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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Day I Ate A Sheep Testicle!

September is a month of holidays here in Ethiopia (January too, I hear!). We had the New Year celebration a few weeks ago, and this week was Meskel (the Finding of the True Cross). As far as I understand it, from hearing several versions over the last few days, here is the story behind the celebration:

A Ethiopian lady had a dream that she found the True Cross (the one that Jesus was crucified on). She was in Israel at the time (no clue why), and she prayed and prayed to God for directions to the location of the cross. She lit some incense while she was praying, and the smoke trail went up to heaven and back down, and led her to a landfill outside Addis Ababa. She dug and dug and dug, and eventually found three crosses - the True Cross and the two crosses where the robbers who were crucified next to Jesus had been crucified. In order to figure out which was which, she tried touching sick people with the different crosses. The one that cured the sick was the True Cross.

To celebrate Meskel, people set up wooden crosses on piles of grass and sticks in their yards and along the roads. Then they dance around them, sing some songs and light them on fire. Surprisingly, most of the burning happens during the day - apparently because the smoke represents the incense that led the lady to the True Cross and it's hard to follow smoke signals at night. :) We went to Debark for the holiday. Tuesday night, we went to one cross burning - lots of coffee, beer, dancing and flames. at one point, the entire cross structure started to topple over towards us! luckily someone propped it back up quickly, but it was a little scary!

On Wednesday, the actual holiday, our "program" started early in the morning - around 6:30am we were rousted from our beds and ushered to the house next store, where there was another cross ready and waiting. we had coffee ceremony and ate popcorn while the cross burned (and one of the Peace Corps volunteers' puppies slept on my lap the whole time!). We had to stay until the center supporting pole of the cross fell over - apparently the direction the pole falls points to the direction where the crops will prosper in the coming year, or something like that.

After the neighbors' ceremony, we headed over to the official town cross burning. What an event! There were probably five thousand people there, all dressed in their special occasion white shawls and dresses and pants. We sure stood out with our white skin and colorful clothes! Because we were the only white people there, we were given seats of honor - the top row of the bleachers, just below the dais where all the priests and the mayor and the speakers and people like that were sitting! This meant, of course, that allllll the other people there were looking straight at us the entire time! It was a really cool event though - lots of chanting and dancing and kids and grownups in fancy costumes. We never really figured out what the costumes signified - they looked like they were going to do a play or something, but ended up just sitting around in groups of similar costumes. There were a ton of Orthodox priests too, with fancy robes and velvet umbrellas with tassels and turbans. The cross that they burned was really really big - once the fire got started, we could feel the heat all the way at the top of the bleachers!

In the afternoon, we hung out with Shif (our Ethiopian friend) and Claire and Derek (the Peace Corps volunteers in Debark) and the puppies. It was very nice to just relax and chat with people other than ourselves! We all made dinner together and spent the evening doing nothing much. Very nice break from work!

This morning, we drove back early from Debark and worked a full morning's work. Then we finally made it home and unpacked all our groceries and sleeping bags and what not. As we were heating water for our weekly shower, one of the kids from the village came down saying "buna buna! beg allah!" which basically means "come for coffee! and also there is a sheep!" we tried to beg off, since we really wanted to shower, but she wouldn't take no for an answer! So we headed up the hill, and discovered that the entire village had assembled for an outdoor bbq/picnic/coffee ceremony event thing in honor of the Meskel holiday. They had done their cross burning while we were in Debark, but since Wednesdays are mandatory fasting days (no meat) for Orthodox Christians, they had had to postpone the sheep killing. As we walked up to the fire pit, we saw the sheep hanging from a tree - they were in the process of skinning and butchering it!

Coffee was very good, and then we learned a lot of anatomical vocabulary words as the sheep was butchered. Asmaro, the head scout and butcher du jour, would hold up an organ, say its name in Amharic, and then ask what the English word was. We also got to see firsthand what goes into beg tibs (essentially stir fried lamb with onions and hot peppers) - not just the muscles, but also the heart, kidneys, trachea and testicles. That's right, lamb testicles. Of course, we had to take ridiculous pictures with the testicles, and then I said I'd eat some of one if it were served to me. This unsurprisingly led to Julie asking specifically for a testicle (good thing we had learned the Amharic word, right?) so that I could taste it. I tried it (it was a little weird in terms of texture but didn't taste that remarkable), then goaded Ali and Julie (both vegetarians, although Ali has started eating meat again since being out here) into eating some too! So we all had some sheep testicle for lunch! Don't worry - there are pictures and I will try to post them next week from town! What an adventure. I also ate some kidney and some heart, two new food items for me. Definitely the most interesting lunch I've eaten in my life!

Now that that exciting meal is over, we've had a chance to shower and are getting back to work. Ali and I are making our ID sheet this afternoon so that we can start data collection tomorrow!! Very exciting. It will be good to be collecting my own data instead of just helping out with general project stuff. It's nearly October, which means I've been here for a month already - so crazy! I feel like I'm getting into the swing of things pretty well. Hopefully the transition from photographing ears and helping Julie out with adults to doing observations and fecal sample collection with rowdy juveniles will go smoothly! The weather is getting better every day, and the muddy road is drying up slowly but surely. Fall is off to an awesome start!

Hope things are good back in the USA or wherever you are at the moment!

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