nations. When the peace was made between the two countries, families are reunited after years of separation. I do not use the word “habesha” much. I use the word Ethiopian. Habesha refers more to the people in the north. It excludes many groups in the southern part of the country.

Ethiopia and Italy have a common ritual: coffee. What are the rituals associated with this "sacred" drink?

In Ethiopia, we use coffee as a means of meditation. The coffee ceremony is very important in Ethiopia. We roast and ground the coffee by hand. A proper coffee ceremony takes 2 hours. And if you’re invited, you have to stay and enjoy the moment. It’s a chance to share your life with friends, whether you are sad or happy. That’s why we say our coffee ceremony is our psychiatric therapy.

A Bedouin proverb says: ''When a guest arrives, he is a prince. When he sits down, he is a prisoner. When he leaves, he is a poet''. And in fact, coffee is not just a drink, but is synonymous with hospitality and conviviality. If all over the world Italy, Arab countries and Turkey are known for coffee, few people know that it comes from Ethiopia. According to an ancient legend of the Arabian Peninsula, the shrub from which Arabica coffee is obtained was accidentally discovered by an Ethiopian shepherd in the 9th century. While he was grazing his flocks, he noticed that the animals that had chewed the fruit of the plant were very active. So, he decided to experiment with them himself and found that they could be used to make an energizing drink. After 1200 years, that grain found by chance is still an integral part of Ethiopia's social life. As Melaku explained, the coffee ritual can last two hours. Just like in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, there are more rounds. The first round, awol, is served starting with the eldest. When the first cup is finished, the jebena (coffee pot) is filled with water and we proceed to the tona, a second lighter round and, finally, to the baraka, the last cup served. There is only one rule: don't be in a hurry! If you want to discover other curiosities related to the coffee ritual in Arab countries and Turkey, you can read my article ''Qahwa: the art of Arab coffee'' (Italian version only).

Speaking of sharing and respect… the system of values summarized in the term Yilugnta struck me a lot. What does it mean?

Yilugnta is an important part of Ethiopian sensibility and ethics of being. It implies consideration of others’ needs, interests, and dignity. It encourages us to think of our families and others first. For example, even if I’m hungry, I will offer my food to others who are present. It’s an implicit understanding shared by most Ethiopians. We are taught to be kind, generous, humble, considerate, and gracious.

We also have another element in common, the religion. What role does the Christian faith play in daily life? Can its effects also be found on music? 

Christianity is intertwined with many aspects of Ethiopian culture, especially the Amharic language and music. It remains very vibrant. Most people observe fasting customs – 275 days of fasting a year. The churches are important spiritual centers of people’s lives. Yes, the music in the church is sung in Ge’ez, with some in Amharic also. Ge’ez is the ancestor of the modern Tigrinya and Tigré languages of Eritrea and Ethiopia. It became extinct as a vernacular language between 900 and 1200.

Fasting is an important part of the Ethiopian Orthodox creed. If for Catholics Lent lasts 40 days, in Ethiopia it lasts 55 consecutive days. In addition to this fasting period, there are six others which, if followed, lead to a total of 275 days. The rule of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church provides for the abstention from products of animal origin for these periods and the prohibition of consuming any food and drink from midnight until the afternoon of the following day. According to the Ethiopian creed, fasting has the power to free the mind from useless energy and to bring believers closer to God, promoting the balance between spirit and body. According to research from the Pew Research Center, 98% of Ethiopians consider religion a very important part of who they are. In addition to being strongly present on a spiritual level, faith can also be visible on the body. In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are adorned with nikisat, a traditional form of tattoo, often in the shape of a cross.

Why should we come to Ethiopia?

You come to Ethiopia to get to know the people and their lively, unique culture, with unique language, food, music, dance, etc. What you experience in Ethiopia you will not experience anywhere else. And you have to do this with your own eyes, taste and smell. The landscape is amazing; so is the history and ethnic cultures all around the country. People are very friendly, and they share their culture with a sense of dignity and human equality.

What do you think is the power of traveling?

I love life more when I travel. Travel makes me happy, more experienced, wiser, and more open. I feel that I live extra years when I travel. I hope everybody gets to travel. 

I thank Melaku Belay for accepting my invitation. His story, values and commitment to sharing Ethiopian culture fit perfectly into our journey dedicated to humanity. We are living in an era of drying up. Everything must be immediate, easy, available. Captivating, but ephemeral. Superficial. De-personalized. But what will we become? We are in this world to live, not to survive. We have heart, mind and feet. Let's use them. 1,2,3 - 4. Have you seen how many things live in a name?

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