the boy, the city, the spiciness of the experience…
I was 10-12 I think…
Every summer I went to visit my grandmother and great-aunt away from the rainy, muggy kiremt into the sunny humidity of the East. My great-aunt was the precious kind of woman who exuded love to all the kids of the area and gathered them into her home, showering them with the little cares of a grandmother. She would cajole, scold, hug, kiss and nurture as if they were her own. She was many things at all times, the versatile abode that is Woman. Personified, she was the vesicle for culture, the treasure chest of folktales; a linguist, like many in her generation. She spoke Haderi, Arabic, Amharic, Oromiffa, Somali…saying exactly what was on her mind as the need presented itself!
Almost every night, us kids would gather outside by the grayish blue gates around my great aunt’s feet as the sand settles and the heavy nefasha air breezes past the leaves; the teeming starry sky twinkling above us. I was a big fan of these nights, nights of teret teret storytelling about ali babba, the always mischievous monkey and the smart girl, the selfish one…the stepmother (Hmm…maybe this is why I’m such a sucker for breezy warm days that caress as they prode out a contented smile; like a lazy Saturday afternoon by the Potomac waterfront…)
Anyhow, back to another time and place.
Every summer I would reel from excitement as i make my way to Dire to start a month long excursion filled with dankira with the kids and happy days with my adorably talkative aunties. freedom! These summer friends of mine had their own slang; the juiciest kind that combines all the languages of the area. “Kale Waria!!” “Abooooo tewaaa!” “Abshir new, Alhamdililah!” “Intalo, injiru bishaniti?” Qesht, Abo, Senduq, birka, shillingi, roqa, medebir, mamilla, CHebo…and thus I rack my memory: to find all these and more profane wordy varieties…
It was then that I became crush-struck. My younger cousin’s best friend was about 1 year older than I. The star footballer and the little arada of the area with his hitched walk and croaky voice; sure to be crowned mr. congeniality; deserving by far. It seems I was drawn to personality more than looks, even then…He had sharp accented features (big eyes, big nose, brownish soft hair) and he was light-skinned. Tall and skinny be he.
The old ladies were his fans, the other kids admirers of his mischief. Him and Cuz would tell me stories of classroom antics, football rivalries, adventures running errands around Dire and those vicious kids at the khat terra with whom they waged reckless battles. I’m not sure if I wanted to be them in their recklessness and my rebellious tomboy aspirations or hang with them for some girly reasons I couldn’t fathom! Nonetheless, such were the vagaries which plagued the mind of a little girl coming-of-age.
Jeezz, I was so ashamed of my heart doing a violent and loud ruckus! My tongue-tied little mouth releasing hitched breaths …jitters as he played football outside, came to buy Rossmans…crush-struck! lol, It was petrifying for the little girl that I was. It didn’t even occur to me that I could like him. I badly needed to keep my casual ease – sliding smoothly into funny stories, rants and raves about childhood naughtiness …and juicy neighborhood gossip, for good Dire measure…But No! his voice started breaking as I started breaking into sweat! what silliness!
Sure enough I never told him how I felt- maybe because I didn’t know what it was despite the plethora of teenage books and movies I devoured! At age 11, I expected he would laugh in my face. And as we grew older he would come visit and I would grasp at composure, fumbling… Mainly, I would hear about him from other people…he repeated a class, he was thinking of joining the national football team, he joined the team at the ‘C’ level, then went to vocational school for carpentry …finally he’s joined the federal police… and such a path destiny took…
My little memory vesicle still holds this swanky character with fondness…A fondness that encompasses a town full of people in flip-flops and short-sleeved shirts; long skirts and flirty scarves. Neighbors that come out in the fading warmth- in the cool, calming dusk under acacia trees…as they sit on steps across narrow roads and yell out conversations about so-an-so’s illegitimate child and the price of water… ah! the freedom and openness! Dirty laundry always adorns the dingy streets; if u care to stand for a quick second and listen!
This is a town with equal opportunity hoya hoye where girls ran around with boys, chanting and singing for coins; where people (read: bachelors) buy ‘muslim’ meat pasta with marinara sauce in thin plastic bags with handles. The pasta spot sells chick-pea porridge ‘fuul‘ at breakfast (a middle eastern meal? As staple as dunked bread in sweet spicy tea, as far as I could remember)
Here, the mid-afternoon starts with a calm when everyone clamors indoors to chew on khat and rewind after the noon nap… Mid-morning is marked with knocks by entrepreneurial contraband salesmen, beggars and milkmaids calling for attention. And what of the open blue-grey gates? These gates are always ajar. Open to sounds of children kicking around balls; little girls mixing sand to build play-houses…and passersby exchanging greetings along with drips of the social update for the day.
This small city ruckus is topped up with the sound of the mamilla-CHebo coming around asking auntie for lunch or work carrying stuff in between his cigarette swigs. Infamously, this year’s mamilla was an amazingly intelligent english teacher until the blinding sun-khat -and sand turned him looney!