Wednesday, August 30, 2006

16 Days

Every three months or so we get a letter from Ato G, an elderly Ethiopian man who lives a few hundred kilometers from Addis Abeba. Ato G’s letters have become events. We pass them around eagerly.

Ato G's handwriting is brittle and it carves mercilessly into the flimsy, bumpy sheet of paper. He uses the same color pen -bluish purple- that leaves a crater of ink spots every time he rounds the letters “de” and “m.”

His letters are agonizingly no nonsense. He doesn’t use any magniloquent greetings Ethiopians usually preface a simple letter. (“Ke semai kokeb yebeza nafqote …” Loosely translated… “My yearning transcends the number of stars in the sky…”) Instead, each word is obviously penned after much thought, none wasted on himself. He takes time to list all our names, with all the women prefixed with a respectful “Weizero” (Mrs.) and the men with Ato (Mr.). No sycophant titles; not a trace of overwrought flattery or flowery phrases.

But then… then he calls us “Lijoche” (my children). And the way he writes it, Lijoche… something about it tugs at me every time.

In fact only three of us have met Ato G. He is our contact for a small community project we started a few years back. He handles the little money we send and updates us on projects. On reports that include micro credit transactions he makes the recipients sign their names. If they can’t write, he makes an impression of their thumbprints.

He is a remarkable bookkeeper. Every penny is accounted for. Stunningly so. His ledgers are homemade. The lines which separate the columns are obviously painstakingly straightened and well measured. Name, date, amount, and sometimes there is a column for comments.

“You work hard for your money,” he told us when we first made contact with him. “I will work as hard to make sure none of it is wasted.” And boy, has he.

When he got a bonus and a raise at the end of one year he thanked us by sending a glossy card with a loud, embossed red rose on the front. Inside were the word “Thank you” printed in one of those flowery fonts. Underneath, written in Ato G’s unmistakable handwriting, the words “God bless you” in Amharic. Then his familiar signature. Underneath that the date, both in the Ethiopian and Gregorian calendars. I can only imagine how much trouble it was to get that card.

You could almost set your watch by Ato G’s letters. Steadily, every three months, give or take a few days.

But suddenly it stopped. A few weeks past his deadline we started worrying. Was he sick? Did a family member die? Did he die? A few more weeks passed. We managed to successfully whip ourselves into a conspiracy theory frenzy. Had he absconded with the money? Is he funneling it to Hamas? Finally, we decided that the two people in our group who were going to Addis for a wedding would follow up on the situation.

As abruptly as they had ended, however, the letters resumed.

Lijoche, started his first letter back from absentia. But this time there was weariness in that word. He stated simply that he had to leave on a personal matter and that he would send the ledger in another letter. Everything was fine. He apologized for worrying us.

We figured it must have been a family emergency of sorts so we disguised money as a bonus and sent it with the next payment. No harm. No foul. Life went on. Every three months we’d get a letter.

Nearly a year passed before we found of the nature of his “personal emergency.” He was in jail.

Apparently, the story goes, he was approached by a local officer/thug and was asked for a new "filing fee", which was code for a bribe. Ato G knew it. The program he was running, small as it were, was successful enough to attract the local authority’s attention. After harassment of himself and then his family, Ato G was called into the local police station. Who did he think he was? Is he OLF? Worse, was he CUD? Where was the money coming from? Ato G knew the routine, but he was not going to pay a dime in bribes.

So he ended up in jail.

The bureaucrat pencil-pushers thought a few days in jail would straighten out the old man. Ato G’s wife, a fiery woman when she has to be, was taking none of this with even the slightest demureness. She stormed the police station. After a valiant foot-stomping session she was escorted out. Her house was rampaged. The officers seized “evidence” implicating Ato G of “improper behavior.” (Not genocide.)

Ato G served 16 days in jail. His wife, his friends and community leaders were so outraged by his imprisonment that it was causing the local authority more headache than the 200 Birr ($22) “filing fee” was worth. Ato G was released after being given a strong civic lesson on how to be a law-abiding citizen.

For a series of complicated reasons, I wept when I heard the story. Someone my father’s age just lost 16 days of his life for $22. Perhaps we had stressed fiduciary responsibility too much and should have made provisions for such “emergencies.” Why wouldn’t he just pay the “fee” and move on?

Deep down I wanted to be inspired by the story, but I didn’t want to intellectualize it. I wanted it analyzed, compartmentalized and most of all, out of my mind. I wanted to write about it with bombast on “the will of the people” and wave my finger in hubris.

Instead, I spent an hour clutching my stomach, doubled up on the bathroom floor.

I finally tracked down a phone number for Ato G. I had never talked to him or written him. In fact the only reason I had joined this group was to stop being harassed by a friend who started it out of frustration. I usually just sent my check monthly and grudgingly helped with a few things. I was certainly a bit player.

It took a while for them to find Ato G.


His voice was exactly as I had imagined: slightly raspy, thoughtful, calm. I stammered through a long introduction.

Ere, ere. TenayistiN.” (Hello) His voice only slightly rose in guarded surprise.

I had a carefully laid out plan. I would start by thanking him for all his hard work. Then ask for a perfunctory status report. Then methodically meander into a casual inquisition about the 16 days. Then I’d offer help. Does he have kids? Can I help them? Is the amount we send enough? If he goes to Addis can he please look up my parents and introduce himself… Analyze. Compartmentalize.

Instead... instead, I heard my voice cracking. What I wanted to do most was cry. For him, mostly, but also for me, and Ethiopia. I knew it would be highly indecorous and selfish, but I wanted to cry.

I managed to ask him how he was. And that I had heard about his imprisonment. I started telling him how sorry I was but I heaved in the middle. And my voice cracked again.

He said nothing. I said nothing. I covered the receiver and tried coughing and holding my breath alternatively. He finally took mercy on me.

Mechase mn yderegal? Dehna qen eiskimeTa.” (What can you do? Until better days dawn.”)

He wasn’t self-effacing. He didn’t exude unnecessary bravado. But he didn’t tell me “Oh, it was nothing,” which was what I had secretly hoped he’d say in typical Ethiopian dispassion.

I agreed with him, hoping he would talk more so I could gain my composure.

Dehna qen yimeTal.” (Better days are coming.) I finally whimpered. He didn’t speak for a long time.

Essuma ayqerim.” (That is inevitable.) I might have imagined the crack in his voice.

That’s the thing about Ethiopia. What breaks your heart also manages to mend it.

I wish people knew how much kindness there is in Ethiopia. Even through this seemingly chronic state of misery and brutality, there is kindness that breaks your heart into a million and one pieces. Ethiopia, we often forget, is so much more than a government determined to asphyxiate the spirit of people already savaged.

And perhaps the universe is waiting for us to find our spirits before it dawns better days for us. But the minute I loved what Ato G had done more than I hated the people who had robbed him out of 16 days, I knew I had arrived.

It is ruinously, unrelentingly peaceful. Better days are coming because there are so many others doing their "16 days."

The accompanying photograph is by a fantastic photographer, "adritzz". His/her photographs from Ethiopia on flickr are mindblowing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

why do you do this to me, wonq?

4:54 PM, August 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wheew! Wonqitu,

Usually you make me laugh, this time I cried. I really did.

8:00 PM, August 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You are back with a vengeance and never cease to amaze me. It is even more amazing and mind boggling that Ethiopia has people like Ato G. Believe you me, Ethiopia has millions of Ato G’s. How on earth is this possible? How can they keep their sanity in the worst of circumstances and keep hoping for a bright future?

12:03 AM, August 31, 2006  
Blogger zegabi said...

Very moving...Thank you

12:45 AM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous adera tesfaye said...

You said:
"But the minute I loved what Ato G had done more than I hated the people who had robbed him out of 16 days, I knew I had arrived."

I am in the middle of reading Berhanu Nega's book and that's what I am getting from him. He also thinks loving democracy is a better fight than hating tplf. With all he is going through, how does he get the strength, wisdom and moral upperhand? It's truly amazing to me.

I am the typical "mebt askebari" Diasporan, but I realize I have NOT arrived. I want to, though. I want to be at that "ruinously" peaceful place you and Berhanu and the Kaliti 111 are.

My mother had a saying. "How can anyone want to harm Ethiopians?" She was one of the kind ones.


9:22 AM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You had me crying...


9:42 AM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really have to say weichegud this time and of course have some tear dropws. A really moving story.

10:09 AM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous not anonymous said...

You help me cling tenaciously to this thing called hope.
But, of course, dehna qen yimeTal!!! Remember? “[Ethiopia] is so much more than a government determined to asphyxiate the spirit of people already savaged.”

Happy you’re back, wonq-wonq!
I sleep better knowing you’re with the people.

11:03 AM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous kezira said...

oh ferchissake, people. can we not make this into a cryfest. jesus!

question is, and i think one of the annonymi raised it, how do ppl still manage to keep their kindness while living under such conditions? sheet. i just chewed out someone for something innocuous. what would i do if i was dropped in qality? how many times have we rained fire on a Gap employee who didn't give us enough respect. i.e. how do we "arrive" there- that place wonq/ato g/itiye g/birtukan/berhanu et al are at, coz it sounds way better than where i am now.

i need a blueprint to doing my 16 days, man.

uh... Not anonymous: i love you. I love you. but if you ever write something like I sleep better knowing you’re with the people i will have to hunt you down and pinch you in soft tender places. Inde!
(ur analysis of the meles 'book'... sublime.)

'kay. gonna go sleep with the ppl. no. gonna go with the people and sleep w/ non anon.

11:35 AM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous not anonymous said...


too schmaltzy for your taste, eh? how 'bout this: I sleep better knowing you want to sleep with me?! Or, if you slept with me, I wouldn't sleep at all?!

pinch me bakish!

12:45 PM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whatever! through out the history of Ethiopia, many have done their "16" many others much more than that and nothing has changed. You can cry all you want but reallity is what it is. You have the gun and the power or you have nothing. You continue to do your '16'... and have group cry and fill liberated... AND I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH EPRDF!!!

2:30 PM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous not anonymous said...

my friend anonymous,

I fill your pain! It seems to me you too need to know how good it fills to "fill liberated."

4:12 PM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"how do ppl still manage to keep their kindness while living under such conditions?"

Have you considered, may be, Ato G may not have had any choice but to calm, say nothing, and just hope for the future? Or may be Ato G is really angry, but even scared of saying anything bad on the phone just like my father is when I call home nowadays.

As for Birhanu et al, they are calm and kind because they have expected this to happen to them all along and they value the purpose what is being done to them achieves. As for your experience at the GAP, it is America where consumers are the Lords and of course you are supposed to get mad when you are treated any less.

Anyway, it is not to be disrespctful to these great people of ours. However, looking at the post (great writing by the way) and most of the posts, and I say this with all due respect and love, one wonders where exactly are you guys from. In a way, I felt jeleous because you could still cry for the old guy who spent a mere 16 days in jail.

4:39 PM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congradulation Wonk,

you made it to AIGAFORUM headline...

What I found funny is how do you quote the blog you wana bash from a blog which makes a good comment about the blog you are about to bash....

does it make sense of its just the TPLF way thingy.

4:52 PM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous chiraq said...


i was going to say, eko. first we had dube asking, 'let's say one thing nice about meles"..... then getaw N.M. is sleeping better with 'the people.' i was begining to think..... ere benegessew. sewu minew ke ambien gar biteNa!

moving on.... you want blueprints? the thing about starting your 16 days is that the first few days ur feeling great. then u realise it's feeding u to the remaining days. then by the 9th day u r broken. if u manage to wake up on day 12 and can catch ur breath, u r half way to being half ato g.

since i kept failing, and in order to keep what is left of my sanity, i am the snq aqebai to those on the journey. (some of us have accepted our role: "let's slack our way through this." twardy? most def!) but even riding their coattails is spiritually exhausting.

howz that for a blueprint? think about it as you sleep with getaw non annon.

4:56 PM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your mind and your words are amazing. A very moving story. Keep up the good work. Thanks

7:49 PM, August 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey wonq,
have u seen this comment on the story by AIGA forum? just curious!

4:15 AM, September 01, 2006  
Anonymous Mimi said...

I love the way you use words to get to a very important point. I love you and wish you all the best!

Freedo is coming!

6:32 AM, September 01, 2006  
Anonymous dube said...

Emebete Wonqitu, weyne gude. You made a grown man shed a tear. On the trading floor! I have to change firms now.

Hope you are happy.


11:49 AM, September 01, 2006  
Blogger msraq said...

You are a very tallented writer, Sir.
You need to write more.

12:14 PM, September 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Dehina ken iskimeta." A moving story which reprsents not only Ato G , but a lot. All ethiopian have to wait agonizingly that day which will come.

4:14 AM, September 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Dehina ken iskimeta."

Optimist Pessimist
Kings Era Very good Worse
Era of Derg Good Worst
EPRDF Excellent Bad

Indeed we should expect better than what we have.
ET, don't you think we are in Dehina ken compared to worse & worst?

2:47 PM, September 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your story is no worse than most of what we hear from what has become a godforsaken place. Most of us can come up with similar stories as yours since our Ethiopia is replete with injustices like we have never thought possible, but most of us cannot write as beautifully and make the reader feel as badly as you felt.

The last Anon trying to compare the last three eras...puhleze cut it gizew sew

1:43 PM, September 05, 2006  

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