For the past few weeks I have been working on a side project unrelated to the FLAME study. I am gathering information on breastfeeding knowledge and practices in Ethiopia, specifically the intersection between breastfeeding and religious fasting. To gather this knowledge, I am interviewing priests and midwives in the North Gondar Zone. This week I completed my interviews with priests and would like to share my experience and initial thoughts with you.
Religious fasting is an integral component of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition and plays a vital role in Ethiopian culture and daily life. There are over 200 fasting days per year, including every Wednesday and Friday, where Christians abstain from meat and all animal products, and do not consume food or drink before lunch. In a city like Gondar where nearly 85% of the population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, fasting is commonplace and integrated into the Gondarian culture.
Most of our friends and colleagues participate in religious fasting, and Elizabeth and I are often impressed by their commitment and strength. On multiple occasions we have departed from Gondar early in the morning to complete facility assessments, working in the heat of the lowlands gathering data for the FLAME study. Sweat dripping down our faces and backs, sometimes walking long distances, and our fellow data collectors will not consume any water or food until we return to Gondar in the afternoon. Never a single complaint; fasting is a part of their life and helps foster a deeper connection with God.
There are many reasons for why Ethiopian Orthodox Christians participate in religious fasting. Some of the primary reasons include: fasting is an order from God, fasting is an act of confession for your sins, fasting will bring you closer to God, fasting is an act of prayer, and fasting will encourage you to empathize with the poor and hungry. I admire Gondarians’ commitment to fasting and think it is really special that the entire Christian community practices religious fasting together on a weekly basis. I believe this ritual of fasting helps foster a deep sense of community.
Given this context and the integral role religion plays in Ethiopians’ lives, we wanted to investigate the relationship between religious fasting and breastfeeding – What does the Church teach about fasting for pregnant and lactating women? Do pregnant and lactating women participate in religious fasting? Why do women participate in religious fasting? Do priests feel comfortable discussing breastfeeding and nutrition with women? Etc.
I interviewed three priests in the Gondar community with the help of my colleague, Adino. Each interview was unique in its own way, and I feel incredibly honored to have had the opportunity to engage with respected, religious leaders in the community. The interviews were enlightening for me – I not only gained insight into fasting practices of women, but also learned a lot about the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition. The following three anecdotes share a bit about each interview, including what I learned and how the interaction influenced me.
My first interview was with Memhir Tsigemariam Tibebu, a priest from a Church located about 15 minutes walk from our office at the University. Memhir is a dynamic individual, very thorough and engaging in all his responses. As my first interview on fasting and breastfeeding, this discussion had an element of the ‘wow factor’ for me. I learned that all pregnant and lactating women participate in religious fasting. Only if a woman is feeling seriously ill will she forgo fasting. Even then, after recovering from her illness, she will speak with her Soul Father about how to compensate for the days she did not fast. Additionally, fasting is not simply a regulation of the Church; women genuinely desire to fast. Even if advised otherwise, pregnant and lactating women prefer to fast for it helps them feel spiritually connected to God and ensure that God will look over the health of her body and her child.
My second interview was with Abune Elsa, the Archbishop of the North Gondar Diocese. It was an honor to meet the Archbishop and having his opinions on breastfeeding and fasting practices is valuable for SCOPE’s work. As a highly respected religious leader in the community, he is the true definition of a key informant! While conducting the interview was informative, the highlight of this encounter was merely spending time with Abune Elsa and basking in his presence and knowledge. Nearly 85% of Gondar looks up to Abune Elsa as a religious leader, but very few get the opportunity to personally meet him. This was a truly unique and special experience for both Adino and me. Abune Elsa seemed very pleased to spend the afternoon chatting with us; and after completing the interview we discussed a variety of topics, including American politics, the Church, and SCOPE’s work. After the meeting, Adino and I walked away feeling lucky and honored to have spent the afternoon with Abune Elsa. Adino said to me, “I would love to listen to Abune Elsa all day and all night if I could. I wish you could’ve heard his words in Amharic; my translation just doesn’t do it justice.”
My third and final interview was with Kesis Tsega. One of our interview questions ask the priest to elaborate on his role as it pertains to the physical health and wellbeing of women, particularly whether the priest feels comfortable discussing breastfeeding and fasting practices with women. Kesis Tsega responded saying that of course he feels comfortable talking to women about breastfeeding and nutrition. He then elaborated on this statement with a metaphor that resonated with me. He said, “We priests are like farmers for our parishioners. This is our farm. We care for our parishioners the way farmers care for their land – make sure they are well fed, have water, and are cared for.” He feels it is his responsibility as a Soul Father to ensure his soul children are healthy. As such, discussing and advising pregnant women on breastfeeding and nutrition is his duty. Furthermore, women actively seek advice from their Soul Father when they have concerns with their physical health or family life. Kesis Tsega often converses with women about sensitive topics; he enjoys helping them, providing his advice and managing their problems. This is a perfect example of the integral role priests play in parishioners’ lives and the power of leveraging that influence to improve health outcomes.
I hope these anecdotes shed light onto the fasting practices of pregnant and breastfeeding women. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to engage with religious leaders in the community and will forever remember this experience. Each priest was a pleasure to spend time with; they welcomed me into their holy space and took a genuine interest in my life and my learning. You could sense their desire to share their wisdom and knowledge with me.
After completing the final interview, Adino and I took a minibus taxi back to the University together. We discussed key findings from the three interviews and I shared with him how much I enjoyed our interactions with the priests over the past week. I told Adino that I was impressed by the wonderful sense of community I observed. I particularly loved witnessing the interaction between the priests and Adino, a deacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. You could honestly feel the mutual camaraderie and respect they have for one another. Adino responded to my impression, saying that Gondar is a truly special place for the Church and that the Ethiopian Orthodox community here is unique.
** These interviews are separate from the FLAME study and not formal research. Information obtained from these interviews will be used internally to inform SCOPE’s future work.