Teaching the Oromo

St Andrew’s is the old Church of Scotland building in the centre of Cairo, but it has for a long time been an international congregation with a minister appointed by the Lutheran Church in the States. In fact, the buildings are used by 10 different congregations, mostly from the refugee community. St Andrew’s is also home to the StARS programme, which does amazing work with refugees, providing legal, educational and psycho-social help. I had volunteered to help with an English programme, thinking I would be involved in one of the conversation classes meeting at the church hall. But instead I find myself travelling to the south of Cairo, to a densely populated area which is home to many of the Oromo people, refugees from Ethiopia, and there in the community centre (basically a few rooms on the ground floor of a tenement building) I teach English once a week.

I had never heard of the Oromo, but to my surprise I discovered that they are the biggest ethnic group in Ethiopia. However, they have faced years of discrimination and even persecution. Their plight recently came to the world’s attention at the Rio Olympics when the silver medallist in the marathon, an Oromo, gave a freedom sign both when crossing the line and when receiving his medal. Just a few days before I had watched on television disturbances in Addis Adaba which had led to the death of scores of Oromo protesters. Religion-wise, half the Oromo are Christian and half are Muslim.

I catch the metro every Wednesday to Hadayek Maadi, after which I take a tuk tuk, a small open cab, to the centre, where my class of 12-15 women gathers. They have an age range of 20 to 60. I am starting from scratch, so have begun with greetings but am now on to the alphabet and numbers. Some are quick, but others are slightly slower (illiteracy is certainly an issue in Egypt: I am not sure about Ethiopia). It is all a new experience for me, and I will have to brush up my own English grammar, but the class is really appreciative, and there is a lot of laughter. And they keep coming back!

I am helped by Salehadeen (Saleh for short), who is an Oromo and who has excellent English and acts as my interpreter. He is the gentlest, most pleasant young man, but he had been imprisoned in Ethiopia and on his release had had to flee for his life. If he hadn’t come to Cairo, he is convinced he would be dead. While in Ethiopia he was discriminated against for being Oromo, but ironically in Cairo he is discriminated against for being from Ethiopia – the Ethiopians are building a dam on the White Nile which the Egyptians fear will restrict the water flow on the Nile! I am also helped by Lujein, a personable young woman from Syria, who is on the psycho-social team at StARS. Like so many others she has had to flee Syria and start a new life elsewhere. Both Lujein and Saleh are fortunate in having found employment with StARS.

Postscript    In previous posts, some photos taken at St Andrew’s have shown boarded up windows. This is because a bomb exploded last year outside a neighbouring building, and the blast damaged our windows. With a generous grant from the Church of Scotland, they are being replaced. The first three windows are almost finished, and we are looking forward to them being installed in the chancel before the end of October – inshallah.

 

Church Life

1Egyptians are very religious people. Herodotus noted this in the 5th Century BCE and wrote that Egyptians were ‘religious to excess, beyond any other nation in the world’, and while beliefs may have changed since the time of the Pharaohs, Christians and Muslims continue to be fervently religious today. In the Underground stations there are places set aside for Muslims to pray (and they are well-used) and, returning from church on a Friday, I have to walk on the street to avoid the worshippers praying on carpets laid out on the pavements, as they listen to the service from the mosque relayed through speakers at every street corner. Churches are also very busy places, and not just on Fridays and Sundays, the traditional days of worship. There are various activities throughout the week, but people also seem to be happy just sitting around the precincts of the church, and that is especially true of the Orthodox churches. The Orthodox services are generally very well-attended by both young and old: the men tend to sit on one side, and the women on the other (this happens in some Presbyterian churches as well). In going up for communion, the women would cover their heads, and both men and women would take off their shoes to show reverence (a practice adopted by the Muslims?). Christians have crosses tattooed on their wrists as a sign of their identity, and many Copts will fast, and not only during the 40 days of Lent. I recently had a meal with a young man, who had recently spent a year at St Andrew’s and now works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But while I could eat meat, he had to have beans because it coincided with a two week fast.

The Presbyterians may not have such organized fasts, but they too spend a lot of their time around the church. Church members are always going off on weekend conferences and want to continue to expand their knowledge about theology, often taking courses or degrees. Apologetics seems one of the most popular subjects (for Copts as well as Protestants), as they feel a need to defend their faith to their workmates or friends.

I have attended services at quite a number of different denominations (the Armenian Orthodox had the most wonderful music!), but on Friday mornings I always worship at St Andrew’s, the old Church of Scotland congregation. The pastor, Kirsten, is an American Lutheran, but the congregation is very international in character, though with quite a number of Egyptian wanting to worship in English. I have also worshipped at a number of Presbyterian congregations, which vary greatly in style. Kasr el Dobara is the biggest congregation and is very charismatic in its approach to worship with many of the worshippers raising their hands during the upbeat singing. 111It is a gathered congregation, and many of the worshippers are young professionals, but it is also a church involved with the community around, and the church came into the international spotlight when it became a centre to treat those injured in the Arab Spring demonstrations in nearby Tahrir Square. Other Presbyterian congregations are more traditional in their worship, preferring the hymns brought out by the missionaries in the 19th Century, though most would be lie somewhere in between. However, I probably prefer the Sudanese Presbyterian churches, which work with the refugee population here and which have a more particular African feel to them, with colourful choirs and the threefold clappings to greet people. Recently the Moderator of the Church in Sudan flew up to ordain a friend of mine, Ayad, who is the pastor of the Dinka congregation. The church had been ‘dressed’ as if it were a wedding, and both Ayad and his wife took vows, surrounded and supported by members of all the different Sudanese tribal groups (important considering the tensions between the groups in South Sudan). Special to be there, and wonderful to see Ayad being dressed not only in a cassock but also with a garland of tinsel placed round his neck – though I am not sure if that happens at every Sudanese ordination!11

Eid al-Adha

The Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, takes place in the middle of September this year (the actual date depends on the moon), and commemorates Abraham’s willingness to submit to God by sacrificing his son (we think of Isaac, but Muslims consider it Ishmael). As part of the Festival, those who could afford it would sacrifice a cow or goat or sheep, keeping some for themselves, but also giving part of the meat away to the poor. Already in my own area of Abbassiyya, there are pens full of sheep in almost every street, while coloured lights have also been hung from building to building to celebrate the holiday. I can’t begin to imagine how many sheep will be slaughtered! The Seminary has made several banners to hang outside, congratulating our Muslim friends on their festival and blessing all Egyptians.

More Videos

In a previous blog I wrote about the work of the Council for Services and Development and gave a link to a video they had made on Violence against Women. They have just posted three more (shorter) videos which are well worth viewing. Here is the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1BhZnR-_kc (Child Abuse)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8BnuW1tiU4 (Child Abuse)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaRbtUosSSE (Indifference)