What do Box and Ethiopia have in common? Quite a lot actually. Some of us will remember that neighbouring Bath played host to the exiled Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie when Italy annexed Ethiopia in 1936-41. When the Emperor returned to Ethiopia he donated his residence, Fairfield House in Newbridge, to the people of Bath. It is still used by the Ethiopian Coptic Church on festive occasions and is a centre for the Rastafarian community as well as being a home for the aged. Now in Box village itself we have a young Ethiopian mother, Birale, with her husband Philip Danter and sons Eliyas (6) and 10-month-old twins Zekarias and Zelalem (meaning ‘forever’).
How Birale came to be in Box is a story worth telling. Birale, who speaks three languages – Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia; Oromiffa, her mother tongue; and English — can also communicate in deaf sign language. This was because an early childhood illness left her profoundly hard of hearing and it was at a school for the deaf in Nekemte, in the lush and fertile west of Ethiopia, that Phil Danter, a Box lad fresh from university in London, met her in 2009. Phil had gone to help build the school, invited by Jenny Merritt, a family friend, former missionary and teacher of the deaf.
Phil and Birale were married in 2011 in a traditional Oromo wedding in her village. Phil, along with the other men in the wedding party, rode on horseback to the wedding feast (Oromo men are famous for fighting on horseback) while the women, kitted out in their best finery, had to walk in intense heat up the long hill to the bride’s family home where the main week-long celebrations would be held. The women included Jenny Merritt and Phil’s mother, Jenny Poulsom, with Diana Northey from Box. A group of young women stayed with Birale throughout the day, during and after the church ceremony, singing and dancing, while the men stuck close to Phil chanting ‘God has the victory! Yesterday you were two, now you are one.’ Finally in the evening the young couple were able to leave for their new home while family and friends continued with the celebrations.
Phil brought Birale back to England in time for the birth of their eldest son Eliyas. At the RUH in Bath Birale had skin grafted over the holes in her eardrums and this has significantly helped improve her hearing. This in itself is a happy enough ending but a closer look at her childhood gives even more reason to be thankful to God for bringing the young couple together.
As a small girl of three, Birale and her younger brother were left in the care of their father. Her mother had suffered a stroke, leaving her partially disabled, and had returned to her parental home with Birale’s elder sister. Birale’s elder brother was sent to be looked after by relatives – a common practice in Ethiopia. Birale and her little brother fell ill – the brother died and Birale was left with a hearing loss which went unnoticed until her mother returned two years later. She was shocked to realise that her young daughter could not hear hyenas laughing in the fields nearby – a distinctive and disturbing sound. Because she was unable to provide for her adequately, she sent Birale, at the age of 7 or 8, to another town to work – again quite common practice in Ethiopia. So Birale learned early on to help with cooking, looking after someone else’s children and fetching water. This meant carrying a ten-litre bottle four times a day for up to an hour each time. One day she spotted one of her cousins in the town and, after speaking to her, felt encouraged enough to try to rejoin her mother. Back with her mother in her home village a Catholic mission of Indian sisters was able to help provide for them and Birale, now aged 11, was finally able to go to school. It was the nuns who contacted Jenny Merritt, who in turn sent Birale to the deaf school in Nekemte.
How does Birale find Box? ‘It’s been a big change’ she says, in what must be a classic under-statement. She misses the highly social way of life in Ethiopia – the people, the sun, the colours, the food. In her sitting room overlooking the Ley she makes coffee for me Ethiopian-style. Beans roasted on a small burner and fragrant with incense – they help her feel at home here. She also makes delicious njera, a traditional sourdough flatbread.
I ask her to teach me some Oromiffa. I want to say thank you. ‘Galatoomi’ she says.
Birale enjoys speaking in English and the opportunity to practise it. You may well see her pushing her pram with the twins on the way to fetching Eliyas from Box Primary School. If you want to try some Oromiffa yourself how about greeting her with ‘Akkam’ – Hello? You’ll be sharing in the culture of a country of 102 million people (the second largest population in Africa), with 80 different ethnic groups speaking 88 different languages, and one of the most ancient Christian cultures in the world.
Here are two more phrases you can try. Rakoon injero – you are welcome – and Fayaadha – peace.