Francesco Merella – Coptic Christian Rites – Ethiopia
During one of the last trips to Ethiopia returning from Gondar to Lake Tana, after about an hour’s drive my guide, Ashennafi Demoz, proposed me to attend the Coptic baptism which, at the foot of the sacred waterfall of Addis Zemen, was practiced by some friars of the nearby convent of Toragedam.
After a fairly bumpy path we stopped immediately after a curve at the point where a dirt square opened and where, inside a fence of tree branches and branches, some people had gathered.
My guide talks to the guy who guarded a small and worn wooden gate and after a few minutes we enter the area just below the waterfall where various groups of people with children, from a few months to a few years, dressed in soft jute sheets and embroidered with bright colors, were preparing to be baptized.
We arrive at the waterfall where a girl had already entered, followed by a middle-aged man who, completely naked and trembling from the cold, remained under the imposing jet of water covering his private parts with his hands. The people around were praying, the atmosphere was very intimate and full of emotion and I was uncertain whether to start shooting or wait, but my curiosity and desire to stop forever that magical moment full of mystery and religiosity, was too strong and I started shooting first very timidly and then, alternating the shots with some video shots, I tried to master the scene while trying to bring maximum respect to the people present.
After the blessing by the friar it was the turn of a girl with a metal cross around her neck and she too was forced to get naked and enter under the icy and imposing waterfall. The people who gathered prayed softly, suddenly stop and the buzz becomes stronger and louder until it almost becomes a choral cry. A girl brought by her brother after talking to a friar enters under the waterfall with the only hope of being able to recover from malaria that she could not eradicate. The girl is helped to undress and enters with uncertain step helped by her brother, up under the jet of water, at the same time on the other side a young woman with two children undresses and she also puts herself under the water carrying her younger son in her arms and holding the older one by the hand, The young woman tightens around her under the water her two children, People begin to protest with a murmur that grows until it merges with the screams of the woman and the two children.
The woman alternated moments of despair and apparent calm with screams and uncontrolled agitation. I couldn’t understand what was happening. Fortunately, Ashennafi comes to my rescue and tells me that the woman is possessed and that soon we will witness an exorcism. Meanwhile, the girl sick with malaria, trembling and almost ready to fall, is helped by her brother and a friar to get out of the water and to dry and get dressed sitting nearby to regain a little strength, if she still had any! The woman who always shouted like an obsessive is approached by a friar holding a large golden metal cross who begins to speak to her first softly and then with great firmness and imperious voice begins to vibrate, on the head of the self-styled possessed, numerous blows of the cross as if to really drive away the devil who had taken possession of the young woman. After a few minutes both the Woman and the exorcist become calmer and begin to talk to each other in a low voice, the woman bursts into tears and the exorcist after blessing her with the cross accompanies her, together with the two children, to the nearest group of people. An elderly and proud gentleman, almost certainly the father of the woman, wears a white dress to cover his daughter and takes the youngest of the grandchildren in his arms to dry him and all together they head towards the exit of the waterfall. It seemed that hours had passed since we had arrived and when calm came we found ourselves exhausted and without strength almost as if what happened in a few minutes was the consequence of a struggle in which we had all participated for hours.
I remain uncertain and disoriented and fortunately once again Ashennafi comes to my rescue, takes my elbow and invites me to start with him towards the exit.