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Roasting coffee beans during the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony

A letter from Marilyn Hansen in Ethiopia

August 2011

The house has three rooms. I have only seen the tiny main room, with its furniture and refrigerator and mud walls. One light bulb dangles from the ceiling. Even at 4 pm, the electricity is often necessary because the only window is covered by heavy fabric, and very little natural light enters.

But God’s light enters every Tuesday afternoon when a few Ethiopian women gather to learn what the Bible says about Jesus. I am fortunate to be with them.

Sitting on chairs, a sofa, and little wooden benches are young women, old women and in-between. At least two of the women, with missing fingers, have leprosy.

Leprosy is a disease that is alive and well in Ethiopia. About 4,000–5,000 new cases are reported every year, according to the World Health Organization (2009). Quite likely this figure is low, because underreporting is common due to lack of diagnosis, misdiagnosis, or other reasons. Disability and dislocation are often side effects of leprosy. Begging may be the only way to make a living. Our Bible study occurs in an area next to Alert Hospital, a hospital that primarily treats patients with leprosy and TB.

Chances are high that at least one woman in the group has HIV.

The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in adults here is estimated to be 3–6 percent. This too is probably a low estimate. There are about 600,000 AIDS orphans in Ethiopia (children whose parents have died from AIDS).

There are usually a few young children who come with their mothers. Often they will nurse during the meeting or sit quietly next to their mothers. They have dirty clothes and dirty faces, but these children are obviously loved as the mothers hug them tightly and wrap them with shawls to keep them warm.

Of Ethiopian children under 5 years of age, about one-third are underweight and about 50 percent have stunted growth. About 10 percent of children under 5 years of age die (2009). An Ethiopian child is about 30 times more likely to die by the age of 5 compared to a child living in Western Europe.

We gather each week to hear a story about Jesus from the New Testament. In our first eight weeks together, we have heard about Jesus calling His disciples, healing the sick, casting out demons, and speaking hard-to-obey words: “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6).

Last week we talked about loving your enemies. Some of these women not only understood His words but have put them into practice. Two shared about difficulties with neighbors and how their faith had allowed them to forgive and begin changed relationships with those neighbors. Another woman spoke of forgiving a debt that she had been trying repeatedly to collect when she heard Jesus’ words, “Lend, expecting nothing in return.”

Marilyn with fellow Bible study members and children

Marilyn with fellow Bible study members and children

After hearing me tell a Bible story in my own words, someone in the group then reads the same story from the Bible. In the group of 8–10 women very few had a Bible when they began this study (although now they do). Only one of the women is literate and can actually read the Bible. The others rely on children, husbands, or neighbors to read the Bible to them.

In the mid-1970s more than 90 percent of Ethiopians were illiterate. Now, according to the UN Development Program (2009), about 65 percent of the population is illiterate. The rate is substantially higher among women than men. Ethiopia’s illiteracy rate continues to be one of the 10 highest in the world.

We usually close our time together sharing tea or, especially, coffee. Ethiopians are very hospitable people. Drinking coffee together is a highly valued way of offering and experiencing hospitality.

Having coffee together is not merely drinking together. The ritual of preparing coffee in Ethiopia is highly defined. Coffee beans are roasted with a small charcoal fire in full view of everyone. Then the beans are ground, usually by hand, using an oversize wooden stick and tall bowl. Water is heated in a traditional Ethiopian coffeepot (made of black clay), with the ground coffee added gradually until brewed. Coffee is served in very small cups, often with much sugar added by each individual.

We can’t easily communicate verbally with each other. Only one woman speaks some English, so I have a translator and attempt to use Amharic in informal conversation. But somehow God can bridge all the chasms that separate these women and me: culture, language, education, health, economic status.

I am excited to see where God will lead all of us as we journey together. Thank you that you have given me this opportunity to serve. We appreciate your support: financially, in prayer, and with encouraging words.

Prayer requests:

  • Praise that women are hungry to learn more of God’s Word
  • Praise that those who have little often share much
  • Prayer that women in this Bible study will be transformed by the Holy Spirit
  • Prayer for those, especially women and children, who suffer here in Ethiopia: for those with leprosy, those with HIV/AIDS, those without medical care, those who are hungry

Marilyn (and Rich)

The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 57

Blog: Meskel Musings
Write to Rich Hansen.
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