"All of Ethiopia is good,” said a twenty-year-old named Tasfan.
By day, he squatted in the street and shined people’s shoes. By night, he worked in the Sheuwa Hotel. He delivered condoms to the prostitutes’ rooms. He was awoken at night to let me into the hotel, after I’d finished watching World Cup games. He slept in the hotel inside a 2 x 1 x 1 meter (6 x 3 x 3 foot) box made out of corriagated metal sheets and wood. It didn’t look like a nice place for a dog to live in. It looked like a place for a corpse.
Tasfan was my favorite person in Ethiopia.
At first, I hadn’t trusted his wrinkly toad skin and sleepy, possibly alcoholic eyes. But one night, we sat together. Speaking English, he told me he liked to read books by great authors, like Pushkin. He said he didn’t chew “qat” leaves. He said he didn’t drink alcohol – something which wasn’t exactly true, I would find. He’d fled his hometown after he and his friends got into a fight and into trouble with the police. Now, he lived in a box in Mizan Teferi. He was always positive. I was always happy to see him.
Except for Tasfan, the shoe shiners of Mizan were quite annoying. They called after me and begged a lot.
I considered that one didn’t have to be very disciplined to be a shoe shiner. He didn’t have to harvest avocados or bananas, then carry them on his back to town, like many women in Mizan. He didn’t need to build a fire on the street and roast corn. He didn’t need to keep merchandise to sell, nor money with which to buy merchandise. He didn’t even need to chop wood in the forest, then strap it on his back and walk around looking or someone who needed cooking fuel – like the round-faced Benche women with their hair wrapped in brightly colored bandanas. The shoe shiner only needed water and a rag.
And yet, shoe shiners were very useful here. When it rained, Mizan’s unpaved streets turned into muddy mud. And it rained nearly every day during the rainy season. I wondered, what did the shoe shiners do in the dry season?
At any rate, Tasfan loved Ethiopia. He hated only its Surma region. I, on the hand, loved the Surma region. My feelings towards the rest of the country were rather opposite.
One day in July, however, something happened that would challenge those feelings. I attended a concert at the Benche Fre Hotel.
A young man played a drum-set creatively, and another played keyboard. Their music was fast and happy, a celebration of life. They would be joined by various singers, including …
thin, long-haired Ashra Awaka, who screamed her Amharic lyrics with a soft voice “Sora-yukan! Sora-yukon!”; a rastafarian man who rocked in place but didn’t dance, because he was blind, and who rocked the crowd with his low voice “Buney! Benayyy!”; and a thin young man named Wendiye, who wore tribal clothes such as blue skirts, bright vests that were orange/red/yellow, and spears.
The group came from the city of Awasa, the capital of Ethiopia’s “Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region” where I’d been spending most of my time. They played Ethiopian cultural music. Sometimes, they were accompanied by dancers.
Repetitive progressing beats made up one song. “Na-ge nuuu … Na-ge nuuu (bop-bop!). Ai-ee-ai … Ai-ee-ai (bop-bop!).” Four male dancers wore baggy white pants, no shirts, and spears. Four girls also wore white: short Polynesian-style skirts and shell-shaped bras.
The guys shook their butts, and raised their quivering hands in the air. The girls moved the parts of their bodies between their shoulders and waists, quickly like waves. They got down on their hands and knees and continued to move their bodies that way. They smiled. It was very attractive in a classy way.
The girls kneeled and pretended to roll dough (injera bread?) in front of themselves on the ground. Then, the kneeling girls clawed at the guys, who hopped around as if fighting them. Ah ha! The girls were pretending to be jungle cats!
The dance performance ended. The night progressed. Soon, people from the crowd of a hundred and fifty people began dancing.
They danced by dropping their shoulders in front of them. Like groovy South African dancers, like gorillas. They shook their shoulders, as they hopped around in circles and kicked their feet. The best dancer moved all his joints in different ways to the music, stopping and switching directions so smoothly.
(The way they dropped their shoulders reminded me of the time my dad’s shoulder became dislocated when I was playing him one-on-one in basketball. I, a kid, had never beaten my father, but I was ahead of him 8-6 this day. Due to his shoulder problems, we would never finish the game nor play one-on-one again.
Or maybe Dad was just faking the injury?)
Due to my own diarrhea problems, I didn’t dance with the Ethiopians on the first night of the concert.
But, I returned the next night. I was determined to dance any time anybody asked me to.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked over to the twelve-year-old boy sitting next to me. He stuck out his fat tongue as if he was dead, rolled his eyes back in his head, and shook to the music. Dancing in his seat. He became my friend, and he moved closer to me.
Together, we watched another of the group’s dance performances.
Male dancers put their hands behind their backs, as if hand-cuffed, and moved around shaking their shoulders. The girls wore long skirts. Dancing next to the guys, they kept their backs to the guys and clasped their hands in front of themselves as if praying. They kept turning their bodies, keeping their backs to the guys, but looking over their backs at the guys. A round-faced girl smiled sweetly. The guy behind her expressed admiration for her plump butt, and the crowd cheered.
The boy next to me also had a round face. His father came from the Menet tribe, and was the police chief of the town of Gurafarda. My little friend’s name was Yordanos. He was very confident, and I knew I didn’t have to take care of him. (Other guys were asking me to buy them beer.) I felt good with Yordanos.
He suggested we dance. We joined the singer on-stage, and others from the crowd joined us. We jumped around a lot to the very fast music. We slouched and moved our bodies. I became tired. These dancing Ethiopians had a lot of energy!
We returned to our seats.
Yordanos informed me that one song came from Ethiopia’s Guragi tribe. Another song was a Kafa song. When the Kafa song came on, one coffee-skinned man – who’d seemed drunk and sad – became very happy; he danced by spreading his long arms out above him and in front of him.
The group played a reggae song. The singer mentioned Africa’s mecca of rastafarianism: the Ethiopian town, Shashamane.
“Do you like reggae?” I asked Yordanos.
“Yes. Bob Marley!” he said. “… dead.”
He had a straight, matter-of-fact way of speaking. Yordanos was very mature.
But, he sometimes showed a child’s expressions. When I asked him, “Do you like lions?”, he immediately stuck out his tongue and his eyes bugged around in circles. “No!” he said flatly.
An Amhara song came on. We danced.
We were joined by Yordanos’ father, a big version of his son; a funny boy Yordanos knew; and a smily shaven-headed macho guy who rolled his fore-arms around in front of himself.
Actually, we were supposed to dance to this song with our shoulders. Just lean forward, and shake them! As much as possible. For five minutes straight. I enjoyed this dance the most, because it was different from any dance I’d ever done. However, I was a bit worried I was going to end up like my dad after a basketball game.
Afterwards, Yordanos and I resumed our conversation.
In his town which was near to the Surma region, he had seen wild lions, cheetahs, and leopards. Well, not in his town. He was with four friends in the forest when they saw a cheetah. “Very dangerous!”
He knew someone who hunted cheetahs. This man had killed three; he sold their teeth and fur. I felt very sad to hear this. I wasn’t sure how Yordanos – who’d shown environmental concern when he pointed to a large fire heating the stage and said, “Air pollution” – felt about preserving cheetahs.
But, our conversation was the best kind of conversation. We knew we didn’t have to say anything but we did, because we were interested in each other. He asked about my family members’ names, my girlfriend, and my job. He told me he had five birds: two yellow and three red.
And of course, our friendship was great because we danced. We went on-stage for the last song. I lost Yordanos in the crowd of twenty dancers.
I danced with: a possibly insane, happy guy who lowered hips (sticking his butt out) and clapped in front of himself; a girl in a red hair-bonnet who kind of danced as my partner, though we were separated and moving super-super-fast; and another kid who stared me in the eyes as we bounced.
A moment before the song ended, everybody dispersed to return to his seat …
... to then return to his home.
hoping everybody stays warm on this cold rainy season night,