Yemataw, body lanky and now molded into our doorway, asks if I need anything.
Water to be fetched? Floor to be cleaned? Chicken slaughtered?
I am completely captivated by his most kind eyes – the kind of eyes that play with you, turn you upside down and inside out, fully aware of their capability and effect. How can I possibly resist engaging with this impossibly charming young man?
And indeed, I want to.
He assumes his service role with aplomb and grace, with a dash of mischievousness. I look at him, and I am witnessing heaven. And a bit of hell as well, as I realize I will too soon have to say goodbye to this riveting soul.
As days turn into weeks, Yemataw becomes part of the fabric of our lives. He shows us how to conserve water. He laughs as we run and hide while he slaughters what is soon to become our dinner. He eats with us, and shares our joys. His head at a constant curious tilt, his amusement rests just below his surface, relaying to me that he knows far more than he lets on.
His story begins to unfold as we walk to market. Fatherless at the age of six, he has assumed the role of family patriarch, wanting only to fulfill his promise to care for his mother, who lives an eight hour walk away.
On occasion, I offer to help him supply his home, a small former storage room the width of his floor mattress, with little light shining through the small window. No thank you, he responds. That purchase is too expensive. Just help with my education at some point, if you must.
One morning as we prepare to set off to see an outer clinic, he asks to join us. I tell him I will see if there is room in the lone hospital truck, which doubles as an ambulance. With ever twinkling eyes, he tells me he will pray for a seat. As we pile into the truck, I see him in the distant, fervently polishing the shoes of the doctors, his main income position, eyes darting from shoes to our car to the shoes and back again. I want to give up my seat to make room for him.
Yet, loss is an everyday occurrence here in this dusty and remote town of Mota. Hope, however, always prevails.
I see, instead of disappointment, a wide smile, eyes dancing. He shines faster as though to say without words Chigga Yellum! (No problem!). I won’t deliberate on loss. What is the use of that?
I return early, and walk to his room. He shows me the things he reveres: a lone poster tacked up crookedly, a warm blanket, two plastic buckets, a small pillow. I search for the well-used hotplate we had earlier given him and I don’t see it. Did he sell it at market? No, there it is.
Yemataw left his village a few years ago and went to work as a tanner for 12 birr (less then $1.00) a month. He picked up English, practiced it wherever he could and eventually found his way to Mota, where he assumed his current position of Principal Shoe Shine Boy and Gofer.
Many a doctor and ferenji (white foreigner) use his services. As I watch the interactions, it is clear that Yemataw is dearly loved. One by one, the doctors line up for lunchtime shoe shines, their western clothes peeking out from under their white medical coats. Handsome they all are, confident also. They have found their way to a secure and well respected position. Chigga Yellum.
Yet, here I stand, observing this scene, and I long to be in Yemataw’s presence most of all. He who knows the human spirit perhaps best of all of us who are formally educated at high levels. He who knows how to focus on solutions, always, rather than dwell on his problems.
I find my heart bursting open over this young man. Can I ever go back to my contained and restrained self after feeling so much love, over and over each day, for a human spirit such as Yemataw? I long, each morning, to see this young man, he who can start and end my day in the most brilliantly, sparkly way.
We find each other a few times every day, laugh hard at the myriad of problems that befall us (which there are, assuredly, many) and set off for his tasks at hand: floor mopping to the sounds of Michael Jackson music, market purchases with gentle patience, translation with gusto, soul soothing with vigilant sensitivity.
At market one day, I offer to purchase a gabi for him, as he does not have one of these Ethiopian traditional cloths. He refuses it. I purchase it anyway, and he shows me to the tailor who can sew it into one gigantic piece. As we wait for the gabi to be sewn, we walk to the local juice bar and sip on spritzes silently, keeping our communication to only smiles and heartfelt sustained eye contact. I love this wonderful human being.
Days begin to slip into the sad realization that soon we will be leaving, and here today I am now saying goodbye. I reach for the gabi he helped me purchase at the Mota market and say “Think of me when you wear it. Please?”, echoing his words he said to me when a day earlier I tried to give him an abandoned scarf I found.
This time, he accepts the gift.
And as I drive away, tears falling freely because they simply come easily here, I see him in a far distant field, looking zealously my way, hands held high in the air, holding the white gabi so that it sways like a flag in the warm morning breeze.
As I watch his form fade into the distant horizon, I am comforted by what I have learned from Ethiopians over and over again: the physical form is less important than the spirit of humanity, and I know he is coming home with me.