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Thursday, December 04, 2008

the road to butajira

The town of Butajira is the closest place to the compound to shop, check email, have a beer, be in the Big World... It's about 6 miles away, and the road is... challenging. It's dusty and rutted from the donkey/horse carts that are the second most common form of transportation. Most people walk. There are always people walking on the road, along with cattle, donkeys, goats, and sheep. There are very few dogs. People don't have pets, as every animal has to have a job, a purpose, a place in helping to support the family. Animals often live inside the thatched huts the humans live in because they're valuable and need to be protected. Animals are like bank accounts. You don't leave them outside in the yard at night. As a result, there is an ongoing problem with tuberculosis, from all that crowding of people and animals and cooking fires into small, poorly ventilated huts, or tucals. Yes, they really live in those.

But back to the road to Butajira. On market day, Friday, the road is crowded with people, carts, and animals for several miles on either side of town. We didn't actually go to the market... Something we didn't tell anyone before we left was there was a security alert sent out by the US Embassy in Addis Ababa. There had been some arrests of terrorist leaders, and there was still concern that Americans might be targets... We were told not to travel in large groups, and to stay out of public gatherings. We never felt any danger of any sort, but at first we were nervous because everything was so foreign and strange. We also knew that if we told anyone here about the alert, we'd only cause worry, and there was no way we were going to cancel our trip. So anyway - no trip to the market, just to be safe. Just being on the road that day was pretty amazing...

Butajira itself was unbelievable at first. Dusty crowded streets are lined with tiny shops, in varying sorts of sheds, built of anything available, including lots of scrap wood and tin. Things for sale are piled outside the shops, and displayed from every available perch. Most everything you might need is there, but you have to go all over town to find it. And of course, the ever-present farm animals roam the streets with the people. There are more cars in the town than out in the countryside, so you have to be careful to stay out of the way. The road is shared, but the cars do not slow down for anyone. Get out of the way, or get hit.

I made a trip to town one day with Marta and fourteen of the House Kids. They needed shoes. Unlike here, where we go to a mall or Target or a big shoe store, we had to prowl around to find a couple of tiny shops that looked to have a good selection of shoes in the window. Paulos, the driver, knew where to look, so he scouted out the shoe shops with Marta while I waited in the van with the kids. Even though Marta and Deme are well known and loved in the area, they still preferred not to draw too much attention to the pack of kids... and probably to me also. I was a little nervous sitting there in the street, feeling responsible for this herd of children, but unable to talk to them very well, or to anyone else for that matter. At one point a crazy man stepped up to the open sliding door of the van, and yammered on about something or other. Street kids began to gather around him, blocking us into the van, and when I asked "my kids" what the guy was saying, they only looked blank, and said - different language. Oh great. I was thinking I was going to have to deck the guy and would probably end up in an Ethiopian jail for assaulting a local. But eventually he gave up on us and wandered off, the street kids tailing along with him. One of the older boys in the van jumped up and slammed the van door shut. We were all a little spooked at that point, and we waited there in the heat until Marta and Paulos returned to usher us into the shoe shop.

Inside the tiny, closet-sized shop, someone brought two plastic chairs for Marta and me. We sat opposite each other while the kids took turns trying on shoes from a small pile on the floor. The shop girl handed them a pre-used, crinkly plastic bag to use as a sock, and had them stand on a small rug to protect the shoes. We'd look at all the bare feet, guess the size, and have them try on anything that looked like a possibility. The kids would go to Marta for a foot squeeze and fit check, and then to me for a follow up consultation.

Marta even tried on my shoes, and we both commented on how we'd like to "fill each other's shoes". I just love Marta. Every minute spent with her was a gift. I don't think I could ever begin to fill shoes like hers...

We didn't have much luck finding shoes for the kids though. After a lot of trying on, we were only able to fit five of them. They have such wide feet from being barefoot or in flip-flops most of the time. Marta tries to keep everyone supplied with one pair of good sneaker-type shoes, but even having them is a problem. If they wear them all the time, they wear out too quickly, and their feet also become too used to the shoes, making them too "soft" to go barefoot when necessary.

The kids were just great. Well behaved and happy to be there. Nine of the fourteen went home disappointed, with no new shoes, but there wasn't a peep of complaint from any of them. They're still in their flip-flops, or ripped up imitation Crocs, or barefoot, and they'll wait patiently until the next chance for shoe shopping comes along... I'm sitting here thinking about my wonderful Keen's, perfect for my own wide feet, and sturdy enough to handle the rocky, uneven volcanic terrain of Ethiopia. I wonder how we can get a truckload of Keen's shipped to those kids...

After shoe shopping, Marta took me to another little shop to look for scarves and shawls. We left the kids standing outside the van, and when I worried about leaving them there alone, Marta said - Nobody wants to take children here. They're always trying to give them to us! I bought a couple of shawls, and wore one almost all the time I was in Ethiopia. Not only did it make me feel like I "blended in" a little bit, it was very practical. The light gauzy material kept the sun off my skin, and the dust out of my hair and nose.

On another trip to Butajira, we slowed at the bridge across the river, to see what "laundry day" looked like. It was also bathing day, with naked kids splashing in the water. Lots of kids came to the car to say hello and have their pictures taken. They know all about digital cameras, and love to see themselves the minute you snap the photo.

So many stories from "the road to Butajira"... Rick and I were with Marta one day, and an elderly Muslim man came to the car window. Marta knew him, and asked me if I had "1 birr" to loan her for him. I only had a 10 birr note, the equivalent of about one dollar, and handed it over, asking that it be a gift from me to the man. Marta explained that while she encourages people to earn their livings and not to beg, this man had no family and no one to help him. She has a soft spot for children and old people, and she got tears in her eyes when I offered that little bit of money. She said it would feed him for a week, and that I would be blessed by him for my generous gift. Wow... Really makes me think...

On my last visit to Butajira, I sat on the steps outside a funky little falling-down shack that housed one of many "internet cafes" in town. I was waiting for Helen, who kept tabs on us after Marta and Deme left for the states. She finished her email business inside while I sat there watching people go by. The difference this time was nobody was watching me. I took this as a huge compliment, and a sign that I was beginning to blend in a little bit, and to somehow put of a "comfortable vibe" that made me less of a tourist, and more like the people I was with. On two different occasions, Marta and one of the drivers had told me I "looked Ethiopian". Something about my features, if not my skin color. This was another huge compliment, since Ethiopians are very beautiful people. When Helen came out of the cafe, I told her how happy I was to have been more or less ignored by the locals. She smiled and said something like, Yes, you're beginning to belong here...


Anonymous said...

Hi Kim!

I'm so glad to see that you are safely back. I've enjoyed reading your Ethiopia blog and marveled at the pictures. The kids are really beautiful - if I didn't know anything about Ethiopia (I have a neighbor from there) or if I hadn't read your blog and only looked at the pictures, I would think they have not a care in the world. They look that serene and content.

The beads are beautiful. The color sense is really interesting! Do people see colors and color combinations differently because of what occurs naturally in their environment?

Anyway, I'm sure you made as big an impact on the kids as they seem to have made on you. You're just that way!

Thanks for sharing!


marymaryquitecontrary said...

Kim, I am really enjoying reading about your visit to Ethiopia. What beautiful people! Africa does get to you as I found when we visited Kenya and then Zanzibar earlier this year. I cannot wait to go back to that continent.