6 May 2008

I humbly submit the following as a typical example of the many similar instances of awkwardness and hilarity that color my Ethiopian life.

One of my local counterparts, the head of an NGO focusing on reproductive health and family planning services, was recently promoted to the Bahirdar area branch, so I was invited over to his house for a small going-away party. I came to the house straight after work. By the time I arrived, after being swamped by a gaggle of overenthusiastic children in a neighborhood in which I had not yet made an appearance, the guests were all assembled. My counterpart, his in-laws, a work colleague and his wife, and a handful of neighbors sat together around two wooden tables. They sat by candlelight, as the electricity to the town had been cut during a recent heavy rain.

I greeted everyone in turn and took the place that had been reserved for me. Immediately, my counterpart’s wife appeared from the back portion of the house, bringing a tall drinking glass that she set squarely in front of me. A female cousin followed shortly after her with a kettle full of tella.

Tella is Ethiopian “local beer”. Its appearance is that of muddy lake water, and its taste is much like…well, slightly alcoholic muddy lake water (but not nearly alcoholic enough). And there are other issues confronting the tella non-drinker. First, it is invariably served in the largest beverage containers you will ever see inside Ethiopia. Coffee – served in a dainty four-ounce teacup. Tea – served in a miniature juice glass. Local wine – drunk from small round-bottom distilling flasks. But tella – gargantuan drinking glass. Second, as if the sheer volume capacity of the glass wasn’t enough, the glass gets refilled to the top with every sip you take from it, so that if finishing it off seemed challenging before, now it’s completely hopeless. That of course does not discourage the entire gathering from exhorting you, “Drink! Drink! Drink tella!” at every lull in the conversation.

Amharic discussion murmured around me as I sat trying to get way with as little tella consumption as politely allowable. I followed as best I could, but in the dim candlelight and after a long day at the office, I found my mind wandering from the discussions of local food prices and the weather. My counterpart, however, made a great show of engaging me in English, resulting in a dazzling array of nearly correct but entertainingly erroneous statements.

“Two people have been, you know, floated. They are floaters.”
(Two people were let go from the organization in the restructuring. Fired, floated…he was pretty close.)

“It is evacuating the earth!”
(The dog is digging.)

“It is a very smart and important drink. It is like…glucose!”
(This drink is good.)

“I appreciate your sacrification.”
(“Sacrification” has just joined “respection” on my list of favorite EthioEnglish words.)

“So do not be frustrated, because I do have a big stick.”
(I would try to provide context, but it really wouldn’t help much.)

If my counterpart’s English provided amusement for me, my Amharic was ten times more entertaining for the assembled Ethiopian guests. The party game of choice consisted in my counterpart pointing out an object on the table or around the room, asking me, “Do you know this?”, and then upon my correct answer, exclaiming, “Oooh! It is surprising! I think you know everything!” In another version of this game, whenever I said any one simple word of Amharic, guests turned each other and repeated it amongst themselves, laughing.

Eventually I was saved from these diversions by the re-entrance of the women from the back of the house, each carrying casserole dishes of steaming wot and baskets of injera. They presented food around the table, standing expectantly in front of each guest until they deemed the quantity of food taken to be acceptable. As we ate, the conversation resumed in Amharic, though my counterpart was sure to keep me involved by pointing out repeatedly that everyone in the room was “coupled” but me, by offering to find me an Ethiopian husband, by explaining that in Ethiopian culture the parents are involved in choosing “our intimates”, and by asking me questions about American relationships, such as, “It is important sometimes to beat the wife. Is it acceptable in your country?”

The women came around to force second helpings upon everyone, and I was privileged to witness some of the finest defensive maneuvers I have seen yet in Ethiopia. As my counterpart’s wife attempted to place a fifth roll of injera on her father’s plate, the old man whisked the plate from the table, holding it at arm’s length away and slightly behind his back. With his free hand, he executed a solid arm bar to keep the unwanted injera at bay. His wife went for the two-armed plate cover, being sure to keep her body positioned between her opponent and the goal. Some other guests decided the best defense was a good offense, opting for aggressive attacks upon the food being shoved at them, pushing away dishes and threatening to overturn baskets. All of this was done amidst a clamor of, “No more!”, “I’m full!”, and, “I’m done! I’m done! By God and Mary, I’m done!”

When the great supper battles had subsided and everyone was finally allowed to be “done, done, by God and Mary, done,” the after-dinner drinks of areke were served. If I had to compare areke to an alcohol common in the United States, I would say the taste most closely resembles the rubbing variety. We sipped and talked and waited in vain for electricity that never came on. Finally, the hour grew late, and we were forced to migrate to our homes in the pitch darkness. With two flashlights between the group of us, we stumbled our way over the rough, uneven dirt roads through the neighborhood. My counterpart kept me close, serving as my guide and lighting my way. He advised me periodically with things like, “This is a stone. It is not earth.” He reassured me with statements such as, “There is a dog here. But do not be frightened. I will kick its head.”

Eventually I arrived at my house, surrounded by a cluster of Ethiopians wrapped in their white gabis. I waved goodbye as I walked through the gate, and they all waved back and wished me a good night in chorus. Sitting alone in my house in near darkness, I reflected back on the night, and I was grateful for the warm hospitality that is a mainstay of Ethiopian culture. I was grateful for the laughter shared, the generosity, the coming together of different peoples, the opportunity to experience a sense of community so far away from my home…even the tella and areke.

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