The girl beside me on the plane talks about her father back in Congo. ‘Guess how many children he had?’ ‘More than ten?’ I ask. She makes an elevating motion with her hands. ‘Twenty?’ ‘More.’ ‘Thirty?’ ‘More.’ ‘Forty?’ ‘More.’ ‘Not fifty?’ ‘Sixty seven.’ Sixty seven children by thirty different wives, ‘because the women loved him so much.’ A famous doctor, who once had seen hospital staff refuse to treat a woman whose baby was twisted up inside her – it tried to exit her body hand-first – unless her family came up with the money. He built entire villages of his children. ‘We all had to know who our brothers and sisters were, so we didn’t marry each other.’ There are turbulent clouds above London, and waves of hot air over Addis Ababa. The girl seizes my hand at takeoff and landing, but laughs when we arrive.
A very dark man with one half of his face seemingly collapsed. He begs politely, and accepts our refusal with elaborate courtesy. We are told he went to Canada and became a rich man; married, had children, moved back to Ethiopia and bought a truck to carry cargo to Sudan. On the journey, he ran a man down. He couldn’t pay the money that the relatives demanded; they let him go, but waited on the road, and when he came back they shot him in the brain. He lost his truck, half his face, and his memory. He can’t remember his wife or kids, or the name of the bank with his money in it. Sometimes, though, he remembers Canada. ‘I fly back there later this afternoon. Please, sir, can you help me?’
Obama Pool Hall
Outside the Obama Pool Hall stands a pink-eyed, moaning boy wearing a pair of strangely-buckled, mud-covered rubber boots. Then I see they are not his boots. They are his feet, several sizes too large, bulging, distended, with thickly-flaking shins, like objects from a dead explorer’s kitbag. A crowd of other children clutch and stare. Little girls have smudged crucifixes tattooed on their foreheads. The words ‘Obama Pool Hall’ are the brightest things in the scene; freshly painted on a crumbling adobe wall.
He Never Came
A dozen men sit gloomily watching Star Wars in the reception hall. None are guests, but still the waitresses dress in starched green uniforms, and serve us coffee on the terrace where we sit on concrete swivel chairs under rustling bougainvillea in abandoned gardens. An atmosphere of colonial decay hangs over the gravelled driveways. The tennis courts look like an internment camp. In the dining hall, fifty tableclothed tables gather dust together; afternoon light filters sadly through unclean windows. ‘You want a room? This is government hotel,’ says the manager hopefully. ‘No,’ we say. ‘OK,’ he shrugs, without any surprise. They built this hotel during the Derg regime for the dictator Mengistu. He never came.
It Is Connected
The Israeli speaks fluent Amharic and evades every question I ask him. ‘Are you working in Gonder?’ ‘In a way.’ ‘What work do you do?’ ‘It is connected to agriculture.’ ‘Farming?’ ‘Well, not really. It is a bit like farming.’ He speaks four other languages and has a face like a small, expectant child’s. He could be anything from nineteen to thirty five. I am told of a beautiful Ethiopian wife, but I never see her. This town is like a Graham Green novel. The endless waiting on hotel terraces; local men in mismatched suits, playing chess and watching. ‘I help the German lady find her silver cross,’ says the kid with the one blind eye. ‘Give me ten birr, I ask some information.’ The man who stole the silver cross is allegedly in prison; the cross is changing hands on the black-market, and information on its whereabouts provides an irregular income. The kid’s blind eye is clouded like a marble. ‘Are you staying here long?’ I ask the Israeli. ‘I think just eight more days. Then I go to Addis. Then I have a small job in Central America. Then, if God wills it, I will come back here.’ ‘The job in Central America – is that agricultural work?’ I try. ‘No,’ he says. 'But, it is connected.'
‘How would I get a magazine printed?’ I ask one of my students. ‘Oh, it is easy. First you get permission, then you go to the print shop. Very cheap.’ ‘Who do I have to get permission from?’ ‘The Ministry of Information. They will give permission. They will first ask some questions about what will be in the magazine, but if it is just poetry and stories there will be no problem.’ ‘Can I get it done without permission?’ ‘Perhaps. But it will be more difficult.’ ‘Why do they need to know what’s in the magazine?’ ‘In case it is something that is not what the government is trying to achieve,’ he says carefully. ‘So it’s censored? This is censorship’ He seems genuinely surprised. ‘Perhaps,’ he says, as if I have said something a bit distasteful. ‘But no, I think it is more like just permission.’ He drops his eyes to the table, embarrassed on my behalf. Presently the lights go out, and the rumoured selling of power to Sudan proves to be a more comfortable topic of conversation.
‘This, my baby – in Washington D.C.,’ says the mama of the house. In her hands is a graduation picture of a smug, gelatinous young man in mortarboard and gown. ‘Other baby – in Washington D.C.’ She proudly shows a photograph of a fat girl in a tight white dress, flashing lots of thigh before a studio backdrop of a heart-shaped swimming pool fringed with palms. ‘This, baby house – in Washington D.C.’ A picture of a picket-fenced home complete with car parked in the drive; interior shots of gleaming kitchenware, a woman in a mini-skirt posing on the stairs. The mama rocks backwards and forwards in her chair, cheerfully crunching peanuts. Her granddaughter rubs her feet with chilli paste scooped from a plastic bowl. Coffee bubbles on a charcoal-burning stove. There has been no running water for a week. On the floor sits Maree (what’s the proper term? Indentured housemaid? Slave-girl?) smiling at it all and understanding nothing.
The darkness of the unlit room pales slowly to reveal the faces of the tej-drinkers, gazing blankly from the shadows. The gulp the yellowish, faintly luminescent tej from bulbous glass demijohns arranged on the wooden table. They look like a row of gloomy alchemists in a medieval tavern. ‘Do you want to drink here?’ asks my companion. ‘Um, another time,’ I say. Back in the street, we meet the madman I saw in the market earlier tugging feathers off a dangling chicken. Now he has absentmindedly pulled most of the flesh from the bird’s bones; the carcass swings like a priest’s censer, bloody fat drips from his hands. ‘He says do you want to buy his chicken?’ says my companion, grinning. ‘No thanks,’ I say. And away he limps, in the direction of the concrete piassa the Italians made a shoddy job of before they fled in 1941, leaving only macchiatos behind them.
A former member of the Derg regime, this man was imprisoned for twelve years when the communists fell. Bouncing delicately over the gutters in powder-blue suit and immaculate white trainers, he is like a camp Samuel L. Jackson. ‘Solomon washes his body once a week,’ he translates outside a tin shack, gently interrogating an ancient grandmother with blue tattoos like telephone coils running round her neck. ‘He is healthy. He attends school every day. When he grows up he wants to be an astronaut so he can visit Mars.’ The grandmother answers his questions patiently, taking aim at a crowd of barefoot children with a piece of scrap metal from the stockpile at her feet. ‘The family pays three birr per month in rent, but it is rumoured the government plans to sell the land and demolish their house. Then they will have nowhere to live.’ I transcribe as he translates. The grandmother squints one eye. A wing-nut bounces off the nearest child’s knee; the others scatter out of range. ‘After school Solomon helps his family by fetching wood and water. He says that he is happy.’
The baboons methodically comb the ground, plucking the yellow grass to stubble and thumbing it into their ancient faces with occasional snickering, mewling sounds like cats. It’s like an illustration from a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet: the sun-drenched plateau against blue mountains, grazed by coexistent herds of horses, goats, oxen, baboons and people. It only needs a Chinese schoolgirl hugging a lion to complete the picture; and neatly-squared fields of corn to replace the vertiginous escarpments; doves instead of vultures; and a god.
I Destroy Trouser
‘Hello sir. Do you have one black trouser?’ A man has materialised awkwardly from the shadows surrounding my front door. I think he is the boyfriend of the girl who washes clothes. ‘One black trouser?’ I ask, confused. ‘Yes. Do you have one black trouser?’ The man looks scared and miserable. ‘Why do you want to know? I ask. ‘Because,’ he says dramatically, ‘I destroy one black trouser.’ ‘You destroyed a pair of trousers?’ ‘I destroy trouser,’ he repeats firmly. I tell him I don’t own black trousers. He looks relieved, yet somehow defiant. ‘I destroy trouser,’ he says again. ‘How?’ I ask, genuinely curious, but he will not reveal any more.
The old bastard in the piassa wears a green baseball cap and a stained boiler-suit covered in medals he probably stole off someone else. His self-appointed duty seems to be standing guard over a small yellow-painted tin shack whose function no-one ever appears to know. He spends a long time every day locking and unlocking its door with a complicated system of keys; the rest of the time is spent in the Telecafé, from where he can keep an eye on his shack, haranguing and brow-beating anyone unfortunate enough to get close. Just the other day, I hear, he picked up a rock, stood up from his table, and smacked someone who was standing nearby without warning in the back of the head. The rock was a large one. Blood was everywhere. The old bastard refused to apologise, and when he was asked for an explanation grew even more furious.
There’s probably nothing in the shack. He’s just an old bastard.
Someone Has Died
I wake up to the sound of a woman screaming in one of the tin-roofed shacks below my room. Other women in long white shawls hurry back and forth across the yard, carrying bowls of water. In the night I hear choked, gurgling noises, and can’t tell if it’s an old man laughing or else moaning in pain. In the morning, someone has died. The yard is filled with wailing women, beating their arms against their chests while the men and boys stand silently, staring at the ground. I go out for several hours and come back in the rain. They have strung a dripping awning over the body, hidden from my view. I don’t know whether it was the woman or the old man who died. The grieving song rises and falls, as if someone is tweaking the dial of a short-wave radio. It continues for three days straight, along with the clatter of rain on tin, the mewling kittens, and the chickens.
Old Bastard Retraction
The old bastard in the piassa takes a seat at my table. We order the same thing: special fool with dabo. He asks me if he can drink the water the previous customer left behind. He drinks it sloppily, spilling it down his beard. When the waitress brings our food, he curses her and tries to hit her on the head with the bread basket. He seems insulted by the fact she brought him two loaves of dabo; turns out he has his own spare loaves hidden in a pocket. He glares and mutters as we eat, but I decide to attempt communication. I ask him about the medals he wears on the front of his stained boiler-suit. Immediately, he straightens up. His creased face gleams. He spits bread crumbs. ‘Haile Selassie,’ he says proudly, pointing at the first medal. The second medal says ‘Medal of Victory, 1941.’ 1941 is the year they defeated the Italians. My opinion of the old bastard changes. I ask, with respect, if I can take his photograph. He doesn’t say a word, but fastens every button, smoothes his collar, adjusts his medals, and gazes unblinkingly into the lens with enormous dignity.
This is an old bastard retraction. I don’t care what he keeps in that shack. The Emperor’s thigh-bone, the Ark of the Covenant. It doesn’t matter what it is. The thing he is guarding is his pride.
The Pepsi Cop
Every day, whatever the weather, the Pepsi Cop will be standing at his post, hopelessly trying to control the traffic. He wears an immaculate uniform and a spotlessly white peaked cap. When pedestrians try to cross the road, he strides out in front of the cars with an expression of noble self-sacrifice, and no-one takes the slightest bit of notice. He strikes me as an honourable man, an incorruptible defender of laws which are universally ignored, if they are even known. It doesn’t help that the pill-box in which he stands is topped by a concrete Pepsi Cola bottle about the same shape and size as him. (Pepsi won the cola wars long ago here; their adverts cover every wall in town; magnanimously, they have allowed a single Coca-Cola billboard to remain, now faded to a dirty pink.) The Pepsi bottle has the effect of turning him from being merely ineffectual into appearing completely ludicrous. I feel sorry for the Pepsi Cop, but even I can’t bring myself to do anything he says.
Sheltering under an awning from the rain, I see a delegation of children making their way expectantly towards me. Five are black and one is white, a surprising sight in this village. Then I see he’s not white, but albino. The little girls flanking him approach with giggly anticipation, urging him to step forward. Instead of greeting me as a long-lost white-skinned brother, the albino turns his back, happily waggles his hands in the air, and screams nonsense at the sky. The little girls seem put out, as if they’d been expecting something more. ‘His mother saw you, and sent him to meet you,’ someone explains. ‘What am I supposed to do about it?’ I ask. But the girls are leading him away again, with obvious disappointment. He doesn’t even look at me. Seconds later, the albino delegation has vanished into a hut.
A very calm and respectful old man wrapped up in his shawl and beard. ‘Do you need money, father?’ my friend asks. ‘Yes , I need money. I’m a beggar,’ he replies, after careful consideration. ‘How much money do you need?’ ‘How much can you afford to give?’ ‘I asked you first. How much do you need?’ The old man thinks for a little while. ‘I need five birr,’ he says at last, ‘I’m on my way to buy bread.’ Five one birr notes are counted out. I go to offer some as well. ‘No,’ he says, his hand on my arm, ‘thankyou, but I don’t take money from foreigners. Not from foreigners, or breast-feeding women. I don’t want to give them my trouble.’ He smiles kindly and shakes my hand. I start to introduce myself. ‘Thankyou, no,’ he stops me again. ‘I don’t want to know your name.’ I ask why not. ‘I have trouble,’ he says, as if talking about rheumatism or gout. ‘The trouble has followed me for a long time. I’m worried that if I know your name, I might remember it at a bad time, and then the trouble will transfer to you. I care about you. I don’t want to give you trouble. So please, don’t tell me your name.’
On my way up to the bar, I am stopped by a couple of revealing girls. One is pretty in a mean sort of way, and the other is fat in a mean sort of way. The mean fat one seizes my hands, while the mean pretty one reaches out and removes the glasses from my face. She puts them on, and gives me a look which might be cute if it wasn’t so mean. I smile and try to take them back, but she holds them out of reach. ‘St George beer,’ she demands. It is less a flirtation than a mugging. I pretend not to understand. ‘Are you lonely?’ she asks. ‘No,’ I say, and manage to prise my glasses from her. Then I shoulder my way past and go upstairs to dance with my friends.
The mean fat one soon tracks me down. I am busy doing something groovy with my feet when she appears in front of me and manfully grabs my wrists. Her fingers have a fearsome strength, but my arms are sweaty so I slip away. I turn my back and continue dancing. She quickly moves in front of me again, as if I have misunderstood. She does ten seconds of aggressive grinding and then seizes the back of my neck. ‘Drink,’ she says. ‘I don’t speak Amharic,’ I say in Amharic. ‘Drink,’ she says again, with more force. ‘Sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ She seems genuinely offended and retreats to a bar-stool, glaring with undisguised scorn at my moves. I find it quite hard to enjoy myself now. I manage to dance to half another song before the mean pretty one reappears, having finished simulating sex with most of the other men in the room. She seems to regard me as a professional challenge. I make my dancing as complicated as possible so she can’t get a step in. Only by moving furiously can my flailing limbs keep the mean girls at bay, but I know this tactic won’t hold up forever. The next track is a slow number.
He’s affectionately known as YNG: Young Naked Guy. Occasionally he wears a shirt, but never any trousers. He does own trousers, but chooses instead to carry them over his shoulder like a flag. He’s tolerated remarkably well by the people of the town, who give him food and water every day, and sometimes try to make him wear trousers, without any success. He wanders from one neighbourhood to another, doing inexplicable things. Today he is fascinated by a bottle, turning it around and around in his hands to watch the motion of the liquid sliding about inside. He has a truly enormous penis (it almost reaches his knees) but is utterly innocent of sex, and seems completely happy. I’m told the local women say with regret: ‘the right dick on the wrong man.’ Occasionally he tries to board a minibus, which causes a commotion. He also loves chasing cars, and it’s a fine sight to see him sprinting at top speed barefoot down the hill, his penis flapping joyously in the wind.
Old Naked Guy is a different matter. He’s a truly malevolent old fucker who has built himself a horrible nest on the street outside the Ethiopia Hotel, where you can’t easily avoid him. His nest is constructed mostly of rocks and mysterious knotted plastic bags that probably contain awful things. His main activity seems to be burning: burning cigarettes down to his fingertips, burning tangled clumps of string, burning electrical cables and rubber, things that shouldn’t be burnt. Every time I walk that way I try not to meet his eyes, but I always do. He has a piercing, venomous stare that sometimes makes me trip on the kerb or stumble over a rock.
ONG does wear a pair of trousers, but only pulled halfway up his thighs, which is somehow much more indecent. For the record, his penis is tiny. It looks like the knot on a burst balloon. One day, perhaps he’ll burn it.
A Different Country
At last the land looks African: vast and stubbled and studded by cactus and comical-looking acacia trees, the sunlight pouring through a yellow sky, and on the horizon the blue haze of mountains at distances impossible to tell. Long-horned cattle and herds of camels rip spiked leaves from the lowest branches, the men wear sarongs and AK47s, the women grimace disinterestedly as our bus guzzles past. Clusters of rounded mud huts like beehives circled by fences of thorns. ‘These are very dangerous people,’ says the man next to me, gathering the tenderest leaves of khat in his palm for my consumption. ‘If our bus kills one of their sheep, they kill everyone on bus.’ He draws his finger across his throat. The land goes on and on and on, never getting smaller. The federal police at their half-fucked checkpoints look too tall, too nervous for this land. This is a different country.
The Muslims sleep and fast all day. ‘We do not even swallow our own saliva.’ But after dark, the houses come alive. I am ushered into a curtained, cushioned room to share enormous platters of food. Then comes tea. Then comes coffee, plates of halva, dates and sweets. Every half hour, someone goes out and comes back with another bag of khat as big as a pillow. There’s enough to carpet the whole room. ‘It’s not enough,’ they keep saying, ‘get more, it’s not enough!’ it’s only midnight; they’ll stay up til dawn, chewing khat, drinking coffee and smoking hashish to take the edge off it all. In the background, a silent TV shows fuzzy news footage from Somalia: jihadi fighters in red and white headscarves patrolling some demolished street. ‘Those people are monkeys,’ someone shouts, ‘what in God’s name are they doing?’ next to me, a girl in a hijab is laughing as she shares cigarettes and prepares the coals for a sheesha pipe. An enormous black man in a vest is chuckling contentedly on the floor, and every so often someone reaches over and slaps him on the belly. ‘The Christians here love Ramadan, because they get to have fun all night with us.’ Islamic jazz-pop blares from the speakers. The reception on the TV is bad; the jihadi fighters drown in static. ‘What do you do when it’s not Ramadan?’ I ask the guy sitting next to me. ‘We drink,’ he says contentedly. Allahu Akbar.
Pushing and Slapping
On all sides of me middle-aged men are screaming, pushing and slapping each other. Sometimes they form alliances to push and slap other people. This has been going on for two hours. No-one is moving anywhere. I keep my hands tight on the railings, determined not to be buffeted out. This is a queue for a bus ticket. I can’t imagine how the process could possibly be so complicated. I try to work out if it’s one argument, or multiple interconnected ones, but it’s impossible to tell anything other than the fact that everyone is furious. (There is something about buses, and especially bus stations, in poor, hot countries of the world, that causes people to become inexplicably angry.) Every so often the ticket window opens and the ticket man glares out in extreme dissatisfaction, then slams it shut before anyone can actually try to buy a ticket. Now an old git in a dirty cloth cap has insinuated himself to the front and is hanging onto the grille with both hands. ‘He is a big dictator person,’ grins the guard who doesn’t take sides, who is finding everything very entertaining. The dictator unites the front half of the crowd to barging him off his illegitimate perch, the ticket man whacks his clasping fingers with a cane, and eventually he is jostled away, foaming with rage. The ticket window has slammed shut again. ‘When will he start selling the tickets?’ I yell at the guard who doesn’t take sides. ‘Soon, soon,’ he says casually. He’s been saying this for the past two hours. ‘But how long? I have an appointment.’ ‘Oh, you have an appointment?’ he says, and everything instantly changes. He knocks politely on the window. ‘This man has an appointment,’ he says. ‘Oh, he has an appointment?’ says the ticket man. He writes me a ticket, takes my money, and closes the window again. The process took about twenty seconds. I’m expecting the crowd to react with fury, but nobody seems to care. I clamber away, and leave them all still pushing and slapping one another. They don’t seem to be in any hurry. I guess they must enjoy this.
‘Hello, photo!’ the blimp with the telephoto lens yells at a rake-thin African child who barely comes up to his knees. The chubby finger slams down on the button; the blimp checks his photo, gives a satisfied grunt, and shambles away without looking back. The child stares at the giant buttocks undulating inside their white shorts. ‘Hello, photo!’ the blimp yells at an old man sitting in the shade of an acacia. The old man holds three fingers out for money. ‘Hey, no, I paid already!’ the blimp roars. He is unstoppable. He’s like an albino elephant seal wading through a nest of stick insects. Elsewhere, a six-foot Russian blonde in a skimpy red vest and pair of denim shorts so small you can see every crease and fold snaps away on a mobile phone; a half-crippled Frenchman with a creepy beard and beige socks pulled up to his knees minces desperately after a group of semi-naked, picturesque kids; a Japanese woman wrapped up like a mummy, with only her sunglasses poking through, helps her koala bear-faced husband (who is dressed, for some reason, like a fisherman) aim a camera as big as a telescope at a woman breast-feeding her baby. ‘White people embarrass me sometimes,’ I say to my guide, sitting back in the shade. ‘You’re white,’ he replies.
The Tears Came
‘This is the place my father died,’ says my guide, pointing to a nondescript depression of scrub lying just off the dirt road. ‘He was killed by Konso people. He worked an illegal job, taking cattle to the north, then bringing back Kalashnikovs to sell to the South Omo tribes. Sometimes we didn’t see him for months. One time he was caught by the military government. They sentenced him to death. He escaped from Arba Minch prison by bribing the guards and getting them drunk. He hid for a year with the Gamo tribe, because he had learned their language. After the military government fell, he went back to his old work. He was a very hard man. I had many fights with him. He used to make us drink the yolk from an ostrich egg every morning as soon as we woke up, to make us strong. It just made me sick. I was eleven when the Konso caught him taking cattle through their land. They shot him with an AK47. The Konso people are not strong, they do not have brave warriors. It was better he died by the Hamer people; at least there is honour in that. Many years later I was in a village in the highlands, and I met an old friend of my father’s. ‘How many Konso have you killed?’ he asked me. I told him I hadn’t killed any. Times are different now. I don’t live like that. ‘Then you are not his son,’ he said. And then the tears came.’