Saturday, December 24, 2005

Travelogue 116 – December 24
Blinked and Missed the Genocide

The rubshas have started up again. The police are invading neighborhood high schools and colleges. Sometimes they arrest; sometimes they don’t. On my way home Thursday, there are stones in the street. Police cars have arrived. Parents come to the school for their children, like they did a month and a half ago. Friday you can hear the shouting from the technical college up the hill. They are accosting the federal police, who will not leave. It sounds vaguely like cheering at a football game, and yet you feel somehow the ominous undertone. We’re silently listening. The staff tells me not to worry, misunderstanding my questions and my expression. I’m just sad.

This round of disturbances is touched off by the trials of the Kinijit leaders. Kinijits, you may recall, are members of the main opposition party, the CUD. The leaders were jailed on charges of treason after last month’s rubshas. If the logic or humanity of this move by the government seems dubious – jailing a bunch of meek PhDs for inciting violence against the government because teenage boys threw stones and were shot down for daring – read on.

Kinijit leaders are ushered in for several days at the federal court next to the university – right away, an interesting strategy. Students gather by the thousands in front of the courthouse, blocking the road. The leaders are a little wobbly: they’ve been on a hunger strike for weeks. Of course, the menu for their hunger strike reads like a Berkeley happy meal, with fresh fruit juices as a staple. Several of the leaders are absent because they are ill. Hailu Shewel, a 70 year-old diabetic from the US, the party’s leader, is now in critical condition. Our esteemed prime minister seems quite content with that, though lesser men might deduce that this is a poor ploy for popular support. What do I know about politics?

They are charged with: genocide, high treason, armed uprising and civil war, attack on the political and territorial integrity of the country, outrage against the constitution and the constitutional order, obstruction of the exercise of constitutional powers, and impairment of the defensive power of the state. A number of the defendants are in America.

Genocide? Did miss something? The only people I remember dying were the ones who died at the hands of the police.

“It’s Africa,” people say with a shrug. Soon we’ll see whether our juice-purged professors will get the death penalty.

I think I’m following local protocol by shaking my head and carrying on. I visit Desta, an American I met this summer. She was passing through Ethiopia at that time, but has moved here since. She wants to show me the house that she found in Piassa, a short walk from my regular internet-and-coffee neighborhood. The house is a good find. The yard itself is worth the rent, a long expanse of grass with peach and lemon trees.

Desta will not live in this house. The place is for the street kids. She’s begun a little business helping the poor children in Addis. I say business because she keeps her good works informal, cloaked behind the front of her business. Before she had the house, she met with the kids on the street. They gathered around her. She offered food. She collaborates with local artists to teach them art. They talk.

Desta is relentlessly sunny and upbeat, but in a way that isn’t cloying or aggressive. She is a Rastafarian, and one whom I assume ranks highly in whatever organization there is in that faith – just as she was very successful in American society, as a professor and executive of a wealthy foundation.

We stand together in her sunny yard, the successful black woman and the white slacker, far from America, and we share a smile of relief at being exiles. We both sense that something’s gone wrong back home. We would explain it differently, I think. She might quote the Bible; she might see Ethiopia as the New Jerusalem; she might quote from the well of topical political discourse. I’ve heard these arguments from Rastas before. My evidence would be insubstantial, impressionistic. We don’t bother with reasons. We nod in tacit agreement. We talk about how we hope we can do things differently here.

The words are naive. Solomon’s ghost, so alive in Ethiopia, the land of Sheba, whispers about the nature of things under our sun. But I’m as naive as my words, so it doesn’t matter. The sun and the blue sky look bright and new today.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Travelogue 115 – December 16
The Girls

Suzanne stops by. She’s an HIV/AIDS counsellor in Chicago. She’s in town to do some trainings at the university. Sophia has told her about the school, and she wants to see it. At the gate, the children gather around, like they always do for strangers. They shake the American’s hand. Erubka introduces herself in a mousy voice, “My name is Erubka.”

“What was that, sweetheart?” But Erubka is too shy to repeat herself, at least in that moment. Other kids crowd in. In a few minutes, she appears again, “My name is Erubka.” Suzanne hears her no better than she did before, but she says, “Nice to meet you.”

This is Erubka. She was one of our first dozen students. She is one of my favourites. She has a very happy grin. She charges me when I arrive at the school. She runs for me when I pass in the street. I make her scream and laugh when I act like I’m going to grab her.

She’s not great at jump rope. One morning this week, there’s no one to watch the kids for a few moments. I step in. My job is to hold one end of the jump rope and swing it when Medhanit says, “One.” That’s an ambiguous signal, I think. I don’t do a great job. Medhanit is diplomatic. She blames whichever kid is up for my mistake.

Erubka can’t get the hang of it. She doesn’t stand in the middle, but to one side. I try to compensate. We swing. The rope smacks her in the heels and then she jumps. Two tries and Medhanit pushes her away for the next kid. Medhanit is the boss of the girls, like Ermias is for the boys.

Erubka stands aside and watches. She is a watcher. I’ve seen her stand quietly while all the kids play, hands at her sides, eyes intent and curious. Everything is curious. She’s in her pink, society dress that stands our from her thighs at a 45 degree angle, that is opening at the seams under her arms and on her shoulders, that she wears three days a week. I rush at her and make her shriek. She doubles up in giggly terror. The grin lingers a long time. She watches me.

Looking into her eyes, I feel the weight of my mission this month. I’m searching for placements for my graduates. They’re done with our program in June. Without my help, they go to public schools, and they lose every advantage we’ve given them. “Something is better than nothing,” one Frenchie told me last week, unknowingly turning my own words against me. It’s what I said when I first opened this school. Somehow, I have to get them into private schools.

Erubka is still cringing and waiting to be tickled. We look at each other for a minute. I let it go. When I see Erubka, I see Leeza. I feel helpless.

It’s Sintayehu’s turn at the jump rope. She stands in the middle and doesn’t move when the rope comes around. The kids laugh. Sintayehu cries. Wogayehu, our teacher, is on hand now. She takes the little girl in her arms, and she shushes the other kids. After a few minutes, she picks Sintayehu up and stands behind the jump rope. “One,” Medhanit says. We miss, and we miss again. One time, the rope makes a revolution, clearing both heads and Wogayehu’s feet. “Baka,” Wogayehu says, ishi?” How’s that?

There’s nowhere for Sintayehu. She behaves in class. She observes all the school’s routines. She plays the kids’ games. She scribbles in her notebook while the others work. And when the girls sing songs together, Sintayehu gets her turn. She has one song she loves. She belts it out for the neighborhood, and the girls applaud.

She’s holding my hand now and staring at the American lady. She squints and scrunches her whole face in that way she has. She won’t let me go. She can’t make sense of the visitor. Their eyes meet, but Suzanne looks away. She is overwhelmed by this place: by the city, by the school, by our story, by these kids. I know that look – something akin to fear.

She gives them stickers. She lets them crowd around and grab, too excited. We take pictures, and she lets them look at their faces in the back of the digital camera. Sophia tells her it’s time to go. The kids want to kiss her good-bye. One after another, they press their lips into her cheeks. She’s overjoyed. She’s confused. I know that look. It’s really not easy.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Travelogue 114 – December 12
The Frenchies

And suddenly there were the Frenchies. They gathered around me in the courtyard of the school. They were pressing in on me and insisting I follow them to Francois’ house for dinner. I objected I didn’t know a word of their infamous tongue, but they said they weren’t above an evening of English. How could I refuse?

We cross the wooded valley between my hill and Francois’. We cross the long shadows of the last light of day. Children rush us, laughing. Lovely Linda from the south of France, Linda of the melodic Mediterranean accent, of the soft southern eye, of the grip like a man’s, Linda tends to the forlorn donkey who has thistles embedded in its coat and face, whose back is a trail of infected sores.

All the Frenchies but Francois are fed up with Ethiopians. Linda and Benoit have returned early from Lalibela, site of the famous medieval churches carved into stone, utterly revolted by the begging and cheating and badgering of the locals. They and Philippe leave for Yemen in a few days.

Francois and I have only nods and shrugs for their complaints. It’s not as though any of the bad behaviours here have escaped our notice. Nor are they the first to vent on this subject. Even Kevin, the wild man I met last spring, who has seen 120 countries, even he said the Ethiopians were the most pathetic people he had encountered, and when he boarded his train to Djibouti, he did so without qualms.

Let’s talk about art instead. What a treat to banter about art with Frenchies! Philippe is himself a painter, and it seems he makes more with painting than with photo-journalism. Vive la France! We argue about Caravaggio and Rembrandt. We argue with Linda about Klimpt and Pollack and Basquiat. I’m laughing simply from the pleasure of such a conversation.

Francois is singing to the Bill Withers on his laptop. When he’s not doing that, he’s huddled outside with Benoit by the kerosene burner, where the men prepare dinner. First are the french fries. “Freedom fries!” I would like to challenge, but manners win out.

Night is well along before anything is served. Philippe has peeled and munched down all the avocadoes that were meant as ingredients in the main course. I felt obliged to help so he wouldn’t snack alone. Night is well along and chilly. The half moon glows behind a cluster of small clouds, frosting them with white.

Philippe eyes the house across the yard and thinks of Genet. She is sister to Francois’ landlord. She is a notorious femme fatale, voluptuous and sly. The family is from Harar, where the people are known for frank talk and frank sexuality. She likes to tease Francois with shows of her new clothes late at night – even when her boyfriend is in her bedroom, the boyfriend she keeps while her fiancé is back in America. Philippe is musing. His smile is gentle and sardonic, unlike the anxious grimace of an American male pondering his quarry.

These Frenchies have to be watched. They shrink from no masculine challenge. Francois tells of holding Philippe back from smashing in the face of a taxi wayala who didn’t react well to Philippe’s insults. Benoit likes to crack side mirrors of cars passing too close. Even kind and peaceful Francois is quick with words and a balled fist when kids are disrespectful.

Francois tells the tale of the Frenchie with the worst reputation in the city. He is fluent in Amharic. He lived in the north of Ethiopia for some time, studying native musical instruments. He performs azmari with the best in the country. Azmari is an ancient form of rap, improvised song lyrics, often insulting and humorous. This Frenchie’s knowledge of Amharic gets him into trouble. No comment goes unheeded.

In his last escapade, he put some poor youth in the hospital because he spoke French: it seems the night before some local masher had approached his wife with sweet nothings in French. Hearing French in the mouth of an Ethiopian the next day was enough to send the husband into a rage.

So it goes in the circles of our Latin expats. I’ve enjoyed my sojourn in their terrain. Francois walks me halfway home, guiding me along the inky stretch of dirt paths that cross the eucalyptus vale. No one is out, not even a hyena. We shrug again about our dear old Ethiopia. We say goodnight in Amharic when we part.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Travelogue 113 – December 7
The Paper Chase

I’m awakened by two hens clucking outside my bedroom window. They are persistent gossips. I don’t understand a word, but gossip is recognizable around the world. I’m sure I could guess the subject matter in twenty questions. Family? Bad behaviour? I come around and realize it’s the trash ladies, stopping by to pick up the monthly load from our garbage barrel in the back, earning their five birr a month.

I’m happy to be awake. It’s my favourite time of the morning, just as the sun rises above the eastern mountain. I take my time getting down the hill to the café, to the internet place. The air is pleasant. The crowd consists of morning people, on their way somewhere, too busy for faranji.

Things are quiet. I had another guest for a while, Michael from Austria. I met him through John the Brit and Nazim the Turk. He’s tall; he has the mischievous grin of Germanic intelligence. His voice is resounding bass; his English is precise; his accent is round and melodic. He wears kung fu pants and suede vests. He is here to market a new milling technique. The second day he stays with me, he meets with the prime minister. His comment: that man seems like a little boy with a gun.

Things are quiet. I managed to shake the girlfriend, and swerved from the path of another. The first one called and called. Inadvertently, I realized I had solved man’s perennial problem, the inattentive girlfriend. Just don’t answer the phone. She’ll never stop calling. Fate intervened, when Saba said I had to change phones. Then another girlfriend starting calling, one I had never met. She got my new number from the internet place, where my business card is saved in their computers. Saba answered once, and “Betty” never called again.

Things are quiet again. My pleasures are simple and scarce – like feeding peanut butter to Jackie and watching her smack her lips. Peanut butter is my new happy discovery in Ethiopia.

The internet place is mobbed. It’s DV time – America’s annual Diversity Lottery. The internet places help people prepare their online applications, if they have a digital camera on the premises. Business is buzzing. One day it’s a fragile man of seventy. The next it’s a clot of young jokers who don’t look to have worked a day in their lives. I realize I wouldn’t be the most generous immigration official.

But I’m in the same boat, on the same rickety Cuban raft. I’ve been trying for two years now to get my work permit here. It just can’t be done. I’ve collected a large file of empty promises from business and school owners, but no golden letter of employment.

It finally came down to the inevitable: going to the immigration office to renew my tourist visa. I had two days until expiry. The bureaucrats were in rare form, I must say. When was the last time I saw such grey faces, such universal contempt in the eye, such utter lack of humor, cheeks swollen with such meaningless pride? It was a commendable performance.

Saba and I sat outside the office for several hours while the office guard eyed the crowd with weary malice. There was no particular order to how entry was granted. Saba finally positioned us next to the door, adjusting our stance minutely. The magic worked. We were next to receive the grudging wave of our gatekeeper.

Two more hours and five desks: that is what you’ll go through to renew a tourist visa in Ethiopia. Add a good dose of arrogance, some suspicion, and the delicate test of a supremely ignorant clerk who can’t decipher your passport. “No, that’s the date of my last entry. No, twenty-four months means two years. No, actually, January will be 2006.” All with a generous, humble smile.

Finally, a man with rancor permanently etched into his countenance stares at you and decides to authorize thirty days. “But, sir, my departure is scheduled for two months from now.” He will simply stare, and someone else will explain that you’ll have to come back. I can’t wait.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Travelogue 112 – November 28
Hora Dreams
Debre Zeit, Part Two

I shouldn’t take Saba, Leeza’s sister, away from her work. She is our school’s principal, and she does a great job. But she’s also a great travelling companion. She’s amiable. She takes care of foreign language situations. She’s a trooper. When I must have cake and a macchiato, and when the first café says they have neither, Saba leads on to the other café (and there are only two in downtown Debre Zeit) without a complaint. When I must see four of the five lakes in town, she agrees with a smile.

So when she has a request on the second day of our trip, I acquiesce willingly and gratefully. We return to Lake Hora.

Hora is the nicest of the lakes. You trek out of town a little ways, struggling through mobs of schoolchildren in their uniforms. They will be there, no matter what hour of day you travel; Debre Zeit holds firm to the peripatetic school of pedagogy. They practice their wit upon you. A dirt road leads down to the lake. You pass a staring group of swimmers in their underwear by the shore. You weather the inevitable comments, and you approach the entrance to the sleepy park. One man sits lazily beside his gun. Another sells you tickets. A third offers you ch’at. You decline, saying “It’s a bit too early in the day, thank you,” and pass on. He laughs with childlike glee.

The park is a strand of grass along the lakeside, and a rundown café. We pass all this luxury and the few staring couples. At the end of the park, a trail leads further on, into high grasses. Yesterday, I led this way. Today, it’s Saba. She is eager. We pass beneath huge, sprawling fig trees with smooth limbs and wide leaves of bright green. We pass beneath acacia trees like dusky clouds stretching toward the west. They are Saba’s favourites. Thorns in the vines and stickers in the grasses catch in our clothes. The trail eventually leads down to our tiny pebble beach. We sit there for a long time, saying nothing, gazing at the waters.

The waters of Lake Hora are a milky green. They glow with sunshine. The hills glow, yellow as still fire, dotted with acacia clouds. The hills are high on one side and mellow on the other, and you can almost imagine the trajectory of this meteor. On ancient stumps of trees in the shallows, long-necked water birds preen and doze. Everything shimmers with mild light, and you are helpless. You dream about home. You dream about faraway, hectic home, and dream about dreams, the ones you had when you were trapped under fluorescent bulbs, dreams about peace and about real light. The shadow of a cloud passes across the surface of Hora and you watch it all the way across. You surrender again to the sun. Even dreams lose their substance.

In another life, Saba and I brave dust and glare along the highway that runs through Debre Zeit, making slow progress toward the bus station. Taxis pass and taunt us, but we don’t hail them. Sometimes it’s more effort to save effort.

Our tiny bus to Addis seems to be waiting for us. We climb on. I wedge my knees in behind the seat in front. A group of country gents boards, in patched trousers and cloaks over their shoulders. They all carry walking sticks. Their eyes are feral and innocent. One breaks off a chunk of styrofoam for his companion and one for himself, and they begin polishing their teeth.

Invariably, unconsciously, I choose the sunny side of the bus on these journeys. Halfway home, I’m dizzy with sun. My neck aches from angling my head so the bill of my cap protects my face. I’ve drawn the sleeves of my shirt high. Every bump of the road echoes inside my knees. All of us are quiet. We come to the city. We sway and bump forward in low gears, through traffic. I know all the signs along this highway.

I know where the graveyard is. This is where Leeza is buried. The graveyard gate stands silently open beside a church along this road. I watch it go by. I don’t look at Saba, but turn back into the blast of the descending sun.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Travelogue 111 – November 25
The Devil’s Pit
Debre Zeit, Part One

I finally tear myself away from Addis Ababa. The same small circuit, the same old taunts on the street: I need a change. Heroically, I throw myself against the month’s inertia, and I make the trip to Debre Zeit with Saba.

Debre Zeit is a town on the way to Nazarit, about an hour southeast of Addis. We passed through it every time we went to do our research last summer in Nazarit. Debre Zeit is a town famous for its five lakes. On some primeval afternoon, presumably before Ethiopia had bred its first plague of humans, a set of pebbles cast from the skies slammed into the earth in Debre Zeit and the dry land sprung a leak.

Resolved on our excursion, we get up early and pay ten times the bus fare to the taxi driver who will take us to the bus station. Once there, we squeeze onto the little exhaust machine, wait for it to fill up, and we’re on our creaking, unsteady way. The trip is painless enough, but for the enthusiasm of the old ladies behind us, telling their family gossip with smacks to the back of our seat for emphasis.

You wouldn’t think there was water anywhere nearby, disembarking from the bus in Debre Zeit, looking around at the yellow hills. You jump in a taxi-van for the short ride into “downtown.” You walk a few short blocks to the premier hotel in town, which, behind its gate, is a wide courtyard/driveway between two, one-story blocks of about half a dozen rooms each. At the end of the courtyard, you see a restaurant with wide windows full of blue sky, and you know there’s something out there. The windows draw you. Standing before the glass, you stand at the edge of a steep drop into one of the largest lakes, Lake Bishoftu.

Later, you hear the whispered rumors about Bishoftu. It appears that Emperor Haile Selassie chose this as the site for evil rituals, meant to ensure his power. It was here that he gathered every boy he could find whose eyebrows grew together, and he had their throats slit and their bodies dumped into the lake. He did the same to herds of sheep and flocks of fowl.

Indeed, the place seems sinister. The walls of the crater are steep as they meet deep waters of a hard green color. The surface glints with harsh sunlight and shudders with gusts of wind. The hills around the lake are particularly stark, brown and nearly treeless. Sitting in the restaurant, you watch ravens rise and fall on the hellish air, and you wonder at the ugliest breed of pigeons you’ve ever seen, lighting on the window ledges. They’re over-sized, grey and copper, and their eyes are ringed by bright red, swollen and scaly skin. At a nearby table are a group of middle-aged Russians who stare covetously at your food.

To this day, locals are both scared and respectful of the place. Apparently, they hedge their prayers to happier deities by throwing chicken guts and injera into the lake on certain holidays. Supposedly, they are scared to approach the waters, and I’ll confirm that I saw no one near the slivers of shoreline. Saba asks the gari driver if Satan lives in Bishoftu, and he soberly nods to us. Of course, this is the same guy who doubled the fare he quoted us once the ride was through.

I complained and called him leba, or thief, but really the ride was fun and probably worth every birr: breathing the horse’s dust and having every bone shaken into new alignment as we are driven to the lakes outside of town. It’s harvest time. Golden piles of hay dot the fields. And out of Satan’s reach, trees spread their branches, children laugh at the faranj and chase the gari, and gojo, the circular huts with pointed thatched roofs, stand peacefully aloof.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Travelogue 110 – November 18
Strange Quarks

It’s raining again – a bit of kerempt after a solid month of glorious sunshine. It’s cold, and the kids are staying indoors for lunch and playtime.

I went out this morning, in spite of the weather, and I managed to get some dry time at the café. The clouds were low, telegraphing their intentions for the day. Alarmed ibises flew overhead, making their strange, honking call.

People look gloomy. I get more hostile stares now than I used to. People here feel let down by the West. I’m imagining an increase of general suspicion. I know that suspicion was like oxygen under the former Communist regime, when nothing could be said directly or openly. The populace will revert to this practice now, I’m sure. Many of them still remember. They remember the many Russians in town, well-trained in Amharic. Now it’s the Americans, they will think. Meles is a client of the America. A soldier on the street calls me “trash”. Is he testing whether I understand?

At the café, I watch the clouds, wishing they would break. I lazily turn to some work I’ve brought along. I get a call from my new girlfriend. It’s one of those girlfriends that I pick up without knowing it. Romance here is something like elemental particles, some positive, some negative, careening, matching soundlessly, and breaking away, all somewhat anonymously. I found out one day I was supposed to call this woman, though I barely knew her. Now she phones me daily and chides me for not calling.

I think we went on a date the other day. She had badgered me for a meeting, so I agreed to tea. She is dressed up, and she brushes against me as we walk, with a big smile. We don’t talk much, but that seems standard for Ethiopian dates. At the café, she gazes into the distance and looks so sullen that I feel obliged to try some small talk. She isn’t very responsive. But she proudly walks beside me afterward, and before parting, she reminds me to call.

I don’t really want a girlfriend, but this liaison seems harmless enough: I forget about it most of the time. Our phone conversation is brief. “Why didn’t you call?” “Oh, well, busy-busy.”

Next, Abdurazaq drifts toward my table. He finds me out whenever I’m at this cafe. He likes to chat, this nice old man who studied in the States in the 60s. He’s had one of those erratic careers that characterize the last forty years of Ethiopian history. He studied in the States and in Japan, served the Empire, the Communists and the current capitalists, a smart and reliable worker, but not a good ideologue. So he never served at the level he should have. He rose once to become a Vice-Minister early during the current regime, but quickly found himself odd man out and retired. Overeducated, underappreciated, now he lives on a pension of about $70 per month.

He likes to tell me about America. He ponders with his milky eyes turned slightly skyward, and starts his story, “In 1968, at the State University in Buffalo, ….” He was popular in Buffalo, among students and staff. He was offered work at the university when he graduated, and he could have stayed, but he was his mother’s only son.

He’s Muslim, but religion was ruined for him by 60s America. He tells me often of the rabbi in Buffalo who encouraged his flock to think critically about the Ten Commandments. He also tells me about the time he scolded a fellow student, a Pakistani, who forced his American wife to wear full veils. Christianity and Islam are both sick religions, he confides to me. My time is up this morning. I leave him there in Buffalo in the 60s, a place he inhabits with great peace and grace and pleasure.

It’s back to Addis Ababa of the 00s for me, where we all bounce along, according to invisible laws of uncertainty, clinging to the pleasures we encounter. It’s back to the kids, who are sheltered from the coming rain, at least for one afternoon.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Travelogue 109 – November 13
Salam … ?

The week that began in chaos ends in peace. Life seems to have returned to normal.

Tuesday the taxis appear on the streets again, materializing as though magically. I’m on the mobile, talking to Sophia. She is telling me that Meles, our beloved leader, has threatened to start rescinding taxi licenses. He has sent soldiers around to bang on the doors of closed and striking businesses. Cheered by this merciless tactic, expecting good things soon, I hang up and stow my phone. At the moment, I’m walking home from Saba’s, which is a good distance in the midday sun. Suddenly, taxis round corners from either direction, wayalas crying for customers with voices already hoarse. It feels a bit like a movie stunt, but I gratefully board one for home.

The next day, the cafes are bustling. People are smiling. I can think of nothing more African than this brisk transition. One day war, the next day laughter. And tomorrow? Well, let’s drink today’s macchiato first.

The café’s regular shoeshine boy is back. Actually, he’s a man. He has two kids and a wife, as he feels compelled to tell me today, in bits of Amharic and fragments of English. He’s also pointing repeatedly and unambiguously at his anus, looking up at me with much earnestness. He’s a thin man, and he sits at my feet with knees up in the air. He really wants me to look closely and appreciate that something is wrong down there. I’m nodding with a sincere look of concern, hoping this subject passes quickly. But he’s insistent. Is it worms? He’s saying something about medicine, and opening his mouth wide, so I can see the discoloration under his tongue. He’s pointing south again. “Right. Okay. Ayzu,” I say. I assume this is an appeal for money, and it’s working. I give him a big tip and wave him away. Yes, it’s back to business in Africa.

Thursday is “Little Eid,” something I hadn’t heard of before this year. It appears that really serious Muslims are invited, somewhere among the words of Allah, to fast for six more days after the close of Ramadan. Their reward is heaven, and a second celebration. Since “Big Eid” fell during the troubles, I’m invited to Eman’s family for the little one.

As always at Eman’s family’s house, it’s good food and good company. Arab channels blare on the TV: Oprahs in Muslim headdress, or chatter about explosions. We sit on the floor and gorge ourselves. Eman’s mother tells me I’ll be Muslim some day, “inshallah.” Today, she says, “Bush and Meles: one!” with a grimace of extreme distaste on her lips. “One!”

After Little Eid, I have to rush to a wedding. John calls me that morning: he needs a witness. I rush to Mezzagaja, or City Hall. It’s my first time inside this 60s monstrosity on top of its hill overlooking Addis. We’re searched; we’re questioned; our cameras are confiscated; we’re waved in. We push into a crowded hall to present papers. We fill in some more, watching “The King and I” on a TV set in the corner, sweating and gasping for air as we glance at the many hermetically sealed windows. John’s Ethiopian bride is eager and happy, dressed to kill. John, an old-school Brit, sports a vermilion tie against plaid. He makes many a dry crack about the romance of the place. They are shunted about, from window to window, and finally, exhausted, we are all led into a chamber decorated with heavy white and red draperies and plastic roses, sat at a formidable black table, and we all sign in the thick register, clapping as the man and wife scribble their signatures. Before we get too comfortable, the smiles vanish, and we are ushered out. In the dusty, glaring little courtyard outside, we congratulate and shake hands, and off we go. Brusquely, but no less sincerely, life asserts itself again.

So what next? As coffee is sipped between bitter words about wounded democracy; as our beloved leader contemptuously dismisses foreign calls for leniency, and demands that opposition party leaders be tried for treason; as foreign investment dries up; as life nonetheless rolls pluckily on – birr spent, marriages consummated, worms happily burrowing up their dark cavities – what next?

Well, those who are already bored glance northward, where the proudly insane leader of neighboring Eritrea lustily waves his battle flag. He has dismissed UN helicopters from the border, and troops are mustering on both sides of the vague line between them. One army is “performing exercises,” the other is “helping with the harvest.” Five years of arcane diplomacy after the last war has proven unsatisfying to hypertrophied adrenal glands in the Horn of Africa. We prepare for the next circus. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Travelogue 108 – November 5
The Rubsha, Part Three

We settle in for the long haul. So it seems.

Disturbances continued into Thursday, particularly in the neighboring district of Faransae. Troubles spread to other cities in Ethiopia, but news is scanty.

All of the night between Wednesday and Thursday, police scoured areas like ours, knocking on doors and grabbing young men and boys, taking them to jail. I hear there have been 5,000 arrests. The prime minister has said nothing, apparently acknowledging that the Ethiopian people are his enemy. Truckloads of soldiers, guns trained, still cruise the town.

Opposition leaders are in jail; their houses have been busted up and burned. One reason Faransae was a battle zone was that it was the location of one of these houses: that of Birtukan, the young woman who was vice president of the Kinijit. An inspiring story (unconfirmed) has it that a crowd of men from the district surrounded her, protecting her from the police, and escorted her to the nearby French Embassy, where she is holed up still. High casualties.

Taxis have stopped running. The government bus system is functioning, despite the loss of some buses to bonfires Wednesday. Most businesses are shut, and no end to this undeclared strike is in sight.

I walk down the hill every day, trying email, fighting boredom. It’s very quiet now. A steady stream of people walks from one place to another, but the streets are comparatively empty. The mood’s not entirely grim, though the heat doesn’t help.

Some kids glare and comment. One says, “You are faranj; I am Abasha; what do you do?” He says it at the edge of audibility, behind my back, as many do here. I confront him. He accuses my government of not helping. I counter with my dual objections: what am I supposed to do, and whose problem is this, anyway?

I’m disgusted yesterday with all parties. Disgust with the government hardly needs explaining. For the rest of them, it’s an old story of chikachik and shaybuna. A general strike? Great: more time with the family and at the café, talking about everyone’s evils but our own. My staff checks out, without a qualm for the kids or for unfinished business.

I march back up the long hill in the midday sun, about three kilometres, back to the school. I collect my two security guys and we start the afternoon’s spontaneous mission. I’m going to visit every one of my students and their families, bring some bread, make sure they’re all right. It takes us four hours, but we visit twenty-six of them before the sun begins to set. The families’ homes are spread all around the nearby hills. The two guys are good sports, putting up even with my minor asthma attack, miles from my medicine.

Everyone is fine, though several of them have lived through some scary days and nights, stray stones peppering their roofs, police banging on their doors in the search for boys to arrest.

Some of them live better than I do: furniture, TVs. Most have bare rooms of mud with essentials. Some live in tragic squalor, in crumbing rooms they can barely fit into, down alleys of mud and stone smelling like sewers. The kids from one house will lead us to the next. Sometimes, I have a crowd of little ones to escort me. Always the stories of street battles, always the surrender, always the beautiful hills around us.

In one, Grandpa sits in a pit dug into the ground, behind a loom. He may sleep there. He obviously doesn’t move by himself, judging by the state of his gnarled feet, long nails curling. His hands are permanently cramped, but he can thread and pull the loom. He wears a greasy, old military cap. His hair and beard are long. The natalas he weaves are lovely.

The police stop us. One of them is the same guy who arrested me last spring. I could never forget his face – the cold, hateful stare and the bared teeth, even in the grimace of a smile. He retains us for a while, with questions and challenges, reading over our IDs repeatedly. Eventually, with his staring, death’s head grin, he lets us go.

In day’s last light, we arrive home. I haven’t eaten all day. My housekeeper didn’t come in. There’s no food in the house. I devour some bread left over from the mission.

What was it I accomplished, really? I’ll sleep soundly from the exertion, anyway.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Travelogue 107 – November 2
The Rubsha, Part Two

Wednesday evening. We’re cozy enough tonight at the school. The five of us sit in tiny chairs in the classroom. Bakalech makes coffee. She’s burning it’an, the incense that accompanies the buna ceremony. The boys tease Wogayehu. One would hardly guess at the brutality of the day.

Wogayehu and Bakalech have to spend the night tonight because all transportation has stopped. She’s been here since morning, when parents brought their students. Everyone was just a little late, including Wogayehu. I sadly watched the clock as 8:00 a.m. approached, with Girma the guard as my only company. The first to arrive were little Yonas and Genet, followed soon afterward by Wogayehu and then Bakalech. More kids appeared. To me, their faces shone with hope and resilience. I was touched more than I can say by the sight of them all.

I left them to their school day and went down to Arat Kilo. After a while, I called the school, and all they said was, “Come back now.” Everything in Arat Kilo was peaceful, but I obeyed. Little did they know they were calling me back into the midst of the danger.

The taxi up to Shiro Meda swerves aside some half a mile from my neighborhood, and they kick us out. The taxi swings around and speed away. It’s the last taxi I see. I walk home. The streets are nearly deserted. At the top of my street are army and police trucks. Stones are in the street. Police are spread out, guns held high. I pass one who is coming up an alley, shooting into the air. Down my street, people are standing mute, looking up behind me, watching and waiting. No one at the school knows what’s happened yet. The kids have been sent home.

We can hear from several directions the sound of guns, people wailing and howling and whistling. We stand outside the school. Francois comes: he was supposed to tutor the kids in French today. As we watch, several boys run up the hill, throwing stones. As they run back down, they are followed by army men shooting at them. It’s my first time seeing men shoot at human beings. I don’t think they hit anyone. We witness several waves like this from both directions, boys running and police or army shooting. They are accompanied by the hooting and whistling of women in their houses. It’s the very sound of shame. Shiro Meda eventually calms down, but beyond the hill, the shooting goes on a long time, including several blasts that are bombs or big guns.

Muluken is also trapped at the school. After we all have lunch together, we resolve to walk down to Arat Kilo. Muluken wants to walk home to his family. I’m concerned about Sophia, whois trapped in her office at the university. Listening to the echoes in the hills around us, the fighting seems to have stopped. Indeed, people have begun to emerge. On the main road, many are walking home from work or school. We find that Arat Kilo is fine. Several stores and cafes have remained open. We meet with Sophia and have tea. All seems well, except for the trucks full of troops passing every few minutes. The soldiers sit facing outward, guns ready. Several tanks roll toward Piassa.

We manage to flag down one of the sparse taxis for Sophia. Francois and I are not so lucky. We have to walk back up the long hill as the afternoon wanes. He has decided to try for home, so our paths diverge. I worry about him. Desalegn tells me that a faranji was killed today in another part of town.

The violence that began in our neighborhood, one of the northernmost, spreads throughout the day, southward through many areas of the city. Presently, they’re fighting in several of the southernmost districts. It seems that something like twenty have been killed today, and over 500 injured. Buses and police cars have been burned. Meles has retreated outside Addis Ababa.

Huddled around the radio, we listen to the Voice of America broadcast, which waxes and wanes among static and radio-chirping. I feel for a moment like I’m in Prague, 1968.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Travelogue 106 – November 1
The Rubsha, Part One

It seems the rubsha we’ve been dreading for so long has broken upon us today, with pent-up fury, though as I write this on Tuesday evening, I have only sketchy details.

The day had an odd tone to it from the start. At 7:00, I’m still half asleep in bed, when our teacher, who always arrives early, concludes that she should clean the toilet. The bathroom is right next to my bedroom. She’s scrubbing and sloshing water by the gallon from a bucket into the toilet. “Wohayehu?” She turns with a charming smile from her position over the toilet bowl. “Good morning!” She tells me a dirty toilet bowl is bad for my sinuses. All right, then. Hazily, I wander outside. There are clouds in the morning sky, something I haven’t seen for a month.

I was supposed to start work today. I’ve been pursuing a work permit since I arrived three months ago. Whether I am closing in on the document or not, I’ve discovered work: back at the school where I taught last winter. Maybe, in this bent place, the work leads to the paperwork.

I’m killing some time before my noon class, drinking coffee, soaking up every fleeting bit of sunshine, when Muluken calls. They’ve shut the school; all the staff has left. There’s something brewing in the Mercato. This is all the information I have for hours. The Mercato district is where those forty poor souls were gunned down by the army last June. Sure enough, I notice now that the school across the street is mobbed by parents picking up their kids. There’s a subdued sense of panic. Everyone is on their mobiles.

The mobile network is clogged. I can’t get through to my employers. I assume I had better go, so I take my usual stroll, which leads me by the prime minister’s palace. Where yesterday troops were thick as pedestrians, now there are none. I take that as a bad sign.

I meet Shimeles, my taxi driver. He doesn’t know anything. We head toward Bole, both of working our mobiles. Halfway there, I make contact. The school is closing. We turn back.

The balance of the afternoon is woven of strange peace and pleasure. I’m selfishly glad to be released from work, and I return to my café for lunch. The streets in Arat Kilo have thinned out, but there is no trouble, just that unnatural peace. The few people sharing lunchtime with me at the café are clearly in the same strange, adrenalized, exhilarated state. They watch the street with a light in their eyes.

Gossip arrives. It’s a bomb. It’s a fight between taxi drivers and the police. People are dead. The battle’s still raging. No, all is quiet.

Back home, I enjoy the fading of a quiet day in the hills. Shiro Meda is untroubled. Kids are playing outside. I look over the newspaper. Ten dead in Kenya in clashes with police at a rally for constitutional change. Protests over election results in Zanzibar. Burundi threatens force against rebels. Next door, the dictator of Eritrea continues to rattle his saber. Recently, he banned UN peacekeepers’ helicopters from his side of the border.

By nightfall, news takes on more substance. Police have killed as many as six in clashes in the Mercato, possibly provoked by CUD’s call to honk horns. At least two policemen were killed. There are barricades and fires. Kids are running rampant in several other districts, throwing stones, causing havoc. CUD leaders have been arrested. More arrests are coming. One rumor has it African ministers have started leaving.

If the moon says so, tomorrow is Eid. It’s impossible to predict what will happen. I’m stuck in the hills. Desalegn has arrived. He’s the extra security I brought in last time. He just shows up. He knows. “Naga?” I ask. Tomorrow? He just shrugs.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Travelogue 105 – October 31
Is it Just Chikachik?

It’s Halloween in America. Our teacher, Wogayehu, hasn’t heard of it. I try to explain but I get distracted by my own discourse about history, All Saint’s Day, and all that, and she gets confused. “It’s for Catholics?” “No, it’s for kids. They dress up in costume.” I’m not even sure she understands about costumes, beyond traditional dress for Ethiopian dances or rituals. “You know, it for fun. Ghosts and witches and what not.” Okay. Well, just write it in your calendar: Halloween.

The government knows what day it is. The federal police are out in droves again, in their blue army costumes. They stand in pairs along every major street. Actually, most of them slouch against a convenient wall. They eye me, fingers on the triggers of the semi-automatics in their laps.

It’s hard to say what motivates their redeployment. Undoubtedly, their supervisors would say it’s the African Union conference this week. Several motorcades with police sirens pass me by this morning. They’re all heading up to the American Embassy, apparently, to pay their respects before the conference gets going. The US Embassy is just above our school. I pass it every day when I go to town.

It’s a bit eerie when Arat Kilo – that swinging little city hub down the hill from us, next to the university – when Arat Kilo is stilled. I’ve mentioned in other blogs the spooky stillness on holidays. Today, it’s the motorcades: police stop all traffic for their approach. Cars idle; everyone watches. But it’s something more. People are expectant.

The Kinijit, our main opposition party since May, has been dormant. They’ve cited Ramadan as their excuse, though they can’t quite keep reports of splintering at their core out of the papers. They balance them with statements that they’re studying the best methods for peaceful protest. These are usually countered with blunt government statements that aren’t much subtler than, “Don’t even think about it.” Meles, our prime minister for fourteen years now, is developing an Arab brutality to his rhetoric. No colorful name-calling, no snakes, scorpions or Satans, but lots of heavy-handed challenges and accusations.

Suddenly, though the conclusion of Ramadan is still half a week away, the Kinijit leaders let loose with calls for protest. Today, every supporter with a horn to honk during morning rush hour is supposed to honk. A rather unimpressive launch to a movement, I thought, but last night the government broadcast the usual threats. Remember, this is the government that has so far refused to either investigate or apologize for the army killings of demonstrators in the streets last June.

Did they honk? Nothing. Other calls for protest this week: don’t talk to your friends who are government supporters. Or boycott government services. Right. This is what we get from a party led mostly by college professors. And our government ministers? By and large, guerrilla soldiers who emerged straight out of the hills up north after almost twenty years of insurgency. It makes for a lop-sided debate.

Eventually, we’re supposed to warm up to a general strike. This, as I’ve reported before, is what worries me. Every day, I ask my taxi drivers and baristas, “Is the strike coming?” But for the fervent YES, all answers vary. This week, next week. One day, one week.

Sophie and Saba, government supporters the both of them, say it’s chikachik: all talk. And these days, there’s a small glint of doubt in the eyes of my Kinijit friends. With a laugh, Meseret says very sad things about what fools she and all Ethiopians were to think things could change.

Still, there’s a tension in the air. This week will likely tell us something about the direction of national politics. Blended into the city hubbub is a strange silence. Everyone turns their heads to watch the Mercedes with dark windows race by, the African dignitaries, police motorcycles ahead and behind them. They watch with unusual melancholy.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Travelogue 104 – October 28

The mabrat, the electricity, cuts out on me three times first thing in the morning when I have to get some computer work done. The battery for this laptop failed months ago. After many exclamations of frustration that small children shouldn’t hear as they arrive to school, I finish my project.

On the taxi down the hill, a crazy man settles next to me. He behaves for a while, just mumbling and staring. He can’t contain himself; he has to scream at the faranji. “Techewat!” he shouts: Let’s talk! Everyone turns in their seats. “Where are you going?” “Here,” I reply, and I walk the rest of the way to the internet place.

The electricity is out. Everyone is sitting indolently about. A candle is lit. Almost every day is some saint’s day, and shop-owners often light candles for their favorites. I’m curious. She says it’s Stephen’s day. “The first martyr,” I comment. “No. You don’t know Estiphanos?” “Sure,” I say, “The first Christian martyr. Stoned.” “Really?” I wonder why she likes Stephen when she doesn’t know who he is. I describe what a martyr is. She promises to look him up in the Bible. The girls look at me with religion in their eyes. Not my intention, really.

I walk slowly and without purpose along, feeling a bit bruised by the day already. At the café, I read Homer. Hector hectors his brother, Paris: “The Trojans are all cowards, or you would have had a coat of stone long ago for the evil you have done.”

So he’s afraid to go mano a mano with Menelaus; so he has a weakness for women. So he has a funny name. My position is that stoning is an extreme option.

Francois takes me to a concert a few nights ago. Oliver Mtukudsi is playing at the Alliance Francaise. It’s a beautiful evening, and the concert is outdoors, in the luxurious courtyard of the complex. The place is crowded with white people, come to see the famous black Zimbabwean. I’m stunned, as I always am when I stumble upon more than two or three white people. It’s been three months since I’ve seen this many gathered. I wander among them in a daze. “White women are beautiful!” I whisper to Francois. He laughs.

I have a difficult time concentrating on the concert. I’m intent upon the exotic life milling about. Where did these people come from? You don’t seem them in the street or in cafes. You’ll catch a few of them in some restaurants, if the stars are aligned. Francois is bored with the music, and so am I after a few songs. It’s a lot of that happy South African strumming, and some loose-limbed dancing on the stage. Mtukudsi is likeable, but that’s not enough for two hours.

The next day, God speaks. At my internet spot, Stephen has moved on to heaven, but in his place, there’s a white woman! She’s blonde, and she has a sunny smile. She is Italian! She is Antonella from Napoli. She is here, just like Francois, to study Ge’ez and early church history. Her accent is magical.

I’m in love! I’m in love with Italian. One evening, we go to the Italian Cultural Center in town to watch a movie. (Beautiful movie: “Io Non Ho Paura.”) This place can’t compare to the Alliance. It’s a plain, 60s set of buildings, painted mustard yellow. Inside is one tree, shading a corner of a dusty soccer field. But people in line speak Italian. I can’t stop smiling; I’m high as a kite listening to them. “In Paradiso, parlano l'Italiano,” I declare. They laugh, but no one disagrees.

Antonella whispers in my ear for half the movie, but I find I’m catching on. It’s a wonderful date. But for those of you concerned about my innocence, don’t worry. Antonella has a boyfriend back home. My affair is with her language. Che bella!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Travelogue 103 – October 19
Lazy Days and Distractions

My life has become pretty sedate, and, by and large, I find that agreeable. I sit on my front step for the last hour of the day. Sometimes I stay into night. I watch the bats come out among the eucalyptus trees. I watch the sky flush with royal blue. I watch Venus come out, and then Antares.

The other night, a full moon rose over the horizon, climbing over the high hills behind our bathrooms, climbing up the yellowing sky between two tall black eucalyptus trees, climbing so quietly as not to rustle a leaf. Almost as neat a feat as Francois climbing over our front gate a few hours later.

Francois found a house to rent. Actually, it’s a few rooms in a weedy compound in Faransae, the district next to mine. He has decided he likes the hills on this side of town. He takes me for a walk one afternoon to take a look. We descend the slope below the school, along roads laid with rock, along dirt paths, down to the river that divides our districts. One of its banks is all high eucalyptus over bare red earth. A few dead trunks are propped so that the local boys can ride them like bucking broncos. They invite us to join in on the fun.

Steeply uphill we climb then, along curving lanes, into Faransae, into “Yesus,” an area high above the city, named for one of the twin churches that command the neighborhood. Both churches are new. They’re painted the colors of the Ethiopian flag. One is the traditional hexagonal shape. They share a bell tower, painted silver to look like an Iowa grain silo. A priest stops us to ask for money. Francois takes off after some kids who are pelting a retarded man with stones.

Tonight, he’s climbing my gate. He had to leave one of his bags for a second trip. It’s 9pm, and I’m ready for bed. He taps at my window. I’m not sure which is more disturbing: that Francois so easily jumps the wall, or that my guard is nowhere to be found.

With nights so peaceful, my mornings are early. I rush outside to see the rising sun cast its light on the other side of the tree trunks. These days, mornings and evenings are clear-skied. Midday, clouds push harmlessly by overhead. I work; I watch the kids come in. I catch the taxi down to my internet place.

This morning, I notice that the cute internet girl, for whom I had a burning crush some time ago, is pregnant. I am reluctant to point to her swelling stomach. It would be typical if I were mistaken and then had to stammer apologies. But I do inquire, “Lijj? Baby?”

“Whenever you like,” she replies in Amharic.

“Mm,” I say, and let it go. I want to contemplate that sweet exchange for a while. She doesn’t understand. She thinks that I’m resuming my earlier invitations for a lunch date, and instinctively she humors me. I’ll leave clarification for another day.

After the internet work, after some coffee, I return to the school and meet with staff. Muluken, Saba, and I drag our chairs out of the office. I set up in the sun, they in the shade, and we pursue the topics at hand in as desultory a manner as possible, spiced with lazy banter and useless tangents. We drink buna, we drink shai, and we gossip about the rumblings afoot about more political troubles. Saba absolves the prime minister of all sins, while Muluken castigates and wrings his hands over the fate of the nation.

Jack yips at a bird. She yips at the child who runs to the bathroom. She prances around at the end of her leash, and pants, and distracts. I’ve changed her name from Jack to “Jib-snack.” Jib means hyena. Unfortunately, all the staff loves her now, and I’m having a hard time convincing them that Jack’s got to be evicted. They don’t find her at all annoying.

I have to admit she has her cute moments. When no one else is around, we play with the leather collar that she chewed through. I toss it for her, and while it’s in the air, she turns quick circles looking for it. I hold it high and she jumps, with little concern for landings. Thump! she’ll fall on her ribs, and then bound up for more.

So it goes until another night, and the bats take over, and Venus inches her way east, and the moon wanes below the hills, and the internet girl waxes with child, and Francois disappears into the hills, chasing bad boys and girls, and I pray for no more yips and no more taps at the window.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Travelogue 102 – October 10
Waiting for Francois

I’m sitting in the school courtyard, waiting for Francois. It’s the last of the afternoon, when the world is in an uproar. The church is blasting hymns. Kids are screaming all around the neighbourhood. The birds are in a riot, chasing bugs and diving for Jackie’s food. She’s bouncing at the end of her leash, issuing her squealing yap at the intruders. The sky is gloomy. It’s been raining the last three days, though kerempt should have been over weeks ago. I tell Saba that someone exchanged the Congo for Ethiopia in the night. Whither has Ethiopia gone?

I’m waiting for Francois. When will he return? Girma, our guard doesn’t come until sunset, so I’m alone on the premises in the Congo’s gloaming. I have to unlock the gate whenever Francois knocks. He said he would be back in the afternoon.

I’m waiting. I met Francois in the internet café a week or so ago. He had just arrived from Nantes. He’s a thin, bright-eyed young guy with slight whiskers and Rasta hair, with an infectious and innocent grin. He has lived in Ethiopia before. He was a real Rastafarian back then. But it’s hard to maintain an image of Haile Selassie as God once you’ve been here a while. So he says. I’ve never tried.

This time he’s here to launch his PhD work with some study of Amharic, and of Ge’ez, the predecessor of Amharic, the liturgical language, much as Latin used to be for us. He studies the history of the Orthodox church here. He likes to tell stories from the semi-mythological record of Ethiopia’s religion. He tells Sophia and I about King Ezana and his conversion in the fourth century by two ship-wrecked Greeks. As if the story weren’t fabulous enough, his wonderful accent gives it just the right folkloric touch.

I’m waiting for Francois. He arrived in Ethiopia only days before, and he’s staying in a hotel until he finds a house to rent. I offer him a room at the school. He can stay in the kids’ nap room for a little while. We make quite a pair strolling down the steep, rocky street to the school, he in his Seuss hat and I with my long hair, getting more 70s every week, among the muddy, staring kids and the grandmothers in their white shawls. But that’s one thing about travel in Ethiopia: the way has been paved by many a weirdo, and there will be many more to come. The unique is organically blended with the mundane in the image of the faranji here. Francois tells me yesterday there’s a black Rastafarian in the neighbourhood who fled New Orleans six years ago, predicting disaster. “You see?” the man says now.

Waiting for Francois, I savor the last, fading sensation of my own uniqueness. Last week, I had finally made it: I had become a writer. My cough had become so violent and so prolonged that a doctor had recommended tests for TB. The tests eventually came up negative, but for a few exalted days, I had joined the ranks of Keats and others, a host of wheezing, fragile authors shambling their brief paths through the past. Of course, Keats had produced volumes by the age of 26, when he died, but that was back when artists were encouraged toward excess in all things, including work.

No, I was so content to have made it, I laid down the pen and peacefully closed the laptop to watch the breeze in the treetops and contemplate my success.

It’s Columbus Day in America, and a momentous day here, as parliament is called into session, and the main opposition party refuses to join, citing election fraud and a laundry list of other government offenses. At the café this morning, the radio broadcasts parliament speech after speech. They sound as dry and far from reality as any American political speech.

And I’m waiting for Francois, bereft of my dream by doctors, while the trees become silhouettes against the deep blue dusk. I wonder if he’ll ever come.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Travelogue 101 – October 5
A Miracle in the Ribs

There’s singing and wailing over the wall this afternoon. It’s a luxo, a wake. I’m daydreaming on my front step. Singing is not so unusual in these parts. I don’t notice at first. When I do, I reflect on its beauty and solemnity. And only later do I realize what the occasion is. I doubt many American funerals go unrecognized. And fewer strike a bystander as beautiful.

To conclude my Meskel narrative, I can only say that the holiday itself is somber in comparison with its eve. No singing boys romping around, no joyous processions of young people in traditional garb, clapping and chanting. It’s hard for me to gauge whether that is because Meskel itself is no big deal, or if everyone is hungover and tired, or whether it’s the news of the clash with police in Meskel Square the previous evening.

“Ethiopia is a land of miracles,” one taxi driver tells me. “So many miracles!” He’s remarking that no one was hurt during the clash. The police didn’t shoot this time. He tells me that a previous demonstration was called off because of rain. He says that that time the police did shoot and forty were killed last June, a sudden shower stopped the situation from getting worse. Judging by my experience this summer, I can hardly call rain in Ethiopia a miracle, but I don’t comment.

The taxi drivers are fired up. Every one of them I encounter rails against the government. They all say they’re going to the demonstration Sunday. “It’ll be dangerous,” I comment. They simply nod, with no bravado or rage. They’re going.

Sunday comes and goes. I decide to hire extra security and stay at home, partly for comfort, partly because I don’t want to be seen by my community as fleeing. It’s an empty gesture. The government decides to negotiate, seemingly spurred on by the opposition’s call for a general strike beginning Monday.

On Monday, everything is open. I go to the clinic to get a chest x-ray. I’ve been coughing for a month now, leaving green junk from my lungs all over town. Sitting in the clinic, abandoned to an old Michelle Pfeiffer movie, I muse over the metaphysics of a strike in Ethiopia. I never do see the doctor that day, but I do see the x-ray man.

The whole afternoon is lazy and distracted. The friend who volunteers to take me to the clinic does little more than drag me along on her and her friend’s errands, eventually dropping me at the clinic and promising that she’ll call to check on me later.

One of our errands is at the post office. The driver and I stay in the car. I’m feeling suddenly gloomy. Looking into the sky, I blame the incoming clouds. Most of the sky is still blue. Without really thinking about it, I glance repeatedly up at these offending clouds. They seem fairly harmless. How can they cast such a pall over the city?

The friends return. “Did you notice the eclipse?” one says. We try the old pinhole in a piece of paper trick, and sure enough, the sun is a thin crescent on the hood of the car. A drifting cloud veils the light just enough for us to look directly. So strange.

“It’s beautiful,” gushes the x-ray man in the parking lot of the clinic. “We are so lucky. We are so lucky.” He is laughing. He is holding up an x-ray to see the sliver of sun. He lets me look. He shows another woman, who is shocked. He laughs. “It’s a miracle!” We stand together gazing at the crescent of light gleaming through some guy’s ribs. “We are so lucky!”

Friday, September 30, 2005

Travelogue 100 – September 30
Burning Crosses

The holidays come and go with sound and fury. Meskel is one of the biggest of Ethiopian holidays. It celebrates the finding of the true cross, “meskel” meaning cross. It also happens to be my birthday. Abasha find it funny that I make a big deal of the day I’m born. “Meskel is my birthday!” I repeat shamelessly until they understand it’s important. A lot of Abasha don’t even know the date of their birthday. But they indulge me.

As with many ancient holidays, Meskel’s fun has drifted forward into the eve. The day before Meskel, we celebrate the demera. I awake that morning to the sound of Girma, our guard, pounding through the concrete of our courtyard. He’s making a hole for the cross. A tall stick is stood up straight in the hole. Other sticks are braced against it, tepee style, and then those bundles of sticks, the cibo, are laid around the whole of it. A crossbar is attached to the central stick to make it a cross. The pile is decorated by grass and clusters of Aday flowers, a bright yellow daisy-like blossom that is emblematic to Abasha of the new year, and there is your demera.

Before any other festivities, there is the matter of my birthday. I’m invited into class, where they have arranged all the chairs in a circle, with one seat of honor in front of a huge, round loaf of Abasha bread that Melesech, Leeza’s mom has baked. The kids sing one line of the Happy Birthday song to me over and over, clapping. Then, in single file, they come forward with drawings they’ve made for me. Each shakes my hand and says, “Happy Birthday.” We all eat cake.

It’s time for the demera. “Wendoch, over here.” The boys follow Girma and pick up cibo, which are taller than they are. Girma helps light them on fire. Barely able to maneuver the burning bushes, they use them to light the demera. Quickly, it’s ablaze. The kids stand back and watch. They clap and sing traditional songs together.

Not exactly up to American safety codes, I realize – a fierce bonfire in the middle of our little courtyard, kindergarteners gathered round – but we pull off the old ceremony without a hitch. The demera burns quickly, and the charred cross inside falls toward Saba. The direction the cross falls signifies something, though no one call tell me what.

Of course, the demera is supposed to happen at night, but the kids are dismissed at noon. I was planning on going down to Meskel Square in the afternoon to watch the lighting of the big demera. This tradition is what gives Meskel Square its name. But I am getting reports throughout the day that there will be trouble. The big demonstration is planned for Sunday, but it seems some opposition types can’t wait.

Traveling across town later in order to meet up with some people, I pass through Meskel Square, and I get to see the monstrous demera prepared for the evening’s ritual. It looks to stand about fifty feet high. There are blue-clad federal police standing with guns ready at intervals of about ten feet throughout the whole square.

Sure enough, we hear later that protesters have assaulted the police with stones, sending tourists and other innocents running for cover. Fortunately, the police haven’t opened fire.

I go with some friends to watch the demera at Kidane Mehret (kidan-EMret,) a church up the mountain from me – the one I hear voices from every morning. It’s dark by the time we arrive. The winding road is clogged with people in their church whites and carrying tall yellow tapers, the flickering stars of which flow in a stream up the hill. We have to park and join the slow crowd. The demera is already burning, and the cross inside, about twenty feet high, is leaning. It lurches forward at one point, sending the crowd on that side surging backward, crying in delight. There are perhaps a thousand people pushed tightly together. A group of teenage boys is dancing around the demera. One beats a big drum. They’re singing something about the power of God.

We leave before the cross actually falls. News of the violence at Meskel Square is reaching us, and some in our party are nervous. Predictably, we find Norm surrounded by a large group of little girls, smiling his sweet, saintly smile. He’s having Henok take picture after picture of them all. We tear him away and rejoin the stream of candles.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Travelogue 99 – September 23
The Kunicha

Rumors are flying. Police are marching. Maybe they are army. I can’t really tell them apart. The costumes of these various branches of armed men are as arcane as the colors of the Orthodox priests. The ones that predominate in the past few days are dressed up in blue, blotchy pseudo-camouflage. Who thought up this design, anyway? Arctic camouflage for Africa? Or marine camouflage for a landlocked country? Anyway, they are everywhere.

The major opposition parties have called for a demonstration one week from Sunday. It’s what I’ve been dreading. Everyone is speculating on the odds of violence. Muluken says the people will not stand by idly this time if the police fire on them. Saba says it will be an excuse for thieves and trouble-makers.

The catalyst for demonstration now is the approaching convening of parliament. The opposition parties have protested the elections, saying candidates were intimidated and polls were rigged all around the country. Election observers from the EU and the Carter Commission have judged the elections as unfair. And, indeed, it seems to be the general consensus on the street, except among staunch and belligerent government supporters, that the CUD party won the elections in something like a landslide.

The CUD formally protested. The government-appointed elections board eventually ruled against them. Now the question that has dominated political news and gossip for weeks has been, will the representatives from the opposition boycott the parliament? The international community has urged them to sit in; the people have been urging for a boycott. No word yet on their decision. But they have called for a “unity” government until new elections can be called.

It seems the departing parliament, heavily dominated by the governing party, passed a few new rules of procedure. My favorite is that it takes a convenient majority to introduce a bill in the parliament.

The parties here have little nicknames. The governing party, which has been in power for fourteen years now, is called Yehadek. Their real name is something long and faintly ridiculous, in a way reminiscent of the scene in Life of Brian where rival Palestinian liberation movements kill each other. I believe the initials are EPRDF.

The CUD’s nickname is Kinichit. You see this name scrawled on the back of taxi seats everywhere. They won hands-down in Addis Ababa, where observers were thick on the ground. It happens I learned this name, Kinichit, the same day I learned the name for fleas, which is kunicha. So I started asking people if they were yehadek or kunicha. Muluken found this amusing, but he has lectured me numberless times on the difference, never considering that I may be having fun.

So next weekend, I face a tough choice. Do I flee from home for a night or two, stay in a hotel? If things get out of hand, I will be isolated. Taxis went on strike last time, and nobody that I know lives nearby. Nor are there any sizable markets or restaurants nearby. If things really get out of hand, there may be looting, and I’m sure the lone faranji’s house in the neighbourhood will be a prime target.

I don’t know what to do. I can’t say I’m too impressed with anybody who runs this country or who wants to run this country. The governing party has shown no finesse, blithely excusing itself, for example, for firing on civilians in June, and openly insulting the EU commission. The opposition calls for a demonstration that it knows full well may provoke violence. Meanwhile, the nation has had a record five years of peace – a tense peace at that. And the economy is sliding through the floorboards again because of this crisis.

What can you do? I haven’t decided what I’ll do next weekend yet.

Meanwhile, I’m content to stay at home and watch the afternoon school routine. The kids nap. Saba and I have buna. I sit in a pool of new year’s sunshine, and I watch a bird wash in a puddle left behind from Jackie’s bath. The dog glares at the bather, shivering with cold at the end of her leash. Birds are her nemesis. They like to swoop in and steal the bits of bread that the housekeeper leaves for her. Above, a strong breeze hisses in the leaves of the high eucalyptus trees. I watch the trees sway. All is peace.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Travelogue 98 – September 17
Addis Amat, Part Two

I sleep right through the midnight festivities, oblivious to the fireworks down the hill at the Sheraton. It’s the biggest party in town, of course, bankrolled by the richest man in town. The most famous Ethiopian pop stars are performing. The ticket is 1150 birr, over $100, well over the monthly salary of most Abasha I know.

I wake up to the sounds of a normal day, birdsong and chanting from the church, but in addition, there is singing and clapping from around the neighborhood, mostly kids. It lends a truly happy air to the day, unlike the stale and sullen vibe of most American holidays.

I’m due at Leeza’s family’s for lunch. I get going in a very leisurely way, ambling out the gate in late morning, joining the sparse crowd in the streets. There are the gory piles of sheepskins everywhere, typical of holidays here. People are smiling and weaving even more aimlessly than usual. Many are dressed in beautiful traditional clothing, especially the elderly and the children. Men are in spotless white, from the gabi over their shoulders, to cotton blouses and pants, down to white sandals or shoes. They carry the traditional fly-swatter, horse-tail on a stick.

I pass through Arat Kilo and Piassa on the way to Saba’s, and I’m astounded at how deserted they are. These are commonly the most crowded and bustling parts of the city. It’s pleasant; I take my time.

I’m in Saba’s neighbourhood a lot these days. Dr. Mickey’s office is just down the road. I pass the old Cinema Ethiopia, which is a Haile antiquity, gold and hulking. This sidewalk is usually impassable, with taxis swerving in, newspaper vendors, people lining up for the movie. Today there’s nothing.

Turning a few corners, I come to the broken alley between buildings, where shanty huts of thin wood and mud and corrugated iron are crowded together in several lines. It’s paved with fragments of stone and concrete leftover from whatever was here a long time before, and it stinks. Leeza’s family lives in one of these huts, a room about a hundred feet square, with a common kitchen in the back. They’ve invested in new furniture since Saba has been working with us, so the place is crowded with several couches, a cabinet for the new TV, a bunk bed. There’s little room to maneuver on the buckling linoleum, covered in long, green grass to celebrate the holiday. A stool is set up with a low table with cups. This is where Melesech, Leeza’s and Saba’s mother performs the coffee ceremony. First they have to stuff me with food: lots of meat, because it’s a holiday, and lots of injera, the spongy bread with which everything is eaten.

The coffee ceremony is only a ceremony in that it takes a long time – roasting the beans, crushing, brewing – and in that it’s repeated every day, with the same little mortar and coal stove and traditional, thin-necked coffee pot. My favourite part is when everyone has to take a whiff of the roasted beans. The host walks around the room with them, and everyone pulls the smoke toward himself with a wave of his hand.

It’s a family day. There’s a neighbor’s baby on the bed, rolling around and exercising his little hands and staring at me. The mother is helping prepare the food. I can’t tell if she’s acting as a servant or just lending a hand. Melesech is kind of queen of this little subdivision, a designation she’s earned with kindness, as I understand it. There’s a mother on the couch with me, impassively feeding her three children at once. I can’t help picking one up and playing with it. She fits in one hand. Here eyes are wide and curious. She has claws already and clings to the skin on my hand. She has tiger stripes. She bites my little finger. Everyone here prefers dogs. I tell them I’ll trade this tiny one for Jackie. Jackie has started eating her poop and looking up at me with bright eyes while she does it.

The sky opens up with a powerful rainstorm. We can’t hear each other talk. We can’t hear the singing from the TV, where a fascinating pair from northern Ethiopia are singing traditional songs. It’s an amateurish video – one stationary camera set up in their home. The woman is hypnotizing. She looks straight into the camera and rocks gently back and forth as she sings. She doesn’t blink nor smile, just sings on and on.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Travelogue 97 – September 12
Addis Amat, Part One

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I have a gunfan, a chest cold. Still, I’m out at the café, trying to get some work done. I’m trying to jot some notes into my notebook, but I’m having difficulties. I have a huge blister on my index finger. I had a battle with an aerosol can the other day. I had gotten my hands on some bug spray at one of the markets. When I got home, I gleefully started spraying down everything in my bedroom, with something like Nazi intensity. I noticed that my finger was burning, but I didn’t care. I was envisioning fleas and mosquitoes and flies and bedbugs and silverfish all turning belly up, and it was a terrible sort of joy. When finally I had spent my bloodlust, and I looked at my finger, the tip of it was frozen solid. I was stunned. I don’t remember this hazard to spraying insecticide.

I’m nursing my frostbite in Africa. Outside the café, standing in the light rain are the newspaper boys. One of them has a chicken in his other hand. It’s New Year’s Eve, so chickens are everywhere. Tomorrow we all feast on doro wot, chicken stew. Some jolly guys at one of the tables tease him. He takes it well. It starts to pour. He takes that better than I do. I shut my notebook for the day. I listen to the roar of the rain on the iron roof. I watch people dashing by. When it dies down a bit, I head home.

I spend the afternoon at home. The rain moves on, leaving louring clouds in their wake. We have a few hours respite, so I can sit outside and watch my laundry dry. I’ve already discovered that my housekeeper has pulled her old trick and washed all my bed linen, on the day I’m sick. It’s all on the line, dripping with the latest rain. I’ll be sleeping under a gabi tonight. A gabi is the white cotton traditional shawl that men and women wear, especially on holidays like New Year’s. They’re not all that warm to sleep under.

All around the neighbourhood, you hear the cry of roosters who know the end is near. Next door, the dogs have been baying for days at their new family rooster. The unfortunate bird manages to fly up to the top of our wall. It blinks at Jack and I with fear. Within seconds, the old lady is banging on our gate. I have to shoo the poor chicken back to its fate. We hear the last of its clucking sometime around sunset.

From behind the wall on the other side rise the day’s billows of bitter smoke. Every afternoon, they light up this noxious blaze. Today, it must be a whole tree, along with all the neighborhood’s plastic refuse. The wind is against me; our courtyard is a blue haze and my sinuses are burning. I pray for the rain to return. That’s a safe prayer these days. It starts up again, eventually picking up into a downpour, nearly dousing the fire. Somehow, it still spits out meager clouds of smoke.

Just as it gets dark, Girma, the school guard, brings to the house two tall bundles of sticks. “Cibo,” he says. It’s a New Year’s Eve tradition. We stand in the courtyard and we each get a bundle of sticks. With the help of his little water bottle full of kerosene, we light the ends of the sticks on fire. Normally, this is accompanied by songs and dancing, but we just watch the fire creep up the sticks.

“It’s the old year,” I say in Amharic, resorting to metaphor to see what the meaning of cibo is. He agrees complaisantly and laughs. “In America?” he asks. No, we don’t do cibo. “Rockets?” Yes, that’s it. There’s an envious light in his eye.

The sticks are a little damp, so we run out of kerosene quickly. Still we persist, like little boys intent on the fire. We use up newspaper and matches keeping the fire alive, eventually turning all the wood to ash. We crouch over the embers. “Malkam Addis Amat!” Happy New Year.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Travelogue 96 – September 7
Stomach Zero

“Congratulations,” I said and raised my little cup of buna, or coffee. My school staff roll their eyes and laugh in embarrassment, but they do it. “Congratulations on a job well-done!” We touch buna cups and drink. One academic year completed! The kids have just left, and we’re sitting in the courtyard. There’s some hazy sunshine, and I’m the only one sitting in it. Even after three months of rain, all the Abasha would rather sit in the shade.

The kids are sweet. Before departing, they hug and kiss each one of us. Only that day have we finished the video that we’re sending to our new sister school in England. We caught the last two kids who had been absent, saying hello in English, waving, staring in bewilderment at the camera. Metsananat forgot his name. Waving like a zombie, he says, “Hello. My name is Kalkidan,” repeating after the girl who went ahead of him.

One year done! We take two weeks off for Ethiopian New Year (September 11) and then we start up again. To celebrate, I offer to take the staff to see Lucy at the National Museum on Monday.

Monday is gloomy. We’re supposed to meet in front of the nearby St. Mary’s Church at ten. I’m not surprised when I see none of them. I’m standing alone among the usual swarm of vendors and beggars who gather in front of the gates of churches. I’m shaking my head, wondering whose bright idea this was. I stray toward the small vendor’s stalls down the road, followed by three boys whom are regulars along this strip. They introduce themselves repeatedly, “This my name is Biniam. Hungry, please. One birr, one birr, bica. Stomach zero.” Their lovely smiles and playful demeanors undermine their plea of desperation, despite the practiced whine, but the cute factor helps them. I ignore them and shop. I bargain over a dog-eared copy of a biography of Thomas a Beckett.

“Mister, stomach zero.” Okay. Nobody’s come to meet me yet. I take my boys over to the bread shop across the street and buy them a huge loaf for 25 cents. They’re all smiles and thumbs-up. I leave them at the church and cross to the museum. I’m reading about the martyr in front of the museum when I get a call at 10:20. “We’re at La Vera Cucina. Where are you?” “Muluken,” I reply, “no one ever said anything about La Vera Cucina.”

We finally make it to the museum. Everyone has a cold but me. It’sthe first time in Ethiopia I’m the healthy one. We’re stopped at the gate and searched. The guard’s baby daughter searches me, at least up to the knees. Everyone laughs. It’s two birr for Abasha, ten for me. Inside, we immediately go downstairs to the fossils. I read again with disappointment how fossils aren’t really bones; they’re just the mineral deposits left in the place of bones. Even Nature is a fake. Even Lucy is a fake. They’ve taken her off to Washington DC, of all places. She’s a fake of a fake. I study the man-made bits of bone that wasn’t bone from the skeleton that held her up 3.2 million years ago. The pieces couldn’t hold much up now. Why did they coffee-stain the fakes, if we know they’re fakes, I wonder.

I take the ladies upstairs to look at Lucy’s husband, whose head is kept in a display box behind a staircase. A reconstruction stands beside the skull. He’s a truly ugly boy. I enjoy the ladies’ laughter as I point out he’s their ancestor. How come he stands only three feet high, but his head is bigger than ours – and his brain is a fraction of the size of ours?

More fun for me is the exhibit upstairs of ancient artefacts. I’m a sucker for carved rocks. We’ve got a pair of seated notables who look Sumerian. We’ve got inscriptions in Southern Arabic script from 2,500 years ago. It looks nothing like modern Arabic, and a little like modern Ethiopian. It’s the progenitor of Sabean, which develops into Ge’ez, which is papa to Amharic and Tigrenya, the language of northern Ethiopia, and of some of Eritrea. Actually, the script of these modern languages is Ge’ez. It hasn’t changed in about fifteen hundred years. We’ve got limestone cabinets with more Sumerians lords in Egyptian positions under borders made of cavorting ibex.

In a glass case, there are Axumite coins. The Axumite empire ruled northern Ethiopia for about eight hundred years, during the late Roman Empire and afterward. If you look closely, the inscriptions on the coins are Latin. There’s no one to ask about that.

Carry on into the throne room, where stands Haile Selassie’s wooden and ivory throne. It doesn’t look very comfortable, but thrones rarely do. Muluken assures me he was a short, slight man. His feet were swinging far from the ground. In glass cases are jewelled crowns of the great emperors; robes of velvet and silk, ostrich feathers and lion mane; and swords inscribed with Ge’ez.

Outside we sit among various construction projects on the museum grounds, and we wait for Wogayehu, our teacher, who is very earnest about this visit. She’s jotting notes in a tiny notebook. I’m feeling lonely without Lucy, and a little stomach zero. Time for bug, I decide, and we walk together toward Arat Kilo.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Travelogue 95 – August 29
Macchiato in the Time of Amputation

It’s Sunday. I wake with the roosters. I listen for rain. I check for pain, rolling my tongue across the ravaged tooth. For the first time in nearly a week, it doesn’t scream. Something Dr. Mickey gave me is working. For a few days, something he gave me was giving me fevers and muscle aches, but that has passed.

Well it was bound to happen. I’m losing a body part. After all the insults upon my body, I should have known Ethiopia would eventually claim a part of me. Dr. Mickey says in his polished accent that it’s got to go. He shows me the x-ray. Yep, the roots curve and branch ominously, and the filling made by my American dentist is too close to the nerve. The wisdom tooth that has stood by me for decades has been sabotaged.

I get up. The skies are dark. Tuesday I have the tooth yanked. Even with my newfound faith in Dr. Mickey, I’m scared. I search for signs that I’ll be all right. It starts to rain. The clouds are black. As I watch, it turns to hail.

Dr. Mickey also shows me the broken tooth from a few weeks ago. The cheap filling placed by the other Ethiopian dentist has already fallen apart. Dr. Mickey will fix that. The price for both operations will be less than the other clinic charged for the one bad filling. Dr. Mickey patiently explains all the mistakes of the other dentists. He’s Armenian, young and serious and bald. By the end of his consultation, I’m wishing all my dental troubles would come in Ethiopia.

The rain passes. The black clouds break and succumb to white ones that look like piles of vapour miles high. There are fleeting patches of blue. As an omen, I’ll choose this one over the hail. Isn’t that how omens work? Then I notice that two enormous wasps are stationed on either side of my bedroom window. Up above, they’ve started a new home underneath the eave of the house. How should I read that?

I decide I had better search for omens outside of home. I’m going out for a macchiato. I’m not sure Dr. Mickey would approve, but why deny the dying tooth a last taste of sugar?

I notice there are a lot of priests out today. I pass the patriarch’s office, where there are a cohort of them lined up, greeting visitors arriving in big cars with tinted windows. The priests are like jungle birds in their plumage, clothed in robes of black or tan or deep maroon, with round, flat-topped hats. I don’t know who gets to wear which color, but it just seems right that they dress so richly. What’s the use in having plain-clothes priests?

I’ve come to the traffic circle at Arat Kilo. It’s one of the busiest neighbourhoods in a busy city, near the university and full of coffee shops and stores. In the center of the circle is a column topped by a stone imperial lion. Colorful priests regally pass in pairs or lines of three or four among the students and bustling businessmen. I notice that a circle of blue sky has opened above us, corresponding almost perfectly with the traffic circle. Good omens, all.

And yet images of doom haunt me. I see the dentist’s chair. I hear the creepy drill. Dr. Mickey says he only needs local anaesthesia. I don’t want to be awake for this. I can’t imagine how he will get into the back of my mouth and pull. The last time I lost a body part, I was a pre-teen ready for braces. They put me to sleep. Last night, I dreamt of shattered teeth and blood.

Ethiopia is in my gurgling stomach. It’s written all over my skin, like a map of red stars, all my bug bites. I’m back to my monkeyish habits morning and night of counting my wounds. This morning, they’re on my bum. I stand scratching as I wait for a taxi. I’m travelling all the way to Bole for my macchiato today, hoping to absorb a bit of the good-times vibe of the well-to-do down there.

As I enter my taxi, a young lady has to move over for me. As she does so, she presents me with a whole lot of macchiato skin down her blouse. I say, “Thank you,” and take my seat. I feel the stirring of humanity. I take that as a very positive sign. It’s been a while. There’s nothing about dentistry that inspires those feelings, pain or cure.

At the café, sugar and caffeine coursing through my blood, I tally my omens, and say they are good. Bole gets good weather, being lower in altitude and some distance into the plain. The clouds take on a benevolent shade. And they have a good orange cake at the Café Paradiso, so sweet it makes your teeth ache.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Travelogue 94 – August 23
Under the Effects

It wouldn’t be fair to my readers if I didn’t admit right now that I was composing this entry under the influence of drugs. Regrettable, but if I don’t write now, I’m afraid I’ll end up allowing too much time between logs. I’ve already had complaints. I can’t even tell you which drug, which is sad. That’s half the drug-user’s joy: name-dropping. Back when I had my chipped tooth, the dentist prescribed these little nameless tablets. They do provide relief.

Out in the school courtyard, a summer sun beats down on the concrete. It’s not the timid sun of kerempt, dashing from cloud to cloud, weak and joyless, but the Ethiopian sun that I remember, blazing in a sky of royal blue. Is kerempt waning? Sunday was nearly a whole day like this. And then on Monday, I cheated by taking another trip to Nazarit, where the rule of rainy season is tenuous. It was hot, and I blamed the headache on the glare. Riding back in the bus, you watch the cloud front smashing darkly against the mountains over Addis Ababa.

The kids welcomed me back this morning by yelling my name and mobbing me. What can I tell you about the kids, after nearly a year of acquaintance? They’ve grown. My back explained that to me when I picked two of my girls up at once. That was the first of today’s persecutions.

I’ll skip the part about “cute and lovable,” and tell you they’re eager learners. There are days I enter the classroom in the morning, before school begins, when they are allowed playtime, and a group of them is sitting with books, sounding out each letter like they’re reading out loud. During recesses, I’ve seen them playing school. One or two of them, usually girls, stand before a semi-circle of kids seated on the ground. The teacher(s) points to letters that are stencilled onto our gate and walls, and the children name them.

They persevere, smiling and playing so consistently that it is easy to forget about the trials of life outside our gate. Last Friday we went to a luxo for the father of one of our boys. A luxo is something like a wake, though I don’t know where the body is. Benches and chairs are set up inside and outside the house of the bereaved. Friends and extended family take care of the immediate family and guests. People come at any time during the next few days and quietly take a seat. They stay for minutes or for hours. Often a tent is set up outside with benches for visitors. Walk around town routinely and you’ll see these tents fairly often, just as you’ll notice that a discomfiting percentage of women here are wearing the black of mourning.

This boy comes from one of the poorer households. He lives with his grandmother in a tiny mud hut that’s morbidly dark. The mother is gone. The father has been dying from AIDS for a while. The grandmother sits on her bench at the luxo, and she sighs and she groans. She has seen six of her seven children die.

But the kids go on, and I’m proud of them. It’s as close to the pride of parenthood as I’ll get, I suppose. And doesn’t every parent experience the misery of one disappointing child? Isn’t that part of the package? That’s where Jackie comes in. I’ve had to face the difficult reality that she just isn’t the smartest pup to grace this planet. Case in point: she’s had to learn how to live with a chain and collar since I’ve been back. I didn’t think that would be a challenging concept, even for a dog. For the first week, she raced to its length and squealed. Her bewildered eyes broke my heart, as much for the lack of wit in them as for the pain. The next and continuing stage was tying the chain in knots around the pole and staring from her inch of slack. I let her go in the late afternoons and she runs wild. We play stare-and-pace, which is her version of fetch, and I sigh sadly. Yes, I understand parenthood now.

Massive clouds are catching up to the sun as the afternoon shadows stretch. I wonder how much longer my pills will protect me. Around noon today, the headaches of the last few days exploded. I was besieged by waves of blinding pain, and in between the waves, I realized with a corresponding emotional pain that my adventures with Ethiopian dentists were not over. This time, it’s the other side of the jaw. I pray the pills carry me through the night, and through the jostling taxi ride tomorrow, and through the to the answer of the agonizing questions: why now? why in Ethiopia?

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Travelogue 93 – August 14
Mr. Flower

Nazarit is balmy and inviting. The sun is out. The air smells clean. After we check into our hotel, we run our first errand: meeting a big boss in the city administration. Muluken sets out at a trot down the busy avenue. Muluken is older than I, though a touch of grey is the only indication. He’s wearing a suit, and still he’s outpacing me. We’ve already walked this neighbourhood from one side to the other looking for accommodation, but he’s off to the races again. I beg him to flag a taxi. He grimly cites the cost, but I get him to compromise. We catch a taxi-van. We ride to the end of the line, and then we have to walk another long way. We’ve gone to the wrong office. We walk back. Another van, another walk. We find the right office, but it’s lunch hour.

We go for tea. We seem to be downtown. The crowds are thick. The buildings are two-stories and full of small businesses. I haven’t seen one other faranji yet. Business lunchers stare. Boys begging and boys selling are so relentless I begin dismissing them like flies mid-sentence. They stand aside and fix dark eyes on me.

We meet our bigwig. He enters with the customary frowning formality. All city officials with authority that I’ve met bear the same load of ice on their shoulders. He sits behind his desk and invites us to present our case with a solemn nod, which Muluken does, with the requisite flatteries and humble timbre. The boss passes judgement in gloomy cadence: he’s grateful for our interest. They’ll do all in their power. He refers us to his subordinate, who has sat in the meeting with us. Outside, Mr. Ilala, the silent subordinate, is jolly and welcoming and full of ideas. He refers us to four kebeles, or city wards, where the need is greatest and where we will probably get most support. We bow and shake hands. Outside the gates, I stop Muluken and I insist on a taxi. He laughs indulgently.

Our favourite kebele is 03, the last one we visit. Kebele 03 is a cheraka kebele. Cheraka means moon. Basically, this area of the city was settled by squatters, who built their houses under the light of the moon. Now it’s accepted as a legitimate city ward. The taxi can’t take us all the way to the kebele office. We have to walk a ways down a muddy, narrow lane. The gate to the office is crowded by solicitors, as they often are. People are astounded to see faranj in this setting. They stare in shock as we pass through. The police sitting on benches inside the compound also stare. We’re led into a room by some young guys who I assume work for the kebele. Muluken explains. They send word to the kebele boss. This man enters and grabs me, shouting the Oromo greeting in my ear and laughing. He’s a bear of a man and dark-skinned. He listens benevolently to Muluken, and when it’s his turn to speak, he tells us he’s grateful for our interest; they’ll do all in their power, speaking in a basso profundo that makes the mud room vibrate. His name is Ato Ababa: Mr. Flower. The name is pronounced a little like “Bubba,” which I think might be more apt. He roars good-bye in Oromo after me.

Muluken and I celebrate at the Bekele Molla, a hotel on the Strip with a peaceful patio. We share some tibs and some fries. We toast to our success. I’m crying. It’s not the emotion of the occasion. It’s the amazing amount of dust in the air in this town. By evening, I’m sneezing and my nose is running like a faucet. The hotel patio is a mild respite, being off the street. I learn something new there: why those pretty, yellow birds are called weavers. They are busy flying around the trees of the patio. I finally notice their nests. They are little woven bulbs, like Chinese lanterns, hanging from the end of branches above. The birds enter from below. The handiwork is impressive. At first, I think they’re man-made. Then I’m wondering if we didn’t learn weaving from the birds.