St. George: healer, godfather, trademark

2022, London

A handyman popped over to Welete Giorgis’ house and noticed an Ethiopian Orthodox painting of St. George and the dragon hanging in the front hall. “Natural colours on wood”, she explained. He looked at her with inquisitive eyes but did not say what crossed his mind. She didn’t have the time to ask and needed him to get along with the plumbing task, which he did. On his way out, he stopped to take another look at the painting. “You may take a photograph if you wish,” she said. He looks at her again in silence, hesitated, then fished out a smart phone from his pocket and took a picture. “Thank you,” he muttered and shut the front door behind him.

Welete Giorgis smiled inwardly wondering how the handyman would have reacted had she told him that the painting was of her godfather, her symbolic godfather, of course. It was a topic that had preoccupied her thoughts as a child for her friends had real godparents, often nice warm people who brought gifts, came to visit, or entertained in their homes. Why couldn’t she have had a human godmother or godfather? Some thought there could not be a more trusted guardian than a saint while others wondered if friends could be trusted to take up that role. Her parents reasoned with a matter-of-fact story.

1958, Harar

The late 1950s may have been a conservative time in the eastern town of Harar, but it was also a joyful period for youngsters who set out to prove their worth to the world. A modern Military Academy had just been inaugurated by Emperor Haile Selassie introducing to the town a flourishing regiment of trainee cadets handpicked for their outstanding qualities and academic achievement.

Situated not far from the Academy halls of residence, the Ras Hotel offered a fashionable and luxurious venue. It had a patio, a bar, restaurant and dance floor that beckoned the straight jacket trainers and supervisors of the Academy to enjoy a relaxing moment.

Towards the east of the hotel lay Jegol, the historic fortification of the ancient Harari Kingdom capital, the fourth holy city of Islam, which today is a UNESCO World Heritage site; home to 82 ancient mosques and a maze of 368 alleyways once frequented by powerful Sultanates.

The fortified city in modern Harar offered public trade including on the narrow passageways. Young ladies such as Tsehay and Nigisti loved to make their way through the bustle to have their measurements taken by seamstresses and tailors. Fashion, jewellery, hair styling, and perfumes were common and popular amongst youth.

Outside the ancient walls, Christian and Muslim markets sold food and merchandise compliant with the respective religious ethic. The trainee cadets and military trainers stood out in the crowd as they congregated to purchase their weekly supplies. Naturally, they gloated as the ladies left the fortified walls smelling like roses and dressed in tasteful new clothes with matching jewellery and stunning hair.

Tsehaye and Nigisti pulled their netela over their coiffed heads and lowered their eyes, occasionally allowing a curious glance at the faces of the ornately dressed men in khaki-coloured, calf-length uniforms – collars down, buttons-up, matched with rounded top-hats and shiny leather boots. Civilian men and their foreign counterparts were not shy to compete for their attention and were politely ignored as they whistled and hissed. William was amongst them and his heart lurched as Tsehaye’s netella dropped to reveal a clear olive skin to curious eyes.

Photo: Nightingale Jennings

Months flew by before Tsehaye rewarded William with a greeting and soon they were on speaking terms.  He discovered she was a devout Orthodox Christian, follower of St. George Church, but from the moment he told her he followed an Eastern religion she distanced from him. William’s heart dropped as he told his friends and they advised him to wait and see if she would have a change of heart.

A few weeks later, William was suddenly taken ill. He was struck by a fever and a terrible gout that left him writhing night and day. The neighbours brought him cafenol and aspirin, herbal teas and fetfet and were alarmed when he simply got worse. For some, love was considered an illness so they sent for Tsehaye who took one look at the ailing man and fled. She returned with a large plastic bag containing several bottles of water.

“From St. George’s Church,” she proclaimed and the neighbours watched as she poured the liquid into a glass from which William drank. She bathed his legs, wrapped them up in a gabbi , prayed for St. George’s healing powers, lit up a candle and then left. William slept all day and all night. When he finally opened his eyes he was a little weak, but all the pain had gone and his appetite for food was back to normal. It was fitting that he accompany his friends and neighbours to give thanks to the Church.

The priests were chanting St. Yared’s hymns from within the sanctuary while the men took off their shoes and quietly took a spot on to the floor. They were hardly noticed as the visibility was shrouded by thick clouds of frankincense smoke. A hypnotic rhythm resounded as the kebero (drum), the tsenatsil (sistrum) and the vocalists delivered a liturgy that reverberated with gratitude:

“The Holiest of Holy, our Lord
I heard the angels singing
Your praises filled the Earth and the Heavens
What a song it is
What a rhythm it is
What depth it has”

(English translation (unanonymous) of Wai Zema ze-semaiku see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IfCaBl5lw0 )

St. George is the patron saint of many countries including Ethiopia and England. He is also a symbolic godfather to millions of children, a trademark for countless commercial businesses, and the geographic identification of numerous landmarks and destinations from the south pole across to the north pole.

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