To Have Coffee with Imaginary Saints

About Eritrea - History & Culture

In one of my articles last year I introduced you to a certain Adey Gu’ey (completely made up), a lone wolf in her declining years. She hates small kids and is quick to lash out at any kids who dare enter her house uninvited. What she does like, though, is her coffee, which she happens to make at any hour of the day. In her “unique” mind she doesn’t drink coffee alone. For the sane witnessing her, however, there is nobody in the room with her. Adey Gu’ey is a very superstitious old lady - her coffee hours, per her beliefs, are accompanied by Saints.

 

Most of the time, Adey Gu’ey loved to drink coffee early in the morning after attending mass. She trusted St. Michael but distrusted her neighbors. She loved God and hated people. She was, to put it mildly, a loner.

Anyway, Adey Gu’ey’s coffee ceremony, which was held at seven in the morning every day, was a lonely and gloomy event. She sipped her steaming coffee alone and in a pensive mood. The cat, sitting by her side, played with its tail while waiting for crumbs of bread that might fall from Adey Gu’ey’s hands.

On the tray there are four handle-less porcelain cups: one for her, the rest for the spirits who come to pay her a visit. Close encounters of the coffee kind. Adey Gu’ey’s invisible guests adore the swirling smock of incense and cherish the colorful tray, including the bright colors in her traditional dress. Adey Gu’ey, like I said, is a superstitious woman.

Addey Gu’ey is also a traditional psychiatrist, with infinite nonsensical wisdom.

Biniam’s relation with his wife is ice cold. The ice gets broken from time to time, however, when one of them raises hell, an infernal concerto accompanied by the bawling of toddlers and the swearing and curses of the youngsters, not to mention the nervous barking of Lupo, the dog.

“I know why you don’t have a single cent on you when it comes to buying exercise books and pencils for the kids, because you are bent on ruining the family….”

“Well, to tell you frankly, I am tired of you……”

Biniam is in need of medical help. If he continues like this he will probably crack up and that’s very dangerous for his already crumbling health.

Adey Gu’ey lives a stone’s throw from the already broken family. And she has heard and seen a lot during her long and lonely life as a widow.

When young and beautiful, she married a Sicilian named Signor Trombetti and had it nice until he died of a heart attack, a result of too much pasta, vino, formaggio, and anger! He swore like a sailor, blaspheming the Madonna and hurling his working tools into the sky to probably strike his Dio che l’ha inganato (the God who cheated him). This could have accelerated his departure from this world.

“Good morning, Adey Gu’ey,” intones Biniam.

“What good wind brings you here?” chimes Adey Gu’ey.

“I have to talk to you. It is a secret,” whispers Biniam as he seats himself on the hard wooden bench resting by the side of the squeaking bed. The cat, named Lilly, sneaks out of the room.

And then Biniam pours out his heart to Adey Gu’ey and by doing so purges his soul of its impurities. Adey Gu’ey gets the message and prescribes the proper medicine which includes buying a white bleating sheep for the wife and giving the lady a piece of his mind.

Biniam didn’t have to go to the psychiatrist to get cured of his ‘mental illnesses’. He didn’t have to send his problems to the Mr.-X– Replies-to-Your-Questions corner of a magazine or a newspaper. He found his psychiatrist in Adey Gu’ey, and he didn’t have to pay a penny for the medical visit. On the contrary, he had a traditional coffee served to him for free!

During the lonely coffee time, Adey Gu’ey never forgot to place a knife and menkerker (tongs for poking the glowing charcoal in the brazier) near the open door in order to keep the evil spirits away and the good spirits in. Once during the time of the Derg, a relative jokingly told her to put a hammer and sickle instead. The idea was to ward off the evil spirit of communism from her house and from the country once and for all.

Superstition is everywhere in this small world of ours. From the Maori tribes of New Zealand to the staff members of mission control in Kennedy Space Center, to the soccer players we watch on television every weekend, the minds of people are never safe from its grips. Even great scientists such as Isaac Newton and Lavoisier were superstitious.

Superstition is sometimes described as the direct product of ignorance and the absence of strict scientific discipline. No scientific analysis can satisfy the rational mind, for example, as to why Adey Gu’ey thinks that the slaying of a red rooster can alleviate her mental torture or stop her nightmares. But it helps Adey Gu’ey and her likes as any faith healing practised by Gospel slingers in Texas and everywhere. It is all simply a matter of pure faith, mind over matter, a placebo effect.

During the armed struggle for our country’s liberation, Eritrea was cleansed of various types of superstition thanks to the EPLF leadership which brooked no cultural backsliding in its politicization program. People were taught that colonization was a reality and that the only way to drive the enemy away was by using real guns and bullets and not by black magic. No one could stop a bullet except by another bullet or through diplomacy.

Italians, Sicilians in particular, who arrived en masse in Eritrea in the 1920s, contributed a lot to the rise of superstition in this country. The population of ghosts (fantasma), phantoms, and witches increased significantly during the Italian period. Porca miseria!

My uncle, who lived in Asmara a long time ago, kept on turning back home from Dongolo on his way to Massawa for vacation, just because a black cat kept crossing his path. After several spoiled holidays, he found out to his dismay that the black thing that crossed his path was none else than a frightened squirrel scurrying off to safety. The reason why he turned back was due to the Italian superstition that a black cat crossing your path meant disaster. Quando un gatto nero attravesa la strada, torna indientro e scapa via! (When a black cat crosses your path, turn back and run for dear life!

If you saw a funeral hearse passing by, it was Tocca Ferro! Or touch wood! I have been doing this as recently as a few years back for fear of being struck by lightning and dying on the spot. When I couldn’t find any metal object to touch I reached for the buckle on my belt. What else could I do?

You are traveling by bus or by plane and you suddenly realize that nuns or padres are part of the passengers. According to Italian superstition you will have no guarantee of arriving safely home because of these special guests. The bus may fall down into a river and you may end inside crocodiles’ stomachs or perhaps the pilot may try to force land the plane on a tennis court or a crowded beach. Why? Priests and monks are prone to attract God’s attention. Eager to take His own to paradise, the Good Lord may provoke a crash inviting in the process all passengers to a heavenly reunion.

Neighboring countries did also contribute in spreading superstitious beliefs in Eritrea, bringing fresh supply of demons, magic, and sorcery.

When my friend was an 8th grade teacher in a remote rural area, Stehaye, a seventh grader and probably in the devil’s possession, entered the body of Stehaytu, an eighth grader.

One day the teacher as usual called the roll and he shouted:

“Stehaytu”

“She is absent, Sir.”

“What happened?”

“She is being exorcised, Sir.”

“Exorcised!? You mean…”

“She had been possessed, Sir.”

After a week had elapsed, Stehaytu reappeared in class once again. She had been “absolved” by the evil spirit. As for poor Stehaye, my friend was told that he was in chains awaiting further interrogation.

“Sir,” said the students by way of advice,” don’t look directly into Stehaye’s eyes when he comes back to school.”

He told them not to worry. “I don’t believe in the Evil Eye.”

Rural and to a certain extent urban Eritrea has also its share of superstitious beliefs. For example, whistling in the house in the evening is believed to attract snakes or the devil himself. A windy day is a sign of ongoing war (this changed after liberation for some mysterious reasons). A howling dog forebodes death. A bee landing on you brings you fame and honor. If it is a preying mantis, you get new clothes. Arriving home in the evening and then going out may entail trouble or even death. Bad comments regarding people or events have to be spit out (literally), lest they come true. A sun coming out and shining while it is still raining causes the female hyena to give birth to puppies. If you remember someone and that someone suddenly appears in front of you, you tell him or her that he or she will live to be very old. “Emrika kinewhi” would go the Eritrean saying; speak of the devil they say in English.
Many phenomena - wars, plagues, sudden audits - have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together, the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A. Where they go wrong, serpentine lengths have the same effect as water on a prayer wheel, grinding out an endless fog of low-grade evil to pollute the metaphysical atmosphere for miles around.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is superstitions never die but change forms. At present one can see the image of Santa Rita hanging from a modern car’s dashboard. It keeps the driver safe.

With such a mentality, it isn’t surprising to see today images of saints in the form of stickers on computers to save the hard drive from collapsing! Goodbye ESET Anti-Virus!

Last Updated (Wednesday, 03 October 2018 00:50)