Gondar Hospital

The moment I step outside the hotel, there is a choir of children’s voices. Asking me to buy a packet of gum or tissue or merely pointing out “ferangi, ferangi!” (To which I sometimes respond in alarm, “where!? where?!”).

I shake my head. Aznalo, mon ami, aznalo.

One astute child points out, Hey! All you say is aznalo. 

I look at him. Shrug my shoulders, aznalo.

And then I’m hopping in the nearest tuk tuk to the hospital, kicking myself for touring castles when I could have had a guided tour. Now I’m alone, wandering the compound of low-lying buildings. Stepping aside as an emaciated woman is wheeled through rutted walkways, on a bed, a staff member holds an IV bag of fluid, a family member shades her body from the blinding afternoon sun with an umbrella as they walk. Suited residents and with crisp white coats walk with purpose from one building to the next. I skirt groups of people, families crouching under any pool of shade the buildings or few massive trees can offer, boney faces wrapped in gauzy white netalah. Old and very young. They have traveled from the countryside, bringing their sick one for treatment, then spending their days literally camped outside, steps from the hospital sick wards. Unable or unwilling to move to a hotel in the middle of town.

I feel a hundred eyes on me. Yet no one talks to me. Feeling every bit the painful outsider, the gawking tourist, I stick out like nothing else. And it’s impossible to lift my camera to shoot photos, when I have not context, no possible understanding of the grim, blank look that shrouds the faces here, I have no way to know the host of stories here. I’m kicking myself for not finding some way, in my Meskal-and-40-hour-work schedule to have meet up with Anteneh.

Further down the complex, construction on a new building is taking place. Sweating men labor over rusted saws, scraping steadily away at cutting through 2″ wire cables while others chip at massive rocks with sledgehammers. Frail women with stick-thin arms haul rocks, one by one, on improvised gurneys of canvas and tree limbs. There are no power tools. Only human powered.

A man follows me. Then poses with cross and points to my camera. He wants a picture. I take it and show him. He smiles, bows. Blesses me with the cross. Leaves. What strikes me is that he never asks for money. It’s as if I’ve stepped into a whole different world, within Ethiopia. The hospital.

Then a kind face. Asnake wears the white lab coat of a resident, walking from pediatrics to a laboratory. He would be happy to show me around.

At first I refuse, nervous to impose on a stranger. Then realize I’m getting nowhere on my own. I make my way to the lab and the tour begins. Around the hospital, talking to people, practicing Amharic, posing for photos. At Asnake’s insistence, I agree to a cup of coffee at the hospital cafe. I share how I got to Ethiopia, Asnake tells me how he followed his father’s footsteps to medicine, the hospital.


Avocado Milkshakes and Arriving in Gondar

Inside the tiny Gondar airport, the scene repeats.

Talk to the men hovering around baggage claim to find a hotel, then find a taxi.

I throw out the name of one I’d researched so I’d at least have a starting point: The Quara. A fast talking man springs forward, handing my bag to another man, while showering me with compliments as he steers me in the direction of a half-loaded van. He makes sure I sit behind the driver’s seat, as he and his friends test my Amharic.

The road winds around, through tiny villages of mud houses and muddier roads, as we pass groups of buzzing blue tuk-tuks and horses pulling flat-beaded carts, wobbling on massive wagon style wheels. Men stare, children wave and call. I’m praying the van will go slower, so I can drink it all in. Above it all, at the top of the hills, rise a massive castle wall. Ancient and beautiful.

At Quara, my guardian pushes his laminated card into my hand. I am to call him at noon tomorrow, after I’ve visited with my friends in Gondar, no matter what, and he will make touring arrangements for my stay. (I have zero intention of calling him, but I’ve found it easier to agree than disagree.) I smile blandly, relieved he turns to leave before hearing my room number.

In a starched, over-sized green and gold-braided uniform, the attendee walks me up a maze of open-air stairs to show me to my room, a bed, a hot shower, a TV, and a tiny balcony that looks into the town center.

I am dying for rest, but head out for food. Before I take two steps, two men strike up a conversation. They heard I’d just arrived alone today, on the afternoon, from Addis. They have many questions. I’m so stunned they know so much about me already, I fumble for words, fail, then opt to duck into the nearest cafe, “Good Pastry” (everyone agrees: not great, but definitely good).

She’s sitting, writing postcards back to friends in Britain. When our eyes meet, two women, going it alone, it’s like old friends–though we’re complete strangers.

“Order first!” She laughs and tells me, then, “Get a spriss, an avocado milkshake, and one of these.” She holds up a piece of white cake. When I sit down, we trade stories. When I tell her how I ended up in Gondar (a non-profit photography project to support HIV testing in November, cut short by my inability to work efficiently, so I’m heading back early…I try to act matter-of-fact) I find out she’s a medical student, finishing up three months of an exchange in the local hospital. Our conversation is interrupted three times, by men and boys wishing to talk to her, who she tells me have followed her since the day she arrived. She rolls her eyes and waves them off. “It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”

“I thought Addis was intense, but at least you can lose people in a crowd!” We laugh. It feels good to be understood.  As promised, the avocado milkshake (with a squeeze of tart lime juice on top) is amazing.

She’s Two, Maybe Three, with Tiny Tendril Fingers

She’s two, maybe three. Lavender pajamas, streaked with dirt. Tiny tendril fingers cupped for money. Eyes pleading. And it feels like a locomotive is smashing a massive cavern through my beating heart.

But I’ve faced down hoards of similar sad children, soldiering on with my day (only to cry in the private space of my own room) per the unanimous instructions of my two hefty guidebooks, and three web sites. Your money will never go to the child, instead it’s handed over to some cruel child-ringleader, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Instead contribute to the charities that have records of helping. (And another day ends with me wiping tears from my eyes as I click ‘submit donation’.)

So I walk on, calculating the cost of today’s denial, the price I’ll pay to a children’s charity so that I can keep walking and hope that it could be better. A tired smile to the UN guards, who shake their heads at the crazy ferengi walking uphill again. The reaction is the same at the Hilton when they seem me walking, again, laughing when I confirm it is on purpose. I like to walk, I want to see Addis…and move my legs.  (Speeding past on tired legs as their gates are backed up with white people in impatient white Range-Rovers.) In a country of runners, they seem to understand and call the lead, a massive man a foot taller and wider than me, calls me “gwardenia” as he clasps me into a firm hug. It means “friend” but it sounds like “gardenia” (the sweet smelling white flower blooming on my kitchen table right about now, back home… ) and I like the idea of calling someone a flower.

I pick hungrily at another delicious samosa, a caramel-laced macchiato and a massive report that will help someone sell more of something by morning. My hearts not in it so I watch the NGO’ers sitting the corner, discussing the finer aspects of their fancy rooms (With a $250 USD price tag, I try to imagine 5 times more than my own fancy room…and try not to get mad or wonder too much what their constituents would think if they knew they’re blowing their tiny NGO budgets on such things.

They’re contributing much more good in the world than I am at this very moment—once they’re done boasting they’ll strategize ways to feed the world or educate droves of young girls who would otherwise be forced into young marriages that end in young pregnancy, fistula, abandonment in huts where they rot in their own feces —No, these are good people here to save the poor. Why begrudge them an upscale room and lavish pool. But when I walk the streets to the Hilton, and compare my two worlds, it feels like a waste…200 times over…. Well, that, times four of them times a conservative 5 days times an equally conservative 20 charities per month, time 12 months…Bloody hell! Someone stop them!!) When they start talking about the days of touring, I get up to leave. I stuff my laptop in a ratty gray backpack and flip flopping out.

In the smoky dusk, I make out a lumpy lavender blanket on the cement. No huddling in a business corner or dark alley. Just there, on the sidewalk. An adult female body and a much smaller one. Maybe two or three years old. So that is her life. This is her bed. I’ve walked across her living room, earlier this afternoon, on my way to work….I’m nervous to pull out money in the dark…but I slip fifty birr under the folds of the blanket and hope to god no one else sees it to take it.

I feel someone is watching me, still. A car belches smoke as it rattles by me and I look back. The UN guard, from his post thirty paces up the hill, is in fact watching me and salutes.

I like to think he continues watching the girl and her mother, curled up on concrete, long after I leave.