Church, struggle, and Ethiopian families (day 8 – Dean in Ethiopia)

Gabriel is 19, and finishing up his civil engineering degree after studying algebra, trig, and advanced calculus. He attends University of Axum, 15,000 students. They speak exclusively English in their classrooms. 


When he was 8 years old, he began shining shoes on the street to help bring in money for his family to survive. They used to run a vegetable stand but it became unprofitable. His father lost an arm in the war to overthrow the communists. 

They added to their compound over the years by building a few rooms to their living quarters. Family members did the work, using stones and mud for the walls with a metal roof.

He lives in one room with his parents and his brother. (Two older siblings have moved on.) He sleeps on the floor. In the larger compound, there are three other rooms serving 12 or so people. They all share one toilet. There is no running water. 

His parents, and pretty much everyone else in the compound, attends church several times a week. Usually it’s a simple morning service from 6 to 8 am. On feast days they will arrive at church a 3 am and stay until 9 am. This is typical of all the compounds in his neighborhood, he says.

Typical living compound in Axum, Ethiopia

His parents did not know each other before they were married. The way it is traditionally done is a man will notice a woman and tell his parents of his interest, and his father’s case was typical. The future groom’s father will contact the “matchmaker” in the village, an elderly man. He and the prospective husband’s father then sit down with the young woman’s parents and discuss the possibility. The girl is never consulted. If everyone approves, the man meets with the girl and gives her a ring of promise. A few weeks later they are married. 

During those intervening weeks, the future bride and groom meet and get to know each other. Gabriel told me this is when sexual relations commence. “They can’t do it on the wedding day as they will be too tired from all the festivities.” 

After sexual relations, just as we read about in the Old Testament, the man will bring to his parents and the elder a blood stained cloth to show that the woman was a virgin. If she is not a virgin, and the man is a deacon planning to become a priest, he cannot become priest. And, as a deacon, he is not allowed to enter the church altar for the rest of his life. 

Students at University of Axum

Gabriel does not expect to be married until he is at least 25. The girl will be 19 or 20. (His grandmother was 15 and had 15 children.) It’s possible that his arrangement will be similar to his parents, but modern ways may mean that he gets to know his future wife first before introducing her to his parents. In his parent’s case, they never had a conversation with each other until they pledged to be married. 

I met Gabriel on the street last year having coffee. We became Facebook friends and got to spend more time together on this trip. 

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