Saturday, June 13, 2009

The long journey

Getting here to Nekemte, the first REAL site where I will teach, was not easy.  I left Minneapolis on June 4, arrived in time at Dulles airport at 3:00 p.m., only to be told that the Ethiopian Airlines plane was still in Rome and would be 11 hours late.  There were hundreds of Ethiopians and Somalis, most with small children, waiting with me and none of them complained.  I was traveling with a young Ethiopian woman, Bethlehem (Beth from now on), who left Ethiopia when she was 11; she was going back for the first time to see her native country and her relatives.  Beth is now 22, very pretty and she speaks Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia) and I was lucky to have her with me.  We ate dinner, walked all over the airport, tried to sleep on those plastic airport seats, and finally, at exactly 3:00 am, boarded our plane for the 17-hour trip to Addis Ababa.

Of course, since we arrived 11 hours later than scheduled, all of my friends and Beth’s relatives who had been waiting for us with flowers and smiles, had gone home to bed. Except for Almaz, Beth’s aunt.  That wonderful, beautiful, generous, intelligent woman had found out what time our flight would arrive and returned to the airport to take us to her home, feed us and put us to bed.  An angel if ever there was one.

While Beth was getting reacquainted with her aunts, uncles and cousins, I met with Elfnesh, the REAL mentor at the Burayu site, and her girls. They had prepared a lovely greeting for me, with popcorn and candy and the famous coffee ceremony.  I told them all about myself (they were amazed that I was 66 years old, and so am I) and how happy I  was to be there with them. Each of them had prepared a few words to say - her grade in school, what she wanted to be when she completed college and, always, her gratitude to me for coming to Ethiopia. I would hear this over and over from every girl and mentor and parent, their appreciation was overwhelming, yet I felt I was the one privileged to be a part of their lives for a short time.

I was told repeatedly, however, that if I wanted to go to Nekemt, quite a distance northeast of Addis, I better go before the rains started as the road wasn’t so good. So, against Elfnesh’s advice, Beth and I and Sosi, (the sixteen-year old daughter of my long-ago student from that small village) decided to take the bus to Nekemt while the sun shone. We were advised to hire a young man to get on our bus very early the next morning and save the front three seats for us. Thank goodness we did because, even though we left the house at 5:00 a.m. and got to the bus station by 6:00, most of the seats were already taken. Our young seat-sitter must have been there all night and, indeed, earned his 10 birr (Ethiopian dollars).

The bus was old; the ride was long and bumpy; the bus broke down; the seats were very tiny and cramped with 3 people in a seat made for two; the bus broke down again; the driver only stopped when the male passengers demanded it so they could pee at the side of the road. (The women never got off the bus; we just turned our heads and pretended we didn’t see what they were doing.) To my surprise and chagrin, the road was fine.  It had recently been paved but my friends in Addis hadn’t known that because none of them ever went to Nekemt!  And it didn’t rain at all.

The scenery was beautiful, hills and green forests around every bend, farmers walking behind their old-fashioned wooden plows pulled by an ox , children along the road waving to us, even a baboon came out to stare as we went by.