Tag Archives: Ethiopian Revolution

Footnote to the Revolution

Footnote to the Revolution

The red clay from the cane field in your hair,
leaves pressed into my neck from lying in the tall stalks,
we heard in the trees
the movements of the shepherd
who had watched.
Later, at the Filowaha baths,
we washed ourselves from each other
and slept in a room
rattled
by the eucalyptus.
I would have wanted you more in that room
if I’d known about the bullet
already starting its trajectory through the minds
of men spending youth fresher than ours
in revolution.
I remember watching your shave
in the lobby barber shop,
your face mummied by the steaming towels.
I tasted bay rum afterwards
as we shared cappuccino.
Parked at the roadside near enough to hear our parting,
I imagine they drank katikala,
its bite sealing brotherhood
your blood would buy in the street
outside the Filowaha baths.

 

 

 

 

In 1973-74, I journeyed to and lived in Ethiopia. It was not my original intention to do any more than visit and pass through, but fate had a different plan in mind. I was first detained by violence, then by love. The Filowaha baths in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were probably the equivalent of the “No Tell Motels” in Mexico, but for Andy and me, they were a place to be alone, to soak in hot water together and to make love with no listening ears. I guess that is what they were to everyone who visited, but there was nothing illicit in our relationship. We were both single and in what at the beginning we thought was a committed relationship that would end in marriage. His family had accepted this. My parents, thousands of miles away, had long ago given me the message that they did not want to know anything that, as my mother had stated, “would make them feel bad.” My sister knew, but they never did.

This poem actually chronicles two different visits to the Filowaha baths–one near the beginning of our relationship and the other our last night before I departed to fly back to the United States. On this second visit, we both knew we would probably never see each other again. Once again, we had figured out that the relationship wasn’t going to work, and our own feelings were complicated by the revolution that was already raging around us. We had both just spent a month in the hospital–Andu Alem recovering from the bullet that had gone all the way through his body as he defended me from a man whose intention was to kill me. Not able to return to my house, I had stayed in the hospital with him so we could both be guarded by his father’s soldiers.

Years later, when I made my first assemblage boxes, I made this music box that told the story I’d already told in the poem years before. The song it plays is “The Way We Were.” I’m now trying to tell the story a third time in a book. Now that I know the true ending to our story, I might have changed the poem, but I leave it as I once thought it was. There are many truths in our lives, according to which vantage point we are telling them from.  This story is as true as the very different story I will eventually tell, if I have the courage to face up to it. Please enlarge the photos go see the details which should be self-explanatory. The hand I sculpted out of clay. I photographed the assemblage box on the table where I had been rereading letters I’d written home from Ethiopia as well as letters Andu Alem and other friends living in Ethiopia had written me once I returned to the states.

Swallowing Truth

Three days ago, I started thinking of an old friend from 43 years and 8,000 miles ago, wondering if there was any way I could locate him. We had known each other in Africa, both having come to the U.S. when Ethiopia fell into its violent civil war, leaving our mutual friend (my lover and his friend since childhood) in Africa. He had worked diligently to get his friend to leave Africa and I had urged him to as well, but he had repeatedly refused to do so.

Half a country apart, we met only once after coming to the States and talked twice on the phone—the last time when he informed me of the assassination of our mutual friend about a year after I’d returned to the States. Since then, I’ve gone on to new loves and new lives, but I’ve written many times about those years in Africa, idealized my lover and imagined him to be the hero in death he’d always been to me in life.

Then, miraculously, two days ago (one day after I’d thought of trying to locate him myself and over forty years since I’d last talked to him on the phone) I received a message from my old friend asking me to friend him on Facebook and yesterday, we shared a two-hour phone call. Much of that phone call was taken up by his telling me the whole truth about my lover’s death in Africa forty-three  years ago.

“He loved you, Judy. He really loved you, and he was a different man with you. Perhaps if we had both stayed in Africa, his story would have turned out differently, but when we both left at once, he was lonely and looking for friends. They saw his charisma and charm and they drew him in. They gave him power.” This was when he told me the part of the story he had not told me so many years ago. This is when the truth of what happened after I left Africa came out. It has been a hard truth to swallow. My sister, who visited me in Africa and who knows more of that story than most, told me I should perhaps not talk to anyone else about what I had just revealed to her—to remain quiet for awhile and think this out for myself. Perhaps to write about it.

It is hard to write about such things without trivializing them, and I have tried for the past 24 hours to avoid doing so just as I’ve tried to avoid thinking about it. Neither plan seems to have worked. It was what I thought about all day, the last thing I thought about before I fell asleep, the first thing I thought about upon awakening when I saw today’s prompt, and it is what I’m thinking about now as I write the introduction to this poem. What do we do with old shattered memories that we’ve held in esteem for more than half our lives?  What do we do with the favorite photographs? How do we write about a love story turned into a horror story? I guess we do the best we can. This is my first attempt to deal with that whole truth.

Swallowing Truth

My life for now grown raw and hollow,
this bitter pill I cannot swallow.

Which path of memory to follow?

That handsome man, arms filled with flowers,
love-filled nights and fun-filled hours 
held fast in each others’ powers.

A small-town girl who lived through books,
twisting on romance’s hooks,

could not resist your charm and looks.

I could not guess the other side—
the violence your looks belied—
that truth that I must now abide.

New truths cast old beliefs asunder
as they gut and rip and plunder
those short years of joy and wonder.

Your truths are painful—sharply tined.
Miscast as hero in my mind,
you chose the other side, I find.

This is what your old friend said.
He said your power went to your head—
so many slaughtered the streets ran red.

How could the one who turned my heart
liquid from the very start
have torn so many lives apart?

These stories spun far in the past
have come together here, at last,
can’t be forgotten, the die is cast.

Beware the truths that you might seek.
Truth has a non-discerning beak
that rips asunder the frail and weak.

Be careful what you ask and do
in opening the past anew.
The truth you swallow may swallow you.

 

The prompt word today is swallow.

Leaves in a Dry Wind

Version 2
The essay I am reproducing below is a reply to a comment made in my blog by OromianEconomist regarding the pictures and short essay on my blog  (You can find them HERE.) in which I referred to the Ethiopian drought of the early 1970’s. This was his comment:

“The same is going on right now in Ethiopia. Authorities are either hiding the presence of famine or stealing the food aid.”

He included the below link to an article written about the current drought which I suggest you read.  https://oromianeconomist.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/the-cause-of-ethiopias-recurrent-famine-is-not-drought-it-is-authoritarianism/      My comments follow below.

                                                           Leaves in a Dry Wind

I wrote this initially short reply to the Oromian Economist’s comment on my blog, but then I seemed to just keep writing and writing until it turned into an essay of sorts.  The facts are from memory and I realize I need to do some further research and I’d be open to any comments by people more in the know than I was at the time, but this is a short view of what I observed in Ethiopia when I traveled and lived there in 1973 and 1974:

I was in Ethiopia in the drought years of 1973 and 74. I saw the sacks of grain for sale in the market in Addis Ababa that said, “Gift of the people of the United States of America.” The grain was being sold and the money pocketed by government ministers. One month the teachers in my school (Medehane Alem T’mhrtebet) elected to forego our salaries and use the money to buy food and hire trucks to take it to the drought areas. I was on the committee set up to deal with this transfer, but the government said it could not allow private citizens (or expats such as myself) to handle the money or the distribution. What actually happened was that the government did hold back the money, but they merely used it to pay our next month’s salary. Not a penny of that money was ever used for drought relief.

Many people at that time were not even aware of the drought because the starving people were not allowed to migrate into the cities but were held back by military. We were only aware because we traveled out in the country via bus. Dead cattle dotted the countryside and in places people formed human chains across the road to stop the buses. This was in Wollo Province, enroute from Addis to Dessie. We threw all the food and money we had out of the windows of the bus, but then traveled on. There didn’t seem to be anything being done at that time nor any means for anyone to deal with the problem.

There was one relief agency and I can’t remember whether it was Swiss or Swedish, where the aid was brought to Africa and distributed by the country it was being sent from. I had a friend who was employed by this organization and I traveled with him at one point. He told me that this was the only aid that was actually getting to the people and that no other country actually sent people to insure that the aid was being distributed to the people who needed it. This was a long time ago and my memory is spotty, but I am thinking that they were setting up schools that he was inspecting, but it may have been other agencies.

We traveled from Addis past Bahir Dar and Lake Tana (source of the Blue Nile) and Gondar, up to Asmara. This was through the Semian mountains, noted for shiftas (robbers) and we traveled by caravan with armed guards as actually I had earlier when I had come out of the Lalibela region and back into Addis. Other trips were to the Awash Valley and then later to Gambela, to camps where Sudanese refugee camps had formerly been set up. My friends were Ethiopian nurses there.

When we traveled to Harrar, it was because all of the schools in Addis had been closed down due to student demonstrations and strikes. They had started stoning buses. The rumors were that the buses were all owned by members of the royal family, but I don’t know if this was true. In spite of the fact that almost no students were still attending school, we teachers were told that so long as one student showed up for class that we needed to show up. On my last day of school, I was on a bus that was stoned. A large stone shattered the glass near the window where I was standing, as the bus was full. The next stone whistled past just grazing my ear. After that, the buses all stopped running and they closed down my school. We had been wanting to go to Harrar, so we traveled by train. The trains were totally full with people standing and sleeping in the aisles as well. At times we would see people standing by the side of the tracks with camels. Someone from the train would open one of the doors and throw huge sacks of smuggled goods out to these desert nomads who were contraband runners.

After a few days in Harrar, we rode the train back into Addis and as we rode into the city, we saw the students swarming over the tracks behind us. I think we were on the last train back into Addis. The revolution had been going on for some time but we were just seeing it as student protest. The military later took over the airport and the night of my birthday and good-bye celebration, (my sister and I were due to leave the next day to travel further in Africa and then to go back to the states to see my father who was very ill) the coup was staged. The military had used the students to start the revolution but in the coming years, most of the young people I knew were killed by one wave of revolutionaries after another. They had more or less been used by the military for their own purposes and my only friends who made it through that period alive were ones who came to the U.S. or Canada.

My boyfriend who was shot defending me the first day after the coup miraculously survived a bullet that went all the way through his body and out the other side. I stayed for another month until he was out of hospital, then came back to the United States and have never returned to Ethiopia. My boyfriend became involved in politics and two years later, he was warned to leave Ethiopia by yet another wave of revolutionaries espousing a different branch of communism. When he refused, he was assassinated in the road right outside the hospital where we had spent our last month together.

I blindly stumbled through this very sad and violent slice of Ethiopian history not fully understanding all that was going on. My efforts to write about it since have always been stopped by my realization that I really didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of everything that was happening and probably still don’t. But, for sure, I realize that my experiences in no way equalled those of Ethiopian citizens caught within those circumstances. They could not just travel blithely through them as I did. And few of them lived to tell the story I am telling only sketchily, according to my own experience and probably faulty memory.

I was there for that lavish celebration staged for Haile Selassie’s birthday. When members of the royal family were arrested after the coup, they were put in the prison that was on the other side of the garden wall of my house near Mexico Square. When Haile Selassie was removed from the Royal Palace after my return to the states, he was arrested by my boyfriend’s father, who was a Colonel in the military and put into a little blue Volkswagon that was the car Andy and I used while I was in Addis. I saw Selassie say something to Colonel Getachew as he got into the car and I asked Andy what he had said. What he said was, “Am I reduced to this–riding in a Volkswagen?” In reply, Col. Getachew said, “Your majesty, most of your subjects walk.”

In my years in Ethiopia, I had seen Selassie riding around the countryside in the backseat of his Rolls Royce, sitting on a jumper seat to raise him up enough to see and be seen through the windows, his Chihuahuas running back and forth in the back window. Everyone along the roads bowed as he passed and Andy tried to pull me down into a bow. “It is for respect for our emperor,” he told me, but I told him I refused to bow to this man who lived in a palace and rode through his country in a Rolls and walked through the marketplace dispensing birr notes to the people when other subjects were starving. If he saw us, and if he saw the little blue Volkswagen parked at the side of the road, little did he know that one day he would be driven away in that very car. History can be chilling and its stories full of ironies that, known by few, blow away like leaves in the winds of the next event and the next and the next.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/worlds-colliding/  (This prompt called for taking two fictional characters from different books and having them meet and interact. I have chosen to depict events that occurred when a real person chose to enter a different world. Truth can be much more interesting than fiction.  I found this to be true during my years in Ethiopia.)