Cross of Fire!

I apologize for my long absence. The last 2 weeks have left me with absolutely no time to reflect. A lot of amazing things have happened in and out of the OR, so, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting a number of short posts.

I’ll make this first post non-medical and talk about an amazing holiday I had the good fortune to experience here in Mekelle. Called “Finding of The Cross”, this holiday falls 2 weeks after the Ethiopian New Year and celebrates the discovery of a small piece of the original cross Jesus was crucified on. For a very short period of time, this cross sat atop the mountain here in Mekelle and has since been replaced with a gigantic metallic cross that can be seen from anywhere in the city. I’m told that this is the biggest such cross in Ethiopia, but I have no way to verify that. In one of my earlier posts, we made a trek up there one weekend.

I was told that the tradition is to climb the hill, set a smaller cross on fire and then walk down. Seemed benign to me….I had no idea what I was getting into. As I spoke with Yilkal and his wife Mekdi, I could sense the hesitation in their voices. Mekdi was quick to pull the “I have an 8-month old at home and I can’t go” card and Yilkal had never been before. To help guide us, we recruited Yilkal’s good friend Mele (head of the pathology department here) because he had made this journey before. To round out our expedition group, my roomie Alaine also joined. Mele has never been good at hiding his emotions and I could sense the anxiety building inside him. I figured it was due to the large crowds just as doing the 4th of July in DC makes me anxious for the same reason.

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We arrived at the base of the hill just as the sun was setting. Without the crowds, the trek up only takes about 30-45 mins. The path up is made of large dirt switchbacks just big enough for 2 car-widths and is littered with rocks. The descending edges are unprotected sudden drop-offs of 30 meters or more down to the next switchback. Ascending and descending in the day-time is simple without fear of injury. Turns out the opposite is true as the sun sets and light is gently provided by the moon peaking its face above the cement-laden city. With each switchback, the pace slows and the space between humans decrease in tandem. Soon, in a sea of people, we march shoulder to shoulder in the darkness towards the sound of “tuh-dum, tuh-dum,” the all-too-familiar beat of Tigrinya music. There are street boys lining the road yelling “Awasa Mai” suggesting to the crowd that the bottles of water they are selling are somehow from Eritrea (remember the border was just demilitarized two weeks earlier). Every 20 meters or so, we need to stare into the crowd to make sure everyone is with us. Alaine and I were easy to find, the only two ferengie (white people) in a sea of Habesha (Ethiopians).

Once at the top, the familiar guide of the switchbacks vanishes as everyone decides their own correct path, stumbling over each other as well as the large stones. We stay close to one another and make our way past gates we probably shouldn’t have passed and right next to the temporary stage created for this event. The peak of the hill looked nothing of what it did when I was there just a month prior. It was a sea of people, tens of thousands all stacked on top of each other trying to catch a glimpse of the temporary cross that would soon be lit on fire. Its peak was just visible over the heads of thousands in front of us. Once completely dark and someone had decided enough Tigrinya music had played, the flash and boom of fireworks filled the sky in front of us. In a wonderful display worthy of any 4th of July celebration, the crowd cheered, whistled and danced. In that moment, the anxiety of the inevitable decent was gone and every single person there felt the same sense of excitement, pride, and joy to be there. Looking around reveals a beautiful sea of tiny white lights. Evidence of thousands taking simultaneous video. Millennials united together with other generations, each documenting history to boost their social media status (hey, I’m a Millennial too).

When the fireworks met their clear climax, I peered between the heads to get a good view of the cross that was to be lit on fire. But nothing. The program director I guess felt that what was really needed was another 17 minute Tigrinya song. I wasn’t the only one annoyed by this. I could tell the crowd wanted the show to continue. Finally, smoke began to rise around the makeshift cross. In the meantime, the concentration of hand-made cultural torches (each are 3 meter long bundles of dry sticks) was increasing around us and held in the air by thousands across the crowd.

The cross ignites as does the excitement of the people eagerly waiting the stick’s proclamation. As the direction in which the cross falls predicts the fortune of the next year. Eventually, it falls towards the west, which I’m told was a good thing. The crowd cheers and fire is passed from torch to torch like a wildfire through a forest. Slowly making its way backward, towards us. The 4 of us collectively looked at each other and came to the same conclusion, its time to leave.

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As we turned away, thousands of others did the same. As we stayed close together, we moved quickly, dodging the ignition of torches around us. We carefully made it to the first switchback. Here, under the moon-lit, star soaked-sky my amazement paralleled my fear as hundred of bouncing fires began to surround us. Every 30 seconds, a new fire would appear next to our feet or rumble past us from behind. Groups of chanting teenagers armed with fire jogged their way through the crowd, muscling those who didn’t scatter from their path in time. Hot embers and ash would drift down to kiss my skin just after their elbows would pound it. It was wildly dangerous and I’m sure people could be pushed from the edge and no one would know.

There luckily was some sort of social consensus that those with torches would be on the edge of the cliff and not in the center of the horde. I was told it was to make the visual from the town more magical, but it was a good safety mechanism too. However, with each switch back, they would have to cross to the other side, yelling as if they were Calvary charging the front line. The progress was slow, full of fire, smoke, and the constant fear of being trampled by chanting teenagers. Occasionally, the entire road would be blocked by dancing people encircling a drum or priest. It was one foot in front of the other and constant checking over the shoulder.

As we neared the end and the street lights began to compete with the moon for space on my retina, the inevitable occurred. The combination of crowds, stupid young people, fire, adrenalin, and testosterone culminated in a full-out cobblestone throwing war between youngsters just 50 meters away. The snake of tightly packed people was cut in half. Those already past the stone-throwing ground zero began to sprint forward. Those of us stuck behind, paused with fear and confusion. Probably the same sensation a deer has when faced with the brights of an oncoming car. As it became obvious what was happening and the reality that a stone could, at any moment, could fly in from the darkness, our group turned 180 degrees and fled in fear. Lucky for us, there was an alternate route just 100 meters away that circumvented the conflict.

Drained of all energy and craving the safety of our calm neighborhood we reached Mele’s car and drove off. Once far enough away, we turned around and marveled in the beauty of the chaos we had just escaped.

Alaine and I calmed our nerves with a casual cold Habesha beer and good conversation with our friends Judith and Joseph. When we got home, Alaine and I sat with the 3 puppies for the last time. The next day, two would be given to a friend 😦

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