Our very special New Year’s Day blog post comes to you all the way from Gambela, Ethiopia, where Refugee Action founder trustees Colin Hodgetts and Julia Meiklejohn are living. Colin and Julia spent Christmas at Pinyidu Refugee Camp, where around 20,000 Sudanese men, women and children have fled to escape violence in their neighbouring country. As we welcome in 2012, we felt it was the ideal time to share Colin’s reflections.
Christmas in Pinyidu
Julia and I have been invited to celebrate Christmas at the Anglican Church’s Mission Centre in Pinyidu Refugee Camp, in the Gambela region of Ethiopia. To call Pinyidu a camp, however, raises the wrong sort of images. There is no perimeter fence and the only indication that we are approaching, or even entering it, is a thin UNHCR sign that records the annual growth in hectares from about sixty in 1994 to over twelve hundred today.
With us in the pick-up that I steer between potholes in the dirt track are Mintamir, our office manager, and the Rev. Isaac Pur, the Nuer Missioner who will interpret for me. In the back we have large sacks of second hand clothes and shoes, six benches and a desk. Also a very large quantity of sweets.
The area is wooded. A couple of young deer dart away from us. We pass tukuls with clay walls and grass roofs that look as if they have been here for ever. There is no doubt about which is the church compound. Outside it an all-age crowd bearing a bedsheet-sized banner greets us with a song. There is one narrow entrance in which the Y of a tree branch has been set so as to slow down exits and entrances. The smallest children squeeze underneath. In the office, built around two trees, one of them sprouting leaves through the roof, we are treated to the traditional washing of feet.
The two main groups in the camp are the Nuer, pastoralists, and the Anuak, more settled slash-and-burners, about 9,000 of the former and 11,000 of the latter, refugees from violence in Sudan. Everywhere we go we are surrounded by young people and kids, dressed in their best for Christmas. They have all been born in the camp. Our host, the Rev. Paul Pok, says they are a worry to the adults for they do not observe Nuer ways, by which I think he means that they do not respect their elders. Might it not be hard, I ask, to respect parents who are unable to have a meaningful occupation? Who cannot be role models? A novel chord seems to have been struck.
Cards are not sent. Presents are not exchanged. Christmas is celebrated with food and religious observances, at a time that is out of kilter with the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar that won’t keep the feast of the Nativity until January 8th.
At 3pm, when the sun is beginning to turn down the heat, we fall in behind the banner, four drums and three ranks of Mothers Union members in white dresses with dark blue sashes to march through the settlement. We cross the paths of three other church groups processing in the same way.
To us the food here may not be that special, but that is because we do not subsist on rations of flour, oil and sugar, distributed in larger quantities than necessary so that some can be traded in the town and vegetables bought. There is also fresh milk because UNHCR has given cows, and the masala chai we are offered is a treat for those have us who have to make do with the powdered stuff. We have made a large donation for the purchase of provisions. We are presented, over the two days, with substantial pieces of fried river fish, cracked wheat with soft cheese, and chicken. I am treated to the twin thighs of a cockerel that was nearly snatched by a dog as it awaited its fate by the fire. I wrestle with the muscle.
Christmas Eve, and the compound is packed with worshippers from several churches for a two-and-a-half hour service that ends at midnight. It includes a nativity play. When he discovers Mary is pregnant Joseph drags her at high speed three times round the ring. Her birthing cries are very realistic. There are no Wise Men. But the Massacre of the Innocents is acted out with energy.
All good Anglicans are required to take communion at Christmas, and in the afternoon Paul celebrates in his church. Most of the congregation does not require service books, nor hymn books for that matter. They were Christians before they left Sudan and their religion is one of the main things holding them together as they wait to return to Sudan. How long will that be? When the guns are off the streets. How long will that be? The Ethiopian government reckons about five years, though I recently financed a visit by one of our clergy to a site over the border where some of those who were moved to Matar from Tiergol might be escorted in the New Year.
We have experienced a Christmas very different from the one we would have had in a cold Hartland. I am struck by a common factor shared with our hosts. We are all of us strangers in a foreign land.
N.B. Pinyidu is also variously spelt Pinyido or Pinyudo.
Posted by Carys