Ethiopia journal: The court room

Now this is one curious waiting room – broken chairs against the wall, a pile of papers and boards in the corner. The signs say “Silence!” in several different languages, but no one heeds them. The chatter is loud – Amharic, English, Italian, Spanish, German, and cell phone ring tones. A small metal door opens without warning every few minutes. A hush descends immediately as the clerk calls out a name. Everyone is straining to hear. You don’t want to travel 10,000 miles to spend an hour on the threshold not paying attention.

When the Americans complain about the court over here (as I have done myself), I think they must project their own image of bureaucratic hang-up that they are familiar with in the states. It is nothing like that. The infrastructure is incomparable. The court hearing takes place not in a shiny wood-paneled chamber with robes and lawyers and police officers, but in a cinder-block building above a street with goats running on the sidewalk below. Clearly our polished facade of trust, order, and stability has many advantages. Underneath it though are the same human beings, selfish and less selfish. At the end of the day, that is who you ar dealing with. A judge sitting in his tent in 1000 BC could be just as just or unjust as a whole entourage of elected social scientists.

Here, the judge was kind and soft-spoken, sitting at one end of a tiny office. She wanted every ‘t’ crossed in the paperwork, but it already was. After a quick glance, she said “She is yours” and smiled.

Ethiopia journal: Addresses

The formal printed address for the guest house we stayed at was “Yeka Sub city around Dinbroa general hospital”. That would fit the description of about 1000 other houses, shops, hovels, and apartments. The only access was up an alley with no signs and a latrine ditch on one edge. By the end of the week though, I could have found my way back from quite far away.

In Addis- no addresses, just landmarks and memory. An urban organization for people who live where they work and know their neighbors. What is a detailed address for anyway? The foreigner. Who needs Cartesian coordinates on their GPS? The alien. If you need Google Maps to find out where you are going, it must only mean that you don’t know anyone there to take you or show you where to go. Even the person you are visiting perhaps cannot be bothered to bring you.

We need a careful notation system to foster independence, learning, and information transmission. But it also brings division. The word must be divided to move. But it’s purpose is to be reunited with it’s whole. The incarnation comes to show us God. The Holy Spirit come to be God with us. Who can give the address to where God lives? The streets of heaven are golden, but they have no names (or so says U2).

Who can plot a path with Euclidean dots and lines that lead to His throne room? The seraphim find their way because they know the joint, they know their maker – not because they read the directions on the “you are here” map at the pearly gate of the new Jerusalem.

How do we know each other? By faces, voice, touch and smell? Or by IP address, text message feed and cell number? These things are not necessarily augmentation. We are deceived if we think we are enhancing our existence, amplifying our meaning and footprint, sphere of influence, etc. Becoming a number, even a loud number, does not make us more human but rather less, something else entirely.

Photo credit

Ethiopia journal: Coffee

I cannot soften the blow. The coffee in Ethiopia puts us to shame. The espresso shorts are magnificent, the milk, perfect. What the hell are we doing back home?

Coffee in the morning at the guest house was prepared in what we would call “cowboy” style. However, instead of rot-gut, it had surprisingly little low-end bitterness. It was spicy and bright.

I’m seeing a Ethiopian coffee ceremony for the first time. Couldn’t do it in our own house as the charcoal briquettes would set off the carbon monoxide detector. The beans are cracking, second cracking, stirred with a staff. Smack! Cool with water! Popcorn from the oven. A mortar and pestle would be more trad, but they have a grinder in the kitchen. Incense fills the room in a burst of smoke on the hot coals. One girl teases the other for putting too much on. Smells fantastic.

The Ethiopian beans I saw at Kaldi’s coffee (a local chain of shops) were about 50% peaberry and uniformly medium dark brown. Pretty matte finish – no visible oil. “Baked” is what Brendan might call it. I would love to see what their shot pull looks like. The next day, they let me stand behind the counter for a while and watch. Holy smokes! Super high dosage of grounds, almost no tamp. “Rancilio” machine. Slow drip pull, super long shot – ~ 90 seconds even. Raw milk! Jugs of it arrived while I was standing there. Unrefrigerated. Steams and foams wonderfully. So good, it’s illegal in the US. For a machioto, they pulled the shot on top of the milk, making designs with a single shot head. That is much closer to it’s namesake.

In the air, on the street, at lunch, in my room, I am constantly smelling a slight whiff of something spicy and burnt and wonderful. What is it? Now that I can put my finger on it, I can’t believe I didn’t recognize it earlier: Fresh roasting coffee! When it’s right there in your face (hovering over the hot machine) it is a bit pungent and not enjoyably. But once it has wafted down the street a hundred meters, it is absolutely fantastic. It’s funny that this is by far the most frequent comment I get when roasting coffee in the shop back home – a praise of the smell down the block. Now, I get to make the same comment myself.

How to brew simple Ethiopian coffee style: Fine coffee grounds + cold water in a tea kettle. Heat to boil. Let sit about 3 minutes. Pour. Leave the last 15% in the bottom. Spoon in lots of coarse sugar.

Do you leave Ethiopia when you enter the airport? With regards to the coffee service, the answer is YES.

The quality of the coffee has varied on ths trip, everywhere we go. One thing has been constant though – very nice ceramic ware. Elegant and heavy. How come all our cups and saucers in America are so ghetto?

Photo credit

Ethiopia journal: Concerning names

Many of the businesses here bear the name Abyssinia. I am told that was the name of the land 400 years ago before it was changed to Ethiopia. Here, the city was called Finfinne before it was Addis Abbaba. In America, nothing has been around even close to that long. New York bears the name of York, from old England. But there was a thriving city in present day Addis centuries before the earliest Celts built a hut on the hill of York. Istanbul used to be Constantinople. Conquest sought to unname it and pull loose the threads that the namesake emperor wove. But those threads, however coarse, were weaved together with the Gospel of Christ and rendered undying. Christianity can no more be unnamed from the west or indeed the whole earth than the ocean be inverted and the mountains filled with water. We christen our new daughter Elizabeth, a beautiful and high name in the heritage of our history and language. But for short we will continue to call her a name contained phonetically inside the name of both the mother of John the Baptist and the golden age queen of Britania. Abi, for Abebech, the high desert flower that she is.

Later, I find I am listening to an odd laid-back foreign pop cover of Coldplay’s Yellow while sitting in a cafe called Red Bean. The waitress, named Efrata, makes me think of the Eufrates river. As if Eden used to be here in the low-lying lands of Axum, the cradle of civilization. Only the silliest of scientists would have come up with that phrase. A cradle needs rocking, implies a rocker, implies a mother, a father, and warm hand-woven blakets, in short, a God with hands, not a force of nature manifest in multiversic shades of warm goo. It turns out the waitress is named for the 2nd wife of Caleb, from 1st Chronicles. It means “fruitful” in Hebrew.

In the Addis airport I sat next to a French man the same age as me. He was taking his newly adopted 3.5 year-old son home to Lyon. The boy’s name was Abel (as in Abel, the son of Adam). They were going to change it to Jean-Abel. He was crossing his fingers that the boy would sleep on the plane. They seemed to be doing really well so far. If I go back in 2 months, I’ll be in his shoes.

While my wife learned several Amharic phrases, I tried to figure out the names of all the staff at the guest house:

Genet – heaven
Asnaku – Better than all?
Zeyneba – Name from the Koran
Burtkan (“Burtikwan”) – Orange
Desta (“Deseta”) – happy
Mulugta (“Mulugeta”) – Fullness of God
Solomon – After the old King of Israel
Eyob – Transliteration of Job, from scripture
Abebech – flower seedling, same as our daughter


Ethiopia journal: Quick observations

Misc curiosities that are unrelated to other notes:

Things at the Seattle Airport: Starbucks, Bathrooms, Starbucks, 3D Security Scaners, Starbucks, Information Counters, Starbucks, terminals.

Things at the Amsterdam airport: Gucci bags, 50-year-old Scotch, French perfume, toilets, automated kiosks, terminals.

Things at the Addis Ababa airport: A terminal.

Guesthouse amenities:

Shampoo – no.

Towels – no.

Condoms – Yes!

(Not kidding. Perhaps they were from a previous guest. I was able to get plenty of towels and other things just by asking the staff.)

Want to remember your wedding day? Hire a guy with a video camera on the back of a pickup truck to film you and your new bride driving around town.

100 Birr is about 6 dollars. A nice meal in a restaurant is about 60 Birr, around 4 dollars. A cup of coffee is 8 Birr – 50 cents.

The cresent that is cut out of the moon comes from underneath here instead of from the side. I didn’t realize that it looked like that near the equator! Shows you how much I know.

The weather here is dry, slightly windy, and bug-free, just like the pacific northwest. Africa made me think of jungles and dry hot deserts, but not high deserts. It feels much like home.

Hundreds and hundreds of shops line the street. Busiest is the internet cafe.

Visited Kidist Selassie, also called Holy Trinity Cathedral this morning. You have to get up real early in the morning to get in the church. Most of the people are crowded around the court and garden listening to the priests chant over the loudspeaker. Wish I could go to “Church of our Lady Mary of Zion” in Axum, in the far north. It was built in the 4th century. Hecka old. And the real Ark of the Covenant is supposed to be there.

Ge’ez is the ancient language of the country. Same character set as Amharic, but mostly different meanings. The priests still read it some during the Ethiopian Orthodox liturgy.

The guys standing around everywhere are guards and parking attendants, not loiterers. If only American cities were so safe and friendly.

Old wheelchair African man is kicking his feet up in the vacant row on the plane before we get to Sudan. Can’t blame him!

How do you move ~15 large garbage bags full of empty plastic water bottles? Lash them with twine to a big old rusty satelite dish, then rope this to the top of a taxi. Duh.


Ethiopia journal: Preface

Having never been outside of North America, the journey to far-off Ethiopia was an event that I had been greatly anticipating for more than a year. I must admit, that as a Christian, I felt a historical connection (though a vague one) to Ethiopia, especially after reading Philip Jenkin’s recently published history of Christianity in northern Africa. I also love Ethiopian coffee. At the coffee shop where I work as the roaster, I cook up several batches of beans from the Sidamo or Yirgacheffe regions each week. It’s no secret to the rest of the staff that they are my favorite. So I know something of the agriculture and history, but nothing of the people. I knew what the Wikipedia article said about the country, but little else. Africa has always been kind of mythical place of poverty, deserts, jungles, and mystery. Of course, I would only be there for 5 days and spend the entire time in a city, so this trip was only going to include a certain slice of the culture. Even this turned out to be no small thing.

I wrote about 10 short blogs posts worth of observations and thoughts scribbled in my notebook during the course of the week. I’ll be posting them here in the next few days. For a more linear account of how the trip went, my wife posted the bulk of her own journal here.

Africa Ho!

Early tomorrow morning I will board a narrow metal corridor that will proceed to burn over 70,000 gallons of jet fuel for to propel my wife and I to the highland capital of one of earth’s oldest civilizations. Waiting there is a new daughter who is already beautiful because she is loved by her maker. The love of a mother and father can only incarnate that- and though imperfectly, it will.

A philosophy of history

The task we have as observers and learners of history is to be patient. We will err if we compile a series of glances. Jesus Christ works slowly, like a yeast working its way through a whole loaf of bread. We must heave the patience to stare at it in the oven long enough to see that it is rising. Look at it just a moment and you may conclude that God is dead, the yeast is killed, and Jesus is still in the grave. We must learn to look long enough that we see that he is alive. That the loaf doubles in size would not come as such a surprise if we were to read the recipe once more.

Misc Rosenstock-Huessy notes

I read through Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s collection of essays titled “I am an Impure Thinker” a couple of weeks ago. Leithart insists that the guy is worth reading. After doing so, I must agree. Fortunately, I was able to find this book as a PDF on Scribd. Otherwise it’s rare and out-of-print on Amazon and costs $50. Some of his larger focused works are easy to get a hold of, but I was looking for a sampler or reader anthology. It’s unlikely that I’m going to get around to writing individual blog posts about much of the material. Here are some of what I found to be the most interesting passages, though some of them are in desperate need of context.

More trouble with specialists – they’re human like the rest of us.

We no longer believe in the timeless innocence of philosophers, theologians, scientists; we see them write books and try to gain power. (p.14)

On the need to integrate philosophies for balance.

Both the “credo ut intelligam” and the “cogito ergo sum” worked very well for a time. However, finally the “credo ut intelligam” led to the Inquisition and the “cogito ergo sum” into an ammunition factory.(p.14)

On being in such a state that you MUST write a book. It’s not really a choice.

I am hurt, swayed, shaken, elated, disillusioned, shocked, comforted, and I have to transmit my mental experiences lest I die. And although I may die. To write a book is no luxury. It is a means of survival. By writing a book, a man frees his mind from an overwhelming impression. The test for a book is its lack of arbitrariness, the fact that it had to be done in order to clear the road for further life and work. (p.2)

I love this quote or how good education doesn’t need to be forced.

Any inspiring education is propagation. If we propagate ideas instead of selling them, we shall not be in need of that sad substitute for propagation—propaganda. (p.21)

Parts of a long passage on language, work, destiny, etc. 🙂

Neither the right names for God nor the vital dialogues of Men can be deduced from concepts used for the things of this world. Concepts cannot be “experienced,” words and names can. Man makes the world work, not pragmatically for his own ends, but as the faithful servant of some higher design and purpose, in honor and valor, with the eyes of the soul wide open. (p.29)

“Bring it about,” William James would say; it will not come about by education, or by accident, or by progress, or by fate or by any causation and mechanism. The universe in which we move is cleft and plural. You have to fill the gaps between its banks and edges, as thinkers, workers, soldiers. The great traditions of the race—freedom, faith, hope—never exist unless thou insisteth upon them. Make nationalism shrink so that the universe can grow.
And so the soul of William James will converse with us when we, in work, in thought, in battle, bring about a growing universe of free people. (p.33)

We must now ask the reader to enlarge on his assumption that language consists of words. This assumption is too narrow. To say that language is contained in the dictionary is a half-truth. The state of language in the dictionary is a special state of affairs. A dictionary is the “reduction” of language to the aggregate state of mere words. “Words” are language which is powerless, which is dismissed or spent. “Words” are spent language waiting for resurrection. As mere words language finds itself between two other phases of its circulatory process, between the use of language for conceptual purposes, for thought, and its use for the other purpose, nearly overlooked, ridiculed as arbitrary: for naming things. (p.41)

On the power of names. Naming our children is ongoing I think.

The name is the right address of a person under which he or she will respond. The original meaning of language was this very fact that it could be used to make people respond. The very word “responsiveness” today is less popular than its often invoked variation—“responsibility.” I am responsible for something objective. The complaint is heard often that people are not responsible enough. However, may it not be true that we cannot be responsible when we are not allowed to be responsive first? If no soul calls upon our name, we perhaps are too weak to shoulder responsibilities. As long as we are only taught and addressed in the mass, our name never falls upon us as the power that dresses our wounds, lifts our hearts, and makes us rise and walk. (p.42)

Some interesting discussion on how modernism and the industrial revolution does not account for the soul. Wendell Berry discusses this too when he talks about the “need for meaningful work” or in his discussions about how having lots of nice appliances at home made being a house-wife worse in many ways, not better.

Do as much as you can with as little effort as possible, is the motto of the anonymous, impersonal, objective, scientific mind. This Cartesian mind has successfully discovered how to use fewer and fewer means for bigger and bigger results. A modern factory is the ideal display of this economizing in words, in organization. This economy, however, cannot apply to man himself. He must still find some incentive for an “all-out” attitude. Man must still feel called forth as being good for something. He would be a rascal who, out of sheer indolence, would not use his full energy. Cartesian logic reduces man’s responses to minimum responses. For every individual or particular task this reductionism is valuable. But when it means that these savings in time or effort reduce man’s stature, when it means that because I only have to work three hours for my daily bread in the future, I also will only be fully alive three hours of my day, then the person is thwarted. For a person is a man who responds with his whole heart to his calling. And any element of the universe that whispers to a human being, “respond lest I die,” calls forth this man personally to his human destiny. “All out” is the attitude of the man who has heard his calling and who knows that he can only become a person in the process of responding to his calling. Man must be both indolent and all out. When his mind can find a shorter way, a better tool, he may save energy. The mind is our saver of energy; this is what we call the Ego. But the soul is our investor, our spendthrift, our savior when life seems to die from inertia and indifference and lack of orientation. (p.51)

A great quote about creation and energy.

“Creation is taking place under our very noses. And nobody can stay neutral in this spiritual war between bequeathing the good qualities to the future through faith or giving up from despair the task of weeding out the diabolical qualities.”

On basing growth from the child outward, instead of working backwards from a model of maturity.

In secular psychology which begins with the child itself, we are told that it should pull itself up by its own bootstraps and become itself, express itself, live by itself. Of this the inexorable consequence must be that it will have to live and may also have to die by for and unto itself. A horrid spectacle indeed. (p.73)

On DOING being critical to understanding, not just thinking.

A child cannot learn to speak by swallowing nouns, mere words, but only by carrying out orders existentially. The verbs are the root words by which the child is put in action. Our machine age with push button mechanizing is threatening our children because, instead of enacting the verbs go, push, pull, tear, lift, answer, speak, write, move, climb, etc., the child is surrounded by dead things which by one and the same motion can be made to respond. We cannot become eloquent unless we enact the words spoken to us existentially. (p.76)

On timing. This pass was really good, but I found it difficult to elaborate on at the time. I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to this one in the future.

Man’s dignity lies not in producing private opinions but in timing public truth. His speech must not only be more than himself: it must come at the right moment, in the fullness of time. Then his words acquire a “once for ever” meaning. All the sayings of Jesus were quite simple; they became important forever because they were spoken at the right moment, “when the time was fulfilled.” A truth taught without the time element is abstract, therefore not vital. Truth is concrete at the lucky opportunity and hour. When we speak too late or too early we are out of luck; our truth remains abstract, and we fail to create a present in which people transcend mere past and future; we lack presence of mind. For these reasons teaching involves all the central problems of timing. (p.95)

On the perfect timing of Jesus!

Jesus restored to us this plenitude of speech. This was his mission, life, calling, office. He saved the straying gentiles and the locked up Jews. He did this by cross-fertilizing the four paths of speech. He created an eternal unity of spirit from the beginning to the end of history. But he created it by simply speaking to twelve average men. They did not understand that the hour which he spent with them was one hour of eternity which made history. What he said to them made no sense in the frame of reference in which the clansman or the Greek or the Egyptian lived. It made sense only in Israel, which lived in expectation of the end. Even in Israel it made only negative sense in anticipating the kingdom of the Messiah. So Jesus spoke nonsense for the time being. But he undid what people called the time being. For he created a new yardstick for all times. He spoke backwards from the end towards the act of daily life, outside the temple of Solomon. (p.117)

Of course you teach by who you are, not by what you teach. Good stuff. This has been on my mind a lot lately with regards to my own parenting. (This passage is also pro-homeschooling!)

We still hold to the fiction that parents actually do decide upon the religious upbringing of their children. Of course, in this country, that means the Roman Catholics allow the Church to take over the education of the young, and that the others send their children to Sunday school; or, in other words, parents ask their children to believe in something they themselves do not believe in. We thus have a wonderful arrangement which all comes under the heading: parents have the right to determine the religion of their children. When marriage was created, that right was understood in a very different sense. The first authority that comes with parenthood is the right to influence, educate and direct one’s children, under the one condition that the parents impart their own beliefs to the children. But in ninety per cent of the cases today, parents do not impart their own beliefs. Instead, other institutions, like the churches, or the ethical culture schools, provide beliefs and religion which the parents themselves do not have. Parents have lost the power to demand from the community the authority to bring up the next generation because they have gradually relinquished this authority to the nursery schools, the psychologists, the psychoanalysts, or the American Legion. Everyday parents are abdicating their sacred duty to love their children in favor of people who frankly declare that love is damaging. (p.123)

Anyone trying to change the world in a big way needs to take note of this:

All great revolutions presuppose a colossal effort of human liberty and free will. They all arrive at their limits because they underestimate the freedom of their neighbors. The Great Revolutions never take into account the fact that mankind cannot act all at once. They overestimate the capacity of humanity for simultaneous change. They are bound to do so, because they appeal to only one class of mankind. (p.141)

What is the secret of eternal life? Reproducing yourself!

The biological secret of eternal life can, perhaps, be formulated thus: Lest the old kinds die or stagnate, a new kind branches off from the tree of life. By reason of this flowing forth of life into new forms, the forms already existing are able to survive. The revolutionary creation of one new kind permits the evolution of the older kinds. (p.164)

On the curious phenomenon that all forms of government seem to have a critical mass of supporters, even bad ones. American’s trying to shove democracy down the throats of distant nations should take note.

It is a fact, though an incredible one to the superficial democrat, that Mr. Everyman is by no means necessarily on the side of democracy in these processes of political infection. Dictators or monarchs have supporters quite as ready and quite as devout, when the time is ripe. “Democracy” has no surer approach to the masses of men than the other three forms of government. Each form seems, strangely enough, to express a popular longing. (p.162)

On how bad guys always dehumanize, in mostly the same old ways.

The thought that humanity comes at the expense of efficiency is just as old as humanity itself – as we have shown, subjects without emotion are the ideal of many tyrants. (p.42)

A fun quote on how we have traded one unpredictable situation for another. Oops.

The less a civilized, city person is dependent on nature, the more he or she is dependent on the rest of society. We have exchanged nature for society; harmony with (incalculable) nature for harmony with (incalculable) man. (p.43)

And finally, a great drive by quote on “what is the sin against the holy spirit?” that stumbles suddenly into Rene Girard’s territory!

The crime or sin against the Holy Spirit always is committed as a social and collective action. And we repent for it by dissociating ourselves from the profession or institution which is God-forsaken. (p.188)


Against entropy

Evolution says man, over time, takes one step forward and zero steps back.

Wisdom, history, and the second law of thermodynamics however state that man takes one step forward and one step back.

Some of the protestant reformers liked to use the phrase “semper reformada”, which means, “always reforming”. This is much closer to the mark.

The greatest and most universal answers that man has tried to give, like the Reformation or the Great Revolution, even these, as we have seen, were temporary answers, and had to be supplemented after a century had passed.

-Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Farewell to Descartes, p.10

Just as the sun recharges the earth anew each morning, from the algae in the ocean on up, we must continue to shape creation with judicious care, teaching our children to do the same. Alone, we cannot do this, but the Holy Spirit is a rushing wind that will not stagnate – like the hidden source of a perpetual motion machine.