Its all about Lent

Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia entered the season of Lent a fortnight ago. The Ethiopian fasting season follows the old law.

By Henok Reta |

Those who strictly observe Lent do not eat until midday or three in the afternoon. Even when allowed to eat, people eat nothing that has suffered death, nor milk, nor cheese, nor eggs, nor butter. Thus, during the fasting days they eat only bread of millet, wheat and pulse, all mixed together, spinach and herbs cooked with oil – generally, the carnivores of Addis Ababa will be required to follow a strict vegan diet with fish creeping in on the menu, writes Henok Reta.

In many parts of Ethiopia, it is not easy to stand behind a window of a butchery shop at this time of the year-the two-month fasting season. The 30 year-old Gezahegn Shibru works at one of butcheries around town. Apparently, it is that time of the year where things would really start to slow down in the meat market. The two-month lent period is one that is highly revered among followers of Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia. Whether observing the fasting season or not, for the followers of this religion, consuming meat, eggs, milk and milk products is not an option. In fact, indulging in such food items at this time has become some sort of a taboo. And, followers of the religion would seriously try to avoid being spotted even entering into a butchery around this time of the year.

The case is almost similar for local butcheries and meat shops as well. It is bad for business to even open their shops during the lent periods. For Gezahegn, himself follower of Orthodox Christianity, although he is not fasting, he believes that this custom of fasting should be deeply respected. He actually is cautious of the feelings of his customers who are observing the lent season, and most of whom hardly show up at his shop this time of the year. “I don’t fast myself. But, I really care about the people and their long-persisting culture of fasting,” he says. According to observers, this trend is slowly shifting these days. Gezahegn says that consuming meat during the lent season is no more unthinkable. “Now, I entertain a number of customers during lent periods. There looks to be a slight shift in the trend over the years,” he added. “Personally, I know I can’t stay away from meat for long.”

One of the things that any foreigner who has been to Ethiopia can tell you is the love people have for a local delicacy that is raw meat. Raw meat, a renowned traditional meal among Ethiopians, seems to have withstood the test of time. A fine chunk of raw meat looks to be gaining popularity among young men and women recently. It is widely told that raw meat was a traditional dish which was mostly enjoyed by the elderly in the country side. And, the lent season was that one time where raw meat will be divorced from its loyal consumers. During this time, people would completely diverted to a wholly vegan diet. Consequently, this is the time where vegetables would be consumed in bulk across the country.

Ethiopian Vegetarian PlatterAs a result Atikilt Tera, a renowned vegetable market in Addis Ababa, sees its busiest days during this season. Thousands of people visit this market every day until Easter, the formal end of the lent season. According to Feleke Gizachew, a vendor at Atkilt Tera, this is the time to make very good profit in his business. He says he makes between 2500 birr-3000 birr per day during this time, which he never dreams of making on a regular day. But, he does not accept the fact that more and more people are now becoming meat eaters. “I do not believe vegetable consumption is declining during lent period,” he argues. And, he says, there is no better evidence than the turnover in the vegetable market that he operates in – Atkilt Tera. Business is exceptionally well at this time of the year, Feleke says smiling.

Nevertheless, many observers claim that the eating culture around cities especially in the capital is slowly changing. These days, a number of butcheries and meat shops seems to be selling meat and other sources of protein during the fasting season, Gezahegn argues in his part. Indeed, the number of meat eaters around town looks to be on a slow rise, and this according to Gezahegn, includes even the fasting seasons.

Numbers obtained from the Addis Ababa City Abattoir Enterprise strengthens this fact. The figures indicates that the number of people who consumes meat during fasting season is increasing overtime. According to Tekola Hailu, slaughter section and meat distribution head at the abattoir, compared with the previous years, the demand has risen almost by half. He estimates that during the past one week, since the start of the fasting season, at 2,112 oxen and some 3,000 goat and sheep have been slaughtered in the abattoir. “Currently, our distribution focuses in areas like Arada, Mercato, Lideta, Saris and some parts of Bole. And the reason of this, according to Tekola, is because the butcheries relocate to these specific areas in search of new customers. “I’m certain that it will go much higher in the middle of the lent season; and as such we have not encountered meat demand so high in the past,” Tekola told The Reporter. He says that the demand for meat actually starts to increase a couple of weeks after the start of lent. Moreover, he argues that the figure is bound to go up when one considers the level of illegal slaughters that is going on in the city.

From the perspective of health, many nutritionist and physicians often say that relegating important sources of protein and other nutrients from the diet is quite damaging for human beings. They are often heard arguing that taking those essential foods out of the menu for such a long period of time is quite unwise.

Tesfai Gebrekidan (MD), wrote in his paper published by entitled “ABIY TSOM (The Great Lent)” that it will be difficult to remain dependent on vegetables and cereals alone for such a long period of time especially for those people who has got health related issues. He advises people who are diabetic to adjust proper level of insulin during fasting season. In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) also says that the sick and weak, including people who are traveling might be exempted from fasting; or can perform it for a much reduced time period.

Fish can be considered to the only replacement for meat in the Ethiopian diet during the lent season. For Christians like Medhanit Aschalew, a secretary in her early 30s and is married with one child, the menu in the fasting season is rather healthy. It is a blessing in disguise to shift the menu to vegetables, she argues, since it will reduce fat intake. Every day, she fills her refrigerator with fruits and vegetables. She is also of the view that vegetables make a better dish than meat. Siljo, a juicy sauce she makes out of the fava beans, yesuff fitfit, dipping sauce made from sun flower seeds, and yeshimbra assa, a roasted tasty food she makes from pea flour are amongst the fasting cuisine she has in her in-house menu. “It even gives me the opportunity to train myself into becoming a good cock,” she says.

Albas Berhanu, a cook working for a well-to-do family, for instance says that she prepares 5-10 different types of food items a day during this lent season. “Usually, cabbage, lentil, tomato and vegetable soup dominate the dish,” she told The Reporter. She says preparing fasting dishes is not as easy as it looks. As a result, she often finds it difficult to do the job even with a hired help beside her. Even though she is not certain to comment on the family’s dining culture on a regular day, she says that it is not more than five different dishes a day.

The effect of the lent season also resonates in restaurants, nightclubs and bars. Fasting people tend to prefer going to the juice bars and cultural night clubs in where liturgically based Zelesegna and Bagana music are played instead. It, however, seems to be different these days as life goes on as usual for some who willingly cross the norms of the fasting culture.

Source: The Reporter

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