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.

Standing in an Ethiopian Kitchen, Holding Hands

Day four in Ethiopia begins. I pad down the four flights of now-familiar stairs, past the table already set for my breakfast, and softly crack open the kitchen door.

Floor to ceiling pale blue tiles, cold cement floor, silver-gray dim morning light, the crisp air that smells of eucalyptus, smoke, and chili pepper. Long red and flowered robes, dark head wrapped in the familiar bright green swatch of fabric, is bent over a bucket of dough. Injeera for later.

Duena desh, I greet her.

She turns from her cooking in a swirl of color and smiles. She runs to me and shyly clasps my hands in hers and replies in the traditional way: Exihaber e a mescal. (It’s the one-phrase-fits-all words to utter in response to any initial greeting or inquiry, and means “ I am well, thanks to God”) Then she asks me: Duena desh?

Ex…exihaber e a (my hands raise to the sky, palms up) meskel! She’s laughing so I continue with my faulty Amharic morning routine, that’s slowly growing easier. Strange familiarity in what’s otherwise a new world. Abakesh, buna sitchen? (Coffee please?)

Ashee! Chigreyellum. (Yes, no problem!)

Amasaganalo.(thank you) We both giggle with the routine – without these words, we’d have no way to communicate as she speaks no English.

I hold up a finger, I have a surprise: and I count all the way to 20 in Amharic. Hiya!

Guebez! Guebez nich!

I take it that means good. We laugh and she claps our hands to her heart. I don’t understand the words that tumble from her mouth next. None of the words sound like anything to do with our little breakfast routine. But she’s smiling wide and says, Conjo. Betam conjo.

She points to me with serious eyes. I bite my lip. Conjo? Conjo…I say it softly, trying to figure out what it could be through process of elimination (pointing to the buna, the leitat, the firfir, the dabo…but conjo?)

Conjo? This time she’s pointing to me as a blur of words pour from her mouth. I shake my head, in the cold gray morning it doesn’t understand. She points to me to wait, then hurries off and I count the slow minutes, nervous to move and displease my wonderful caretaker. Oh no, what have I done. I didn’t mean to create more work.

But she returns, triumphant. Eight year old Nati peeks around the corner. He listens to her. Then in perfect English with serious eyes he tells me, “She is saying your words are beautiful, very beautiful.” Conjo, betam conjo. She says more and waves encouragement to our little translator, “You are very smart to learn so much in so little time.” A pause. She says, “Oh dishalu

Nati looks at me matter of factly, “and she says, I love you”

I look back and forth, from my little translator to her earnest eyes, starting to fill with water. “She says you are very beautiful and she is happy you are here. She thinks of you like her friend, her sister…” I feel my eyes start to blur with water. Nati runs in the direction of the TV, in the warm living room.

In cold, dim kitchen light, she firmly holds my hands to her heart. I think of the many times I’ve tried so hard just to be good enough to be loved by another. And I stand here, loved for who I am right now (and it’s not a pretty picture: stressed-out, heart-broken, Amharic-struggling, work-a-holic). I am loved for having done nothing special at all. I am humbled, encouraged, smiling. Having reached the end of words we both share, we stand there for a minute. I can’t say more. Even if I wanted to, it wouldn’t be understood. So we just stand there. Speechless. Smilng friends. Hand in hand. Eyes watering.


It’s the start of another day. Another day in Ethiopia. Nothing has been going right, at least — it’s not what I thought it would be. But this moment, this morning, this was more amazing than anything I could have imagined.