Around the middle of Lent, we found ourselves in Kosoye, East Dembiya woreda of Central Gondar Zone with three priests - one head priest of the local diocese and two priests from the nearby churches of the woreda town. The head priest told us there are around 100 churches in the woreda, each with 10-20 priests (confessors), without counting deacons and preachers. The priests, known as ‘Soul Fathers’ reach every household of followers designated to them as ‘soul children.’ One of the priests said he has 360 of these, whom he visits on Sundays and regularly meets in monthly gatherings of three groups.
Devout followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (EOTC) strictly observe the teachings of the church that prohibit consuming food or water before noon and eating of meat and all animal products to up to 250 days per year. Although the Church exempts pregnant mothers and children from fasting, there is varying awareness of this exemption, and resistance to adoption where there is awareness. This in turn is reported to negatively affect the nutritional status of the vulnerable groups..
In 2016, the Holy Synod of EOTC endorsed a sermon guide reaffirming the regulations of the church that prescribe proper feeding for children under seven, pregnant and lactating mothers, and support for mothers and children by other family members during fasting periods. The Growth through Nutrition project continued to collaborate with EOTC and Development and Inter-church Aid Commission (DICAC) to raise awareness on these teachings by facilitating trainings to priests on the sermon guide. The three priests interviewed were among trainees from 39 different churches of the woreda in 2019. All three were very articulate in explaining the first 1000 days, starting from conception until the baby reaches two years of age, and on the need for optimal nutrition during that period. Since they took the training, the priests transferred these teachings to their soul children during their household visits, group teachings, at-large sermons and by making themselves role models. The priests testified progress in acceptance of their teachings among mothers, who either did not start fasting or dropped out once ‘freed’ by Soul Fathers and husbands who supported their wives by performing household chores, which is less common in the local tradition.
However, a random visit and chat we had with local villagers who facilitate conversations on maternal and child nutrition at one of the villages revealed both a lack of awareness on the teachings around fasting and reluctance to practice what was known. We even heard about the presence of Soul Fathers who caution against applying these teachings, which led us to ask, “why such discrepancy between the stories of the priests and contacted villagers?” Trained priests could reach only those under their parishes, the priests emphasized; considering the number of churches and priests in the whole woreda, all other priests should be trained to promote standardized messages and clarify misperceptions reported by some clergy from the neighboring parish churches and dioceses.
Reaching all recommended targets is a formidable task for any specific project. Rather, the church is better placed to orient the clergy on the sermon guide using its existing multiple platforms, including theological colleges and clergy training centers. Once standardized teachings are clearly institutionalized, the priests we met confirmed it is always their duty to support followers to stay healthy, productive and devout with a singular voice, and that “as any other teachings of the Church, this is not also a new teaching after all, but a reminder.” The head priest remarked, “key nutrition messages will be preached ‘to the end of the world’.” This potential for sustained action appears realistic given how EOTC has been preserved as one of the oldest forms of Christianity across many devout generations.
Lioul Berhanu is a public health professional serving as Deputy Chief of Party, Programs of Growth through Nutrition Activity at Save the Children Ethiopia Country Office.
Dr. Wossen Assefa Negash is a Senior Social Behavior Change Communication (SBCC) Manager for Growth through Nutrition Activity in Save the Children Ethiopia and qualified public health professional with a background in health and nutrition, SBCC, formative research, strategy formulation, campaigning, training, and material development.
Abiy Hailu is the West Amhara Field Office Growth through Nutrition Regional SBCC Project Manager and a public health specialist.
US Embassy Ethiopia Website
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Faith and Order Official Website
Ethiopian Orthodox Fasting and Lactating Mothers: Longitudinal Study on Dietary Pattern and Nutritional Status in Rural Tigray, Ethiopia - Beruk Berhanu Desalegn
How do pregnant and lactating women, and young children, experience religious food restriction at the community level? A qualitative study of fasting traditions and feeding behaviors in four regions of Ethiopia - Alessandra N. Bazzano, Kaitlin Storck Potts,, Afework Mulugeta