Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Drive Across Town

Thursday, September 21

The light changes and the line of cars surge forward about a foot, engines revving. They can’t go any farther, though, because a donkey, loaded down with bags of charcoal, is hobbling across the road in front of them. The poor animal shuffles its hooves, puffing and straining, so loaded that it seems any moment it will collapse. But on it goes, burdened but determined. In many ways it reminds me of the character of this country.

Ethiopia is one of the 10 poorest nations in the world (according to my guidebook, anyway.) The children of that poverty and of the AIDS pandemic take the extra moments given by the slow moving beast to press around the cars for a few more moments, begging or trying to sell pens, gum or small packages of “soft” (Kleenex). There are women as well, small babies tied to their backs, children clinging to their legs; and the crippled, leaning on crutches if they have a good leg, scooting on pallets if they don’t. These are the “least”, the most vulnerable of this vulnerable nation, filthy and broken, and they can be found anywhere traffic has to stop. I had intended on taking pictures, but it just seems wrong to try and capture their suffering on film, even as a way of sharing their plight with others, without first knowing their names or their stories. Besides, there are some things that words, picture or even video just cannot hope to capture or explain.

It’s hard. I could buy enough Kleenex to last us a year (even with all our colds) and still not scratch the surface of the need. One day we stopped and were surrounded by a group singing “This is the Day” in broken English. I think seeing them is hardest on Manyazewal. “Daddy, they hungry,” he says, his eyes full of sorrow. We’ve tried to talk about it, but it’s not an easy conversation under the best of circumstances, let alone when you share only a few dozen words in common.

The beast has moved on, and the cars, the taxis and the trucks invade the intersection, weaving in and out (“lanes” being more of a suggestion than a rule) trying to avoid both potholes and one another. We hurl up the road, passing shops and embassies (Addis Ababa is like the Washington D.C. of Africa… everyone has an embassy here.) A few minutes pass, and then the skies open up and we are inundated by rain. In less than 10 minutes there is a small whitewater stream running down the edge of the road, which adds to the excitement of the drive. The hundreds of pedestrians scurry from the street. Those who have a place to go seek cover to wait it out. (Today they will be waiting a long time… the rainy season is supposed to be coming to an end, but the rains have been very hard this year, causing flooding and other problems.) It is an interesting place, where the combination of altitude (8300ft here in Addis Ababa) and climate mean that a person could go from suffering from hypothermia to suffering from heat stroke in five minutes. Today feels like a hypothermia kind of day.

As we start moving out of the center of town towards the guest house at the edge of town, the few paved sidewalks give way to dirt. The rain and the passage of hundreds of feet (or hooves) churns it into a sticky, fragrant mud. A few minutes later and we are turning up the road/driveway to our guesthouse. We’ll have lunch there, then head over to the orphanage for a goodbye party for Manyazewal, Mihret, Sammy and Ashenafi.

As we get out of the car and open the door of the guesthouse we are greeted by the rich, pungent aromas of Ethiopian food. The earthy spices of spicy lentil “wet” (a sort of stew) banish the cold of the rain, and we settle in to our safe haven. I know there will be more food than our little family can eat, and that it will be delicious. But as I listen to the rain pounding on the tin roof and think about all those little kids lost somewhere in the city, I wish I had a bigger table.

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