Giving thanks in Ethiopia’s Amharic language
Ethiopia gave me much for which to feel grateful, but made it a challenge to express that feeling.
In Ethiopia’s most commonly spoken language, Amharic, the word for thank you seems to me to stretch out to six or even seven syllables.
The number appears to depend on how Amharic, a Semitic language with its own alphabet, is converted in English, which uses a Latin alphabet. The closest translation appears to be ameseginalehu ( ah-mes-ah-gih-na-loo plus a very soft hoo sound). But the English translation more often appears as ameseginalew (ah-mes-ah-gih-na-loo), which may reflect how it is more commonly said.
Either way I mangled the word over and over on a January 2020 visit to Ethiopia. It was a trip my husband and I had wanted to do for many years.
I stumbled many times through ameseginalew while thanking people for letting me pass in crowded corridors in the churches of Lalibela.
Lalibela is named for the king, Lalibela, whose reign is said to date from 1181 to 1221 in western years. The story is that he ordered the construction of these churches, carved from rock, after Muslims took control of Jerusalem.
Many Ethiopians these days travel miles and miles to visit Lalibela with little more than the clothes on their backs. The pilgrims appeared frail. Many of them were rail-thin older women dressed in white. I marveled at the sight of calloused bare feet walking on the reddish dirt toward the churches of Lalibela.
For me, these pilgrims defied the idea of aging as a reason to give up on dreams. We may all be capable of much more than we’d think possible.
There was only a smattering of western tourists in the crowd at Lalibela ahead of Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas in January 2020. Foreign visitors to Lalibela in general tried to be respectful and observe the ceremonies from a distance.
World’s Best Coffee?
This is me taking a coffee break at a restaurant in Lalibela.
I’m a fan of strong café cubano and of Mexican coffee served with a dash of cinnamon. In Brazil, I looked forward to the tiny cups of strong cafezinho on offer at the end of most lunches. At home in the United States, I’ve put in my share of time waiting for a cup of strong black java at the Blue Bottle outpost at Union Station.
But I’d put Ethiopian coffee ahead of these other kinds.
The coffee itself is wonderful. It is served dark and strong and flavoured with cardamom and sometimes other spices. But it is the ceremony that sets it apart.
All over Ethiopia, you see women sitting at low tables, preparing coffee to serve in a clay pot called a jebena. These women often prepare popcorn to share with the coffee drinkers. In Ethiopia, they almost always have incense burning. You sit and sip and take time for the show and the scents. It’s glorious.
My favorite cups of Ethiopian coffee were the ones served in our hotel on Christmas morning, which falls on January 7 in the Orthodox calendar.
I felt a bit guilty about having chosen to travel in Ethiopia over the holiday, as the presence of travelers means people must work that day. For Christians working at our hotel in Bahir Dar, that meant a fairly early morning followed a long night of prayer.
Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians have hours-long nighttime celebrations of Christmas. My husband and I know about that. We were asleep in our hotel room in Bahir Dar when we began to hear what sounded like the Christmas mass broadcast over loudspeakers. It was lovely, sounding to my ears a bit like an extended version of the Muslim prayer call. And by extended I mean it went on for many hours. Many, many hours.
The next day, women who worked at our hotel wore their white holiday dresses to work. They had scattered grass on the floor in the dining room of the business-class hotel, in keeping with an Ethiopian custom.
And on Christmas, they had a real Ethiopian coffee ceremony in the hotel instead of just offering coffee on the buffet.
Inspired by the hospitality of the hotel staff, I finally decided to puzzle out a few words in Amharic script. I wanted to say Merry Christmas ‘’melikam gena” in Amharic. In writing out the different letters, I think I managed to get closer, if only a little, to saying thank you correctly“ a-me-se-gi-na-le-hu” as well.
Here is a link to the bibliography of works I’ve used to try to better understand Ethiopia.