The child is so smiling face, Gerrida turned to assure me in English. He is wonderful.
I wondered briefly why Gerrida didnt take in the little boy. But if he was indeed an orphan of the unspeakable disease, then she could not. The stigma of the plague crawled across its orphans, widows, and widowers, as if they, too, seethed with germs.
We wove through traffic and dashed across intersections without traffic lights, while packed vans, buses, and taxis raced, lurched, stalled out, crunched, and were pushed out of the way by crowds of onlookers hoping for tips. A line of donkeys laden with leafy branches skittered through the traffic; on the median strip, a solitary hump-necked cow grazed tranquilly, as if she stood knee-deep in a meadow and had nothing more to ponder than the clouds.
On her first trip to Addis Ababa, my twenty-four-year-old daughter, Molly Samuel, would say, If I ever saw this many people in the streets of an American city, Id think they were fleeing a disaster. The rain had stopped, followed by cool, cloudy sunlight. A man ran down the sidewalk holding up the hind legs of his goat, the animal pedaling as fast as it could on two skinny front legs with its rump in midair, the overall effect like a wheelbarrow. Wizened, kerchiefed, little ladies, bent double at the waist, struggled down the shoulders of the road under impossibly tall loads of firewood. Women in hijabs (Islamic head scarves) flowed down the crowded sidewalks, while other women veered around them, wearing heels and stylish pantsuits. Men of all ages walked the streets hand in hand, in heterosexual friendship; policemen, with rifles across their backs, stood at their posts holding hands. Young soccer players in glossy uniforms shouted to each other above the crowd; then a robed and white-bearded man cleared the way with his knotty walking stick, looking as if he had just arrived out of the biblical desert.
Older Ethiopian Orthodox women in long, white robes and shawls paraded under parasols quilted of shiny red, green, and purple fabrics, threaded with metallic gold, sprinkled with tiny gold ornaments, and swinging with red or gold fringes. Religious women will lift their parasols in a display of gratitude to God for answered prayers. Market stalls offered quivers full of the bright umbrellas, the sunlight dashing off them as if off broken glass.
Why all the parasols? I asked Selamneh on my first trip to Ethiopia, in 2001.
They are ..., he began. Are they not ... the umbrellas from the Bible?
The umbrellas? From the Bible?
What umbrellas from the Bible?
I dont know.
That night, from an Internet café, I e-mailed my family in America the question Were there umbrellas in the Bible?
The next day, my seventeen-year-old son, Seth Samuel, e-mailed back, Well, Mom, it did rain for forty days and forty nights.
But a few days later, Selamneh remembered, When King Solomon brought the Holy Tabernacle into Jerusalem, people sheltered it with umbrellas.
Oh, I said. And why do middle-aged women in long, white robespicking their way along the muddy shoulders of roads packed with traffic, cattle, and humanitylift and twirl parasols in the air, fluttering in the wind like kites, other than for the pageantry? On the Orthodox holiday of Timket, the festival of Epiphany, why are umbrellas held aloft by the clergy while a Tabot, a replica of the Holy Tabernacle, is reverently displayed? Because Ethiopia was the biblical Abyssinia, the kingdom of the Queen of Sheba, who journeyed to Jerusalem (according to holy writ and legend) when the Tabernacle was young.
Standing like a mountain fortress above the Horn of Africa, near the confluence of the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean, ancient Ethiopia defied foreign conquerors for millennia and traded in slaves, gold, ivory, spices, gems, textiles, and animals with ancient Egypt, Persia, Arabia, the Roman Empire, and India. Five-thousand-year-old Egyptian hieroglyphs mention the preference of the pharaohs for myrrh from Ethiopia. For centuries, Axum, the highland Ethiopian kingdom of the Amhara people, was the dominant Red Sea power, builder of castles and massive stone monoliths, minter of gold, silver, and copper coins. Third-century CE Persian writings named the worlds four great kingdoms as Rome, China, Persia, and Axum.
Excerpted from There Is No Me Without You, (c) 2006 Melissa Fay Greene. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury USA/Walker & Co. All rights reserved.
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