Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Unbreakable Spirit

On Sunday of the week we returned to Mekele, Braveen, Mohammad and I decided to go do some sight-seeing and visit the rock churches located in Abreha Atse-Beha. Ethiopia is well known for its rock churches, many of which are located in the Tigray region and since Atse-Beha was the closest one, we thought it most convenient to visit that one. Everything seemed to be going according to plan as we set off from Mekele. We got on our mini-bus taxi and arrived at a town called Wukro, located about 45 minutes away from Mekele. We got off at Wukro to take our next bus to Atse-Beha. From here-on, things didn’t really happen as we imagined. We were told to wait for the next bus to Atse-Beha, but we had no idea that the wait would take about 2 hours. When a bus did finally arrive, we were too late to get on it as it filled up instantly. We waited for about another 30 minutes, until the next bus going towards our destination arrived. This bus was larger than the mini-bus we had missed earlier and we were sure that we would soon be arriving at our destination in no time. Of course, we were wrong. The bus did not completely fill up as the conductor wanted. After a few minutes of sitting around, he asked Braveen and I whether we could pay for the remainder of about 6 seats in addition to our own. Each seat is about 5 birr and we flatly refused. Looking back on it, we probably should have taken up on his offer, as we had to sit around in that bus for another hour and a half for it to be completely filled up. When we finally set out, the conductor asked the driver to stop at random sites along the way in order to continue filling the bus to maximum capacity. It soon became cramped as some people were squished together along the aisle for about 15 km. Since we had seats, the journey was relatively comfortable for us. When we arrived at the destination, we looked around and I saw a rock church located a short distance away. I had originally imagined the place to be filled with rock churches and caves with built-in churches like the ones one would find in Geralta. However, Mohammad informed us at the present moment that there were only about two rock churches in this small country-side town. We were immediately escorted by a guy, who spoke some broken English and who seemed to be keen on being our guide to the church. He said he was from Wukro and that he was an accountant at a health office located in Atse-Beha. The church was located on top of a rocky mountain and once we summitted the steps made from the mountain rock, we gained a good view of the entire countryside surrounding the church. When we entered through the church gate, we saw the small white entrance of the church building that had been built into the rest of the church building extending into the mountain rock. Once we had paid the entrance fee, about a 100 birr for foreigners and free for residents, we saw the inside of the church. The entrance of the church had walls that were filled with all different sorts of paintings. Deeper into the church, we saw different columns extending up onto the roof which had been built to support the church against the mountain rock. Our guide told us that there were about 41 columns in total and some of them had the shapes of crosses. He also told us that the church had been built around the 4th century during the time of two kings known as Abreha and Atse-Beha. On a colorful painting positioned against the wall, we saw the images of in a colorful painting the two kings and the priest who had played a key role in baptizing the kings and establishing the church. I saw two doors located on each side of the far wall and I was told that they were prayer rooms that could only be entered by the priest. After we had viewed the church, we set out back to the country-side where our bus had stopped and moved on. Once we arrived at the stop, we were at a loss of what to do as no-one knew when the next bus would arrive and our guide told us that it would be best to wait at a nearby café. The cafe was round and had a continuous round stone seat that was covered with sheep/goat skin. Although it was lunchtime, there wasn’t much to eat so we just had some soft drinks and watched the English movie that was playing on the TV.

About 20 minutes later, we heard the sound of the bus going past our café and we rushed outside the café to get it. The driver refused to take us on at that location. We decided that it would be better to move on and to start walking so that we could at least take the next bus. When we arrived near the bus stop, we saw the same bus that had refused to let us in taking on passengers, so we sprinted flat out for about 100 m. The bus seemed to be packed and I was reluctant to get on. However, it seemed like the only bus that would be going back from that town for that day and so we had to find some way to get on. After much hassling with the conductor, at one point during which Braveen shouted that he would be willing to pay the conductor 100 birr to just let us in, we were finally squished in with the rest of the passengers onto the aisle. The conductor still added on a couple of passengers and soon I found myself squished and pressed from all sides by a sea of bodies. I was standing on the steps, right next to the entrance of the door and I pretty much stood on one foot for the entire journey. At times, there was a good shortage of fresh air to breathe, but we somehow hung on for about 30 minutes.

On any other day, I would be terribly irritated and angry about the whole affair of having to stand for more than half-an hour on this cramped and sweaty bus-ride, jostled and pushed from all sides by unknown persons. However, sometimes it might be a simple bus-ride like the one I just described above that can jolt you back to your reality. Only earlier that day had I re-read a small passage written by Dr. Rachel Remen that I had originally read back in May during my Duke Engage Academy training. The essay talked about the difference between helping/fixing and serving. One of the key points she makes is that when someone is helping someone or fixing something for someone, there is a sense of inequality and judgment. One is aware of his/her own strength while one is helping/fixing and this in turn creates an “inequality of expertise that can easily become a moral distance.” However, she goes on to say that “we cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that to which we are willing to touch.” During the first few minutes of standing on foot on that tightly cramped bus, I was fighting and struggling with all my strength to get my own share of space and breath of fresh air. I didn’t want my hair to be touched and I didn’t really want to be pushed. I didn’t really care what was happening to anybody beside me or how they were feeling. All that I really wanted was to be comfortable. After a while, I just gave in. I realized that my very own attempt to get a better footing above others, who were as equally cramped and pushed, was due to my inbred belief that I was better than the others who were surrounding me. Here was I, a foreign student from the U.S., who had left the comforts and pleasures of his home and family all for the cause of helping the very people between whom I was now being cramped between and being given no respect. I thought I deserved better. But why? I soon realized that I was doing the very same thing that Dr. Remen had mentioned in her essay about the difference between helping and serving. I had sort of created a moral distance between the people I was supposed to serve and myself. While I was eager for any opportunity that would be related to our deworming project or that would help better educate us about health-care delivery in these settings, I didn’t really want to share in the daily struggles of these very same people. I was living in a good hotel that had a good shower, a comfortable bed, and an easily accessible restaurant. I still hadn’t really felt what it would be like to live and share in the struggles of the common people in Ethiopia. Only now was I beginning to realize this. Experiencing the struggle on that bus made me realize that for many simple Ethiopians, this was a common form of transportation. If you’re living in a rural village that has no real connection to any of the modern comforts one can find in a city, this was how life worked. I felt quite grateful for the blessings of transportation and other comforts I have in my life.

Travelling across Ethiopian roads by bus is not one of the most pleasant things one can do. The bus often travels uphill on steep mountain roads that are quite curvy and narrow. Standing close to the cramped entrance, I thought at times that it wouldn’t be too hard for the bus too simply tip over the edge during one of its sharp turns due to the large amount of weight the bus was bearing. However, I didn’t really feel any great fear. It’s odd how fear can become a desensitized concept when one has to adapt to an environment filled with struggle and strife. I recalled Gandhi’s quote about how even if the British were successful in destroying everything he held dear and even in having his dead body, they would never capture his obedience. It was this very unbreakable spirit, the willingness to never give up in the face of adversity and to face the challenges of the world with an unfathomable resilience, that I saw in the people on that bus. Although they didn’t have much and struggled to live, they saw life for what it truly was and faced it. They didn’t hold any obscure fantasies or try to mold life into the way they wanted to see it. Rather they lived and faced reality with a sense of calm and of simple happiness.

Once again, it’s odd how one simple bus ride can open your eyes to many things. In the Western world, we are often enclosed in a sphere of fast-paced life. Often times, we take on more baggage in the form of stress than we are meant to bear. We become so strung up with the course of our fast-paced life that we are prone to quick moments of anger and irritation, if something is not going according to plan or something is taking too long to accomplish. Traveling through the countryside on that bus, you begin to learn how to find peace or in Braveen’s terms “chill” amidst those moments of anger and irritation. I’ve slowly been learning this very important concept through the course of the summer. Patience doesn’t spring forth automatically one night, but it takes time and learning to understand the simplicity of life. A wise man once said, “All things under the sun fade, but God is constant.” Holding onto that faith is critical when moments of struggle come up and it often works wonders in calming the inner mind.

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