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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Easter in Addis Ababa, April 2014

Ethiopian Orthodox Church  Celebrating on the night of Holy Saturday

Close to Midnight on Holy Saturday, April 2014. Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Photo taken by Odoh Diego Okenyodo

What a different Easter Weekend this has been – on so many levels.  In Ethiopia most Christians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and it has been interesting to be immersed in the city during the holy week.  The work I have been engaged in has been on a secular, social level, and yet the spiritual has been alive, so alive.

During Lent many Christians fast.  Here in Ethiopia the fasting is very much like the way the Moslems do during Ramadan.  Everyone knows that the members of the Orthodox church are fasting.  One evening I was out for dinner with one of the colleagues who is a vegetarian.  She asked for a meal with no meat.  The waitress immediately asked, “Fasting? Orthodox?”.  My colleague replied, “No, vegetarian.”   The waitress repeated her question, and so we smiled and said, “Yes, Orthodox.” because it was easier.  Last night we went to a restaurant with a buffet, and the food on one side was marked ‘Fasting Food’ and the other ‘Non Fasting Food’. The non-fasing food have no meat and no eggs.  Through out the week there were subtle signs that it was Holy Week.

I am not sure what happens on Good Friday because we worked the whole day.  I know people went to church, but I am yet to do my research.  Most of the local staff were not at work, and the area around the Institute for Security Studies, where we are working was very quiet.

Holy Saturday is very different from the way I have experienced it anywhere.  Early in the morning, the Priests from each Orthodox congregation, together with a Deacon or two, go out into the community.  The Deacon carries long, flattened reeds, and they walk around ringing a bell.  The Christians open the doors of their homes and receive reeds, which they wrap around their heads.  Everywhere we went on Saturday we would see people walking around Addis with a reed wrapped around their heads.  The reeds symbolise Jesus’s grave-clothes.

Abel celebrating Holy Saturday

Our Ethiopian colleague, Abel, celebrating Holy Saturday. Photo taken by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa

And the most important Easter service is at midnight on Holy Saturday (see picture at the start of the post). I missed that celebration but some of my colleagues attended the beginning.  The whole community gathers at church – they start with song, and then at midnight they go into prayer – and have a 3 hour-long service.  It is believed that Jesus rose at around 3 am.  They do not go to Church after that.

This morning, Easter Sunday, I went on a different journey.  I wanted to go the Church they way I normally do.  I grew up Anglican and so I went to the church that we went to when I lived in Addis – St. Mathews Anglican Church, between Aratkilo and the Ras Amba Hotel.  I believe the last time I was in that Church was Christmas Day 1980!

St. Mathews Anglican Church, Addis Ababa

The Altar at St Mathews Anglican Church, Easter Sunday, 2014, Addis Ababa Ethiopia – picture taken by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa

The service was much smaller and simpler than the last service I attended at St. Mathews.  When I was last in Addis, St Mathews was very High Church.  So while it  followed the Anglican tradition that I had grown up with, they also included the burning of incense, bells and the like in the service.  I remember the first time I went there it felt like I was at a Catholic Mass.  Well the church has changed so much!  It is more Anglican Evangelical – no incense, no bells – and the songs are more modern.  I noticed how the congregation had fewer Africans, and more Australians and New Zealanders.  It was the same in many ways and different in others.

I enjoyed the service.  And as I sat there, I kept thinking of my late parents and brother and sister – Fay and Chris.  I felt their presence.  I kept thinking of Aunty Lerlyn, a good family friend born in Trinidad who is married to a Ugandan and is Ugandan.  She was very active in the church.  And the style of service reminded me of my congregation at the Bellville Presbyterian Church in Cape Town – and had touches that reminded me of All Saints Cathedral in Kampala.  As I left I reflected on the different Easter traditions.  I wondered if we had lost anything, those of us who have fewer outward rituals to keep us grounded.

Happy Easter everyone.  Christ is Risen.  He is risen indeed.

The power of gentleness


In most of the cities I have been too there is a clear distinction between where the middle class live, and where the working class and the poor live.  And the middle class is often afraid to walk alone in the areas where the poor and working class live.  They carry many assumptions about safety and ‘otherness’.  This is not so in Addis.  Right next to the palace is a shanty town.  Right opposite the Jupiter International Hotel we are staying in (next to the Raddison Blu) is a shanty town.  The people of Addis live side by side in harmony – the geography of the city dictates that.  There is no sense of fear as one walks down the streets, not really.  Except maybe that conditioned sense of ‘I must take care’ that is born out of living in large cities like Cape Town.  In crowded places one must be aware of are pickpockets, the beggars who are very persistent and  the con men who hang around the hotels.

The other evening I was with two of my colleagues waiting for the rest of the team to come.  We were standing across the road from the hotel, close to some shacks, next to the minibus taxi we were all going to use to go to a Jazz concert.  It was dark.  A man with very beautifully twisted dreadlocks came up to my colleagues and started to speak to them.  At first they ignored him, then they said they were not interested.  He was pushy so we decided at that moment to wait inside the minibus.  He followed us, and wanted to open the door and get in but the taxi driver sent him away. Someone said ‘He is just trying to con you guys.”  And we left it at that.

He walked away, and then came back, and tried to come in again.  We all started to get a bit agitated.  Did he not understand that we did not want to talk to him.  I could feel my own inner security bells going.  I wanted to tell him, “Go away.”  The American lady, being closest to the door, then raised her voice slightly and speaking very firmly asked him to leave.  She was holding the door closed.  He became angry. He walked to the passenger door and tried to open it.   Another colleague sitting in that seat held that door closed.  We were all starting to get angry, and to speak.  And then one of our Ethiopian colleagues, a petit young woman leaned out of the taxi and spoke to him in the calmest, kindest voice.  And he backed away, said it was all well, and left.

I later said, “You handled that so well.  You were so kind.”  She smiled and said, “That’s how it is here.  You just need to speak to someone nicely and they will understand.”  So I asked her what did you say?  And she said, “I explained that you guys were not from here and you did not know how things worked, that you just wanted to be left alone. And he said okay.  Just tell them to talk to me nicely.”  And that was that.

The course I am on is about using art to build peace within the community.  It is really about seeing and listening to people, and helping them see each other, see themselves, see possibility.  My Ethiopian colleague really demonstrated how communication and gentleness are sometimes the most powerful tools we may have.


The Artist as Peacebuilder in Africa: Part 1

I am in Addis Ababa doing a course called ‘The Artist as Peacebuilder’ through the Institute of Security Studies.  We are an interesting mix of participants – all 25 of us.  From 15 countries – Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Togo, Cameroon, The Gambia, DRC, Malawi, Egypt, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Bourkina Faso and Morocco.  And representing different Arts and roles – we have visual artists, photographers, musicians, poets, storytellers, performing artists, film makers and a ‘nature’ artist who works with permaculture.  Then we have peacebuilders who work as journalists, and civil society activists working in a range of areas –  environmental issues, youth,  women, gay rights, street children, sex workers, identity, diversity and so on.

The Artist as Peacebuilder, Addis Ababa, April 2013

Day 1: Mapping African Peace and Security Challenges

The first two days the facilitators lay down the theory that will underpin our work over the next two weeks.   One of the questions we grappled with, and are still working with is ‘How well do you know your continent?  Or your country, or neighbourhood for that matter.’  I found this question very interesting, and am still thinking about it.  It made me realise that there are many things I assume I know, that I do not really know – and things that one takes for granted that one should not.  And things that I know that I did not know I knew.  I was grateful for my East African education.

In one exercise we were given a map of Africa with all the countries outlined but with no names.  The task was that each of us writes down as many names as we could.  It wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be.  I named about 38 and got 28 of those correct.  The highest got 44!  Of course I started with the East African region where I grew up, and went down South. I was so upset that although I had put Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe in the correct general area, I mixed them up.  The Easter part of North Africa (Egypt and Libya) were easy but West and North Africa were not as easy.  With some countries I knew the general area they were, but not the exact spot.


Naming the countries is just the beginning of really getting to know the continent.  The process though,  reminded me of the time the OAU was hosted in Uganda. I was in primary school, and we took the time to get to know the countries in Africa, to know their capital cities, their presidents, their national languages.  I used to sit with my neighbours, Alex and Michael, and play a game where we would ask each other questions like, ‘What is the capital of Angola?’ or ‘Describe or draw the flag of Gabon’.  I havent paid attention to any of those things lately.

How well do you know your continent?  What do you know about the countries – beyond their names?  Is what you believe about certain ethnicities in your country true, or is it prejudiced?  Do you see your people through knowledge and information that you can verify, or through the eyes of the media?  Are you able to entertain another perspective?

I have decided to take time to learn more about the rich and diverse peoples of my continent.  And I will stop getting angry with people who say to me, “Oh, you come from Uganda?  I have a friend who lives in Ghana.  Do you know them?”


Return to Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa        The little blue and white taxi        Addis from the workshop room

On Sunday I left Cape Town to travel to Addis Ababa – a soul journey back to a place of my youth – and to engage with other artists.  I was last in Addis in January 1981 when we left to return to Uganda.  As I boarded the Ethiopian Airlines plane in Johannesburg I realised that the last time I boarded a plane to Addis things were very different.  The air hostesses walked around the plane with a plate of sweets before take off and landing, to give you something to suck so your ears would not block.  In those days we were still able to go and visit the cockpit to see how the pilots fly the planes.  Smoking was still allowed in airplanes, and there was a smoking and a non-smoking area.  We still got little packs with socks, eye pads and toothbrushes on airlines.  And in the toilets, in the airplanes, there was soap and lotion.  And if you went on a long transatlantic flight, chances are you would have your toilet bag with you in the plane. It was a very different time.

There was a buzz in the plane – passengers talking to each other, laughing…  it was not like some of the flights I have been on where everyone seems to mind their own business and everything feels so impersonal in the plane.  I think many people on the flight knew each other, or got to know each other, and the Ethiopian Airlines staff created an atmosphere that was just pleasant.  I kept feeling as if I was in someone’s lounge.

We arrived in Addis at about 9 pm local time.  As we taxied down the runway, I remembered how Daddy used to wait to hear the plane flying over our house before he got into the car to come to the airport.  We lived in Bole, very close to the airport.  I thought I might be able to see where we lived as we drove out of the airport.  I noticed, as we got out of the bus that the airport building was bigger than it had been.  And as we drove out of the airport the empty spaciousness that I remembered along Bole Road was filled with buildings, cars and people – tall buildings with multiple storeys.  The road had also grown – it was much wider than it had been.  I think that the houses in the area, or many of them, were broken down to make way for the new buildings.  Our hosts said that all this development happened in the last 6 to 7 years.  Addis is growing very fast.

But somethings don’t change – at least not totally.  The little blue and white taxis that drove up and down the streets in 1977 are still there – a crucial mode of public transport.  They have changed just a little. In 1977 most of them were Fiats but now they are Datsuns or Toyotas.  Then there is the  quirkyness of Addis – with its upmarket housing next to low-cost housing.  In this city people live side by side – they always have.  I remember when we first came here we were surprised at the shacks that were so close to the Palace.  The suburbs don’t really exist.    It’s a conscious plan to enable even development, and to ensure that the rich and poor are integrated.  The discomfort that people from the suburbs have when they go to the poorer parts of town in other countries does not exist – and I like that.


View from the window of the course room                  the primary school below the workshop room, Addis Ababa, April 2013








Honour those who show up

Labyrinth by Francois Korver


A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were supposed to facilitate a one day workshop for some clients in Johannesburg.  It was the last session of a 7 month leadership programme and I had been asked to lead this final day using Story as a tool for reflection and planning.  I was excited.   Then things started to go wrong.  With all the previous leadership cohorts we worked away from the organisations premises, in a guesthouse with a lovely quiet garden, but because of the current financial context they were saving on costs and so they used their own premises – a distribution hub with lorries passing outside of the windows of the facilitation room regularly.  It was not the most conducive venue.  The dates had been changed in January, but somehow not all the participants received the new dates until a week before the course!  5 days before we were to facilitate the day was almost cancelled because of poor attendance.  Then, for some reason, they decided that we would go ahead.  So we were flown to Johannesburg and on arrival at the airport, both my colleague and I had two different shuttle services come to pick us up at the airport.  One organised by our administrator in Cape Town, and the other by the company!  We got to the B and B, and they were not expecting us because the client had not confirmed the booking.  Luckily they had rooms for us and this was sorted. Things were not looking good at all.

On the morning we were to work we got an email from the client to say that the numbers had dropped …  We were now expecting 6 or so people – from a possible 14.  We looked at each other and wondered what to do – cancel or facilitate? We had designed a very interactive process – time for reflection in small groups – to practice leadership skills of listening, asking incisive questions, sharing insights.  This required time but with only 5 people, it would be a short day – and would the design work with 6 people?

As we ate our breakfast and planned our day the thought came to mind about honouring those who came.  People had cleared their diaries, some had travelled as far as we had to be at the programme.  If we cancelled because ‘there weren’t enough participants’ what were we saying to them? And how many is enough? The saying, ‘whoever is there are the right people’ (from open space technology) came to mind, and I said to my colleague, “Whoever comes, lets facilitate what we have prepared.  We can tweak the exercises to suit the numbers, and we will most probably finish earlier than expected, but we would have honoured those who came.”  And that is what we did.

We ended up with 5, not 6 people – all men.  As we gathered to start people spoke about how angry they were with the way the course had been organised internally – and how upset they were with their own colleagues for not making the time to be there.  It was not a good place to begin the course.  So my colleague asked us to sit still, close our eyes, and she lead us through a visualisation which centered us and helped us to focus on the purpose of the day.  We worked with the Hero’s Journey, using it to reflect on the 7 months leadership journey they had been on.  And then, instead of the sharing in small groups, all 7 of us sat in a circle, and each participant shared their journey with such honesty and integrity.  And then – in a very unexpected turn – each of the listeners gave the speaker feedback.  I was struck by how aware they were of each person’s journey.  For everyone in the room there was someone who had seen their struggles and successes within the organisation, and was able to reflect this back to their colleague.  They gave statements like, “You took a job no one wanted to take.  In fact we thought you were crazy, and you have worked wonders.  Now everyone in the organisation is looking at you.”  Or “You made a decision that made sense to your family, but could have been a career limiting move.  And you have made it work for you and for the company.  You are a real inspiration.”  As we sat there, my colleague and I knew we had made the right decision.  Here were people in leadership, in an organisation, that understood each others challenges and were supportive of each other, who were able to speak openly with each other.  It was clear that these 5 people had the potential to make real differences in the organisation.

It was such a fulfilling day – all the challenges leading up to it faded away, and I realised three things:

  • Whoever comes – these are the right people and one should honour the effort they made to be there.
  • You have no guarantee what impact your work will have, but in being present, and giving your best to those who came – something will change.
  • Story is a very powerful tool to work with.  Each person told a personal story – in fact one person made it into a myth, but it was based on the organisation, and everyone recognised parts of it.  Through the storytelling they were able to articulate the movement and growth of each individual, and the challenges that lay ahead in a way that they would all remember.


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