Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
   by Kathleen Moore (Ethiopia 19664–66)
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THE “SMALL RAINS” CAME while school was in session. The downpour started just as we walked back to school after lunch. We plodded through thePrinter friendly version ankle-deep chica in boots and rubber rain coats while our students held enset leaves over their heads and walked barefoot to save their shoes. Those of us who wore shoes were commanded to take them off at the door by the boy whose job it was to clean the floor. We Peace Corps refused to do so after chiggers bore into our toes and laid eggs there. You don’t know it is there for a few days until your toe swells hideously and hurts. Wondimu dug out my first chigger with the end of a pin in seconds and thought nothing of it but after that I kept my shoes on everywhere.
     In this make shift school with its corrugated tin roof, the rain drowned out all other sounds, pounding like mortar fire on a battlefield. During the afternoon classes I had to write everything on the blackboard that was no bigger than an opened book. The students shouted their responses. Everyone was hoarse by the end of class.
     When the rain finally stopped, the sudden silence was unearthly. I always expected a voice from heaven to speak as the sun shone through the raindrops making tiny rainbows everywhere. We talked in whispers for the first few minutes, then gradually resumed normal conversation, forgetting until tomorrow the sound that pounded all sense out of your brain.
     The first day of the small rains we got soaked on our way home from school. I told the children who were with me to come in my house and get dry. We made a fire and they gathered around it. Someone said, “Chawetah” and I asked, “What’s that?” They translated it, Play. “How do you do it?” I asked, expecting a game of some sort.
     The children formed a circle around the room while Frewo went to my landlord’s house for a drum. Demaketch came with a small hand held drum that vibrated a steady rhythm above the chorus of voices, the rhythm of a heart beat.
     They had sung only two songs when a small boy appeared in the doorway. I had never seen Gebre at school but the children all knew him. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old. His little body was amber, even his brown eyes showed flecks of gold in the firelight. I don’t remember ever hearing him speak, only sing.
     He had that clear, bell tone voice you hear in the Vienna Boys Choir. The little stranger was not the least curious about my house or me. The children placed him in the center of their circle and began a call and response song where a soloist sings a verse, usually made up on the spot, and the rest sing the chorus. Gebre was the acknowledged soloist. He made up verses that were poetry, comedy, tragedy. Not knowing the language, I could never fully appreciate the verses.
     Frewo and Wondimu translated for me but much was lost. Gebre’s voice was so pure and wonderful to listen to that I didn’t really care if I knew the meaning of what he sang. The sound was all.
     The chawetah ended all too soon for me. I loved the deep, steady rhythm of the drum vibrating beneath the girls’ high, trilling voices and the boys’ throaty baritones and hated to let the children leave. But some of them lived a long way away and had to get home before dark. Fear of the hyenas was stronger than the joy of play. The children told me stories that their mothers must have told to keep them home and safe after dark.
     They said one time a woman from another village had stayed too long at the market and had to go home alone after dark with her unsold goods and her baby on her back. The hyenas attacked her, they said, and ate the baby. There was the story about the old man who got drunk in the bar drinking tej. The woman who owned the bar said she last saw him staggering down the road to his house, singing loudly and waving his dula, his walking stick, in the air over his head. The next morning some boys found his dula on the road with teeth marks in it but the old man was never seen again.
     Everyone said they heard the hyenas laughing loudly that night. “They only laugh when they are hungry,” Wondimu said solemnly. Gebre left with the others without a word to me, glowing even more golden in the light from the lantern that I let them borrow to see him home.
     From then on it couldn’t rain often enough for me. The children would crowd in my saar bet and Demaketch would come over with her drum and before the first song was finished Gebre would appear. If Abba Francois was near by, he came in to sit in my easy chair and listen to the songs. I asked him if I should give Gebre something. Money or food?
     “No,” he said. “This is his gift. He is always called for chawetah for weddings and festivals and holy days. He makes up verses for each occasion that people remember and continue to sing.”
     If Gebre’s songs had been recorded, there would be a complete, although somewhat embellished, record of all the events of Emdeber life, including the coming of the five feringi Peace Corps volunteers.
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