By Surafel K Gebreselassie
My father would have liked me to be a lawyer or a teacher like himself; but as I grew taller than my friends, he was more worried about military service. During the last few years of Hailemariam’s dictatorship, a family’s nightmare was to see their sons rounded up on the open, thrown on military convoys and in to training camps and the front, where the unwinnable war was raging. I remember those days after the high school leaving exam sitting on the veranda for long hours contemplating the future ahead of me, a bleak future eclipsed by my own ambition but inhibited by the realities of the time. I wish I knew then where I would be today, I would have taken it easy. My mother noticed my worries about passing the test and would on occasions sit with me on the veranda. Because of increasing bandit attacks and accidents on the only train service in Ethiopia, she had stopped going to Harar to fetch goods for sale in Addis before I was a senior in high school. Most were used clothes from the West. On occasions that it didn’t sell, I and my other siblings would share them. I remember the T shirts, the fight to fit them in.
We grew up worrying about two things. We thought our father would die any minute when he had one of those asthma attacks, waiting until the last gasp of air before I escort him to the local medicine man to get an injection of epinephrine. Then his heart would pound fast before he gets relief. He would hold me for a minute. Then we would walk back home as the rest of the family waits in prayers. When I think about it now it was ridiculous to wait but he always thought that medicine was not a cure only a remedy and perhaps that he thought he would save some money.
We also grew up worrying that mom may not make it back from her Harar trip. I still remember how it felt to hear the wails of the train several blocks away in the quite Addis night. It’s during those days that my father and I would walk to pick her. One day, casually, he bought me a cup of tea from the vendors at the train station and said something that I never would forget. That we are poor and that the only way forward was to be good in school. It stuck with me. I was scared. I used to play soccer often than I should have; that was what the kids in Sengatera did any way. We played soccer before going to school, after school and during weekends. We wanted to win against the rich kids in the other neighbor hoods who wore famous jerseys from Italian and British clubs. They had real leather soccer balls. If we couldn’t win we would drag them in to the dirt field and enjoy as these kids would look like us for ninety minutes with their parents complaining on the side lines. One day on a play off soccer match, the referee called a penalty against us. Our soccer club used to be called Mexico City. We all lived close to the Mexico square in Addis Ababa. That was also the time when Mexico hosted the world cup. We liked their green jerseys, and most of us got shirts close to any combination of green, so Mexico City. It was a big match. We had the best goalie. We called him Amoraw ( Eagle). Many people had showed up from Sengatera, as they always do for a soccer match. They started cursing loud. It worked. Amoraw saved the penalty. We rushed, hug him but we hug both Amoraw and the ball. The referee called for a repeat penalty. Curses don’ work twice.
A pair of new trousers, few 32 page note books including one squared for math , and blue ink pens marked the beginning of a seventh grade. Beyenemerid was an elementary and junior high school that operated on two shifts and was only a walking distance away from home and from the closest soccer field. I started at Beyenemerid when I was 8 or 9. That would have been a year after we moved from Keffa, the birth place of coffee in South West Ethiopia. I spend a year at a neighboring elementary school trying to get used to the city life. Beyenemerid wasn’t far either so it wasn’t hard on my parents. I progressed adequately to seventh grade but distracted by soccer and the social fabric we were at; we had to stay with our grandparents often sleeping on the floor until we rented a two bedroom cluster home from the government. That took several years of lobbying. The best thing was to be a child at the time and not worry about it although that was not true for every child in Africa. Some had to work and feed the whole family. Some had to take arms. That was also a time I appreciated the mercy of God. My little sister was badly inflicted by measles. She was yellow and febrile. She made it.
One Tuesday afternoon I was late. The math teacher had noticed. I went to school direct from the soccer field with dried sweat on my face. He called me out to solve an algebra question. I hesitated. He asked for a volunteer. There she was, Tsion, who walked with measured steps towards the black board to rescue me. Her petit face was of lightly roasted coffee beans, the original beans that I grew up with in Keffa, she wore a black and white flower dress and a black sandal. Her hair was treaded in two rows and left hanging by her side. She would push it backwards as she worked her way on to the question. In the middle of it she seemed lost in the question itself but regained her confidence back and smiled as the whole class clapped. Our eyes met as she walked back to her seat.
I run home at the end of class. I run through the two way traffic, in between cars. I ran first to grandpa’s place. I was afraid to go straight home, I thought everyone would know my little secrete. Grandma thought I stopped by to sneak on the grapes. I was sweating.
‘Are you ok?’
It was that season of the year where the garden grapes were ripe. The birds would gather to work on the grape trees. It’s a fight to save some for sale and some for us. The birds knew when grandma was at home or away, they knew when she was mad or when she was happy, they knew when one of her friends, Ayelech, was at the house visiting because grandma would take time with her best friend talking all the gossips in the neighborhoods. They knew of her cataract so they won’t fly away unless she is too close or fly to the mango trees of a neighbor two house away and fly back in the moment she closes the door. They never get caught and we always took the blame only for the birds to laught at us.
Grandpa was seating in his wheelchair by the main door listening to his old radio; always listening to the war in Beirut. He was taken by the conflict that he would switch from channel to channel for the same story. He had the advantage of speaking several languages including French. He made use of it. He would translate stories to English and Amharic for a living only to spend it on the lottery.
Bonjour, I said.
‘That’s too late for the time,’ he pointed out. I was trying to please him. He told me to pull a chair and sit next to him.
‘It’s your father,’ he said, ‘I could teach you French well’.
He was right. My father wanted me to focus on school. He knew well ahead that a few French and Italian in a furiously independent Ethiopia would not translate in to bread. Grandpa was mild in his take of life. He was also forgiving. He lost a leg to the Italian occupation of Ethiopia but never grudges against many of his Italian friends who were as old and stop by to visit him; rather cherished his contribution to his motherland. And then the story would go on about the battle of Adwa where Ethiopia thwarted colonialism by defeating Italian troops in 1896, an epic moment in the life of any African or of African descent. Soon after I forgot about Tsion, collected my books and left grandpa’s place memorizing a new word that I learned from him. I rushed to the door before it would escape me.
Bonne nuit, I said and run in the dark night.
The math teacher announced official competition between all the seventh grade classes in Junior High. Two students would be selected from each class. A soccer fan, he structured it as a tournament. The representative students would be quizzed in front of the whole class. There was quarter and semifinals and finally the winners of each shift would compete to win the math student of the year award. Tsion automatically qualified to represent our class. We had to fight for the remaining spot. I still remember the geometry question he paused one day. I pulled all the courage to go out in front of the class. I wasn’t worried much about the open rubber shoe I had or the torn trouser on the side. I wanted to shine. I wanted Tsion to notice me. I wanted to impress her. It was the most important day of my life. A day I made the biggest decision against all odds. I stood up for myself. I shredded fear. I went out and solved the equation. I was awaked by the thunderous clap of the whole class. I didn’t realize that I was staring at Tsion. She was laughing. I looked reflexively at myself. Through the gaping hole she was looking at my ass. I turned to her, she looked down. I jumped to my sit. I never looked back again. The teacher resumed his lessons for the remainder of class. At the end he called me and gave me a hand written note to give to my parents.
‘Don’t unfold it,” he said. My mother was not happy after she read the note. She started cursing the teacher. She was loud. Mama’s friends who showed up when they saw her agitated started cursing the teacher too.
“That is none of his business,” Askale added.
“His kids are the worst dressed,” Mulu followed. Some suggested that I move to another school after the end of the school year.
My father was rather quite. He pulled the closet open, picked up a piece of gray fabric, beckoned me and headed to the door. I didn’t realize until we got to the tailor shops few blocks down that I was getting a brand new custom made trouser. Readymade clothes were very expensive in socialist Ethiopia at the time.
Tuesday October 23, 1984, while the world was learning from BBC news TV reports about the looming famine in Ethiopia, with a new trouser and a matching used T shirt I joined Tsion in the math competition at Beyenemerid junior. We later won our first competition on October 31st; even the news of the assassination of Indira Gandhi didn’t dampen our excitement.