Walking To Australia: 21st Century Excursions Into Humanity’s Greatest Migration by David Robbins is published by Porcupine Press and available now. The excerpt is published by permission.
(‘The Finding of the True Cross of Jesus Christ’ is an ancient ceremony that takes place annually in Addis Ababa.)
In the middle of the square was a conical pyre, eight metres high and coloured green and yellow – the yellow of the Meskel daisies and the green of their leaves. Beneath this covering, Fikremarkos told me, was timber, stacked and primed, ready for burning. The pyre was guarded by soldiers in berets: they stood with their feet apart, arms folded, offering a quiet but firm challenge to anyone who might attempt to break their cordon.
The drizzle began again. I saw it splashing into the puddles on the tarmac. Then a sudden downpour swept across the square. Thousands of unfurling umbrellas sprang up like mushrooms to protect the spectators on the banks. Rain streamed on my face. An arm encircled my shoulders and pulled me in. I was under a big umbrella, standing shoulder to shoulder with a dozen men in the varying attire of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This unexpected shelter resembled a beach umbrella – it was as large as one – but the underside had the stamp of a regal religion upon it. It was made of maroon and gold brocade, with a row of small crosses just above the tasselled edging.
The closest of my companions smiled encouragement. The rain beat down. I saw people running with sheets of plastic held above their heads, but mostly they stood in tight knots under umbrellas all across the wet expanse. A voice said softly, close to my ear: ‘Do you speak English?’
I turned and nodded.
The face of my interlocutor was youthful. He wore a robe with sheaves of wheat and a few Greek crosses depicted upon it. A more elaborate cross had been embroidered onto his close-fitting headdress. He looked directly at me. I was aware of his half-grown moustache, the curve of his eyelashes, a small mole to the left of his mouth. ‘Did you know that Ethiopia and Ethiopians,’ he said in a friendly way, ‘are mentioned more than thirty-five times in the Bible?’
I kept thinking about Ethiopia’s great modern famines, in the early 1970s and again a dozen or so years later. Perhaps the sheaves of wheat on the young cleric’s robe had insinuated these catastrophes into my thoughts. Millions had died. I remembered a famous photograph taken during another drought in north-eastern Africa. It depicted a dying child with a vulture squatting not far off, awaiting the new corpse. On the cleric’s robe, as well, were the Greek crosses, each leg the same length, like plus signs, making me think of those nine Greek- speaking saints who had helped to entrench Christianity in Ethiopia – and who had come originally from Syria. This was a people forged not only in the most ancient contacts between Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe, but also in the modern fires of the most hopeless suffering.
The downpour ended as suddenly as it had begun, and tens of thousands of people came out from under their umbrellas. They reminded me of flying ants emerging and stretching their wings after rain. They flew on gossamer wings towards the light, or in reality, in their ornate robes and embroidered crosses towards the Meskel fire.
Someone spoke suddenly in English over the loudspeakers. I heard the words ‘peace and reconciliation’. Then: ‘God bless Africa. God bless Ethiopia!’ All along the darkened banks, the candles and tapers had been lit. They were like thousands of stars in the deepening evening. The spirit of the throng rejoiced; it breathed with expectation and the certainty of elation. The faces around us where we stood so close to the centrepiece seemed transfixed. The flowing garments and white turbans of the priests, the lavish colours and ornamentation of the more junior clerics, looked like spirits in the shadows as they pressed forward.
‘This depth of belief can’t be broken,’ Fikremarkos said. He spoke directly into my ear, for the frenzy had enveloped us in noise, in singing and shouting and ululations. ‘In that way it becomes part of the culture; it becomes rooted, it lives, it grows while it lives, and it remains inside us forever.’
I was touching a pivotal thing. I remembered Fikremarkos on our first day together, when we visited the Entoto Maryam Church high up in the mist. He had said then in his gentle voice that he thought belief, belief in a religious sense, was a very different thing to cultural foundations. Now he was saying the opposite. His statements seemed to illustrate the gulf between desire and reality. Beneath the contradiction lay a more powerful illumination. It had to do with the desire of humanity to be sure and to find safety in the truth of things. Then my attention was diverted as dense smoke billowed from the pyre.
The spectators exploded with rejoicing. I saw arms raised with cellphones in camera mode: thousands of photographs of the beginning of the fire whose smoke would lead us to the true cross of Jesus Christ. At first, I saw only the smoke, lit from below. Then suddenly it was lit from within the pyre itself. The rain could not dampen such passion. Flames leapt upwards; daisies crackled as they burned. The faces around us were rapturous in the light of the fire. The smoke billowed lurid and pale as it rose, and beyond this column, in the background, the banks spread out in a flood of candles and tapers and stars.
The scene before me was all poetry now. An astonished ecstasy accompanied the climax of the event, especially as the fire burned down to a white ash. Poetry lay in the ash itself, in the ash crosses made upon people’s foreheads, in the lingering smoke. Poetry sifted through the people themselves, through their happiness in finding, however momentarily, the ladder that connected them to the power of their deity. God bless Ethiopia; and the flashing eyes of people caught in the thrill of knowing the stability of deep cultural roots.
We stumbled with ten thousand others into the streets of the city. We were looking for Mandeli so that he could take us home. All around me was a sense of triumph and completion. It was like leaving a football match where both teams had won. The smoke seemed to cover the whole city: it drifted near the ground, clinging to the buildings and trees, like the manifestation of a blessing.
A moment later, I stumbled in a hole in the uneven roadway. Fikremarkos held onto my arm. ‘You must look where you are going,’ he said in a tone of slight severity. So I lowered my eyes, and in this way I saw beggars with tiny deformed legs on their trays equipped with casters, and I saw a thin woman and her thinner child lying helpless against a wall, surrounded by oblivious high spirits and forests of striding legs. In this way, a sense of reality and a remembrance of famines returned.