"Rest of the World 2013-14" story # 45

Mizan Teferi, Ethiopia           July 7, 2014

And so, I left the Surma people. I left the people who dressed traditionally and lived amongst nature. I left the village of Tulgit, with its thatched huts and tall grass. I left a culture where only a small minority of people had accepted Christianity; the others believed in mystical things like traditional healers, fortune-tellers, and "dreamers" who interpreted their dreams to predict wars and instruct people that they needed to kill someone.
     I returned to the "main civilization" of Ethiopia. People wore Western clothes. They lived in dirty cities and loved money. They believed in mythical things, like the "Word of God" Gospel or the prophecies of Mohammed. They thought the Surma people should become civilized.
     But ...
     "In an unexplainable, almost mystical way, I think that if the world ever becomes totally homogenized, the quality of life everywhere will significantly diminish." - J.Breen philosophy
     And so, I came to the city of Mizan Teferi.
     The best thing I could say about it was that it was the gateway to Ethiopia's remote south-west.
     The south-west, in addition to being the home of the Surma tribe, was a wild land where one could still encounter large African animals.
     Mr. John, while driving me the ninety miles from Tulgit to Mizan, pointed me to the spot where his workers had once seen lions. Elsewhere, he pointed to the tall grass and said he'd once seen four cheetahs there. Wow! He said one area used to be "elephant country" until the government started moving people here; and in fact, Mr. John's house in Tulgit had an elephant's skeleton lying in front of it.
     But, the city of Mizan Teferi itself just reminded me of a small Addis Ababa. It disgusted me. The center seemed full of dirty bars and drunk people. Men bought and sold bundles of "qat" leaves, and they raced like hummingbirds as a result of chewing this drug so that I couldn't understand them when they greeted me. I was often greeted on the streets of Mizan, sometimes by people high on qat, and sometimes by people who greeted me in the following ways:
     1. "You! You! You!"
     2. "Faranji!" (White person!)
     3. They extended an open hand, begging.
     4. Seated men called to me, once I'd already walked past them. They called urgently, violently, trying to hook me with their voices alone. They didn't move from their seats.
     In order to avoid being annoyed to death, I ignored most people and walked quickly.
     One man named Tamany, who gave me a normal greeting and then walked with me, suggested Ethiopians were awkward because they'd had little experience with whites. Unlike other African nations, they'd never been colonized. They'd only had the Italians here for a few years.
     Awkward or not, most Ethiopians seemed to want something other than friendship - something material and practical - when they talked to me. And it seemed that when they interacted amongst each other, they were equally self-serving.
     East Africa seemed to lack the communal spirit of West and Southern Africa. It was an individualistic Africa. The big families and beautiful children I'd seen elsewhere in Africa were replaced by lots of unmarried men, women working as prostitutes, abandoned children, and rude kids. Or maybe it just seemed this way because I rarely entered the Ethiopians' homes? I was in the country nearly a month before someone invited me to sleep in his home.
     I wasn't even sure what I could do for fun around here. There was no place to swim. I didn't want to go out dancing, if all the girls were prostitutes.
     Trying to decide what my next move should be, I began staying in Mizan's "Sheuwa Hotel". For $2.50 a night.
     A girl named Masarat worked there. An Amhara girl, she had light Arabic/African skin. Big lips and fish eyes and a naive look. Like other Ethiopians, she said "Yes" by inhaling a breath of air quickly and sensually. I just wanted to keep asking her questions she'd say "Yes" to.
     I enjoyed it when she sat on my table and taught me Amharic command words.
     The next day, she wore a long, tight "bee" dress that showed off her curvy backside. She invited me to join her in a room with two other beautiful girls, while they chewed "qat". Now, I was starting to enjoy Ethiopia. And these girls could inspire me to learn Amharic!
     I'd already mastered its alphabet. (Nearly mastered it.) Its thirty-four consonants changed shapes, depending on which of seven or eight vowel sounds accompanied them. I memorized the consonants by remembering what they looked like. The "m" - like Marilyn Monroe's eyes. "w" - like a big-eyed weirdo. "j" - a Japanese samurai. "ch", with its three feet - like someone dancing the Charleston. "ts" - a Tsetse germ.
     I began writing with this strange alphabet in my journal.
     But, Amharic verbs were difficult to conjugate. I struggled to speak this language.
     Meanwhile, an English-speaking guy - who owned Mizan's cinema, where I watched the World Cup - told me that, if Masarat and the other Ethiopian girls worked in a hotel, they were certainly prostitutes. Just like the girls in the discotech below the cinema, he said.
     I asked him, a successful businessman and proud Christian, if he ever slept with prostitutes. "No!" he said. "Not me!"
     A moment later, I watched him negotiate tightly with a girl from downstairs. The last guest in the cinema, I told him "good night". The girl closed the cinema door behind me ...
     And soon after that, Masarat stopped being so friendly to me. Poor celibates like myself weren't usually popular with prostitutes.
     So, I had to look for my enjoyment elsewhere.
     There was one other good thing about Mizan Teferi. Mountains. Green jungly mountains. They grew straight up to heaven, right outside of town. I set out to climb one.
     Leaving the city center and stepping onto the foot of the mountain, I entered a beautiful world.
     Huts sat on lawns of fresh grass or rich dirt, surrounded by fences made of bright plants with red flowers.
     A girl with a very pure smile, with a wicker basket strapped to her back, walked with me for a while. Past the huts. Through the jungle. "Benche! Benche!" she said, proudly. She was letting me know that the Benche tribe lived here.
     She was going to collect crops from fields on the mountain. Corn or bananas. Avocados or mangos. Mizan Teferi got about ten feet of rain a year. Southwestern Ethiopia was an agricultural paradise. The people were poor, but it was hard to imagine that anyone should be hungry.
     Four guys with machetes led me along the side of a very steep piece of jungle. Don't fall, faranji! We came to a hut, where I overheard a kid howling a traditional African song. I left my four friends behind.
     Virtually no one begged.
     But, several kids followed me up the steepest part of the mountain. They called after me for "Money! Birr!"
     The July sun, though obstructed by clouds, electrified my skull and made me dizzy. Sweat poured from my stomach, as I carried my bag and extra water. I swore at the kids to leave me alone. "Heed! Heed!" (Go away! Go away!) Was I enjoying this climb? Not that part of it!
     This great mountain, to my surprise, was inhabited and harvested nearly all the way to the top.
     I passed the final field and hut. I reached the mountain's flat top. I followed a narrow trail into dense dense jungle.
     Occasionally, sixty-foot trees towered overhead. One type of tree had leaves on top, but otherwise resembled the stretched leg of an elephant. The other type was an upside-down squid, black black but covered in green ferns. These trees grew isolated from one another, on a rolling plateau full of leaves, Leaves, LEAVES! The same green leaves, on plants ten feet high, filled up the jungle.
     I enjoyed being here. I sat on a fallen tree. Meditated. And began my descent.
     I passed more huts. Some were decorated with diamond drawings and earthy paints of white, black, peach, orange. The women and children, who'd never seen a white man before, were terrified.
     I bathed in a rainforest pool, beneath a waterfall beneath banana plants.
     Resuming the steep descent, I was joined by a crazy man who ran to catch up with me. He was chewing qat leaves. His name was Miduku Kidane. He was coming from his father's home. We walked together for quite a while, until we reached his house.
     He wanted me to photograph him in front of it. Then, this friendly guy asked if he should bring me a chair so I could sit for a while. I said: No, I'll continue on my way. "No matter," said Miduku.
     Moments later, I realized I should've accepted his offer.
     I felt sad I'd rejected him. If Miduku's and my relationship hadn't resulted in friendship
     it was my fault.

from Ethiopia,
Modern Oddyseus

go to the previous story                                                                                   go to the next story

J. Breen's modern-o.com