Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ethiopia, Part One: Chaplin, Ferenjis, Satan, etc...

It's Day 4 of my trip here in Addis Ababa. My luggage is still in Paris, so right now I'm relying on any old hand-me-down's I can find in the closets of my relatives. At present, I'm wearing a baggy pair of khakis and an oversized (read, XL) Nautica shirt that is mostly yellow and resembles a shirt I might have worn in middle school.

In 1994.

But the funny thing is, seeing as how it takes a while for new styles to catch on here, I bet I look pretty good to most Ethiopians on the street (though there's no way in hell I'm going out dressed like this). Really, the only thing that people seem to be having a problem with this time around is the only article of clothing that actually belongs to me: my shoes. That's them over there on the left.

My cousin, who went to an all-girls Catholic school, said that they resembled the shoes the nuns used to wear. My father has called them Charlie Chaplin shoes.

Alas, unlike the tramp of yore, I will not be eating this pair any time soon, as I not only have a special fondness for them (maybe because of the ribbing they've taken), but mostly because my luggage is somewhere in Paris and, for the time being, these are my only pair of shoes.

Outmoded fashion sensibilities aside, Ethiopia is full of changes big and small. I've been noticing a much larger number of Europeans, Asians, West Africans, and Indians than I ever have on any of my previous trips. They're on the streets, in the restaurants, in the bars, shops, internet cafes, and office buildings.

Adding to this new and refreshing cosmopolitan feel is the great strides in infrastructure that seem to be taking place all over Addis Ababa. The construction cranes are ubiquitous, the roads are surprisingly pothole-less, and the parts of town that used to be the most poverty-stricken are surging with a vibrant, less destitute, more entrepreneurial middle class.

This I've gleaned, in the somewhat patronizing style of Evelyn Waugh, from riding in the passenger seat of cars. So I might be way off.

But whereas America seems like a nation in decline, Ethiopia--or at least Addis Ababa--seems like a place on the upswing. There are problems, no doubt. But not nearly of the magnitude I witnessed five years ago during my last real visit here.

Clouding my vision might also be the fact that my family is what one might consider upper class. We have maids, cooks, guards, and gardeners, who toil tirelessly throughout the day, who eat only after we--the spoiled spawn of America--have stuffed ourselves with injera and wot. This inequity, faced daily and in intimate quarters, mixes with guilt, shame, and pity and settles in my stomach like a kind of indigestion.

Last night, my aunt told us a story that troubled me deeply. We were all sitting in my grandmother's sparsely furnished living room. Some cheaply produced Amharic music videos were playing on ETV (Ethiopian Television) in the background as my aunt recalled the time when one of her helper girls, a thickly built, hard working girl from the country, complained to her one day about stomach pains. My aunt took her to the hospital, where they asked her to give a stool sample. For the next few hours, occasionally coming back out into the waiting room to give the appearance of normalcy to my aunt, this girl locked herself in the clinic bathroom. The doctors couldn't find anything wrong with her, although on the way back to the house, my aunt noticed that her underpants had been soaked through with blood. It was her period, she said, and so my aunt bought the girl a new pair.

Several hours later, there was a knock at the front gate of their house. It was the police. They had questions for my aunt and her helper girl. Had they just been to this clinic? I pictured my aunt nodding with a confused look on her face. Had my aunt's helper girl used the bathroom? Yes, but what does that have to do with anything. Did my aunt know anything about the baby they found in the toilet?

One can only imagine the look on my aunt's face as she began to realize what had happened. Her helper girl, who was hefty perhaps, but still, had been 9 months pregnant when she arrived at the clinic earlier that day, and hiding her condition from even those who lived closest with her, had gone into labor that day and given birth to a baby in the bathroom. Had even cut its umbilical cord with her bare hands, had drowned it in the still water of the toilet, and had even tried to flush it away. The trips she took to the waiting room to assure my aunt that she was okay were taken between contractions.

The girl was put away for 6 months, punishment enough perhaps for a young woman who claimed to be a virgin: she actually said she recalled waking up one night many months before and seeing a man standing next to her bed; she said she thought he was a ghost or the devil. She would have probably said anything to keep her job in my aunt's house.

I love my aunt, as I love all my family. But to live in the same house with a woman who is 9 months pregnant and to be ignorant of her condition (or to avoid talk about pregnancy in the beginning) should give you some idea of the amount of psychological apartheid that still exists between Ethiopia's rich and poor. Of course, when my aunt was telling the story the other night, it was also funny. Upsetting, pathetic, but funny. That the girl said she didn't even remember having sex. That no one had noticed the bulge in her stomach. That my aunt could have been an accomplice to infanticide.

Oh. Good times.

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