"Rest of the World 2013-14" story # 50

Tulgit, Ethiopia           August 9, 2014

"Give me money! Give me money! Give me money!
     "Give me! Give me! Give me!
     "Me! Me! Me!
     "Can I have some money so I can buy 'geso' and get drunk? I'm hungry. I'm poor. Can I have that shirt you're wearing? How about giving me a few 'birr', so I can buy geso? Birr, birr, birr! Look at my baby's eye; he needs to go see a doctor."
     "I think he just has strange eyes."
     "Do you have some razor blades? The tourists usually give us razor blades. Take my photo! Birr, birr, birr! Can I have some money so I can buy geso? How about giving me your sandals? My baby's father was killed by the Bume People, and I don't have any parents. I'm hungry. We Surma people are poor."
     "Then, why do you shoot bullets into the air that cost fifty birr each - enough for four big meals in restaurants? You walk through the dry grass and desert for several days to reach South Sudan, where you buy AK-47s for 15,000 birr each - the value of ten of your cows."
     "Yeah, but could you give me some money so I can buy geso? I'm just sitting here, all day long, until somebody gives me the money to buy geso. Birr, birr, birr. Photo! Where are your razor blades, my hair's getting long? Money to buy geso. Don't you think those shorts you're wearing would look good on me?"
     "Well, Police Chief Bar Shoay, after you chased me and forced me to come to this shit-hole of Kibish, I'm not too eager to give you my only swimsuit."
     "I need a better phone."
     "Well, Police Chief Bar Kutul, seeing as how I don't have a phone myself, it's unlikely that I would buy you a new phone."
     "Razor blades. Photo! Birr. When I curl my hand into a circle and put it in front of my eye like a spy-glass, that's a symbol for: 'You should give me birr.' I'm poor. I have no work. I'm just sitting here. I want to drink geso. I'm hungry. Can I have your jacket? This isn't my baby; her mother drank geso yesterday at the stick-fighting and fell down and died."
     "I remember you. Yesterday, you said it was your baby, and his father was killed by the Bume People. However, yesterday I don't think you were carrying a baby at all; it was just a sack of cornmeal wrapped up on your back."
     "It was nice talking to you, Mister. Now ... can you give me some money so I can buy geso?"
     Though my Surichen language abilities improved rapidly, I was unable to build friendships with the Suri of Kibish.
     One day, I sat down beside a girl with a very tall forehead on a very small head. Nearly half of her head was forehead. She asked if I wanted to buy a heavy, wooden doll she'd made. She showed me its "way" (boobs), "kejhogi" (scarification designs on its stomach), and "tugo" (stretched lower lip, encircling a clay plate). I appreciated her artwork, and it was refreshing to see a Suri selling something instead of begging. But, it was too expensive and heavy for me. A highlander Ethiopian told her, I didn't have much money and was camping at the police station.
     She and her friends put the doll away and relaxed, drinking geso. I made conversation with them. She asked if I'd buy them more geso. I said I didn't have any money on me. I made conversation. She suggested I buy them geso. I said, I considered geso to be a bad thing. I made conversation. She said, maybe I might buy them some geso?
     She might-as-well have been banging her huge forehead against a tree that was in her path. She was so stupid.
     "For beggary, a man is not chased out of society with a stick (as with poverty, which is 'not a vice'), he is swept out with a broom, so as to make it as humiliating as possible, and quite right too." - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
     Of course, Americans and Europeans who came to Ethiopia did like to give things to the locals. They were stupid, too.
     "Everyone is stupid except me." - Homer Simpson
     One day, a group of fifteen tourists arrived in the Surma region. Local kids and women painted their faces and wore their brightest decorations. They charged the Spanish tourists five birr per photo. The Spaniards also gave some women something they'd never seen before: cigarettes.
     Unbelievably stupid!
     "... beggars, whose desperate struggle for bread renders them insensible to all feelings of decency and self-respect. And our philanthropists, instead of providing work for them and insisting on their working for bread, give them alms." - Gandhi
     "When you give money to people you feel sympathy for, they remain inferior and dependent like pet dogs." - J.Breen philosophy
     "When you bring money to cultures that don't have money, you teach them that they need money and create a new unhappiness." - J.Breen philosophy
     Another day, I was chased by a strong young man who was in the background of a picture I took. I'd been photographing the Kibish Valley and, admittedly, I wanted to include some Suri people in the photo. He ran to me, gripped me by my bicep - the size of which apparently didn't scare him much - and demanded ten birr. I was scared. I thought he might punch me in the face. And I would've deserved it.
     But, I rarely submitted to others' demands.
     The shaven-headed man wore a purple cloth hanging from his right shoulder. A leather bow, decorated with black and silver hoops, hung from his bare left shoulder. I would've happily traded my biceps for his. Gripping me, he let me walk sideways until we were within the compound of the health clinic. My highlander Ethiopian friends who worked there appeared and rescued me.
     Sometimes, it was fun to get yourself into trouble and let your friends bail you out. "Nyeh, nyeh, nyeh, Muscular Gladiator Guy!"
     Whew. I was safe. But, for how long? I figured I'd better get out of Kibish quickly. I was frustrated and ready to leave, anyways.
     I would only miss a few things:
     The highlander Ethiopians. My best friend, Netsanet, was working on a project to eliminate Guinea worm disease. It was feared that the Suri might sometimes drink water infected with Guinea worm larvae, and become hosts for these painful parasites. Netsanet, and other educated Ethiopians working in Kibish, invited me to meals and wouldn't let me pay for anything. Young Netsanet was a very generous Oromo person.
     And the birds.
     My tent at the police station was on the edge of a tall grass forest. Spherical nests hung from the branches of one large tree; chattering yellow birds, with black faces and orange throats, descended after the rains and carried long strings of grass up to their tree. In the Kibish Valley, I also saw:
     a shiny bronze/orange bird, wearing a black helmet with a white stripe through the middle;
     a small bird whose bottom half was turquoise, and whose top half was a penguin;
     a kingfisher, perched calmly on a wire;
     a bird with a white and black jail-striped belly, and brown wings;
     big mockingbirds that cooed like monkeys;
     and a bird with a black head, coffee neck, gray belly, and black tail, perfectly striped like Chocolate Rainbow ice cream.
     One day, a hawk hung upside-down from one of the yellow birds' spherical nests. The smaller birds swooped at the hawk to fight him off. The hawk shooed them away with his spiky wings. He pulled something out of the nest. "Food," he said. "Our friend," said the other birds. The hawk flew away and disappeared inside the darkness of another tree. Yellow birds chased him briefly. But, they were unable to save their friend.

With a month remaining in Ethiopia, I departed from Kibish.
     I traveled over a sharp, green mountain to the village of Tulgit. My love for the Surma people needed to be resurrected.
     It wouldn't take long.
     I crossed Tulgit's grassy central plaza. I breathed the cool air. I visited the beautiful, light-skinned Oromo women who operated the only restaurant. Surma boys, including my friend Bar Lusa, were eating beans with injera bread. They invited me to join them, ordered some more, and paid for my meal. In Tulgit, actually, everyone was my friend.
     A joking, giggling highlander named Jibriel had recently told me I could stay with him. He farmed beans, vegetables, papayas, bananas, and mangoes. He also gave the Suri money, but only in exchange for work. He loved the Suri. They called him "Kengo Bu" (Big Belly), for evident reasons.
     I was invited to Bar Lusa's house for a meal. His sister, Nga Yuka, asked me: "What did the police say to you in Kibish?" Then, she ground up corn and made salty cornmeal. Bar Lusa made a delicious sauce from oil, water, salt, and onions. We bought fresh beef from a cow slaughtered in the forest. We cooked the beef and ate our meal. Seated on a cow-skin beside Bar Lusa's hut, we enjoyed this food tremendously.
     And later that day, Jibriel's daughter cooked "doro wat". Ethiopia's favorite food.
     The red sauce flowed around the center of the flat injera bread like thick lava. It was made of oil, butter, onions, garlic, and chili peppers. Each of us at the table received a hard-boiled egg and a "doro" (chicken) leg, dipped in the sauce.
     Holding some of the meaty sauce between a shred of injera bread, I asked where Jibriel's son was. Jibriel said the boy was visiting his girlfriend. "This is better than a girlfriend!" I said.
     Tulgit had always felt like my home in Ethiopia.
     It tasted great, too.

the Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Terrafa for a ride!
Much thanks to Netsanet, Alex, Alene, Mochalo, & Dita for a place to sleep!

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