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Taking the rough with the smooth in Addis Ababa

Asa has now spent a little more than half of his life in Ethiopia: he left the US in April at 2 months of age, and turned 4 months old last week.  

Asa's foot, as a newborn, and at 4 months

When I rejoined Asa and Selam in May, Asa was a little over 3 months old and had adapted effortlessly to his new surroundings.  Our one-bedroom apartment in Addis Ababa, as far as we could tell, seemed just as comfortable to him as Aunt Sylvia's spacious house in Atlanta.  

For the first two weeks after they arrived, Selam spent most of her time at home with Asa.  Since then she's returned to her job at the UNHCR, although she usually comes home at lunchtime to breastfeed. 

I've taken over from Kuri some of the work of caring for Asa during the days. I've  gotten the hang of changing his nappies, warming bottles and feeding him, putting him to sleep when he's drowsy, and -- when other tricks don't work -- carrying him outdoors in a sling, which never fails to calm him.

More recently I've been leaving home during the days, and working at the UNECA library.  I've begun to think of the library as my office.

We've fallen into a rather comfortable routine. 

A run-in with a bigot

Our comfortable routine was interrupted one weekend soon after I'd arrived, when Selam and Asa and I were the target of a silly joke, and then some spiteful insults.  

It was late afternoon on a Saturday and we were out strolling in our neighbourhood, on our way home from the shops.  We walked towards of a group of young boys playing in the street, and as we approached, a ball rolled towards and past us. 

"If I weren't carrying Asa, I'd jump up and kick that back to them," I said to Selam.  I was carrying Asa in a sling on my chest. 

We walked through the midst of the group, and as we passed them, one of the boys kicked the ball at close range, and it hit Selam hard in the back.

"Give me the ball," Selam had heard one of the boys say just beforehand; it seemed that this boy had kicked the ball at her deliberately. 

Selam picked up the ball and shouted to the boys, who had come running, that she was taking it. 

As we walked on, a small boy dogged our heels, pleading with Selam to return the ball, which she refused to do. 

As we reached our block, a heavy-set man with a glass bottle in his hand intervened in the argument.

"Give it back to him," he said brusquely. 

"I won't," Selam said.  "They kicked it at me."

"It's nothing," he said. "Give it to them."

"No," Selam said.  "Who are you to tell me that?"

"Give it to them."

A short man who works in the pizzeria opposite our apartment building joined in, trying to persuade Selam to do as the man said.  "They even break people's car windows sometimes," he said.  "They don't mean it…."

"Why should I give it to them, just because he tells me to?" Selam asked.

"I could beat you," the man said.

"Yes, you're a big man.  That doesn't mean you're right," Selam said.

As the argument continued, two other men who were in a cafe opposite where the boys had been playing joined in.  They confirmed that the boy had kicked the ball at Selam on purpose.  The children should know better, they said.

"It doesn't matter," said the man, whose name, we later found out, is Tesfay. 

"It does matter," Selam says.  "My child could have been hurt."

"He's not the only child in the world," Tesfay said.

"Was it your child who kicked the ball?" she asked.

"They're all my children," he said.

"How would you like it if you and your wife and child were out walking, and someone kicked a ball at you?" one of the men who had been sitting at the cafe asked.

"She's a child too," he said, referring to Selam -- "She's their equal." 

This was the one statement of Tesfay's that I recognised as an insult at the time.  The argument was in Amharic, and it was fast-paced; in these circumstances my ability in the language fails me. 

"She's not a child, she's my wife!" I thought of saying.  But by the time the words had formed in my head Tesfay had snatched the ball from Selam's hands and thrown it back to the children, and the argument had moved on.

The two men who had intervened in our defence urged us to leave, and we did, while they continued to argue.

  *  *  *

After this incident, Selam and I were sad and angry.  I wanted to find out which apartment Tesfay lived in, and go and confront him.  Selam thought this would make things worse, and persuaded me against it. 

We talked with other neighbours about the episode, and they were universally supportive of us, and angry at Tesfay. 

If there‘s a positive side to the incident, it's that the men at the cafe, who saw the boy kick the ball at Selam, took it upon themselves to get involved in the argument.  They could have sat there minding their own business.  But they decided that their neighbours' business was their business: that kids shouldn't grow up thinking they can get away with being rude to strangers, and adults shouldn't get away with acting like overgrown bullies. 

That's one sign of a healthy community.

Sadly, there's bigotry in every culture.  In Ethiopia, one of the most common forms it takes is disrespect for women. It was immediately clear to Selam that Tesfay's behaviour was rooted in prejudice against local women who form relationships with foreigners.

For someone who harbours this prejudice, the sight of an Ethiopian woman and a white man walking through the neighbourhood with their baby must seem like provocation. 

Sadly that remains the case for mixed-race couples in many other parts of the world too.

In the weeks that have passed since the incident, the boys who used to play football in our street have gone elsewhere to play.  Which saddens me a little, since I like seeing children playing. 

And we've gone about our lives as usual.  Which is probably the best thing we can do.

Asa's response

Appropriately, it was about the time that we had our encounter with the unfriendly neighbour that Asa began to stick out his tongue. 

Soon afterwards his spine stiffened somewhat, and his arms began to gain strength.  Now, with some effort, he can sit by himself -- albeit resting much of the weight of his upper body on his arms.

His vocalisations have increased in frequency and diversity too, as if to meet the verbal challenge of a sometimes unkind world. 

"Haaaaa,"  he says.  "Aaawooo." 

And still, when he's unhappy, "Emmmmbii!"

But most of the time he's happy.  He smiles at almost anyone who comes into range, and occasionally he laughs.

Apart from the argument with our neighbour a few weeks ago, there's been little stress in Asa's life.  His days are spent in turns sleeping, feeding, and being sunned on the veranda.  Being kissed and jiggled and bathed and fussed over. 

In short, life is pretty good.

His only experience of acute physical pain has been needle jabs when he's gotten vaccinations. 

These jabs are for his own good -- they'll protect him in the future.

But one lesson of the run-in with our neighbour is that, as much as we want to, we can't shield Asa against all the foolishness in the world.  We can't vaccinate him against every threat.

Some of them, Asa will have to learn to deal with himself. 

For the moment, as he smiles and sticks out his tongue, he's responding well enough in his own way.


  1. Hi Jed.

    Sad story, that last part, but unfortunately not entirely unfamiliar. I remember walking down the streets in Awasa with a couple of friends (he a VSO from the west, she an Ethiopian), and feeling the girl stiffen at our side on some occasions, without truly understanding why (my Amharic never having reached the point of allowing me to say "she's not a child, she's my wife", for instance). And then when we reached our destination, she told us what had happened - and it had invariably something to do with the kind of bigotry you describe here. What I find equally both unsurprising and revolting is the fact that the one mixed couple I knew who was “the other way around” (Ethiopian male) never experienced such insults – the most they ever got were cheers from idiotic kids who thought my friend was very cool for “scoring” a western girl. Oh well. One has to try and ignore this kind of attitude and remember those Ethiopians (and there are many) who feel embarrassed by it and try to fight it – those guys from the café being a good example. And you can always take comfort in the thought that there are worse situations – believe me when I say you risk more than insults if you’re in Iraqi or Afghan woman who’s in a relationship with a western man… Yeah, I know, that’s no comfort at all, really…

    Take care of yourselves, and congratulations - Asa seems to be a beautiful baby!!


    PS: is my Amharic really that bad or does Asa mean fish? (and if it doesn't, I can't help but wondering what the hell I was eating all those times in Awasa...)


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