Sunday, November 26, 2006

Travelogue 163 – November 26
O Hard-Hearted Africa

“It’s hot,” I think, and the thought disperses into the gold and red fog whence it emerged. Only one other thought is possible, and that’s not really a thought. If it had words, they would be, “This hurts.”

Maybe that’s what I like about running. The low-level agony obliterates any coherent thought. Not that my thought process is ever very coherent, but it’s busy. There’s a lot of it. These days, business has me in a perpetual state of planning. What a relief once a day when my only duty is to register pain

Today is the Great Ethiopian Run, Africa’s largest road run, a 10K through the city, and the focus of two months’ training. Unfortunately, as I quickly realize, my training was a little misguided. I train before dawn, when it’s chilly and there’s no sun beating down on my tender white skin. And, aside from the occasional corps of Christ’s zombies, I have the streets to myself before sunrise. Today, I am flotsam on a river of green shirts that stretches beyond the horizon forward and back, some 25,000 of them, the media says. The pre-dawn zombies don’t jockey for position like the green-shirts do. The green-shirts are absolutely African alinear, multiplied into infinite agitation. They meander left and right, gather into groups, stop suddenly, spurt ahead just to become distracted and stall. Street children decide to join in, darting this way and that. And when the crowd gets tight, the elbows come out.

It’s hot. The sun blazes on my back and neck as we labor up the first long hill. Everyone still has a lot of energy – energy to zigzag, shout, and laugh … and chant. A series of chants start up and gather strength. They take on a call-and-response format. This continues for miles. I don’t know where they get the breath. ‘Leba!’ they chant: ‘Thief!’ They’re referring to our beloved prime minister, specifically to his miraculous win in last year’s elections. There are other slogans, calling for the release of political prisoners, etc. I’m working hard, so about halfway through the course, my companions on the road quiet down. It falls to the slower crowd to pelt the Ministry of Justice, which is nearer the finish line, with stones and trash.

I’m accustomed to standing out in Ethiopia, but there are times when you really don’t want to – like when your body hurts and you’re sweating extravagantly and you’re huffing like a train; like when you think you’re running a race but you unexpectedly find yourself the foreigner inside a crowd of political demonstrators. People line the roads. ‘Faranj!’ they yell and laugh. ‘Not too many celebs run marathons,’ I muse, another fleeting thought in red letters. It’s just not a moment you want to smile and wave to the crowd. But them when is?

I’ve made myself even more conspicuous in the choice of the team’s T-shirts: bright yellow with our name front and back. It was fun entering the mass of thousands, all of them in the event’s green T-shirt that was handed out at registration, all of the team in yellow. But we were dispersed quickly once the running began.

In the last kilometer, the green river still stretches ahead, all the way to the finish. I’ve been passing hundreds all along the way, and yet there’s no sign of progress. I gain on an obese woman who hasn’t broken a sweat. I wonder if there is a contingent of (shall we say) late entries. I hobble toward the end. Looking around, I realize the race organizers have arranged for one more final confirmation of futility: there’s no clock. No one wears numbers or chips, so we arrive at the finish like so much new sand on the shore, uncounted and unrecorded, … though we do get a nice little medallion to hang around our necks.

The team gathers again in front of Estiphanos church to pose for more photos and to bake on the asphalt while we wait for stragglers. Yohannes is exceedingly proud to have beaten me. He trained for one day while I boasted for two months about my morning runs. In every photo, he’s very particular about lining us up in order of our finish. As I invited two elite runners onto our team, I’m a humble team fourth. And not even the excuse for fresh pain to console me.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Travelogue 162 – November 15
The Voices

She does look like a boy. Like a ten year-old boy, her hair cropped short, her features blunt and square. She enters late and sits at the back, and I wonder what the boy is doing in this class of adolescent girls.

She has tried to turn her looks to her advantage. She joined a boys’ group once, a program for homeless boys, but she was discovered and raped. While the authorities investigated the incident, she was the one lodged in jail.

She’s shy and sweet when she talks to us after class. She seems to urgently want this minute or two with us. She smiles and she is tentative as she tells us that she is trying to believe in God. But she’s sure she’s going to die soon. Voices tell her so. They like to visit her at night.

There are about twenty-five girls in the room. Some look like young women, some like pre-teen girls. They’re all living on the street, and they all have been or are sex workers. They participate in this day program in the crazy Mercato district of Addis Ababa in hopes that they will be accepted into the longer-term live-in program and have a chance to go to school.

My first impression: they are just like my girls back home. I’m referring to the teenage ‘welfare moms’ that I taught in Minneapolis. They grin the same way; they move the same way; they’re sassy the same way. A few extroverts gather around me right away, and they shriek with laughter when they hear my Amharic. They’re delighted. They cant on and on about it, yelling at Graham in Amharic, ‘He speaks Amharic! Why don’t you?’

Graham smiles back blandly, the blank, uncertain look we all get when faced with a flood of foreign words. He’s only been here a week or two, and it’s only the second time in Ethiopia. The language and the volume combine with the jet lag to stump him, but only for a moment. This is his class, and this is what he does. He has led these workshops in Africa and India. His philosophy, to find those most in need and try to teach them hope, self-awareness, and some new survival skills through the arts of self-expression. In his former life, he was a photographer and painter.

The girls are teenagers. If you forget, they’ll remind you. They can’t sit still. They fill the opening discussion time with complaints: can we do something else today? Why do we stay so long? We’re hungry. When Graham wants us to stand together and hold hands, they giggle.

But, also like teenagers, when it comes to work – today it’s drawing – they let go and become absorbed in it. Graham has them completing personal ‘mandalas’ – as he insists on calling them, – which means ordering the things of their lives according to their importance in concentric circles, arranged around their own faces in the center. Common items of great import are shoes, clothes, mom, and brothers. Common items to be despised: drugs and police. You would never guess how isolated these girls really are, estranged from family and old friends, all human contact the fleeting sort of the streets. It’s this isolation and vulnerability that draws Graham to this population.

Lydia is Irish. Her accent is wonderful. Her temperament is even and unflappable. It’s not these things that the girls see, though. It’s the skin so white it’s pink. It’s the blonde hair and green eyes. She peacefully prepares the paper with blank ‘mandalas’, and Alem, a girl as black as Lydia is white, stares. Her eyes are red. They don’t waver. There’s no discernible emotion in them. She just watches.

We observe another fidgeting and giggling silence at the end of class. This time, we have two elected leaders of the class to bring them around. When we break, there are smiles and shouts, and the girls move brightly back and forth between the courtyard and the class, their movement something between a defiant strut and a carefree skip.

Hannah sits by herself with a shy girls’ diverted gaze. She squirms in her chair like a child. The voices will continue to come. Their pronouncements will be dire. We know there’s nothing we can do. Graham muses at the door about help, intervention, drugs, counseling. We fall silent. It’s time to go.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Travelogue 161 – November 5
Screen Life

Bezawit is one of the new children. I mean new among the new: she started later than her classmates, who comprise the entering class of four and five year-olds at the Shiro Meda school. A few disappeared; a few others were too young. Bezawit is one of the replacements.

Is that why she keeps to herself? I don’t think so. Pudgy little Meheret started even later, but I remember her pushing her way into the playground games immediately. You hear her voice above all others when the class sings. Bezawit still prefers to sit on the schoolroom’s front step and brood. Her face is perfectly proportioned, strikingly adult and earnest. Her eyes are intense. She doesn’t smile for me when I try to cheer her up.

I think about the kids a lot these days. Everything I see during the day makes me wonder about their lives ahead of them. I watch young adults and their funny ways – no funnier than ours, in essence – and I wonder.

I’ve seen a couple Ethiopian movies lately. Last night’s offered no subtitles in English, so I got to practice my Amharic. That’s a flattering notion: I don’t have enough Amharic to practice. Fortunately, language wasn’t much of a barrier to understanding the film – or perhaps language wouldn’t have clarified the odd lacunae in plot.

Amharic film – if I may generalize from my vast experience – seems to carry forward a tradition of story-telling from the very lively local theater. Themes are social and very moralistic; plot development is melodramatic. The acting is often very nice, while everything else is sloppy to a greater or lesser degree. In time this may be looked upon as the time of cinema’s great flowering in Ethiopia. I’ve noticed a real shift in several years. Now it’s hard to find a Western film for a weekend evening. Amharic titles are proliferating faster than the few venues can handle.

The title last night was ‘Zema Hiwot’, ‘Song of Life’. She’s a rich and famous pop singer with a secret dark past that catches up with her in the end – I won’t give it away. She’s a wide-eyed innocent surrounded by conniving show business types. She suffers a creative block and realizes she needs to help AIDS children. Etc. The director seems more concerned about daring camera angles than patching up the rough fabric of his plot.

There are some nice shots of Addis Ababa. There’s nothing like putting a frame around the familiar to make it romantic. One nice consequence of my wanderlust has been living in a number of cities that double as frequent film-sets. My favorite experience of that sort was sitting in a theater in New York City watching a Woody Allen movie, only to see that very theater interior featured in the film.

This theater interior is about as romantic as a high school auditorium. This is the Cinema Empire (pronounced ‘Impeer’) in Piassa. Everything is square. The room is a big, plain cube. The screen is square, and looks as though it would snap up with a yank. The chairs are square and hard. There is a balcony, where most of the crowd congregates. I want to be close to the screen so I can read the video prompts – “Pause”, “Play”. I buy a Mirinda for Saba from the old man strolling around, clinking bottles for advertisement. It’s as sickly orange and sickly sweet as movie pop should be. It reminds me of Turkey, where Fanta is as ubiquitous as Ataturk.

And there’s Addis on the screen. It doesn’t look half bad up there, bloated and stretched and pixilated, but still Addis among its dusty green hills. It doesn’t look half bad in real time, either, as we exit the theater. It’s Saturday night; the streets are crowded. Mayhem and peace and laughter mingle and jostle among us. Languorous couples squeeze by. Old drunks lurch forward in hopes of change. Children appear at your elbows with chewing gum and tissues. If you stop, they gather and fight. But they can be fun to chat with, observant , witty, and savvy.

This is ‘Doro Manikeh’, a section of Piassa known to be rough. The name translates roughly into ‘Chicken with its Throat Cut.’

The chicken is still jumping. I can be forgiven for some delusional romance, I think, on a Saturday night, for projecting the scenic upon the sordid. Can’t I? Isn’t this London or New York before they matured as movie sets – raucous and ill-mannered, rough-hewn and functional, crammed with people whose fun is simple and immediate?

Everything is a museum piece in this night light and noise. Shop after shop, improvised from canvas and sheets of iron, stacked with rows of shoes and with piles of the most disparate household articles. The Madonna and child asleep in the middle of the jammed sidewalk, wrapped in frayed white cotton. Such a sweet face the baby has, and so surrendered to its sleep. You keep walking because you have to, and the motion and the madness make the tranquil faces striking. The sight doesn’t fade like it might with staring.

The question come sup in conversation with a Brit newly arrived in Ethiopia, ‘How does one create hope for them’ – these children, these casualties, these shoe-shiners, these gum-brokers and baby prostitutes and tiny denizens of the street? And the enduring non-answer is, ‘How does one protect it inside oneself?’

The museum is stories in repose. They don’t need to be told; we know them. We go on.