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.