Adanech Sebro and Belay Tesema chat with visitors in their home in Wonji. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Zewdunesh Negese, Samrawit Tekle and Tsedale Mola discuss their Catholic faith. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Abba Daniel Assefa heads the Capuchin Franciscan Research and Retreat Center in Addis Ababa. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Mr. Tesema updates the announcement board outside St. Mary’s Church in Wonji. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
The first thing that catches the eye in Belay Tesema’s comfortable living room is a big poster. Hung in a corner, it features pictures of him and his wife, Adanech Sebro, and their two sons, both wearing the mortar caps of graduation. Above the photographs two simple words are inscribed: “good family.”
When one pays them a visit, the truth of these words is plain.
“We have a strong family,” says Mr. Tesema, 48, adding that there is only one person missing in the picture: Samrawit, their daughter and youngest child, who is the leader of the local Catholic youth prayer group.
The couple has enjoyed 26 years of marriage. They have spent those years living in Wonji — a town in central Ethiopia located about 60 miles southeast of the capital of Addis Ababa — the site of the country’s oldest sugar factory, which was established in the early 1950’s. The area used to be home to thousands of Catholics, when the Consolata Missionaries were active locally, but the population of all peoples plummeted in the region with the sociopolitical and economic policies of the Derg regime in the 1980’s and early 90’s.
“We’re a bit unique here,” Mr. Tesema adds, referring not only to their faith tradition, but also their harmonious marriage. In the neighborhood, he often sees couples wrangling, with shouting matches and worse.
“The husbands are intolerant for minor cases,” Mr. Tesema laments. “They poison the situation. They are disrespectful to women and they sometimes beat their spouses.”
Mrs. Sebro gives a nod of confirmation.
In Ethiopia, women are often subject to abuse. According to the 2016 Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey, nearly a quarter of women surveyed have suffered physical violence, and one in ten surveyed was raped. Other surveys have reported even higher figures among their sampled population segments — notably, a 2005 World Health Organization survey reported that 59 percent of respondents in a rural district south of Addis Ababa had experienced sexual assault at some point in their lifetime.
Despite governmental attention to the matter, and more women gaining important roles in political office, spousal abuse continues unabated.
In their neighborhood, Mrs. Sebro tries her best to console the wives.
“We intervene as shimagele,” Mr. Tesema sums up with a smile — a word for wise elders who are supposed to reconcile people and resolve conflicts in the community. They provide perspective from their own relationship, where they work to resolve any disagreements through dialogue, and take care not to argue in front of their children.
“We actually don’t do this so much as Catholics — just as a family,” Mrs. Sebro says.
“We try to share who we are. And now, whenever we see difficulties in a couple, we have the courage to help, to confront sometimes and to support the others.”
The couple gained this confidence during a six-day workshop they attended at the Capuchin Franciscan Research and Retreat Center in Addis Ababa last December. Established a year and a half ago by the National Pastoral Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia, this training is dedicated to Catholic couples and families throughout the country. Some 42 people, representing each of the 13 Catholic eparchies and dioceses in the country, have participated in the program thus far.
Inspired by “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation that proposes a new pastoral approach for the family — one grounded in “patient realism” — the workshop seeks to promote healthy relationships and a better understanding of the values of the Christian faith.
“What is the meaning of ‘family’ according to the word of God?” asks Abba (Amharic for “father”) Daniel Assefa, O.F.M., who directs the center.
“God blesses the family, which is the pillar of society. It is crucial not only for the spiritual aspect but also for the education and the formation of an individual,” he says.
“It is important to invest in families, which can also create vocations for the priesthood and religious life,” he adds.
For the center, this workshop on marriage and conflict resolution is a way to connect to Ethiopian society through its oral and literary traditions, by collecting and synthesizing a variety of teachings, proverbs and works related to families.
“In the center, we combine study, research and spirituality — it’s economical,” Abba Daniel explains with a laugh.
During the first days of the workshop, the organizers ask each individual to answer questions separately. They discuss the challenges each participant has been through, the positive role of dialogue, the harm of intolerance and envy in a relationship, and more. Every challenge is put on the table — the sharing of chores and responsibilities, the handling of money, and issues, such as addiction or the absence of a common spiritual life.
Participants read their answers and hold group discussions in tandem with meditation and prayer.
“They can criticize themselves but they are not allowed to criticize their partner,” Abba Daniel explains.
The priest has been impressed by these group conversations — not in the least because of the insights the participants themselves often bring forward.
“Sometimes, their word is a fruit of wisdom. To listen to them, to pray with them, to discuss with them is a lesson. I share from what I read from the Bible, but they live it. I learn from them,” he says with a smile. “There are areas where I’m not as competent; I’m a facilitator, not an instructor.”
For instance, during the workshop, one man spoke eloquently and candidly about a personal struggle with jealous impulses — which could flare up irrationally, even for something as simple as seeing his wife dress up to meet people at church. This led to a dialogue with reflection and depth.
“The comments, questions and advice given by different people were positive,” Abba Daniel says.
Apart from being an opportunity to reflect on contemporary family challenges, the priest sees this workshop as a wonderful occasion for participants to enjoy a beautiful environment full of lush trees — to enjoy a restful retreat in a productive way, to learn and comfort one another.
“Some are angry and down when they arrive but they learn and then they are happier after sharing with others their sufferings,” he says. For the couples, it can be a way to indirectly renew the promises of the sacrament of marriage.
Back in Wonji, Adanech Sebro, elegant in her traditional cotton dress, says the six days in Addis Ababa flew by, as if they were only one.
“It was very insightful. I learned a lot on how to live … as husband and wife, how to love and support each other, how to help people in the neighborhood,” she says.
“Our daily routine is to run everywhere because of our job, but it’s important to give time for the family,” adds her husband, Mr. Tesema. “As a Christian family, we have to pray together, to share the word of God together. We also try to exercise once or twice a week.”
At the center, couples learned “how to connect the spiritual aspect with the practical life,” Abba Daniel sums up.
The workshop’s teachings are invaluable given the rapid changes afoot in modern-day Ethiopia.
“Secular postures and outlooks are growing in our traditionally religious nation,” wrote Abba Teshome Fikre Woldetensae, who directs the national pastoral commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia, in the last edition of ONE magazine. The priest described “a particular crisis in families and in the life of young people.”
Argaw Fantu, CNEWA’s regional director for Ethiopia, likewise reports an erosion of family bonds. “Traditional Ethiopian and Christian family values are being challenged increasingly, especially in our swelling urban centers — as if family life conflicts one’s personal interests. This is a serious issue for forming a family and living in one,” he says.
“People tend to follow an easy way to live. Exposure to social media promoting an individualistic life has an influence.”
On the other hand, he says, influences for formation within the church have not kept pace — hence the purpose of the workshop. After six days of exchange and learning, the participants have a mission: When they return home, they must transfer their newly acquired skills and promote values such as patience, tolerance, dialogue, respect, spirituality, generosity and admiration.
“We didn’t want the participants to be passive,” Abba Daniel explains. “We wanted to help them think about their own experience, be aware of it and then share it.” Thus, even with limited financial resources, within four to five years the church’s program will have created a strong network of role model families.
Participants “must be vibrant and model couples who are educated, have a great knowledge of the Bible, and capable of teaching in their locality,” says Abel Muse, program officer for the pastoral commission of the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat. In each and every jurisdiction of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, Ge’ez and Roman rites, pastoral coordinators along with local directors and bishops facilitate the recruitment of motivated participants.
“We believe that if the practice of the workshop would be owned and shared by those participating families and beyond, the Catholic faith will be sustained through strong families whose values the children pick and endeavor to live accordingly,” says CNEWA’s Argaw Fantu.
Zewdunesh Negese, Tsedale Mola and Samrawit Tekle are now part of this network of strong families. Ms. Mola is not engaged yet but promises to apply the advice absorbed during the workshop in her future married life.
In Addis Ababa, the three enjoyed the discussion of traditional Ethiopian and local family cultures and their integration with Christian family values. They were impressed by the story of a couple with 61-year marriage whose experience was better than just theory. Now back in Mendida, 100 miles from the capital, they are eager to share information to the few other Catholic families of the parish community.
“A good family foundation contributes to the good of the society,” Ms. Tekle says.
“After five or six years of marriage, many couples are separating,” says her friend, Mrs. Negese, a devoted wife with three daughters. “Unfortunately, the most common cases in the area are divorce cases.”
The three women hope to show the right path and to help Catholic couples and young people acquire common values.
“The Catholic faith requires living an exemplary Christian family life in the society,” says Mr. Fantu. “This means living Christian values concretely and consistently. Preaching has to be substantiated by authentic Christian living,” he adds. “That is the teaching of Pope Francis.”
Emeline Wuilbercq is a French journalist based in Addis Ababa where she serves as a correspondent for the African edition of Le Monde. Her work has appeared in Jeune Afrique and The Guardian, among other publications.