Baregota: the taboo

We find ourselves in Baregota, a small village 8 km from Lalibela. Here, we will build a school for 254 children, utilizing photography among other methods (but I’ll tell that story later). After surveying the land granted by the community, we descend into the valley. Just like the ascent, it’s not easy: there are no roads, only steep, rocky paths, often clinging to the cliffs.

We are happy; every humble dwelling we encounter is an invitation to enter, to share injera or sip the local honey-based “birra.” Many laughs. Numerous embraces. However, at the fifth house, despite children playing, the atmosphere changes, turning somber. We enter. On a mattress, wrapped in a blue blanket, lies a woman. No one knows her exact age… 95, perhaps 100. With no living relatives, this family has taken her in.

She has been unwell for a long time, confined to that mattress for weeks. She resembles a skeleton, but I’m told she was once a tall and strong woman. She is delirious.

They ask me: “Would you take her to the hospital?” I approach, look at her, and say, “No, it’s not necessary, she’s at the end.” “How do you know?” “She reminds me of my mother: reduced to a skeleton, not recognizing anyone, speaking only to her deceased — asking them to come for her. She had that breath, but her heart was still strong, so she held on.”

“And what did you do?” “My mother was in a hospital where machines, if the heart is still strong, can keep you alive for a very long time, even if you don’t want it. So, I asked the nurses to do something, or rather, to stop doing something.”

“And what did they do?” “I’m not sure, but I believe they granted my wish. She passed away a few hours later.” “We could never do that. For us, it’s a taboo: life belongs only to God.” “Well then, ask your God if he can come for her. Asking is not a sin.”

Amlaku translates. I leave. They converse amongst themselves for a while and do it: they pray and ask God to take her, to end her suffering. It works; after two hours, the woman passes away. After praying for a few hours right there, they wrap her in a white shroud, use a horn to call the entire village together, and set out in a procession — on those paths, amidst those extraordinary landscapes — to bury her in Lalibela.

I followed them for a while, but they were too fast for me, always searching for the best spot to capture in a photograph. I also feared tumbling down a precipice. I stopped. It saddened me a bit, but it was right; sometimes, even in photography, one must know when to stop and let go.