Thank God for aunts!
I’ve never had a toy as a child. Or Crayons. Or a grandma with two teeth who told me bed time stories. Or even a decent bad children story book that gave me nightmares I woke up screaming from. I had a father the neighboring kids were afraid of. A mother who told us not to take anything given to us by outsiders. And a brother whose shoe has left marks on my leg that still showed.
So we weren’t your typical Ethiopian family to whom “one bread was enough for a [loving] family of 9”. Still, what we lacked in the way of family life and freedom, we made up with food and clothings. Lots of it! We were the best dressed kids on holidays and there always was some animal screaming for dear life at our backyard. Every time we went out, children who smelled of “yeEkek medhanit” and looked ashen white for want of proper sanitation or a good ole vaseline, followed us with vulture-like eyes. Eyes that felt more accusative on the sensitive skin than complimentary. I would have gladly traded places with them for an afternoon of laughter and warmth. But, ofcourse, they didn’t know that.
So, naturally, they didn’t trust us. And we didn’t like them. When we are allowed to go play, we usually went to my grandmother’s house in the next village. Where we had uncles and aunts who insisted we should be grateful instead of look miserable in the new clothes, gave us money so we wouldn’t feel bad about not making any on a holiday, and made us compete with their other nieces and nephews on various children’s game, which my brother & I usually lost to our sociable, more likable, and less neatly-dressed cousins.
Except one EnQutatash ..
Some months previously, a friend of my mother’s had happened on my half-brother trying to polish his barbering skill on my younger bro’s hair. She had indignantly snatched the scissors away, fixed my brother’s hair and cut mine, too, thinking the tom-boyish look would look cute on me “dinBushBush” face. A kindly gesture that was not only misunderstood but disliked by my mom so much that she shaved my head that very evening, and had my ear pierced with an “eshok”, making me scream every time a hand came near it for days. Oh, and, did I mention how I wore a “tiQur” shash to school until my hair grew back and had “MelAtA, aybelam selAtA!” follow me around for weeks?!. I was not only fighting my way in school, but into being a girl again, it seems.
So that was the first “enQutatashtatash” I wore an abesha dress in, and had my hair done by an actual “shuruba seri”. Which must be why I was more restless than usual and was seen by my aunt Yilfashwa, standing by the door looking yearningly out at the girls crossing the grassy backyards of the houses in the neighbourhood singing “Abebayeshwoy”. “Go join them!” she told me. I refused shyly. I went to school with half the girls of the village. But we just ignored eachother when meeting in the school ground. And I was more concious of “pushing myself on people” then than I am now. So I shrugged my shoulder and pretended I didn’t want to.
When they came around to sing at my grandma’s door, I hid behind the door and watched them through one of it’s many cracks. Birtukan, another aunt who loved kids and bossing them around, saw me when coming out to shoo them off with either the bread, or changes, the house could afford. “Go out & join them” she ordered. I mouthed “no” and gestured for her to keep it down. “Go out & join them”, she said dragging me by the hand. I was so embarassed at being ratted out that I put up a good fight. Half a dozen 8-12 year olds unable to make up their minds whether to move on to the next house or continue singing started watching me and my aunt with saucer like eyes. When she finally managed to get me out of the darkness and push me into their midst, I was chocking with anger and close to tears.
Fortunately, somebody complained from inside the house that the “miRQat” doesn’t sound too convincing and I was put in the back burner. It wasn’t long before somebody suggested that I go to the front row with the two other girls wearing “yeAbesha libs”. Would be good for business, they said! And so it was!! We made 32 birr that day. Thirty two! Some of us haven’t even seen so much money, less held. “Even that muslim lady gave us one birr, did you see, did you?” we whispered excitedly, keeping reverent eyes on the green. Never for one minute imagining the new year belonged to neither “Qidus Yohannes”, nor the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. After splitting the money equally, whence I was reminded how I shouldn’t have been given as much as the others save for being one of the leading singers 😉 , we made plans to do it with “keBero” next year; wearing abesha kemis and each holding as much adey abeba as the hand allowed.
But I still remember that day as the only time I was allowed to be a child. And I’m grateful for it.
Melkam BuHe y’all!