So much felt familiar as we rolled from the Addis Ababa airport to the Oxfam guest house a couple of months ago. It’s a short distance between the two, just a few minutes, and I relished the feeling of memory mixed with the moment: the smoky air, the shapes of people drifting through the darkness beneath the overpass near the guest house, the beeps—breathy and short—of the boxy blue taxis vying for space on the road.
I inhaled it all, happy to be back.
But I wonder, when does a place become so familiar that you stop looking around? Or does the familiarity free you to study your surroundings in a different way? Or maybe, no matter where you are, there will always be surprises?
It’s the surprises that have stuck with me since the visit, snapshots of a way of life so different from my own—but like it, too.
I’m a mother of two boys. They’re grown now. But they discovered plenty of pleasure in simple things when they were small: Tools designed for one purpose found another in their hands. That delighted me—the same way a young boy by the side of the road did last August. As we approached in our car, he was marching along by himself, puffing into a balloon that bounced with each step he took.
Where out here, miles from the capital in a country so poor that many families don’t have enough money even to adequately feed their children, would a boy get a balloon? I looked closer. It was white, almost translucent, and long. And then I realized it wasn’t a balloon at all. It was a condom, doing double duty in a place where poverty had met its match in the playfulness of a boy.
A short while later, we stopped at a kiosk perched on the edge of a ditch. We were headed for a field visit with herding families in Birkitu where we planned to camp out for a night and we needed an extra flashlight. There weren’t that many choices on the shopkeeper’s dusty shelves, but there was no question about which one we would buy: the stubby plastic one with President Obama painted on the handle. It wasn’t just any picture of the president: His smile was cherry red, lipsticked with abandon by the artist, and it stretched almost from ear to ear. And he looked 15 years younger than he does today, unburdened by the trials of running a nation. We popped him into the pocket on the seat of our car happy to have him—and all that he means to oppressed people around the world—lighting our way.
It was a time of fasting for many people in Ethiopia, and the colleagues I was travelling with were careful to avoid meat at mealtime, as much as they longed for it. Again I thought of my boys, always hungry for burgers and steak, pestering me to pack a whole cow into our freezer. But soon after coming back to Addis, the fast ended. How did I know? The glee with which people returned to a favorite source of food—the same satisfaction I’d witnessed so many times with my lanky sons.
A few doors down from the Oxfam guesthouse, in a well-kept neighborhood of walled compounds, a man was squatting on a strip of grass. In front of him sat a cow’s head, its horns framing his body. He was carving out the edibles with a knife, completely lost in his task. That wouldn’t happen at home—the food prep would be done by a white-coated butcher in a glassed-off room at the super-market. But this wasn’t home—not quite—and I’m happy for the surprises it holds.