An excerpt from “Virgins Always Bleed”

November 20, 2022 at 7:18 pm Leave a comment

Chapter 8

“ትልቁ ቤት” is an estate, in a neighborhood made up of mud houses people rented from the government, where, at the beginning of the century, titled military men from Grazmach, to Qegnazmach, to Balamberas, to Negadras, to Fitawrari, [maybe even a Huala’wrari] lived, died, and were buried at.

Before it was returned to the owners following the Italian Occupation, there lived in it a “ጥልያን” /ṭ’ilyan/ who owned a small cooking-oil refinery and loved to dramatically slap his head and swear “Mamma Mia” a lot–as if he saw the need to be more stereotypical than he was. The native who ran his business for him, and did most of the communication with the locals, one Zeba’sil Qenu, was, on the other hand, a man of few words.

There was nothing political about Zeba’sil’s job. He knew a bit of Italian. He was good at managing people. And even better at running a business and turning profit. This, at the time of an invasion followed by a 5-year occupation, won him no favor among his compatriots. “Banda,” they called him behind his back. “Mercenary”, “Traitor”. “Turncoat”. When they could not entrap him into doing something or saying something that would get him into trouble with his Italian master, the [honorable/patriotic/country-loving] natives, the true children of the land, decided to do a sit in and refuse to move unless their demands were met.

“What do they want?”, the Italian asked. They wanted better pay. Better working conditions. And whatever else they felt reasonable enough to ask without pushing him too far. What if he said no? Then he would have to do the work himself. Which the stubborn Italian did, after some unsuccessful floor stumping and a threatening message through Zeba’sil.

He would have, perhaps, succeeded too if word did not reach him that the main leader of the opposition, the man behind all this, “the snake in the grass”–so to say–was the very man he thought he could trust his life to.

Him he summons into the refinery, which now serves as home to the 6 cows and two oxen that kept the Mekuria family afloat after a wrongly administered gangrene medication killed a diabetes patient and “Doctor” Mekuria’s clinic closed indefinitely. [By virtue of the mistake, as well as the certificate turning out to be that of a Pharmacy Technician, and not a medical doctor]. Zeba’sil, innocent–as always–of blame, save that of trying to live in peace with his neighbors and earn an honest bread, comes in, wiping his sweat [one assumes] with some rag. The Italian, who had thus far been keeping himself busy, and frenzied, with trying to start and keep the engines running, threw some bitter questions at the latter before asking him to put his hand under the oil pressing machine. Whatever the excuse, it fails to convince Zeba’sil. He refuses. Argument ensues. Fight erupts. The skinny foreman did not stand a chance against the angry, stocky, well-fed Italian.

Scream mixes itself with tears. Tears mix with Blood. Blood pours down where sesame oil should.

With his crushed arm wrapped in a towel, like an ailing baby, the foreman goes to the local police. Weeping, sweating, and screaming in both Italian and Amharic, he asks for justice. He is told to fill out some papers, that he should’ve picked a fight with a man his own size, that this is what happens when you try to serve two masters. Whereupon Zeba’sil goes outside, finds himself a banana crate, stands on it and starts repeating the dreaded “Behig Amlak”, “in the name of the God of justice”, that no good Christian can walk away from without looking bad.

When the defenders of the law, unable to ignore the raucous outside, arrive at “ትልቁ ቤት” with the victim, along with the strikers who accompanied Zeba’sil, and the neighbors hungry for drama, they find out that the foreigner had bolted with all the assets he can carry–his lira, his “Mar Treza”, the banknotes. The asset he can’t carry was sold later, and placed in the treasury, the better to serve the people of the country with.

This story of how Zeba’sil went home, with nothing but tears for his pain, is still told as an example of the little victories we won against Mussolini’s army, and its mercenaries, for the 5 years the country was occupied. [Not “colonized”, Ethiopians take great issues with that last term.]

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The blogger tries to think outside the box, or wonder why she sometimes can't.

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