ONE Mom Blogger Kelly Wickham traveled to Ethiopia with ONE last week. This piece, originally published on Mocha Momma, is part of our ongoing coverage of the trip.
For once, I’m grateful that the SoundCloud failed me because I couldn’t make it through one long enough to speak clearly without incoherent babbling from Ethiopia. You would think I was speaking to you in Amharic if I actually tried to speak it out. Instead, I have been working on how to describe something to you about my trip to Ethiopia: the dancing.
Photo caption: Maya Haile Samuelsson
But first, a word about new friendships. I was given a lot of advice about traveling with a group of people on a journey like the one from which I just returned. Everyone who said that our group would forever be special and bonded in a unique way was right. There was something incredible about keeping track of that many women, checking in on one another, and making sure everyone was on the bus or at a meal. Calls of “Where’s Asha?” and “Has anyone seen Liz?” and “Does anyone know if Rana is coming or is she on the bus already?” and “Is Diana feeling okay?” were commonplace. The amount of care we took of each other paled in comparison to how concerned we were for all the people we met at schools and clinics and on farms. Those faces, forever ingrained in my brain, will make me wonder how they’re doing twenty years from now when I think of them.
But I formed a new friendship that was far more than I bargained for when I heard she was coming.
Maya is a native Ethiopian who lives in New York as a model with her celebrity chef husband. As everyone trickled into the airport in Washington D.C. we hugged and shook hands and went about the process of getting to know people we had previously only known from their online lives. A large group of us went to a restaurant in the airport where Maya was and we joked about traveling with a supermodel. I sarcastically mentioned that I didn’t want to take a picture next to her since she was tall and lithe and I would look like I had just eaten a supermodel with my midwestern hips and thighs. So, naturally, as soon as we sat down there was no seat left but the one right next to her. So, I sat in it and introduced myself and got to know her quickly. I hadn’t realized how quickly until she suggested that I try to change my seat to an emergency row where I could stretch out my long (yet, Midwestern) legs and sit right next to her. We had 13 hours on the plane to tell the stories of our lives and families and the circumstances of what brought us on this trip and, by the end, we were best buddies.
That right there sealed the deal that would make us inseparable in Ethiopia. She was my guide, my interpreter, and, quite surprisingly, my sister and friend. Maya mentioned several times to me that I looked half-Ethiopian to her and urged me to do a family study from my father’s side to see if our people came from that part of Africa.
As our group continued to travel and get on busses and eat meals together, we all just naturally held hands and wiped away tears when it got to be too much. One of the things we did easily was begin to open up space in our hearts for people who previously hadn’t resided there. The moms we met in villages and on the streets, the children who waved at us and longed for us to take their pictures, and the people living in a kind of poverty that is vastly different from what we’ve seen in our own towns and cities.
Our group went to a dinner one of the first nights there at a place called Yod Abyssinia which is a traditional and cultural experience that gives you everything you need to know about Ethiopia. I was looking forward to it because of what Maya told me about it. Eating food that we shared from a communal plate, drinking coffee with butter (yes, butter!) and enjoying the music and dancing was the perfect way to end our first whole day there.
But, something happened while I watched them dance. At first, I joked about how their moves looked like Beyonce had stolen all of them and put them in her music videos. I learned that the shoulder movements are native to the Gurage (the region Maya is from) and it was jaw-droppingly fascinating to watch. For a while I stopped eating and couldn’t take my eyes off of the live performers and musicians. I kept staring at them and didn’t realize I was crying until the tears starting falling from my chin and I wiped them off with my scarf hoping that no one would notice this odd breakdown I was having in the middle of dinner.
Where, I wondered, was all this coming from and why did I weep so openly at it? Even though I kept trying to wipe off my face it was noticeable that something powerful happened. Cathleen, another new friend on this trip who hadn’t really interacted much with me as yet, moved from her seat to come sit next to me and murmured something in my ear that helped me understand what I was experiencing. Until that moment, I didn’t realize she had been watching me or even knew what to say about it because I didn’t comprehend myself what was happening.
Cathleen is a journalist and author who writes about the crossroads of faith and culture. She writes about religion but she lives her life as a spiritualist. That’s the best way to describe her. She is so easy to talk to about faith and God and, later on in our trip, I began to ponder why I so seldom talk or write about such things. As she moved into my space and leaned into me, she whispered that she wanted to share with me something from a friend of hers, a theologian named Frederick Buechner, once said to her, and she took my hand in hers and said this:
Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or put a lump in your throat – they’re signs that the Holy is drawing nigh.
That was it. She summed it up in those words and it made me cry harder. Yes, I bawled in the middle of a night of food and entertainment where the music was swirling around in my head mixed in with the heady bouquet of incense and strong Ethiopian coffee and the complicated and as-yet unknown African culture that I was learning about. I viscerally reacted to the spirit of the Ethiopians and the dancing in a way I didn’t know I could. On repeat in my head I kept asking, “What the heck? WHY am I crying?”
Something strong pulled up from deep in my body, way deeper in my soul than I normally allow myself and all the way up from my toes and spilled all over my face. And I thought of my father and his ancestors and the dancing we do in my family. And I thought of my sisters back home and wished they could have witnessed this scene with me. And I thought of where I, an American in a foreign land, fit in with it and if I fit at all. And I thought of all the questions Maya answered for me and how easily she shared her faith and her culture and her region and her Africa with me.
Maya hadn’t noticed my tears until that moment and she took my other hand and said, “Oh, no! What’s wrong?”
All I could do, at the beginning of this journey where I didn’t know where I was headed, was point with both palms upward toward the dancers on stage and say, “Nothing. Just…THAT.”
Maya lifted her long arms up and put them around my shoulders and pulled me in close. “Oh. That. Welcome home.”
Photo credits to Karen Walrond