Thus, on this average weekday in East Africa, a rare scene: a house in which
middle-class men and women untouched by the epidemic sat beside men and women
who had crossed over the great divide.
The hard rain pummeled the roof, stirred up the courtyard, and sent herds of
barefoot little kids galloping past Haregewoins open door.
I was unhappily wedged in a love seat beside a fierce-looking old woman in a
cocoon of homespun cotton. Her dark, pendulous skin and droopy eyes were pulled
up and back by a head scarf, giving her an expression of alarmed disapproval. I
didnt know if she was frowning against the upward yank of her face or because
she had been stuck with me. Over the long hours, we became reluctant familiars,
like strangers on an all-night bus trip. We secretly shoved each other over
disputed millimeters of territory, but faced forward politely.
The wind sprayed mist through the open door. The whitewashed brick room seemed
to dip and sway as if we rode a houseboat whipped by dark waves. The mummified
dowager at my side slowly gained ground, as her long cotton shawls began to
It had taken me a few weeks to get the hang of this. On the long afternoons
when the air fattens to water in Addis Ababa, the citys animal lifegoats,
sheep, donkeys, stray dogs, woodpeckers, catbirds, swallowsfall asleep standing
up in crevices and bowers, or with their heads bowed in the deluge. That is when
I long to trudge up the stairs to my room in the tidy Yilma Hotel, peel off my
muddy shoes and socks, drink from a liter of bottled water, fall across the bed
with Bahru Zewdes History of Modern Ethiopia, and sleep while the tall, sheer
curtains drift into the room full of the scent and weight of rain.
But I was stuffed into a love seat in Haregewoins common room and there was no
getting out of it. The group inertia overwhelmed me. Now? everyone stirred and
asked in bewilderment. You want to go somewhere now, in this weather? Some
were thinking, Im sure, The ferange [white] has to go somewhere now? My
friend and driver, Selamneh Techane (Se-lam-nuh Te-tchen-ay), who was rolled
forward with his head resting on his hands, sat up and looked at me with bleary
confusion. Every time I tried to stand up, the materfamilias beside me sloughed
off another layer of shawls.
Better just to sink down, everyone implied; well get through this together. So
together we sank through the endless soft drone of the afternoon rains. The
demitasse cups of coffee, thick with the sliding brown silt of sugar, somehow
knocked one even faster into a somnolent state. The conversation, after we
returned our empty cups to a wooden, four-legged tray on the floor, dropped off
steeply. When the dim lamp flickered off, nobody thumped it. Nobody turned on
the dusty television under its yellowing doily and vase of plastic flowers.
(There was nothing to watch on TV: nearly all day, every day, the
government-controlled TV station broadcast traditional dancers leaping and
shimmying under harsh studio lights.) My impregnable seatmate, in an advanced
state of coming unraveled, was snoring.
Haregewoins cell phone rang and she answered with a crisp Allo? Abet?
(Yes?) The coffee table was spread with papers, and there was a landline
telephone, which often rang, too. Haregewoin Teferra was not weighed down by
wind and rain and drowsiness. Things were happening in the city, even at this
torrential hour, and she was deep in negotiations. Or perhaps the message she
meant to relay to her old friends was You see? I am still alive.
She put down the phone for a moment and looked out, calculating.
What is it? someone asked, as she knew someone would.
It is the kebele [a local council, like a county commission]. They ask if I
have room to take in a child.
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