Holy Biscuits in Ethiopia

By Winter, Miriam Therese | National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

Holy Biscuits in Ethiopia


Winter, Miriam Therese, National Catholic Reporter


SOUL SEEING

It was barely midday, and I was already exhausted. We had set up this makeshift feeding center in Ethiopia for victims of a devastating famine, and they now blanketed the room. Women cradling emaciated children pressed against one another, as each claimed a coveted piece of that hard mud floor.

I was about to assist the nurses attending a dying baby, when one of our Ethiopian aides burst into the room. "Come!" she shouted. "Hurry! They are calling for a doctor. They say there is a dead body beyond the outer wall."

We had no doctors.

Preoccupied with the emergencies at hand, one nurse said to her, "If he's dead, he doesn't need a doctor. Can't you see? We are busy here."

The aide persisted. "Someone must certify that the person is dead before they can proceed with a burial. It is our tradition. It must be done before the sun goes down."

"You go," the head nurse said to me.

"I can't do that," I said. "I'm not qualified."

"Dead is dead," she said. "Surely you can handle that. Go make the official pronouncement."

So Dr. Winter, with a doctorate in liturgical studies, followed the Ethiopian aide, feeling as ill at ease as a freshman en route to a qualifying exam.

The body was a long way off, on a sandy beach by a river's edge, where a very large crowd was waiting All of them were male. When they saw me, they began to shout in a language I did not understand. Warning signals went off within me. I'm in the middle of nowhere. Nobody knows I am here. We two are the only women in the midst of a hostile mob.

"Why are they so angry?" 1 asked my companion. "Why are they angry with me?"

One of the men responded, "We are angry because you up there in that camp are the ones who killed this man. Yesterday, he came to beg for food, and you turned him away. Now he has died of hunger, and he died because of you."

I had to calm this volatile situation. I said, "Let us first be certain he is dead. Then we can investigate why." They agreed. I approached the body baking in the sun.

As I stood there, staring death in the face, I recognized who the one looking up at me through his unseeing eyes was, and I was horrified. A young adult male, stick-thin, in rags, had indeed come into the compound yesterday, saying he was hungry. He pleaded for a box of biscuits, that staple of intensive feeding centers everywhere. …

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