While the rest of you are bustling away, for us in Habesha-land, our world came more or less to a halt. It was Easter weekend. If we went silent on you, bear with us. What, with all the sheep to be killed, the onions to be peeled, and injera to be baked – we need a minute before we can get back to you. For many of my countrymen, Easter is normally the time to catch some extra zzzs or used the extended weekend for a vacation or to visit relatives upcountry. And thus, with your Easter weekend done and dusted, you might be wondering what the big deal is.
Here… we don’t just brush over it … we take it a bit more seriously. In fact, it’s easily the most important festival of the year.
For the Orthodox Christian, it started weeks ago… 55 days before Easter Sunday to be precise – when ābiyi ts’om, the Great Lent, begins. I never cease to marvel at the buzz I always sense in the air in the days leading up to the start of the fast. My neighbourhood, which in the last few years has become one extended yesiga bēti, meat house, is usually full of revelers. The sidewalks crawl with people enjoying their meat and beer, parking lots overflow, and every so often, the long and noisy hooting from cars racing through town with passengers half hanging out the windows, cheering and waving flowers, signifying a wedding party. And then bam!
You wake up one morning, and you are in a ghost town. Even if you don’t keep up with the orthodox calendar, you will know the fasting season has begun. Eerie silence from those previous hives of activity for weeks upon weeks. Not a wedding to be heard. For the devout observer, this means not eating anything before 3 p.m. after which you eat the fasting food – no meat, eggs, or dairy – a vegan diet. And then, the anticipation begins to build up, the season is coming to a close. Shoppers are seen lunging bags of onions while herds of sheep are driven into the city. These are ‘parked’ in strategic spots across the city – no one needs to go too far to buy one.
On Good Friday, even non-orthodox Christians may spend the day fasting, and go to Church in preparation for Easter, while Saturday morning might be spent cleaning and preparing the house, maybe some food shopping. In Church, the Orthodox Christians prostrate themselves, bowing down and rising up until they get tired. The main religious service takes place with the Paschal vigil on Saturday night. It is a somber, sacred occasion with music and dancing until the early hours of the morning.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, by Saturday evening, the onions have been peeled and taken to the local market to chop them up with an industrial-strength blender.
I come from a tribe whose culinary artistry does not extend much further than – dump everything in the saucepan, season with salt, a measly onion, and gallons of water – then ensure the fire does not go out until it’s all soft.
Well, what do I know? Live and learn or as my people say, ūtathiaga oi no nyina ūi kūruga. My little bit of travel has taught me there is more than my mother taught me… and then – there is Doro Wat! And what would Fasika, the most anticipated festival of the year, be without it?
Its preparation begins on Saturday night to ensure it’s ready by resurrection morning – that is sunrise on Sunday. This is the chicken stew of all stews. You have to use local chicken (none of that foreign stuff), and it takes about five kilos of onions for one chicken. You can imagine that a medium-ish family gathering which needs about three chickens will require 15 kilos of onions – thus the need for that industrial blender. The spiced butter and other spices have already been prepared earlier in the week. It takes at least half a kilo of ginger and of garlic. This is stirred and simmered for hours with berbere, a fiery spice blend, and finally – your boiled eggs. About 10 per chicken, so our family gathering needs a whole tray. You can see why we are hunched over the stove for the better part of Saturday night.
This meal will be enjoyed with extended family on Sunday, obviously with injera and other side dishes such as tibs, alicha wot, key wot, dulet, ayib,kitfo, and gomen. On Easter Sunday, a sheep is killed to start the feasting. The sheep is symbolic of the story in the Old Testament, where Abraham’s faith is tested when God asks him to sacrifice his only son. Just before Abraham is about to carry out God’s wishes, God sends a sacrificial lamb in his son’s place. The story is said to be a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus’ death, being God’s only son, as a sacrifice for the world.
While not a public holiday, Monday is also spent visiting with family members.
This extravagant festival has hints of the feast of all feasts promised by one prophet Isaiah. He says it is prepared by the Lord Almighty, a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.
The thing is – even after all that spice-laden, butter-rich spread of festive food… come today, and fresh hunger pangs will still demand to be gratified. No wonder when Jesus told the woman at the well he had living water, she begged for some so that she won’t get thirsty and keep going to the well.
Doro wot reminds us that even the best food satisfies only for a day or two… soon enough, we’ll be hungry – again! But the season points to the bread of life, the living bread that came down from heaven and promises anyone who eats it will live forever.
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