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Songwriting and an Eritrean Baptism

Songwriting and an Eritrean Baptism

Eritrean women in white in Baptism ceremony at Nda Mariam Orthodax Church in Asmara, Eritrea

When we arrived in Eritrea on Palm Sunday, I didn't know we'd be crashing a mass baptism with hundreds of women dressed in white. I'd come slightly prepared: a cantaloupe-colored scarf that ended up my security blanket throughout the rest of the trip. Head scarf, sunshield and pillow. Yes, I thought to myself, the next time in a searing hot Christian Orthodox country I'll bring more scarves.  

I was pregnant. I'd found out hours before boarding the plane in Frankfurt. Michael and I decided to continue the trip- through Eritrea and across the Red Sea to Yemen, Socotra, Dubai and Oman- because I didn't want to be a mother who stopped everything for the baby. Little did I know that 8 weeks later I would have say goodbye, drifting up to the place where all the other babies who didn't make it went.

But at the time I was reveling in my newfound maternal feeling (a puppy trying to swim for the first time) and as we pulled up to the Nda Mariam Church in the capital city Asmara, I joined hundreds of other women in their quest to pass their lives on to a next generation.

Eritreans in white in front ofNda Mariam Orthodax Church in Asmara, Eritrea
Little girl in white in Baptism ceremony at Nda Mariam Orthodax Church in Asmara, Eritrea

A galvanic sermon in (it could only be) the lingua franca of Eritrea, Ahmaric, powered over a loudspeaker as our tour guide Alem shuffled us up to the icon-laden steps. This was a Christian Orthodox event (the country splits its religion in half- Christianity & Islam).

We watched a line of about 12 women whisk their babies up to the church, all wrapped in Netsela, a traditional white cloth made of chiffon. Everyone was eager to get in the door, women segregated to one side and men to the other. Michael and I split up and I went for it, I took off my shoes off and squeezed my way in.

Eritrean women and babies in white in Baptism ceremony inside Nda Mariam Orthodax Church in Asmara, Eritrea

It was surreal, communing with new life around me, communing with the tiny new life inside my womb. I thought about my grandmother Onnie, my best friend and dearest compadre. We always said she sat next to God at lunch, she was so spiritual. She passed away just months ago, a week before my wedding.

I thought of the music in the Christian Orthodox church, a sermon marked by clanking bells and calls to prayer. Christianity and Islam seem to forge a harmonious balance together. I thought again about the little bean inside me. Life, death, life again. I was sandwiched between two generations in this colorful church on a hill.

Soon after this experience I wrote the song "Onnalee"- about my grandmother, about death, and going on to the next destination. Writing the song was healing for me, not only to say goodbye to my grandmother but also to the little person who never got the chance. You can hear the ceremony throughout parts of the song so if you're like check out the video below!

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