Body, faith and community

We are mixed, Almaz. We’re not that dark, being Africans. We come from the love of Makeda and Solomon, we are used to be mixed, even in religion. There is one God and each one of us calls Him on his or her own way.

Once I had the opportunity to participate in a religious cult with some elements of the Ethiopian community. The pastor invited every Ethiopian in the nearby. Hundreds came there. My group included some Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians and Islamics. That was not the point, gathering people with a single-same belief; the point is to support our fellow pastor.

Despite identifying the religions and spirituality as some of the most important aspects of their lives, a sense of communitarian support was stronger than strict group belonging features. Religion, as well as some vital activities like eating and drinking, are directly connected to the community and should not be experienced in loneliness.

There is one existential dimension in which beliefs are strongly marked: the body. An Orthodox habesha embodies the symbols of his or her beliefs by tattooing mainly crosses on their fronts, necks (women) and arms (men). The body communicates the religious sense of belonging.

The cross in the front goes down to the pavement when an habesha woman finds a figure of Jesus or Mary in the Eritrean Orthodox church. Her hair is held in cornrows or simply put back. She puts her tattooed front in the holy hands of the priest after dedicating her chin and kissing his hands. Then she passes her hand through the fire of the candles dedicated to Mary, kisses the hand, touches the figure and kisses again.

When I first entered the church I did not know about the white, soft veil to be used by women. An ancient habesha indicated a basket with veils to share and a young habesha brought me one, inviting me to sit alongside other women and babies. On bare foot, with a semitransparent veil on head and shoulders, showing possible tattoos, moving from standing firm (with tall canes) to swinging arms while chanting and to kissing the ground and the hands that touch the holiness.

I would leave the church misspelling “bruk maalti”, wishing everybody a good day, sharing some bread (not for hunger, not for fasting, but for that holy sense of sharing) and a few smiling words.

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