What’s $50…To a Man Walking on His Hands, in Addis Ababa

I awake from ten hours of sleep, sluggish and tired. But start my routine, shower and buna before the power clicks off. Then lockup, walk along Bole to Meskal. Pausing at the massive, tiered semi-circle to watch an impromptu women’s soccer game as men crowd around. These women, they dart after the worn soccer ball. Not at all the wrapped, demure women of the smaller towns or even Addis’ side-streets. They are quick and fierce. A grunt of exertion, a wail of defeat. Sweat dripping from toned, bare arms.  I want to stay and watch. (I want to capture their power on camera.)

DSC_0082But I’m discovered, unsuccessfully trying to hide my ferengi frame in the back, and attention drifts away from the players to the cab ride and trinkets and husbands I most surely need, I smile and slip away. As I smile and walk away, the game resumes.

The sun starts its slow descent and I start my walk home. No matter how often I make this trek, the gray-dead eyes and leather faces of beggars wrapped in muddy white leave me breathless. A woman cries, sistah. When he catches my eye, a child, sitting on the dirty ground flops a limp, leg one-hundred and eighty degrees behind him. My shoulders sag as I plod along, through this enduring gauntlet of pain. Theirs, mostly. Mine, I know, is strictly secondary. One man pushes his hands into my stomach, fingering the hem of my shirt as if it were something holy, as we brush past each other. For a second I think of I would give to, for a moment, feel none of this. See none of this. The pain of conscious thought. Then realize that was my life before. I had that. I lived a life wrapped in carpeted security and fluorescent lighting. I  knew of poverty and struggle, as it existed, in theory.

Here. Now. It is different. Unbearably painful.

I walk home, defeated. Head pounding, picking my way through the rubble-laden sidewalk, hoping from cement chunk to the next. I think of that man. Walking on his hands, here. Would I be able to do that? Would I, with my degrees and accomplishments and work-experience, be so strong?  I would like to think I would be, but I honestly don’t know.

What must it take to get out of bed, knowing you’ll spend every minute painfully crawling across debris and waste with the fingers you’ll use to eat later in the day. Everyday. How calloused they must be. The cracked, leathery pads of my feet, for fingers. Does he wish for more? Did he know another life, or always this? Does he dream of something different? Does the frustration every become too unbearable?

I wish I had given him money. Something to cheer him on, to tell him I see him, I admire his courage (even if I can’t possibly understand what it takes). Why did I not do something to help him, then, when I had the chance? So scared in my helping, I would offend his sensibilities (he wasn’t asking for a handout). But, what is the offense in trying, when it’s sincere? (I know this now, the worst offense is not trying. The worst insult is doing nothing.)

I promise, then, if I ever see him again, I will do whatever I can to help him. Help others like him.

And, in a perfectly timed twist that is too-strange and too-magical for any story except real life, I see him, again. A low silhouette crawling along the the sidewalk. A pale-yellow plastic sandal on one hand to protect it. Two stubs of legs, curled up as he swings his weight and hobbles forward.  It’s him. I try to speed up to break pace with the five teens tailing me, calling for money as they walk on a pair of young, healthy legs. Then shew them off and reach secretively into my bag for 900 birr. $50 US. It’s all I have on me. But with estimates of average annual income in Ethiopia of around $300 US, it might as well be $7,000 (or 20% of the US average annual income)

When I look up, he’s no where in sight. Dude can walk!

So I break into a run. This is my chance to, at least, make this right. Even if it means I’m running down the Addis Ababa sidewalk in search of a man who walks on his hands, heart-pounding with nervous excitement, as children and adults eye me curiously.

And then I see him. Sitting outside my favorite coffee shop, Kaldi’s. Spidery shadow of a man. I tower above him.

Tenastali, I bow my head with the respectful greeting. Then reach out my hand and grip his and smile.  Gray-green eyes water. I place a roll of tightly wrapped green birr within it.

He whispers words I don’t understand, then he whispers: O dishallo. 

Hands to my heart, I understand. I whisper, O dishallo. (I love you.)

I feel weightless as I walk home. Free to do as I please. With my money, my travels, my life.

Getting Blessed (and Saved From a Beating) at Meskel

Already wedged between crowds of men, barely able to breath, I can’t imagine the promised fight after the massive burning cross falls. When the muscled army guards, in sand-green camo and guns on their shoulders, come racing down the line. With surprising vengeance, they whip back the line of men in front of me, away from the holy circle, where the priests stand.

As the men before me flinch, they stumble and then fall towards me. Like a human domino, I’m swept up off my feet, and right out of my flip flops (my only shoes!) carried on a sea of people. Barefoot on a day of red-hot falling crosses is not possible. I need my shoes!

The guard comes down the line again, soundly whipping the men before me. But I need my shoes (my only shoes!)! I figure I’ve seen worse superman-ing over handlebars onto slabs of rock while mountain biking and lunge my body forward.

Across the squirming pile of people. Fingers loop around their leather, just as I look up to see the dark arm of the gun-toting guard flying angrily down towards my face and back. I flinch and wait for the impact. (A quick breath, now you’ll know how it feels to be beaten.)

Instead I feel my hand clasped within the massiveness of a much stronger hand. And I feel my entire five foot ten inch fame catapult from the crowd, upright, and onto my feet. The guard puts an arm on each of my shoulders. Waiting to be chastised, he stares into my eyes, “You are ok?”

“Yes. Yes, thankyou.” I see the crowd of men waving at me, giving me the thumbs up and smiling, as they continue waiting with the masses, behind the thin rope. “Amasagnalo, guardenia!” (Thank you, friend!)

His massive face breaks into a grin. “Have fun.” Then he returns to his post, pushing people back.

I stand in the empty space between the raging bonfire and the masses of people. I feel strange. Lost. Open. And then a shout, like nothing else rises from the crowd. The cross is falling. It’s a free for all. As smoke clouds the air, men and boys pull at burning charcoal, with wet rags, with bare hands. They drag 10 foot sections of burning wood through the thick crowds.

A young teen grabs my hand. He tells me, “It is very dangerous for you, you must listen to me.” And then he runs me through the crowd. Dodging burning timbers being waved and dropped, and fought over by frantic people. I gasp, and clench the hand of my little tour-guide. And we’re off again. Him, pushing me away from danger, as I pull his hand to dive back in. We dodge steaming wood, and people dragging them, yelling, dropping. Smoke is thick, like a war zone.

He tells me to pick up a piece of charcoal.

I hesitate. What will happen? Will I burn myself? But decide to trust him. I grab it. It’s reassuringly warm in my palm.

He takes it and smudges a cross on my forehead, then walks me to a group huddling around a young priest with a noble profile, deftly waving an ornate silver cross as he whispers blessings. The priest is crowded with admirers, but my tour guide pushes me forward. “Take your photo!” He tells me. So shyly pull the camera around, just as the priest stops and stares into my lens.

I feel embarrassed — how to let him know how meaningful this moment is. I lower the camera and bow my head with respect. I whisper: Tenastlni.

And when I lift my head, he’s staring curiously at my forehead. And I remember, the smudged charcoal cross. He nods at my tour-guide, at me, then cracks a smile, and lifts his silver cross as he blesses me, too.

It is my third blessing, from an Ethiopian priest, in so many weeks.

The Finding of the True Cross (Or the Story of Meskel)

In the middle of it all stands the largest cross yet. Like a giant telephone pole, multiple stories high. Roving bands of singing boys and men collide and clash, then circle around the cross. A massive mosh pit, punctuated by the sticks (whole and charcoal), swirls.


At its edges stand groups of holymen, priests draped in all white, shaded by rich, velvet-red and gold-flecked umbrellas. A gurgled microphoned chant rises above it all.

It is absolute chaos. Yet absolute calm. Everywhere, beauty.

I grow antsy, feeling cut off from the action. And sling my camera around my shoulders and stuff some money in my pocket. Then venture back down to the ground. Weaving my way to a far corner, higher on a hill to watch, throwing my small birr onto the tarps of various religious groups.

I stand close to various families, pretending to “belong”. But I’m the only ferengi in sight, and I hear the whispers. Then I turn, over my shoulder to no one, or maybe the closest person, I sing “Meskel betam conjo!” to everyone’s delight and choruses of surprised “Guebez!”

“Yes? You speak Amharic? This is your first Meskel?”

They tell me the story of Meskel, dating back to the 4th century. It is the finding of the true cross, and the word Meskel means “cross”. Queen Helena was told in a dream to build a massive bonfire and the smoke of that fire would lead her in the direction of the true cross.

I ask them the word for smoke (tiss), for bonfire (demera), and for holy, as the 40 foot cross (Meskel. “Oh, right! Meskel! Guebez!) begins to burn as blankets of thick, gray-green smoke erupt from the base, to a thundering roar as the circle around the cross, the buildings, the streets clogged with people erupt with cheers.