Ethiopia: The Boy with the Green Blanket
By Sara Bathum
Sometime after lunch as I sit grading papers, I hear an unfamiliar engine chugging slowly through the hot and lazy afternoon. It isn’t often that an unexpected visitor arrives at the mission and, mind not on my work, I am easily distracted. I peer out the window of my little house into the compound of tin-roofed schoolrooms, chapels, and outdoor kitchens efficiently run by a handful of the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco. An unforgiving dry season has left the usually green hills of southern Ethiopia cracked and thirsty for rain. The giant trees are losing their leaves, one by one falling to the ground like withered cornhusks. Once ubiquitous swamps of shoe-sucking mud have disappeared into so many clouds of orange dust.
A worn mini bus appears, laboring along the dirt road past my little house and down toward the clinic. Curiosity gets the better of me. I slip on my sandals and go outside, following the trail of dust and squinting in the harsh sunlight. “Ciao, Sara!” A group of children sitting along the playground fence wave at me. “Ciao, lejoch,” I smile back. Desta, one of my favorites, hops up to take my hand and walk with me.
Surprises are a welcome disruption to the busy routine of the compound. In addition to my daily English classes, I help with a feeding and bathing program for the malnourished children of the poorest of the poor. I sew and play volleyball with the young girls who attend Sister Sundari’s Saturday activities and monitor a study hall every afternoon. Sister Alem gives me Amharic lessons. In the evenings after dinner, I sit in the main house with the sisters, listen to local news, and knit. Compound life shapes my days.
Having little truly in common with the nuns, however, and speaking only limited Amharic, loneliness too shapes my days. On bad days, it sticks to me like my white skin, like foreignness. With each wave of homesickness, loneliness beats down upon me like the East African sun and calls to me from the trees like raucous hornbills just after sunrise.
On good days, most days, my heart is as wide open as the great blue sky, and I have never felt so blessed. I try my best to ease into the rhythm of compound life – the simplicity and peace. On good days, I delight in the thousands of little things that make life here a happiness that fills me near to bursting: the bright, eager faces of my students, mobs of Sister Rebecca’s kindergartners quarrelling over who gets to hold my hand, stunning Dilla sunsets, and sweet avocado pudding.
When Desta and I reach the gate to the clinic, a small crowd of nearby villagers has already gathered to welcome our unexpected guest.
“Dehna nesh, Sara?” Woinshet asks me in greeting. Woinshet is one of two local women who work full time at the clinic, assisting Beatricia, the Italian doctor, and saintly Sister Pia, our nurse.
“Dehna egzi abehear amesegen,” I reply. I am fine, thanks be to God. “Dehna nesh?”
Woinshet smiles a wide, toothy smile, still unable to resist grinning at my Amharic.
A playmate calls to Desta. He lets go of my hand and takes off into the bush.
“Woinshet, lemen?” I ask, pointing at the locked gates. Usually the clinic is bustling this time of day, tending to a long line of patients.
“Saint Gabriel Feast Day,” Woinshet explains, politely switching to English so I will understand. “Few patient, so close early.”
The mini bus chugs to a halt at the clinic gates, and Woinshet and I turn to watch with the others. The passenger door opens, and Ruth climbs out. Her blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and she is wearing one of her school-teaching skirts. Ruth is British and teaches English at the small college down the road from the mission. She spots me easily in the small crowd and quickly turns back to the van. In the front seats sit two Ethiopian men I do not recognize.
The men emerge, doors creaking, and walk with Ruth around to open the back hatch. I squint into the dimness of the interior and understand immediately why they have come.
She has brought him.
Yesterday, Ruth dropped by the mission while I was having a cup of tea between my afternoon classes. She was brief and to the point. There is a boy, she told me, lying on the side of the road near the college. He has been there, in the same spot, for nearly a week. She was ashamed for not taking action sooner.
“Can we bring him to the clinic?”
“I’ll ask the sisters.”
Today Ruth has brought him.
The boy is a small dark mound curled up on the folded-down back seats of the mini van, like an old sack of bones in a forgotten graveyard. A filthy blanket is wrapped around him, covering all but an elbow or a knee, and the top of his head. The yellow glare of the hot afternoon sun makes it difficult to see him.
“Woinshet,” I turn back to her. “Sister Pia, yeat allech?” Suddenly I am frantic to find Sister Pia. Where is she? Why must the gates be locked this afternoon of all afternoons? It is always a feast day. It is always something.
“Alawokum, Sara.” Woinshet doesn’t know. “Melabut, iza.” She points to the main house.
“Ow, amesegenallo,” I thank her and rush to the sisters’ house. I am sweating in an instant.
I pull open the screen door to the kitchen and stick my head inside. Tigist, who cooks breakfast and lunch for us everyday but Sunday, is up to her elbows in dishwater and dirty pots. “Sister Pia?” I ask.
“Ie,” Tigist shakes her head. Seeing the anxiety in my flushed face, she points her chin out the window toward Sister Pia’s chicken house.
“Amesegenallo.” I hurry through the back field to the chicken house, cursing my sweat, the sun, the dust, the flies, the blisters on my feet, and Saint Gabriel.
I find Sister Pia, coaxing dirty eggs out from underneath cross chickens, murmuring something soothing in Italian. She is cradling half a dozen against her ample grandmotherly bosom and, as usual, doesn’t notice me right away.
She turns to look at me standing in the doorway. “Eh, ciao, Sara. Ciao.” She smiles a plump friendly smile and blinks slowly at me from behind her thick enormous glasses, as if trying to recall just who I am and why she knows she likes me. Wisps of soft silver hair have escaped her oversized veil and she pushes them around distractedly.
“Ciao, Sister Pia.” I swallow and tell her about the boy. Sister Pia and I communicate in a broken combination of Italian, English, and Amharic, choosing words from all three we know the other will understand. At the end of my brief story, Sister Pia sighs and carefully puts down the dirty eggs one by one. She wipes her hands on her apron, muttering in Italian. She seems annoyed, but saintly Sister Pia is never annoyed, and I feel sudden tears of frustration well up as I stand helpless in the smelly chicken house.
“Va bene, Sara. Andiamo.” Bewildered, I follow Sister Pia as she wobbles slowly toward the clinic. In an instant, her frustration with this interruption to her egg collecting has turned my little Ethiopian world upside down. When one of the other sisters kicks a stray cat (shocking because nuns do not kick animals), Sister Pia takes it in and feeds it bread and milk. Without her distracted bottomless goodness, I am suddenly lost. I brush the tears from my hot cheeks.
As soon as we reach the clinic and the small crowd surrounding the mini bus, Sister Pia becomes her saintly self again; and I am relieved. She unlocks the gates and shouts for one of the workers. Beyene is there in an instant, hollering at the crowd and clearing a path to the clinic’s front patio. I can’t explain to Ruth why it took so long.
The sack of bones lies still in the back of the van. Then there are hands upon him. Many pairs, dragging him into the sunlight. The men wear latex gloves they have brought with them. Best not to touch him too much. Who knows what illness accompanies this strange boy, but there are certainly fleas, lice, jiggers. God knows what.
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