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Ethiopia for me is a country that makes biblical history come alive. The beautiful Orthodox Churches, the bearded priests in their hats and robes and the striking devotion of the people vividly conveys the historic reality of Christianity and its direct and tangible links to Judaism. The haunting chanting of the Orthodox Church is the constant soundtrack to this deeply religious place. No other country I have visited has such a sense that something truly remarkable really did happen 2,000 years ago. It is almost, in a spiritual sense, as if people are still gazing up in awe and profound reverence at the risen Christ.
I departed for Addis on a direct flight from Dublin on July 7 and arrived at daybreak to a torrential downpour. Our Summer is their rainy season so it felt just like home! Addis Ababa is a chaotic city but apart from the usual groups of pickpockets and opportunists is generally safe for foreigners (ferengis).
This was my second visit to Ethiopia and my 6 week assignment was to classify and catalogue a small library of approx. 1000 books in St Catherines, a formation house for novices in Addis Ababa. The collection of donated books and magazines comprised a history of Christianity together with the biographies of various saints, particularly St Vincent, St Catherine and St Louise. There was also a small section in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. The room that houses the library overlooked the garden and had an air of stillness and peace which I loved. It was always a contrast to walk out in the evening to the crowded, lively streets of the city.
The work was detailed but also quite physical in the beginning as I piled everything into the middle to sort it and then shelve it before it could be catalogued. Cataloguing took up most of the time as each book was documented by author, title, publication details and shelf number. It was a satisfying to see order take shape and the saints whose lives and writings were a major part of the collection felt like companions in the work, particularly St Vincent.
As it gets dark around six, Ethiopia is an early to bed country. However be prepared to sleep lightly at times! Thunder, chanting for feast days, barking dogs and in my case for a couple of nights the strangest bird call I have ever heard, like a two tone whistle piercing the darkness. I thought someone was standing directly outside my window blowing a whistle in the middle of the night. I had no idea what was going on and when I asked at breakfast the Sisters laughed immediately. So night time in Ethiopia can be as lively as the day.
It can be a challenging country both physically (due to the high altitude) and emotionally. What I realised on my return visit was that although the assignment work itself is important what is equally important to the people is that you are there. Your company and presence is as valuable to them as anything you might do. That can be a hard concept for Westerners but worth remembering on the frustrating days.