I travelled to Tigray to participate in World leprosy Day and discovered the history of the Tigrayan People’s liberation Front.
Up at 5am and out to the airport with AP, she took the flight to Lalibela and I the one to Mekelle. I flew over very dry mountains. Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, is also high and dry. Had breakfast with Saba in her guesthouse, a nice place with a garden where birds flew around and the staff put out the solar panels to catch morning sunshine. We went to the Axum hotel where the Ethiopians were celebrating world Leprosy Day. This included lots of participation from patients and talks from various national and regional dignitaries and was supported by the Leprosy NGO’s working in Ethiopia such as the German Leprosy Relief Association and The Leprosy Mission. There were about 200 people there, as we entered we were given blue T shirts with the wordy slogan “We shall work promote the social and economic rehabilitation of leprosy patients affected by leprosy”. We also had sunshades with the slogan and the logo for the National Ethiopian People Affected by Leprosy organization (ENPAL). The talks were in Tigrayan and unfortunately I was not sitting next to Saba so missed out on the translation. The data from the national Ethiopian survey was presented, too much data on a few slides but it showed that there are substantial numbers of patients in Oromia and Amhara. It was also acknowledged that this data is rather incomplete and determined by the ability of people in the primary health care centres to diagnose leprosy. There were talks by pair of young people who had had leprosy. There was also singing and dancing and ululation. The whole event was fuelled by food, we were given hunks of the Tigrayan steamed bread, then segments of orange, the coffee ceremony was performed in one corner and incense wafted in front of us. At the coffee break we headed over to the hotel area. The people from the villages then squatted on the ground to drink their coffee. There was a sense of participation in the whole event. Saba was asked to give one of the closing speeches in Tigrayn but fortunately a more senior person form WHO then appeared and took precedence. She talked about the importance of being diagnosed with leprosy so that it could be treated early and before complications occurred. A new university is just about to be opened in Mekelle and two leprosy patients were promised scholarships there. The whole event felt African with the massed audience in blue T shirts, the singing and dancing and enthusiasm. We then headed up to an established old hotel made of stone and with a solid feel and a nice verandah where one could enjoy the views. I was still wearing my leprosy T shirt and a woman came over and asked us what we did. It transpired that she had been an OT in a leprosy hospital in Nagpur, India and was now retired and gardening but curious to know about the world leprosy numbers. I had a fish cutlet containing so little fish it would have been better described as a fish biscuit.
We then went to the Museum of Martyrs, this is a major local landmark and everyone goes there to have their wedding photos done. This is taken very seriously and we saw several very large wedding parties blocking the road up to the monument, one group had the bridesmaids and best men wearing bright pink, others had guest in traditional Ethiopian robes. At the monument some parties circled round in their open cars and others processed on foot with drums and singing. The monument itself was a well designed circular building with large skylights and displays in the ground and basements with a staircase curving down into the basement, the photos documented the rise of the TPLF in the 1970s, many of the photos were black and white and showed the revolutionaries in gatherings, arming themselves, fighting but also educating, receiving medical aid, also about the communications that they made. Afro hairstyles were de rigeur. It was a fascinating history and of course the TPLF overthrew the Derg in 1993. I sensed the Tigrayan pride in their revolution. Saba commented that her mother had supported the revolution and paid for radios which we saw displayed. It was striking how the exhibition transmitted the hope of the revolution. There were also displays about the support from the Tigrean diaspora. Downstairs were the weapons and also displays of the soldiers who died in the revolution. The display was good but it would have been improved by some dates and more historical context. I was very amused that there was also a souvenir shop where one could buy TPLF baseball caps. I also noticed that the TPLF and ENLAP logos wee very similar, the TPLF had crossed a gun and, the ENLAP crossed crutches above a shoe.
Afterwards we walked through the market past women selling grain, rice, brooms, electrical goods. Saba stopped at a clothes shop to check out the gabayas there. These are traditional Ethiopian blankets that people wrap themselves up in at night or in the cold and made of very fine cotton and here had traditional Tigrean embroidery. I was amused that the Ethiopian clothes were displayed on models with white skin and European faces. We wandered around the streets with flat cobblestones, quite empty after the bustle of Addis. We rejoined our leprosy comrades for a traditional evening meal of nejera and wot, and I had tasty fasting lentils. I talked to the GLRA rep for Ethiopia and also the TLM rep, she is a bright woman doing an MSc in Public health and a project on giving health education about leprosy to school children, she is very passionate about the idea, it is a good idea but only 10% of the cases are childhood so one needs to reach out to a much wider community. We ate in a fine traditional restaurant with wooden round room and a high roof. The Ethiopian enthusiasm for meat was illustrated by the butcher’s shop busy selling meat inside the restaurant. There were also live musicians doing jazz type music with keyboard, guitar and saxophone.
It was interesting to experience the patient participation in World leprosy day and then see Tigrayan history and culture.