“Hard Times” – The Ethiopian version
Menelik the 2nd, that’s where I went for my high school studies! It had a big library that you actually had to walk in on tiptoe, and had all the books you can think of. And more often than not, their Amharic version too. It had “Yehulet Ketemoch Wog”, “Don Quixote” and “Pinocchio”. It even had “Eri Bey Agre”.
I’ve had occasions to re-read the first three, lots of times. But the last I only read once. I don’t remember much of the story. All I ever looked in a book back in those days was ‘he says, she says’. Which must be why I never forgot “YeMiyaQatil FiQir”. There were too many “minu.. minaminu”s in that book, and ofcourse it was forbidden, which gives it an almost legendary quality :-). So there was no way I could pay attention to anything anybody said in “Eri Bey Agere”, it not being exactly a romantic saga. But one thing stuck.
Now, I am not one of those people who forget things easily. I don’t forget faces, I do not forget kindness and I do not forget words, especially those said with bad intention. But there are a couple of times in my life that I remember vividly.
I remember seeing a soldier, for example, before I hit my 6th birthday. We don’t celebrate birthdays back then, by the way. We, like the Jews, “observed” them. Which means we were forced to wear our best clothes and get dragged, mostly unwilling, to “Aseffa Photo Bet” where we have our (my younger-by-1-year brother and I) photos taken infront of a tiny table filled with biscuits, orange and banana; all guarded by two candles – each representing a birthday boy and his older sister wearing the longest face a child that age could wear.
I do not remember the soldier’s face. He is but like a vision fleeting by, a distant yet familiar sound. My aunts must have said something about him or I wouldn’t have noticed him. He passed by us, handsome in his uniform, and walked down the street to what in my grandparent’s village is still called “Captain Demissie gibi”. I assume there used to live a Captain Demissie there, although I never knew him and never remembered to ask. The houses in the “gibi” looked glorious enough, like the morning sun, amidst the ruin they were standing. It had a small “meda’ that was surrounded by trees, where we used to go to watch football matches among the boys.
The demarcation was clear in those days. Girls brought “kirosh” to Home Economics class (or ‘baltina’, as it was called) and boys “megaz”. Both wept whenever a teacher ordered them to sit on a table with the opposite sex as a punishment and a brother and sister pretended not to know one another when they met in the school ground. They certainly walked home separately, each followed by or following their respective loud mouthed “hero”, and upon arriving where they would be met by the door and get burdened with the frustrations and hopes of their parents. Yes, we had teachers who called our mothers names; wore jackets with arm patches on them and took naps while we were busy finishing our class works. But they believed they could change the world and we admired them for it and hoped to one day be like them. Afterwards, everyone went his/her own way. The teachers, to their lounge. The girls, to their “pepsi” or “abarosh”. And the boys, to either the football fields or to the backyards of the school where they play “qumar” [beSantim] or jump over the fence to go watch an Indian movie. [Postcards of Indian movie stars’ photos were ‘the gift of the day’ too :-)]
So I saw the soldier. I saw him walk tall and dignified by us. We must have been near a music shop and Hirut Bekele must have been singing “eyiw mekenetun endet new dimqetu”. Because it was in my late teens that I heard the song again and cried for almost half an hour. Never knowing why. That song affects me the same way these days as it did then. I’m still fogged about it. But I can see my soldier were I to close my eyes. Looking tall and dignified… smiling perhaps. Smiling for the little girl that was being dragged by her young, careless and talkative aunts. Maybe dead!
The other memory I have is the time in which my mom got a ride from her [male] classmate. She used to go to an evening school to finish 12th grade although she earned almost as much as him, finish only 9th grade she might have. But my father, the teacher and ‘disciple of change’, wouldn’t have it any other way. THAT was where she knew the chauffeur from. He bought us “ocholoni” from a “suq bederet”, made my mom (who was much older than him) laugh by teasing me as his wife-to-be, making my little heart wild with happiness.
It was the most fun I had next to a visit to my grandma’s. As home was not the place for fun, in those days. Home was a place you go to because you must. It was a place you get a sick feeling in the stomach when contemplating returning to it after birthdays or a visit to your grandma’s warm house, which was full of uncles and aunts who were young and loud. We were running late, that evening, so a free ride from any taxi was a blessing to my mom. However, she knew how my dad would take the news so, on our way out, she warned me “Not a word about this to your father!”. Full and exhilarated, I said ‘sure thing’.
A few days later, I asked her to do something for me and she refused. Must have felt blackmail was in order because I said, “if you don’t do this, amma telling on you”. I’ve never seen my mom look so angry! She wasn’t blackmailed, no sir!!. She took me by the arm and beat me to dust. She’s never done so much as lay her hands on me before that. Beating-the-kids was on my dad’s job description, not hers. She cried “le eNante bayhon nuro”! She nursed! She baked the “enjera”` and cooked the “wot”! Beating she left for he who wears the trouser in the house. Although she did wear trousers. And looked good in them. Had one of those bodies that never go out of fashion while there is breath in the African man’s body!
But that day she beat me, savagely and indignantly! I couldn’t understand why the trick didn’t work. It was disappointing and bewildering. But, learn I did, who [still] was in charge. Never opened my mouth about the taxi!!
A year or two later, I broke a bottle. A milk bottle, that is. One that my dad had with him all his bachelor life and clung to as he did to everything; a name, an anger, a sick dog who lost both eyes and half a face to a car accident. It was sitting in a wooden box in the dark side of a kitchen, waiting to be broken. So ofcourse it broke. Now, those were the times in which people wore blue khaki suits to work, where cars weren’t allowed to drive on a Sunday (and men and women to be found walking in the street after 12:00) and, legend has it, you could be thrown to jail if found using “Serto Ader Gazetta” to wrap a kilo of meat (which costed not more than 5 birr).
Kids had to stand in queue at their respective kebele as early as 10:00 a.m. to get “dAbre” and mothers mixed brown rice with ‘teff’ to bake ‘enjera’. These were bad times!. So the only thing in the way of comfort for “the man of the house” who worked tirelessly for his family, hoping to someday change lives for the better and that amidst adversaries too big for him to handle (fate, cadres, “joro tebi” neighbors), earning a bread that never seems to satisfy and not a word of thanks from all those he labored for was either getting drunk and abusing his neighbors or, as in my dad’s case, beating his children for no good reason. And breaking a bottle was a sin worth breaking an “alenga” on your back for (after brought ceremoniously down from where it has been hanging, looking down mockingly at you, as if waiting for .. and daring .. you to make the wrong move).
So I shook and cried knowing that nobody can save my hide that night (my dad gets angrier when the neighbors came knocking, and our neighbors knew it). Was still shaking and tired from crying when my mom got back from work and found me in the kitchen. She asked what happened. I told her. She looked terrified enough. Because mothers took all the blame for kids in those days. However badly beaten the kids were, fathers reserved enough energy to slap around or atleast accuse their wives as being responsible for everything that went amiss in their lives, sometimes, all through the night! But she swallowed hard and bravely said “I’d tell him I did it!”.
No! It wasn’t “Don’t be ridiculous chile! It’s only a bottle”. It was “I’d tell him I did it!”. Because, you see, children weren’t the child of the house back then! Parents were the children their kids should look after and walk in tip-toe around. It was the parent whose needs are put first, whom the kid was supposed to understand and forgive. But, yes, she saved my hide from being peeled off my back that evening. That sure was the way it felt when an “alenga” and a “hide” made a reunion on a child’s back :-).
I can never forget the relief those words brought me. The miracle of it! How it never occurred to me that she could do that, and it did to her! That’s the day in which my mom stood up for me. The only time, perhaps! I stood up for her many a times after that. I got kicked out of the house more than once, more than twice, for standing up for her. But it never felt enough.
I don’t know if that has anything to do with the fact that the line from ‘Eri Bey Agere’ felt so important that I should hold onto it all my life. Making my youth and adulthood feel more insecure than it actually was. Knowing that danger lurked only around the corner to jump out and say “boo” when least expected. But it did! It was the question the priest asked when he was told his son was either arrested or killed. “Why me?!”, that was all he said! Why me out of a million other South Africans? Why my son?!
To my young heart, it felt a reasonable question. If it was a “thing”, I would have reached out and touched it. As real to you as an Indian lady’s English accent, as warm and lazy as an Italian afternoon would be and as sure as the fact that Mona Lisa’s beauty can never be understood by a person of color! [If anybody can, that is! I sometimes wonder if Tilahun Gessesse and TeddyAfro made/wrote/composed their respective Mona Lisa songs for her beauty or, more likely to me, her name. Which is cute, in any language and skin color. Except, maybe, on a homely girl. There was this girl “tach sefer”. Her name was “Maraki” and … I think you know what would follow]
So.. yes. “Why me?!” I felt it! I related to it!. I sympathized. Knew exactly what he meant. And ‘why me’ has been a question I asked all my life. Whether good or bad. Love or hate. I demanded ‘why me’. This was back when, as somebody important said, I didn’t know we were mere “pawns in the hands of fate”. Before I learned things did not work in real life the way they did in books. Before cool boys who talked about the silent seductiveness of the lonely soul turned 28, learned men’s ways and left, in the “ajeb” of their soul-less 28 year old buddies, while cool 28 year old girls stood watching their receding back wondering what happened.
So why not him?!. Why should there be a reason? Accidents happen! Innocents die! It can be ‘you’ next! Because there is nothing personal about death. It’s the fate of human kind. God’s will that would come to pass whatever else may not. A random bomb that was left at a random place and claimed three random lives! A proving a point! A bringing the suffering “home”! A punch where it hurts! Nothing personal!
However big your dreams, however hard you worked to achieve them, regardless of the number of those you live for, when you have to kick the bucket, you kick the bucket! Finito!, as an Italian furniture shop owner would say after stating his final price.
It’s a scary feeling, knowing you are not invincible. That obeying the law, keeping out of trouble and being more or less a decent human being doesn’t guarantee safety. Danger can come knocking at your door, literally. That’s what happened three years ago – inspite of my vote for EPRDF and “Hibret” and had to stop talking to my father because of it. (Always knew when it comes to politics, it was always “kezinjero konjo..”. Better give the strong “zinjero” a chance and see if he could do better next time.
But still.. they came. Looking for my brother only a few days after those kids were shot at in Merkato. He had stayed put, my brother has, although with his reputation of hell-raising, he knew his number would be up soon enough.
“Soon” was that night. Here is how the myth went those days. They come knock at the door. Demand that you open. They ask for whoever they came to get. If you say a word, the story goes, they start shooting. I’ve heard it!. My mother has heard it!. My father, the “disciple of change” and an ex-‘abiyotegna’ himself, didn’t care!
So the minute the door start being pounded as if, inspite of the heavy iron work my dad and older brother did on it earlier, about to be rooted out, my mother fall on her knees and started calling upon God. Weeping and whimpering, she asked Him to save her family “just this once”. My dad walked around, like a caged lion, cursing and swearing, saying he’d go out and talk to them. The young ones were bundled together on the living room floor, like scared cats, too excited to move a muscle. And my brother, half naked and looking darker than usual, running around like crazy in utter panic. While I stood there, my knees knocking against one another and my skin aware of the cold air as never before, trying to stop my brother from jumping over the fence, my dad from opening the door, my mother from her prayer and myself from the terrifying visions of dooms about to follow flocking (in millions) to my head.
I am scared!
And talking about the fear brings the terror closer. Until Monday afternoon, Somalia was the Somali’s headache. Eritrea, the Eritrean’s. OLF, it’s own!! I was aware that people were starving in Ogaden but I was sure they’d be “fine and dandy” the minute the food aid our government said it has no problem providing, reached them. They weren’t my problem Monday morning! But now I feel they weren’t as distant as I thought they were. That we are connected by bonds I’m not sure I have figured out yet. And that scares me! It scares me because it brings the prospect of danger, not as much to me as to those I love, closer. For I deserve this! I’ve worked hard enough, been kicked around often enough, and hated my life for … this! Seeing my little brother and sister all grown up! Witness my parents rocking a grandchild in their arms, even if it weren’t mine! Being able to see my husband again, and build a life together with him in a neat little house with a neat little garden and good ole rocking chairs in it; just the way he wanted! Most of all, I want it not to be me and mine.
But how can I be sure? Danger is only around the corner, as it happens. At the next gas station, infact! It can be you and it can be me .. any time.
Dedicated to all those who died!!