We were nearing the end of our stay. Stiff from so much walking the day before–I guessed we covered around 10 miles–we climbed out of our sleeping bags and rolled up our bedding. We joined Bereket in the cook house. She was making breakfast–a wheat and barley paste similar to ugali, mounded into a volcano with red hot oil in the center.
As she cooked, we asked her and Heile how they met each other. They looked at each other and laughed. She said they had met at a wedding. Heile saw her across the room (true story!), and decided he wanted to marry her. The next day, he sent the Elders to her father’s house and asked. Her family approved, and the Elders brought her back with them. She was 18. I asked if she was happy (that Western measurement of success), and she said she was–that she felt lucky that Heile’s family accepted her so well and she felt comfortable with them. She said there were 20 horses at her wedding (to get an idea of what that looked like, check here). These days, because times are tighter, most farmers in their area have sold their horses and 20 horse weddings are quite rare. Yerus confessed that she wanted 30 horses at her wedding!
It was Sunday morning, and normally the family would have gone to church. Today, however, Semana’s house would host a lexo bait or funeral wake, in the evening, so the day would be spent in preparation. We were ambivalent as to whether we should feel disappointed or relieved that we would be going back to Addis and would have to miss the lexo bait.
Some neighbors, coming for the funeral event, joined us, and we ate out of a common bowl. You dipped a spoonful of paste into the oil and bere bere well in the center, and I was corrected when my spoonful was about to break the crater rim and spill the red oil out to the edge of the bowl.
When the guests came, Bereket asked Denko to take the two year old, Abel, over to his grandmother’s house. Yerus asked me later if I noticed that he had left. I hadn’t noticed, except perhaps to be a wee bit relieved that I could write in my notebook without him commandeering my pen and scribbling over the pages. I asked Bruce to bring him a set of pencil crayons and his own notebook when he came to collect us!Later, Yerus explained what happened–just one more thing that went completely over my head because I don’t understand Amharic. She said that one of the guests had an “evil eye” and any child he looked at would die. So Bereket made sure Abel was out of sight when the “evil eye” entered her house. Yerus asked how the man got to be an evil eye, and was told that he had gotten it from his father, who was also an evil eye.
Bereket made coffee, and after the second cup (we declined the third cup) it was time to clean the floor of her house.
We started by sweeping from the far end, sprinkling water to keep down the dust. Then Bereket brought in several large bowls of fresh cow dung and piled it up in the corner by the door. She poured water in the middle of it. Yerus and I looked at each other–Bruce was coming, walking to the homestead from where he had parked the car a mile or so away. It would be pretty easy to say that we had to get ready to go–maybe even walk out and meet him. I was formulating an excuse when Yerus stuck out her hands and dug in. So there we were. Mix the cow dung with the right amount of water to make a gooey paste. Spread it out over the floor and benches, fill in the cracks, make it smooth and dark. We had hardly started when Bruce showed up with Jacob and his friend. We offered a big welcome hug, but the guys decided they needed to go down and check on the spring.
The fact that we plastered the floor went over pretty well with our hosts. And I think we did a good job, too. I was surprised that even though the plaster was raw cow dung, it didn’t actually smell that bad. When the floor was finished, Bereket sprinkled it with sheep and goat pellets and ash to help it dry more quickly. And the floor was done–till next week!
It was time for goodbye.
I gave Denko my striped blanket and told him it was made by the great cattle men of Kenya, the Masai warriors–a good gift for a good shepherd.
We said goodbye to Berekt and Heile and told them to come visit us in Addis–we told them several times, and I hope they take us up on it. We told them they could come and observe the way we live, and what we do on a normal day–how we cook, how we clean, and why we stare at our computers for hours on end.
We said goodbye to the baby donkey, shouldered our packs, and Heile walked with us to the car.
My weekend among women was over.
Why did I go? What did I learn?
I was inspired to do this partly by Melinda Gates. I don’t normally follow Bill and Melinda Gates, but somehow stumbled on their 2016 annual letter which was about the economy of time and energy. Melinda recounted staying with a Tanzanian woman for a day, and shadowing her, observing the work she did from the time she woke up in the morning until she went to bed at night. The woman she followed spent most of her day fetching water and gathering wood and cooking. Gates called this “opportunity cost” and looked at the time spent by rural women to accomplish tasks we take for granted–clean water and energy–as an economic issue. What opportunities are lost for women because of the time that they need to spend on simple daily tasks?
We’re so used to thinking of rural Africans as being poor and disadvantaged, and think in terms of what we can do to improve their lives, to help them get ahead. I agree with a lot of the points in Bill and Melinda Gates’ letter, and am well aware of the bleak statistics for Ethiopia: only 27% of the population has access to electricity . . . Ethiopia is ranked 67th in the world by GDP according to the World Bank . . . and so on . . .
Still. Visiting people like Bereket and Semana, or the pastoralist community in Afar, I have a hard time convincing myself that they are as impoverished as the statistics indicate. These are people with virtually no possessions. No electricity, no running water, no bicycle, no chairs, no table. (Cell phone, check. Solar charger, check.) Yet they have identity and purpose. Their lives and connections seem to be healthy. They are rich in family, relationships, community. They have livestock and land that support their basic needs. They have shelter and food to share. Their carbon footprint is tiny. They know the value of water and wood, and don’t waste anything. Yes, we probably have some things we can offer. And we have some things we can learn. A lot we can learn.