Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Travelogue 424 – November 29

Every so often a call arises, like a lonely cry in the fog, a call in defense of poor Saba. A traveler returns to England and drops a line to the UK board. Stephanie gets vicious messages via Facebook.

It's like a grainy voice message from a missing person, a few words one can almost make out. And then the line is cut. But in fact, it's just Saba, who lives across town, whom I've seen just once in two years.

For years, Saba was a single blurred image on Leeza's counter, her little half-sister who she would never see again. Saba was standing in a garden somewhere, an awkward adolescent. Leeza worried about her, missed her, cried about her.

Saba was the slight figure in black who met me at the airport when I first arrived in Ethiopia. She was so thin, all angles. The face that peered out from under the black scarf featured high cheek bones and hollow-eyes. She spoke no English. She didn't speak much at all in those days. She silently worked around the tiny, one-room house, taking care of her grieving mother and errant younger brother.

She blossomed in the early days of the foundation, demonstrating a canny grasp of things, iron determination, street smarts, and a tough hand with employees. Between her and Chuchu, the first school got off to a strong start.

There is something about charity that touches a nerve. It affects people deeply, sometimes too deeply. Is it a feeling of helplessness in other spheres? A loss of identification with the state, with God, with bowling leagues? People invest something of their souls in their charity choices. They donate; they volunteer. And they want the emotional payoff for that investment. Woe to any project manager that can't produce magic.

Saba was never much good with the children. She would show up less and less to the school, and when she did, it was to sit in the chair behind the desk in the office, issue orders, glance over the numbers, chew out the teacher or janitor or guard. She would smile distantly at the children during holiday activities, laugh at their antics, but was otherwise cold to their charms.

When it seemed she had reached the limit of her interest, when she began to fade from view, I was forced to hire more people. I wanted more from the schools. I wanted to talk to someone about quality of instruction. I wanted to talk about ways to reach more children, about ways to help the parents. For Saba, the job was done. She was impatient with discussions like these. She resented the new people.

Mixing family and business is dangerous in any culture, but seems to produce special blends of poison in Ethiopia. There's a sense here, it seems to me, that one endures any extreme at the hands of family, but one never walks away. One would think that honor calls upon family test all limits of endurance.

That was the mortal sin: I walked away. When Saba became hostile, shutting the school to visitors and refusing to provide any budgets or photos or progress reports; when she began making accusations to the police, hounding my staff, and telling officials we were stealing money; when she demanded more and more money without any accountability, I did it. After two years of protecting her from the anger of my boards and donors. I turned by back. I let the school close.

After all, poor Saba failed to understand the central principle of our work. Our good works are forever at the mercy of the good feelings of people far away, often faceless. They believe; we work. Shout and stamp your feet, and the big family of humanity will turn away.

But Ethiopian family doesn't give up. I was family once. She will hound me till the end of my days. She hardly thinks about what she shouts. She just shouts. She shouts to the world that she didn't know we were cutting her funding until the last minute, despite cyber-reams of internet scroll devoted to delicate negotiations with her, negotiations conducted by various board members and donors.

At the end of the day, a school is closed. We offered to help her find other funding; we offered to fund her in registering a charity of her own. But it was the black-veil principle that enveloped her heart. And as long as she is Ethiopian and I am not, her word will carry across the valleys, will drown out my white whisper. Someone will always hear and will tingle with the sense of injury, lending another voice to the great shout.

I wish her well. It's only just that I am followed by cries of her Furies. There is no good without bad. It would be an eerie world without her malignancy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Travelogue 423 – November 21
Coach is Dancing Again

I have earned a Sunday apart from my computer. It's been weeks since we have been separated, and I am very anxious about it. Duty calls. I must witness some human achievement today, That's my task.

My first stop is Jan Meda. This is the name of an open field preserved from Selasse's term in the heart of the Sidist Kilo area, and now used as informal athletic fields for the north-side, and particularly for runners. Every year this 'meda', or field, is the site for two big events in the lives of Ethiopia's amateur runners: the city and the national club championships in cross country, Sunday is the city competition.

I arrive after eight in the morning, and races should have been underway. They're not. Athletes are everywhere, warming up, sitting on the grass together. It's a bright morning and already hot, but the athletes are in long-sleeved warmup suits. About the only time you'll see athletes in shorts is during a race. Is it sensitivity to the residual chill of the night? Is it shyness? Some of both, though shyness must be sacrificed to exigencies. Just before every race, everyone has to change into uniform in the field, among the crowd of athletes, men and women. They pin their numbers onto each other. They run in place, kicking their butts; they head off jogging toward the start in single file.

The first race today is the women's 6K. We wish our group well, and away they go. The race officials lecture them at the start. They make the athletes stand around for ten minutes. And suddenly they're off, a group already attenuating along the stretch of grass underneath the crisp blue of the sky, underneath the nearby range of wooded mountains.

The crowds are smaller this year than I remember. The Federation has instituted new rules, a prerogative they enjoy exercising. Only twenty-nine of the city's clubs were able to met the last-minute call for data like bank account info, office address, etc. I believe we were the last to submit our information.

So the women run their races. They come around three times as they run the course. The race leaders come by in a tight group. Two of our women are together behind the leaders' group. With each succeeding lap, the chain of runners is stretched further and finer. The leaders are impressive specimens, running for the first division teams, like Bank and the Defense Ministry. Our 6K team brings in a trophy as the best among the second division. I congratulate the coach, and he crushes my hand in his, issuing a booming laugh.

Fikre has been sick. She runs in the next race, everyone's prediction for second among our team. Chaltu is the women's star. But she's even sicker, drops out after the first lap. Fikre plugs away inside that compact, indefatigable gait of hers that I'm so familiar with. Fikre is my coach. I run with her in the mountains. She's first for our team, 42nd overall.

It's afternoon; I stop by Ijigu's house. I had the opportunity yesterday, coincidentally, to write about Ijigu, pursuing my very slow memoir project. 'And then I'm at Hanna's. The manager of the cafe is a young man with an embarrassing penchant for short shorts and tight white sweat-tops. It will take a while until I get to know him. Getting to know him will be a game-changer. His name is Ijigu, and he's a runner.'

Ijigu was the anchor for my team project, the first Ethiopian runner I got to know. He introduced us to Coach Berhanu, our gentle giant and guide for the team since its inception, the giant who is now making Ijigu's house shake with his thunderous dance step. We are celebrating the baptism of Ijigu's tiny daughter. A majority of the guests are Oromo villagers from Ekodaga, where Ijigu's wife Konjit hails from. Those Oromo like to dance.

You can't spend any time in Ethiopia without learning more than the average person ever wanted to know about traditional dance. It takes a week at most to learn that every tribe in Ethiopia has its distinctive style of dance. The Oromo style is on display tonight in great glory, a kind of horse-like stamping in rows, chicken-like pumping of the neck, organized in a kind of call-and-response challenge that leads to peals of laughter when someone screws up. There is no music beyond the chant-like traditional songs and a persistent drumming on an old jerry can.

We are sitting in the bedroom, separated from the salon and the dancing only by a wide and blank doorway tentatively veiled over by a bit of cloth hung by wire, an innovation done in rather early on by a clumsy dancer. The baby lies in Menna's lap, alternately dozing and then gasping and staring up at the strangers. She wraps her tiny fingers around one of mine and makes bubbles between her lips.

Coach is carrying an old wine bottle aloft as he thumps amidst the group, shaking primeval dust from the ceiling with every footfall. Someone else is holding up a woven platter heavy with the massive holiday loaf of bread. I suppose this is a a kind of thanks for the good things of life.

Before we can leave, they sit us down among the group and the elders pronounce a blessing. It starts in Oromifa, is translated into Amharic by the coach, and then into English for my benefit. I'm given a nod as Ijigu's benefactor. I can only nod back. Life is bigger than that.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Travelogue 422 – November 17

One of the enduring challenges of my life in Ethiopia is finding and managing reading materials. I always beg visitors to bring me a pile of magazines. And if this inspires any of my readers to collect, to ship, to carry me monthlies in their luggage, remember: New Yorker, Atlantic, and Harper's. And I don't mean Bazaar.

I've been making my way through a New Yorker's from May, a magazine that Cien kindly carried over a few moths ago. I'm reading an article called 'Test Tube Burgers' about research on growing meat in labs. I'm not a vegetarian, though I'm as prone to the meat-industry gross-out as anyone. Sordid data numbering in the billions of tons of meat eaten every year, chickens and pigs raised in hat boxes, the waste, the methane, the drugs, the cancers and diseases. It's a comforting tale.

There are virtues to life in a place like Ethiopia. One lives close to one's meals. Your meat crosses the road in front of your taxi, making you late for appointments. That animal has been spared hat boxes and expensive drug treatments to protect and fatten. It has been allowed some of life's little pleasures, like holding me up while it crosses the road. I remember city life back home, dashing into the climate-controlled supermarket for my groceries, never thinking of the animal that contributed to the substance encased in plastic.

I don't see myself responding to this article any more than others. My moral sense is not so refined. I've never forgotten that we are animals. Do vegetarians reach higher than this? Do futurist meat scientists?Are we imagining a day when we can that radically change the order of things? When we have risen above the chain of cruelty that defines the animal kingdom? We want to become a new species, one that isn't soiled by our roots branching deeply in the mud of evolution.

I have not recorded every story about the Mudula visit. It's the morning after my desperate fight with food poisoning. The sun is just rising, but powerfully so, gilding the hills with light like healing, like promise. It's my first sight of the these hills. We arrived at night. They are lush with growth, and they surround the town silently and jealously. It's a beautiful spot. I pull a chair into the yard and sit with my face in the sun. My stomach is sore, and I'm weak, but I feel the first signs of restored health. I'll be fine. I just need to sit in the sun for a while.

The morning rituals are well under way, the bustling, the washing, the rattling of utensils that inform any proper start to the day. Two young guys lead two sheep to a corner of the yard, some twenty meters from my seat in the sun. Slowly and methodically, they lay each on its side, beside the gutter, and they slit its throat. They make sure to saw most of the way through, so the head lolls backward at a strange angle. The beast kicks a little; one boy holds it down while they chat, while the blood drains into the gutter. Once that is more or less complete, the boy tosses the carcass aside. The bodies still kick occasionally while the boys set up for gutting and skinning. This is about the time, as they sink the knives in, that the van is ready and I summon the energy to lift out of my chair, facing the sun, summoning good things, summoning life over death, and some morsel of hope for all of us, doomed as we are to meet with one knife or another, to give our blood back to the hills.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Travelogue 421 – November 11

Culture defies us. One never knows what endures. Van Gogh dies in obscurity. Wealthy singers in Abba outlive their pickled personae. Elvis was a god … until he wasn't. Clapton was a god until he survived.

I'm in the Red Bean cafe in Haya Houlet, the uber-hip district of Addis, where chubby middle class high-schoolers mimicking hip-hop sensibilities sit next to the cosmopolitan Abasha man in pinstripes who eyes the youth with benevolent sentiment; where the rough-hewn Oromo gentleman with a dent in his head, clothed in K-Mart 80s leisurewear, shouting into his mobile with half-comprehending irritably indulges in European-style coffee at a table next to a gaggle of bubble-gum girls adolescent before their time and clothed in a disturbingly discordant pastiche of music video style.

And all of them, all types and shades, nod their heads to 'Country Road' by John Denver. What will survive of the American century? John Denver.

And maybe a host of R&B cantors whose names I will never recall. I sound like my father in declaring smugly that it all sounds the same. I do remember Mariah, but probably best for her cameo in Adam Sandler's movie. In any case, this rot makes Cien go soft, and immediately transports Menna. There's no use talking once the soundtrack starts.

Ethiopians love it. Going out at night means listening to R&B and soft-focus hip-hop all evening. Last night, we encounter a live version of it. A local band does an admirable job reproducing these questionable hits. Two healthy Ethiopian women, barely out of high school, are belting out radio sounds with all their heart, and I want to believe. The rest of the audience certainly does.

Back at the cafe I find myself, in a lapse of consciousness and dignity, singing a few words of 'Country Road'. The dapper gentleman in the middle of the room winks at me. There's mischief in his eye. Perhaps he notices the flicker of horror that crosses my countenance as I realize what I've done. There is something subversive in his wink.

Do Ethiopians – or, for that matter, the citizens of any nation that feeds on our overflow of sap – country, rap, heartthrob pop – do they wink at it as they sing to it? Do they know its real value? Do they see us wince?

There is something subversive in culture. There's an element of 'I like what I like' to any cultural stance or creation. One generation mocks and loves the previous generation. It produces a frightening mutation that feeds on the carcass of the elder. That's evolution. In cultural biology, there is no line separating defiance and love, satire and homage.