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Stealing hope on a holy mountain

 Street News Service 16 January 2019

Tigest screams and quivers as if the devil is after her. Wearing just underpants, she squats next to six other naked women as traditional priest Bahtawi Gabriel Medhin pours ice cold water over her from yellow jerrycans that used to store cheap frying oil. He presses a big wooden cross against Tigest´s forehead and mutters incantations. With sebel, the holy water, the orthodox priest exorcises the devil from Tigest and claims to have healed her. From AIDS. (1049 Words) - By Philip Hedemann

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SNS_Stealing hope on the holy mountain

An orthodox priest performs a cleansing ritual on the sick. Photo courtesy of Philip Hedemann

Tigest, marked by the incurable disease, believes the traditional healer's every word. That is why she lives with the man who is protecting himself from the cold splashes with green waterproof trousers.

After the last gush trickles through Tigest's carefully braided plaits, the woman, who shivers in the morning chill, stops screaming, slips on a tattered dress, bows deeply in front of the priest and sneaks away on shaky legs.

Why did the women scream so horribly, I ask. "She did not scream. It was the devil who lives in her. The sebel burnt him. He will leave her bodysoon",  the miracle healer answers.

The 45 year-old has no time to loose. Another dozen men and women wait for him to wash the devils and diseases out of their bodies this morning. On Entoto, the 3200 Meter high holy mountain above the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the orthodox priest has already given the first group of HIV positive, lame, blind and devil-possessed short thrift at 3 am. Unlike the ill of the 7 am-shift, they still have a job. That is why they have to come in the middle of the night.

Bahtawi Gabriel Medhin is not the only charlatan promising to cure the desparate of Ethiopia from incurable diseases with holy water. But he is a superstar among the miracle healers: the number of his disciples grows continuously, from all over the world they do the pilgrimage to the Entoto. The holy mountain is something like the Lourdes of Ethiopia, but here the pilgrims do not arrive by bus or plane, but on foot, holding on to long walking sticks.

In his little office, stuffed with artificial flowers and pictures of saints, the priest has painted statistics on graph paper. In 1998 404 patients came, in 2003 there were 11301, by 2005 he had treated 431000. Six years ago the priest stopped counting. Possibly because the figures were never correct in the first place.

"I was able to heal all those who continued the treatment till the end", Bahtawi Gabriel Medhin says. To prove it, he digs out a folder full of crumpled documents. "Solomon G., HIV positive." Stamped by a hospital in Addis Ababa. The priest attached another slip to the document. It is also stamped by an hospital. "Solomon G., HIV negative." In between the two tests, Solomon G. saw Bahtawi Gabriel Medhin. Ethiopia´s health care is catastrophic; life expectancy is barely over fifty years, and AIDS tests often get mixed up or are performed carelessly. Nevertheless, the healer is convinced by his healing rate.

"The water is hallowed by god and Jesus Christ´s cross. In John, chapter five, it says that the holy water made the man whole "of whatsoever disease he had", the priest says. Only the lame should not come to see him. The path to the holy water is too difficult, he says. It is too obvious, that the water therapy does not help, his critics say.

"Who denies the the power of the water, denies the existence of god", the priest says. In highly religious Ethiopia, this is the end to all discussion.

None in the caravan that crawls at dawn to the source of the holy water would have the arrogance to deny the existence of god. God and his servant Bahtawi Gabriel Medhin are their last hope - and here, hope is the last to die.

Amongst the desparate are soldier Mulugeta and his wife Hiwot. The 25 year-old carries her her three year-old son Abebe on her back with a stained cloth. With the eyes of an old man he stares into the pale sky, his gaze resting nowhere. The boy whines. Only a cough - far to  deep for his small body - interrupts the moaning. "On Sunday Abebe had pain in his leg, on Tuesday he was paralysed from the neck downwards", tells his father with tears in his eyes. For three days, the soldier and his wife from the province rambled through the capital´s hospitals. They took Abebe´s blood, examined his stool, looked through him with x-rays, but no doctor could say what was wrong with the boy. Then Mulugeta and his wife heard of the holy water.

After 15 minutes the desparate parents arrive at the bottom of the valley. Where the water wells, a huge church made of eucalyptus trees, plastic canvas and iron sheets is erected. Hundreds of ill have already gathered there. As the priests, dressed in yellow oilskin, pour the cold water on the naked believers, a fearful moaning and lamentation arises.

While the HIV positive and devil-possessed scream, Mulugeta carries his child to one of the priests. A group of pilgrims gathers around father, son and preacher, a fierce brawl breaks out. The priest is convinced only holy water can save the half dead kid, the pilgrims are convinced the boy won´t survive the cold showers. "The holy water healed me from AIDS, but this kid can only be saved by infusions", truck driver Wahid says.

I drive Mulugeta, Hiwot and their kid to the Black Lion Hospital, Addis Ababa´s biggest hospital. The doctors immediately treat Abebe with infusions. Four days later, Abebe is discharged. His father Mulugeta, who never trusted the "charlatans" at the hospital, returned with his son to the Entoto to continue the treatment with holy water. A few weeks later he tells me, exuberantly happy: "Abebe is able to walk, eat and speak again. The doctors charged me nearly 500 Birr (approximately 18,50 pounds), the priest charged nothing. I am sure the holy water healed my boy."

Tigest is also convinced of the power of the water, when she cowers naked in front of the priest the next morning. Soon the devils in her body will start screaming again.

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