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
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
I wish people knew how much kindness there is in
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."