It was early morning when I left Arba Minch, a city in southwestern Ethiopia. My plan was to drive the 500 kilometers to Addis Ababa, but with a stop in the area around the town of Sebeta, where I hoped to find one of the settlements of the Dorze people. The Dorze are a minority group known in Ethiopia for their traditions in weaving and unique vocal music, and I was curious to learn more about their way of life.
The drive was long and tiring. I was about two hours away from Addis Ababa when I decided to stop to eat. I parked my car at the bottom of a barren hill and stepped out into the crisp afternoon. The bright sun created a stark contrast of shadow and light. I let my eye wander up the hillside and into the sky. A cloud was bursting with more glory than any palace, greater than any mountain, yet lighter than a single feather. Oblivious to this moment of beauty were groups of individuals walking slowly towards the top of the hill and disappearing over its crest. I decided to join them in hopes of finding a food vendor or a restaurant where I could eat a late lunch.
Once I reached the top of the hill, I could see around sixty or seventy people in a field below, walking in a large circle and singing. Two men in the center of the circle were dancing with their hands raised, and their faces turned to the sky. I stood motionless and watched. I wondered if these were members of the Dorze, and I realized I had stumbled upon a ceremony of some sort. Once I was able to make out the expressions on the people’s faces and hear the voices in song, it became clear what I was witnessing: It was a funeral procession.
Out of respect for the deceased and those grieving, I didn’t want to intrude, but I found a place to observe the activity far away from the crowd. There were what appeared to be a mother and her two daughters sitting beside each other between the larger group and me, also watching the ceremony from a distance. They were wearing the traditional white clothes. I assumed they were likely among the funeral’s participants. Yet, they did not make a move to join the circle.
I contemplated what I saw. Had this family experienced its own loss? The sisters sat close together, but the mother sat slightly apart from them, as though isolated by her grief. I could not see their faces, but suddenly I felt the emotional separation that this family of survivors might have been feeling, despite the great show of ceremonial support. With their backs to me, these were the faceless, nameless, universal survivors.
The light changed. I looked up and saw that the sky had filled with dark clouds, with only a small sunbeam breaking through and landing somewhere behind the hill. The ground beneath my feet was soft and uneven, and the scene in front of me became obscured in the dimness. In its place, memory awakened, lighting up dark corners of my soul that were filled with unexpected sadness. A surprised curiosity allowed me to dive into the unexplored sea bottom of my emotions.
The experience of death had come early in my life. My great grandmother had come to live with us before I was born, and when I was six years old, she passed away. I found my mother crying and did not understand why until I saw my great grandmother lying motionless on the bed. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was slightly open. She used to smile and hug me every time she saw me, and I was shocked that she did not get up to greet us. At that moment I realized something big had happened, something incomprehensible; a mysterious force that made this person whom I had spoken with just hours before now lay still on the bed without a breath.
The funeral service brought the coffin, large and black. My childhood continued, but I never forgot the image of that black coffin. In my mind, it was floating like a heavy boat in the ocean, and would eventually make landfall. I knew I was going to have to face the death of a loved one again, and that the older I got, the more frequently I would have to relive that experience. I knew that I would not be spared. It would cling to my heart like a heavy stone and would try to bring me down. I knew death would always be with me, and the only thing I could do is to learn how to live with it.
I felt that the day my great grandmother passed, that day was my Eleusinian Mystery, when I learned how to free myself from a fear of death. Within myself was born hope that immortal souls were temporarily in mortal bodies. I no longer feared death.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs –
The stiff Heart questions “was it He, that bore,
And “Yesterday, or Centuries before”?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the snow –
First – Chill – then stupor – then the letting go –