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.
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.