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Ethiopia This was the country I'd been waiting for. Ethiopia. 

Before I'd even left for Zambia I knew that I wanted to visit Ethiopia. In seminary I had learned about the famous churches of Lalibela, hand-carved stone churches that looked as though they grew out of the ground. The builders of these stone churches did not bring in stone to build them, but hand-carved them out of the very stone that was found in the ground. So, essentially, these churches are only made of one piece of stone. Incredible. 

I'd also recently finished reading a book called Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese while living in Africa. This novel takes place during the era of Emperor Hailie Selassie and gave some great historical information about Ethiopia (while providing gripping drama as well!). I highly suggest reading it. 

Ethiopia is part of the horn of Africa, a group of countries that form a hornlike point on the eastern coast of Africa, just south of Yemen and Saudia Arabia. It is the only nation in Africa that was never fully colonized or conquered by an outside power. Mussolini and the Italians tried to conquer it in the 1940s, but the Ethiopians resisted and are the only successful African country to push out their colonizers. Though they were in Ethiopia for only about five years, there is still a touch of Italian culture, mainly found in their great pizza shops around the city. 

I spent nearly two weeks in Ethiopia and saw the northern cities of Addis Ababa (capital), Bahir Dar, Gonder, Aksum, Lalibela, and finally returned to Addis Ababa where I then departed the African continent and flew to Sri Lanka. The majority of my time was spent exploring the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Churches that are very beautiful and incredibly distinctive in architecture. I also was able to visit the famous Lucy, the skeletal remains of an Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy is famous because she is one of the most complete skeletons of her species, with nearly 40% of her bones recovered. 

A church in this denomination must have very specific details in order to be considered legit. It must contain three rooms, one within another, and is typically shaped in a cylindrical building. One must take off their shoes before entering the holy space and there are specific doors for men and women to enter. The first chamber is where people gather to worship and pray. Praying consists of standing upright, bowing to the knees, and then bending over at the waist until the body is prostrate. When I first saw this praying I thought I was watching Muslims pray, but my tour guide indicated to me that this style of prayer had been around before Islam. 

Worshipers are not allowed to sit, so chairs will not be found in churches. Instead, people bring crutches, or long staffs to lean upon during the three hour long service. There is another chamber that the general public are allowed to enter into before reaching the innermost room. This is considered a very holy space for it is where a replica of the Ark of the Covenant must rest. Only the priests are allowed into this space, though on Sundays they pull back the curtains hiding the ark so that worshipers may view it. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is famous for claiming that they have the original Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament. It sits in a small church in Aksum. Because of this, every Ethiopian Orthodox Church must have a replica within its walls. 

Unfortunately, I was not in one of these churches on a Sunday, so I was unable to see a replica of the ark. While I was able to visit the city of Aksum and view the particular church where the "actual" ark is, I was not allowed inside. So it was a pretty underwhelming experience. 

The remarkable thing about most of these churches is the incredible artwork that adorns nearly every inch of wall. The artwork tends to appear in more modern churches, while the most ancient churches, such as those at Lalibela, are hewn out of stone. 

Posted December 8, 2015

After staying in Rwanda for several days I took a bus from Kigali to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. I'll be honest. I wasn't that excited for this particular country because I did not have a friend to stay with; I would be staying in cheap hostels and fending for myself. However, I reminded myself I'd made it this far and sucked it up.

Uganda is also very green in the countryside, but Kampala was a jam-packed busy, noisy, and dirty city....I felt like I was home in Zambia again, ha! While I'd been told the thing to do was to visit the national parks that had gorillas, I soon found that I would only be enjoying pictures of them because tours to go were very very expensive. However, I visited some interesting sites, including going on my first ever visit to a mosque. 

The National Mosque, also known as the Gaddafi Mosque, was within walking distance from my hostel, and I was very curious, so I managed to walk over and hire a guide to take me through. I was far from being dressed correctly, so after about 10 minutes of dressing me in a wrap around skirt and head covering and removing my shoes, I was ready. 

I managed to take a selfie with the mosque behind me. It was an interesting experience to dress as a Muslim woman. Though I am not Muslim, it was a somewhat holy experience of trying on someone else's rituals. I appreciated that they showed me the respectful way of approaching their scared space.

This is one of two main worship spaces in the mosque. This particular one is only used for special services, while the other worship space is the floor below and where daily service are held. There is no furniture in the mosque; the space is used for kneeling and prostrating oneself in prayer. This picture shows the space where the men convene, while the woman gather in the balcony at the back of the room.

This particular mosque was built in 2006 and was incredibly beautiful and in great condition. The ceilings were spectacular to view with huge chandeliers and sprawling carpet covered the floors. I was told it was a mixture of Arabic, African, and a little European (with the stained glass windows) architechture.

I had a lovely time walking through this huge mosque and experiencing a different faith, if only for a few minutes.

Posted October 19, 2014

Greetings from Colombo, Sri Lanka! I have had a busy few weeks of traveling and have a few minutes on an actual computer, so I thought I'd post a few pictures from my past travels.

After departing from Malawi I flew out of Lilongwe, the capital, to Kigali, Rwanda to stay with my friend and PCUSA long-term volunteer, Meg Knight. Meg is in Kigali for a year and a half and working with the Presbyterian Church headquarters as an English teacher. I met Meg when we trained together at the PCUSA missionary training in July 2013, which is where I met most of my contacts that I'm staying with along the way. I had a great time sitting in on one of her classes and meeting many pastors and Presbytery staff. Meg is a great and patient teacher and her students really appreciate her.

Rwanda is so incredibly beautiful and my pictures really don't capture the lush green, rolling landscapes that are known as "the Land of a Thousand Hills." (It's really more like the land of a gazillion hills, ha!) It is the greenest part of Africa I have seen so far and is just about right on the equator. Thankfully, it was approaching their rainy season, so it wasn't too hot.

Nearly all of Rwanda, which is the size of Vermont, is cultivated with different crops, including tea, which is one of their biggest sources of income. The hills are terraced so that agriculture is possible, however, my back hurts just looking at these hills and realizing the massive amount of work that goes into this kind of farming. I also had a chance to hike through a rainforest, which I've never done before, which was really fun. 

Rwanda is also the cleanest African country I've been to. People seem to really pride themselves in keeping their country free of trash. In fact, plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda, which really contributes the a lot of the waste you see in other African countries. It was really refreshing being in a place that was clean and seemed to care for their enviroment. You would never have guessed from the physical appearance of Rwanda that 20 years ago a terrible genocide between the two dominant tribes, the Hutus and Tutsi, took place. While the land is beautiful, there are deep deep wounds that plague this small nation...wounds that will be passed down for many generations unfortunately. These days it is illegal to ask a person which tribe they are from for fear of creating more anomosity. 

I took the opportunity to go to the Genocide Memorial Center which has several exhibits on the Rwandan tragedy and also sits on the grounds of several mass graves of those who were slaughtered. The graves are just covered with enonormous concrete slabs, nothing remarkable about them, but lovely gardens are planted all around them. There were several of these huge concrete memorials sitting below the museum, and I took several minutes to walk among them and pray for those who lost their lives and their families who miss them. 

(You'll have to enjoy a sideways picture of me and Meg for the time being. This computer is nutty.)

After traveling to Rwanda, I moved onto Uganda by bus, then flew to Ethiopia to meet my mother for a short tour of some of the ancient cities in the north. Then I finally left the African continent and now am languishing in Colombo, Sri Lanka and depart for Bangkok, Thailand soon. I only have 3 more weeks of traveling and will also go to Cambodia and Seoul, South Korea.

Traveling is HARD. Especially by yourself. Having a companion with you really makes a huge difference, even if its having them watch your bags while you run to the bathroom. While I am cherishing this adventure, I also really look forward to getting home soon.

Posted October 14, 2014
Zomba, Malawi I am surrounded by lush forests and the magnificent mountains and plateaus of Zomba, Malawi, a small but incredibly beautiful town in the southern region of the country. Though it is hot, I can't get over the incredible beauty of the purple Jacaranda trees and other foreign plants that bud so brightly.

I am here visiting missionaries, Paul and Helen Jones, who work for Emmanuel International, a workwide organization which is based out of Canada. They have been here for over 25 years and have such wonderful projects going on, especially in educating villages about water safety, installing bore holes (wells), and other sanitation empowering trainings. I was fortunate to travel with some of there staff to a far off village to see some of their projects. Check out more about EI here:

The Jones house is pretty luxurious, with hot showers, comfy beds, and great wi-fi internet (yay!). It was really nice to be able to rest after my week in Harare, especially after the incredibly long bus ride from Harare through Mozambique and finally into Malawi. The bus adventure was fairly uneventful, though I got a little nervous when I got to the Mozambique immigration office at the border and the guy looked through my passport and said, where's your visa? Apparently, he thought I should have obtained one before getting to the border. I had specifically talked to the Mozambique embassy in Harare to make sure I could get one at the border (getting on in Harare was more expensive for some reason) and they had informed me that I could. So I timidly told the rather unpleasant immigration officer that I had been told I could get one at the border. So starts a very slow 45 mintues process of filing out a visa application, taking pictures, fingerprinting, and other hoopla while this guys drags his feet. While I stood there, every other person from my bus went through and had their passport stamped (they were all Zimbabwean or Malawian) and I still wasn't finished and the bus had to wait for me. Thankfully, one of the bus employees made sure I wasn't left behind. I continue to pray that God sends me lots of angels to help me along the way.

Currently, I'm sitting in an internet lounge in Blantyre, Malawi next to the bus station that will bring the bus that takes me to my next destination, Mzuzu, Malawi. I will be visiting missionary friends, Tyler and Rochelle Holms, whom I trained with through the PCUSA mission co-worker training. I am very excited to see them and visit Lake Malawi. They both teach at universities in Mzuzu. Tyler is a pastor and teaches theology and Rochelle teaches biology and water sanitation. They just adopted a little Malawian girl, who I'm so excited to meet. Check out more about their work here:

I hope I can post some pictures from Lake Malawi! Stay tuned!
Posted September 20, 2014
Visiting our Presbyterian Brothers and Sisters in Zimbabwe It's hard to believe my time in Zambia is over. It was quite difficult to say goodbye. As I rode into town to hop a bus to Lusaka, my eyes kept welling up with tears and I looked around dusty, dirty, and beloved Kitwe for the last time. I have left this home, friends, and a great ministry behind and am letting another take over. Right now I sit in Zomba, Malawi in the home of missionary friends, Paul and Helen Jones, who work for Emmanuel International, which is based out of Canada. I will report more on my visit here in another post. 

This past week new GMF fellow Andy Smothers and I had the privilege of working with our mission partners with the Synod of Harare, part of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in Zimbabwe. Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, the congregation I work for, has had a partnership with the CCAP church for a couple of years now. Part of my program involves teaching in Zimbabwe with the CCAP before commencing on my worldwide travels. After a long bus ride to Lusaka, a very quick flight to Harare, we arrived ready to experience some of Harare. Our wonderful hosts, the CCAP General Secretary, the Rev. Libias Boloma, wife Grace, and children Andrew, Audrey, and baby Anold were quite wonderful the two of us, showing us their churches, town, and feeding us way too much. I stayed with Rev. Boloma's secretary, Mildred, who was super sweet to me. We became fast friends and I will miss her dearly. 

Unfortunately, our communication before arriving in Harare was not great. So instead of teaching a full week long course, Andy and I taught four mini sessions to a couple of different churches. We decided to give an introduction to our African Indigenous Counselling Course, in the hopes that next year when Andy returns again he can plan to teach the entire course. After a couple of days in Harare, we traveled to Chinhoyi, a small town about 2 hours away from Harare. The Rev. Kingstar Chipata and his wife Ruth and son, Worship welcomed us. I stayed with their church member and friend Mrs. Precious and her family, who also fed me too much. We had a lovely time in Chinhoyi and were able to meet with and teach their Women's Guild and Bible Study Group. 

We also had a bit of time to tour Harare, though things got pretty nerve-wracking when we got detained by President Mugabe's undercover security guys after we took photos of his offices, which is totally not allowed, especially when he's actually in the office...which he was. So we had a fun time talking our way out of that sticky situation and handing over our passports. My heart was beating a million miles a minute, and I was really concerned they might not give our passports back without a bribe. However, Mildred, who was talking us around (and who told us it was ok to take pictures of the president's office) managed to calm me down and we escaped after deleting our pictures. It's funny now to think about, but in the moment I thought how awful it would be if I was arrested or deported! Anyhow, we made it out and saw more of town, the Zimbabwe Museum of Humanities, and made it back to Rev. Boloma's house without any other trouble. 

Posted September 16, 2014
Meredith F. Loftis

Author: Meredith F. Loftis
Created: August 28, 2013

A Tale of Godsightings, Baby Elephants, Zambian Friends, and a Transformed Heart

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