Stick, Cross, Shawl and Hat
A Good Coptic priest in the highland of Eritrea would not leave his sanctuary, his home or church without carrying a cross in his right hand. Small cross made of wood or brass and always covered by handkerchief. People who noticed his presence will always approach him for blessing and he will stretch his arm with the cross, for the people to kiss and receive blessing. The wooden cross has a smell of Myrrh and the brass cross always felt cold in the mouth or the forehead.
The Good monk, which the people call Felassi and the good Nun which the people call Adey Itay (Mother is added before the Nun, an adulation not applied to the monk), shall always wear a hat that cover their shaved heads and carry Mirkus, a very long stick in the shape of “T” with a length that reach the shoulder of the bearer, a symbol of humility and a tool for support. When used as support, the T stick is kept at a generous angle due to its length. Carrying a cross is optional for the monk but no Mother nun carries a cross in her hand (the prominent cross is tattooed in her forehead) and if people approach monk for blessing he will stretch his hand, bare or with cross for people to kiss and receive the blessings. The bare monk’s hand is soft, warm and smells of myrrh. No one shall ask Mother Nun for blessing.
The Good highland woman shall not leave her house without Netsela, a white cotton shawl that covers her whole body and is worn on top of her blouse from head to ankle. But she is not obligated to have netsela if she is in her house. Inside her house a woman is freed from the long shawl. In this land a house is the woman’s property and her domain. She is the master not a mistress and everyone else is subservient to her rule including her good man.
The house is called Hudmo, a four wall rectangular structure built by men of the village. A man is entitled a house only after he became a father. It is built as a massive one room house supported by twelve wooden columns or aptly to say tree trunks and is always built on a side of a hill, the back of it shouldering the face of a hill. From afar, all Hudmos look like they are protruding from a hill. Hudmo does not have windows but has two doors, a large door in front and a small door far back on the side.
The partition and decorations inside is left to the woman which she happily and proudly accepts. Unless she needs help due to health, in most cases the woman herself completes the task. The people say “a woman builds her own house”. And those hardy women take the saying literally.
There are two rooms in a Hudmo, one large and one small. The small room is always at the back and is one third the size of the large one. The small room is called Wushate or a woman’s room and no male member is allowed to enter this room. All her valuables and her kitchen are kept in this room. This room can be entered either through the main room or the side door. Because hudmos are built on the side of a hill, the wushate is the room shouldering the hill. And in many cases this side door is so short the woman had to bend when using it.
Grain silos are used to partition the space between the small room and large room. The silos are massive and are built by mixing clay and hey. It takes woman years to make the silos and a lifetime to decorate it.
The woman also stuccoes the stone beds called Niidi by mixing clay and hey. Yes stone beds, those hardy people sleep in stone beds made from stones. The number of Niidis in a Hudmo depends on the size of the family. But there are at least two niids in every hudmo. One niidi in the main large room and one in the Wushate for the woman the sizes of the niids are proportional to the rooms. It is a common practice for kids to sleep in the floor.
The good highland man shall not leave home without a stick. They call it Betri. He shall carry his stick at all times through out his life. The people say “a man is not a man without a stick”.
No priest, no woman, no monk and no mother nun shall carry the type of stick the man carries. That particular stick is a man’s stick. The stick becomes the man’s other self: his double. He can forget his cows and goats but not his stick. These men are so proud of their stick they say “the stick of truth can bend but never breaks”
“Do not forget your stick” is what a man is always reminded everywhere he happens to be. He always finds a safe place for his stick if he is going to be occupied with tasks that require both hands like tilling his field. When a man sits or wants to sleep or nap the first thing he does is find a safe and reachable place for his stick and always besides him the tip of the stick under his pit is the choicest location. The man cannot separate himself from his stick symbolically and physically.
After greetings, the first thing hosts say is “let’s take your stick”. On the other hand they will not say “let’s take your cross” to the priest; “let’s take your hat” to the monk or “let’s take your netsela” to the woman. The cross, hat and netsela are inseparable from those who hold them.
Not all sticks are prohibited from the priest or the woman because in that place stick is sometimes a necessary tool. When travelling a long distance which will require ascending, descending stiff hills and negotiating with rocks and stones, the priest will require a stick as a supporting tool. When it comes to whacking a snake, which are abundant in that place a stick is preferred than a stone. To scare Hyenas or dogs there is no better tool than a stick and for good reason all animals recognize it. No one misses with a stick. Such a stick though is a hastily made stick. A stick made from a low grade wood and by a practicing boy and one will find many in a house. Boys in the house love making sticks. The priest and the woman can use such a stick in case of need.
But there is a stick and there is a stick. This stick the highlander man carries is not a simple stick. First he makes his stick himself from selected hard wood. Selecting takes time, skill, knowledge and acuity. In this hardy place, as you can imagine, only the hardest trees survives. But not all trees are created equally hard.
It takes a man very long time, no less than six months, to finish his stick, and ones made in many cases it outlives him. It cannot be less than three feet otherwise it will be considered a weapon. It cannot also be more than 2 inches in diameter otherwise it become what they call Dulla, classified as a weapon and it cannot be a bow shaped which they call Shifshifit for the same reasons. Yes, there are men who carry these sticks. No one likes them. They look dangerous even without these sticks. These men smoke and chew tobacco which the people call tumbako and were excommunicated from the church long time ago. In this place those who smoke or chew tobacco cannot attend church and if they die before quitting their habit the priest will not perform Fithat for their funeral. They shall be buried like dogs. There are such men everywhere. This hardy place is not immune from such men. They live single and die single and that is why women in particular call them Hadar Zeiblom “men without wives”. Others call the troublemakers Begamindos, Iwalas, and Iskunis all with the same meaning. Bad name for bad people.
A good man’s stick is on average 4.5 feet long though never straight, 2 inches in diameter though never a perfect circle because it is hand carved and always starts from cutting a sturdy stem of no less than 5 inches in diameter of a choice tree. It starts with carefully drying it first and then meticulously curving the trunk to size using an axe they call Misar, an axe attached to an inward bowed handle; sanding the stick using leather and stone; soaking the stick in goat’s milk for reasons unknown and at the end buttering and smoking the stick. Buttering the stick shall continue to the life of the stick or the man whoever goes first. No blueprint is followed but everyone uses his own imagination (some prefer sheep milk) and at the end not two sticks are similar. Every stick takes the shape and character of its maker. You can easily identify an owner by looking at a stick and vise versa.
For the man, the stick becomes his sign of manhood and by extension very valuable and inalienable property. Many hardy men’s hearts were broken due to loss of their stick like a soft man’s heart breaks by the love of a woman. In that place a man’s heart is as hard the hard surrounding. A woman’s love is incapable breaking that heart. Only the loss of his stick and the stigma of shame attached to it can break it. The only other stigma greater than losing ones stick is farting in public or in the presence of any adult, if females the worse. Accidental or otherwise, farting always results in either suicide or Tifat, self banishment: leaving your land never to return. His stick can break albeit the saying “ the stick of truth can bend but not broken” in which case he will blame the wood but have to show the broken stick to his friends so they would not think he lost it.
Stick and its ownership is a big deal in this land. Let alone losing his stick even forgetting his stick has its repercussion. If people start to say “He forgets his stick” it might mean forgetting his manhood, a death sentence for a hardy man. Because it is unique it is also identifiable. A forgotten stick always finds its owner. Even children as young as five know which stick belongs to whom. The whole villagers can precisely identity which stick belongs to who.
While the sticks is a man’s exclusive physical symbol, the shawl called netsela is not exclusive to the woman. The man, the priest, the monk and the mother Nun all wear netselas. What differentiates the wearers is the way it is ruled to be worn. For the worldly woman which they call Alemawit and the mother nun which they call Menfesawit, both shall cover their whole body from head to ankle. The same netsela can be worn by the man, the priest and the monk with no limiting rules.