A Weekend of Women: Saturday

The market. Sure enough, camels are coming up the hill, carrying sacks of grain and other mysterious packages to market. Bereket is preparing njera for her friend’s wedding feast. Heile is preparing the donkeys for the trip to town, with Denko helping tie the load tight. He is returning empty soda bottles to be refilled for his wife’s store, and will sell 50 kilos of wheat.

We go over the market situation with him again, and he still recommends caution. He talked with Shimeta earlier that morning, and his recommendation is to follow the advice of our hosts–if they feel it is dangerous to go to the market, we should stay home.

We say goodbye as Heile and the two donkeys leave, joining the line of camels and goods going to market. Ah, the outdoor life of men! We go back inside to help Bereket make njera for her cousin’s wedding party. She has a 20 liter bucket of njera batter that she is pouring out gourd-full by gourd-full onto a hot skillet.

I make my first piece going counter-clockwise. Bereket and Yerus laugh and explain that njera is NEVER made going counter-clockwise. I try again, but my njera is full of crescent moons and I have to re-pour to fill in the holes. My njera is lumpy, full of ridges. We eat that piece warm, dipped in bere-bere, a red pepper powder.  I’ve never had njera right off the skillet before–fresh, warm and soft.

We spend the morning triangulating–going from Bereket’s smoky kitchen, to Semana’s house to help with whatever she is doing, to the market path to watch the trail of people heading to town.

Semana sifted red teff onto a cow hide to clean it for her household consumption. Her grain is stored in four huge mud and stick vats in a storage room built on to the side of her house. Then she, Yerus and I cleaned wheat that she would take to market later that morning to send to a friend in Addis.

Dereje Tagane, 24, Denko, 13, and Bashow Tagane, 17, buy eggs from a vendor on the market path.

I don’t think there will be any eggs for sale in the market this Saturday. One of the three unmarried sons who still lives at home, Dereje, is buying eggs in bulk for 3 birr a piece ($.11) and will sell them for 3.5 ($.13) to someone who will take them to Addis. They are from local, free-range hens, and are a light cream color. With the money he earns he hopes to buy a piece of land to farm. He also hopes to marry this year. He told us, looking pointedly at Yerus while he was talking, that he planned to send the elders to a girl’s house and ask her father if they could be married. It didn’t matter what the girl thought–if her father agreed, they would be married.

Semana was finished with sorting wheat, and let the donkey eat a bit of grain off the cowhide in preparation for her journey to market. Dereje helped load the 50 kilo bag of wheat on the beast. Semana collected eggs into a basket on her back, and she was ready to go. Yerus and I looked at each other and decided in an instant that we should go along.  If we ran into any trouble, we would simply walk back, right?

I didn’t take my camera, and put away my phone. I knew I wouldn’t be able to blend in, but if there was any trouble with ferengis, at least I wouldn’t draw attention to myself by taking photographs.

We walked about half way there, then met Heile on his way back. He confirmed that the market was quiet–no police presence, and no tension. We got a horse cart, and Heile took the donkey back home.

The horse cart was the only disconcerting part of the whole weekend for me. As someone who loves animals, I have to distance my heart from them in order to function in Ethiopia. Animal cruelty is a nation-wide blindness, and many people are simply too desperately poor to care adequately for the animals in their employ. Once a week, the horses in this area ferry goods and people to and from the market, over fist-sized stones, as fast as they can be made to travel. Maybe during the rest of the week they rest, or work at a more leisurely pace. But on Saturdays, the horses of Shinet Afaf, Jogol, and Chefe Donsa are worked almost into the ground. We got the horse cart at a crossroads, and while Semana negotiated passage for the four of us and the wheat, I looked at the collection of horses and two wheeled carts. I noticed one of the horses had a 3 inch circle of open flesh on its chest where the collar had scraped the skin away.  I asked the driver if he could re-position the collar, perhaps running a piece of rope between the horse’s front legs to the girth that would hold the collar below the wound so it wouldn’t be further aggravated. Even with Yerus translating for me, the idea didn’t seem to be getting much traction.

Our cart was ready–handmade with heavy wooden shafts, padded rag collar, and ropes for reins and traces. The bag of wheat went under the seat at the back, and the four of us–Semana, Yerus (who is hardly bigger than a half quintel of wheat herself), Dereje and I–lined up on the seat. The driver ran alongside the horse, whipping his rear leg and shouting him into a fast trot over the rocky ground. He had homemade rubber shoes nailed to his hooves. When the horse was going at a smart trot, the cartman jumped on the near shaft to ride. Once, going over a culvert, the horse loomed up alarmingly in front of me. I thought he was rearing, then I realized he was simply outweighed by the cart–lifted up off the ground, hanging in his traces while the momentum of the cart carried him along. The cartman jumped down and hauled on the shaft to bring the animal back down to earth, and slowly the cart bounced to a standstill.

We had a flat tire. The cartman transferred the sack of grain to the footrest to balance the load a bit better, then stopped the next cart behind us and borrowed their foot pump. To my horror, it was the horse with the open wound on his chest, his collar un-adjusted and still rubbing against the bleeding flesh. Yerus and I walked ahead, and I told her about an invention I was dreaming up–a device that you could strap on a person’s head, and another you would affix to an animal, both with electrodes that would monitor and transfer the sensations of the animal to the person wearing the device. Then anyone accused of animal abuse could be required to wear the device and experience exactly what was happening to their animal. It would be a handy device in other ways. I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to be in terrific shape and be able to run a marathon, for example. With this invention, I could find out!

Our horse cart had caught us, and we climbed aboard. I pleaded with the cartman not to beat the horse, but nothing changed–the driver whipped and shouted, the little horse trotted along, swift as an Amish buggy horse, and the four of us bounced over the rocky trail, Semana clutching her basket of eggs.

Once we got to the market, Semana took us to a tala bar while she went to do her market business. Maybe this was to keep us safe. We had a glass of tea, some bread, and a nap, and then went out to look around the market. I slipped out my phone and took a few discreet pictures.

Meat and grain seemed to be the main items available in this market. Fresh cow hides lay in the sun outside butcher stalls, many with a set of lungs and trachea hanging over the door.

We finally found Semana, as well as her husband, Tagana, who we hadn’t yet met–he had been visiting their oldest son, a health official. It was 2:00, and time to head back. We walked the three miles home with Tagana, while Semana and the others took a horse cart for the return journey. Tagana wondered if we were visiting the village because we loved them, or because we wanted something. Yerus explained to him that we had come as guests, to visit with his family, particularly his wife and daughter-in-law, to see what life was like for village women. We said we were comfortable and very happy to be staying in his household. He seemed pleased.

When we got back, Bereket served us a late lunch and told us to rest. We were tired! While we were gone, she had washed the week’s laundry, cleaned the dishes, and tended her store. When the sun slanted around towards evening, we took the donkeys down to the spring for water. It’s a steep mile round trip.

Coming back up, I was thinking about supper and an early bed. Bereket told us that they were going to her friend’s house to meet her husband, and did we want to come too? Ah yes, all that njera that she had been making for her friend. Here’s the story–a cousin of Heile’s, a woman, married a man from Addis Ababa. They have been married for seven months. She is bringing him to the village to introduce him to her family, and tonight is the special meal to celebrate their marriage and to introduce him to her extended family. Of course, we would come.

Bereket changed her skirt, oiled her hair, and wrapped it in a head scarf. Yerus and I didn’t have anything to change into, and nothing to make ourselves festive. We put on all the layers we had, and I wrapped up in a thick red striped Masai blanket I had brought from Kenya. I was tired of being a tourist, and anyway, wasn’t good at taking pictures indoors at night, so left the camera at home.

As the sun neared the horizon, we started out. Heile carried the foot tall stack on njera on his head, and Bereket carried Abel on her back, wrapped in blankets. It was already cold. When we were leaving, Denko said he didn’t want to come, and I made a disappointed face. As we walked out in the sunset, he came running with a staff and a shepherd’s crook in his hands. I told him I was glad he was with us–we needed a shepherd to protect us from the hyenas.

In 20 minutes, it was grey dark, with a deep red gash over the western hills. Twenty minutes later we were walking by lamplight, the milky way fierce in the moonless sky above. Our breath plumed around our faces, and I wrapped my numbing fingers in the edges of the blanket I pulled tight around my head and shoulders. Denko stayed close to Yerus, teeth chattering, talking to her in quick, light Amharic.

After at least an hour of walking across stubble fields and grazing land in the dark, past two open springs, we arrived at a stone-walled compound. The wooden door opened, and we walked in past a woman milking a cow. A central light-bulb illuminated the compound, and light spilled out of an open doorway. We stepped onto the reed-covered floor and walked the perimeter of the room, as guests rose from the built-in mud benches to greet us, three of four kisses on each cheek. The bride and groom had a bamboo seat in the center of the room. There were low tables arranged in front of the goat-skin covered benches, and we were offered large glasses of tala.  From the amount of tala glistening on the reeds, I conjectured that guests had been sitting drinking tala for quite a while.

More tala. There was no sign of food, and no sign of Semana. I asked where she was, and Yerus guessed the kitchen. We slipped out of the main house and ducked into the kitchen, round and thatched, with a smoky stick roof. A fire burned in an alcove on the far side. Seated around the edge were about 10 women, chatting leisurely, cutting up onions, garlic, and greens. Near the door, behind a large barrel of water, three men were cutting up a half a beef. Nearer the fire, two women cut up beef fat with curved, serrated knives. Over the next two hours, Yerus and I peeled and cut onions and garlic, and dozed on the hard benches. The mound of beef cubes grew. I had visions of chekina tibs, roasted beef served hot on a charcoal brazier. The women talked about their day at market, their children, the village gossip. Someone brought the garlic choppers a manual chopping machine that had been used for onions. It had three sets of blades that spun in opposite directions when you turned a crank. There was a long discussion about whether the machine would work for garlic. Someone found a small attachment to the machine that you twisted in your hands. They filled it with garlic, and turned it for 10 or 15 minutes, until a fine garlic paste formed. There followed more lengthy discussion about the merits of the garlic paste. The garlic paste was removed from the machine, and the garlic chopping continued by hand, so I guess the consensus was that hand chopping was preferable. This entire garlic conversation took about 40 minutes. When Yerus and I were about to slide off our benches with weariness, we went back to the main house. One of the bridegroom’s friends was curled up on the bamboo seat, wrapped in his white, homespun gabbi. Children were sleeping on their mother’s laps. More tala came around. Friends talked in low voices, laughing softly. Heile offered an apology to his ferengi guest—the women had been at market all day, so hadn’t been able to start cooking until late. This didn’t seem to bother anyone in the slightest. I leaned my head back against the mud wall and pushed more folds of my blanket under my sore behind.

Finally, supper! Everyone was given a plastic plate. Rolls of earthy red njera. Then the beef. Dereje carried a huge metal bowl of chopped meat, seasoned with onions and garlic. He put a fistful of it on everyone’s plate, starting with the bride and groom. A huge fistful of raw, chopped beef. It was impossible to refuse. Red, cold, firm and raw. I knew that Yerus didn’t eat kitfo, or gored gored, the raw meat that was a staple of Ethiopian weddings. Nor did she drink tala. Except for tonight. We looked at each other and pulled off pieces of njera, wrapped it around our raw meat and tucked in. Actually, raw beef isn’t bad. After a glass or two of tala, it’s not bad at all.

Then came a bowl of what looked like potato chunks in a rich yellow gravy, spooned over absorbent njera unrolled on my plate. It was beef fat. Then cooked beef chunks with gomen, chopped kale. And spicy kia wat so hot I could hardly eat it. Aroge after, but Yerus and I declined.

Then began the companionable part of the evening. No one drunk, but everyone chatty and pleasant. Yerus and I looked at each other, strategizing how to get home over the miles of unknown fields. We didn’t know the way ourselves, and asked Denko if he did. No luck. Finally, we stood up, gave a blessing to the bride and groom, and walked to the door. Dereje came out into the cold with us, and told us to wait, the rest were coming. We said we hated to have everyone leave, and if we could just have one guide, we could go back on our own. His parents would stay, but Bereket and Heile would come back with us, with the baby Abel and Denko. Denko was shivering with cold, only in a purple scarf wrapped over his thin jacket. We waited, looking up at the brilliant stars, as cold as an autumn night in Virginia. Bereket said the hardest thing for to adjust to when she moved from her parent’s home in the valley to marry Heile was the cold.

So we walked the hour back in darkness and cold, warm from the companionship of our hosts in the darkness beside us.

When we got to the house, we made quick use of the long-drop, spread out our beds, and crawled in. Bereket lit the charcoal brasier and was preparing to make us tea! It was 11 o’clock, and we assured her that we were warm and comfortable, and didn’t need tea. Heile and Denko also declined the offer of tea, and we all fell into bed, the charcoal brazier giving off a feeble warmth and casting a flickering light onto the plastered walls.

After at least an hour of walking across stubble fields and grazing land in the dark, past two open springs (future project sites for Shimeta’s NGO?), we arrived at a stone-walled compound. The wooden door opened, and we walked in past a woman milking a cow. A central light-bulb illuminated the compound, and light spilled out of an open doorway.


One thought on “A Weekend of Women: Saturday

  1. Rose, so much of this is very similar to my experiences 34 years ago, can hardly believe it. My biggest regret? Never seen the stars in the sky since I live here in the city! Love to you and Bruce, Judy


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