On a dim, clattering afternoon in the rainy season, I sat in a crowded living
room in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, stupefied by water. The rain drumming the tin
roofs of the hillside district was deafening, as if neighbors on rooftops banged
with kettles and sticks. The mud yard boiled and popped in the downpour. Through
the wide-open front door, I watched arriving visitors leap across
stepping-stones slick with clay. At the doorstep of Haregewoin Teferras
two-room brick housean earthier, leakier dwelling than the modern two-story
stucco house shed once enjoyedthe men took off their hats and shook them and
the women wrung out their shawls. Though Haregewoin was sliding further every
day from her former middle-class standing, a dozen old friends opted to sit out
the cloudburst with hersome as a sign of loyalty, some probably to see what she
was going to do next. Despite misgivings about whom they might find among her
guests, all entered beaming. They greeted everyone by handshake or raised
eyebrows, dripped across the cement floor, and squeezed in to join the
Ebullient and round, four foot eight, the hostess slapped across the wet floor
in rubber flip-flops. Haregewoin Teferra (Ha-re-ge-woin Te-fare-uh) was a
country-born, well-educated, bilingual woman in her late fifties. Her thick
hair, bunched under a triangular kerchief, had sprung a few curlicues of gray.
Her coffee-dark skin gleamed in the heat. She wore what she always wore: a long,
leopard-print cotton skirt with an elastic waist, and a red, short-sleeve
T-shirt. As each caller took a seat, Haregewoin hurried back to her chair and
pitched forward brightly to hear the news. When she laughed, she clutched her
hands to her chest and leaned back; her eyes crinkled shut and her shoulders
This was no special occasion or holiday. Some of Haregewoins old friends had
retired from work in retail or the professions; others were underemployed,
simply unablein Ethiopias listless economyto fill their days with gainful
activity. Still others had hidden reasons for their freedom to visit in the
middle of a weekday afternoon.
One guest practically dared new arrivals to sit beside him. Lets see how far
your good manners will get us was the look on the face of Zewedu Getachew (Zoe-dew
Ge-tah-chew) a once-handsome and affluent man. He had been director of
construction for a French company and had taught engineering at Addis Ababa
University. The shoulders of his khaki overcoat were angrily bunched up less
against the rain, it seemed, than against the trick life had played him, the
change in his health status that had cost him his job and good name.
Across the continent, people were lining up by the millions on one side or the
other of a new binary system, being told they were positive or negative as
if they had turned overnight into protons and electrons and everyone spoke of
subatomic physics, rather than of who was going to live and who was going to be
shunned, endure terrible suffering, and die.
Only Haregewoin, among many friends who had once hosted Zewedu, still welcomed
him. He tilted far back on a metal-legged kitchen chair with his arms crossed on
his chest, not expecting to be offered a handshake, nor offering one. Unshaved
whiskers darkened his cheeks.
A humble and pretty young woman, wearing a long skirt, seated herself on a low
stool to roast fresh coffee beans. She shook them in an iron skillet over a
portable stove. Sara had been expelled from college during her sophomore year
and denounced by her parents when her persistent cough had turned out to be not
only tuberculosis (at which point her parents had bundled her up and raced
around with her to the best doctors) but something unspeakable (when they
evicted her). The lessons in subservience drilled into most Ethiopian girls did
not prepare a young person for finding herself alone in the city; Sara was
huddled in a doorway when Haregewoin found her. Haregewoin kneweven if Sara did
notthat the college girls options might soon be a choice between begging or
the sex trade.
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