He is sitting on the overhang of the cement foundation on which the school stands. “Henok,” I say. “Eat your biscuits.” It is a Sunday afternoon. The Protestant church across the street erupts with scattered “Amen”s and soulful wails. Henok is not eating the cappuccino-flavored biscuits I bought him at the roadside souk on the way to the school. “Amanda,” he whispers. “I’m scared.”
He fingers the tread of the bicycle’s front tire. I adopt an upbeat falsetto. “Henok, don’t be scared. You will learn soon enough.” After my smile fails to engage Henok’s eyes, I comfort him in Amharic, his native tongue. “Izoh,” I tell my fourteen year-old friend. Be strong.
When Henok mounts the bicycle the first time, his feet hardly reach the pedals. I steady his wobbly movement, my hands firmly guiding the vehicle on the front steer and the flat back book rack. More often than not, Henok seems content to glide under the wings of my direction rather than lead the heavy purple mountain bike with the spinning of his feet.
My white skin draws attention from wanderers outside the church and other neighborhood kids, who hear Henok’s and my conversation from behind their compounds’ irrogated tin gates. Soon they congregate around us like mosquitoes by an open flame. Henok shrinks in their presence. “It’s ok,” I say. “We’ll come back next week.
I walk the bike back down the rocky, dirty road while Henok nibbles on his biscuits, finishing the pack before his nephew has the chance to devour them at home. “Amanda,” Henok wonders. “How old were you when you learned how to ride a cycle?”
“I was six or seven, but in America we have special bikes for little kids. And I had training wheels to catch my fall.”
“How long did it take you to learn how to ride?”
“A few months, I think.”
“Ok,” Henok tells me. “I will learn in one week.”
I think about how shy he was at the schoolyard, how laughably immobile Henok’s feet were against the bicycle pedals, and smile. “Ok Henok,” I say. “I hope you’re right.”
That Sunday was ten days ago. Yesterday I walked home from the post office to discover Henok practicing the bicycle inside our compound. For a few afternoons, he’d snuck the bike from below my porch, guided it beside his family’s concrete house, used a step to leverage height to climb onto the cycle, and taught himself to balance.
“Look,” he cries. “I can ride!”
And ride Henok can. I drop my tote bag and clap my hands as my eyes follow the movement of every slow, deliberate spin. Henok is riding up hills, over sticks, through cow manure. He has problems stopping the bike, which is understandable for someone who’s barely five feet tall. But he moves, and I’m proud.
We take the bike outside and Henok practices on our side street. This time, when neighborhood kids come to watch, Henok doesn’t shrink; he puffs up like a lion. Sometimes Henok sturdies himself to ascend the bicycle’s high seat by leaning against a woven bamboo fence. Sometimes upon colliding with an especially big rock or facing an approaching heard of livestock, he falls to the ground. But he gets up. And he goes again.
I have lived in Ethiopia for seventeen months. According to my contract with Peace Corps, I have a little over nine more to go. During the span of this time, I have cursed Ethiopia and my promise to it. I have cried at the gratitude of strangers. I have slapped sense into no-good street boys. I have played dumb to get myself out of awkward invitations with people I hardly know. I have played dumb to get myself into delicious invitations for coffee with people I love. In short, I’ve questioned my stay here as often as I’ve celebrated it.
But in this moment, as I’m watching Henok ride a bicycle, I’d sign two years of my life away to any given African country, all over again, just to watch him ride.