|Amongst the Gurage: 27 Years Later
by Michael Santarelli (Gura 7073)
|Thoughts of returning
During the first week of 1999, I traveled from my home in northern California to the empire of Ethiopia where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer with the Gurage people of southwest Shoa Province from 1970 to 1972. My intent was to return to Gofrer, a small village within a larger territory called Gura, where I lived and worked as a rural development/agricultural extension agent initiating various projects designed to relieve the chronic hunger in the area. Since I hadnt communicated with anyone in my village since the day I left twenty-seven years ago, my visit was totally unexpected by my old friends, nor did I know what to expect. The only thing I did know was that, for more years than I wanted to count, I yearned to return to Ethiopia to see how my old Gurage friends and "family" were doing?
Remembering old friends
In addition, I hoped to see Shikur, the sunrise-to-sunset, hard-working neighbor who was the oil lubricating the gears. From hauling water to hauling wood, from digging holes to hand plowing with ox, from hard bargaining to easy buying, you name it and Shikur could do it. He was strong, energetic, and intelligent, and always faced our daily challenges with a positive can-do attitude. He was my steady companion during many a tough time.
I also remembered Barega, another close neighbor, who was always there to lend a hand and start a laugh. Another hard worker, he was always ready to try my "new" ideas, regardless of how strange they seemed. And on more then one occasion his wry sense of humor helped pull me through some of the more difficult periods, of which there seemed to be far too many.
And how could I forget Haile Borga, Abagaazs eldest son, who was near my age and with whom the connection was strong? Haile was open-minded and optimistic and had a knack for understanding my plans and my plight. When village undertakings went slow, or astray, as they often did, he empathized with my frustrations then encouraged me to try again. I always appreciated his presence and his friendship.
And whatever happened to little Sahle and Teru Nesh, the young boy and girl who shared a big part of my life during my second year of service? It was their childish, innocent age and ever so optimistic attitude that reminded me why I was there and why I was staying. And it was these two, as young as they were, who prodded me to master Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.
It was these Ethiopians, these Gurage, as well as many others, whom I had to see once more, now that, after 27 years, I was going back.
Would I see these friends?
In addition, during my 27-year absence, the Ethiopian people had gone through a violent communist revolution, a civil war over Eritrea, a foreign war with Somalia, pestilence of biblical proportions, mass famine, long droughts, and a worldwide pandemic! It was tough enough to cheat starvation and avoid disease during favorable times so what about those turbulent ones? Did they survive? There was only one way to find out.
And what of my home there?
Because I had heard that the Gurage were master builders who hand-crafted the strongest, most durable tukuls in all of Ethiopia, typically lasting 30 to 50 years even though not a single nail is used, I documented the step-by-step, ten-month long construction of my tukul using my newly purchased Nikkormat 35mm camera. I shot over 200 slides that recorded the intricate process of building by hand, using locally available native materials, a circular tukul with a conical shaped, thatched roof measuring 34 feet in diameter, 110 feet in circumference, and 30 feet in height on the inside! The split log wall rose over nine feet and circled a 35-foot tall eucalyptus center pole, which measured 15 inches in diameter at the base. This center pole held a dozen large pole trusses, which, in turn, supported the frame for the eight-inch thick thatch roof.
The whole tukul was laboriously hand crafted. The process started with chopping down and trimming mature eucalyptus trees in a distant forest, quartering them, splitting them apart with wooden wedge, mallet and pry poles and transporting them to the site. Next was harvesting and preparing the ensete rope and bamboo to be used for weaving the walls and roof together. Then came the long period of construction. Had I not insisted on a strong, thick, hand-milled front door as well as four innovative wood shutter type windows which required metal hinges, there would not have been a single nail used throughout the process! Finally, the interior wall crevices were filled with a mud/straw mixture and the earthen floor scrubbed clean with fresh diluted cow dung to keep the chiggers from boring into bare feet. Then it was complete.
In October, 1971, I moved into this round Gurage pyramid and lived there, with Sahle and Teru Nesh, during my second year of village life. So was my tukul still standing?
After consuming more then enough wet and Ethiopian beer, we drove to a nearby hotel where my jet-lagged body crumpled onto a double bed, exhausted from the two-day, twenty-air-hour flight. Late the next morning, I awoke experiencing the biological effects of being eleven hours ahead of, and 8000 feet higher than, my home in California. I was out of sync and sucking wind like a cheap vacuum cleaner and knew it would be a week, or more, before I could continue my journey back to Gofrer.
During recuperation, I visited the new Peace Corps office and met with the director, a well traveled woman and former Peace Corps Volunteer herself, who welcomed me with genuine interest. After explaining my visit and concern about not finding any old faces in the village, I remarked that I should probably hire a driver and vehicle, rather than travel by bus, in case it was necessary to return on the same day. She agreed and introduced me to Daniel, a part time driver for the Peace Corps who could use the extra work. I left the directors office with much appreciation and followed Daniel outside where, through his broken English and my mending Amharic, we were able to settle on the arrangements.
The road brings back many memories
Before long, dense clusters of majestic brown tukuls surrounded by lush green false banana plants, resembling giant mushrooms pushing through tall spring grass, came into view. This thrilling panorama of a typical Gurage village, with tukuls and ensete in abundance, brought back vivid memories of when first I entered this area of the country. I was riding in an old, beat-up, long wheel based Land Rover crammed full of sweaty Gurage bodies, each with a load of merchandise to either sell or consume. That was a grand entrance Ill never forget. That memory evaporated when Daniel banked around a dusty turn, where I saw Gurage women harvesting ensete which reminded me of the morning, noon and night meals of qocho. Seeing stacks of scraped ensete stalk waiting to be fermented made me marvel yet again at how that thick, dry cardboard-tasting bread could sustain life . . . and how it had sustained mine. Were the Gurage still relying on qocho for their daily survival? Or were they now cultivating tef, the indigenous and preferred grain of other parts of Ethiopia, used to make a soft pancake type bread, called injera, that accompanied wet dishes? I recalled introducing tef to the Gurage farmers by setting up trial demonstration plots scattered amongst four villages around Gura. The effort was so successful that an additional 40 farmers rushed to join the government sponsored fertilizer and seed subsidy program. And, thinking of seeds, did the Gurage continue to grow beets and carrots? These were the only two vegetables out of twenty in my eight-week old, flourishing garden that eventually grew back after being crushed by baseball-sized hail stones.
As we continued down the road a small rectangular, koro-koro house, or tin-roofed house, appeared which brought to mind sharing such a house with Abagaaz and Buzu Nesh and their children as well as some friends and relatives. For many months, there were at least 14 of us sleeping in that cozy home. I wondered if it would still be there.
Near the halfway point to Endiber, we approached a thriving market town and observed hundreds of Gurage bartering for goods. Seeing our car, many stopped and gathered to watch us carefully drive across a shallow steady stream of water that temporarily barred our way. Their curious, quiet stare brought back poignant memories of my last day in the village when hundreds of Gurage unexpectedly came from all around to bid me a solemn farewell. I had just said my final goodbyes to Abagaaz, and other chiefs from Gura, and walked outside my tukul to leave when, there they were: hundreds of Gurage men, women and children standing shoulder to shoulder . . . looking at me . . . motionless . . . in an eerie hushed silence. I stood transfixed by their scrutinizing stare, feeling like I was attending my own funeral. Slowly, carefully, I surveyed the crowd, individually acknowledging each and everyone . . .remembering the times together . . . nodding farewell . . . turning to Abagaaz . . . hugging him . . . saying that I didnt want to go, but that I couldnt stay. And when I eventually left that day, it felt as though I had abandoned them.
Crossing that stream was like being reborn in the River Jordan. I told Daniel we had to drive past the turnoff to Gofrer and go straight to Endiber to buy a 50 kilo sack of tef for the village. He agreed it was a good idea and continued over the hard packed gravel road past an increasing number of tukuls until we came upon a sprawling town of stick and mud buildings. It was Endiber and I was quietly ecstatic! At first, it looked much the same as it did before: the uneven dirt road, the tin roof shops, the young men loitering around. But it was bigger now with more shops, some made of stone, built far along the main road, and incredibly, there was one single electric line that connected this outpost to the rest of the world!
We parked the Corolla and found the mill house where I asked for a large sack of tef to be ground into flour. The milling would take an hour so I led Daniel around the town where Abagaaz and I used to roam. We walked down a side street lined with hastily constructed stick shops where I was surprised to find "new" merchandise such as soft drinks, clothes, shoes, and toilet paper! More progress was witnessed when I spotted a large black and white sign with the word "Hotel" painted on it in English and Amharic. Hotel! I couldnt believe it! I followed the hotel arrows until we came upon a recently built single story structure that housed not only eight individual rooms but a restaurant and bar as well! And it was nice! So nice that I reserved two rooms for the night and felt very much relieved that we wouldnt have to drive all the way back to Addis Ababa that day, should the worse case scenario present itself.
We continued our tour of Endiber by finding a different route back to the mill. The tef was ready, we secured it in the trunk and eased the car past a crowd of onlookers onto the main road and turned back towards Gofrer. Ten minutes later, we found the cutoff and veered south towards my village now less then five miles away. The cutoff led us onto a narrow beaten path filled with large, jagged boulders protruding through the course road surface. Smaller rocks rattled the undercarriage of the car as Daniel negotiated the uneven terrain while I, excited at being so close to my village, began scouring the countryside looking for recognizable landmarks. We maintained our progress past continuous clusters of tukuls half hidden by the tall, thick false-banana plants. I strained my eyes searching for Gofrer, or how it used to be, but now with tukuls almost everywhere, the villages seemed to run together. It was obvious the population had grown and because of it, I couldnt get my bearings and questioned if we were on the right track? Suddenly, off to the northwest appeared the silhouetted stone structures of the old catholic mission, Meganassie, formerly an infant leprosarium (and a good place to get a square meal), and I knew we had to be close.
"Im looking for Gofrer and the home of Abagaaz Borga." I said.
"It is there!" he said pointing to a long tall cypress hedge about 200 yards behind us. "Inside the gate!"
That was a shock! The area had grown so much that I was already in my Peace Corps village and didnt even know it! I thanked him and as we backed up he asked me who was calling?
"Ato Mikhail!" I shouted.
Aahh!" His eyes lit up. "I am Aberre!"
I focussed my eyes upon this black bearded, somewhat emaciated face. Yes, it was Aberre! Aberre! one of the children who played with Sahle and attended my weekly agriculture class.
Daniel had the car running in reverse so I waved for Aberre to follow. Seconds later, as we stopped in front of a closed, corrugated tin gate, Aberre rushed up, grabbed my hand and stood there with wide eyes and a huge infectious grin, just staring, not saying anything, not sure this was happening. With a nervous laugh I exited the car and greeted him with a hearty hug. Remembering him as a young, healthy boy, it was disconcerting to see him so thin and old looking, but, regardless, it was great to see someone that I knew from the past, and I tried to explain that to him with my limited Amharic. He seemed to sense my meaning and nodded in deferential agreement.
Taking a moment to look around, I was surprised to see that the village had doubled, maybe tripled in size, as now, there were at least a dozen additional tukuls spread out on both sides of the community road. I tried to recall which were the original tukuls belonging to Shikur and Barega when Aberre got my attention by calling out for the gate to be opened. The gate blocked my way from the ground that I had walked upon thousands of times before and would now, after 27 years, walk upon again.
One suspenseful minute later, the gate swung open and I eagerly stepped into a wide compound filled with bright sunshine . . . but there were no people to be seen other than the gawking gatekeeper. Immediately, my eyes turned towards the old koro-koro house where I first lived with Abagaaz and his family. There it stood, closed up, but looking good as the front porch had been painted and a side room added on. My eyes panned left, across a healthy stand of mature ensete growing next to a small patch of struggling coffee, towards a new, partially built tukul that only had the split log wall standing. Then, further off to the left, I saw my tukul. It was standing straight and tall, passing the test of time with majestic dignity. It looked terrific! In fact, it looked almost like it did when I left it? From the distance I couldnt be sure, but the roof actually looked new, as did the wood trim siding attached to the log wall.! Then a glint of sun caught my peering eyes. Squinting, I saw something strange shining near the top of the center pole. I started walking over to investigate, when a lone, short, female figure emerged from the side of the koro-koro house. She walked slowly, deliberately, closer and closer, with her hands held over her gaping mouth from which I could hear the muffled sound of my name being questioned.
"Ato Mikhail?" "Ato Mikhail?" "Ato Mikhail?"
The woman continued approaching, coming quite near, and then I recognized her. I couldnt believe my eyes. It was Agaki! Agaki! The old family maid who cared for all of Abagaazs children, and me! She was here! She was alive!
"Agaki! Ato Mikhail has returned!" I proclaimed triumphantly!
Hearing that, her doubting suspicions fled and she put a bear hug on me for so long and hard that I almost bled.
"Mikhail!" "Mikhail!" "Mikhail!" she cried while squeezing my breath away.
After being helped free from her embrace by Aberre, I stood back in stunned silence and marveled at Agakis presence. It was great to see her standing there! She was definitely thinner than before and showed her many years with greying hair and sagging skin, but her eyes still had that young sparkle and she appeared as strong and fit and vibrant as ever. By anyones recollection, she had to be over 80 years old and was the last person I would have expected to be there welcoming me back. I struggled to convert my English thoughts into Amharic but was distracted by other sleepy-eyed people, awakened by the commotion, who came straggling out of the koro-koro house. I didnt recognize any of them but Agaki seized one tall shy girl who looked no more than 15-years old and introduced her as Tigist, the daughter of Abagaaz and Buzu Nesh.
"Really?" I looked in astonishment at Agaki who was smiling proudly as if Tigist was her own.
Tigist and I exchanged polite salutations then, not knowing how to broach the subject, I simply asked how her parents were?
"They are fine, thank you." She replied in an ordinary manner.
"Really? Uuhh . . . thats good!" I was stunned. Abagaaz and Buzu Nesh were fine?
Mother is helping my older sister, Gize Werk, who had a baby, and Abagaaz is in another village."
The poor girl must have thought that "really" was the only word I knew in Amharic. But my mind was so busy registering the good news and thinking about seeing her parents again that I couldnt say much else. I tried to keep the conversation going, but Agaki grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the sweat-provoking sun towards the koro-koro house. Reeling from what I just heard, I couldnt do much else but follow her onto the porch, through the now-open front door and into the past. Someone flung the shuttered window open which filled the room with diffused light and my spinning mind with wonderful memories of long ago.
Agaki motioned for me to sit upon a large, gray couch that was pushed against the wall and was covered with colorful paper and adorned with religious images of Jesus and Mary. Daniel followed and sat across from me with a satisfied look of approval. We laughed together as we heard Agaki walk off searching for the clay coffeepot muttering "Ato Mikhail came back!" "Ato Mikhail came back!" "Ato Mikhail came back!"
We werent there more then five minutes when a tall, thin man came through the portal shouting my name.
"Mikhail! Mikhail! Mikhail!"
With eyes stretched wide open, both hands against his mouth, he froze in his tracks as if he saw a spirit. The bright sun background inhibited my recognition of him, but I stood and stepped forward anyway.
"Mikhail!" Another cry from the distant past
"Barega!" "Barega!" I screamed!
We jumped to greet each other. He latched his arms around my back and hugged me with all his might while planting multiple kisses on both my flushed cheeks. All I could do was hang on and repeat his name until he finally released me. He stepped back, rubbed his amazed eyes, and said, "Mikhail, you came back?"
"Yes, I came back. Just to see you Barega." Right away starting with a playful tease that didnt pass him by.
"So why didnt you come to my house first?" he said, with a wry smile, knowing that that wasnt village protocol.
I laughed and chided him for being so selfish, always wanting everything. He laughed and hugged me again.
When we finished our reuniting hugs, I introduced Daniel, then placed Barega on the couch next to me where I could see him well. He looked good, and he hadnt changed much. Sure, he was older, showing age through his character-lined face, and he was much too thin for my taste, but, judging from the strength of his hug, he was still in good shape. He did look a little unkempt in need of a shave perhaps, but his mind was razor sharp and he still had that disarming, infectious smile which he displayed when he squeezed my arm and then told Daniel I must be rich because I was so "fat."
Barega saw Agaki getting the coffee ready, but decided the occasion called for something more celebratory. He motioned for one of the children in the room to fetch a tall bottle of areka, the alcoholic brew made from distilled barley. I glanced towards Daniel and raised my eyebrows as a warning. Barega saw that, laughed, and asked if I had drunk any lately.
Before I could respond, someone else walked through the doorway without warning. Through the dim light I could see an unusually short figure silhouetted against the spotlight sun outside.
I recognized the voice at the same time I recognized the face.
"Shikur!" Oh my God, its Shikur!
I stood and caught the forward progress of one of my closest Gurage friends with open arms. We embraced in silent dignity for a long minute then Shikur stepped back, clasped my hands within his, and with swelling eyes, praised God for this day.
"Amen!" I said. "Sit here!"
I motioned Shikur onto the couch, then stared into the gentle eyes of the man who been my right-hand companion for two long years. Seeing his aged frame sitting next to mine brought immense joy to my soul. And Shikur looked great! He too hadnt changed much. He was still quite short with the same solid look about him as before, although he did seem thinner than I remembered him. Through a gristly, gray beard that showcased his soft smile, he admitted to being a little more tired than before and not able to work as much. When asked why, he speculated that it might be from the intermittent fevers, or the accumulation of many years of hard work. But it wasnt that bad, he confided, because he could still tend the livestock and work the ensete. I asked about his wife, whom I once knew well, and was saddened to hear that she had lost the sight of one eye and was having problems with the other. She had born him two more children, both girls, who were home taking care of her now, and he was thankful for that. Shikur asked if I remembered his three young sons, which I did. He beamed proudly while informing me that the oldest had become a science teacher in Addis Ababa and his youngest had become a catholic priest. My joy turned to sorrow when I heard that the boy born in between those two had become ill and died at an early age.
Then Barega broke our spellbound conversation with a barrage of questions regarding my life, my family, my country and my work. I told them as much as I could in the Amharic I had, for this was no time to hold back any secrets. I regaled them with my other foreign travels and they took fun in chiding me for not returning to Ethiopia sooner. As we spoke, more curious neighbors dropped by, some I knew and some I newly met. Nevertheless, I acknowledged them all with a stand-up handshake and a glad-to-be-here-again grin.
Before long, Baregas errand boy returned with a brown bottle full of crystal clear areka and placed it on the table in front of me. Recalling Gurage custom, I pronounced blessings and good fortune on Barega and his family then stood and kissed Baregas forehead to ensure this toast would come true. Barega accepted his bestowal with genuine humility, then filled my shot glass, urging me to drink. I hesitated and took a long, hard look at this liquid-lightning-in-a-bottle that I used to know as the smoothest tasting kerosene this side of the Nile River! Im not a hard liquor kind of guy, but I knew that it was not the time to tell them. So I jumped right back into the Gurage culture by slamming that drink back, and when it burned like cheap gasoline, I cried out with a traditional high-pitched Ethiopian "ululululululululu . . ." cry that brought the house down!
Then, from outside, came another high-pitched voice crying out a long-forgotten Gurage greeting. The familiar sound came closer and closer and through the doorway, stopping only when my eyes met the smiling stare of Haile, Abagaazs oldest son! Haile and I rushed towards each other and engaged in the by-now routine "hug-of-wars" until we convinced ourselves this was really happening! But I still couldnt believe it! Here was another member of my Gurage family alive and well, and stepping out from my African past! Haile looked good, but I was a bit startled to see that he had changed from a young man to one showing many years. His very thin, weathered and gaunt face looked old and tired and his body mass was greatly diminished. Regardless, he retained his straight and tall posture along with his charming smile and it was good to feel his small hand squeeze mine. He sat down on a three-legged wooden stool with an amazed look while Barega poured us both a shot of areka.
Agaki then came forward to serve small cups of boiling hot, lightly salted, buttery black coffee and small straw trays of roasted barley and qocho while Barega, Shikur, Haile and I reminisced about the good old village days when Haile Sellasie was on the throne and the cost of living was much less. Each began telling the assembled audience of onlookers an old story that always ended with a laugh. Shikur remembered my dog Nello, known throughout Gura for climbing down deep burrows and pulling out the dreaded porcupines that tore up the ensete plants. How he was never quilled was a mystery to us all. Barega remembered the time I sucked the blood out of his snake bitten arm and then, while dressing the wound, joked that we should cut it off above the elbow just to be sure! Haile remembered the raucous night a tribal fistfight broke out and I jumped in to help by covering his face with my hand as an areka-drunk man pummeled us both! These stories were told with such ease and camaraderie that before long I felt like I had never left them.