Thursday, January 28, 2010

Travelogue 317 – January 28

The weather has been gorgeous this week. The healthy sun has been a blessing, just when the work has been most hectic, most frustrating. The sun rises just after six in clear skies and warms the chilly city. It descends by degrees into the courtyard of my house, and by the same degrees it lifts my mood. It fuels the optimism that makes the work possible.

We continue to negotiate, day by day, over the fate of the old shack left on the land meant for our seventh school, conducting circular dialogues with that parasitic species without which human history is impossible, the species called 'officials'. Though entrusted with the organization of our social life and governance, though entrusted with some of the most sophisticated systems evolved by humankind for humankind's benefit, logic is not among the first skills exhibited by this species. Perhaps they are like slaves to the sun king, who dare not look into the light. They only serve by bowing and by pushing eager subjects away.

I start the day with a much more enjoyable and inspiring set of animals than officials. I attend the day's first races at the week-long club track championships at the capital's main stadium. Foremost among the races is the women's ten-thousand meter. I say 'foremost' because in Ethiopia there's a special lustre to the five and the ten thousand. Review your tapes of the last Olympics: you'll see that Ethiopia was content to surrender medals to their arch rivals, the Kenyans, in every other race. But the five and ten were Ethiopian territory. And I also say 'foremost' because we have two contestants in the race.

The stands are sparsely populated at this early hour, but Team Tesfa has brought out twenty or thirty loyal teammates, who sit around the coach on the concrete steps, holding up their banner. I join them and wait for our race. This is a great crew, energetic and cheerful, young and healthy. They hang all over each other, as young Ethiopians do. To an American audience, that phrase would suggest sexuality, but here it's innocent affection, girls and girls, boys and boys, and yes, boys and girls with arms around shoulders, playing with each other's hair, leaning into each other and laughing. They chat continuously. They revere their coach, a bear-like figure much beloved in the whole running community. Each time an athlete arrives, everyone shakes hands. The handshake involves a slap as hands meet, and often a meeting of shoulders. Jamie arrives, our guest this month from the University of Minnesota.

One member of the group in particular it warms my heart to see. Chaltu is a very talented athlete in her mid-twenties, one of those that shows great promise in the five thousand. Formerly a member of Team Tesfa, she qualified for the government's Tirunesh camp. Named after one of those Olympic athletes that wowed the world several years ago, the purpose of this camp is to develop talent for the next Olympics. Three of our athletes have qualified and now train at the camp. Chaltu was always a favorite of mine, and popular among the athletes. She has a sunny smile and a ready laugh. She was a strong leader and role model for the younger girls on our team. That she is hanging out with our team during the meet means a lot to me. This team is a strong and cohesive unit. Their presence is proof of their spirit: most of the athletes derive no material benefit from their association with the team. They voluntarily attach themselves to the group, and I see them again and again on each visit.

Further proof of the bond among them is offered once the race begins. The ten thousand is a race of many laps around the track. That doesn't discourage the group from robust cheering every time the two teammates pass. And it never fails to produce a corresponding response. When Workinesh swings around the nearest curve in the track and hears our encouragement, her back straightens and her stride lengthens. Each time, she passes the woman in red with whom she battles for the entire race. She comes in ninth in an exciting race. Afterward she joins us in the stands to a hero's welcome. The coach gives her a kiss on the forehead.

I have to get back to work. I have to rejoin the world where no one seems to root for each other, or even for the children who might have an opportunity to enroll in their first school this spring. One official foists us off on another, who passes us off again. The clock ticks on, and it's the opposite of what we witnessed this morning: the players slow down. The fans boo, or disperse in the middle of the race, or they gather round the coach chanting 'Money, money,' and holding out their empty, calloused hands.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Travelogue 316 – January 25
Amazing Invention, the Calendar

It's Monday, and the beginning of a serious week. Once the sun is up, once business starts, I realize just how serious it will be. But before all that, I indulge in the silence of the sleeping city. Like a difficult person who might appear angelic in sleep, this difficult African capital city is at peace at night; it poses no threats, no problems.

It's Monday, barely. It's 5am. Jamie, Tsege, and I are going for a serious run to kick off this serious week. We start off in Shiro Meda, at the top of the city, where the stars are bright. The Ethiopians in our group are shivering, but the Minnesotans are basking in something like a perfect temperature. I'm taking in the constellations before we start. Scorpio is rising, and above it my own patron constellation, the most aesthetically boring constellation of all the zodiac. And ahead of us as we take our first steps is the Southern Cross.

If you come visit us, chances are that something like this will be your first experience of Ethiopia. So many foreign flights land at Addis Ababa's Bole Airport in the middle of the night. Your first impression of the capital city will be of a ghost town. The dark streets are barren of life. This is a city like a bee hive during the day; so the stillness at night is striking. Of course, this is the very reason we're running at 5am. And even at 5am, we're still dodging some capricious traffic, some weaving pedestrians on their way to work.

It's either up or down out of Shiro Meda, and we're not going up into the mountains. We run downhill for several miles, passing the university and several ministries, passing the obelisk at Sidist Kilo and the old stone lion at Arat Kilo. We pass the prime minister's palace and the president's palace. We pass the Hilton and finally the hill bottoms out at Meskel Square. Now we head out Bole Road, toward the airport. This is the reverse of your journey when you arrive, staring out the taxi window with wonder at the emptiness of the ramshackle city, wondering at the occasional drunk, prostitute or solitary on his way to God knows where.

Once the day starts, it really goes. The tragicomedy that is business in Ethiopia opens with farce today. Cien has arrived at the new school site in its small village – set to clear the land and take down the crumbling shack that was abandoned there – only to be told by local officials that he can't touch it. This initiates a day-long series of phone calls. There are regional officials of various stripes and there are local ones. There are education officials and there are town officials and there are elections officials. How is this an elections issue? That's the surprise of the day ... and all I wanted to hear in a tense election year.

We were forced to send Cien short-staffed to the village. We had hoped that a good contingent of the team men would accompany him, and pick up some skills in carpentry and construction. But planning is too often folly here: we found out Friday that there's a major national track meet starting Tuesday. 'Oh, really?' we say, 'And what's the schedule?' Our coach doesn't know. They don't release the schedule for the week-long track meet until the first day of the event. Hmm: and have any athletes had a chance to prepare for these races? ...But I digress.

Why is the elections board involved in our school project? It seems that the local board has since the time of prophets used the crumbling shack on our land as a center for their commendable civic function. There's some sort of election coming – not the big one, but something small and local. Did anyone consider this during the year of planning that has gone into this project, or even in the final weeks before we have donors boarding planes for expensive flights to Ethiopia in order to participate in the building? No, but they offer some specific numbers: you can't touch the sacred shack for 13-25 days. Ah! That just about covers the time that our donors are in town.

Stephanie enters her week short-staffed, as well. She has plans for a few major arts events at the Mercato school. But the track meet robs her of some help. She has already lost one day last week to the amorphous holiday, Temket, which fluctuates in duration between two days and four, depending on who you ask. School staff claims two days off, just as we expected one. And then, on the first day back Stephanie's main translator doesn't show up because he has an exam at the university. Somehow this isn't worth mentioning earlier. And so on ...

It's 5:30am. The city sleeps on. The officials sleep on. The priests and the teachers sleep on. The sages of the athletics federation sleep on. I wish them sweet dreams. This city under the stars is drifting along rudderless and contented. We runners round the circle by the airport and head back into town, blissfully ignorant of the hurdles ahead once the sun has risen.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Travelogue 315 – January 24
Ups and Downs in the Highlands

Tsege is looking better. She's putting on weight. She's smiling. When I first saw her this year, she was gaunt and troubled; she had to her countenance something of the fish out of water, gasping for breath. That day, I fed her and I forbade her to go back to her 'home'.

Tsege is one of our young women on the track team. She's been with us for a few years. It seems that she was forced out of her family's home about three months ago. She has lived the typical story of a girl that comes to Addis Ababa to live with extended family, becomes an object of scorn, abuse, and exploitation, and is ejected when she develops her own will.

The story of the past three months has been one of homelessness, begging, and being at the mercy of friends and friends of friends and acquaintances, and the greedy and the lascivious. She spent the final weeks sleeping on the floor of a house belonging to strangers, acquaintances of acquaintances. She was being harassed by one of the men, and was frightened. She had been forced to stop school and training. She stayed in contact with team members, so she knew of the arrival of Jamie, this year's visitor from the University of Minnesota women's track team. She showed up at the guest house to greet her.

I was startled by her appearance, as one never ceases to be by suffering, by intimate portraits of suffering, no matter how many times one has encountered them. When I insisted that she stay at the guest house for a while, her first response was almost instinctual, fearful, in the manner of exhausted prey: 'But where will I go after?' I urged her not to worry – we'll stand by her one way or another – but her eyes were wide and her nostrils flared, like there was a wolf waiting beyond the gate.

She has settled in well, and her smile adorns the bare guest house like garlands. The house is full and busy. We have three guests from the States, all here for different projects. Ijigu is security and handyman. Team members are often stopping by. Foundation meetings take place in the salon. It's a safe place.

It would be nice to get Tsege some more clothes. She has two sets of them, jeans and t-shirts and a tattered windbreaker. She never goes anywhere without the windbreaker, including when she trains. It doesn't matter what the temperature or what the altitude.

It's hard not to be aware of altitude in Ethiopia. It's a constant companion. You're reminded of that by sudden shortages of breath and an ache in your oxygen-starved muscles. And its a moody companion, changing with every step, up or down, in this mountainous country. I'm made more keenly aware of altitude by Cien's watch. Cien is here to do some advance work on school number seven. He is an outdoorsman. He has a watch that reads altitude. Now we count every meter and foot we climb on our painful runs. One of our runs takes us nearly to eleven thousand feet.

We take Tsege on our trip to Debre Zeit. Cien's watch informs us we've dropped over two thousand feet since we left Addis Ababa one hour ago. It's warmer. At the end of our first day, I talk everyone into a late afternoon run. Sunshine and shadow are sharp and golden among the yellow hills of Debre Zeit in the afternoon. We spend an hour and half on the dusty trails, among haystacks and fallow grass, passing twelve year-old, eight year-old, five year-old shepherds with their sheep and cattle. They stare, only shouting once we've passed. Families wave from hundreds of meters away.

Tsege is wearing her windbreaker. After a few miles, she feels sick. The sun is still potent when you run along unsheltered hillsides. These athletes are used to starting their runs before the sun has risen. Back at the hotel, there's no water. We have to wash up out of buckets.

We return from Debre Zeit. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the hard work for the volunteers. It's Stephanie's last week, and she'll be putting together art festival days in Mercato, and painting a mural. Cien is off to Chancho, where he begins clearing the land for the next school. Jamie attends the team's first track meet of the season, and launches into meetings with the staff and the team girls about the year's program planning.

Tsege is still around. She'll stay with us for a while longer, eat with us. She'll attend our meetings. She'll forget, I hope, what it's like to be frightened all the time.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Travelogue 314 – January 15
Bohemia on a Hill

“Nature is a Haunted House, Art – a House that tries to be haunted.”
Emily Dickinson

Stephanie is in town. She is the head of our Art Aid program, a project that she founded to offer arts education to the children here. She comes every year to teach and to play. Stephanie is a painter. She paints all the time. I find her sitting on the guest house porch painting small images on playing cards. She wants to attend an art opening at the well-known Asni Art Gallery in Addis.

I haven't heard mention of the Asni Gallery in a while. In fact, a few years ago, it was closed. I was informed of this by irate Brits whom I had sent in fruitless search of the place. The gallery had built a reputation as the home to Ethiopia's artistic promise.

I'm tired, and so I'm resistant to the idea. Events in Ethiopia have so rarely lived up to promotion or have justified the arduous transportation involved. But I allow myself to be convinced by Stephanie and Menna, who are both keen to see the show.

I can't remember if the current Asni is the old Asni, whether it occupies the same location as it once did. I'm not even sure I ever visited its old incarnation. But I can tell you that the site is well worth visiting now, well worth the one-birr entrance fee. The site is arguably the only reason to go, but I won't insist on that point. There is a happy, accidental meeting of setting and whimsy and misfiring artifice that makes the place a delight.

First, there's the land. This is a grant from the government, a huge tract that occupies one of the foothills in the district of Faransae. Most of the land is surrendered to nature. In fact, you'll notice right away that the trees towering over you are not the usual eucalyptus. They form a collection of what might just be indigenous flora! I don't know enough to say definitively, but it's sobering to find oneself faced with even the specter of what might have been. I stare into the woods behind the art camp with a brief sense of awe, as the day's last sun filters through the humble leaves and fir needles.

Then there's the house. This house is a marvel. I have to assume that it's the original manor built in someone's fit of colonial ardor, a two-story pleasure palace with a ground-floor porch and second-floor balconies around the whole perimeter. The roof is peaked corrugated iron, painted green. You'll find similar structures all around Addis, but not in this wonderful a state of dilapidation. The rooms are dark and hollow; the balconies are worn through to wafers of wood in places; the banisters zig-zag; the roof is falling in; the plaster on the walls is broken and reveals great patches of mud in places. No line is straight. I can't help thinking of Tim Burton, but so much more beautiful for being free of the burden of false lighting and idiot purpose.

The last element in this pastiche consists of the busy but unconvincing efforts of man. Everywhere are bits and scraps and piles of art. There are sculptures made of refuse, set here and there in the lawn: a train, a man playing sax. There are goat skins painted with child-like doodles hanging from the balcony of the house and stretched out in the grass. Along the bottom of several walls of the house are piles of sculptures made of old pottery, cast aside like trash. Above them are photos taped to the wall, most of some dreadlock artist grinning beside his work. Is this some sad, toppled memorial? Everywhere, kids have taken paint to the house, drawing quick caricatures and slogans in Amharic. As one walks around the house, one finds sketches on scrap paper on the ground. It's this haphazard, careless quality to the art that saves it from bathos, and that makes it a harmonious part of its environment. It's only the chaotic profusion of the art that is able to properly complement the grand and decadent setting.

There's a smaller building with a single room painted white where the same art is displayed museum-style, and the art can't maintain itself through ten minutes of attention. It stands as proof of the efficacy of the chaos outside. The artists have lit a fire in front of this building, and have initiated a drum circle around it. Does any artist ever understand his or her own source of authenticity?

I've mentioned before my feeling that Addis Ababa is a city occupying a cultural moment like the early 60s in America, in which conformity and eccentricity hold hands, in which idealism is in an infant state, in which politics is only secondarily about civil rights, in which the nation finds itself trying to manage an awkwardly unbalanced economic boom – making for desperate shanty towns in the shadow of ubiquitous new construction. The art camp feels like another proof of my theory, the sort of painfully self-conscious bohemian 'scene' that popped up in pockets of New York or London, generating far more real value with their whimsy than their productions. Years from now we might display their pieces, more for nostalgia than for aesthetic appreciation.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Travelogue 313 – January 7
A Warm Areke for Christmas

It's been a busy season. We've just returned from Debre Zeit, where Chris dressed up as Santa for the children at our school and passed out candies, where we strolled around the market smelling spices, where we sat by one of the lakes identifying birds, where we took long runs at dawn into the hills, startling the young people who were walking into town for school. All in all, a productive trip.

But now it's time to relax. The holidays are upon us. Selam has invited us over for Ethiopian Christmas. Selam is a great host, so I encourage all the foundation guests in town to accept.

Selam's house is in Piassa, among a group of woodworkers' shops and off the road. She has three rooms. The salon is the roomiest. It needs to be because Selam's house is the social center of the neighborhood. There are always people in and out, relatives and neighbors. And as near as I can tell, it serves as the next best thing to an office for the foundation when I'm out of the country.

The room reflects a rise in the world for Selam. She has a Christmas tree now, and a nice one. It stands four feet or so. It has ornaments. It's fitted with those tiny clusters of those flashing filament lights like tiny fireflies perched among the plastic needles. Underneath, there are a good number of gifts, no doubt mostly for her daughter, Ami.

Ami is five year-old now. I've known this little girl since she was a baby. Now she says, “I am fine, thank you. And you?” and she wants to be lifted up and swung around. She hefts Menna's bag over her shoulder and walks by like a big girl. She has a smile that is meltdown cute. She is dressed in traditional garb for the holiday.

Cynical as I am about holidays, I always forget how pleasant they can be if done right. Selam's house is perfect. We sit in a large circle on her plush sofas, and we joke and chat. We eat, and we enjoy the smell of incense and of coffee being roasted. Waiting for the coffee, we indulge in a little 'areke'. Areke is actually a home-distilled Ethiopian liquor, not unlike slivovice in its clear hue and paint-thinning qualities. But 'areke' is a term employed quite generally to include other liquors in the cabinet, including the very popular ouzo. Tonight, we're sipping lemon-flavored ouzo. It's tasty, and it goes a long way toward loosening up the conversation.

There are a few crazy old ladies in the neighborhood who like to stop by Selam's. One is very friendly and voluble. She enters with loud greetings. She remembers me well, and she bows an extravagant hello. She stays long enough to make some grand and hilarious pronouncements about absent neighbors, about life, about foreigners; she stays long enough to down a full cup of areke, and she's gone with a flourish. The other nutty old lady just stands befuddled at the threshold until she's shooed away.

If the house is warm and welcoming, it's because Selam is the same. She has a ready smile, almost as cute as her daughter's. (Selam asks who's prettier, her or her daughter. That's a delicate position to be put in.) Selam has been foundation staff for several years now, one of a small core of regulars. Her usual contribution to staff meetings is humor. She always has a comment, and she is fun to tease. But her comments are not all jokes. She has a canny understanding of things, a quality she shares with our friend-turned-terrorist Saba. I have a lot of respect for Selam, and appreciate how she has grown since she started working for us. Now she occupies a management position for us, overseeing two schools. She will go back to school again herself, to obtain her teaching certification. We're proud of her.

Coffee's ready. Outside the sun is getting ready to set. The hours have flown by. Maybe this is Selam's greatest talent, to summon an hospitable peace into an ordinary afternoon, to make it warm as areke in the belly.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Travelogue 312 – January 4
The Fellowship of Pain

I'm still feeling the altitude when I run. Our course is on top of the mountains above Addis, and the altitude is somewhere around 9,000 feet. That translates into shortage of breath, especially when heading uphill, and into aching muscles crying out for oxygen. The first time I ran, I had to stop frequently, but today, I'm able to keep going.

I'm surrounded by members of Team Tesfa. There are some fifty runners associated with the team right now, at various levels of commitment and consistency. The team was established over two years ago, when I was getting to know the Ethiopian running community. We established the team around four teenage girls who were in desperate straits. They are still with us. Two of them are running with me today.

We meet at 6am, and we take a taxi up to Kusquam, a church about halfway up the steep slope of Entoto Mountain. From there the run begins, running for a mile or two up, up, and up the mountainside, running past the hundreds of women in rags who walk up the mountain to collect wood that they carry on their backs back down the mountain, sturdy women from the south who laugh and shout at us. In no way do they seem as miserable as their daily labor would suggest that they must be.

I'm flattering myself when I say I'm 'running' up the mountain; I'd say it's a jog, or even a shuffle. The team members are unwaveringly patient and encouraging as I gasp for scarce oxygen and sweat in the cool morning air.

At the top of Entoto, just as the road crests and levels off, we pass Entoto Maryam, Menelik's first church in Addis Ababa, and behind it, his mountain outpost palace, built while the city was just a glimmer in the emperor's eye. It was left to his wife, Taitu, to see the wisdom of moving off the mountaintop and tapping the hot springs below.

Not only do I clear the hilltop, but I carry on toward greater slopes without stopping. And yes, there are greater heights. I wasn't aware of that before this run. When we get to the fork in the road, past a row of humble houses, past the spot where my starstruck athletes pointed at an SUV and whispered that it was Derartu's (a famous Ethiopian female marathoner's), we take a right instead of the left with which I'm already familiar. I've been intrigued with this turnoff for a while, the wide dirt road that gently rises beyond. Ijigu says it heads to faraway Kotebe. It looks so benign, I'd like to clock a few miles along its span. This is when I discover that Entoto is little brother to a few other peaks. One is home to a high and lonely radio tower.

Among the mountaintops, it's easy to forget that you're within running range of a world capital. The radio tower rises above a forest. Beyond is a farmhouse among its fields. We'll go on to pass the occasional thatch-roofed hut. The eucalyptus woods are thick, but they bow and part sometimes to reveal a view of the valleys to the north, among mysterious hills that roll on for hundreds of kilometers. It's up that way that we'll be building school number seven in a month or so.

Meseret and Amsal run on either side of me. These are two of the original girls at the core of the team. They lope along gracefully beside me, clearly in their element while running. Meseret follows the grassy fringe alongside the rocky and rutted road we're following. She is all poise, the line of her back describing energy and strength, while mine bows forward in weary effort. If I listen past my painful breathing, I hear theirs, even and comfortable. Or I hear the occasional cough to clear the perpetually afflicted Ethiopian lungs.

There is nothing like the bond forged this way. I may be their boss or their benefactor, but running together I'm sharing one of their greatest joys in life, and one of mine. This isn't the same as sharing ice cream or a good movie. It's grueling work with dubious dividends – remembering that they are not in it to balance their cholesterol levels; they are running to win races and make dreams come true. It's so simple, so elementary, running, and so elegant. We point our feet toward the mountains, and we go. We're a team.