School Visits, Notebooks, and a Life’s Work

We walk back to the horses and gallop, wildly, over another set of green-gold hills to the new school Martina will begin working with.

The familiar two small blue and white buildings in a valley surrounded by mountains and a sea of silver, low clouds. The musical sonnet of children playing, which stops abruptly when they see the four horses and riders walking down the road. Then I try to give my best impression of a person hopping down from a horse, but know my soreness probably gives it away that I’m not.

Fortunately the children are so excited to see Martina, even my camera snaps hardly interrupt them.

She sweetly delivers the stacks of notebooks with an animated speech that leaves the kids laughing and smiling, as she teases and admonishes them to study hard.

She lights up in front of these kids like nothing I’ve ever seen. Theatrical and funny, yet sincere and kind. She gives each one a little hand shake or hug–in return each child shines with light and adoration. Only glimpse into the relationship she’s built over these past years, the little lives she’s impacted, this sweet little talk is enough to make my eyes water. I feel a swirl of pride and good fortune to be this woman’s friend, and humbled beyond belief with the beauty of the work she’s doing here…

Turning 32 in Ethiopia

I take the next day off work and rest. I cancel my trip south to coffee country. I slowly re-gain my strength. Then suddenly I only have one day in Ethiopia left.

It’s my birthday. October 6th. It’s the fourth year I’ve managed to be out of the country for my birthday. I take my last lukewarm shower before the power goes out, I pick up the room, then hang out the balcony to watch the road wake up. Whisper a “happy 32nd birthday!” I made it. I finally made it to Africa. All on my own. And while it’s had its rocky moments, I couldn’t be happier.

I decide to eat at the Dreamliner and see if I can catch the Brits, mostly because showing my face at the Hilton feels a little embarrassing right now.

And I’m choking on waves of ink-black exhaust. It never seemed so bad until I got back from Gondar, with its crisp-clean mountain air, and now my eyes constantly water as cabs belch black smoke and I have no choice but to drink it in.  I stop in the middle, waiting calmly in line with the locals, as speeding cars (one blaring “we all need somebody to lean on”) come within inches of either side and massive open air jeeps that cart blue-uniformed military men with guns.

I pick my way through tumultuous (in name and reality) Congo road, past piles and piles of coal wrapped in ropes, tattered tarps and blocks of rusted corrugated tin-walls. The dust in the warm morning air, the faltering trill of Amharic, man chants guttural over a microphone, a white wrapped swirl, as I try not to think how this is going to end. Try not to be too hard on myself.

I head upstairs for breakfast and buna, but the buffet is over. It ended 15 minutes ago. When I wave off the inconvenience with a chigreyellum the wait staff stop.

Then the head waiter says he’ll see what he can do.

Next thing I know I’m being guided through my own private breakfast, cooks standing by to serve me whatever I’d desire as I recite  unkalal (eggs), leitat (milk), dabo (bread), firfir (leftover injeera mixed with redhot berbere spice), chemaki (juice)…as each word takes my, already nostalgic, mind back to the moment in the last month when I first learned those sounds: sitting in Tsbuy’s quiet dining room, holding hands and laughing in that cold kitchen, ducking into the tiny tienda to sit with the woman, the tiny store in Gondar where the sisters and their elderly father served me bananas one-at-a-time so I could practice, working from the coffee shop…

I sit down to breakfast after answering the requisite questions about why I’m here. Then peace. I flip open my laptop to start working. Then 10 minutes later she’s standing in front of me, Excuse me (thick with some European accent).

She’s 50 or 60. Bright red lipstick and dark hair. She’s tense or nervous, she’s wondering if I have a map. She has no idea where she is. Do I know this area.

I don’t have a map, but try to draw her what I know on a napkin. (I’m surprised how much I can connect of this maze of streets.)

She is trying to think of something to do, she has no idea what. Her friends just left her. Can you believe it? Left me? I’m here now, here, alone.

I take a sip of my coffee, and tell her that I’m sorry for that.

She continues: I have no one. Absolutely no one right now. You cannot possibly understand what it is like to be alone in a big, ugly city like this.

Perhaps some of her sentiment is lost in translation. But I smile and chuckle softly to myself. As I take a sip of my coffee, eye my dying laptop battery, then take a deep breath to listen.

She flew from Switzerland with her friends, a younger, married couple. He’s a photographer, he takes pictures of children and has a big camera, he pays them, the children. She doesn’t like that. (I nod my head, I’m not a fan of it either.) He spends too much time trying to get it just right. She doesn’t like that either. They had a big fight. She woke up this morning, they’d taken the guide book and  left to go exploring…

I keep sipping my coffee. Adding an “oh”, “ok”, “ah” when it seems appropriate.

She then describes in detail the incompetence of the staff, to precise detail (how they’ve made her wait, how they are mean, how…)

Just then the waiter brings me coffee, with much flourish:



Minum Eider.


I shake my head, take a sip. Betam conjo Amasaganalo.

I laugh and wave him off.

She sits, jaw hanging. It is unbelievable. But they are so nice to you.

(I hate the way she says “they”) But I laugh, I have met some of the kindness people here.

But there are evil ones here too. Bad things they will do…

But…bad things exist anywhere in this world. Bad people too. It’s a problem of humanity….I add softly, not Ethiopia. Not Addis Abeba. 

Ah, but it is easy for you! She points accusingly at me, You are young, beautiful and… you are not alone here. You cannot know how I feel. 

Then I can’t hold back my, surprised, laughter.

She asks: Have you been scared?

I’ve had moments, but nothing came of it. More often I’ve been overwhelmed with the kindness and character of the people around me. I know this is a rough start, and not what you’d hoped, but you will have an amazing time here. I am sure of this. I smile reassuringly.

I can see her slowly relaxing, shoulders less hunched, mouth less frowned.
It’s time to get back to work, so I begin to make my move when she looks me in the eye and tells me, I am very pleased we have met and I wish you well on this trip and your life. You are an exceptional woman.

I shake my head. But she insists. No, do accept this. If nothing more you have made my life better for this. I do not know how to thank you for this morning. It is amazing what you have done. I believe you have helped others, along the way, without even knowing of it. 

It’s an unusual sentence, perhaps it’s her accented English that makes it peculiar. But it gives me little chills. As if knowing I was feeling exceptionally useless in the past few days, and needed to hear some encouragement today, the universe delivers, to Addis Abeba, with love.

I stand up and give her a warm hug: I’m so sorry this has been hard, and I’m so glad we talked. I hope you have a wonderful day, today.