Recently, I’ve realized that my time here is winding down, and that I can no longer take for granted the out-of-this-world world I live in. Perhaps I’ve written here less because profound differences have become mundane, and I forget that a seemingly distinct moment is actually unique. The foreign and unfamiliar has become the status quo. So I’ve tried to soak up some moments, and etch them into my memory. Not big moments or memorable ones, but the sort of daily interaction that defines life for me here. Maybe then I can come return one day in my mind. I wrote this a few weeks ago, when I was trying to organize a volunteer work day at the school.
Yohanes’ house sits atop a small hill on the side of the main road. In the dry season, dust floats upward, leaving the once green grass a shade of yellow. But this is the rainy season, and getting up the small hill requires a few choices. A year ago, walking to Yohanes’ house was a thoughtless action, but things have changed. The road crews, bringing much desired asphalt to Bonga, have carved out several meters of earth, creating a small canyon with houses perched on top.
The stairs, made one afternoon by shovel but maintained by weeks of foot traffic, look more like a Jenga board. Like a Jenga board, certain moves will result in losing, quite literally. I make my way up the steep embankment using my hands as balance, avoiding one step layered with wet mud.
Yohanes is waiting in front of his house, which sticks out noticeably compared to his neighbors. The compound is long, with two room mud houses neatly pressed together like a townhouse squeezed in all directions. No wall is straight, no roof without rust. The doors and windows are equally uneven. In front of me is his neighbors suk, a small store distinguished by its lack of anything special. Most stores in Bonga offer exactly the same items, at exactly the same price. Social capital is the differentiation of Ethiopian capitalism. One Ethiopian Birr, (6 cents usd )will get you a bag of peanuts, while 18 cents gets you laundry soap and a 10 gallon, Chinese plastic bucket will set you back a couple dollars.
To the left of this store is a breakfast restaurant, literally a hole in the wall, that offers mediocre fried beans with spices, as well as fresh bread, slightly undercooked. On the left side of the restaurant a man is staring at me, an unknown Ballywood actor, shirtless, flexing, wearing nothing but a tie and underwear. The plastic poster can be purchased at the market for fifty cents. It’s pretty damn funny. How this Orthodox and Muslim town stands for this kind of thing is a mystery.
Yohanes’ house stands out as a result of his own sweat. He is the hardest working man in Bonga. His house has several rooms for rent in the back, built by himself and occupied by students and maids. He’s built a large chicken hut to the side, yet all the chickens are perched on top of it. His house, unlike his neighbors is built of brick, with a cement porch that he uses to watch the comings and goings of the neighborhood.
Yohanes is a smaller man with strong forearms, an oversized jacket, a baseball hat, a knowing disposition and a smile forged by decades of not brushing his teeth.
He greets me with a handshake-to-shoulder hug, and fourteen different ways to say hello. We do the song and dance, but it’s special with my new middle-aged friend. He genuinely asks and answers each question. It’s not an act of going through the motions, although the answers are always the same. Yep, I’m at peace, as is my family, and my friend Jon. I’m doing well, I’m fine. Everything is good.
The first time we met, he matter of factly stated, “You are Michael from Virginia. Your friend Jon is from California. You are Americans for Peace Corps. You are a happy man. I am Yohanes.”
He invites me inside. We spoke earlier and he asked me to stop by. We are organizing a community volunteer day, and I have put a lot of trust and hope in Yohanes. He is the man for the job all the folks have said.
He ushers me inside and at once I wonder if I’ve walked into a restaurant. The set up is deserving of this notion, with several tables and wooden stools in a large living room. There is a small amount of linoleum like plastic on the floor, but it is thin like paper, pink and white, worn and muddy and torn in many places.
As I turn the corner, I am comforted by the quintessential Ethiopian living room. Whereas the left side of his oversized room resembles a restaurant, this side is true to form: There is a china cabinet filled with an assortment of plastic plates and glasses, and a renaissance style poster of Mary and two angels. A TV, always on when there is power, is playing an Ethiopian music video. There are some nicer than usual sofas, a coffee table with strange, varied, placemats and in the corner a small charcoal stove that the maid is fanning frankincense into. The smell is awesome, drowning the smell of mud. The music video ends. In homage to 1984, the Ethiopian Telecom jingle comes on, followed by the daily news.
We sit down and start discussing the school. I tell him I want to get hundreds of people to the school to bring water, sand the doors and windows, and move the large piles of bricks delivered by truck. I need his help to convince everyone this is a great idea.
He is the head of the “idir” a Kiwanis like group of community members that provide services during emergencies and coordinate events. This is a centuries old group that I now know functions very well.
He explains to me that the letter for approval of this project has been delegated to Bekele. We must call him.
As Yohanes dials the number, slowly, with his ring finger pushing each button directly, his two daughters maybe three and four years old, emerge from the door. They’ve stolen a few glances at me already, before ducking behind the wall and stifling a few giggles. They have worked up the courage to enter the room.
As they approach I hear Yohanes talking, seemingly angrily at Bekele. It is not anger but just Ethiopian phone speak, or yelling as we say in America. Yohanes speaks into the phone as if it is a radio, then holds the phone backwards to his ear.
“I gave you the letter from Haile Bogale! Did you receive it? Where is it now. Has he read it? It is not! It is not!”
I make the time-tested assumption that this will be a difficult process.
The girls are now sitting on the loveseat, alternating their hands from being clasped together to being hung on their bottom teeth in nervousness. I ask them their names. “frshgs” says the older one, that not even herself could have heard her voice.
“Degemelegn” I ask her. Please repeat it. Instead, she puts her head in the pillow.
I finally get a name from the other daughter, or at least I think it is Meheret, meaning mercy. I like that name I tell her, and then state that she has a very smart father.
“Abate Aydelum” says the now confident girl, letting me know that Yohanes is not her dad. I learn he’s not her uncle either, but simply her neighbor.
“You have a very smart neighbor,” I tell her.
Yohanes hangs up the phone. The letter issue is not solved but his body gestures let me know we are on the move. We walk out of the house, down the muddy steps to the road and two houses down to Menagesha’s house. I learn along the way that the letter from Haile was given to Yohanes who gave it to Bekele who delegated the task to Menagesha. Classic Ethiopia.
Mengagasha is a hilarious and strong-willed elf of a man who conveniently wears a Santa hat. He produces the letter. The approval has been given, miraculously.
Yohanes and Menagasha exchange pleasantries and Yohanes approvingly looks at the letter. A few moments later, he is escorting me back to my house. He tells me that the volunteer day will happen tomorrow and many people will come. Doubtful, I seek some reassurance. (He was right, as around 80 villagers showed up with shovels, and old oil containers filled with water to make the mortar for brick.)
“Don’t worry! You will not believe how many people will come! Don’t Worry!” he tells me.
I trust him, although I really shouldn’t. How will he inform so many people so quickly?
“Don’t worry they will come. This is big work. They will come”
In front of my house we stop and shake hands and smile. I tell him
“Nege, abran inechewotalen” translation: “Tomorrow we will play together”
“Bedem. Innichewot Bedem bedem innichewot.”
We shall play so much. So much we shall play.