Ethiopia Part I

Ethiopia Part I

Addis Ababa has a sweet, pungent smell. It’ s the first thing I notice as I walk out of the airport into the thick, night air. It’s the smell of thousands of small, domestic fires burning through the cobblestone streets. It wafts past sleepers curled up on beds of stone; some are tucked into welded scrap metal boxes while others squeeze into a black plastic bag or huddle in groups of two or three under a thin blanket or shawl.

Hundreds upon hundreds of slim, shadowy figures roam through the night, but I don’t notice them yet. It’s my first night in Addis Ababa and the headlights of the cab only illuminate a few flashes of a city unlike any I’ve ever seen before. I see signs in misspelled English and Amharic, a scarcely-lit club called “Silent Hotel” with Ethiopian music thumping from within; little piles of trash burning on street corners and piece-meal structures in states of disrepair flanked by an occasional 8-story high-rise that looks like a condominium you’d find in Santa Cruz or Oakland. We walk around a bit, grab a hasty bowl of ful (beans, jalepenos, eggs and spices) and retire early for a night of lovemaking in our simple cubicle of a hotel.

We wake up early the next morning and walk for hours through endless, winding streets. A man kneels in front of his house and splashes his face with water from a pink, plastic tub. Some women are wrapped in white, their heads mostly covered, and others click by in modern-looking clothes. Small cooking stoves boil sweet, black tea, old religious men pass by with walking sticks, and healthy puppies jostle on the sidelines. Everyone is going somewhere, people come out of their houses and fall immediately into an easy, steady pace. A man carrying a crate of tomatoes on his head stumbles in the mud, mini-buses with boys hanging out the sides call out a laundry list of destinations and little red and brown birds fly by only to stop and peck idly at scraps of trash for breakfast. My first impression is that I’m surprised at how familiar it feels to be here, like I was expecting to fall off the face of the earth but somehow I found myself on the same planet. Whoops.

Addis is a city of quirks and ironies. It has a sense of humor and it laughs as tears roll down its face. Smiling condoms with strong, muscular arms remind you to turn off light switches in hallways and wash your hands after using the bathroom. Condoms even come in coffee-flavor. Later that day I see a group of 25 people standing in the street watching lions fight on a T.V. in a shop window. I see a boy crawling across an intersection with half a bicycle inner-tube where each of his legs used to be. Fancy couples sip strong coffee at Italian espresso bars, receptionists at seedy hotels greet you in white doctor coats, dried-up fountains yawn in the afternoon heat and hordes of goats roam the busy streets. A local billboard depicting rats caught in traps smiles down at me, warning: “Steal and you will get trapped.”

People are very open and affectionate with each other. Men hold hands as they walk down the street. Women walk arm-in-arm, smile and raise their eyebrows two or three times at me in greeting. You don’t see men and women touching each other as much, there’s a certain modesty, and I later learn that kissing in public is strictly forbidden. We are practically the only white people in the street and almost everyone boasts a bit of English they learned in school, part of a pro-globalization government campaign, and is eager to try it out on us. “Hey , you!” I hear “You, you, you, you!”

People sleep everywhere and at all times. There are groups of men napping on small partitions of grass or sidewalk, some with their hands casually down the front of their pants, and individuals stretched out on thin meridian strips, their feet and legs spilling over onto busy through-fares. Poverty is extreme. I see people with legs or feet swollen two-to-three times their actual size by some sort of disease. A child of two with no parents in sight surprises me by putting his little hand in mine and using the other to pantomime bringing food to his mouth. Police pass by with AK47s casually swung over their shoulders. An old-fashioned scale beckons with a mechanical voice “Weigh yourself.”

Ethiopia is half-Christian and half-Muslim, the only African country besides Liberia that has never been colonized. It is a country that has experienced two famines in modern history due to drought and low crop-yields, attributed much more to corrupt governments and poor organization than any lack of fertile land to farm. Later that day we go to a thriving market, the largest in East Africa, and are swept up in an endless collage of goats, children, trash, sewing machines, donkeys braying loudly beneath heavy loads and people straining quietly under even heavier loads.

It starts to rain and I walk with my face turned up to the sky, trying to make sense of being a rich, privileged person dropped down in a place like this. A young woman quickens her pace to walk beside me, for a brief moment I flinch, preparing to defend myself, then I realize that all she wants is to share her umbrella with me. “Hello, what’s your name?” I say proudly in Amharic. “No,” she says, “speak English.” “My name is Katir. I am 16 years old. I am from Gambela. Is this good?”

Addis Ababa is a city of extreme and growing disparity of income. Many say that development has improved since the Civil War ended in ’92 and the war with Eritrea in ’00 and that economic globalization has brought more opportunities. Others that I speak with argue that that lack of money and infrastructure prevents a educated and motivated population from doing anything to better their situation and that any benefit seen by global trade in recent decades is enjoyed by the very few while oil prices make basic food commodities unaffordable to the poor.

A friend told me today a modestly poor family here survives on 300 Birr a month. This is about what I make in an hour as an ESL teacher. I keep assuming everyone wants something from me and yet I have never before in my life met more generous people. An old man holds out his hands to me, he is offering me a cigarette. The next morning over breakfast two women sit at my table to chat and sip juice and they pay for my bill without my knowledge and give me their email addresses. Strangers regularly encourage me to eat the food off their plates while I wait for my own. How can we be touched so easily and get still be made of this hard, stony substance? When you have everything, how is humanity felt? How is it shown?

When I leave my hotel room the next morning a step into a world of cold, hungry people. I’m munching on an apple that I haphazardly stuck into my bag a few days ago before boarding the plane, I realize that a boy and several men are eyeing it with envy, “I am thinking about eating your delicious apple” one says to me with a wicked smile. I’m not sure what to do, not sure what he means. Somehow, I am unable to really trust or decipher my surroundings. Maybe he was joking, maybe I should turn back now and give it to him.

The last image that burns into my mind is of a woman breastfeeding her child and begging on a street-corner. They are both wet with rain and rocking back-and-forth with cold. If I take their picture how will my friends at home be able to see it? We are inundated with images of poverty in Africa and their impact is often lost. Somehow even simple good-will and charity has been drug through the mud, with stories circulating of aid organizations often deepening divisions between local groups, with only a fraction of our money ever making it to its intended destination. But still we must engage with poverty on an international level. I see a woman on her way to work toss 10 Birr at the mother and child and realize that Ethiopians live everyday with the reality of suffering in their midst. Earlier then day I saw a man teasing a one-legged beggar with 1 Birr (the equivalent of 10 cents), holding it right outside of his reach and getting a good laugh as he watched him stumble after it. This is a landscape of the most extreme callousness and the steadiest generosity. I hand her the rest of my apple, refusing to feel sorry for myself and taking in my place in the world in its entirety, in a way that somehow I’ve yet to do before.


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