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.)
But 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.