A Writer Writes

by Kathleen Moore (Ethiopia 1964–66)

THE “SMALL RAINS” CAME while school was in session. The downpour started just as we walked back to school after lunch. We plodded through the 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.
     Gebre never came to school. He seemed to know that he had no need to learn anything else, that there are some things more important than being able to write your name in a foreign language.
     The language of song does not depend on the meaning of the words but on the sound of the voice that sings. He knew his value to this village and felt no need to be anything other than what he was.

EVEN DURING THE RAINY SEASON, it was always lovely weather in the highlands of Ethiopia, thirteen months of sunshine, just like the Ethiopian Tourist Organization’s motto declared. The sun continued to shine even through the downpours. I missed not having seasons in the year, though. I missed snow, the soft white bits of nothing that tasted cold on your tongue when you were six years old. I couldn’t explain snow to my students. We had hail in Emdeber once while I was there and I told them snow was like that only soft and white. Or like feathers but cold and it melted. I got puzzled looks. A friend sent me a photograph of her house in Minnesota buried up to its rafters in north country snow but still they didn’t understand.
     I missed autumn, too, with its changing colors. Here trees were always green, each day was like the one before it and the one to come, twelve hours of bright sun, clear skies, cool in the mornings and evenings, hot in the afternoons. Because it was always like that, it held no promise and no threat. It just was. There was a reminder of autumn, though, in the Meskal ceremony in early September.
     Meskal is the celebration of the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe a piece of the cross is in Ethiopia, enshrined in an ancient church. One story has it that Egypt gave this piece of the cross to Ethiopia in return for a promise not to dam the Blue Nile River which would stop the annual flood of Egypt’s White Nile. It could be true for Ethiopia has never stopped the Blue Nile from merging with the White Nile.
     I could see no connection between this Guragi celebration and the True Cross and suspect this is a more ancient ritual transposed to a Christian holy day, just as Europeans did when Christianity supplanted their earlier forms of worship. Each house in Emdeber had tall bunches of dry branches propped up in front of it to be burned at sunset on the day of Meskal. In the late afternoon, children and young women gathered in circles to sing and dance, going from house to house like old-fashioned Christmas carolers. As it got darker, the oldest male family member lit the branches standing outside his compound. The air smelled of autumns in Detroit when kids raked elm leaves into huge piles in the street and our fathers set them ablaze, the dry leaves burning in the almost-cold night air, smoke wrapping itself around bare tree branches, orange flames dancing. It was a mystical rite that I relived watching the Meskal fires.
     Meskal also had a touch of spring with its bright yellow daisy-like flowers blooming around every saar-bet, in the fields and along the road. Boys and girls picked a fresh bouquet every day for their homes just as I had picked bouquets of violets and lily of the valley for my May altar every year. All good little Catholic girls decorated the top of their bedroom chest of drawers with blue and white crepe paper, put a statue of the Blessed Mother on it and gave her daily offerings of flowers picked from our yards where lilacs grew rampant for a short two weeks in spring. Tulips might still be out but they held no appeal for me; I thought them too plain to pick for Mary.
     The heavy pink peonies were too big but I tried anyway to stuff them in vases and prop up their puffy blooms. I knelt each night before the altar and prayed, “Hail Mary, full of grace, . . . blessed is the fruit of thy womb . . .,” inhaling the ripe perfume of droopy flowers and felt only the peace of having an extra mother.
     I wondered if my Emdeber students would have seen mirrored in my rites of faith, their own Orthodox Christian practices: priests in heavy, bright-colored robes; boys swinging incense burners, chanting in a language no one understood (their Ge’ez ancient as my Latin), giving the priests money to pray for them. We were so much alike.

RELIGION WASN’T ALWAYS obvious to us in Emdeber. None of us ever went to Mass at Abba Francois’ church and he never asked us to, never discussed religion with us, never acted like a priest with us.
     Abba didn’t seem to worry about our souls. If he did pray for us, he never told us about it. But for Ethiopians, religion is not a casual thing. Whether Christian, Muslim or Falasha (Jewish), they pray, fast, celebrate holy days, perform the rites required of them and hand down the faith of their fathers generation after generation. Emdeber was half Orthodox Christians and half Muslim. Any traditional animists left over from two thousand years ago didn’t advertise their beliefs but I’m sure there were some. I understood the depth of their beliefs because I had had the same ones. I knew about going to Mass every Sunday and on saints’ days; I knew about fasting and not eating meat; I knew about praying every day, not just to God, in fact, rarely to God; mostly to Mary and the saints and angels. The first prayer we learned as toddlers was “Angel of God, my guardian dear . . .” I taught this prayer to Wondimu and Frewo and they found it familiar and comforting.