It’s been hot since I got home from Ethiopia a few days ago and we’ve had the fan churning all night–stirring the air, stirring my memories. I wake up at 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. Where am I? Negele? Moyale? Abbi Adi? Is that the wind skimming the hill where Loko Dadacha lives? Is it rustling the new grasses on the pasture in Dida Liben? Is it swirling a cloud of red dust from the road?
This was my third story-gathering trip to Ethiopia and as it drew to a close the last night in Addis Ababa, I had, for me, one of those rare sensations of connectedness, of familiarity–of affection for a place that I am only just beginning to know. Ethiopia is a vast country, where drought plagues some regions and lush coffee farms wash the hills with green in others. It’s a place of many ethnic groups, dozens of languages, and complex traditions that dictate the way people live. How could I presume to know it?
That question used to plague me when I was the editor of a small town newspaper. How could I really know the place we were reporting on? How could I understand it, know its nuances, appreciate its quirks, and come to love it? Time was the answer. It takes time.
On this trip, I realized, I finally had enough experience to anticipate what was ahead—and to savor the knowledge of it. On the road from Addis to Moyale, I watched for the acres of industrial greenhouses that cover the land where farmers once tilled the soil. Where are those farmers now? As we zipped by piles of potatoes and tomatoes, past boys hawking pineapples, sacks of charcoal for cooking, stools chipped from chunks of wood, and rows of water jugs dangling from ropes, I remembered the words—as I always do—of a former colleague who said the road is Ethiopia’s supermarket: you can get everything you need along its edge. And I waited for Mega, that gorgeous high expanse of plain with crops stretching to where the land meets the sky—a brief spell of relief from the worrisome condition of so many other fields. I’m getting to know this road, I thought.
But how much do I really know? Just the surface of things. A colleague made that clear. You know, he said, there’s a saying in Amharic about Ethiopians: You walk with a man and he has nine hearts, but he talks to you with only one. He keeps the other eight hidden.
After this trip, I’m sure of one thing: I want to get to know those other secret places where the heart lives. And maybe, with time, I will.