This is the first of, hopefully, many articles that will be posted on the this blog from other contributing writers. The following piece was written by Feker Tadesse, a former DC resident, IV league’r, habesha gal who currently works as a consultant in our beloved city, Addis Abeba, thus making her our new “correspondent” from Addis. Enjoy.
By Feker Tadesse.
It’s been about a month and a half since I took the plunge and moved back home, to the confusion and chagrin of most people around me. I say most because there were equally supportive friends and family who saw this move as an exciting adventure. I shouldn’t paint myself as a hero since it remains to be seen whether I made a good or yeseytan joro aysmana, a bad decision.
The oddest thing about this move was that it was largely a practical decision, and not an emotional one as many would assume. I studied development and it just didn’t make sense to do it from a metropolitan city thousands of miles away from where all the action was happening. Having said that, there is a certain level of satisfaction about doing what I do here in Ethiopia. As one friend wrote, part of the reward is about ‘giving back to the place that made you who you are.’
Where should I begin about dear Addis? There is both an energetic and suffocating feel to the city. You see the youth involved in exciting projects or constantly hustling to get involved in some. Suffocating because there are just a LOT of people in the city. The icing on the cake is construction of roads happening all over the city, making it impossible for both pedestrians and drivers to safely navigate the city’s streets. Traffic has become a nightmare given that major roads have been closed due to a railway construction that is hoped to be unveiled in three years. In retrospect, I could have worked a little bit more on my timing.
I perhaps look at things a little more clearly, more critically and to some, I’m sure, I’ll sound annoyingly judgmental about our ways. Jarring comments about homosexuality being a sin and the utter disgust people express when speaking about Betty (wholeheartedly agree with this post HERE by the way), remind me about how conservative our society is or at least, pretends to be. Or getting berated by a family friend for suggesting her daughter look into PhD programs after undergrad. ‘Timirtu lay focus sitareg gizewa yihedal.’ Huh? Times like these is when I realize how removed I feel from the society.
Of course, there are moments when I feel like I’ve never stepped foot outside of home, such as the comfort I feel when I spend my Sunday mornings sipping coffee begabi tetekliye, chatting with my parents about the latest gossip, tv humming in the background, the room enveloped by the heavenly smoke that emanates from the Itan. I am reminded of the constant anxiousness I felt in the states and there is a certain level of peace I already feel. A taxi driver in DC once told a friend and myself that immigrants will always feel schizophrenic about their identities, much like Zadie Smith, in White Teeth, describes one of her characters, a second generation Pakistani residing in London, “ … stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one foot in Wellsden.” Perhaps I will always feel that way but it has ceased to bother me anymore. I don’t quite know how to explain it but I feel surrounded with love, which for now, more than makes up for all the line cutting, random power outages and abuse you suffer from random strangers. I just came back from lunch with colleagues where a stalker insulted a colleague, calling her ‘yenech ashker’ because she dared confront him about his stalkish qualities. Times like these I wish I had continued with my Taekwondo class so that I can karate chop anyone who dared speak to me like that. Ah well, what’re you gonna do?
Our city as always is a site of contrasts. For every drastic story you hear about someone getting laid off and struggling to make ends meet, in the next breath, you hear about destination weddings in Mauritius. It boggles my mind how such dramatically opposite lifestyles could exist side by side. And of course there’s the guilt you can’t help but feel, that comes and goes like those shooting pains you experience once in a while. They’re not so serious that you should seek professional help but nevertheless add a certain level of discomfort to your life. In the States, I never felt guilty for wishing to drive my favorite car (a fancy BMW, preferably a convertible on days when I feel like letting my hair down, ‘tsegurishin go back iyalsh’ as my uncle once described.) Here, I feel guilty for even coveting one because the difference is just so … striking. Living in the US, you can comfortably wish for the American dream complete with your 2.5 kids and a two garage, 5 bedroom house because for the most part (although that is debatable now more so than ever), you know that if anyone works hard, that life is attainable by all. Nothing special about you to make you flinch or think twice about it. No such formula here I’m afraid. Yes there are stories of the self-made man and woman who weathered all odds to make that dream come true, but these stories are few and far in between. There is also, of course, the urban poverty that makes you cringe every time you leave one of the many posh restaurants in Addis after having paid an average of 100-150 Br for lunch. Given time, the homeless blur and seem to blend in with the construction sites of Addis until you notice them no more. A friend was telling me that you need to give a homeless person at least 1.25Br, which is the price for a piece of bread nowadays. I wonder if our legash hands have kept up with the inflation …
All is not so grim, obviously. It IS home after all and Addis has a certain flavor that is uniquely comic. The other day, I was having dinner with a group of friends or rather, we had ordered and we were anxiously waiting for the food to arrive. Our wiater comes back after oh about 40 minutes, cocks his head so and announces, with a pitiful look on his face, ‘Yikirta, pasta alkual!’ To which we all burst out laughing, shocking even him in our reaction. Only in Addis eh? Or the time when a colleague went to her favorite breakfast joint and asked for ‘enkulal firfir’ to which the waiter adamantly stated that under no circumstances was he going to serve ‘firfir’ but she could have the ‘enkulal sandwhich’ instead. She had to call the chef and demand that if they had the eggs, why can’t he just ‘meferfer’ them?! The chef reluctantly acquiesced. The nerve! Or the time when a particularly witty weyala, having witnessed a couple kissing on bole road, shouted ‘diaspora mechem tegboal zendiro’.
I oscillate between feeling like a complete fraud, purporting to help the poor while enjoying the sort of lifestyle I lead in Addis and feeling useful and good about what I do. It’s like what E.B. White said, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
Makes it hard indeed!