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Thinking With The Tabot: The Material Dimensions of Waiting in Addis Ababa

Alexandra Antohin uses the material analogy of the Ethiopian tabot to explore alternative dispositions to waiting and indeterminacy. She explores how ‘moving foundations’ of the home and church facilitate conditions of sustaining instability. This thought-provoking discussion considers how dilemmas of displacement and the manipulation of time during crises, such as urban resettlement, can revise sociocultural assumptions about the march of time as moving fast and forward.

MLA citation format:
Antohin, Alexandra
“Thinking with the Tabot: The Material Dimensions of Waiting in Addis Ababa.”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 17 June 2015. Web. [date of access]


My interest in the material dimensions of waiting emerged out of my own frustrations with tedium. Significant periods of fieldwork in Ethiopia were occupied with accompanying people on administrative errands regarding land claims, which involved notarizing papers, tracking down inheritance documents, drawing up letters of request, and standing and keeping a place in lines. Prior to these experiences, I had defined the phenomenology of waiting, particularly the bureaucratic sort, as a type of instability that had no redeeming value. While the act of waiting in lines represents one of the more universal categories of human experience, waiting is such a major element of life in Ethiopia that I began to challenge my implicit expectations of the movements of time.

Not only do “modern subjects” demand that the correlation between ‘actions = results’ move instantly, the idea of stillness and suspended time is often presented as destructive to the human spirit, a theme most intensified in post-WWII discourse (i.e. Theatre of the Absurd). [i] The sense of unease with time incidentally framed my participation in these moments of administrative waiting as pointless exercises.Petition days called abet uta, which literally translated as “who will listen?” but more accurately matched an idiomatic phrase “you haven’t heard me” were sought-after appointments that played as drawn-out, suspended time, exacerbated by confusion. On one occasion, a friend and I showed up at 7:30am to occupy a place to see Mr. Mesfin, a land administrator, and discovered we were number 27. After holding our place for about 30 minutes, a woman entered the outer lobby of Mr. Mesfin’s office, saw our list and informed us that we were in the wrong line. The building guards had been taking names since 7 o’clock and prepared a roll call for when the employees arrived at the 9am opening time. Disheartened by the fact that we moved from 27 in the line to 62, we prepared ourselves to leave. On an impulse, we tracked down Mr. Mesfin’s assistant and discovered that he was in another city for training and it was unknown when he would return. As this news trickled out, the attention shifted to saving and transferring these waiting lists for the following petition day. Yet, I found it difficult to take these efforts seriously, as there were no assurances that Mr. Mesfin would be in next week, or the week after that. What made this and other similar episodes so memorable was that many of those waiting were undeterred and handled the impasse with calm and no observable indication of outrage. Veterans to this experience, particularly those who have lived abroad, emphasized not only patience but a concerted effort to reconfigure their expectations and to acknowledge how modalities of time work differently in different contexts.

In this essay, I discuss the pressures of urban resettlements in Addis Ababa as I have observed since 2011 and their effects on conditions of temporary living in slum neighborhoods and houses. Here, I argue that alternative dispositions to waiting and indeterminacy emerge when placed in comparison with other temporal contexts, such as how time operates within devotional orientations of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Beyond their material components, tabots (altar slabs) contain phenomenological weight in liturgical ritual and are an active domain to conceptualize local histories. Therefore, I propose an experiment to consider these items as serving as an idiom of productive waiting. First, I juxtapose how resettlements during urbanization crises contain parallels to the phenomenon of tabot multiplicity in church sanctuaries. Then, the discussion considers how the tabot operates as a literal and figurative ‘moving foundation’ in Ethiopian Orthodox time/space. Finally, I propose that to apply alternative sociocultural approaches to the phenomenon of instability challenges theoretical assumptions about the march of time as moving ‘fast and forward.’


Fitting into Urbanization

In recent years, the Addis Ababa government has unveiled their Master Plan to reinvent the image of the capital. Neighborhoods all over the city have experienced wholescale bulldozing to make way for investor-friendly land use, such as clinics, hospitals, hotels, schools, and factories. In addition to increasing municipal revenues and expeditiously updating road, transport and public service infrastructures, urban development has also been a stage for re-inventing Ethiopia’s image, one that has been greatly influenced by the futuristic skylines of Dubai. The phenomenon of G+ buildings with metallic reflective windows and curved chromatic siding has swept through virtually every major city in Ethiopia. Part of the 21st century template of modernity, Grant (2014) has described similar evolutions of the city of Baku’s architecture as engaged with the “technological sublime” and reflected a certain “material strategy to exorcise the past and to compete on a world stage” (2014: 505).

As the map of the city has been remade, residential space has undergone one of the most drastic changes, particularly given that a large representation of cleared land has been low-income housing in shanty towns or imperial-era buildings that were confiscated after the revolution in 1974. In popular speech, these settlers were referred to as debaloch, which corresponds in English as “roommate” or in this context “temporary resident.” However, in Amharic, the word literally translates as “to sit on top of each other” or to piggy-back, which was a literal description of these residents’ living conditions, as networks of interdependency.

A single household’s claim to a living space, sometimes as small as 20 sq. m. included not only children and grandchildren of the head of household, but oftentimes moved laterally, to include their nieces, nephews, and children of their children that they helped raise as well as domestic workers and their offspring. The aftermath of urban development in Addis has been the dismantlement of shanty towns and the resettlement of residents to condominium blocks on the edges of the city.One among many detrimental effects of this reform has been the inability to re-engage in income generating activities, hampered greatly by the lack of social support for childcare and domestic labor (Abebe and Hesselberg 2013).

The redevelopment of Addis Ababa not only presaged the trauma of mass evictions and reconfigured patterns of urban living space, but also precipitated local trends for how rights to land were argued as a communal affair. “Class-action” style lawsuits started as a response to municipal offices that refused to issue title deeds for long-time residents, previously protected under the sixteen-year residence statute under the precondition that they pay taxes. These joint residents submitted evidence of property investment such as building shacks and toilets in lieu of taxes. This documentation served as an example of residents substantiating their ownership and developing their legibility in the administrative code, resembling what Nielsen (2014) analyzes as co-opting land claims in Mozambique. The pattern of building houses in Maputo, consisting of constructions without foundations for urban dwellers, Nielson posits, is a method to establish their survival by co-opting their participation in a system that fundamentally does not serve them (i.e. in this context land tenureship that is nationalized and class-contingent). He proposes ”approaching time as duration” in order to “understand how social transformations might occur in non-linear and non-progressive ways” (2014:178).The collapsing of futures in his assessment is an ”internal doubling so that the future exists both as failure on a linear scale while also serving to open up the present in potentially productive ways” (Ibid).


Figure 1: Posters of architectural renderings at a construction site, a previous house of a nobleman, used as affordable housing. Photos by author.


In several instances of debaloch residence and the transition to low-income housing, the forced resettlement policies produced various responses that reflected personal and communal decisions to continue to live in temporary, instable conditions.In one case, the more than 80 residents of a mansion managed by the local neighborhood association (kebele) were vocal about their desire to be moved to other affordable but safe housing. A roof full of holes was the biggest problem cited—the torrential rains created heavy downpours inside the anterooms and caused households to shift around the edges of the first floor to avoid flooding, and to build partitions and extensions to the outer rooms. Sharing living space, in this case, was a deteriorating condition that was beyond toleration. This was in contrast to other cases in Addis Ababa, where people preferred to stay in living spaces such as these, calculating that the sacrifices outweighed the benefits.

By focusing on those who want to remain in a state of temporariness, I return to the point made at the outset: Is instability inherently a devalued condition, one that should be avoided at all costs? For Wright (2013) who analyzes the detainee experience of UK immigration, temporary uncertainties were heighted due to the detainees’ living out of place and time. The instability and detriment of waiting was accentuated by the pressure to assimilate into the cultural mode of their countries of refuge, wherein decelerated time became an unproductive space and lacked movement towards a desired state, to start a “normal” life.

Before returning to how urban life in Addis has begun to contain these multiple registers of tempo, it is worth focusing on certain idiomatic clues that ‘living on top of each other’ implies. The following proposes an experiment with another usage of the word debal in the domain of Ethiopian Orthodox praxis that suggests an alternative framing of time to interpret what waiting indefinitely entails and promises.

Living On Top of Each Other

One of the most iconic images of Ethiopian Orthodox devotion is the procession of the tabot on significant feast days of the liturgical calendar (see photo below).A tabot is a material representation of the physical Mosaic covenant also known as the Ten Commandments, and holds a particular place in the consecration of Ethiopian Orthodox Churches.This item sits inside the sanctuary (meqdes) of every church and is the altar from which the Eucharist is consecrated, thereby establishing its definition as the blood covenant of Christ.Tabots are dedicated to individual saints and archangels, and in colloquial speech, specific tabots are referred directly to their namesake, particularly during processional events (i.e. “Tekliye is coming”—a statement that both diminutizes St. Tekle Haymanot and refers to the movement of the tabot outside the sanctuary). Furthermore, a tabot is the sanctifying component of a church; a bishop consecrates a tabot instead of the church proper. It is first planted (tabot makel), which refers to a saint’s manifestation into the earthly properties, then transfigured as an altar of wood or stone (tabot hig), then crowned (tabot negs)—a ceremony that consecrates the church, ontologically functioning as its foundation.

The place of tabots in the public imaginary is an illustration of how covenant takes on multiple manifestations beyond its significance to socio-political narratives, making these highly revered sacred items transcend their material properties. Barring the fact that virtually nobody can ever see, touch, or come close to tabots (e.g. there are even copies installed in the sanctuary, only identifiable by clergy, in order to prevent against theft), they do, of course, possess actual material properties and determine temporal and spatial dimensions of churches. Typically, sanctuaries contain a primary tabot (medembenya) and several debaltabot, which contains the semantic correspondence to debaloch, those who are ‘on top of one another’, or doubled up, and signifying one without one’s own place. The tabot of Kirkos lij (Cyriacus the Child) in South Wollo was one such example.As one parishioner described it, certain communities outside the city limits began to appeal to Kirkos lij in response to the area being plagued with many diseases. This concentration of local devotion urged the priests and locals to appeal to the parish to have Kirkos lij represented, in the form of a tabot dedication. The way one informant phrased it, having Kirkos lij join the Church of St. Gabriel, along with an already existing tabot of Kidane Meheret (“Covenant of Mercy”), was a result of the “tabot speaking.” This relationship with Kirkos lij was acknowledged once the saint was consecrated as an altar of the sanctuary.


Figure 2: (l-r) A flank of tabots brought out for Timqet (Epiphany) celebrations, the position of the tabot in the meqdes in a typical Ethiopian Orthodox church. Diagram of the interior sections of a typical circular church, defined by three ambulatories: 1) Qene Mahelet (lit.chanting of liturgical poetry) where responses to the liturgy is sung by debteras (cantors); 2) Qeddest (lit.holy) were priests are  administering to those receiving communion; 3) Meqdes or bete meqdes (lit. house of prostration),  the sanctuary where the tabot is kept. Photo and diagram by author.


Therefore, to acknowledge a debbal tabot is to acknowledge a personified entity as saints are synonymous with their tabots. Doing so initiates a key set of conditions about sanctuaries that continue to materially inhabit the unfulfilled. To have sanctuaries that are ‘doubled up,’ installs the expectation of continuing to wait. Narratives of the transition between debal to medembenyatabot, doubled up to main altars, demonstrate that tabots get their homes by sustained devotion, the belief in their ability to heal and perform miracles and most importantly, to protect. Furthermore, to wait for a tabot, directed by the agency of its saint, serves as an orienting metaphor for recognizing virtues of patience and perseverance. Instability, as framed by Ethiopian Orthodox cosmology, suggests a future pregnant with expectation yet resistant to being contained by the linear progression of resolution.

It bears stressing how waiting, in a Christian frame of reference, is a basic characteristic of salvational time. This quality of expectancy and fulfilment is reflected in a common greeting proclaimed after significant religious holidays, enkwan aderesen (“It’s good we have arrived”). Therefore, the ways that time performs, the way it moves, in relation to these debal tabots demonstrates how “temporality is a hinge that connects subjects to wider social horizons, and control over pasts and futures that are temporalized also influence action in the present” (Munn in Hodges 2008: 406). It is this connection between subjects and wider social horizons that exposes how categories of waiting can be productive moments of instability.

Sustained Insustainability

As we have seen, waiting in Ethiopian Orthodox time is perpetual yet accountable. Waiting is not exclusively a structural restriction that determines the parameters of possibility, but a temporal disposition that is tested constantly. It is accountable because it guarantees a feedback, that is, to wait is an expectation that certain agencies will be fulfilled. Temporal dispositions, particularly within instable time/space, are commonly abbreviated as the ability for people to seek out hope.In a parallel to this two-part story on the moving foundations of churches and squatter houses, Miyazaki’s ethnography of Suvavou land claimants in Fiji (2008) proposes a compatible framework in which to interpret indeterminacy. Hope, he argues, is not exclusively an existential condition for these individuals who petition to have ancestral lands returned, but also a “terrain” where they test and affirm self-knowledge and definition. He elaborates further: “The real challenge posed by moments of hope is not so much the impossibility of achieving the temporal congruity between knowledge and its object as the immediacy of hope thus engendered, that is, hope’s demand for its own fulfilment… Moments of hope can only be apprehended as sparks on another terrain, in other words. The sparks provide a simulated view of the moments of hope as they fade away” (2008: 24). Therefore, methodologies of hope, as charted by ethnographers, permit engaging in an academic exercise to delineate how fleeting time, that is, time in momentary durations, is deployed and manipulated to reach sustainable present states.

Relating to land tenure and resettlement dilemmas addressed earlier, manipulating time, depending on how this time duration is employed, is a condition that can produce both positive and negative effects. During the Addis Ababa land crisis, a dominant obstacle was the lack of replacement housing, but another significant contributing factor to the standstills was lack of administrative support. Administrators, involving a chain of individuals from officers to managers, were constantly pulled away for meetings and training workshops and were often absent from the office for months at a time. Rather than consider episodes of waiting as pointless time as I previously did, these periods of indeterminacy elongated the processes by which results became final. For people facing displacement, petitioning for additional process councils, neighborhood mediations and appeals in order to build an expanding case file in the judicial system often pushed up the date of eviction. The bureaucratization of time could also be used as a weapon of power, keeping people in legal standstill for years that often caused such immense frustrations as to cause surrender.The irony of these temporal uncertainties was the conflicting affect it produced, what Griffiths encapsulates as the “simultaneous fear of sudden change and never-ending stasis” (2013: 19).

Urbanization and the sorts of agency it encourages and discourages highlights how the tempos of lives have been changing and the material conditions of joint living has lingering impact on the ways people have processed modalities of time. Here, I have applied a particular context of waiting in Ethiopian Orthodox conceptions of time/space in order to consider what indeterminate time offers. As the residential character of Addis slowly recedes into the edges of the city, it remains to be seen if these various approaches to time and space will continue to inspire perceptions and strategies of effectively handling the lived moment.

Notes and References

  • [i] The Theatre of the Absurd refers to a period in the 1950s-1960s when European playwrights (e.g. Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter) examined themes such as meaninglessness, ephemeral realities and absence of hope.
  • Abebe, G and Hesselburg, J. 2013. “Implications of Urban Development-Induced Resettlement on Poor Households in Addis Ababa.” Ghana Journal of Geography 5: 32-50.
  • Griffiths, M. 2013. “Frenzied, Decelerating and Suspended: the Temporal Uncertainties of Failed Asylum Seekers and Immigration Detainees.“ University of Oxford Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Working Paper No. 105.
  • Grant, B. 2014.“The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture 26(3): 501-528.
  • Hodges, M. 2008. “Rethinking time’s arrow Bergson, Deleuze and the anthropology of time.” Anthropological Theory 8(4): 399–429.
  • Miyazaki, H. 2004. The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. Nielsen, M. 2014. “The Wedge of Time: futures in the presents and presents without futures in Maputo, Mozambique” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20, 166-182.

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