Some years later...2007
The cry is a familiar one to me. I’ve never been the type to stand out in a crowd but since I stepped off the plane in Addis International Airport seven months ago I have been visible wherever I go. The Ethiopians seem to separate the world into four distinct categories: Habesha (Ethiopians), Africans (from whom they separate themselves through a proud history), Chinese (that seems to be everyone with dark hair and pale skin) and Ferenchis (everyone else). I belong to the latter of these categories and with my white skin and pale brown hair seem to emanate flashing dollar signs as I walk.
I make my way as quickly as I can through the late-afternoon crowds in Mexico square. It is five o’clock, the air thick and leaden with the promise of rain, but the streets and pavements are still crammed with people buying and selling. It is a short distance from the place where my minibus stops to where I am meeting a friend and I must walk quickly or risk being waylaid.
The man selling flip-flops from an arrangement of plastic sacks on the pavement has sprung up as he sees me approach and now attempts to show me his stock. Hundreds of pairs of many-coloured flip-flops and other plastic shoes are laid neatly on the ground where they compete for the attention of the not so discerning buyer with the sandals, trainers and underwear sold by the woman five metres up the street and, around the corner, the rich selection of handbags and T-shirts with slogans that you could never have believed existed. I am almost tempted by the pair of what look like pink rubber moulds of a pair of trainers (complete with Nike tick) that sit, smugly melting, in the middle. Think how practical they would be when the rain finally starts, as it has been threatening to for weeks. And I could fulfil a life-long ambition to walk around looking as if I was wearing a pair of neon pink Nike trainers, but not actually doing so. I demur. Despite apparently resembling a walking wallet I am on very limited funds and headed for Mercato, the largest outdoor market in the world, to buy presents for my far away family with this month’s pay.
‘Good Lord,’ I mutter bad-temperedly as I dodge the on-coming traffic heading for Meskal Square in one direction and Sarbet in the other, ‘If I yelled out “Foreigner, foreigner” in the middle of the street in Europe I don’t know what people would think of me!’ This time I am hailed by two desperately thin but cheeky looking kids running barefoot towards me through the dust and crowds. I turn my head away and, eyes fixed to the ground, hurry on to the petrol station where I am to meet my friend. It is hard to explain what it’s like being begged for money wherever you go, especially if you don’t have very much to give away. I had made a bargain with myself that I would give money to women with children and to disabled people, but it could never be enough. The cynical thought arises, as it so often does when I refuse to give money to somebody that I am simply refusing because I would rather spend the money on myself than help someone who is clearly starving. I push the thought away and, rather ineffectually, attempt to cover my face with my hair and sunglasses. This is pointless of course since it is the hair that will draw attention to me anyway.
I lean on the wall by the Total gas station where I have agreed to meet my friend Eptsam. I have been told she is the best person to go bargain-hunting at Mercato with and since it is my first visit I am rather nervous; I shall stick to her like a limpet, I decide. Leaning my head back a little I scan the sky apprehensively. The clouds bunch together, pressing ominously in and the air around seems oppressive. This time, it is going to rain.
It is as I bring my head down with a sigh and a muttered ‘Perfect’ that I see him. I have heard about him before – hushed hearsay over coffee and French- fries, shakes of the head and ineffectual shrugs of shoulders – but now seeing him my heart still gives a sick little jolt in reaction. He is terribly thin; his open shirt and tattered jeans hang off him and the bones of his chest can be counted like railway tracks. He isn’t old, though it is hard to tell his age exactly, but he staggers like an old man, arms outstretched, feeling his way because he can hardly see. He clutches a wooden cross and as he throws out a blind arm the wood scrapes the stone wall. The growth, whatever it is, how it had got there I can’t tell, stretches across his face completely covering one eye. Where the eye should be is thick stretched skin that seems to pull his whole face to one side. His nose is almost totally gone, a misshapen lump of useless flesh. His heavy breathing flutters the elastic skin around the tiny gash that is left of his mouth and as his jaw moves in time to his continual mumbled prayers the grotesque, suffocating layer of skin stretches and relaxes; his own face a horror mask that he can never remove.
My own mind betrays me as the thought flashes across it, ‘Please don’t let him see me.’ With all the prying, pushy, begging, friendly Habesha in the whole of Mexico Square I wish in that moment that this one will not see me, the only ferench.
He weaves towards me, head twisted sideways painfully. The eye he fixes on me is shot through with red, the face bunches and twists once more and the gash stretches as he smiles. ‘Ferench.’ I nod and smile pulling the corners of my mouth up as best I can. Now that face is so near I cannot look at it. A phrase rears up in my head from Heart of Darkness. I loathe that book.
‘Salamnesh.’ Peace be with you and the first drop of rain lands on my cheek.
My answer is a croaked whisper from a dry throat. ‘Salamno.’ And with you.
‘Welcome in Ethiopia.’
‘ameseghinallehu.’ Thank you. Curt British nod as if he’s offering me tea.
‘Amarigna yechelalu?’ Do you speak Amharic?
‘Yellem.’ No. Stammered Amharic. Shake of the head. Rueful smile.
‘Exyehestelign.’ God bless you.
‘Exyehestelign.’ I whisper the word. It’s almost a question. How can he wish me well when I stand here in a parallel universe grumbling about the rain and mud on my old trainers? He will sleep in the mud and he has no trainers. The rain drops spatter his shoulders, turning his T-shirt from faded to new-washed.
I clumsily fumble in my shoulder-bag and reaching for his hand press a few birr into it. I draw my hand away quickly, embarrassed, hating myself. The hand that has touched him twitches as if I shall wipe my hand on my skirt. Wipe away the germs of poverty and disfigurement and bad luck that he may have transferred to me. ‘Exyehestelign.’ And it’s over, he stumbles away. I am blessed. And each new drop of rain brings a new blessing like a starved garden bursting into life.