Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia are just starting the “grueling” two months of fasting known as Lent. For the coming two months, tens of millions of Ethiopian adherents of the Orthodox Tewahedo church will abstain from consuming meat, milk, butter, eggs and anything that contains these items. Lent is defined as a period of abstinence for anything that arouses the temptations of the flesh, including sex, among the most puritans of the adherents.
It is also a time to be spent in prayers, for the ills or the sins that one might have committed during the nine months of voracious consumption of the food items in order to “weaken” the body so that it would not resort to the sinful temptations.
Lent is the longest and for some, the hardest fasting period. Most Orthodox Christians abstain from meat and butter twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, eight days a month and ninety six days a year. In the old days, those who do not strictly follow these fasting rules were considered apostates of the faith in more serious cases and bad Christians in milder circumstances.
As in any culture or religion, there are also what we might call puritans who strictly follow the dos and don’ts of the fasting season and those who are more liberal in their views of evil and punishment.
For the conservative Christians, the average fasting day of Lent starts in the morning and is broken by midday with non-meaty, non-fatty foods and a cup of coffee, water and, in the case of the better offs among them, with additional fruits and vegetables.
It is however a pity that the price hikes on food items is likely to upset the mood if not the appetite of many Christians this fasting season.
The more conservatives among the fundamentalists, do not eat anything as late as 3:00 PM, after mass is finished and priests as well as their followers return home to break their fast. They spent their time praying at the nearby churches to absolve for the sins they might have intently or unknowingly committed in the past.
It is therefore usual to see older men and women leave the church compounds in the late hours of the day, walking slowly to their homes dragging their aching and weakened bodies that have been deprived of the fuels of life.
people are sometimes considered tough Christians whose candidacy for a place in the Heaven may seem guaranteed, according to the popular perception.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are liberal-minded orthodox Christians who prefer to spend the Lent season in a more reasoned state of mind. Some of them believe that ” it is what comes out of your mouth i.e. ill-talk, that is evil and not what goes into your mouth”.
There may be no statement in the Bible supporting this line of thinking but most members of the community seems to be swayed by this liberal attitude. So, these people take their breakfasts regularly without however eating the forbidden foods.
Likewise they have lunch and dinner at regular hours and spend the days without feeling the wrenching aches in their stomachs that is often caused by hunger.
There are also the “scientific-minded” among them who do not skip their meals and eat reasonably well to compensate for the dietary deprivations that are caused by the fasting period. The wealthier among them use this period to undo the health damages done by the excessive and fatty foods they have been consuming during the non-fasting period. They use this occasion to cleanse their bodies of the toxic materials that might have been building up in their systems.
Ethiopian culture is replete with accounts in relation to the fasting season. There are tales of people who fast in public but go to some places in search of meaty foods to consume in secret. These may be the extreme meat lovers who are not few in or society.
There are also tales of husbands who claim that they are the “most faithful adherents of the rules of fasting” but in private, eat the forbidden foods. One day, a husband is said to have arrived home late in the evening after drinking a good amount and starts throwing up.
The wife who saw big chunks of meat in his vomit holds her head and accuses her husband of betraying the church rules. “I swear to God, this is the remnant of the dinner I ate on the eve of the start of the fasting season!” The husbands reiterates, his voice thick with drink if not with shame.
The fasting season is most welcome by fruits and vegetables dealer who start pushing up prices the day after the start of Lent. For the next two months, the prices of onions, tomatoes, oil, and plenty of other ingredients go through the ceilings.
We may perhaps call this, the negative fallouts of the Lent season which is also a time of mourning for many butchers’ who close their shops and go to the countryside to spend their time fasting with their families. Others quickly convert their shops into fasting food outlets or fish hotels. The price of canned and imported fish also increase dramatically although Ethiopians are big producers and but poor consumers of fish.
Ethiopian food culture is generally considered one of the healthiest in the world and this claim has been corroborated by many tourists who travelled to the country simply to get the taste of Ethiopian cuisine. Fasting foods rank among the best and healthier foods on offer. There is a special food item known as yetsom beyaynetu, diverse fasting food brought together on a big tray to be eating together.
This specialty includes, injera of course plus, raw tomato , green pepper, onions, cabbage, lentils, cauliflower, carrot, beetroot, and many other items. This is the best vegetable food par excellence and the color and taste of this dish is an unforgettable experience for anyone who might be a vegetarian in love with Ethiopian cuisine.
Ethiopian fasting cuisine does not only contain foods items. There are also beverages that are especially in big demand during the lent period. These include, besso or the juice barley that has been roasted and crashed into fine grain that is mixed in water, a little sugar or honey added to it and drank in the morning in particular.
Besso is appreciated for it anti-oxidant, stomach-friendly and body building characteristics even during the non-fasting period. People who suffer from stomach aches and broken bones are often given besso as a food for rehabilitating or rebuilding the body.
There are also beverages prepared from crushed sunflowers seeds and drank in the morning on empty stomachs for their cooling and curing effects. Honey mead is another beverage preferred by those who are fasting because it does not contain alcoholic substances that are not always good for the health.
This is called birz, while the alcoholic variant is called tej, as many tourists might be familiar with it as they visit traditional drinks outlets across the country.
There is also a non-alcoholic version of tella, a traditional alcoholic drink consumed by Ethiopians in the Christian north for many centuries. The best beverage in this fasting season however remains water in whatever form it comes, either bottled, tap water or underground water available in most parts of the country.
Ethiopian fasting foods and beverages are some of the healthiest by any dietary standards. The spread of non-communicable diseases across the nation is believed to have been caused by excessive or surplus consumption of meat, butter, milk and eggs. These food items are considered in the West as serious health hazards and billions of dollars worth researches and drugs are produced every year for the treatment of hypertension, heart ailments and diabetes among others.
The spread of these diseases in Ethiopia is a relatively recent phenomenon caused by the adoption of Western eating habits and lifestyles by the new generation of Ethiopians, particularly those from rich families.
Though Ethiopians in the countryside too indulge in these food items, they do it in moderation and burn it during their farming activities and long walks, to the markets.
The hard works they do in the field is being used as the most ideal exercise for offsetting the unwanted consequences of foods rich in protein and carbohydrate.
Moreover, most farmers in Ethiopia have their small gardens in the backyards where they grow at least cabbages and potatoes these are providing the minerals that are offsetting the ill-effects of foods rich in fats.
Medical doctors are presently recommending a shift from fatty to vegetarian diets as the first step to prevent or treat the above illnesses by bringing down the excess weights of the patients.
Obesity in Ethiopia is also a recent phenomenon caused by junk food consumption and indiscriminate eating and lack of exercise among most Ethiopian children from better-off families.
These people can use the fasting season as a starting point to correct their unhealthy dietary habits and start a new lifestyle. What is amazing about the eating habits of Ethiopians is the fact that nature, or the seasons, seems to have allocated what they should eat during the fasting and the non-fating seasons.
The two months of Lent are thus a natural way of allowing Ethiopians to get a break from the bad eating habits they might be indulging in and providing them with a once a year opportunity for physiological rest and rehabilitation of their with pills and special treatments but by the temporal or natural regulations that are unique for Ethiopians and that is surely another blessing.