BY SOLOMON WASSIHUN
Over the last few days, during the morning and evening hours, I have been observing a continual flood of people; many of them shrouded in the hand-woven cotton fabrics [Shema], deluging the motorway outside my house, that leads to one of the most prominent churches in town.
Out of curiosity, I checked the wall calendar [the unique Ethiopian Calendar] hanging in my living room, and found out that there were three big church holidays to be celebrated every other day in the same week: 28 November- St. Gabriel’s Day, 30 November –St. Mary’s Day and 2 December- St. George’s Day.
St. Mary’s Day obviously stands out as the warmest and most colorful commemorative day of all, probably because St Mary the Virgin is worshiped by the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians with such deep awe, love, reverence, and dedication that is unobserved in other Christian denominations.
This exceptional spiritual attachment of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with St. Mary the Virgin was an inspiration and also a subject of research for an Oxford anthropologist. She has published the findings of her research titled, ‘Wedasse: Orality and Female Worship in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church” in 1996 in the Journal of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies.
Some religious writings indicate that Ethiopian Orthodox Christians dedicate around 33 days of each year to various celebrations commemorating St. Mary from Her birth to Her assumption into Heaven. Even though St Mary Day is celebrated in all Ethiopian Orthodox Churches across the globe, its epicenter is in northern Ethiopia, in the ancient city of Axum [considered by the faithful as the most sacred Ethiopian city], specifically at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, a stone throw away from the incredible world heritage site of Axum Obelisks.
Unfortunately, the Hidar Zion celebration in Axum had undoubtedly its smallest attendance in at least three decades this year. Even though Axum has now regained peace and stability after weeks of law enforcement operations ensued from the warmongering provocations of the defunct TPLF leaders, St Mary pilgrims along with considerable thrill-seeking foreign tourists could not pour into Axum from every corner of the country in tens of thousands as they did in normal times.
The tragic vandalism of the Axum Airport by TPLF forces was an additional situation that adds to the inconveniences making Axum Zion inaccessible this year to its would-be pilgrims.
Anyone can imagine how the absence of several thousands of pilgrims has affected the livelihood of the local community in and around Axum. The week of St. Mary festival in Axum is by far the most important business time of the year for the local community as well as business travelers who make a huge amount of money by offering various goods and services to the pilgrims such as hotels, restaurants, cafes, roadside fast foods, souvenir shops, clothing stores, other consumer goods retailers, not to mention tour guides and transporters.
A few years ago, I have witnessed in Axum one of the largest people gatherings I ever experienced in my entire life. I saw the little ancient city of Axum being deluged with a white flood of pilgrims, young and old, men and women, in shema dresses with their faces brimming with spiritual ecstasy, shouting and ululating at the top of their voice hymns in the praise of St. Mary. That time, even though I arrived in Axum one day earlier, on the eve of St. Mary’s Day, all hotels in Axum were booked. And I had to move to the neighboring town of Adwa to find my accommodation.
In addition to the local commemorative days that we observe annually/monthly both within our religious circles as well as at the broader national level, our society is opening up to embrace western culture’s commemorative days [like Valentine’s Day] as well several others which are initiated by such multinational organizations as the UN.
Nowadays, there seems to be an international commemorative day for almost every social issue affecting people around the world irrespective of the part of the globe they are situated in. Here are some: Social Justice Day, Anti-Corruption Day, Health Day, Education Day, Women Day, Zero Discrimination Day, Happiness Day, No-Tobacco Day, and World AIDS Day.
On December 1, every year, for the last 34 years the international community renews its commitment to be part of the global effort in the fight for ending the pestilence of HIV/AIDS as a public health threat. The Virus is believed to have claimed so far over 32 million lives and infected 78 million around the globe.
The epidemic has also caused devastation and break up of countless households and an incalculable set back to nations’ economy in terms of incapacitating the active workforce of the society.
According to the latest figures, over half a million Ethiopians are believed to have contracted the virus, and around 14 thousand new cases have been recorded per year, 67 percent of which are youth below age 30. HIV prevalence rate has decreased from 3.3 percent in 2000 to 0.93 percent in 2020. However, it still remains one of the seven major health concerns in Ethiopia including COVID-19, maternal mortality, malaria, and TB.
World AIDS Day is also a time for us to remind ourselves of civic duty and moral obligation to show support for people in our neighborhood that are living with HIV. One of the most devastating experiences HIV positive people suffer beyond the physical ailments is the social isolation and the loneliness they have to endure as a result of the stigma attached to the disease which runs deep still to this day.
Unfortunately, the reality on the ground appears to stand contrary to what should have been or what we would like to see. If we just consider the foreign community residing in our nation, we see some foreigners, travelers and residents alike, engaged in lewd activities in workplaces and recreation areas that exacerbate the virus spread, than those who involve themselves in humanitarian efforts to prevent the disease and help the AIDS victims and orphans they see on streets day in day out.
Government agencies, international donors, civic societies, philanthropists, and celebrities have been struggling to make difference in national effort to tackle the rampant social crisis, prostitution- the menacing and degrading social issue which makes a huge contribution to the continuing spread of HIV/AIDS, and other STDs.
However, looking at the worsening situations, it is all too clear that efforts made so far are not well-matched with the colossal size and complexity of the issue. All stakeholders, donor agencies, in particular, need to give due attention to the crisis and allocate more resources to change the lives of several thousands of young girls and sometimes underage girls, whom sociologists euphemistically term as sex workers.
In my view, an arrangement in which one gets money in return for selling one’s body should not be termed as work after all. In fact, Prostitution is an evil, dehumanizing, immoral practice that needs to be equated with, and demonized as selling body parts like blood or kidney.
Thus, legal frameworks and the bureaucracy should be revamped to strictly crack down on sex traffickers, as well as brothel owners who make fortune while causing serious public health problems that jeopardize the well-being of individuals, families, and communities.
World AIDS day also provides us the time and opportunity to commemorate those friends and, neighbors, and co-workers of ours who have succumbed to AIDS-related illness or whose life and bright future has been ruined by the pestilence.
Their life story could serve as a cautionary tale to all of us to stay away from the pitfalls of carefree personal and social behaviors making us easy prey to the deadly virus.
The Ethiopian Herald December 6/2020