Fasika is Ethiopian Orthodox Easter, which is celebrated according to the Ethiopian calendar and about a month later than Easter in Canada. Also, their Lent is longer as well – 6 weeks – and during that time, all Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast by giving up all meat and dairy. Basically, a country of meat lovers become vegan for the 6 weeks. Consequently, while Fasika may not be as big of a holiday as New Years and Epiphany according to our tourist guidebooks, all of our Ethiopian friends and colleagues were actively counting down to it. Fasika definitely seemed to be on everyone’s minds and it was all consuming in the building excitement….keyword “consuming”. There was Palm Sunday a week before Fasika and then the celebrations really started on Good Friday.
April 29, 2016 – Good Friday
I jumped right into the holiday by completely fasting (no food or water) along with local community members and going to the church events. Deirdre and I joined one of my co-workers, Ato Solomon and his wife, Dr. Ejignesh, at the Gabriel Church, the largest in Assosa Town. Well, actually, we joined his wife as the men sit separately at the north side of the church while the women sit at the south side. The church itself is round and has four doors – men enter through the north and west, women through the south and the priests and their followers enter through the
east. However, for the first part, we sat with the women outside where there was the nice breeze under the shade of the many mango trees on the compound. Women were draped with the traditional white cotton shawls. We listened to the melodic chanting broadcasted from the church by the loudspeaker to the whole compound and beyond. It sounded like Gregorian chanting with a slightly exotic Arabian flair at times that made me wonder if I was at a church or mosque. Women would sit and lay around, napping under their sheer cotton shawls. Then periodically, we would all get up to do the prayer “push-up” as it was explained to me. Almost like the macarena dance, we tap both hands to our shoulders, cross and tap opposite hands to shoulders, tap our hips with both hands then bring our hands to the ground, kneel and lower our foreheads to the ground, then get up and repeat. After not eating and more importantly, not drinking any water all day, it was quite the workout, especially when the speed seemed to increase and increase with an elegant fervor that I have begun to identify as part of the Ethiopian spirit – polite, elegant, demure on the outside but that spark of passion and determination that becomes clear in a short time. Interestingly, maybe I was caught in the energy of the whole community fasting but I wasn’t very hungry. However, I was thirsty. Well, I don’t really like pop usually but today, I daydreamed about it…the cold bottle of Coca-Cola sitting in my fridge. There may have been a little drooling at times. We alternated between sitting the mango trees, waving at the shy kids who peek out at us and doing the “push-up” prayers for hours. We did a frenzy of prayers that left me gasping for breath and wondering when the chanting would end and that finished the first part of the ceremony. I do yoga but still, my arms and legs are sore form the exercise! Looking at the little old wizzen ladies around us, it is amazing to see them bounce up and down. If I am half as flexible and capable when I am their age, I will count myself blessed.
Then, Dr. Ejignesh, Solomon’s wife took us into the church itself to see the funeral of Jesus, the second part of the ceremony today. At one point, there were 41 kneeling prayers and up and down we went with the triceps muscles in my arms and my quad muscles in my legs feeling the burn. Large goatskin drums, which had not been played all Lent, were brought out along with silver cymbals. A large intricately carved wooden cross was brought out and shaded inside the church under an ornate, velvet red parasol. Priests lifted up a roll of green velvet representing the corpse of Jesus and there was a slow, stately, funeral procession around the church. The drums beat with their deep resonating sound, the cymbals rang, everyone was clapping and the women were making the otherworldly shrill mourning sounds that sent a shiver up my spine. As the procession completed and returned back to the inner platform, the funeral beat got faster and faster becoming more and more festive. The women swayed and their shrill mourning sounds turned celebratory. The drums beat into a frenzy of clapping and dancing. The drummers were jumping and the priests were twirling in the middle of the church finally climaxing to sudden stop. Afterwards, there was another sermon with more bowing and then the ceremony ended as the sun started to set. We went over to Solomon’s mother in law’s house, to break our fast and that first glass of cold water tasted like paradise.
April 30, 2016 – Saturday Fasting
After breaking our fast with a meal together last night after the Good Friday ceremony at the church, we don’t eat or drink anything until Sunday morning. It is now 6:30pm….approximately 22 hours since I last had a sip of water and about 24 hours since I last ate anything. I woke up in the middle of the night last night, kinda hungry but the mosquito net was too much of a bother for me to get out and go to my snack closet where I had some sour cream and onion chips ferretted away. I woke up this morning, hungry, thirsty and sore from the bowing prayers for hours at church yesterday. Yet there was a sense of peace and community as Deirdre, also fasting, and I could joke about our food and drink cravings together. We went to the Saturday market today, which was quieter than usual with more colourful Muslim hijabs dominating the scene though I did see my RHB manager strolling around casually with an iPhone to his ear in one hand and swinging a live chicken by the feet in the other. I was hungry so naturally, I bought a lot more food for the week than I needed to. As we’re walking around today, there are a lot of people walking around with goats and sheep…all fattened up over the last 6 weeks and probably not going to live past tomorrow. It’s kinda crazy to think of the upcoming massacre of livestock in the next 24 hours of so. In my hungry state, I think to myself…and sometimes out loud…”I could eat all the chickens in the world!”
We set up our yoga mats to lounge on the hotel balcony to read, rest and type away the afternoon. There is a goat tied up to the mango tree below in the parking area of the hotel. It is so cute but yet I can’t help thinking of how tasty it will be. We keep catching whiffs of cooking…the slightly sour smell of injera and the sharp tang of berbery spice. Deirdre swears that she smells raw meat… My nose is less specialized as I just smell cooking. Deirdre replies, “it smells like the OR, it smells delicious”
It is now 7pm and I think we’re going to try to take a nap for the next couple hours before getting up to go to church. With everyone fasting, there seems to be a sense of everyone holding their breath, a sense of anticipation as the world seem quieter in a hush. The melodic chanting from the Orthodox churches carries through the town with periodic imams from the mosques crying out into the sunset, not to be forgotten.
Early morning May 1 – Easter Ceremony
The ceremony started shortly before midnight. Long ropey candles were lit and passed out to all of the people inside the church. Slowly, an image of Christ was paraded around with the men following the procession around while there was singing, clapping and drumming. Mirroring the ceremony of Christ’s funeral, this was a celebration of his resurrection. As the night continued, there was more chanting and prayers, this time with periodic bowing of the head instead of the full kneeling prayer of which my quads were very thankful of. The men in the center circle stayed standing propped up by their leaning sticks while the rest of us in the outer ring, both women and men, started to sit down…then lay down…then finally full out curl up on the ground to take short naps while the priests sang on. As the night continued, even the men started to sit down and curl up in short naps, though our friend Solomon continued to be the most devout and continue standing. Periodically, we would all wake up and get up to bow in prayer and then we would curl up for the next short nap. At one point, I woke up and stood up…too fast apparently and my vision was blacking out a little. Just at that time, the priest was coming right towards me! Usually, I watched what other people did first but this time, I was first and concentrating on not collapsing back down. The priest blessed me and then moved onto the next person. The night ended with giving out small cups with a tiny bit of holy water to the elderly men and women and some more enthusiastic drumming and dancing by the priests. I am very impressed with their energy! They were jumping and twirling!
We walked to Solomon’s house to break fast but first stopped to buy some meat. All of the butcher shops were brightly lit, open and doing good business at 4am. People have been waiting 6 weeks for this exact moment! We had some fresh papaya juice and scrambled eggs on injera, which was perfect. We were slightly worried about breaking our fast with the iconic dish of the holidays, the super spicy chicken stew, which I imagine would be terrible to eat as the first thing since not eating or drinking anything in the past couple days! We walked home and went to bed…for about four hours before getting up and going for more food.
May 1 – Sunday Feasting
Eating and seeing family and friends is what Fasika is all about! It was basically a non-stop meat binge all day. The morning is reserved for family and I was very honoured to be invited to our Regional Program Manager, Mahari’s, house. He bought a goat especially for the holiday which had been slaughtered in the night before. He seemed to intend for us to eat most of it on Fasika morning! His wife, Lemlem, had cut up pieces of the meat in small easy bite sized pieces and fried it on a charcoal stove bathed in spiced butter. It was pretty delicious especially with a spicy, horseradish mustard sauce!
Around noon, we headed to Tesfahun, the general surgeon at Assosa Hospital. We were already stuffed with full with multiple portions of meat at Mahari’s but more food was to be had. Tesfahun’s housekeeper had cooked up doro wat, a super spicy chicken stew with hard boiled eggs swimming in an onion sauce and lots of spiced butter. Tesfahun was not satisfied with the amount that we were eating and kept pushing us to eat more and more until we felt like we were going to burst! I had a little nap on some mattresses in his living room as I was seriously going into a meat coma.
However, our day was not done yet. Deirdre and I walked over to the hospital where unfortunately she was called into work with an emergency case of the hospital CEO’s nephew. I continued to Solomon and Ejignesh’s house where I learned how to make doro wat starting from the freshly killed chicken!
I went home looking for bed but then realized that the holiday party had only just begun! Our hotel had set up a giant bonfire in the parking area. I finally talked with some of the Chinese Ethio-Telecom workers who are also staying at the hotel and together with them and Lily from the hotel, we ended up going dancing!
I realized why the Bradt guide only mentioned Fasika in one sentence…it is not a holiday for tourists. There are no public processions tourists can stand on the side and watch; it is all inside people’s homes and inside churches where ceremonies start at strange, unintuitive hours. Fasika is a yearly reinactment and reaffirment of faith and community that brings people together through shared values and practices of sacrifice and feasting. If you didn’t have Ethiopian friends to invite you into their homes, Fasika would pass by without much notice…except that maybe there are fewer adult animals wandering around the streets afterwards and big grins on co-workers faces.