Hail is hitting the tin roof. It is so loud I light a candle to calm myself. I didn’t think the sound of hail would be the scariest part of living in Africa, but sometimes it is. I know I am safe in my house: the mud walls insulate; the floors, concrete and smooth, uphold; the tarp ceiling shields all but the tiny shuffling of a rodent. But when I feel threatened, even by the sound of hail on a tin roof, I want to be home. I want to be home home, wrapped in a blanket, sitting by the fire, reading a book. I want to make pizza with my brother or listen to tree frogs on the screened-in porch with my mom and dad. I want to sit on those porch steps after the sun goes down and talk all night with my best friends. When I feel threatened, even by the littlest things, I don’t want to be here.
My mind preserves the comings and goings like a cheap plastic snow globe. Shake it, allow the specks to settle, live it again. Some memories comfort; some memories haunt.
There are the girls in the airport I passed on the way to check-in to my flight home last May. Muslim girls in the airport, my age, waiting with burkas covering their heads. Their burkas sparkle under the gleam of the airport’s commercial glow each time they turn to whisper to their friends, that elegant cloth signaling their high-class status as Harari Muslims. Yet there are: perched on top of their big, boxy bags; waiting to check-in to flights across the Middle East; en route to begin lives as house servants; specimens of human trafficking so close I can touch them. I move through the queue, but they wait there. Can’t I relate? Leaving home for the first time, stepping on an airplane for the first time. Oh, the wonder.
“Do you want to meet us for coffee in the airport?” The man the next aisle over asks me. “It’s not possible,” I reply. “Why?” It’s my country now, I want to say. All that speaking your language and eating your food and discussing your culture was just another charm. Now I’m on my clock. I live on my prerogative. Maybe I’ll meet you in Addis one day, or maybe I won’t. The plane has landed. All I want is to be in a place of my own.
I’m riding in a 4 x 4 Land Rover on a rocky, dusty road. My best Ethiopian friend is in the passenger’s seat. I’m on the first bench, sitting between my mom and dad. Three Peace Corps friends are behind us. I’ve just been on a tour of a cave. The start contrasts of light and dark, inside and outside, water and land, felt holy. I can understand why a prophet would worship there. The experience was deep and affirming; the amateur tour guides at once atoned themselves with their charming way of taking pictures —“one, two, zree.” My mom and dad with me, here in this country that I have loved and hated so much. Everything’s going to be alright.
I’m leaving a bus station on my own. “Where are you go? Where are you go?” A man asks me. He is chewing gchat. His large frame lingers over me, and he starts to follow me out of the bus station. When I ignore him, he grabs my wrists tight. “Zorbal,” go away, I answer. Onlookers stare stupidly. I wonder, should I scream? He binds my wrists together for a long time before he finally he lets go. I leave smiling, my emotional state unfettered. Has Ethiopia stolen a part of my self-worth?
The view from moving windows deposit themselves in my mind’s richest vaults. The questions To where? From where? lose their meaning over time. Acacia trees, hilly deserts, and cotton fields depict the meditations that have edified my soul’s becoming. They have been the background of car rides, train rides, mini-bus rides, plane rides. Movement leads to insight. I keep on moving.
If you spend your mornings looking at the mountains, all you’ll see most days is fog. Rarely will the hills be illuminated, every hedge and animal miles away clear before a sky of pastel hues: pink and blue and every wandering color between. But today when I walked through town, that sight was Ethiopia’s gift to me. This is true: sometimes my heart feels heavy with the beauty of it all.