Clean Hands, Kitfo, and Funerals
David, Coral and Sarah Nicholson, visiting us from Spicer Street Church in St Albans, had never experienced anything like this. We were in Haile’s home on Ethiopian Easter Sunday for lunch. The TV was on, and the food was being laid out. Ethiopian food is eaten with your right (and only your right) hand, so handwashing before a meal is not only necessary, but is part of the whole cultural dining experience.
Before we prayed and ate, Haile came in with a bowl, a jug of warm water, and soap. One by one water was poured over our hands into the bowl, soap was applied and then more water was poured. Our hands dried naturally – a towel is unusual. It was an honour to be entertained in Haile’s home on Easter Sunday and especially to have him help us wash our hands – there are a few glimpses of the experience in Sarah’s excellent video.
Handwashing happens in restaurants too. One Thursday lunchtime I found myself in the Kategna restaurant, next door to our old gym, eating some lovely Ethiopian food with my three clinic staff and Mekonnen from the finance department. The clinic staff and I went to the row of sinks at the end of the restaurant to wash our hands, but due to a physical disability Mekonnen stayed in his seat. When we returned, duly cleansed, two women - one young and one, well, not so young - approached Mekonnen with a bowl, some soap, and a silver jug of warm water. The older woman offered to pour water for Mekonnen to wash his hands – he stopped her. He indicated that the younger woman should do it for him. Dutifully they swapped equipment and the washing proceeded. I discovered that culturally such a service must be provided by someone of less seniority than yourself – the older woman was older than Mekonnen. (For me, as far as cultural seniority goes, I’m pretty much the top of the heap – I’m in my 60s, I’m a medical doctor, and yes, I’m male.)
On the way to the restaurant Mekonnen asked me, “Dr Phil, do you like kitfo?” “Yes”, I enthused, “it’s delicious!” I had forgotten another cultural principle – if you say you like something, you will probably get it. After the handwashing Mekonnen ordered the food (without a menu – you don’t need a menu in Ethiopian cultural restaurants, and anyway Ethiopian menus are an approximation to what might possibly be available, not in any sense a representation of culinary accuracy). “Dr Phil”, he asked whilst ordering our lunch, “how do you like your kitfo?” Uh oh. I’m getting kitfo. “Leb-leb” I replied, meaning “lightly cooked”. Here’s a picture of kitfo. Yes – it’s raw meat. It’s actually very tasty, as it’s mixed with some Ethiopian butter and spices. But it is raw. So – “leb-leb”. When it came, it was very lightly cooked – grey at the bottom, but most of it was still pink and raw. As I was being entertained I graciously accepted the dish and thoroughly enjoyed it, taking note that I was the only one eating it.
That was Thursday. Within 18 hours of the kitfo and having clearly been assaulted by a good dose of salmonella, my gastrointestinal tract rebelled. Over Friday and Saturday I drank a lot, groaned a lot, laid down a lot, and spent quite a lot of time in the place I have come to euphemistically describe as the “rest room”. Kitfo is tasty. But I’m never admitting to liking it ever again.
One of the sadder aspects of Ethiopian culture that we have learned about and become involved in on several occasions surrounds funerals. And it was another death that resulted in me being in the restaurant with Mekonnen and the clinic staff. A couple of weeks before, our lab technician and general irreplaceable clinic helper Mahelet was bereaved of her grandmother. On the day of the funeral a couple of vanloads of people from the HQ compound who know Mahelet drove for an hour to get to the church before the funeral was over. Our female employees have a way of suddenly having black scarves over their heads – I suspect it is a sad fact that funerals are so common here that such scarves are kept easily accessible for immediate use. Burial will always take place no more than a day after the death, so things happen very quickly. Getting there was difficult, so we arrived at the funeral when it was almost over. The grounds of the St Michael’s orthodox church were thronging with several hundred people. We found Mahelet in the crowd, tearfully clutching a framed picture of her grandmother. We hugged. We shared her grief. Then we left. Two hours in a van for 15 minutes in the crowd. But it mattered.
Our senior nurse Elsabet was absent at the time. When she returned from leave a week or so after the funeral, another effort needed to be made to express our love and concern – we went back to Mahelet’s grandparents’ home for lunch, to commiserate with her and her bereaved grandfather. We sat and chatted for an hour or more and enjoyed some lovely food and drink. Mahelet did a full coffee ceremony for us. People came and went - mostly family. And our visit was greatly appreciated.
Mekonnen hadn’t been able to get to the funeral; hence he took all the clinic staff, and Mahelet especially, out for the kitfo-containing lunch at the Ketegna restaurant. Commiserating after a bereavement really is important.
Which is why Chris isn’t here as I am writing this. One of the girls from a very poor background in the Y’Tesfa Birhan project at Bingham, Jerusalem, developed a cough a few weeks ago. She was thought to have bronchitis but didn’t improve. Jerusalem came and joined in the regular Monday afternoon meeting that Chris helps run two or three weeks ago and seemed reasonably well. Last week I was asked to review some documents from the Black Lion Hospital where she had been for some tests, and it was clear Jerusalem had some sort of leukaemia. She needed a bone marrow analysis, and probably chemotherapy. In the UK, she would have an 80% chance of a cure. They gave her some intravenous fluids and sent her home to go back the next day, as there were insufficient medical staff to cope with her. She went back on Thursday to get more tests that didn’t happen.
Just after midnight on Thursday, Jerusalem died.
Aged 15, all her life spent in great poverty, loved and cared for by her mum and also by Chris and her colleagues here at Bingham, she was buried the next day. We’ll never know why she passed away so quickly – there will be no post-mortem, no death certificate. A quick burial; mourning for several days; and then life goes on.
So that’s where Chris and several of her colleagues are right now – at the “lekso” for Jerusalem; sharing the grief, comforting the bereaved in their tiny home down by the river. Death is a way of life here. Please be praying for the family and the Y’Tesfa Birhan project, as they cope with this tragic and sudden loss.