Thursday in Ethiopia


alleyIt is Thursday. We are in Ethiopia, a falling-down bearing-up sort of place where every day, it seems, is a story. Even today, when there is nothing for us to do but walk to the main road in search of a mobile card for my cheap borrowed cell phone. We walk through the alley, itself a story, what with the potato sellers and discarded carcasses and brilliant yellow chrysanthemums daring to grow against a scorched concrete fence. I bend to pull a thorn from my flip-flop, and when I straighten up I am nearly bowled over by that funny guy in the dirty red Nordic sweater, wrap-around khaki skirt and mismatched rubber sandals. Afewerek. He hurtles at us in a cloud of orange dust, waving a five-foot piece of sugar cane like a banner. It is for Robel, he shouts, straight from the farm of his nearly dead father.

Robel is six. He is appropriately stunned by this pronouncement. He reverently shoulders the sugar cane and decides not to look at me, in case I tell him he can’t eat it. Mothers are like that.

“But wait,” Afewerek says through his missing teeth, a little bit of drool putting an exclamation point behind his excitement. “I have more.” With a flourish he pulls out a matted woolen scarf with Ethiopia stitched down the middle, which he ceremoniously drapes around Robel’s neck. Then he winks at me and pulls out a red and gold clay incense burner, cracked through and burnt black. From his sweater emerges a ball of yellowed grass and twigs, tied up in a ripped corner of a plastic shopping bag. “This is good medicine,” he insists, pressing the ball into my hand. “From the rural. When you have bad day, burn it here in this nice pot, and, look, you are smiling again.” He smiles.

I could use a little smiling. And Robel is ecstatic about his giant sugar cane. But this is an awfully generous gift from someone who sleeps out too many nights, and whose only indebtedness to us is a chance meeting on Bole Road yesterday morning. His gift, however questionable, comes out glaringly in our favour. I thank him profusely, asking if I might, perhaps, compensate him.

“No, no, it is a gift. No money. But okay. A little bit. Okay, you give me some money. Let’s say, how about 200 birr? It’s not much, but I think for all this nice gifts, that is okay. Okay?”

Not really okay. The lot wouldn’t fetch thirty birr. But he’s not selling it to me, he’s accepting my offer of compensation. You can’t really haggle over a gift. Can you? So I say, without any conviction at all, “Gee, that sounds like a lot,” to which he replies, “Yes, yes, I am very generous.”

Now what? The sun is high, a dense, searing weight flattening us against the airless afternoon, drawing dull swarms of flies to buzz at the sweat around my ears and neck. Horns are blaring in their never-ending cacophony of traffic talk, and I watch, momentarily transfixed, as a threadbare brown donkey, head low, endures a slow-motion thrashing with a thin strip of tire, wielded dispassionately by an old man in a blue suit. Robel is squatting in the dirt, trying to chew the filthy end off the sugar cane and ingesting, undoubtedly, a million trillion parasites. A dog barks, hoarse and half-hearted.

I squint at Afewerek. He grins back, showing his wide grey gums. I know he is scamming me. He knows he is scamming me. But I don’t want to call it, because as each unremarkable second leaks away, as life exposes its ordinary self on all sides of me, I am struck by a slow sense of privilege and delight. I’m enjoying it. The dying father, the good medicine, the outstretched palm, dry and insistent, have all conspired to catch us in a pause, stilling the clock on this nothing sort of Thursday afternoon and pulling us intimately and inalterably into African everydayness. This is it. This is why I’m here. To stand in this potholed scene, to itch with heat and flies, to commiserate with this donkey now squeezed through a crack in the corrugated tin between two alleys, his exposed rump the last visible remnant of his tragedy. I am here, with my son, with his sugar, pulled from the exhausted red earth of this wickedly beautiful worn-out country, and it is enough. It is more than enough, more than I have room for, more than I knew existed.

I hand Afewerek the twelve dollars. For his lovely broken things, for his thwarted generosity, for his gift of grass and halted time, which, however questionable, has come out irreversibly, inarguably, in our favour.

About the Author: Jennifer Clark aspires to take her young son everywhere in the world, at least once. They have thus far travelled to thirteen countries together, and are hoping to reach Antarctica next.

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