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An Ethiopian Odyssey

March 2004

Chapter 13 - Love and Self-Resilience

I’d been introduced to Abebech Gobena at the Worldaware Awards in London in January 2004. She was there to receive the top accolade: ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ for the care and love she’d given ½ million orphans since 1979. Chapter 13; ‘Love and Self-Resilience’ is about the work her charity, AGOHELD, do to help the very poor rediscover their dignity and skills.

“At 7.15pm, slowly children poured into the courtyard in front of us. They lined up in four neat rows. When the children were all assembled, the chants began. One child chanted a line, and the others answered; even the little ones of three were word perfect. Some stood and bellowed, others recited the words quietly, and the chanting sounded magical; like a multi-layered organ recital. One solemn girl of about six held an icon with a picture of Mary in her hands; another boy had one of Jesus. After five minutes or so the children knelt down and bowed before God. There was no sound except breathing and chanting; even the sacred ibex birds appeared to be listening as they flew silently overhead, their curved beaks silhouetted against the purple dusk.

A tattered Bible was handed around, and each child kissed the cover; this was followed by the icon of Mary, the serious girl ensuring that everyone touched it twice, first with their foreheads, then with their lips. After the Lord’s Prayer and more chanting, the ceremony was over. The rows broke up and laughter punctuated the air once more.

Abebech took one of the plates full of kollo snack food and called the children; they queued up on the steps to see her and she gave each one a handful and wished them a good night. They have a specific word for her: ‘edaye’, which means special mother in Amharic. At eight we all retired to bed.

At 3am I was awakened by barking dogs once more – the dog chorus as I called it. Invisible by day, the dogs came out to chatter loudly in the small hours and as each dog called to another, the howls and barks reached a crescendo. After a while there was no point being irritated; they were too far away to throw a shoe at. I drifted off to sleep once more.”

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