Monday, April 17, 2006

"You think this is progress?"

There were two things my grandfather used to find intolerable whenever he visited us in the US: people who ate and walked in public; and Ethiopians of the Orthodox faith who didn’t go to church. He had to be physically restrained on his last visit to DC after seeing an Ethiopian youngster sporting a Lalibela T-shirt and walking down U Street eating pizza… and talking on a cell phone.

“You people think this is progress,” my sisters told me he hissed. “This is backwardness.”

Sounds about right.

The man wouldn’t know how to mince words if it came with a manual. I remember him excoriating my father for not taking us to the local Ethiopian church in our city. “You are trading the faith of your country for ‘Meet the Press’?” he deadpanned. But one thing my father inherited from his father was stubbornness, and no amount of sentimental heft was going to guilt trip him into taking us to church.

On the first night my grandfather came to visit us in the States soon after we settled here, he passed an edict: all of us kids would be going to church every Sunday. My mother was assigned chauffer duty. My father kept reading the paper.

So every Sunday, my siblings and I would wake up at 7 a.m., dress in Ethiopian clothes (we girls had to cover our heads) and look longingly at our father who would maliciously be cooking a grand breakfast. Since Ethiopians don’t eat breakfast before qurban (Holy Communion) we’d sit around the kitchen table watching our father’s purposeful whisking of big, brown eggs. He never came out and tempted us with breakfast, but he would shoot extremely affected looks of fleeting benignancy our way. The passive aggressiveness would break only when our grandfather would emerge, seemingly out of nowhere, to collect us kids and march us off to the garage. And almost always, under his breath, he’d murmur, “SliTanE meslotal abatachu.” (“Your father thinks that’s progress.”)

We grew to love going to church with our grandfather. At that time, parishioners of the Ethiopian church practiced their faith in a tiny room rented from a ridiculously WASPy Presbyterian church. There were probably 20 of us on a good day. Before we entered the tiny room, my grandfather would help us remove our shoes and adjust our neTela (shawls). He would bend down to kiss the hardwood floors of the tiny room. He gave the room the same deference he would the mightiest of cathedrals. He sometimes let us girls sit with him in the men’s section. Mesmerized, we would spend the entire length of the liturgy trying to mimic his moves.

On the ride back home, our grandfather taught us the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, and it became our favorite part of going to church.

My grandfather died four years ago, a week before Ethiopian Easter. We were all hoping he’d hang on to see Easter, to celebrate the most revered Holy Day in the Ethiopian church. He died not breaking the fast even though he was in considerable pain.

On the second anniversary of his death, my sisters and I went to Ethiopia. Our grandfather wanted to be buried in the village he grew up in. We made it through the two hour trip from Addis in complete silence.

We reached our grandfather’s grave and were surprised by how well kept it was. Someone had planted flowers by it, and the headstone sparkled in the mid morning sun. My sisters and I read and re-read the engraving on his headstone.

It is a small village, where my grandfather is buried. A kid passed by us. He ran away when we tried talking to him. Soon he came back, this time with his mother in tow.

Emmama Biftu. She was tall and imposing. Nothing about her expression was welcoming or accommodating. Her strides were decisive, as if each step towards us meant victory to the people. I remember thinking how I so didn’t need a meddlesome matron in my life at that particular moment.

By the time Emmama Biftu reached us we were dutifully intimidated. She wasn’t bashful about checking us out head to toe before she lobbed her first words.

Her lips reminded me of sandpaper. She wore a scarf on her head, but wisps of beautiful hair had managed to escape the stern grip of the scarf, and the faint breeze made them dance gracefully by her nape. Her face was thin, her nose severe and the dark circles around her eyes almost softened her face. She held her son’s hands with the fierce zeal of an Ethiopian mother. The little boy hid behind her, but occasionally he’d peer out and stare at us with his big, intense, grown up eyes.

I expected her voice to be shrill and acrid. Instead it was soft and guarded. She greeted us in Oromiffa. Our expression told her we only spoke Amharic. She said hello to us in Amharic, and I was certain I detected a trace of irritability. Emmama Biftu wanted to know who we were. The niceties were done with.

My younger sister and I looked toward our older sister in a mute appeal for reassurance and, silently, she agreed to take the lead on this. She administered a strained smile at Emmama Biftu without really looking at her, and told her we were just visiting our grandfather’s grave.

Emmama Biftu’s strict jaw line relaxed. It was the first and merest hint of welcome. She asked us where we lived. We told her. It disinterested her profoundly. She bent down and removed a stray twig from our grandfather’s grave. It’s high noon, she told us. We shouldn’t be at a graveside at high noon. We’ll come with her to her house for lunch.

We walked out of the church compound. Emmama Biftu pointed to a small building by the gate. “Your grandfather had that built.” She said it with the casualness of a weary tour guide pointing out his umpteenth monument. We stopped dead in our track. “For the children. So they can learn the alphabet.”

My sisters and I walked to the stone building. It had one window. The door was painted bright blue. There was one desk inside but no chairs. The blackboard was smudgy and worn. Someone had painstakingly painted the walls with murals of angels. My younger sister started crying.

Emmama Biftu waited for us by the door. We walked to her house in silence.

Her house was modest and neat. Large black and white pictures of young men flanked the wall in her tiny living room. The little boy scampered to the other room. We were motioned to sit down. Emmama Biftu went to the back. We slunk ourselves in the cushions of her well-preserved sofa.

By the time Emmama Biftu came out with a piping bowl of shrro and gomen, a stack of injera and a tray of drinks, other people had joined us. It was obvious they all knew or knew of our grandfather. Emamma Biftu kept producing more food, guests kept arriving. Soon, it was a party. An old woman took my younger sister’s hands and started kissing it. “You are your grandfather,” she told my sister. My sister tried not to cry.

All through lunch I was wondering how it was that I knew so little about my grandfather. He never told us about the school or asked us to help. He was perceptibly well loved, but I never took him to be a ‘pillar of the community’ type.

I needed to ask about him, but I didn’t want to miss a second of what was organically unfolding in Emmama Biftu’s living room. For the first time in my life I sat back and let moments unfold in their own time. It didn’t matter how Ato so-and-so knew my grandfather, or why the woman on my left kept wiping her tears whenever our eyes clashed. I was happy in the moment, something I had not felt in a while. As the afternoon progressed and Emmama Biftu flitted about trying to serve coffee, the conversation was no longer about my grandfather. People talked about everyday life. We talked about our children and husbands. They didn’t care that it had taken us a couple of years to make it to our grandfather’s grave.

At one point the little boy (he turned out to be Emmma Biftu’s grandson) was sitting on my lap and I was letting him play with my cell phone.

It was almost twilight when we left. Emmama Biftu walked us to the car. I summoned up the courage to ask her who was taking care of our grandfather’s grave. “All of us,” she said after a long pause. “All of us take care of him. It’s not just one person’s job to take care of the man."

Before we got in the car, I tried to slip a wad of cash in Emmama Biftu’s hand. She looked at me sadly and pushed my hand away. “No one will accept your money,” she said. She didn’t sound cruel or injured. Just matter of fact. And I could hear my grandfather’s voice in my heart. “You think that is progress?”

The longer we stay away from Ethiopia, the more we forget just how much kindness there is in Ethiopia. To Emmama Biftu, taking care of the granddaughters of a man she respected was visceral. Kindness was not attached to reciprocity, and it didn’t come with a big smile and overbearing hospitality. Kindness was matter of fact.

The politics of Ethiopia often blinds me from the fundamentals, and once in a while I need reminding that Ethiopia is not just politics. There is organic beauty that passes you by if you pepper it with questions and logic. That’s the thing about Ethiopia: even in the midst of poverty, there is uncompromised splendor. Not the “We come from Kings” kind of splendor, but the kind that puts knots in your stomach and makes you want to do whatever it takes to make Ethiopia better.

Yesterday we went to church early, and on the drive back I tried to remember the stories my grandfather told me. I tried to remember for my son.


Blogger Fikirte said...

Thank you for this beautiful post and thank you for reminding us what real 'silitane' is. Often we are so focused on becoming what we're not - especially living abroad - that we miss the values of our own beautiful culture. I read it to my two daughters (8 & 5) and they absolutely loved it.

1:36 PM, April 17, 2006  
Anonymous Yohannes said...

Wonq. Don't do this to me.

1:46 PM, April 17, 2006  
Anonymous wereda 3 said...

ethiopia, i feel, is where random acts of kindess were born. they are the slightest gestures people offer without even knowing it. from the woman in mercato who says "ayzoh yene lij" when you trip, to the guard at the UN who smiles at your kid-- it's what makes ethiopia bearable for us returnees. that's why we stay, Wonq, despite the bullshit around us.

God bless.

3:38 PM, April 17, 2006  
Anonymous Gooch said...

How true. Reminds me of this article.

3:48 PM, April 17, 2006  
Blogger geja said...

again ...great stories comes from great person. God Bless You

4:09 PM, April 17, 2006  
Anonymous Inde Hewan said...


I know absolutely nothing about you other than through your public blogs. But I want to ask you when you're going to start writing your book. I don't even care what the book is about, when are you writing it? This is not a rhetorical question but a real one hoping for an answer.

Like noblesse, literary talent oblige.

6:05 PM, April 17, 2006  
Anonymous mekeregna said...

You can't imagine how much I needed this. I spent the weekend wrangling with politics. It was frustrating and at some point I was asking myself what the hell I was doing in the middle of this mess.


6:54 PM, April 17, 2006  
Anonymous tom said...

Thanks wonq. U made me feel the Ethiopia I learned to know.

Some four yrs ago I was a fresh graduate and got employed in Addis. My job included traveling to the remotest parts of the country for at least a week every month. At the beginning I did not like it. I was a typical 'yeketema lij' who doesn't want to go to 'geter'. I stayed in that company for 13 months and in the mean time I travelled from Axum to konso, metema to jijiga to Gambella.
Through that, I came to learn that all Ethiopians in the country side are yewah, deg, miskin inspite of what language they speak or which ethnic group they belong to. My perception of Ethiopia completely changed. Now it almost makes me want to cry when they demonize those souls as 'agame', 'neftegna', 'tebab' and this and that.

Wonq thanks again.

7:19 PM, April 17, 2006  
Anonymous Rahel said...

Your blogs are just exquisite. There is absolute, sheer, superb beauty in the way you write, the words you choose and the things you talk about. You could probably write about the weather forecast and turn it into a classic. So turn it into a classic :-)

8:14 PM, April 17, 2006  
Blogger enaseb said...


"Not the “We come from Kings” kind of splendor, but the kind that puts knots in your stomach and makes you want to do whatever it takes to make Ethiopia better."

by far my most favorite blog yet.

4:12 AM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Gisu said...

What a great piece of writing and what a moving story. I was reduced to tears after reading it. God bless the soul of your grandfather and the lives of those humane villagers.

7:08 AM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Wonq,
What a story!
I even managed to picture the whole thing while reading it.
You made me feel that your grand father is also mine and is of all of us indeed.
Your re-visit and observation proves beyond doubt that Ethiopians who live in the country side are uncomplicated and simple human beings who always remind us what true humility, civility and pride means.
I read most of your blog writings and I was always wishing that you also covered some aspect of the day to day Ethiopian way of life.
Not that you live there but from the past and your occasional visit which inspired you to write the article.
Here you go, my heart is pumping with emotion. Trust me, I have experienced so many similar encounters you mentioned in your article when I travelled around the country.
For me, that is the foundation of what true Ethiopiawinet is built upon and that is what feels me with great pride and hope for a better future.
God bless his soul. Your grandfather must have seen his people's need first and unselfishly gave back in the way he could.
That begs the question, how many of us are prepared to give back to our country and people and help change their lives?
Ethiopia is screaming for help.

God bless you too and Happy Easter to you and your loved ones.


8:18 AM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous K.N> said...

Kindness in contex:
A woman who lost her son during the Red Terror was telling me about the kindness of one of the guards in the jail where her son was killed. The guard let her see her son one more time before they gunned him down. She was so grateful.

9:05 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger sokari said...

A beautiful story - thank you

10:55 AM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Selam Wonqette,
Only one who has lived and breathed the air of Ethiopia could truly understand and be stirred by the deep messages imbeded in this blog. Well done. I chocked many a time as I read your blog.

Keep writing!!

11:12 AM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phenomenal woman, that is you!

11:20 AM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Concerned said...

ET wonq,

There is some error on your HTML code; your links seem to have disappeared.

12:12 PM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was amazing Won. Thank you for sharing it with us.

12:36 PM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous hen said...

Beautifully said Wonq. I went back home after twenty years and was amazed by the kindness and generosity of the people. I will never forget the time we went to watch the eclipse about an hour out of Addis. We hiked a little it got dark and we got lost. We met some people who offered their hut for us to stay and offered us food they didn't have. When we left the next morning we had to force them to accept some money for their kindness.

2:42 PM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A well written article. Your unique style of writting, and your ability to translate the Ethiopian verbal and non-verbal communication is commendable.

Thamk you for allowing your readers to take a quick journey back to Ethiopia, and fill our hearts with love for the life that we have left behind.

I will encourage you to use your style of writing to shed to the world the unique Ethiopian Philosophy of life.


4:15 PM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous not anonymous said...


You sure set echoing long suppressed memories of stuff. . .

A good hour’s trek from Shengo, the local name for a town that barely passes for a town, is a rickety church that barely passes for a church. Qidist Mariam! There on top of the denuded mountain she is perched, leaning precariously. A close look at her lopsided walls leaves you wondering by what miracle she’s still standing. So exhausted is this Mariam that YOU pray for HER that the next gust of wind rolling up the slopes of the degraded mountain spare her.

Hard as it is to believe, little rickety Mariam is “accredited” by the big-old Mother-church in the big-old city. The QidassE is properly sanctioned and a Lead-MemirE, who is fed and sheltered by the congregation, is duly appointed.

Sure, Mass is few and far between here at this “accredited” Mariam, what with MemirE whiling away his days in perpetual fund-raising down by the road-side waving a picture of the Virgin Mary at hurrying passers-by.

But, boy! Is it ever sweet when it takes place! The QidassE! For sure, on the 21st of every month. The sound of MemirE’s mellifluous voice leading a ragtag group of farm-boys in a melodious chant of the Blessed Mother’s Name! The thump-thump of Kebero sifting through the cracks in Mariam’s earthen walls, rumbling out to where the unmarked graves dot the barren landscape in an irregular pattern!

Way-yyyy out there beyond the Agam-fence that encircles Qidist Mariam. There, where among a multitude of long forgotten folks long departed, my own grandmother lies. Her grave long forgotten on the grounds of forgotten Qidist Mariam, her memory getting murkier and murkier with every passing day.

4:44 PM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Hope link works this time.

7:15 PM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

all of a sudden back home, no expense, a free ride absolutely free. all that was not true it was day dreaming. an excellent piece of work. just happened to read the first time and loved it much. you want me do a little sketch about EMMAMMA BIFTU? i bet you i will get it pretty close. if you post i will read it.

thanks a lot

10:02 PM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful and heart warming! But
the question remains why have we
made a habit of perpetually admiring our fathers and grand fathers for their fortitude, their
integrity and their principled stand but we have nothing to show
for ours?

If only Ethiopia belonged to a
worthy people instead of us!

11:49 PM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this piece in my little cube at work over lunch break (and hoped no one would walk in while I had tears in my eyes). I had to print it because I know it will inspire me when I feel depressed about the situation in Ethiopia. Made me realize how in the grand scheme of things my job is sooo insignificant compared to what I should and could be doing for Ethiopia. It's time for all of us to figure out how to give back to Ethiopia before we use up the best years of our lives in cubicles

2:48 PM, April 21, 2006  
Blogger Matewos said...

ET Wonqette,

Knowing your gifts and using them for good as you have done in telling your story can only be done with God's grace. Egziabeher yetemesegene yehun. My His and your grandfathers prayers continue to bless you.

12:53 PM, June 15, 2006  

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