Dust in the Wind


"You want a fridge?" Girmay asked next - of course I wanted a fridge. However, I was starting to get worried about the Ethiopian money I got - I feared I needed to change, and I told him.

"How much do you need?"

"How much does a fridge cost?"

He told me his estimation, and I definitely needed to change.

"How much do you want to change?" I told him I was thinking of a thousand euros and again he whistled softly. "Give me the euros and I will change it for you." I told him I could go to a bank, but he shook his head. "I know a much better place, but you have to stay here - it's no place for Ferengies there." So I ordered a glass of sparkling water, and waited for Girmay.

He came back with a satisfied smile on his face. "I got a good price for you!"

I smiled back "Special price, just for you my friend!" but he remained serious. "Yes, a very good price!" and he handed me the money, which was indeed more than I would have gotten at the bank, according to the latest transfer-rates...

We walked to another area, where electronics were sold. Wishfully, Girmay stared through the windows of a television shop, but eventually he moved on, skipping several places where they sold freezers and fridges, to finally enter a shabby place in the middle of the street. "Do you want a fridge with freezer combined?" he asked, and, when I confirmed, he asked me for the size of each. Then he started rapidly talking with, probably, the sales person. Both were passionate, but eventually, Girmay took me by the arm. "Let's get out of here - they are thieves..."

Also the next shop we entered, was not to Girmay's liking, and neither was the following. In the end, he told me to have another drink, so he could negotiate a fair price for me. He took some of my money with him, and from the terrace I saw him entering and leaving one shop after the other.

Finally, he came back to me, clearly agitated. "They are all thieves here!" he fumed, and after he told me how much they asked, I couldn't hold back my laughing. I told him I thought it sounded like a fair price to me, but he shook his head. "Thieves!"

However, I wasn't willing to miss out on the fridge, so eventually I persuaded Girmay to buy one. Since he had already inventoried, it was ok for me to follow him and have a look for myself. We went back to the first shop, I selected a fridge of my liking, and this time I could arrange the payment in the shop - no more coffee. The fridge would be delivered at the end of the day.

This had taken the whole morning, so I asked if I could invite Girmay for lunch. He knew the perfect place, and dragged me through several narrow alleys until we came at a house, indistinguishable from the others. However, Girmay opened the door and led me to a small courtyard, where a radio was blearing and several tables were arranged at various places, some hidden in plastic tents, other in the open.

Girmay shook hands with the waiters, and then took me to a tap, to wash our hands. He passed me the blue, grainy soap bar, and finally shook his hands dry, after which he took place inside one of the tents. I followed him.

Girmay passed me the menu, but he was joking - I couldn't decipher the writing, and even if I could, it probably wouldn't tell me anything, so I asked Girmay what he would take, and told him to order the same for me. He looked at me and asked me if I had injera before. I shook my head - of course I had heard of it, and I had seen people eating it, but so far, I hadn't tasted any of it myself. Girmay shook his head at so much ignorance. He clapped his hands, and ordered food from the fast-running waiter, together with two cokes.

As usual, the waiter opened the two bottles at the table, and Girmay waved the glasses aside. "In Ethiopia, we drink from the bottle - directly from the spring!" He clanged the neck of his bottle against mine. "Letehnachin!"

"Cheers?" Girmay nodded. "Letehnachin!" I replied.

The food came at an enormous metal plate - a grayish pancake with roasted meat on top, lots of bones - which was placed in the center of our table. No cutlery, but I had already noticed that the Ethiopians were very skillful at eating with one hand.

"Bon apetit!" Girmay said. "Behla!"

Hesitantly, I looked at the food. "Could you show me how it's done?" I asked, making Girmay laugh out loud.

"You really only eat with knife and fork, don't you?"

"Well," I replied, "or sometimes with a spoon..."

Girmay tore off a piece of the pancake, draped it over the meat, and then used all five fingers of his right hand to bring the pancake with meat to his mouth. "It's very easy!"

I also torn off a piece, and tried to follow his movements, but somehow, it wasn't as easy as it looked... First of all, it took me great difficulties to grab some of the meat inside the pancake, and then, most of it fell down on the way to my mouth. I did manage to stuff some of it in my mouth though, and I was not well prepared to the slightly acidic taste of the injera. I wondered if I would ever get a taste of this, and that was a serious issue, as it is the main food in Ethiopia - I had read that almost all meals go with injera... Maybe they weren't all the same... The meat was nice, sheep I guessed, but strongly attached to the bones. It also contained several of those pieces on which you can chew for hours, without getting anywhere - I did have to swallow some very large lumps...

Girmay enjoyed himself watching me messing around, but he did give me some more useful advise, and I guessed he ate slowly, giving me ample time to take up some food. Probably it was the injera, though, which really stuffed me - it didn't take much for me to have enough. And despite Girmay's encouragements, telling his five-year old child could easily finish a whole injera by himself, I had to stop long before I finished half of the plate. Eventually Girmay ate the rest.

Paying the bill became quite a hassle. I wanted to pay to thank Girmay for all the help he had given me, but he insisted he should pay - I had enough to pay for this day. As usual, he won, in the end... but not after I promised him I would pay next time.

Girmay led me once more through the labyrinth of streets and alleys, and I realized that would also be a problem - how would I ever get back to my own house here? There was nothing which told me I had been there before. Girmay told me the name of the square where the minibuses stopped, and another name, which didn't tell me anything but apparently something nearby my house. He also wrote both names down on a paper - using our alphabet and the Ethiopian writing - so people could read it and direct me the way.

When we finally arrived at the gate of my new home, Girmay used a stone to draw a mark on the wall - not very clear, but sufficient for me. Then he knocked on the iron gate-door, and the door was opened by a girl at the age of ten, twelve years old. "Will I get my own key for this door?" I asked; I didn't want to be dependent on the other inhabitants of this place to enter my own house.

Girmay talked with some people, and finally one came and brought out another key which Girmay passed on to me. "Don't lose this, or you'll have to buy a new lock and many new keys... I have to go now, and you'll have to wait for your matrass and fridge, so I think I will see you in a few days then!"

"Wait!" I called, desperate to delay the moment of being left on my own. "Can you please introduce me to the other people here? Is there something else I should know about this place; some house rules or something like that?"

Girmay smiled emphatically, rubbed my shoulder, and then called something in Amharic. From all houses, people gathered, and after Girmay said something else, they hugged me and said their name. I didn't get any of them - that probably would take time - but at least they knew me now. Not that a white person would go unnoticed here...

One of the women - there were no men around yet - one of the women stepped to Girmay and talked to him. He nodded, and turned my way. "I think you could use someone to keep your house clean, do the shopping and cook for you; Senayit maybe knows someone - should she call her?"

For me? I was pretty sure I could keep this small house clean by myself, and with these prizes I could easily see myself go to restaurants every day. But then, if I could share my welfare, then I should better do it with people who earned it. So I agreed. "How much should she earn?" Girmay named a number that made me smile. "Each week?" Girmay shook his head at such ignorance; each month, of course. I decided to wait for what the housemaid would come up with... And now Girmay really had to leave. He hugged me, and said me good-bye. "You'll be fine!"

And there I was, on my own, in an empty house with nothing but the goods I'd taken in my forty kilos of luggage. Nothing to sit or lay on, nothing to eat, drink, ... I had known this situation could come, but I'd always pushed the thought of it away. Even in the hotel I hadn't felt this lonely. Since there was nothing in the house, and because I couldn't leave because of the deliveries, I decided to sit down on the side of the veranda, in front of my house, and read a book.

I hadn't sat down yet, or one of the neighbors came running my way with a rickety chair. "Thank you. Ameseginalehu." This resulted in some approving murmur from the other neighbors, not hiding their curiosity towards me.

I placed the chair in the shade and started reading, and not much later, life around me continued, I assumed, its normal pattern.

Perhaps half an hour later, someone knocked at the gate, and when the door opened, a small girl was standing there. The neighbors immediately knew what she came for, and called me. "Ferengi!"

I walked to the door, looking, non-understanding, at the child. The girl was clearly nervous, twisting her feet, her fingers playing with the shawl around her head. "You... serategna?"

I looked confused. What did she want from me? She tried again. "You, serategna?... You... cleaning?" Was she the one Girmay had told me about? This was just a child - I don't think she was older than fifteen, probably less...

"Are you the one for cleaning and cooking?" I asked, and she nodded eagerly. "Yes, yes! Me, cleaning. Me, washing. Me, cooking. Me..." she clearly didn't know which word to use.

I thought, and then said "Do you also do the shopping?" and she looked happy to have found the word. "Yes. Me, shopping!"

I motioned her inside, and showed the house. She looked around, appreciative, I think. It was just a child, but apparently she had no other choice than to work - taking care of the house couldn't be too much work, so hopefully she could use the money and extra time to go to school, so I asked her "How much?"

She stood there, clearly thinking hard, trying to find the right words, but nothing came out. When she finally answered me, in Amharic, I looked helplessly to her. "No Amharic." and she became restless. Finally she took a pen out of her pocket, and wrote down something in her hand, and then she showed me a number, even lower than Girmay had told me.

"Every week?" I asked; now she looked non-understandingly to me. "Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday?" I think she understood now, but shook her head. In return, she also said a string of words, probably also the days of the week, but then perhaps four times - hence, one month.

I took the pen and her hand - she giggled when I changed the number into something that had been in between what Girmay had told me, and what I had thought of myself. But when she read it, the girl was shocked, shaking her head and tears came in her eyes. She tried to rub the ink away, but I stopped her. I tabbed my finger in her hand, and then reached for my wallet - I picked out half of the monthly salary and offered it to her.

For a moment, the girl stared at it as if I was offering something filthy. However, then she stretched out both hands to receive the money. She quickly stuffed it in a pocked of her dress, as if afraid that I would claim it back. Then she ran to the women that were watching from a distance at what was going on. The girl excitedly spoke to the women, and I couldn't escape the idea that some gave me some dirty looks. However, that wasn't my concern now.

I called her "Hey girl, could you come for a moment?" and she quickly ran my way. "My name is William. What is your name?"

"My name is Mulunesh. I'm fine, thank you!" she shyly stared at the ground at her feet.

"Mulunesh..." I repeated. At least that name I shouldn't forget...

Then, all of a sudden, the girl, Mulunesh, seemed to get an idea. She quickly grabbed my hand, which apparently shocked herself immensely, as she immediately let it go again. But then she walked towards the gate. "Come, William, shopping!"

I didn't want to leave the place, as I was waiting for the fridge and the matrass, so I told her that. "I have to stay" pointing at the ground. "Someone will bring my bed and my fridge today, and I need to pay!"

"Fridge?" Mulunesh repeated, appreciative, and I nodded. "Fridge... And I need to pay... Birr..."

For a moment, it looked as if she would grab my hand again, but she constrained herself. However, she did motion me to come. "Come. Shopping!"

"Fridge!" I tried once more, but Mulunesh shook her head and pointed to the other women. "No problem."

"Money! Birr!" I repeated, but to no avail. Mulunesh again shook her head, and walked out through the gate. I could do nothing more than following her...

However, when I arrived at the gate, Mulunesh looked punitively to me. She pointed back inside. "Colf"

I didn't understand, but then she repeated "Colf" and acted as if she turned something with her hand. Oh, key... I quickly moved back, placed my book in the house and put the lock on the door. When I returned, I showed the key, and Mulunesh nodded apprehensively.

We walked to the square with the minibusses, and Mulunesh guided me to one of them. A young boy was shouting in the door-opening, probably indicating its destination. Mulunesh said a few words and ushered me inside. She pointed to an empty seat next to a man in a suit, and I sat down. Then, Mulunesh took the tiny little space left next to me and carefully pushed her petite body against mine. The car smelled of sweat and spices. While I thought the minibus was full, five more people entered before the bus started driving. And even then the boy, now hanging out of the window, kept shouting for passengers.

After a few minutes, the boy said something to the passengers, apparently asking for the money. Mulunesh whispered "two birr fivetee." I took my wallet and took out a ten-birr note, which Mulunesh offered to the boy. The boy kept collecting money from the other people inside the bus. I looked around. Besides the man in the suit next to me, there were two old ladies just behind me, wearing traditional white clothes with colorful decorations, holding huge plastic bags full of leaves, next to them a boy in school uniform. Behind them, there was a young woman, holding a little child in her lap, and the large hump on her back told me there was another one. Next to her were two men, in t-shirts, busy with their telephones. In the back, two young ladies in stylish clothes, a boy holding a chicken and a man in a baseball jacket. In front, next to the driver wearing large sunglasses, were two more young men, talking lively to each other. The dashboard of the car was decorated by something that looked like a knitted blanket with frills, and there were pictures of saints on the walls of the bus. The boy pushed my shoulder to get my attention and held his hand to give me the change.

After a long drive - longer than I expected for such a low fare, Mulunesh stood up and indicated me to follow her out of the bus, onto a terribly crowded street. "Merkato", she said. I didn't feel comfortable, with all the money on me, and I told her so. Mulunesh indicated to give her the money, took some out, and tied the rest in a piece of cloth, which she then hung inside her dress. Then she lead me the way through an incredibly densely packed human anthill - I didn't know where to look - dizzy by the thousands and thousands of people, the cacophony of colors, sounds and smells, the noise, ... I closely followed Mulunesh, afraid to lose her and get lost in this madhouse. I felt very bad at ease...

Mulunesh, however, knew her way around, turned left, turned right, and eventually we arrived in an area where they sold plastic buckets of various sizes. Although I couldn't see any difference, she took one after the other, only to turn them back. Finally, after visiting a dozen of stands, she apparently found what she was looking for. She took three orange-white buckets, varying in size, and showed them to me to judge them. I didn't know what to look at - they were all plastic, they all looked the same to me, so I told her I was fine with her choice. Mulunesh paid, and we moved on, struggling through the crowd. Mulunesh carrying the buckets - I had asked her to hand them over to me, so she'd have her hands free for evaluating the other goods, but she rejected.

While I walked behind her, the craziness of the situation sank in to me - here I was, a grown up man, following the lead of a child who I only knew for, what, one hour? And I had put my whole faith in her hands - she was literally carrying my all my possessions in a cloth on her chest, and if she wanted, she could easily run away with it, leaving me behind. And I trusted her... I trusted her more than I trusted myself with the money... What was I doing here!!

We crisscrossed the market, buying various cleaning-items, blankets, kitchenware, ... At some point, Mulunesh had called some little boys and ordered them to carry the goods for her. I thought they were way overloaded, but they looked happily around, chatting with other children they met on their way. Everywhere I looked, I saw similar scenes, of small children, packed with goods, walking behind others. I didn't see many white people though; Chinese, yes, and also Indian-looking people; only in the far-distance I could distinguish two white women going their own way.

Once we were finally outside of the market, I asked Mulunesh if we should go by taxi, but according to her, it was no problem going by minibus. I wondered how she would get all the goods inside, but she saw no problems. When we arrived at a suitable minibus, going in the right direction, Mulunesh simply told other passengers to keep our goods on their laps. She entered, what seemed to me, a vicious discussion with the bus-assistant while pushing me on one of the seats, and apparently managed to get everything her way. She gave each of the carrying kids one birr, and then sat down on a seat behind me.

We had to wait for quite some time until all seats were taken. Outside, I witnessed a motley parade of beggars; blind men guided by small children, people with crutches or even unable to raise from the ground because of their polio-deformed limbs, people whose hands were degraded to stubs by leprosy, people with festering wounds, women with little children on their backs and priests were all in competition for a few coins. Sometimes one would try to stick his head through the door of the van - if it was a beggar, he or she would be pushed away by the bus-assistant, priests were, however, allowed to enter, say their words and have their crosses kissed. For the coming years, this would be my world - how would I ever survive here; how could those people survive in this madhouse...

When we arrived at my house, again followed by a few boys carrying our goods, there was a horse with a flat cart waiting; on top of the cart my new matrass. The horse, thin, with nasty abrasions all over its body, stood dully, trying to reach for some dusty grass. Every now and then it shivered its muscles, to get rid of some irritating flies. Its owner, a boy the age of around twenty, sat in the shadow of the compound wall, waiting for me. Mulunesh knocked on the gate-door which was then opened by one of the neighbors. I unlocked my door, and the driver carried the matrass inside - I tried to help but was sent away.

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