S E A R C H I N G F O R G O D ’ S C O U N T R Y
by Bruce Strachan
C h a p t e r o n e
I n a u s p i c i o u s B e g i n n i n g s
May 17th, 2010
Rain, not completely unexpected during the month of May, was the first strike against us. Our Toyota Hiace got stuck as a result in a bog of black-cotton-soil somewhere out in the rolling Plane of Hadda. It was my bad – I should’ve chose a vehicle more suited to off-road. Fact was though during all of my journeying around the Ethiopian highlands I’d never actually hired a car. Whenever Jalata and I venture out we take public buses, and when those buses reach the ends of their lines we simply hop on whatever other mode of transport happens to be available – a couple of mules, or a horse drawn cart if we’re in luck. More often than not though we’re out there on foot.
But this day would be different. Jalata wouldn’t be coming. This day I was instead exploring with professors from the University of Addis Ababa – gents from a world entirely foreign to Jalata’s, or mine for that matter. Nothing short of the most comfortable means would do – even if the expense, agreed before hand to be put on my tab, exceeded budget.
It was somehow poetically ironic then that thanks to my having been placed in charge of transport our distinguished little party had to slog an extra two hours through a water-torturingly slow drizzle, ankle deep in muck. None of which would’ve been a hitch for Jalata and me – no indeed, we routinely covered 30 kilometres per day in any kind of terrain or condition, but a slight limp hindered the affable Professor Berhanu, and it wasn’t long before his otherwise steadfast friend and colleague Professor Shiferaw had proceeded well ahead, where I’d have liked to have been. Abandoning Professor Berhanu wouldn’t have been right though. We had after all, organised this little expedition as a team – in fact it was Professor Berhanu who proposed the outing in the first place – our first such joint endeavour and Professor Shiferaw’s momentary abandon notwithstanding, there was then already a sense that some sort of meaningful camaraderie might be developing, based on a shared passion for recapturing fragments of this country’s bedazzling untold past.
Jalata doesn’t share this passion. No, repossessing the past doesn’t interest him in the least. Indeed, he doesn’t even know what year he was born on account that his parents passed away so early on. Consequently his upbringing was one of being shuffled around from kin to kin, toiling long days in the fields to earn his keep. Schooling wasn’t part of the equation.
I felt bad when I first heard this, but contrarily Jalata’s face lights up when he recalls it. “Chigre yellum!” He declares, meaning no problem! And which might just as well be his motto in life. “After mama and baba [papa] they die I go to they sister bet [their aunt’s house]. Maybe I stay a few months – like that. Then maybe I go another sister bet, or brother bet [aunt or uncle’s house] – like that. Everybody they nice – chigre yellum.”
Jalata’s was one of the first faces I chanced upon when I arrived in Africa some ten years earlier, and an upright face it was, endowed with that sort of automatic smile that at once indicated his rural origins, from where like untold others he’d migrated to the big city in search of a better life. Unsurprisingly, the best employment he could find when he arrived was as a zabanya (watchman) at a villa owned by an aged gentleman who, some three decades earlier had been one of Haile Selassie’s Major Generals. Here, as fate would have it, our far-flung worlds would coincide when that villa became my home.
At first it seemed that Jalata’s whole purpose in life was about nothing more than opening and closing the compound’s big green metal gates. A task, which although unremarkable, he performed gracefully. In time we grew acquainted, and I found him to be a decent and likeable fellow – the sort back home we’d call a regular guy. Eventually I passed through those gates enough times that we become pals – reality of our lives’ dissimilarities not withstanding. In due course he accompanied me on hikes around the countryside where we became as indomitable as Tom and Huck, and indeed it was while rambling around the Yeka hills that we stumbled upon Washa-Mikael, the medieval rock-hewn church I’d later dedicate so much time and effort to.
Now, it goes without saying that friendship as such shouldn’t be betrayed or taken for granted, but when I decided to take up the task of raising awareness around that Washa-Mikael site I knew my unpretentious sidekick wouldn’t be able to assist. To make serious progress I’d have to cultivate establishment types like the professors, but this left me with a dilemma: What if the eminent professors weren’t enamoured by my friend’s lack of basic credentials? Of course it wasn’t entirely fair of me to suppose that such might’ve been the case, but I’d witnessed divisions along class, social and ethnic lines before and I’d seen how hurtful those rejections could be. As much as I appreciated Jalata, bringing him into such a context could be risky. It might backfire, and I didn’t deem it wise to gamble with the professor’s hard-earned confidence. Getting them to take me seriously had itself been no minor achievement considering my own academic background consisted of little more than a BFA from an accredited art college. Nor had I come with a foundation grant to divvy up either.
After anguishing over this for some time I finally decided to just not invite Jalata. Needless to say, pangs of disloyalty niggled at my conscience throughout that whole day.