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Dreams and visions: A visit to Mohammed’s underground wedding chapels of southern Ethiopia

When is the last time you remembered a dream? Saw images in your mind as palpable points of light, saw roadmaps and systems, heard the word of god?

I barely remember my dreams let alone follow any distinguishable directions given by friends, presidents, or gods there within. I find it nearly impossible to remember my dreams lately as nothing but flash mobs of feeling. I wake with a vague recollection of a good or bad feeling about the night before, and carry on with daily life as if divorced from tentative night-marriages to the other world.

I was moved, then, to meet a man somewhere on the road between Addis Ababa and Awassa, Ethiopia, who received a dream from Allah and listened. Thirty-three years ago, he was visited by Allah in a series of ten dreams in which he was ultimately directed to create underground wedding chapel caves deep below the earth of his private wilderness – a stretch of dry lands punctuated by cacti, distant rift hills, mild cracks and hesitant valleys in Southern Ethiopia.

I don’t know exactly how I’d even found myself in Ethiopia last week, but a confluence of events led me to this part of the world, on this particular day, on a private mini-bus careening down the newly paved road from Awassa to Addis, with a gang of new and old friends eager to have a day out. It was a Sunday, after all, we were ready to experience everything– Lake Langano, Rastafarian roots in Shashemene, and the legendary Dunabar Caves – wedding chapels beneath the earth.

Who listens anymore to the God who appears in dreams? We are living far from the days of Morpheus, gates of ivory or horn through which false or prophetic dreams pass, respectively. Here, though, was a man who saw clearly his entire life’s purpose unfolding in a book of dreams. With ample consultation with village elders and spiritual leaders, he laid himself prostrate to the divine (arduous) work at hand.

It goes something like this: thirty-three years ago, Mohammed Yiso Banatah had his first dream in which he saw clearly a church that also resembled a mosque. Allah spoke to him through this dream and told him to build this particular prayer structure underground. Mohammed was confused and did not know exactly what to do. Allah came to him again in a second dream, this time detailing more clearly the architecture of this prayer space, confirming that it would resemble both a church and a mosque. A third dream burned its blueprint into consciousness. As he contemplated ways in which to carve into his destiny, he had a fourth dream in which Allah told him to start planting trees, and did so promptly.

In dreams five through eight, Mohammed was tempted several times by the lure of excessive wealth. Each time he was offered thousands of Birr, he chose heaven instead. By his eighth dream about money, he was taken forcefully to a bank and shown safes full of gold. He was told that he could take all the money and gold he saw. A group of white people in his dream appeared and encouraged him to accept this lucky bounty, but he continued to refuse. They said it’s all yours, Mohammed but he still refused.

By dream nine, Allah was proud of him and convinced him that his life’s work was to build an underground series of wedding chapels and prayer spaces that would one day be revered as a national heritage site – a treasured work of creation for all who passed by to marvel and to marry. In the meantime, he was told to plant lots of flowers on his land. He did so obediently, with joy.

In his final dream, the tenth one in a series back in 1979, a man appeared in his dream who took Mohammed to a small tree on his property and pointed to its roots. The man showed him exactly where to start digging and told him that his life would depend on it. At midnight, he saw visions of gold. Surroundings up close appeared far away and objects farthest away were pulled up close to him. He was told where, when, and how to begin digging and the next day, when he woke up, he began to dig into the earth with his bare hands.

A work that began in 1979 is still the life obsession of Mohammed, who has twenty-one children, thirteen of whom are still alive, along with two wives, Balabiti Sambati and Aminah Mutumah. A new baby is on the way.

A walk through the underground chapels is a cool dip into the soul-pool dream space of a man who heard the word of god ten times over. The architectural genius of these spaces reveals the finery and steadiness of Mohammed’s hand – he’s spent careful hours carving, smoothing, cutting, digging, and designing an intricate series of archways, cosy nooks and hidden rooms within rooms, some that have been furnished with soft mattresses and simple earth-slab shelves, while others are stark and cool with tiny, rounded windows flooding through with secret rays of sunlight appearing out of nowhere.

When asked if he has had any help building these sacred tunnels, he replied, “no, I was alone, but I was with Allah.”

At present these sacred structures exist four meters below the earth, but his dreams tell him that they will eventually be eleven meters deep and after thirty-three years of solo digging, he’s on his way. So far, it’s cost him and his family near 120,000 Birr in local materials and tools (about $7,060.00 USD) and he has relied on modest contributions from tourists, bridal parties, travelers, and locally curious folk who pass by to marvel his devotion, artistic genius, and self-possessed relationship with the divine world.

Under the shade of a tree, we sat in a circle with Mohammed as he explained his dreams and visions to us. Four of his children leaned in a cluster against the tree trunk, shyly biting their fingernails and looking down at their feet every time we even slightly made eye contact, just a twinkle of hello before a rush of shyness took over.

Mohammed, who wore a long, electric purple rain coat and a baseball cap, explained to our group that through his dreams, he can see very clearly how each of the rooms will eventually be used, mostly for sacred marriage ceremonies and bridal parties, and that he has been ordered by Allah to finish this project before he passes onto the next world. In his seventies now, the work is said to be 80% complete. The vision is to dig tunnels that will lead all the way to Wondo Genet, meaning “Heaven” – a village located fifteen miles away, which was once the site of Emperor Haile Salasie’s summer palace. It’s also a village known for its hot springs, primary forests, and an Essential Oils Research Centre, where spices, aromatic herbs, and medicinal plants are conserved and researched. Selasie had declared this village a paradise on earth — and maybe he wasn’t so far off, since Allah too had convinced Mohammed to dig his tunnels all the way to Heaven.

Visiting Mohammed’s dream caves felt like a dream in and of itself. As we spoke to him through the brilliant translation of our friend Sinteyehu, a bridal party had arrived with their priest to enter the caves with one of Mohammed’s sons, who wore a bright yellow coat that read Dunabar Caves on the back. His son shows guests through the caves these days, reciting an addictive catchphrase which sound like, “Come on, Come on, bring someone” but actually are Amaharic words that mean something similar to that. As we meandered the narrow, dark passageways, his son had repeated this catchphrase as he flashed his torch into room after room below the earth, making us all laugh as we marvelled the deep darkness and utter peace within the soft curves of this man’s dream world.

When we waved goodbye to Mohammed that Sunday afternoon, I realized that dreams had become a major thread woven through the strange story that was my time in Ethiopia. I’d been invite there by a long time friend and former boss in Chicago, David Schein, a solo performer who’d in turn been involved in the slow-build and beautiful legacy of One Love Theatre — an HIV/AIDS education circus linked to a youth campus located in Awassa, Ethiopia.

I’d flown there from Zanzibar with David and my friend Clare who, throughout our short week in Awassa, helped me lead a series of creative writing workshops with the young women who either perform in the circus and/or who attend special classes and workshops at the the center.

Even before we’d met Mohammed and his caves, we’d engaged the dreams of the girls in our writing workshops through a classic theatre game in which everyone had to imagine a box in the centre of circle in which anything and everything in our dreams existed. The girls were asked to reach into the box and grab hold of something that had existed previously only in the dream world. By picking up the object, they had to actually be able to see (meaning feel, smell, hear, touch, and taste) the full weight and presence of this object, and then describe it out loud to other workshop participants.

In just under an hour, we’d bombarded each other with the presence of snakes and cars, cell phones and graduation hats, birds and fashion gowns, babies and disco balls. Together, we suspended reality to play with the objects of our dreams, holding each other to the truth of these objects and what they might represent.

I’d been trained all my life to believe that dreams were the stuff of Freudian analysis. As a teenager, I gobbled up dream dictionaries that helped me categorize and interpret dream visions. What does it mean if you dream of your teeth falling out? Imminent death. What does it mean if you dream of falling? Neglect. Loss of control. In my mostly secular upbringing in the West, I was rarely encouraged to believe that my dreams were gifts (or punishments) from God, or that whatever I might see might actually be my life’s work to make true. In fact, if someone had referenced god or dreams to explain a life’s work, I probably would have thought, for a time, that he or she might be crazy.

Almost every prophet, though, except for Moses, has relied on dreams to speak with God, so it seems odd now to think that I could have spent my entire childhood and most of my adult life dismissing the potential power of dreams, or at the very least failing to consider the ways in which dreams could be gateways to the divine. Like touching the shoulder of the dream of your best self.

In our workshops, the girls wrote dream stories that wove together all the dream images we’d conjured as a group. We wrote from our own dream visions but felt free to borrow images from the others and through telling these dreams, all we’d imagined became more clear to each of us. And while some dreams were the stuff of the absurd, causing much laughter and giggles (the snake slithering inside a friend’s bag caused much upheaval and squealing), other dreams were as palpable as a handshake with the present moment.

Abatali, a young woman in our group, dreamed of a graduation cap with tassel which she received after completing her law degree, her aim being to spark a revolution of justice for the people of Ethiopia. She saw this hat so clearly that writing about it became just a matter of reporting what it was that her mind had revealed to her through the telling of it – that she woke and slept with this graduation cap on her head, that she wore it proudly even in the toilet, that the graduation cap made her parents glow with pride, that this hat – in her quietest moments – actually spoke to her, giving her encouragement, justice being her ultimate obsession.

According to Hisda, a Babylonian of the third century, a dream not interpreted is like a letter unread. Opening a dream is about diving into possible meaning – and potential communication with the divine. A missed connection is probable if we continue to dismiss our dreams simply as Freudian undercurrents of the subconscious. I’ve lived for decades assuming that dreams could be opened or not, dismissed or not depending on the clarity and depth of feeling it conjured.

A week in Ethiopia reminded me of the power of dreams and visions – where they lead and what they manifest – should we listen to the divine that shines through the daily currents of who we are and what we are meant to do with our relatively short days spent here on this earth.

Think of how much potential beauty gets buried under the weight of our doubts when it comes to dreams and visions.

What could you build with your hands – with your mind – should you allow yourself to see clearly your dream life unfolding before your unassuming eyes — should you hear a voice from God — and listen?


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