A Travelogue, Unbuckled
“It is just an illusion here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”
– Billy Pilgrim (letter to Earth after encountering beings versed in the 4th dimension)
Ahnd ena Hulet : First Encounters
(5.30.16 – 6.5.16)
Call me Gebre, I suppose.
Some years ago – to put it in terms you will understand – it became apparent that time did not exist for me. Or at least not in the way you may have come to know it. You see, at some point in my life, I became detached – ‘unbuckled’, as I like to call it – from the rigid conception of space and time currently perceived on Earth. Liberated, I was whisked away to any moment in space this Unbuckler saw fit. For lifetimes upon lifetimes, the Unbuckler remained a nebulous communicator. The general impression I had gleaned throughout my travels told me it must be some sort of exercise in enlightenment. This assumption was largely correct, but the way in which it came to pass was such an extraordinary experience that I knew I must make an attempt to document and share it. This is that attempt. I’ve sought to recreate my feelings throughout this particular period to better convey the personal transformation I’ve undergone, even if it exposes some of my early foolishness and naïveté. I guess that makes it something of a lesson, a reminder to keep an open mind and to let your imagination soar.
In the beginning, the only thing I knew with a modicum of certainty is that I had departed the corporeal world and seemed to be inhabiting various humans throughout Ethiopian history, all named ‘Gebre’ in one way or another. The Gebres varied, but the perspective was always the same. The best way to describe it is a perpetual dream state, the dream being someone else’s reality. I sat directly behind the eyes, seeing what was seen, hearing what was heard, and, for better or worse, feeling what was felt. An existence relegated solely to consciousness, like an immigrant soul in an unsuspecting body. Up to this point, the unbuckling had always landed me in a native Ethiopian Gebre, a mostly comfortable experience given my roots. But then the Unbuckler played a cruel trick on me, sticking me inside a ferenj, from New York City of all places (for the uninitiated, ferenj, or ferenji, is a mostly affectionate Ethiopian term used for foreigners, likely derived from the Arabic word ifranj, or the Persian farangi, used to describe European traders or white Westerners in general). This ferenj’s name is Gregory Smith, and he only appropriated the ‘Gebre’ name because it was assigned to him by his Ethiopian program advisor as a partially humorous (and ridiculous, if you ask me) assimilation attempt. I say ridiculous because of “Gebre” Smith’s blatant non-Habesha appearance – he is a 190 cm (6’3), 90+ kg (200+ lb), English-speaking white man – a Gebre imposter if I ever saw one.
He appeared to be in Ethiopia as part of an international field program offered by…The New School? Peculiar name for a university – I wondered what made it so “new“. Sounded like one of those righteous institutions, peering around corners, telling you how you ought to think before you get there – always trying to outrun history, those progressives. The only new thing I saw was yet another potential Ethiopian aid worker – something this continent has never suffered from a shortage of, especially here in our country ever since that British fellow went full muckraker some 40 years ago. I rather liked that Brit, and not just for exposing our famine. I think he was on to something in describing the track of modern Ethiopia since those difficult times – he realized you couldn’t get from point A to point C without getting some dirt under your fingernails. Gebre Smith didn’t strike me as the dirty fingernails type at all; no, not as a rank-and-file at this so-called New School. But I tried to curb my pessimism about this Gebre – after all, the Unbuckler has shown me a great many awe-inspiring things. Maybe his perspective was some sort of clue to deciphering the riddle behind all this unbuckling. I remained skeptical, but time would tell. In one way or another, it always does.
Not long after he arrived at the Bole (pronounced ‘bo-lay’) International Airport in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa (lit. ‘New Flower’), I could sense the mixture of Gebre Smith’s emotions – fascination, wonder, apprehension, even an ever so slight twinge of fear. He is relatively light on passport stampings, none having come from Africa. Perhaps it is somewhat warranted – this ferenj sticks out more than any of his classmates, and, to him, the long, blank stares seemed brimmed with suspicion, scorn even. I wish I could tell him how endearing the ferenj term was usually meant to be, and how genuinely foreigners are welcomed here.
Gebre’s feeling of isolation grew slightly as he was taken to his rental house, a private compound in the Hayahulet (lit. ’22’) neighborhood of Bole, one of the ten sub-cities comprising Addis. The small compound consisted of a 10-ft concrete wall enclosure mounted with circular barbed wire, secured by bolt-lock steel doors and a few around-the-clock guards. A common occurrence here in Addis, one that I have seen thousands of times during my existence, but one akin to a prison for the unaccustomed. Add to this the raucous first night that included a wonderfully familiar medley of howling stray dogs, roosters, and 5am prayer calls, and I could feel Gebre Smith starting to think how long two months would take to go by.
Luckily I didn’t have to suffer through this needless trepidation for long – our Gebre quickly realized what a hospitable place Addis can be. Sleep came easier as the nighttime cacophony transformed slowly into white noise – a natural, indigenous process. In reality, the “guards” were soft-spoken, plain-clothed doorman, and the isolated prisoner feeling vanished once he realized how freely he could walk about, how laid-back the locals are, and how relatively safe the streets felt.
Gebre Smith wanders the area near his compound, taking in the ever-changing landscape of a country in perpetual motion, with all its marvels and blights. His senses bordered on overload: an endless army of concrete skeletons marking new building construction; multi-story malls; polished cafes; 4 and 5-star hotels; colorful street art; a brand new intra-city light rail; a smattering of shiny, newer model vehicles; brands galore – Nike, Jordan, Michael Koors; pre-ripped designer jeans, earbuds swinging from gleaming, plus-sized smartphones; Apple logos and Che Guevara bumper stickers paradoxically placed alongside each other. All of this operating within the organized chaos of people, cars, trucks, and mini-buses. He is amazed by the heavy, varying strains of traffic that (somehow) harmoniously co-exist, navigating mostly without the use of street signs or traffic lights. Vehicles, especially the ubiquitous light-blue taxis, roam the streets in herds, pushing through gaps that aren’t there, and gently tapping horns to warn oncomers – be it man, machine, or animal.
Of course, Gebre Smith has found much to juxtapose against all these signs of modernity: miles of rubble-strewn sidewalks; archaic construction techniques with buildings shrouded in thatched bamboo scaffolding; urban poverty highlighted by omnipresent clusters of claustrophobic compounds made of (often rusted) corrugated tin and mud; vehicles belching carbon from decades-old exhausts; destitute beggars; power outages; a still sorely lagging internet penetration; lack of piped water and improved sanitation; and constant reminders of the country’s agricultural roots. Gebre thinks many of the people he sees on the street wouldn’t look out of place in his own neighborhood in NYC, which brings the shortfall in surrounding physical infrastructure into palpable relief. His cranial gears grind to life, recalling articles he’s read on Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth, contrasted with those highlighting its social cost. He wonders to whom all this growth is benefiting. Part of me sees where he is coming from, but still – transformation does not happen overnight, Gebre. Surely you’ve been told how many days Rome took to build!
As part of his first week in the country our Gebre is slated to see historical and tourist sites in Addis. Just when he thought the flow of people, vehicles, and animals couldn’t get anymore dense, he visits Merkato, hailed as the largest open-air market in all of Africa. The experience is brief, mainly a drive-thru, but the chaotic atmosphere is absorbed. In his less than 5 minutes outside of the group’s van, a wad of spit hits the mid-thigh area of Gebre’s pants, purposefully hocked by a passerby who feigns ignorance and makes a half-hearted wiping attempt. He is taken aback, but other than a local messing with a ferenj, he thinks little of it. It’s not until later he learns this is one of the many distraction techniques used by pickpocketers across the city – luckily he was armed with vigilance, and more importantly, his anti-pickpocketing skinny pants. The group takes a lunch break in central Addis at the Itegue Taitu, the first hotel in Ethiopia. It was built in 1898 by Taitu Betul, the wife of the modern founder of the Ethiopian empire-state, Menilek II. I start to feel that pull again, signaling a space-time journey to yet another Gebre is imminent – not a surprise given all the history here – but ultimately I remain in Gebre Smith (Note: The occurrence of unbucklings are just as likely to be triggered by a proximity to historical sites as they are to be completely random. A baffling existence, I know). Our Gebre is impressed by the food and how well the building has been maintained – konjo (beautiful / great / delicious)!
The rest of the week was a sightseeing extravaganza, which I’m grateful for since most of the natives I typically inhabit in this period rarely visit tourist sites. There was a religious fair at Meskel Square – a large outdoor amphitheater and festival venue; a walk through the National Palace (aka Jubilee Palace), now a museum that’s part of Addis Ababa University, but previously the primary residence of emperor Haile Selassie (ruler from 1930 until his dethronement in 1974); and a visit to the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum (adjacent to Meskel Square), highlighted by an impassioned tour guide that survived the mass killing operation carried out by a Communist-aligned military junta (‘the Derg’) in the late 1970s, after the overthrow of Selassie. Standing among all the art and history at the National Palace, our Gebre has become totally absorbed – he walks through Haile Selassie’s old bedroom, and to the exact spot where the iconic photograph was taken of our once-mighty emperor being deposed and humiliatingly placed in that plebeian, white Volkswagen. These visits bring back a wave of unbuckling memories – did you know I actually saw Selassie being lowered into that Beatle?? That’s me on the left there, below. A despicable moment for an eye-witness; did they forget how much the Emperor had done for the country? I lost count of the Gebres I inhabited at that time. The Unbuckler placed me in many Derg officers – often illiterate men who rounded up and killed many of our youngest, and (likely the reason they were targeted) most outspoken intellectuals. I was still trying to figure out why I was made to bear witness to all that carnage.
Gebre’s tour then took him outside of Addis, some 50 km southeast to Debre Zeyit – officially known by its Oromo name, Bishoftu. There he visits a NGO-owned training compound that teaches urban agriculture techniques and makes a stop at the Kiriftu Resort & Spa, a luxurious ferenj-favorite that features an in-ground pool, massages, and a grand pavilion with lake views. He also meets with a women’s self-help group, where a range of issues are discussed amidst a traditional bunna (coffee) ceremony. Gebre seems impressed by the micro-financing and social support services offered by the group – he can hear the resiliency in their voices as they describe what he feels are empowering activities. I, on the other hand, was somewhat perplexed at this group’s existence – why should they be needed when the government works so tirelessly for all its citizens? It seems an affront to the state, subversive even. The EPRDF Gebres would not take kindly to this parallel track of power. But perhaps this is the Unbuckler’s way of showing me the other side, the juxtaposed cutaway scene in that Brit’s remade documentary. I may do well to pay closer attention to this particular Gebre, he may teach me something valuable after all.
Gebre’s orientation week trip was bookended by a visit to Mount Entoto – a peak just north of Addis that offers spectacular views of the capital – and a lively dinner at the Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant. Reaching the top of Mt. Entoto, he found the Church of Mariam (St. Mary), and Emperor Menilek’s former palace (now a museum). How modest, Gebre thought. Menilek’s “palace” was a simple, two-floor dwelling. Gebre appreciated that – how many emperors throughout history lived in a structure the size of a middle class home? I can tell you from experience, Gebre, not many, not many at all. Gebre thought the church to be the crown-jewel of the compound; I cannot disagree given its ornate architecture and drawing power. Indeed, as Gebre found out, many of the surrounding population inhabiting Entoto came to the church seeking a holy water cure for HIV/AIDS, often in lieu of antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. He hears how the church was praised recently for advocating the use of ARVs; their past positions go undiscussed. The Yod Cultural Restaurant in Addis has all the feelings of a tourist trap, yet many locals regularly attend, giving it a jolt of authenticity. Ethiopian food and drink is served en masse. There is injera (spongy, sourdough flatbread/pancake; an Ethiopian staple made from teff, the newest superfood) topped with shiro (powdered chickpea/vegetable stew), as well as other spicy mixtures of vegetables and meats, and of course tej (typically homemade honey-wine). The deceptively sweet taste masks the high alcohol content, and before long the tej effect has set in warmly, inducing raucous laughter, clapping, shoulder-popping (the traditional east-African dance move), and even on-stage dancing with the performers. A fittingly fun ending to an eventful week, Gebre thinks. (NOTE: Somewhere out there is video evidence of Gebre doing a thorough job of embarrassing himself on stage; be sure to track this down).
Mixed up in the orientation week was a visit to the National Museum of Ethiopia (aka the ‘Lucy’ Museum). I purposely left this experience for last because of its peculiarity. As our Gebre was walking down the steps to the main archaeological exhibits, I began to feel an unusual sensation. I’d never actually been to the museum since Lucy had been transplanted there after her 1974 discovery in Hadar, a small community in the Afar Region of northeast Ethiopia. It was a strange feeling, a simultaneous pushing and pulling, like being ripped into multiple places at once. As Gebre meandered unknowingly towards the Lucy exhibit, the force became more and more powerful. Luckily for me, I was given a reprieve: thanks to the strangely unceremonious nature of the exhibit, he walks right past it. The stall was brief, however, as he realizes the oversight and doubles back. He now stands directly over the glass, admiring what remains of his 3+ million year-old ancestor. The force is blistering now, and the 1.1 m (3’7) skeleton becomes shrouded in a blinding white light.
At this point I must apologize in advance, as I will surely fall short in fully explaining what happened next. Our Gebre’s perspective slowly faded from view. Replacing it was not the familiar landscape of another, singular Gebre, but a string of memories of various Gebres past, laid out before me like a stretch of the Simien Mountains. As the galaxy of Gebre moments swirl around me, I fixate on those of Afewark Gebre-Iyasus. Simultaneously, I can see him writing Ləbb Wälläd Tarik (A Heart-born Story), the first Amharic novel; celebrating the 2nd Italian colonization attempt as the new “Era of Mercy”; and finally, looking solemn at his court sentencing for treason. The last image I saw before returning to whence I came was the cover of a book – I recognized it from Gebre Smith’s bedside table as Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. Even though he hasn’t finished it, I know the novel well by now. The story tells of a flat-surface square being whisked away from his two-dimensional world and introduced to a universe of higher dimensions by a 3-D sphere, who is trying to enlighten the beings beneath him to a hidden reality. The metaphorical puzzle began to fall into place (sphere::Unbuckler), but more questions follow: what does it mean, why show me, and why do I remain locked inside Gebres (and THIS Gebre in particular)?
On Sunday night, a half-day before his internship started, Gebre was lying in his bed, running through his experiences of the week past. I recalled his thoughts during this period verbatim: While the trip began with some mild apprehension and second-guessing, it ended with fulfillment and anticipation. The country has a fascinating ancient (and proud) culture and a natural beauty about it, extending beyond the physical to the people themselves. It’s a culture that is as politically charged as the next, but one ultimately built on love and affection. Men walk down the streets arm in arm, or holding hands even. Day-to-day in the streets you’re more likely to encounter smiles than scowls. Kindness can be found in every nook and cranny of the city. Violent crime is rare, and the most common type of transgression (pickpocketing) can at least partially be attributed to the significant amount of poverty. The relative peace and stability is why the country has become a beacon on the continent, hosting the headquarters of the African Union, becoming a bastion for foreign investment, and maintaining close political ties with the rest of the world as a regional heavyweight in a geopolitical area beset with instability. A sobering analysis, Gebre, I quite agreed, especially with the part about kindness – a trait every Ethiopian inherits at birth. Whether it remains is mostly up to the beholder. I may have squandered some of my inheritance, I began to think, but maybe this particular unbuckling could help me restore what was temporarily lost. I’m especially fond of the line our Gebre was thinking of that night – “god damn it, you’ve got to be kind” – yes, I rather like that quote, Gebre. He turned out the light and a feeling of eager expectancy enveloped him as he thought about the work he would start tomorrow with Wide Horizons for Children (WHFC), helping empower citizens of this kind, but needy land.
Sost : Wide Horizons / Haile Gebrsellasie
(6.6.16 – 6.12.16)
Gebre’s project with Wide Horizons for Children (WHFC) consisted of designing and implementing a real-time data tracking and analysis tool through Google Sheets, work that has cubicle monkey written all over it. But part of the appeal of the project was the promise of getting out in the field in order to refine the indicators with which WHFC’s progress was being measured, and to bring the dull pages of the various surveys to life. What he did not expect was for the entire first week to consist almost exclusively of field visits to families in the program he was working on – a pleasant surprise, he thought, when informed of the itinerary. The program, as I understand it from the brief eavesdropping, provides monthly stipends and business grants to single-guardian families with at-risk children, in order to support their educational pursuits and overall family development. Gebre would spend the first part of the week mainly visiting intake families (i.e. the most impoverished in the program) in the capital, before leaving for WHFC’s Hawassa office in the southern region of SNNPR.
He was as prepared as he could possibly be for this sort of thing. Like a boxer in a pre-fight spar, our Gebre tried to acclimate to the psychological punches that would be thrown by peppering his mind’s eye with all the imagery of poverty and squalor he could conjure up. They were the kind of images you might see in a National Geographic issue on famine or one of those donation infomercials. Stereotypical, perhaps, but the purpose was not to be a realist; it was to emotionally brace himself to lessen potential shocks. In that regard, the mental preparation was partially successful – he had already seen the clusters of damp, windowless, one-room shacks. He had seen the dirt floors, the rusted corrugated tin, the threadbare clothes, the solemn expressions. The gravity of the situation did not lose any of its weight, but at least he had readied himself. What Gebre could not have prepared for was the interactions with the families. The guardian’s gratefulness for the support from WHFC was matched only by their humility and selflessness. On more than one occasion the guardians indicate they don’t care whether they live or die, only that their child be taken care of. These blunt uppercuts land square and, taken together with the wretched living conditions, become momentarily too much to bear. He fights the lump off admirably, but Gebre’s glassy eyes show the blows have landed. He takes some solace out of how tender and devoted WHFC’s social workers are with the children and their families. Luckily, before leaving Addis, he is able to meet beneficiaries that are further along in the program, offering contrasting glimmers of hopefulness. The progress of their small-scale enterprises are encapsulated through smiles and enthusiasm, giving new conviction to Gebre’s work as he embarks on his journey south to WHFC’s office in Hawassa.
The 4 1/2 hour drive south to Hawassa showcased one of the gleaming, and most visible, embodiments of Ethiopia’s progress: the brand new Addis-Adama expressway. A 6-lane, 85 km road lined with concrete barriers and modern street-light fixtures, the highway connects two of the region’s busiest population centers (Note: Gebre doesn’t know this, but the history between these now connected cities is anything but harmonious. In 2000, the capital of Oromia was moved from Addis to Adama. People were not happy.). The ride is highlighted by magnificent natural scenery, as well as sightings of pedestrians, a donkey cart (both banned on the highway), and a horrific truck accident, stark reminders of the country’s ongoing transition and the often chaotic environment of life on the road. Throughout his time in Hawassa, Gebre is lucky enough to stay at the 5-star Haile Resort, one of the finest hotels in all of Ethiopia. Situated on the shores of the idyllic Lake Hawassa, the Haile’s balconies offer breathtaking tropical views. A slight twinge of guilt begins to creep in as he absorbs his new surroundings, a markedly different picture than the rural field visits he is about to embark on.
As he walks down the stairway into the main atrium of the hotel on the morning of his field visit departure, a painting catches our Gebre’s eye. He hadn’t noticed it before upon ascending the stairs, but it was impossible to miss on the way down. The colors draw him in as he steps close enough to smell the oil on the canvas. He recognizes the man portrayed before him as the legendary Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie. In almost the exact same moment Gebre’s neurons fire with recognition, I felt that familiar pull, and in an instant, I was gone.
***The red-hued rubber seemed to be flying underneath the pairs of tightly laced shoes at light-speed, a thin white line the only thing separating the two men churning their legs at a fierce, inhuman pace. A glance of the surrounding banner – five colorful, interlocking rings; the words ‘Sydney’ – and I quickly start to realize . The green jersey and block ‘Ethiopia” letters reinforce what I already know: I’ve become unbuckled again, this time landing in Haile Gebrselassie during the home stretch of his second consecutive gold medal-winning performance in the 10,000m event at the 2000 Olympics, the Kenyan Paul Tergat breathing right down his neck. He would later call it the best moment of his career. This from a man who won 2 Olympic medals, 4 world championships, and set 27 world records. The unbuckling dashes forward like a cutaway scene in a movie. Haile, now in the twilight of his career, is giving an interview to a journalist documenting the outsized impact the runner turned businessman/philanthrope is now having on his native country, a man now much bigger than his 1.65 m (5’4), 54 kg (119 lb) frame suggests. Haile bemoans the public image of his country and the myopic nature of foreign aid: “Don’t give a man a fish; show him how to go fishing,” he proclaims, impassioned. He tells the interviewer how he strives to create real opportunities for his fellow Ethiopians. The Ethiopian legend giddily describes the schools he has built, along with the details of an upcoming resort on Lake Hawassa that is currently under construction…”I invest everything I have in Ethiopia,” he says…***
In the middle of the interview I am ripped back into Gebre Smith, who has just started to walk away from the Haile painting after taking a few pictures. He waits for his fellow WHFC colleagues in a lobby chair before jumping in a pickup truck to visit all the families on the agenda. Although the depth of poverty within the rural communities they visit is typically more severe when compared to their urban counterparts, Gebre can’t help but feel that the ambiance of some of the dwellings – with their spacious grounds, gardens, and tighter-knit community feel – make them a more preferable living environment over the squalor and congestion families face in the cities. Once again, the somberness of families just starting out in the program, often living in electricity-less huts, is contrasted with the bustling enthusiasm of a grant-recipient family running a small, successful shop, and on the verge of graduating from the program. The trip concludes with a visit to a newly-built, WHFC-funded hospital, a facility brimming with patients, fresh off winning award funding for service excellence from a national organization. Not that our Gebre really needed any more convincing, but after seeing the reach of WHFC’s impact first-hand, he had zero doubts about the significance of his work.
I must say, it had been some time, whatever that word now means, since I’d seen such displays of selflessness and benevolence. Most of the Gebres I have inhabited thus far have been high-ranking government officials or other men in influential positions. It’s been said that corruption lies in the dark shadow of money and power, but their words of assurance convinced me the ruling class was working hard to ensure all the citizens of our humbled land were being supported and given a chance to reach their full potential, especially the poor. While this may partially be true, it’s become obvious through my short time with Gebre Smith how insufficient these efforts have been. I wonder how many other families are suffering in the way I have seen this week? Alarmed at the reality behind the shroud now being lifted from my eyes, I remained fixed inside our Gebre, eager but anxious about what I might encounter next.
Arat : Yom Workshop
(6.13.16 – 6.19.16)
Gebre spent most of the week toiling away on his computer, if not in the office then late into the night at a hotel within walking distance of his compound in what has emerged as his favorite, after-hours wi-fi spot. He frequents Panorama Hotel so much that him and his roommate become favorites of the late night bartender, Abel, who is predictably amused upon hearing their assigned Amharic names and the smattering of Amarinya phrases they are able to speak. Gebre furiously pours over numbers, tables, and what look like survey questions. While the groundwork is tedious and painstaking at times, he feels the end result – a set of sleek, automated graphical dashboards and reports – will tell WHFC’s story in a more robust and exciting way, further supporting the organization’s decision-making and funding efforts. The exact story he’s trying to tell with all this escaped me, but it sounded constructive. Hopefully I’d be enlightened at some point in the future. Gebre’s future, I should say.
The banner event of the week was a joint workshop given by Gebre and his fellow New School students. The topics fell under the broad umbrella of development, focusing on: the care economy, alternative food systems, women in agriculture, climate change, and academic writing. Gebre and his partner Genet (Gina) present on climate change to a packed classroom of eager graduate students at the Yom Institute of Economic Development (YIED). I am stunned to learn that over 95% of Ethiopia’s electricity comes from renewable hydropower. The caveat, Gebre explains, is that this level of supply is only made possible by the staggering fact that less than 25% of our country’s population has access to electricity – meaning there are over 70 million wonderful people out there in the dark. Gebre and his partner also use a graph of historical, cumulative carbon emissions to point out the paradox of the current stance that developed nations often take on carbon-cutting towards newly developing (and industrializing) countries. This Gebre seems to be constantly obsessing about the underdogs in life – I bet he’s been a Leicester City fan for years now, too! All in all, Gebre feels fulfilled and thinks the workshop has gone over well. Afterwards, the Yom students happily exchange contact information with their new US counterparts.
Ahmist : Results, Realizations, and Regrets
(7.11.16 – 7.17.16)
I’ve noticed something different about Gebre over the past few weeks – call it surface level assimilation. He engages in the Amarinya greeting process – a terse, but often repetitive and drawn out affair:
– Selam. (Hi / Hello; literally = Peace)
– Selam new (pronounced ‘no’)? (Are you at peace? / How are you?)
– Selam new. Endate new? (I am fine / at peace. How are you?)
– Dena. Igziabihayr Yimesgen. Antis? (Good / Fine. Bless you / Praise be to God. And you?)
– Dena, dena. Endate aderk? (Good, good. How is your morning?)
– Konjo new. Selam new1? (It’s wonderful / great. How are you?)
– Dena, dena, eshi2. Melkam ken. (Good, good. OK / fine / thanks. Have a good day.)
– Eshi, eshi. Ameseginalehu(pronounced ‘Ama-say-gin-ahlo’) . Le-helachinim. (OK, OK. Thank you. Same to you.)
– Eshi, ciao!(OK / fine / thanks / praise God, goodbye!)
– Ciao, iniginagnalen!(Goodbye, see you again soon!)
(1) A repeat of selam new or endate new is not uncommon, as if to say, no really, how are you / are you sure you’re at peace?
(2) ‘Eshi’ is a very versatile, widely used word in Amarinya. It’s interpretation can change based on context, taking on any of the following meanings in different circumstances: OK, please, good, fine, thank you, praise God. Basically, when in doubt: ehhhhshi. In the same regard, you can lengthen endate (‘enndaaaaate!‘) to indicate a sudden shock, similar to ‘Wow!’ or ‘Oh My Gosh!’ (neither of these should fail to get you a laugh, especially for the more ferenj-sounding).
Gebre Smith even begins to incorporate the Ethiopian gasp into his cultural repertoire, one of the many Habesha non-verbal cues. He feels more and more comfortable navigating the city. The labyrinth of established taxi routes, the often over-crowded light rail (think 8 rail cars worth of normal traffic mercilessly crushed into 4), the backroads to his compound – they have all become familiar, comfortable terrain, leading Gebre to drop most of the initial guard he had put up when his journey began. He walks back from late-night wi-fi sessions from Panorama, rarely encountering anyone else. The several instances he does go without any incident. He starts to think the warnings of late-night thieves and other dangers lurking in the darkness are a bit hyperbolic. For the most part, this is a land brimming with peace and kindness on a day-to-day basis. Of course the night should bring an extra degree of vigilance, but Gebre had never felt particularly vulnerable, even on the nights he walked alone. After all, standing 190 cm (6’3) and over 90 kg (200 lbs), he didn’t think he made for a smart target, especially on streets where the average height and weight was 175 cm (5’7) / 62 kg (135 lb). I thought Gebre was getting a little too complacent – his people have a long and storied history of violence against one another, a disposition that began long before Lucy roamed the planet.
Gebre’s constant computer toiling is starting to yield dividends. He is particularly excited to share a poverty infographic with his Wide Horizons colleagues that shines a light on the program’s accomplishments. For the last two years, he explains, almost 90% of families entering their program were living on less than $1/day, an astonishing number that’s more than double the comparative national figure. However, for graduating families, that figure plummets to less than 30%, beating the national average and representing a 65% reduction in “extreme poverty”. Furthermore, the organization has doubled the national average of families living in the highest consumption threshold of >$3/day. Gebre finds these achievements impressive, successes that deserve to be disseminated. In the devil’s advocate compartment of his brain, he notes to himself that this still means 80% of graduated families are living on less than $3/day. So it goes, Gebre. He remains optimistic, reminding himself the relative gains from intake to graduation cannot be dismissed. I could now see part of the story Gebre is trying to tell with all these numbers and graphs. His work supports an organization empowering the people of my native land, helping them lift themselves out of wretched conditions, and giving them hope to break the vicious cycle of poverty through education. His specific task is amplifying this message in the hopes of expanding the program’s impact to reach even more of our needy citizens. Yes, it can’t be denied, I’m starting to grow quite fond of our Gebre.
It’s as good a time as any to delve into my origin story, murky as it has become. You see, the longer I stayed unbuckled, the farther away I got from my carnal reality. Like a star slowly drifting away from its nursery, the light from my former home has slowly faded, now barely visible. I’ve witnessed so many different periods for such long durations that my own has become a blurred memory, an adult’s recollection of adolescence. I have a feeling that it must have been between what you on Earth would call 2000 to 2500 AD (or 1993 to 2493 on the Ethiopian calendar). I make this assumption because, to be honest, for awhile after electricity, the combustion engine, the computer, and the Internet, it didn’t seem like much happened. The years in this period are difficult to distinguish, with human development often oscillating, or in prolonged periods of retrograde. The environment got angrier with us, resources dwindled, conflict increased. There were stretches of optimism, but it was typically one step forward, one or more back. The global transition to solar was a turning point, but that didn’t unfold without a prolonged energy crisis and other setbacks that eventually led to the sparking the first of the Solar Wars (SWI). Like I said, it wasn’t a very uplifting period, nor one that I was particularly fond of. After all the unbuckling adventures, it became an easy time to forget.
What I do remember of my Earthly life comes in big, blotchy spots. I do recall my name: Dawit Gebre Egziabher (meaning ‘blessed servant of God’). I know that, in my early years, I did everything in my power to undermine this humble, pious name. I don’t remember much of my mother; she died when I was still fairly young. Perhaps it was the fallout from her passing, or that my father, never the ‘shoulder-to-lean-on’ type, took it even harder than me, but whatever the reason, I developed a heavy rebellious streak. My father held a somewhat lofty position at Ethio Telecom. He would always tell me he was in charge of protecting the country from mental pollution, shielding us from the journalists and other cynics looking to infect our minds. Even local students were not spared. Given my father’s occupation we were well off, and I was eventually sent abroad to a top of the line boarding school, but before that my misplaced aggression went searching for an outlet. My father’s dim worldview worn off on me a bit too much and my anger began manifesting itself against foreigners. Petty robbery became my crime of choice.
I justified my actions by telling myself I would never victimize a fellow Habesha, only ferenj that, in my father’s words, had come to contaminate our culture. It was my own little way of evening the playing field. Besides, I told myself, no one was ever seriously harmed. I had a partner – Rada. Shorter and generally more reluctant, Rada rode shotgun; I was behind the wheel. We walked the streets of Addis late at night, keeping an eye out for ferenj. We took cameras, phones, wallets, backpacks, you name it. Pickpocketed if possible, the blunt, old-fashioned way if not. A favorite line of mine had been to ask for a cigarette – it was an opportunity to get close and see if the catch was worth the haul. One particular night stands out. Rada and I came upon a lone ferenj around midnight, looking like he had more than a few valuables. The initial attempt was thwarted as the ferenj caught my hand and angrily pushed off my advances, aided by a passerby drawn to the commotion. This ferenj had been foolish though – instead of taking the car ride offered by the onlooker he walked off the main street and into the dark labyrinth of back roads. Rada had warned we move on considering the bustle the confrontation had caused, but I was not about to let the ferenj with the derisive stare off the hook. When the street turned dark and empty enough we made our move. This ferenj was feisty and it took more jostling than I would’ve liked, but I eventually tore the phone from his pocket and took off. To my surprise, the ferenj darted after me. I had gotten a solid head start but Rada, per usual, had been trailing several meters behind. One of the last things I saw was Rada being ripped to the ground by the much larger ferenj as guards frantically spilled out of a nearby compound.
That night stood out for a different reason than you might think. I felt bad for Rada, but we were not particularly close friends, and I can’t recall another memory of him after that night; friendships built on crime apparently don’t have much of a shelf life. In fact, the entire incident was one that had escaped me, just another typical night in my disgruntled youth. What burned the encounter into my memory was that, because of my most recent unbuckling, I was forced to experience it twice, this time as an observer. Yes, as our Gebre crossed the roundabout at Gollagul Tower in Hiyahulet after one of his late-night computer sessions, I watched in horrifying disbelief as I approached him, Rada in tow. “Hey, mister, do you have a cigarette?” I heard myself say…
Sidist : A Trip North
(7.25.16 – 8.1.16)
As our Gebre packs for his week-long journey to the historic northern cities of Bahir Dar, Gondar, and Lalibela, I’m still reeling from what I’ve just been forced to witness. This time around, Gebre’s robbery slogged away at hourglass speed, each frame slowly and meticulously bleeding into the next, like a stop-motion flipbook being turned at a page per minute. It’s a reckoning that can hardly be prepared for. How do you ready yourself for the first-person experience of being robbed…by yourself? If only I had known what kind of work Gebre was doing here. But that’s no excuse, and obviously not the reason it was shown to me. From this new vantage point, all my earlier motivations – anger, resentment, xenophobia – stand in stark contrast to the attachment I’ve built up for our Gebre over the last two months. A shameful turn of events to be sure, but one that clearly communicated to me for the first time the power of overcoming prejudice. Despite my strong desire to ball up and crawl away, I stare out from the airplane window, same as Gebre, at the vast panorama of mountainous terrain on the descent into Bahir Dar’s only airport, mountains that make up the Ethiopian portion of the Great Rift Valley and bear the majestic scars of millions of years of piercing water.
Bahir Dar sits on the southern bank of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the source of one of the two major tributaries (the other beginning further south from Lake Victoria in Uganda) that make up the Nile River. The laid-back tourist town of 300,000+ is easygoing by nature, with wide-based palm trees lining the central avenues, tropical resorts dotting the lakeside shores, and scores of bajajs (3-wheeled auto rickshaws) puttering up and down the streets. Gebre has set up a day tour where he will be visiting several of the 19 active monasteries situated throughout the lake’s 37 islands. As he sits on the plodding tour boat looking out at the endless expanse of opaque brown water that makes up Lake Tana, he can’t help but notice the three epochs of time – ancient, traditional, and modern – that seem to be co-existing simultaneously. The boat departs Kiriftu Lodge, a place where you can eat injera with chiro inside a restaurant with wi-fi while gazing out at monasteries that date back to the 14th century. The island monasteries remain teeming with life, from the vendors and tourists filling the pathways, to the mentors leading their apprentices in gospel recitation and prayer chants, to the tour guides and elders safeguarding and showing off centuries-old artifacts. Gebre doesn’t have enough time to visit one of the primary attractions in Bahir Dar, the Blue Nile Falls – he needs to catch a bus further north to Gondar, the jump-off for a 4-day trek into the Simien Mountains.
Gondar is a city with a long-arcing political tradition, previously serving as the capital of the Ethiopian Empire dating back to the 16th century (until it was moved to Addis in the late 19th century). As Gebre found out a few weeks before he was slated to travel there, the city hasn’t lost any of its political relevance. Gebre’s anticipation of Planet Earth-style landscapes builds on the 50 km drive north from Gondar to the entrance of the Simien Mountain National Park. It’s an off-peak time to hike on account of the rainy season but Gebre is prepared to weather the storm for those breathtaking sights he’s heard so much about. Unfortunately, rain is only one of the obstacles that render the June-September period ‘off-peak’. The fog was the unrelenting prankster of the trip, laying down thick blankets of white mist and turning the various “observation points” into mother nature’s sardonic little inside jokes. Luckily the fog dissipates at the landmark Jimba Waterfall – the largest in the country – long enough to save the trip from being a complete wash. On account of the weather, Gebre cuts the trek short a day, which turned out to be a fateful decision. On his way back to Gondar, I hear him explaining to the hardworking tour guide how he’s losing the majority of the money to the front-man, who has the low-burden logistical responsibilities of organizing via e-mail correspondence and transporting trekkers to and from the park. He promises the tour guide he’ll be in touch to set up a website so he can get a bigger piece of the hundreds (and often times thousands) of dollars that get spent on each trek than the $15/day rate he currently receives. A perfect opportunity for East-West collaboration (and maybe a free re-do trek from his new friend if our Gebre comes back this way – fingers crossed).
Arriving back in Gondar a day early turned out to be fortuitous, depending on the perspective. On one hand, Gebre was lucky he missed hitting the roadblock that cut off traffic in and out of the city on July 31st, the original date he planned to come back. On the other hand, he woke up Sunday morning smack dab in the middle of a massive protest, just weeks after a similar demonstration turned fatally violent. There would be no visiting Gondar’s ancient castles on this day. While slightly nerve wracking, the protest ends up peaceful, a few fistfights outside Gebre’s hotel not withstanding. Just another reminder of the tensions and challenges a country administratively divided along ethnic lines faces, especially when those hailing from Tigray – a region consisting of approximately 6% of the country’s population – overwhelmingly dominate government seats and other positions of power.
Lalibela, Ethiopia’s second holiest city (behind Axum), offers Gebre a peaceful respite from the politically charged atmosphere in Gondar. He marvels at the 11 rock-hewn churches in central Lalibela – truly a spectacle, all having been carved out of a single rock during the 12th and 13th centuries. Limited to the use of primitive tools, the churches are a soaring testament to human achievement, and, as the churches are still in active use, it again reinforces Ethiopia’s modern connection with its ancient past.
Sebat : Final Revelations
(8.1.16 – 8.7.16)
The final week saw our Gebre wrap up his work with Wide Horizons, leaving the organization with a solid foundation to bolster their data management efforts and fundraiser appeals going forward. The Addis team sent him off in true ferenj fashion, with a visit to the cultural restaurant Habesha 2000 and a ‘Learn Amharic’ souvenir T-shirt. Smiles and laughs came in bunches, and everyone shared a heartfelt goodbye. Laughter wasn’t as easy to come by in other parts of Ethiopia, as nationwide demonstrations rocked the country. Gebre enjoyed a lazy Sunday afternoon brunch in the safety of his own compound with his remaining classmates, just a day before his flight departed, shut off both physically and electronically (through yet another government-orchestrated internet shutdown) from the chaos outside.
On the night before he was scheduled to depart, I found him recapping his experiences – an attempt to pass on useful advice to others that may follow in his footsteps. Since I have now experienced the benefits of this cultural exchange Gebre was a part of, I tried to recount these points as best I could:
TIPS FOR FUTURE IFP-ers:
Get a jump on your project work. To ensure you get the most out of the IFP as a resume-building experience, it’s best to figure out your project work as early as possible. Ask questions and figure out a project that aligns with your pursuits. Make it a point to reach out to the organization you’ll be working with to clarify the objectives of the project and begin any preliminary work that might be necessary. There may be more or less work available depending on the project, but there’s usually something productive you can be doing, even if it’s just to have a quick conference or Skype call to organize/confirm things related to your project. Planning and preparation will go a long way towards making the IFP a value-adding experience.
Be mentally prepared / stay positive. While your housing and amenities should be relatively comparable to the U.S., it’s still a developing country. Expect power outages, slow (or blocked) internet, adverse reactions to food, lower levels of infrastructure, etc. In general, be ready for the worst. I was prepared for washing my laundry by hand and taking bucket showers, which made me pleasantly surprised when I got there. Working internationally in developing countries will come with its fair share of curveballs, and even if you’re not planning on pursuing that kind of work in your career, look at it as a good opportunity to humble yourself and learn to overcome obstacles, should they present themself. So my best advice would be to go with the flow, and always try to stay as positive and optimistic as possible, no matter what Ethiopia throws at you. This is a unique experience where the peaks should outnumber the valleys, but your attitude will go a long way in determining the overall outcome of your trip. Stay positive, and shrug off any negatives as best as you can. In with the good, out with the bad.
If you can, try to book your incoming flight using Ethiopia Airlines. You’ll get a 50% discount on subsequent flights, which will go a long way towards making trips to other parts of Ethiopia or surrounding countries.
Try to check out all Ethiopia has to offer before you venture out of the country. Kenya, Tanzania (esp. Zanzibar), and Djibouti are popular tourist destinations, but I would advise to see all you can in Ethiopia first. In the north, Bahir Dar (city on the banks of Lake Tana with a tropical feel), Gondar (an old political city with ancient castles), Lalibela (a sleepy religious town with incredible rock-hewn churches built around the 13th century – about as close to must-see as anything in Ethiopia), Harar (ancient, walled city), and the Danakil Depression (one of the hottest/lowest points on Earth, with active volcanic activity) are all great places to visit. Treks through the Simien Mountains (near Gondar) are one of the more popular activities, but unless you can plan this fairly early on in June, I would suggest going to the Danakil Depression (if you’re planning on something outdoors, that is). I say this because I went on a Simien trek in late July and once the rainy season starts to hit, the mountains get really wet and foggy, making a lot of the observation points cruel little jokes by Mother Nature. In the south, Shashamane (the famous Rastafari community) is a fun place to do a day trip and you can roll it into a weekend at Hawassa (a laid-back southern city with a beautiful, must-see resort on Lake Hawassa). There are also a number of different resorts and lodges in Debre Zeyit and other towns that dot the many lakes south of Addis. There’s definitely no shortage of things to do in Ethiopia, so try and see as much as you can.
Remember to pack an outlet adapter. If you don’t have one, this one from Amazon is cheap, has two USB ports, and worked well for me.
The three best/most reliable spots for wi-fi in the Bole neighborhood are probably: Addissinia Hotel, Panorama Hotel, and the Capitol Hotel (in that order). The National Library probably has the best wi-fi in the city (aside from the UN Library) but it’s a little bit of a commute (20-30 min) from Bole.
Be sure to check out the following bars/restaurants in or near the Bole neighborhood: Jolley Bar (this is literally one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been to, United States included; definitely give this place a visit one weekend); Fendika (restaurant with awesome live music and dance, including the world-famous Ethiocolor and the renowned dancer Melaku Belay); Mama’s Kitchen (great restaurant with live music), and CEO (hookah bar/lounge that has a club atmosphere at night; there’s also a huge projector that’s great for watching high-profile football/soccer matches).
Be careful / avoid walking alone past 10ish PM. If you took the time to read the semi-ridiculous blog slash derivative sci-fi tale above, you might have come across the part about a robbery. That part was based on something that was not fiction – I did actually get mugged, and in a fairly aggressive manner, by two young men. Given that I was by myself at midnight, it was probably an avoidable situation, but I’d become comfortable walking alone at night. I would say that, overwhelmingly, you’re more likely to encounter friendliness rather than hostility on a day-to-day basis, especially before dark. But you’re still probably going to run into an unsavory character or two at some point, especially if you’re female. Violent crime isn’t really an issue in Ethiopia (unless you count political killings, of course), pickpocketing and petty theft are fairly common though, so stay vigilant. Try to stay in groups when possible and be wary of anyone you run into on the street that is trying to divert your attention (i.e. spitting on someone’s clothes) because it may just be an attempt to get into your pocket. Be especially mindful of vendors with trays – a common pickpocketing technique is to put the tray right up to the person’s waist to mask a robbery effort. If something happens during the day when people are around, the best thing you can do is to call attention to it. Make a scene and yell “leba, leba!!” (“thief, thief!!”) – people will help you. If something happens at night, do the same thing, and if no one’s around try and get to the closest compound or other location where people might be.
Bring warm clothes. It seems counter-intuitive to bring warm clothes to Africa but it gets fairly cold at night during the rainy season in Ethiopia, to the point where I was wearing thick pajamas and a hoodie to bed and feeling very comfortable, temperature-wise. Addis Ababa lies is in a highland area, with an elevation of ~7,500 ft, so definitely don’t feel weird bringing a hoodie, sweater, or some layered pajamas.
Take out cash in advance. There are a lot of ATMs in Addis but the cheapest and smartest way to get local currency is to take out as much money as you think you should need from your bank in the U.S. prior to your trip, then get a local to go to the black market and exchange dollars for birr (you’ll likely get a ferenj price if you try it yourself). This will let you avoid costly ATM fees and will also serve to help keep yourself on a budget.
Enjoy yourself. Of course you’re there to do work, first and foremost, but this will be an experience you don’t want to forget, so get out and explore as much as you can. Grab a drink with some locals, visit different neighborhoods, immerse yourself in the culture. The country is a fascinating mix of ancient, traditional, and modern, all often operating simultaneously. My view is that most Ethiopians are peaceful and loving. Often times, people will go out of their way to be nice. Yes, I did get robbed, but I see that as more of an anomaly than anything else. Ethiopians seem very receptive to foreigners of all origins, and the country has a warm, welcoming vibe once you get settled in, so have fun! (NOTE: It’s also a very interesting time politically, especially with the Ethiopian Olympic runner making waves in the headlines this summer. With things heating up in general over the last 8-10 months, I’m sure it will retain that intrigue going into next year because, as FP states, an Olympic protest is the least of the country’s worries. Obviously I would avoid planned protests and political gatherings as they have the potential to turn violent, but there shouldn’t be safety concerns if you keep your distance. Most of the violence has an ethnic component where foreigners are not a target.)
On the way to the airport, the inside of the taxi slowly faded away to reveal a solitary waterfall, flowing endlessly but without any beginning or end. A voice emanated from somewhere within, powerful yet, in a way, comforting. What it said would change my life forever. The exchange went something like this:
– Do you know why you’re here?
– I don’t even know what here is, nevermind why. That voice – you’re a woman?
– Descended from, naturally.
– Certainly – how long did you think they would stay?
– I don’t follow.
– You don’t see it coming? Only so much violence and warfare can be tolerated before the inevitable happens. The urge was not lacking; just the means. As soon as it became scientifically and technologically feasible, the women left. Men became dispensable. As it happens, the origins of your so-called Unbucklers lies in an all-female rebel group of genetic scientists. Pioneers, really.
– There’s more than one of you?
– Evolution hastens when unabated, Dawit. Within the first thousand years of the world’s founding, it was obvious that a divergent path was emerging compared to Earth. The rate of acceleration eventually became exponential. With it came the power to sense, then manipulate, the dimensions. To put it in terms you may be familiar with, we’re probably type V or beyond on the Kardashev scale – an ironic development considering the male origins of this concept of civilization. We now travel the universe, nudging others in the direction of knowledge and truth. A noble cause when you consider…
– Wait, I interrupted, becoming increasingly perturbed at being chosen to live the life of a puppet. What does this have to do with me, why me?
– You are not special, Dawit Gebre Egziabher, I’m sorry to say. There are many more just like you all over the universe, in different stages of their…unbuckling…as you like to call it. I don’t think it should come as a surprise to you that you were on a dangerous, unproductive path. Like I said before, we deal in transformation. If possible, that is.
– Why all of the Gebres though, and why this American one of all the possible people in Ethiopia? And if you’re so powerful, why not inflict your will by force?
– Patterns are designed to convey a message; we would not want you thinking it was random or without purpose. The true arc of civilization is not one of force, but of learning. And one of the most powerful tools learning has to offer is empathy, the ability to see things from a perspective other than your own. I gather you would tend to agree now?
– I thought of being buckled to our Gebre, feeling his compassion towards my fellow citizens, and then seeing the humanitarian work he was engaged in. It profoundly changed my worldview. Yes, there’s no comparing the person who robbed Gebre versus the one standing here before you today, I told the Unbuckler. They are two different people.
– And that is why I appeared – you have learned, and you are ready.
– Ready for what?
– Ready to return. You have seen all you need to see – the opportunity for redemption has come.
With that, the voice trailed off and the waterfall faded from view, everything turning to black. The next image I saw was of a tall ferenj walking alone at night. The night of our Gebre’s robbery. Flush with emotion I strode towards him with moist eyes and an outreached hand. I shook his hand with the conviction of a repentant sinner. Ameseginalehu…lehulu ameseginalehu. (Thank you…thank you for everything.).