An Ethiopia Story


By Cristine Milton

Her luggage didn’t arrive in Ethiopia when she did.  A broken lock on her hotel door caused her a restless night in the plane-stale outfit she’d worn across several continents.  She pondered a month without all of those items so carefully rolled or folded to fit into a pack already too heavy.  At nearly six-feet tall, buying clothes in a foreign country wasn’t an option. She glanced at the travel clock that wasn’t there.  She’d grope for her cell later on.

By 3:00 a.m., she was staring out the window that overlooked the still-dark capital’s streets.  She was surprised at the ghost-like processional moving stealthily below, a sea of women wrapped in gauze.  Others were wound in patterned skirts, their colors withheld by the grip of dark.  Intrigued, Lindsay squinted harder between the dusty curtains, the cool night air brushing her unwashed face and the exotic smells of spice and grime teasing her nose.  Mostly women padded softy by, leaving only scuffled footprints in the dirt of the hotel’s scant glow.

Even the professor in her couldn’t figure out where they were all going – so many, so early.  Mosque, maybe, for the gauzed brigade.  Her curiosity piqued, she slid her feet into her shoes.  In less than a minute, she was sweeping past a startled hotel guard and slipping amidst the processional of women.

She caught their stride and tried to make sense of what language denied her.  Muffled conversations permeated the air and heads nodded subtly her way.  Did they think her rude … arrogant … curious? Twice she caught a whispered faranji.  Yes, she was a blue-eyed foreigner, marching in some parade for which she knew neither cause nor destination, her too-many-pockets travel shirt an incongruency.  Her impulsive dash out the hotel had caught even her by surprise.  But, as always, she was here to witness, to momentarily weave herself into a foreign tapestry in an effort to understand the many threads that made the whole.  How shallow that all sounded, she thought, as she brushed her bangs out of her eyes.  Geez.  Whose brochure am I living?

She continued to walk with them, nonetheless.  Dogs darted and yelped, the still-dark streets no longer theirs alone.  Poverty seemed to hang in the air, held in place by yesterday’s trash.  Donkeys, called into early morning duty, were already piled too high with someone’s hopes for a different tomorrow.  Dim light and uneven streets, pocked with holes and gutters, kept her eyes focused downward, robbing her of chances to steal glances at dark faces made darker by the night.

Look at all these feet, she thought, intrigued by the display that escaped from under skirts lightly flipping back and forth with each stride.  The stories they must tell. Yellow and white shoes flashed in moments of dull light, unyielding in their plasticity.  Other shoeless feet bore streaks of yesterday’s trek.  She followed them, succumbing to their tempo.

She was here to present a paper on Sustainability at her last Geography conference of the year.  I can’t really present in jeans and pockets! Lufthansa better find that luggage.

Lost in the sway of hips in front of her, her jet-lagged mind wandered to the globe on her desk – one she had explored with her fingers to experience the tiny relief of mountains in their countries of blues and pinks and greens.  How big and out of place she felt walking across this globe of hers, the world so small underfoot.  Carefully stepping over tiny black lines, she wondered what borders she had just crossed and what politics or clerics might send her scurrying to the next black line of her mind.  Years of immersing herself in countries and their stories, with their strongmen and their monks, their guns and their rice, had organized her mental maps – half made real by the extra pages stapled in the passport hidden safely at her waist, the other half puzzled together by thoughts and ideas not her own.  Will I ever make sense of this world I teach about? she thought.  Her feet moved mindlessly, brailling their way in search of hazards, guided by the cadence of others around her, her mind left to its own journeys on her globe.

A car sputtered to life, shaking night’s slumber slowly off its metallic frame as it added to the growing din of a city slowly coming to life.  A skinny cow walked in the middle divider, no man or child with a stick in sight.  Then, suddenly, she and the women were flooded with headlights of a too-fast truck, momentarily bringing to life now-jumbled colors on patterned skirts as they scurried to safety.  Spun off her globe, she and the women to her left landed hard against an old, stone wall.  Curses and murmurs spit out of startled mouths.  A small stack of dirty hay dislodged from the wall, tumbling down upon them, sticking with its little bits of manure in her uncovered hair.  Moron, she thought, hating the tapestry.  But to her astonishment, the globe eased its spin and everyone regained their stride, with little amiss but two onions still rolling on the ground.  A baby cried and a mother’s dirty finger found the mouth wrapped inside the folds of her shawl.  They walked on.

Soon, women with burlap bags and bulging shawls left one by one, slipping into still-dark streets and alleys toward what would become bustling markets where they would squat for hours behind the small piles of whatever lay hidden in their bags and tucked in their shawls. I can’t wait to get my camera out to the markets. There’s a beauty in this poverty – maybe just because it’s different or maybe because life exists in spite of it.

After a half hour of maneuvering alleys and streets, Lindsay was jostled by gauzed bodies disentangling from the group.  They moved silently up a dirt hill towards a hexagonal building adorned with a cross.  Not a mosque, after all, she realized, her brief fantasy of having walked the city amidst Muslim women dashed by the glaring cross.  Two unmarked doorways separated the men from the women.  With her exposed head, she went only so far as the door, where she glimpsed a sea of white filling right-side benches while a scattering of men in dark coats took to the left.  Despite her efforts at open mindedness, she chaffed at the gendering and departed to the rhythmic sounds of a priest guiding his masses into God’s waiting arms.  That’s commitment, she thought, about the women of a country both Christian and Muslim.  Prayers in the dark.  It must order their lives.

She left the church, rejoining the steady march of the remaining women, their ranks now thinner and their shabbiness more apparent at the edge of dawn.  Those left seemed to carry nothing but weariness, their empty hands pumping at their sides, as if trying to take the burden from tired feet.  She felt less welcomed by this bunch;  they carried no anticipation of church or market in their demeanor.  Lindsay had long given up awkward smiles offered as meager explanation for her presence.  She didn’t even know why she was there herself.

They trudged on, but spoke little amongst themselves, their eyes set deep within their faces, averted, perhaps, from whatever their daily lives might force them to see.  They turned up an obscure path, beginning a climb up a hillside that challenged Lindsay’s clogs.  In the budding light, she noticed worn bands tied loosely around their waists or draped over their shoulders.  She could not guess what in the shadows still beckoned the women onward.  There were no men in their midst, just women, whose bodies seemed even more tired than the straps that hung like sad jewelry across torn and dirtied shirts.

The grade steepened and Lindsay found herself embarrassed at an inner dialog in which she was already complaining about bad hillsides and a now-bruised left arm.  She was worn and hungry, growing angry at a country that sent women young and old up hillsides in the dark and a bit irritated at herself for thinking she needed to follow them.  What am I trying to prove?  Do I always have to travel the hard way?

She finally succumbed to a rock, pretending to dislodge a stone from a shoe that, upon further thought, she wished not to draw attention to.  Did I just see smirks from their silent mouths … or did I imagine that? Her downward retreat gave her the first chance to really study the faces of women climbing upward.  Their eyes rarely met hers.  Look at me. You’re my tapestry, remember.  I can’t understand you if I can’t see you. Her own angry feet slipped on the dirt that had tried to grab her clogs out from under her on the journey up.

At the base of the hill, she was absorbed again by a city now fully alive with honking traffic and busses that could care less about the faranji with angry feet making their way toward a hotel with no elevator and a door lock that dangled from one screw on its hinge.  When she finally entered the room, she collapsed on a bed that rolled her toward its center hole, as if sucking her into an Africa that might never let her go.

She slept an hour and then stood under the hot water longer than ever before, feeling selfish for stealing Africa’s water for her already-clean skin.  She wanted to wash away the smells that had caught in her hair and dislodge the emptiness she felt at the invisibility she and the women had shared.  She stepped out onto a wet bathroom floor, careful not to slip on light-pink tiles that matched her skin.  The towel she reached for was missing its edging, loosening threads to make their slow journey downward towards a floor of broken tile.

Her mouth dry, she wandered downstairs, seating herself in the dining area under a TV blaring some version of CNN.  A family at a nearby table sat chatting awkwardly, the woman holding a baby in her arms, the man staring at the soundless bundle.  A loose dark curl escaped the blanket, a curl so different from the blonde of the couple holding what now seemed to be a child not of their own making.  Lindsay stole glances, realizing that Africa, the source of humanity, was sending yet another human to people the world.  My god, so many have come from Africa in so many ways.  And how ironic that the first of humanity were still the last to reap its rewards.

She ordered what ended up being a smoothie of mango, avocado, and papaya.  It helped erase the embarrassment she still carried over succumbing to a mountainside much less in stature than those in her own Colorado backyard.  When no one was looking, she dipped a piece of bread in her drink, a drop of smoothie landing above the upper right pocket of her only shirt.

In less than fifteen minutes, she would meet the guide and driver who would shuttle her up and down the highlands and lowlands of this country at the crossroads of ancient civilizations.  God, who am I to talk about Sustainability to Africa.  They don’t ‘sustain’;  they make do with whatever scraps they have.

They were soon driving about streets more foreign to her now in their sunlight than they had been when she’d walked them hours before.  They passed by the market place with its piles of grain and tire shreds and plastic, all puppeteered by men and women in now-brilliant colors.  It was a vibrant scene, one she truly loved.  Dogs sprinted about and small children clung to skirts or wandered aimlessly through the hub of people and piles.  A knot tightened in Lindsay’s throat, part of the experience of again accepting the unattended roaming of children and animals amidst a world of things all bigger than they were.  She swallowed, finally acquiescing to the noises and smells that would shape her month.

They headed toward a museum atop a hill, chugging up the incline filled with people on foot guiding struggling donkeys with a twiggy branch.  Then her eyes landed on two women, walking single file downhill along the edge of the road. A child was strapped to the front of one; the other was wearing a pattern she knew well.  Cars brushed them onto the dirt strip that separated asphalt from a long drop;  the women never raised their heads, bent and partially obscured by the bundle on their backs.  Lindsay watched them, her mind piecing together the story her guide sketched out.  More women followed, all carrying 6- to 8-foot bundles of leafy or bare tree limbs, strapped onto their backs with thin strips of bark or rope that cut into shoulder skin exposed through torn shirts.  My god, her mind echoed, these are the very women I followed part way up a hillside.  The women had climbed deep into the forests, gathering or cutting limbs into lengths they would strap onto their bare backs in 75-pound bundles, carrying them down the hillsides that had borne them upward, into markets or roadside stands, where they would offer their wood to a city without any other source of fuel.  They might earn a dollar before they would climb again for a second trip of the day up a mountain to face the guards that roamed to protect the forests, guards that would beat and rape them for doing the task the country demanded of their weary backs.  No wonder they didn’t smile.

She’d seen similar elsewhere in her travels – women shouldering the world.  She loved them and hated them.

A day of exploring Addis Ababa returned Lindsay back to the same darkness that had begun her day.  As they rounded a curve on the road, their headlights caught a woman in a brief burst of light.  She carried nothing but a handful of spinach.  Lindsay noticed a thin strap draped across her shoulders and then the woman was lost into the dark.

The hotel clerk handed her a note.  Lufthansa had found her luggage.  It would arrive on the next flight two days later.  Which of the 30,000 women should I give it to, she thought.