Monday, October 30, 2006

Travelogue 160 – October 30
Friends and Foes of the One True God

Today’s delay in the taxi ride home is that the passenger-side door in the cabin is stuck, and the man there can’t get out. Everyone is good-humored about it, including the traffic cop standing a few yards off. Taxi boys from all around come for a try at the recalcitrant door. It won’t budge. Everybody is chiming in with quips and commentary, including the frail old woman who boarded while we’re stopped. People stand and offer her a seat, but she refuses and sits on the back wheel well. She’s a wit. Her comments raise the most laughter. The boys give up, and the passenger slides out the driver’s side. For some reason, a new taxi boy takes over as wayala. It’s a loose and fluid guild, that of the taxi boys.

Wogayehu is back. The parents insist on entering the school grounds, where they are usually prohibited during school hours. They each shake her hand. Together they bow before her. Several have tears in their eyes. I’ll have to get used to seeing Wogayehu in black. Mourning in Ethiopia lasts a long time, especially for someone as close as one’s father.

All this courtesy and thoughtfulness is given an unpleasant contrast later in the day at the internet café. An American in a suit is slumming. He looks like a standard character actor cast as middle management in the Mafia or in a bank. He has a young Ethiopian man in a suit as flunky for his stay in town. Or maybe the computers at his office are down, and his assistant is along for the miserable errand.

Our man from Delaware is irritated. He poses loud questions to his flunky about emails, berates him, curses the computer. Eventually, like a tired mule, the computer comes to a stubborn halt. Our friend lets loose with a stream of vile imprecations. ‘Are you going to stuff your fat face, or are you going to fix this computer?’ he shouts at the woman at her desk. She eats lunch at her desk because she rarely leaves it, morning to night, all week. Those are his words! A deeply-repressed cavalier gene emerges: ‘Don’t talk like that.’ He whines back at me, and he actually does whine, ‘But my computer doesn’t work.’ I discover that my chivalric personality is a character out of Dashiell Hammett: ‘Just show a little class, would ya?’

It’s embarrassing when someone from back home acts the ass, as I’ve had too much opportunity to observe – karma for the many times I’ve been the embarrassment. It’s interesting how you come to expect a higher standard from compatriots than you would at home.

On the weekend, I went to a film at the Italian Cultural Center. My expectations were high. Happily, I was alone so I was free to walk out after ten minutes. Mediocrity is unacceptable thousands of miles from home. First insult: the film was English and dubbed in Italian. Second, the concept, plot, scene, direction, and acting, adding up to a typical Western bathos – the lonely urban hero, who we’re supposed to believe is gorgeous, smart and sensitive but can’t get a date, this hero is beset by a series of mildly humorous, petty, and ultimately uninteresting difficulties; the hero despairs in various lush city environments; … oh, etc. That’s how it is that a Friday night can be spent – living among some of the world’s most desperate poverty and disorder – wringing one’s hands over the state of the Euro-American soul, a thing become as arid as any African desert.

The day continues. It happens that today is the ‘small Eid’. Any Muslim with moxie has put in that extra six days of fasting and now breaks it with a special shine applied to the soul. I have lunch with Eman’s family, a rare group of women who combine religious zeal with authentic goodness of heart. It’s very pleasant. Good food, children reciting the Koran on an Arab channel, Eman’s two adorable nieces showing off their English.

Religion is the air we breathe here. I would be lying if I didn’t say it was malodorous sometimes. I don’t find that a discussion about God or Mary or the Sharia reflects anything recognizable about the world I see outside the window.

But discussion about religion, there you encounter man’s sad dealings with man. It seems Ethiopia can’t escape the fate of rest of Earth’s rabid millions, after all. Muslim and Christian have lived here together for centuries in peace, more or less. But it seems that last month – news is slow to reach my faranji ears – there was a clash in the western town of Jima between these two communities so esteemed by God. This God is the only one who knows what actually happened. Stones were thrown, several rounds of revenge were exacted, priests were killed and churches burned.

Who knows what fuels this tension? World news a la CNN doesn’t help. Next door, Somalia is embroiled in Islamist ‘rebellion’, (who are they rebelling against?) and these enemies of the world order dare restore order to large sections of that miserable country. Ethiopia, according to some reports, has sent troops in to oppose the Islamists in western Somalia. Closer to home, I know there have been a few stone-throwing episodes in Addis over city zoning problems with new or proposed mosques.

As secure as this government may be, after last year’s contested elections and demonstrations, it faces a credibility problem on any number of fronts. Befriending what seems to many to be an anti-Muslim coalition of Western nations, in hopes of recovering favor and aid money, is not likely to play well. Ethiopian Muslims are keenly aware of their exploding demographic power, where 50-50 in 2000 has been replaced by 60-plus in their favor. Mecca is just a couple hours north by plane. Allah is watching, and He doesn’t seem pleased. (Does He ever?)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Travelogue 159 – October 22
Sad Pop and the Zombies

It’s Sunday again. If the moon hadn’t been coy and refused us a glimpse of her lovely face, today would have been Eid, the end of Ramadan fasting and one of Islam’s biggest parties. As it is, it’s just another Sunday.

They’re playing soft 80s pop at my regular café. There’s Phil and Whitney and the whole gang. I prolong my stay. In my former life, I might have run. It’s funny what havoc several years away from home will wreak in the psyche. I’m hungry for sad music. Ethiopian pop is relentlessly peppy. Traditional church music can be somber and meditative. But it’s alien enough that the spell it casts is fleeting. I bask in Top 40 melancholy.

It makes me want to write cheap, fluffy fiction. And so I indulge, filling in a few pages of my notebook: yet another beginning to my infamous novel, Zlaty Pes, infamous on several continents for its lack of substance, material or literary. Lacking amusements, I think I’ll devote myself to another unconvincing attempt at my masterpiece. To underscore my seriousness, I’ll emulate the Victorian masters by publishing in serialized form. Any sane editor would refuse me, so I’ll launch it on the web with the following caveat: ‘Dear reader, follow at your own peril, and remember – just because I’m publishing doesn’t mean I care to hear your opinion. Don’t waste precious time on critique. Enjoy or reject, as you like.’

My marvelously incoherent style is enhanced today by lack of sleep and runner’s fatigue. I got up extra early today because it’s Sunday and I knew the zombies would be out in force.

Scouts for Christ’s army have indeed hit the streets by 4:30 a.m., shuffling in semi-conscious clusters in the middle of the road, swaying so their layers of tattered rags swing back and forth. They mutter; they moan. They carry tall roods on their shoulders or walking sticks. Many have heavy loads on their backs, bags of candles or missals or incense or traditional clothing that they’ll sell out front of the church. There will be dozens and dozens of them squatting as near as they can to the entrance of today’s church, as designated by the calendar of saints and angels and the various personalities of Mary or of the prolific Trinity. Small children lead blind elders in muddy rags into the path of anyone or thing approaching. Decrepit warriors race along on their crutches. The occasional taxi careens by with its load of the undead. But the road is quiet, abandoned to the foot soldiers. These shuffling ones look at me hungrily, but I’m out of reach.

It’s cold. The stars are brilliant. At the top of the last breathless height is the church of Kidane Meheret. The zombies here are harmless, neutralized by the power of religion. They emerge in shambling sorrow from dark dirt alleyways, from the paths among the shadows of tall trees, hooded and hidden deep within their winding sheets, and they turn to follow the swaying tapers of others. Many slump to their knees among their rags, crack their debile skulls against the stone gate posts, and whisper long, groaning complaints. I touch the gate in honor of the god who oversees the ticking of my much-abused heart, and I head back downhill.

Above the eastern wooded ridge is the first hint of blue among the black. The undead pull their shrouds tighter. For my part, I rejoice. I’ve made it another day, into and out of beauties, evading the leprous glances of the Chosen, evading Orion’s last arrow as he descends toward the west, facing the prospect of another fierce, defiant sun.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Travelogue 158 – October 15
The Chinese Mafia’s Work is Never Done

The coffeehouse is quiet, except for the Sunday pool players in shorts and ties who want us all to appreciate their party. The sun beams on my back. The view extends over rooftops to the mountains streaked with morning shadows.

The cashier gives me a long, shrewd look and clucks her tongue. She makes a comment to her co-workers about China. She’s been curious about me. That’s the trouble with being a regular in Ethiopia; there’s no anonymity or wall between patron and employee.

‘Where are you from?’ she asks brusquely. I say China. She nods thoughtfully. Then she wants to know about the people I’m always bringing in here for meetings. I say I’m mafia. That she can laugh at. China she’s still chewing over.

I’m exhausted, but it’s a pleasant sort of tiredness, one that comes from work you feel good about. Yesterday we mounted another expedition to Mojo. Okay, so much of the work on the trip is time spent on the bus. Fortunately, I have good company. Travel was the stuff of bad farce.

Out of four trips to or from Mojo, only one leg, last week, passed without incident. The morning leg yesterday began in an encouraging way: we caught an early minibus, which whizzed along at a cheering rate. We recovered from one minor dust-up with another taxi, which had already sent a cyclist flying before backing into us. Then, in Debre Zeit, we’re stopped by a belligerent traffic cop. He disappears with our driver. Passengers drift away to catch other conveyances, though aseveral of them are waylaid by other police a few hundred yeards along. A half hour later, we’re moving again, but stopping every quarter-mile or so to pick up new passengers.

The way home in the evening is a nightmare. There are no buses to Addis: we have to get to Debre Zeit first. Against my better judgement, we board one of the big buses. This one is operated by an unusually enterprising pair, driver and wayala, who are determined to serve hundreds of customers on this seventy-kilometer trip. Maybe it’s not business; maybe it’s charity. They’ll swing to the side of the highway for any lonely or weary sojourner, anyone who looks to have a few centime in his pocket. A one-hour trip turns into two and more. We make intimate acquaintance with the southern suburbs of Addis, halting about every hundred meters. By the time we step down to the street in Addis, we feel as though we’ve traversed Alaska. We stare blankly around, all memory of our happy day erased in a daze of pointless exhaustion.

But happy day it is. I’m euphoric to arrive at Mojo and set foot on terra firma, though it’s only to jump right into a gari. I enjoy the horse carts. The same can’t be said for my entourage of Addis staff, city slickers all. At best, they find the gari hilarious, at worst contemptible. Bakalech gets her foot caught in a brace of the cart as she dismounts, and she has to hop alongside as the careless horse starts forward.

All in all, Bakalech has a miserable day. She shows up late in the morning, and she shows up in heels. Right away, she’s jogging along behind me with sore feet. My scheduled taxi is a no-show. The next one raises his price en route. I storm out of the taxi at our destination, refusing to pay the extra – these dramatics are accepted practice – and the driver proceeds to abscond with Bakalech. The lock on her door is jammed, and I only wish I had had my camera ready to capture the look on her face in the passing window.

Anyway, I pay her ransom, and we carry on with what, to her, is a hot, dusty, and futile day – but to me is the reason for all the rest of the misery and farce I endure in Ethiopia.

We return to the beat house, which has been magically transformed by tall and humble Malaku with the rust-stained teeth common to this area, our local man. Walls are painted, the yards are leveled and rid of all weeds, dilapidated outhouses are torn down, one interior wall removed to create a classroom.

That’s not what we notice first. It’s the crowd of applicants piling into the road. We enter the front yard and wade through them, moms and grandmothers and men in work-clothes kneeling in the dirt or leaning against the leaning iron fence, children standing wide-eyed in groups. If I smile and squeeze one’s hand, they all advance in pleasure and wonder on the faranj. Their noses run, their hands are dirty, their faces and hair harbor fleets of flies. They are beautiful.

On the porch, one of our volunteers reads from a list of two hundred. Originally, almost five hundred applied. These have been winnowed by half. In back, more volunteers sit at a table and interview applicants, who stand meekly and expectantly before the table. Each child answers his or her own questions, usually in a whisper. I stand in back, useless as ever. I have one role: to record. I have camera and camcorder, and I have an outsider’s wonder: this is human dignity; this is worth; this is the real gold standard.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Travelogue 157 – October 7
Saved by Mojo

It’s Saturday morning. There are no kids, no school, no staff. Bakalech is moping. She’s bored. It’s too quiet, and since I’ve recovered she cooks me the same things over and over. Francois left the house early today. He returns to France in a few days. Weekdays are fun around here: both staff and kids laugh a lot, and the adults have become close. Weekends: just me.

I try to cheer her up, but I’m fundamentally unamusing. A quip or two won’t change that. I’m a little mopey myself. I woke up missing Minnesota, which is a rare emotion. I lay in bed for a while savoring memories of such things as bookstores and libraries, theaters, quiet parks, lectures and readings, peaceful bars with baseball on the tube.

Girma, the guard, is quiet and dopey. He’s a victim of my training craze in anticipation of the Great Ethiopian Run in November. We’re getting a team of staff and friends together to run in it, all wearing Tsegereda T-shirts. A friendly competition has sprung up among staff. Girma announced he was coming in first among the team. This opened him up to all sorts of merciless teasing from the ladies. Girma is overweight, and there’s no polite convention here of circumspection about such matters. ‘Girma is fat, Dana,’ they cry and imitate him waddling along the race course. They laugh uproariously. I stand up for him. ‘Girma is strong,’ I say, and his smile is touchingly grateful.

Desalegn is his friend. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve hired him to run with me while he’s on hiatus from soccer training. He has become poor Girma’s coach, as well. Whereas I train every other morning, Girma is up every day at 5:00, running, jumping rope, counting off dozens of sit-ups. He staggers wearily through the rest of his day.

Myself, I’m paying for having impressed Desalegn in early runs. His gaze became hard and assessing. He began pushing indecently on the hills and submitting me to ever more grueling rounds of calisthenics afterward. I sleep-walk through my days. I resort to reminding him of my advanced age. And then Mojo comes along to rescue me.

Mojo is a small town about an hour and a half southeast of Addis Ababa, halfway between Debre Zeit and Nazarit, two towns that devoted readers may recall from last year’s blogs. (Ethiopian year) Mojo is where we are opening Tesfa’s second school. Need for Tesfa’s services in Ethiopian is infinite, of course, but real cooperation is very finite. In Mojo, we have discovered a happy meeting of minds among officials, landlords, volunteers, teachers, and families who would like to help disadvantaged children. Thursday night, I cheerfully send a message to Desalegn that I can’t train the following morning. I’m going to Mojo.

It’s a dubious trade, the rigors of pre-dawn training for the rigors of bus travel in Ethiopia. It hasn’t changed at all: the chaos and suffocating smog of the station, the misshapen bus seats shoved to within inches of each other, Today I have a choice of the knee-less sun-seat or sitting above the well of the back door on a truncated seat that slopes forward. I made the wrong choice: the seat in the back. My backside and legs are screaming before we’re halfway. The mind plays tricks in these situations. It says the trip is only an hour and a half; you can take anything for that short a time.

Passengers climb over you. There is the usual contingent of wide-eyed country folk with walking sticks, shawls, rude turbans, rough hands, overbites, and guileless stares. Egress from the city is long and unbearably tedious. But break it does, tawdry shops and office buildings built from kits giving way to sudden fields and views of the hills, reclaiming the view, giving it up, letting it go finally. Fields of teff, a bright green, delicate grass that is grown for injera, sway under the patchy sun, under occasional stunted tree, as far as you can see. No more square mud; instead, the infrequent round gojo with thatched roof.

In Mojo, you travel by gari, horse-drawn cart, along lazy dirt roads laid out in grids around decaying compounds lush with unrestrained vegetation. Everybody is slow at midday, sheep and oxen and donkeys and Muslims and Christians.

I’m in Mojo to videotape. Here is our proposed school site before we lay hands on it. Here is the high, peaked iron ceiling and it’s hand-hewn eucalyptus rafters. Here is the cracked concrete floor of the main room, and the dirt floors of the others. Here are the approximate lines of thick mud walls barely exceeding my arm span that have to house twenty children, windowless and brown. ‘I’m the only one who thinks this place is appalling, right?’ Innocent nods reply. The city government is ecstatic. Local volunteers are proud. Teachers at expensive private schools are ready to jump ship to catch our leaky vessel.

All right, then. Turn off the camera and start the work: cleaning, painting, digging latrines. Where’s the champagne for the christening. In two weeks we launch Tsegereda-Mojo. All four year-olds on deck!