On The Road To Entoto: Encountering the Languages of Despair
by Dr. Teodros Kiros
WIC August 17, 2000
Exactly a year ago, I attended a wedding of my sister Aida Kiros to Dr.Shewit Bezabeh, in Addis, at my mother's villa. The wedding introduced me to Ethiopia's cultural landscape. There in that beautiful house, basking under the generous Ethiopian sun, I welcomed to our home a huge number of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and from all lifestyles. They were young and vibrant, fragile and emaciated, wrinkled and beautiful, poor and proud, rich and vain. Wearing subtle smiles, they all came to share my mothers' happiness. This was the wedding that cleansed my mothers' sorrows, since a few years ago we had lost my youngest brother, Solomon, at the tender age of twenty-four. Solomon was an exceptional human being.
A few days later, after a conversation with a relative about places to see, I settled on visiting Entoto on foot. The visit I thought would blend my daily regimen of walking ten miles with the cleansing of my soul through meditation.
Ato Mekonnen, the family driver, took us there. At first, he insisted that we take the car. I refused and he relented. I managed to brecruit my reluctant wife May to join the adventure. We began ascending slowly but steadily. Ato Mekonnen was following us with the car.
It was midday. The sun was scorching hot. The meandering road to the summit of Entoto, the first capital of Ethiopia, was breath taking. The Eucalyptus trees, which Emperor Menilik introduced to the country, stood tall, protruding through their prolific branches, announcing to the world that they have adapted to the Ethiopian soil, and have become new forms. The scene mesmerized us. For a brief moment, I lived life as art.
Sadly, the sight of burdened women carrying huge loads of firewood on their backs, and hating every minute of it aborted my joy. Dozens of them formed elegant lines and kept on walking without end. Women and girls stooping low, barely walking, with their heavy eyes focused on the road, occasionally talking to one another, weighed down by wood on their abused backs, forcing themselves to walk up, to unkwn destinies that I did not want to imagine. Such women are fated to die in the prime of their lives.
Two young women turned their faces and gave my foreign wife and me an ambiguous gaze. I was awestruck by that stern look directly at my eyes.
That ambiguous look is so unlike the look that I am accustomed too on the streets of America. The racist gaze in America judges you directly and unambiguously. It tells you that you are out of place, that you are not supposed to be where you are, on the turf of the white person. That you must move to another space with your own kind. The gaze of these overburdened women is that of envy and resentment. They are shocked by your privileged appearance. Their sustained look indicts you. They are repulsed by your privilege, perhaps unearned, or gained through luck, or simply by the amassing of power and wealth through corruption and greed. One young woman literally stood and stared at me. She did not open her mouth. She hated my sympathetic looking eyes. She came close to tell me to move out of her sight. Instead, she stared me away. Indicted and shamed, I moved away. Unlike me, the intrusive hypocrite, well fed and well clad in the west, desperately seeking an encounter with despair, my respectful wife had stayed away. She told me that " she cannot bring herself to look at these women's eyes".
A few kilometers pass by. Three little girls, whom I wrongly identified as exceptionally good looking boys, joined us. The little girls diplomatically corrected me when I addressed them as boys. We exchanged our names. The oldest one was eleven years old, strikingly black, comely, with round black eyes and very modestly built nose topped by elegantly cut short hair. Her younger sister, looked exactly like her sister, but was an inch taller; the youngest, six years old, was young in every sense: curious to a fault, unrestrained, cutely conversational and very happy with herself. They asked me where I lived and what I did for living. I told them that I lived in the United States and that I am a college professor. They inquired about my wife, and I told them that she is from Lebanon and that she too will soon be a professor. Our conversation lightened, and flowed well, until I discovered that they were beggars supporting a bed-ridden mother, and living in a tin shack to which they pointed. With tears in her eyes, Attiti said, " I dream that one day my mother would suddenly stand up from her bed and discover that she is now living in a clean little room". I could only say to her that it may indeed happen, that she should never stop hoping. I quoted from Corinthians. " There are three things that remain, hope, faith, and love.
Of the three, love is the strongest." She told me that she loved the biblical statement. I said to myself that for most people in prosperous cities, what many consider a dream has been a reality for thousands of years. For most people, like Attiti, living inside a room is not a reality yet. They have never lived in a home. They are not homeless, perse, but rather have yet to experience being inside a home.
For most Ethiopians, dwelling inside a real room is a dream. They can only imagine it.
The girls told me that they climbed Entoto every single day, rarely with full strength. As Attiti put it, " We do not expect to eat everyday. Sometimes what we bring home is barely enough to feed a single person. Therefore, we take turns. Many times, we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of mother. When we go to bed hungry, we struggle to wake up the next day, to go up and down that mountain." These words of sorrow were conveyed with a brittle voice and quavering lips. Attiti continued, " On many rainy nights, our bodies are drenched in water. The next day, we sit naked at home, until our closes dry". "Do you ever wonder why you have to live like this, when there is arable land in the countryside that you can farm, when the rains permit? You then can build your dream house. You know you can do that," I said. She laughed and gently replied, " Gashe. People like us are cursed by God, that is what my mother says, sometimes". I embraced her and told her that her mother is mistaken. That the new government in Addis is going to change the situation with the help of public action.
We arrived at the summit, visited the beautiful church. Shortly before we took of, May, who loved the girls, took their pictures, which we keep at home, until I return to Ethiopia, to give them in person, assuming that they are there, and that people will identify their home, from the picture.
These shattered young lives are part of everyday Ethiopian topography. These wasted bodies belong to the realm of the familiar, the natural, where policy does not dare to go, and cameras never document. Some readers know of bitterer stories.
However, the point is not comparing unfulfilled lives. What should shock us all is the fact that they exist at all, and that there is no systematic public action that addresses them Medical technology has practically eradicated all diseases, except cancer and AIDS. They too will be cured, in time.
Look at us Ethiopians. Surely, the regime in power tries, and is succeeding. Some remarkable projects are on the way. The gigantic Sheraton, the future Satellite City, the slowly but surely booming economy for the rising middle class, is notable and impressive achievements. The public is dormant. How about endemic deprivation, which we have relegated to the familiar? Where is the comfortable public? Where is its conscience? Why is the church attending and religious public not concerned with the emaciated bodies squandering their lives in the desolate mountains and ravines of Ethiopia, like hunted deer running for their lives?
The public must wake up. It should not rest and sleep long hours after partying at our expensive hotels. Ethiopia is still like a sleeping beauty, and a vibrant and responsible public must shake it. It is shameful to party on the backs of those women who literally abuse their backs for the sake of merely existing. They too are moral subjects. They too have a right to live. They too have bodies that must be fed, sheltered and clothed. The life of our poor citizens is being played with. Too often, their misery and bitter suffering are used against one another. The cause of their sufferings is hidden from them. Their causes are mystified and are given quasi-religious explanations, which victims, such as Attiti above, internalized.