Monday, February 06, 2006

Un-Super Sunday

There are times when life just grabs you by the neck and forces your over-inflated, garrulous self in front of the mirror; and woe are us who can’t look back at our reflection without cringing.

Sunday was a hard day.

It’s been about a year since I first met Ato Debebe (name changed). He used to work at the parking lot in my office building. I had to pass his booth on the way to the building entrance from my parking space and we often exchanged pleasantries. Ato Debebe, who I guess is in his mid-fifties, possessed the dignity of a seasoned Ethiopian man; he was understated and his eyes… his eyes had that layer of sadness that his polite, bright smile couldn’t hide. He always shook my hand with both hands and thought it was so gracious of me to give him a Christmas gift. He reciprocated.

On cold mornings Ato Debebe would wear a thick coat and gloves and shiver subtly in his heatless booth. We never talked about personal stuff until I finally noticed pictures of his two sons propped on the side of the cash machine.

His sons had just come to the States from Ethiopia, minus their mother who couldn’t come because of bad health. I would occasionally politely inquire about Ato Debebe’s kids after that, but never really delved into his personal life. I did perfunctorily give him my business card, telling him to call me any time, but he never called. I didn’t take his number.

One day Ato Debebe disappeared. I didn’t see him for two weeks. When he finally showed up he looked frail and worn out. One of his sons had been ill, and since he didn’t have close family or insurance, he had to stay home to take care of his kid. He took the two weeks without pay and had to work double time to make up for the missed time.

I was terribly saddened by his story and tried to help, but he wouldn’t take any money. I gave him my home phone number and assured him I would contact Human Resources at the office to see if they had a job opening (he used to work as a civil servant in Ethiopia). His eyes lit up at the prospect a job and thanked me profusely. I took his home phone number.

I went on a business trip the next day for a week and forgot to call HR. The next time I saw Ato Debebe he looked even gaunter. He smiled broadly when he saw me. I told him I was out of town and promised to look into a job for him.

Weeks passed. I called HR, but never really followed up. Ato Debebe’s shift changed and I began to see less and less of him. One bitterly cold morning he told me that his hours were being cut, and for the first time he asked me about the job I had promised to look into. “Ahunis mereregN” (“I have had enough”) he said, and even though he smiled when he said it, I knew it took a lot out of him to ask for help.

I went on another business trip, came back and never followed up. He never mentioned it again, but I kept paying him lip service.

A few months back he disappeared again and this time he never came back. I allowed myself to be wracked with guilt and then moved on with life. I think I called him at home once but he never called me back.

This past Sunday, while I was stocking up on ridiculously overpriced snacks for a Superbowl party, I saw Ato Debebe cleaning and stocking one of the shelves in the grocery store. He was wearing the store’s apron. He wore glasses now. His hands shook a little as he placed cans of peas on the spotless shelf. I froze. An awful, awful feeling of guilt, shame and profound sadness washed over me. How could I have been so reckless?

I eventually summoned up the guts to walk sheepishly up to him. I tapped him on his shoulders. He turned around. He had aged. A lot. It took him a few moments for him to recognize me, and when he did, he smiled. I noticed his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. He shook my hands with both hands, and I pulled him in to kiss him on the cheeks. He said hello to my son and we proceeded to engage in small talk.

I finally broke down. I stumbled all over my ornate apology. He listened to me politely, nodding occasionally. “Aymechim eko ye’zih hager neger.” I asked him why he never called me back, hoping maybe that would absolve me. He was even gracious enough to disentangle me from that web of self indulgent hypocrisy. “When you left your number you didn’t leave all the digits,” he said. We both knew it was not true and I felt humiliated that I was asking him to bail me out from my own awkward ruse.

I asked why he had left his parking lot job. His kid had to have surgery. Ato Debebe missed so many days at work that he was let go.

I gave Ato Debebe my business card again and I took his home number. Again. I left with a grocery cart full of crap and a good dose of humility. It didn’t help when my son commented that Ato Debebe reminded him of his grandfather.

What’s the use of raging against the machine when I don’t practice the kind of justice and fairness I so readily demand of others? I don’t even know why I was so careless about following up on a job for Ato Debebe. I have no excuse. I wasn’t being mean. I was just careless, and I think that’s worse. Indifference is worse.

My mother used to say, “If you don’t care about your neighbors, you are not going to care about your country.” I thought I was generally a kind person, but I didn’t know I had this depth of unkindness in me.

How do we get rid of these every day carelessness', because until we do, we can’t demand kindness from those who want to lead us. We can’t keep wishing for a better Ethiopia unless we will ourselves to become better Ethiopians.

It was an awful, awful Sunday. I called HR on Monday, but what an awful Sunday.


On a brighter note, Gooch, thanks for volunteering to blog while I am on vacation. Send me your stuff and I'll post.


Anonymous yekolotemari said...


This is def my favorite of all your blogs… You have brought up a topic that most of us can easily relate to… It has forced me to remember and think about situations similar to your experience. I always tell my friends (self-criticism) that there are two kinds or ppl in the world (assuming that most are good by nature)… “proposer's” and “do’ers”... Unfortunately most of us belong to the first group and fail to translate our good will into action. Perhaps we need to speak less and do more. We can not sit aside and watch everything we care about rot.

1:50 AM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work!

8:56 AM, February 07, 2006  
Blogger fiker said...

I could not help nailed many broken promises and self fulfilling prophesy...what an everyday tragic incident , my life is full of it ...the truth hurts and you are oh...oh...too much for my ego.....

.....let us all face the truth and be a better human being.

Love u a lot.

9:29 AM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous Jojo said...

In the city i live in there is a market where Ethiopian newcomers work. Conditions are atrocious. I was at the cashier's trying to block out the miasma of despair. My cashier was a young Ethiopian> He was a graduate student at AA unverity. Left when he won the DV. I don't know how we started talking, but we did. As i was about to leave he grabbed my sleeve and whispered, "Benatih. Benatih ke zih bet awtagn. Benatih." Like you, Wonqqi, I took his number which I wrote down on scrap paper even though I had my organizer. I work in a Fortune 500 company. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. He only wanted a chance. His voice will haunt me forever. i hope someone more responsible heard his desperation.

Politics is personal.

10:52 AM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are all so conceited! That is your problem. Y'all get a grip! All you need to do to empower people is to share information and encourage people.

11:30 AM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous Tobian said...


Lerase hod bisognal, and here you get me all teary eyed at work.

When I was in undergrad in the north east, somebody at the International Students Office sent out a message asking anybody, especially Ethiopians to communicate with a Ethiopian high school kid in an obscure town in southern United States.

He was from Nazareth Town, I think. He had come here on a scholarship to do the International Baccalaurate. He was so homesick that the school councellor believed he was depressed.

He was a good kid. He was a really good kid. His mother raised him and he was the only child. The culture shock and separation had taken their toll on him. I don't imagine the his location helped much either. We started off communicating by e-mail. Then he was always online, but I wasn't. I bought him some phone cards and told him to call when he was feeling down. Soon conversations had become a daily matter. I felt like I was the mother, sister, borther, unlces and aunts he had or whished he had.

The next semester I had planned to study in Europe. When I told him, he freaked out. And that freaked me out. I was 20 and I had adopted a 16 year old kid.

While I was in Europe, I kept in touch with family and friends. I never talked to the kid. He sent me some e-mails. I don't recall whether I didn't respond at all, or didn't respond promptly. I had a good time in Europe, more importantly I just had *time* in Europe.

When I got back to the States, he was not on messenger anymore. I never heard of him. My last year of college should have been his last year of his program. I wanted to know if he was still around, if he was ok. I could have at least contacted the school, but couldn't/wouldn't lift a finger to do anything about it.

It has been 5 years since. I sometimes stop and wonder if it was a good idea for me to have started talking to him at all. Or maybe he found other people and better support? Did he go home to his mother? Is he ok? Did I make things worse?


12:32 PM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous not anonymous said...


when you take a notion into your head to write, I mean REALLY write, you sure can write! You hit all the right notes with this.

At a time that some of us Diaspora-types are carrying on unconcerend with trivial matters such as humility, here comes Ato Debebe to turn our “self-indulgent hypocrisy” back on us.

Anonymous, you're right! Conceit is one of our sins, along with misplaced interests, appalling sense of priorities, inflated vanity, and a tendency to take as much pleasure from our own achievemnts as we do from Schadenfreude!

You're also right about "empowering people thru the sharing of information." And that's exactly what the story is about. An honest recounting of failed promises largely thru indifference . . .and the resulting guilt.

Wonq, you couldn’t sound no mo’ sweeter if you tried.

12:49 PM, February 07, 2006  
Blogger Honest too said...


First the mother blogger and now this(among other issues), you bring issues that are dear to me.(First I apologize for my deficiencies in the English language I am a sciences person and not too good in being as eloquent as you) A friend of mine who is working on his Phd once told me that his proffessor who had a chance of teaching 2 Ethiopians asked him why Ethiopia was a poor country with people as smart as him. And my friend's simple answer was we are not able to translate this individual knowledge to working together.

I always wonder the differnence in mentality between Americans who would jump in a fire to save people and Ethiopians me included who would just watch it all without jumping in. How can we learn to be our brothers keeper?
(forgive the cliche) How can we learn to give to people for the sake of just helping when we know that it might not be reciprocated?

12:59 PM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous Wegesha said...

Wow, sometimes the comment section changes into a sea of emotions. Today's special is "Guilt" and almost everyone is remembering someone they have forgotten about and geeting an overdose of sorrow and melancholy. So how come I don't share any of it? Am I evil or evil reincarnate?

1:17 PM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The poor makes the world. Needs, shortages or what are the mothers of inventions are always with the poor. life is made by the poor. The poor guy lives a life with all its downturns and eching it somehow. Life is with him, and everyone who comes near him will be affected by it. The poor makes the world and eventualy and despite their demise will rule it too! No doubt!!

1:42 PM, February 07, 2006  
Blogger Lebeza said...


I like your style. It is like "Awaze be lega qibe". I cannot stop devouring it. "Wat-Siliqit"


1:45 PM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a homeless Ethiopian woman I see everyday on my way to work. She sits/ stands in front of the post office. She is mentally ill and talks to herself and sometimes hurls insults at passersby. I never say anything to her. I actually avoid eye contact so she doesn't either insult me or ask me for help. What happened to me? How do I get to be like this? I have always thought of myself as a compassionate person. I always talk passionately about the injustices in this world but I do nothing about it. How does one get beyond the lip service, the guilt of not contributing to the betterment of humanity, and the shame of having when there are many with out? How does one get out of this comfortable cocoon one builds in order to survive in America and get ones hand dirty? How does one start getting uncomfortable?

1:47 PM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Ethiopians DO help one another... a lot. Sometimes, it is gets too unbearable. And the helper gets worn out. Where is the balance? When do you get to say, "I've done my share and now it is time for me to live my life."? Could ya? Would ya? I think humility is the fabric of our lives.

2:47 PM, February 07, 2006  
Blogger INEHO? said...

OK, I realize I am in the minority here, but I can't take it anymore. I don't know about y'all, but I am with anonymous number II here. Yes, it is nice and noble to help your fellow human being, but it sounds like y'all are trying to exorcise you guilt demons here or something. Stop the guilt tripping, please. Have our minds been conditioned so much, that we forgot what kind of country we came from? How about some of us who had the chance to visit the homeland recently?

No offense Wonq, but why beat up on yourself instead of doing the noble deed and keep it to yourself? That should be the ultimate revenge for yourself. To me all this stuff should stay private and personal and yes, including the guilt part. To be honest, the very fact of writing about it sounds to me like a way of absolving yourself from the situation instead of doing what you have to do quietly as yekolotemari said. It's like some are saying 'Well, at least I shared my guilt with my fellow ET's, so I feel better now...maybe I don't even have to help anyone' Again, no offense Wonq but it almost sounded like you were patronizing the man. Don't you think life has done enough of that to him already? I hope you don't take this too personal. Have I mentioned that I really love your writing. :)

3:13 PM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous Q'tsil sim said...

Emotionally articulate and just plain brave, a moving piece.
My strategy has been to help however and whomever, in ways large or small, as I could - then try to ignore the guilt demon. But so much more to be done....and sometimes so little effort could go so far....can it ever end?
I have helped some, but neglected many, many Ato Debebes. I'm sure you gather you ain't the only one, wonq.
Anon II and ineho: feel how raw and personal, don't forget that this spot in cyberspace where etw riffs and rants is a spring that feeds Ethio streams of consciousness and emotion, the Wonqvillian commentators are the tip of the iceberg (subtle bicherin allusion). If a little guilt trip increases my bandwidth of compassion, gimmeit.
Wegesha: Gog and Magog have been contacted about your condition....

6:20 PM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous alafi said...


i think i know the person you are talking about. i think his name is Frezer Alemayehu. i was part of the ethiopian national committee that selects scholars to study the international baccalaureate diploma in 10 schools around the world, one of which is in montezuma, new mexico, usa.

i was contacted by the committee in ethiopia to try and find out what the problem is that he was facing.

i tried talking to him over email but with not much success. i wish he had talked earlier to me about it because i have gone to a UWC school like the one he went to myself.

I later learned that he didn't come back to finish his second year of school and just disappeared. dropped out of the school.

the kid was selected after competing with highschool students all around Ethiopia. like all highschools.

it was sad no body reached out to him in time to keep him in school.

7:35 PM, February 07, 2006  
Blogger enaseb said...

He listened to me politely, nodding occasionally. “Aymechim eko ye’zih hager neger.”

this is the bottom line. am i the only one who identifies with ato debebe in this post? unetem weichegud...

12:13 AM, February 08, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tami said, .....

I think its good to share the guilt or the feeling inside, if not face to face at least on the web. But the question is what are we doing besides that to make up what we have done. I sure we all want to take it back if we could but the fact is its just a pity talk , torch ourselves with guilt ."Then we say bakihn /bakish teyew yerasu guday hulum neger sidaela new"

I agree with one of the things that the man said, "Min Ayemchim eko yezih ager neger"... but still the truth is "Kelib Kalekesu Enba Ayegedim" yelal Habesha siteret ..... If we cant do it today we can or should do it tomorrow as long us negligence is consuming us . I believe there are a lot more that kind of ppl outside, who are in crises who needs at least our glance. Those ppl are there thinking they are far away from the darkness, the poverty, etc back from their homeland and they found it a lot worst than that. So I think as tomorrow is another big day it can also turn its back on us and we can be next .... We should all have the courage and the guts to stretch out our hands to those one who needs it. Lets start from now !!!!!

7:03 AM, February 08, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know Wonq, I am happy that you dipped your toes into this touchy subject. How come the Indians (East Asia) do not get tired of placing one of their own into a job at the company they work for? The Vietnamese? The Chinese? The Russians?

If you had spent as much time on the Dulles Toll Rd in VA as I have, have you noticed that nearly all the toll booths are operated by Indians? This was not the case say five years ago.

Any chance I get, I re-write resumes for my friends, I give them pointers on interviews, job searching, and any job networking contacts. You know the famous Seleda was started as a source of networking for Ethiopians regardless of your origin or background. It rolled into a cosmopolitan diary. This is ok, but there were many disagreements on the directions of the Seleda. In the end, in my opinion, its grand objective was diluted.

Just last night, I was talking about the same issue with a friend of mine. Why are we reluctant to help our own, and ready to help or be a door mat for others? At one point while working for Corporate America, I got into an argument with my boss. I was the hiring manager. She wanted to place a Lebanese person into the open position. I wanted to place a higly qualified Ethiopian in the position. I finally sat down with her, and told her that as a hiring manager, if I cannot hire a qualified person, then she will have my resignation letter in 5 minutes. I hired the Ethiopian.

Suffice it to say that this thing about placing our own in the job system is like a curse. I have seen and I am seeing it right now while I am looking for a job. An Ethiopian helped me get my first job after finishing graduate school. I had spent two and half years looking to enter the corporate workforce. The day I was offered the job, I swore the "tabots" that every chance that I get, that I am going to help to place an Ethiopian in a position to get a job, and that I WILL NOT GET TIRED OF DOING IT.

We talk a good talk as a society and community. We simply do not have the fortitude to "DO". In this day and age, you get a job not on your qualifications, but on who you know. Instead of wallowing in guilt, let's just "DO".

Excellent post WONQ! You touched a raw nerve ...

10:24 AM, February 09, 2006  
Anonymous not anonymous said...

Here’s one more reason to hire a fellow-ET: For the pleasure of coming to the office in the morning and finding on your desk one of them pink message slips filled out in AmariNa!

Message: “ Igele, endet aderk? Mr. Willams yemibalu sewye dewlew, Tewat wede 5 Sa'at gedema imeTalehu bilewal.”

Yantew Igele

2:06 PM, February 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I never agree with your mad rants on the Ethiopian situation, but I give it to you, you have got a heart. You can have your young one's read this if they ever accuse you of being "heartless"

Like you, most of us carry the same cross, you spoke for all of us.

12:00 PM, February 11, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was about to say something about what the other foreigners do for their own here but somebody beat me to it...

The very first time I was aware of this thing was when my best friend's uncle came back home from S.Arabia for a month long vacation. He told us how much the now neighboring country's province's ppl (which used to be Awraja) help each other out and were working for one company as the only foreigners there and wouldn't let anobody else get hired except their own. But his intention was not about admiring their deed but how much racist that was, not only to the whole but also to the specific. My friend's uncle is typical ET guy that can't even comprehend narrow regional identity at home let alone away in Arabic country and definetly not in such a way. In just one year he was away from home, he abondend all funky american music and was in love with traditional Ethiopian dance. And that was a guy we looked upto not only b/c he had more than three girlfriends at a time but also b/c he could really dance and played soccer superbly before he left. Don't ask me how much we were disappointed in him but we were compensated with all the audio tapes he left behind for us. We got some girls to talk to us b/c of those cassettes, even highschool girls.

That uncle of my friend was so generous and was near fanatic about Ethiopia. I remember him saying something about crying at the top of his lungs while watching the evening news in that country just b/c he saw one of Ethiopian Airlines planes by accident on TV. He helped lots of his ET friends get jobs and move there too. But nobody could help him when 'the indian wave' took place in S.Arabia and threatened his job. The guy could laugh and make jokes all the time but when he came back home for the last time, he was not himself, already lost his mind. If you haven't guessed by now, it was b/c he didn't know how to handle 'the indian wave' ganging up on him which found an 'indian' (name of country withheld) less qualified guy to do the job he had been doing very well for four years but for half the salary. And we at home tried our best to avoid him even though we owed him for all the stuff he left behind for us every year.

And another thing,

I once saw a young guy beat the shit out of his 'uncle' in local Ethiopian restaurant. I was amazed b/c none of young guy's friends did try to breakup the fight. I later learned that the 'uncle' was stammgast at the restaurant and so was the 'nephew' and that the uncle never stopped repeating the fact that he helped his nephew come to this country and got him his first job for double the pay than new arrivers usually get paid and so on for everybody to hear. The friends of the nephew were really tired of hearing the same story over and over ...

It is also true that the ones that were helped are not necessarily happy when they are constantly reminded (or think or assume they r wax/gold style) of that... It is probably why most ET-'mail order bride' marriages last a lot less than...

I could go on and on but let me go on anyway,

"lekas entina harif sira alegn yemilew wishetun new" is heard more often than necessary from those that were helped by entina to work at where he is working at, especially when they tell that to the girl he is trying to... and some say "I'm the only ET working there" with pride as if...

4:23 AM, February 12, 2006  

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