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Ethiopia Fasting for 55 Days

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Ethiopia is one of the world's most religious countries. Orthodox Christians can fast seven times a year and wear religious-themed tattoos. In a politically troubled nation, people are "praying harder than ever.

For Ethiopians, religion and fasting inhabits a realm of faith and spirituality which many in the West can’t fathom nowadays. "Official theology teaches fasting is needed to come closer to God by repressing the flesh," says Makonnen, an Orthodox Church deacon. "Fasting is good because it clears one's mind from unnecessary energy. To be fully human you need a balance between spirit and body.”


The impact of fasting includes a serious downturn in business for café and restaurant owners. But Ethiopia is one of the most religious countries in the world. A 2015 Pew Research Centre survey found that 98 percent of Ethiopians consider religion a very important part of who they are.

Ash being handed round

Tough rules

Ash is dispensed at a church in Gonder so that worshippers can mark crosses on their foreheads. In addition to the ban on animal products for the current 55-day fast, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians can’t eat or drink anything until 3 p.m. Some stop brushing their teeth, fearful of breaking the fast by swallowing blood from bleeding gums.

Woman with ash cross and child

Faith and spirituality

For Ethiopians, religion and fasting inhabits a realm of faith and spirituality which many in the West can’t fathom nowadays. "Official theology teaches fasting is needed to come closer to God by repressing the flesh," says Makonnen, an Orthodox Church deacon. "Fasting is good because it clears one's mind from unnecessary energy. To be fully human you need a balance between spirit and body."

Ethiopians in front of picture of the Crucifixion

Demands of the Christian faith

For some fasting restrictions even include alcohol and what can happen in the bedroom. Church doctrine doesn’t actually forbid sexual relations during fasts, nor alcohol. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians voluntarily given themselves a harder test, Makonnen said. "Popular theology influences much more strongly than official doctrine in this country."

Woman with tattoo on her face

Outward signs of religious observance

In Ethiopia’s Amhara region, many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are adorned with nikisat, a traditional form of tattooing. This often takes the form of crosses on faces, as seen on this woman on a street of Bahir Dar. Nikisat is also used on chests, arms, lower legs and to darken the gums of the mouth.

Two women, one reading next to a tree

Economic toll and religiosity

The impact of fasting includes a serious downturn in business for café and restaurant owners. But Ethiopia is one of the most religious countries in the world. A 2015 Pew Research Centre survey found that 98 percent of Ethiopians consider religion a very important part of who they are.

Religiously themes pictures and other items for sale

Tokens of faith

Most Ethiopians wear crosses around necks, while images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and quotes from Scripture plaster taxi and minibus windows, or are framed in people’s homes.

Worried looking Ethiopian girl

Clinging to hope

This year’s fasting season has coincided with a controversial state of emergency in Ethiopia, which follows a year of unrest over issues such as poverty, unemployment and corruption. "People are praying even more and saying: Where are you God? Did you forget this land?" says one Gonder resident. "Because people can’t protest, they are praying harder than ever."

Young man with religious tattoo on his arm

More modern religious tattoos

Nowadays, young Ethiopians are turning away from nikisat, which is seen as old fashioned and unfair on women - it’s usually done in girlhood - but that doesn’t mean they aren’t embracing more modern religious-themed tattoos, like 24-year-old Haile in Bahir Dar.

Mobile phone with religiously themed screensaver

Screensavers

Ethiopians see nothing incongruous in using modern technology to reflect their faith. Young or old, many have religious-themed screensavers on their mobile devices.

Ethiopian vegetarian meal

Breaking the fast

One popular dish for breaking the daily fast is Beuyaineutu. It consists of injera, Ethiopia's spongy pancake-like bread, topped with vegetables and spicy mixtures of beans and lentils.

People praying with faces covered

Praying never stops

Once fasting ends, Ethiopians catch up with gusto. Ethiopia has one of the highest meat consumption per capita rates in Africa. Shortly before a fast ends, goat and sheep herders can be seen directing their flocks along the roads. But after the fast ends the praying never stops, especially in times of need.