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Monday, October 18, 1999 Published at 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK

World: Africa

Ethiopia: Washing away the demons

Crowds walk from Gondar to Ba'ata church to take the cure

By Rachel Chambers in Gondar

Every morning, before six o'clock, a throng of men and women make their way to the edge of the ancient city of Gondar in northern Ethiopia.

They are among many from across Ethiopia who have risen early to attend a holy spring in search of healing for their physical, spritual and mental disorders.

Some have walked for days from the remote countryside having heard of the power of this water at Ba'ata church. Others come from Gondar itself.

Still more have taken the bus from the capital, Addis Ababa, 400km (250 miles) to the south.

They believe that the cure they will find here will be more complete than any offered in the government hospitals in the city.

Together they leave the muddy streets of Gondar, where women are baking injera - the traditional Ethiopian bread - over fires outside the houses, to clamber down the rocky hill to the point where clear water gushes from the earth.

[ image: A priest sprinkles water on a mother and her young child]
A priest sprinkles water on a mother and her young child
The site of the holy spring has been walled in and is restricted to deacons and priests from Ba'ata church. The people gather close to the wall and sit on the ground.

An elderly woman is assisted by her two daughters. A young peasant girl stands to explain to those around her that she is poor and has travelled far. A few onlookers drop cents into her cup to help her pay for the treatment she will receive here.

An elder from the community prays from a well-thumbed book of prayers and disturbs the flies with his horse-hair whisk. And a woman soothes the disabled child she is carrying on her back in a leather harness decorated with shells.

A one-legged saint

When the white-turbaned priest arrives, he calls for quiet and a hush falls over the crowd of more than 100 people.

A Geez recitation of the Life of Saint Teklahaymanot is begun.

St Teklahaymanot is one of Ethiopia's favourite saints who is reported to have stood in prayer for many years until one leg became so gangrenous that he had to cut it off.

He stood for seven years after this on the remaining leg. The priest begins the rendition but is soon replaced by a slender deacon dressed in shorts and sporting a rather daring purple hat.

The reading of the hagiography is thought to keep the demons away from the holy place.The old priest is now at liberty to offer his blessing to the people who are already clamouring for his attention.

A young woman seeks a blessing for her first pregnancy, another brings her sick child to be touched by the priest's iron cross.

A man with gastric problems has his stomach rubbed with the cross and is recommended to take the holy water for seven days.

Another man reports difficulty in walking and duly has his legs massaged with the cross. The reading continues for over an hour and is only interrupted when a small child swallows a cent and needs a hefty thwack on the back to bring it flying out, to the immense relief of his mother.


With the conclusion of the prayers there is a great commotion as the people try to get close to the holy water to have their jerry-cans filled by the deacons who are serving there.

[ image: A priest using holy water from a hosepipe to baptise a man]
A priest using holy water from a hosepipe to baptise a man
It is important that they show their receipt for the payment of 50 cents for the recommended seven days of treatment; another deacon waits nearby to accept money and issue receipts.

Once the water has been collected the people disperse to isolated rocky outcrops to drink. They wish to be alone because the water has a purging effect and will soon induce diarrhoea and vomiting. This is thought to cleanse the body of the impurities that are causing the disease.

Washing out devils

Some wish not only to drink, but also to receive baptism and they queue in various states of undress behind a rock cubicle into which the priest will direct the holy water from a hose-pipe, through his hand-held cross onto the naked patient.

If the source of the disease is demonic the holiness of the water will cause the demon to become agitated and it will shout through the mouth of the possessed. The priest engages with the demons to summon them out.

One man's demons claim to be 300 in number and so the priest makes a bargain with them that they will remove themselves over the seven days that the man will take the holy water.

Once his demonic outburst is over this man's relatives assist him back into his clothes and lead him away, believing him to be on the road to recovery.

As the morning wears on the people begin to return to their homes where they will break their morning fast and return to the humdrum routine of their lives.

By lunch-time - just as the afternoon rains begin - the priest has also left the spring and the holy place remains quiet until six o'clock the following morning when the routine of reading, prayer, blessing and baptism will begin again.

Rachel Chambers visited Gondar as part of her research for a Masters degree in Theology at the University of Bristol

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