On my last trip to Ethiopia, I got my grandparents [Mik: That's them on the left] a hand-crank flashlight. In a country like Ethiopia, where batteries can be pricey, and blackouts happen too often, I had figured a gadget like this might be useful. All they needed to power it was their hands.
It took me a while to explain to Grandpa how it worked. When he finally wrapped his head around it (“No batteries, huh?”), he said, “This is something we need. This is something we really need…Especially in Gojam.” [Mik: Grandpa reps his home state hard.]
Grandma, praying nearby on her beads, rolled her eyes and swatted the word Gojam from the air.
Grandpa wanted to know if they sold bigger versions of these flashlights. I told him I wasn’t sure, but that I would check next time. “How much did it cost?” It wasn’t that expensive, I told him, not wanting to corrupt the gift somehow by saying its dollar amount.
“How many can you get me with $100?”
“Oh, a lot, probably,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll give you the money. I want as many of them as you can get. And did you say they have the big ones?”
I told him I would check.
“This is really something we need. It would be perfect, perfect for Gojam.”
In the middle of all this, Grandma had quietly gotten to her feet. She reached to grab the flashlight out of Grandpa’s hands. She made her familiar growling noise of disapproval. It was the same noise she made when I would refuse a second serving of food. “Aaaaah,” she said.
“He gave this flashlight to me,” she said. “It’s not going anywhere.” And she disappeared into her room. As a show of protest, Grandpa sat down and started reading the newspaper.
Grandma is a maniacal keeper of things. From arcane bric-a-brac like high school wallet photos and the old, left behind dolls of her grandchildren, to items intended for everyday use: electrical transformers, batteries, and (now) hand-crank flashlights.
She stows it all away in the big, locking cupboard in her room.
A couple weeks after the flashlight fiasco, when a radio in the living room began to lose its signal, she emerged from her room with a shiny new-looking stereo that no one had ever seen before. We might have thought she bought it recently, except the stereo had a tape deck. And they stopped making stereos like that a decade ago.
In other words, Grandma had saved the stereo, a gift on one of my aunt’s first trips back shortly after everything (Communism, the Wall, the hard Mengistu Years) fell.
Weirdly, I felt sad for this stereo. To be waiting all those years in my Grandma’s closet, missing out on all the new songs, sitting silently while broadcasts of the war, the government massacre of student protesters, and the growing similarity of the new regime to the old one whizzed by overhead. Unreceived. All the while psyching itself up for its first use, like an athlete before a big game. (“I’m gonna play the shit out of these cassettes! I’m gonna pick up radio signals like nobody’s business!”)
Only to discover that your time has passed.