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 fiancĂ© 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 cafĂ©, 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.