It’s hard to write about home with fresh eyes. That’s how I feel about Ethiopia these days—home. Not home home, of course, but just home.
Other ferenjis complain about Adaba when they stop by. The town is small, but the main street busy. There are duriyes, bike tire pumpers, transportation go-betweens, and high school dropouts selling peanuts from open plastic buckets, all eternally enamored with white skin that glows in the sun. There’s souk after souk hiding under an overhanging of enset leaves, the marker of a gchat distributer. When it rains, there’s mud that grows and clomps on shoe soles; and when it’s dry, there’s dust, so much dust.
Adaba’s close enough to Bale that the mountains are in eyesight from the center of town, but most local residents have hardly made the short journey even to Dodola, 25 km away. Few have ventured to Dinsho National Park, 50 km up the mountain, where warthogs decorate footpaths. Even fewer, still, have traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s decrepit but charming capital.
Unless they’re office workers placed in the countryside and honored with a monthly hardship stipend, people don’t move to Adaba for work. Most youngsters escape while they’ve still got their brains and their hope, to Shashemene, Hawassa, or Addis Ababa. Girls who fail their high school exams apply for work visas in the Middle East, where they’re treated like slaves but paid like princesses. A handful make it out to Germany or Canada or America. Their most substantial correspondence home occurs via Western Union at the local bank branch.
The school system is mediocre at best. Most teachers boast experience but lack innovation. The Oromia party influences municipal leadership with a heavy hand. Townspeople are devout, loving this place with an unaccountable fierceness.
The flaws are there, but this town is beautiful if you get to know it. When outsiders come to Adaba and grumble walking down the street (this town sure is Ethiopian), I feel sick to my stomach with pity (for them), shame (for the locals I love), and confusion (why am I here again?). It’s like supporting the underdog during the Final Four when you don’t know a thing about basketball, but a lot about spirit.
I’m not a tour guide for Adaba. I’m not a professional humanitarian. I’m definitely not an Ethiopian. But I’ve nicknamed the kids on the street, I’ve kissed the hands of dying old ladies, and I’ve had my share of back-and-forth with bus drivers wanting to get a rile out of me. I’ve made this place my home, and it, in turn, has welcomed me.