How does one reach across the physical divide, the oceans, the continents, the cultural ways and manners and ancestry, through the ages and wants and struggles, with fever and perfect pitch, over again, deep inside from one heart to another?
He appeared from inside his grandfather’s home, now his own, a grass thatched hut that looks like the face of an elephant, eyes piercing mine with his first question:
Are you here to see my home? My village? Wait here.
We wait. He is in complete control.
It was a last minute decision to come to Dorze. I had originally wanted to see “the real thing” tribes in the southern region of Ethiopia, only to reverse these plans upon hearing about the overflow of large groups of tourists invading that territory. I prefer more off track experiences, nuances, glances, the hesitant gesture of a hand reaching for something unfamiliar, the shy flicker of a smile that can’t be helped.
His charisma fills the air as he goes about his work, revealing to newcomers the specialness of this village high in the mountains. Here is the house my great-grandfather built, here is the much loved false banana tree that supplies so much to us, here is where the animals sleep, right with us so their heat helps us to feel warm in this high mountainous place. And perhaps most beautiful, here is the sensually soft kuta gabi our villagers are famous for creating. Feel it in your hands, wrap your body in it. It will surely change you, in the place where yearning meets comfort.
Large frame, muscular with dread lock hair, his eyes are intensely focused and won’t let go. Disturbing, in a most beautiful way, as I have felt often here in Ethiopia.
I ask him about the local Timkat celebration that is about to start, and as many experiences go in Africa, I soon find myself immersed in something I can’t turn away from, no matter that we only contracted our driver for one half day.
In a sea of white kuta gabi cloths, searching stares, and energetic dancing, I soon forget about anything I possess, camera equipment and my own mind, and I feel like I am floating in a galaxy of stars. I feel so alive!
I find him in this sea of faces, watching my every move. Protective, caring. He has my laptop and photo gear in one hand, a spear in the other. The first image of the expanse we anchor. Two lives brought together by Chance, East meets West, white fuses into black, ancestry pulls present, craving trips restraint. The music joins us all. I let my photo equipment and laptop scatter among the people.
More, I want. More of this floating feeling. More of this living thing. More of this instinctive trust.
He takes my hand and invites me further into his life, his people, his spirit. We make the long trek up the side of the mountain into the village center and he brings us to his joyous and screaming fun pub, bodies smashed against each other, gyrating and pulsing to the music. How do these Ethiopians dance like this?! I try to join in, which only increases the euphoria as they burst into laughter and more people get up to show me how it really is done.
Soon, the driver is impatiently pulling time into my mind and we set off to leave, aborting the rousing festivities far too early. I feel like we hurried our goodbye, and I leave with a sadness knowing I did not properly thank him for his time and opening his village to us.
Darkness falls, and not knowing this at the time, I later find out he came down from the mountain and called on us later that night, only to find us away from the hotel fulfilling a work necessity. Looking back, I was shaken that evening. Stunned by the ancientness of his land, the sacredness of it all. I continue to feel so small, yet so consistently loved by the people in this country. Often, someone will tell me in broken English: “You not American. You Habesha!” Still, I feel so insignificant.
Morning dawns, a week passes, then almost a month. My awkward little phone I purchased flashes a call, and thinking it was one of the doctors, I hurriedly relay the state of the requested task at hand. I go into full commentary mode, explaining our status. Confusion persists, and I keep thinking I just am not able to find the English words he knows. I keep repeating the words.
Wait. Who is this?
It is me, he says his name from many miles away, and he wants to know where I am. Despite poor cell and no internet reception in his village, he has found a way to communicate by securing my cell number from one of the guides in Dorze.
Mekonnen? Is this really you? He is now in Addis and relays that he has come there, a 10+ hour bus drive away, to say a more proper goodbye since ours was done in haste, and to thank me for trusting his village. Once again I am not there to receive his gesture, but this time he says he will wait for the day that I return to get on my plane to return home.
I fail miserably at an attempt to respond to this ardent and kind gesture. No words, no reaction surface…I am just utterly stunned. He knows nothing about me or whether I deserve this extended hand, nor do I know anything of him or why he feels it is necessary for closure on our goodbye, and it simply does not matter.
It is Saturday now, and I sit in the hotel lobby, waiting to see him. He arrives in a taxi, ambling out of it like a rock star headed for stage, his body simply can’t restrain the rhythm and soul within. I jump up when I see him, and forget the traditional Ethiopian handshake and grab and hug him hard, the American greedy way, as I try to consume him.
We spend the evening together, along with one of his weavers and Dr. P, and he gursha feeds me bites of injera and grilled tibs, a vast divide growing as each minutes passes. I can’t join this world, no matter how hard I try. I was not born within these ancient practices. Yet the seduction and romanticism of the Ethiopian culture passes over my heart and into my mind as I think: We came to this exquisite country to teach and give guidance, and here I am, in this very moment, on my knees of sorts, filled with wonderment and respect and awe of this gentle and powerful soul who has taught me so much about grace and human relations and engagement in such a diminutive period of time.
His eyes catch and hold mine, and his mouth curls without thought or hesitation, nor the overlay of structure and division of beliefs and pasts, and I realize something that has alluded me for most of my life:
Across the physical divides, the oceans, the continents, the cultural ways and manners and ancestry, through the ages and wants and struggles, with fever and perfect pitch, I have found in Ethiopia, my home.