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Ethiopians struggle to cope with COVID-19 fears
Art café and gallery provides relief to people stressed due to coronavirus and other worries
Seleshi Tessema Mulata |08.08.2020
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
On a cold blustery summer morning, heightened fears of the COVID-19 pandemic blended with a glimmer of hope shroud the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
The wailing sirens of the speedy emergency ambulances that transport COVID-19 patients from different corners of the city to treatment and quarantine centers throughout the rainy day cause uneasiness across the city.
Worries about job security, peace, and unity in the Horn of African nation also play out in the daily conversations of many people in the capital.
Oasis from worries
To fight fears, some people of the bustling metropolis with an estimated 5 million people, which has not seen a COVID-19 total lockdown, have begun flocking to Alem Art café and gallery. Despite the hustle and bustle, the small room filled with books and eye-catching paintings was strangely quiet. Some were engrossed in sketching landscapes and portraits while others were reading books and sipping their morning coffee.
Alem Getachew, a soft-spoken, wheelchair-bound female painter and also the gallery’s founder and owner, told Anadolu Agency that the gallery was transformed to provide creative stress relief service.
“As all members of our society are experiencing fears of coronavirus, I decided to help people release their stress and anxieties in productive ways,” Getachew said.
The gallery has become a space where people read books, share stories, and discuss ways to cope with the pandemic and create a support network, she explained.
“We also help them develop their painting skills and realize their potential,” Getachew said. “Over the last couple of months, young people from different corners of the city have been spending time with us.”
The aroma of the boiling coffee, the sweet incense that often accompanies the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and the low, melodious music all helped make the people in the room feel at home.
Alemnehe Kebede, an aircraft technician who frequents the art café, said he often feels comfortable and relaxed while discussing issues with friends.
Coping with fears
“Many young people who frequently come here exchange information and skills to cope with COVID-19 and other worries,” Kebede said, adding that the art cafe had been organizing poetry readings and inspirational speeches by invited guests.
Ayalewu Girma, another visitor, said, “I’m in the service industry and fear losing my job. Many of us are also worried by ethnic divisions in the country.”
“When we’re at the gallery, we breathe a sigh of relief at least for the time being,” he remarked.
Epicenter of pandemic
As the morning rain subsided, the noisy Gergi, a commercial and residential area of the capital where the gallery is located, saw people with face masks filling the street with little or no social distancing.
Health officials warned the spate of new cases of COVID-19 that has dramatically spiked since June was the beginning of the peak of the pandemic that would stretch throughout August.
Liya Tadesse, Ethiopia’s health minister, last week warned that reckless disregard for preventive measures could bring about a worst-case scenario during the peak.
To date, according to the Health Ministry, the current caseload stands at 20,356 with 365 deaths, while more than 9,000 people have recovered. The majority of cases were reported in the capital.
Milka Ibrahim, a psychologist who provides COVID-19 stress management counseling, told Anadolu Agency that fear, worry, and stress are normal responses to pandemics and situations that threaten our individual and collective well-being.
According to her, one of the most permanent anxieties was linked to the deeply entrenched Ethiopian concept of death and funeral rituals.
“Ethiopians feel relieved when their loved ones are seen off with an elaborate funeral procession and an extended ritual of bereavement,” Ibrahim noted, adding that unattended and untimely deaths are seen as traumatic.
Despite minor cultural differences, Ethiopian society pays respect to the deceased with excessive grief expressed in crying, wailing loudly, beating chests, and falling to the ground as if to harm oneself.
Hundreds of people will attend a well-organized burial procession. The grieving will normally last at least three days, and close family members will continue to gather for weeks.
“People feel the coronavirus pandemic has denied them the respected rituals of grieving,” Ibrahim remarked. “This is one of the permanent fears of the pandemic.”
According to Ibrahim, persistent fear could “impair decision-making abilities and finding solutions to worries.”
Glimmer of hope
The dark and cold Ethiopian rainy season is also blessed with intermittent sunrises that symbolize hope.
Early in July, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who heads a coronavirus ministerial task force and presided over the launch of a campaign that aims to test 200,000 people, said the growing capacities in all aspects of prevention efforts will help contain the pandemic.
Liya also noted at the launch ceremony: “The nation managed to prevent 85% of possible cases and 95% deaths in comparison to the 1.5 million people originally expected to contract the virus by mid-July.”
Echoing a view shared by many in a profoundly religious country, Kebede said: “God willing, everything will be fine.”
Moments at Alem art gallery
February 17, 2019
Cafeterias are among special places for whiling time and for meeting individuals from different walks of life. Like me, for individuals who do not frequent bars, some cafeterias are best places to acquaint oneself with people. Till the coming of WIFI or internet, Cafes were also places where individuals freely read their newspapers, magazines or novels. Well, this culture is still there in some places like Arat Killo or Piassa, where several, newspaper and magazine worms, politicians and political analysts converge.
If there is any place in Ethiopia where thousands of coffee houses are found, it could be no other than Addis Ababa. Whoever has a chance to visit Addis, s/he will be impressed by the cluster of cafes found all over the city. Depending on the places they are situated or the type of customers they have, most coffee houses in Addis have different standards. This standard is evident from the type of product they serve to the kind of interior designs they adopt and chairs they use.
Most coffee houses in Addis are well decorated and the service providers are well prepared in handling their customers. The beauty of the waitresses, coupled with their plastic smiles, has a come-back again impact on customers. With the exception of the exorbitant prices most cafes in Adids are right places to chat with friends but not to read books. Lately, I had a chance to visit such a coffee house in Addis. This coffee house is located around Gerji. Unlike most coffee houses I surveyed, this one stands peculiar in several ways. It is not only a coffee house. It is also a gallery where books are shelved in a corner for customers to read. When I first entered into the house I was confused whether I was in a cafe or in an art gallery. The beautiful paintings on the walls of the cafe-gallery had a power to uplift mood.
Great Ethiopia, smiling baby boy, beautiful lady sitting on the armchair, galloping horses, calcification are some of the pictures that catch the attention of cafe users. The paintings inspire those who have interest to draw. Beside these breathtaking paintings, the books shelved in the cafe serve reminders for people to find solace in books. This cafe did not only serve its customers with coffee or tea. It has something different. Whoever has an interest to paint it allows a free access to “A4” white paper and pencil. If there is a need for help, there are also young painting teachers who will help the beginner. What a wonderful experience. Alem Getachew is the owner of the café. She is a wheel-chaired woman with passion and vision. Her being a person with disability could not prevent her from showing her talents.
The paintings she draw sitting on a wheel chair are breathtaking. She is also a good art teacher in her living house and she has created job opportunities for several youths. I had a chance to informally talk to Alem and I was able to see how passionate she is for art. According to her, nothing hinders people from their vision if they truly give themselves for things they love. Her father was a source of inspiration to her current achievement. His positive words, which cut to the heart and encouragements, were reasons attributable to the achievement. He never saw a daughter living with disability. He was not generous in flattery. This made her to be serious to be a professional painter and art teacher. According to Alem, besides purifying her soul, her paintings are also her means of sustenance. Using her talent she is able to support herself and her family. Beside serving customers, Alem also used her gallery as a center where visionary youths (Disabled and non-disabled) are gathered to discuss ideas and read books.
The Ethiopian Herald February 17/2019
BY LEULSEGED WORKU