Posts tagged ‘An Ethiopian Childhood’

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 ..

Children celebrating Enkutatash (the girls all dress in new clothes and walk the streets singing)

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.

Never happened!

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!

August 19, 2008 at 12:46 pm 3 comments

A homeage to my dad

Once upon a time there was a mighty man. The only survivor out of 9 siblings, a FiTawRaRi’s son non-the-less, he lived his life the way he saw fit: saying what he wanted, doing what he wanted or beating up anybody standing in the way. That doesn’t mean he had an easy childhood, on the contrary! But he never took life seriously, until lost or too late.

• He was a genius, but never stayed in school long enough to finish it. He either had a fall out with a director for making the kids laugh while earnestly singing the King’s “Mezmur” with his hoarse voice, gets punished a year for starting a group fight in high school/college, or tells the American lady doing the interview that “you Americans” were segregators and losses his scholarship.

• He loved his mother to death, still spent most of his time in Addis, partying his youth away at “Wube BeReha” (while she sent one messenger after another begging him come see her before she died) until the fatal day she fainted in his prescence, and he run to the nearest doctor weeping “Enate Motechibign. Enate Motechibign”, and discovered she’d had the worst case of diabetes which she kept from him and refused to look after properly (saying, like everybody else did in those days, she wasn’t going to live forever) the same year he was taking his ESLCE exam. Resulting with her dying, him falling his exam and being left all alone in the world.

• He loved his wife, and children, but they never knew about it till she got tired of the beatings and left him or one of them got sick and he starts crying like a baby.

He didn’t have much of a role model, neither. His mother traveled across countries (with him next to her, on a mare that later broke his nose) on the trail of one judge after another until she won over her land from her [male] adversaries at H.I.M. Haileselassie I’s court. An experience that taught her son a valuable lesson he’d stick to even in his old age: that if you are alone in this world, you are vulnerable to all kinds of attacks you should be able to defend yourself from, by seeing them from afar if you can.

So he knew about and brooded over “conspiracies”, saw them coming even when they weren’t, sometimes in his own family and children who can barely pronounce their grandpa’s name, better than anybody. The only men in his life (his dad died young) were either the various tenants working in various capacities in his father’s estate who made fun of his mother’s impressive figure when her back was turned, grieving his young heart (they used to call her “GArA MuLeta” he told me once) or the men she married and divorced – for being mean to her son – when she wasn’t traveling. He remembers once waking up from sleep in the middle of the night, covered in ants; and screaming for help; and being beaten for it by a stepfather whose wife has run away that very evening.

Unfortunately, before they learned that parents weren’t really smarter, only older, and that they got weaknesses too kids should learn to understand and forgive; his children couldn’t tell the difference between the darkness that covered their door in the evening and the dark man that walked through it drank, angry and “sniffing blood”. A difficult man who found it hard to live with himself, he wasn’t exactly the type of father whose return in the evening his children looked forward to.

Nobody loved this man for who he is! His friends were his friends because he spent his mother’s money freely on them. The peasants on his father’s estate loved and hailed him as something of a Saint because he refused to take advantage of their labor and the fruit of their toil. His college buddies & fellow teachers made him their hero because he didn’t hesitate from beating up anybody giving them trouble and taking all the blame. His pretty cousins wanted him around only when they needed a male protection to and from school.

This man is an honest man! A hard working man! A man with principles! As a man of principles, he saw the world in only two colors, in black and white! A hard working, honest and principled person is loved by him like no other. He’d be there for him no matter what, to the gallows sometimes. A person who falls short of it made enemies with him. So he had as many people who hated his guts as he had who bear witness that he’ll never take bribe. And his kids, going to the same school he teaches in and sitting with the same kids he punches in the face with little notice, had to bear all the looks and nasty words from those not courageous enough to say it to their father’s face. They were more or less strangers too, strangers who needed defending themselves for somebody else’s fault (or right).

This man is a good father and a faithful husband! But as a man, he has a long way to go. So angry words are said and bad looks are exchanged. And every time that happens, their mother is told to leave the house taking her kids with her.

Problem is, the kids are all grown up now. They know the laws. They know how far a father can go. And that he isn’t the Alpha and Omega he once was, the loving lord & father with a whip of fire looking at them only to find faults. And they say as much. They tell him, too, that they aren’t kids anymore. That they aren’t scared of him anymore. That they won’t let him scare their younger siblings anymore. No way!!

They don’t mean to hurt him, perhaps only to teach him. But ofcourse nothing sounds the way it is meant to sound in the heat of arguments; when angry words are uttered, when hateful looks are exchanged and when resentments and grudges come out to light.

So now this man is a broken man! A broken old man! A broken and lonely old man whose children are “against him”. Or atleast don’t love and appreciate him the way he thought all fathers who labored for their family should be loved and appreciated. Sometimes I catch him looking at the floor llike a man who has suddenly woke up to find his world gone. A king reduced to a commoner. A mighty man with as much dignity & stubborness, save for the power, who can neither admit he was wrong, nor less than perfect, but whose eyes beg for love and understanding. Like a man … scared!

And I wonder, I sometimes wonder, if being right and having enough reasons are worth it. They never were for my father!!

July 24, 2008 at 2:08 pm 5 comments

“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. (more…)

April 17, 2008 at 7:42 am 2 comments


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

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"I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint." - Antonio Salieri, from the movie "Amadeus"

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