When you go to places like Ethiopia, one can easily be overwhelmed. The smell envelopes the cabin of the plane soon after its doors are opened. To me, Addis has a unique smell. It’s a smoky mixture of burning charcoal from the cooking fires, diesel exhaust from the vehicles driving about, a hint of the sheep and goats soon to become food all of which combine with a persistent musty undertone of flavor… perhaps from the Ethiopians themselves. Even though it’s been some years since my last visit to Addis, the smell is instantly familiar and strangely comforting.
Of course, there are the roads and its drivers that can overwhelm a newcomer. The drive from the airport thrusts the visitor into the reality that this Ethiopian experience will be like none other. The patience and civility we follow on the roads back home, well, that doesn’t happen in Addis or, for that matter, all of Africa. It’s every vehicle for itself. To a first visitor, it appears as if there are no road rules. The cars that are stopped in the middle of the road for no apparent reasons are whooshed around with a slight turn of the wheel as if a downhill snow skier navigating a slalom course. Herds of sheep and goats must be navigated too. Sometimes they are crossing the road or are just jutting out into traffic. The animals are a dash of spice to the whole driving experience. When traffic merges or a turn is made, there are no gracious waves to let you in but rather a fight for your place in the flow. The brake business in Africa must be good since they are well used and must require frequent maintenance. A sudden stop within an inch of collision is just as casual an activity as turning on your blinker back home. With all the navigating, merging and stopping, there is the honking filling the air. You can tell a first visitor from their wide-eyed, mouth-agape, white expression on their face on arrival at that first destination. You can see them making a silent prayer thanking God they arrived alive and a desperate plea for protection on the future road adventures they would certainly be making.
Perhaps the most overwhelming and most difficult to describe is the prevalent poverty. It is everywhere. The poorest poor person in America is wealthy by comparison. The empathetic heart aches with the realization that there is little difference one can make. You see unaffected people walking around a body lying on the sidewalk not knowing if it is asleep or dead, just waiting to be picked up on the morning’s collection. The sidewalk vendors selling the little white roots used for teeth cleaning, bits of coal, used shoes… just about anything to make something to eat something. There are the sights of meals being cooked over coals mere feet from the chaos of traffic. Small little shelters there too, cobbled together from scavenged pieces of tin. Shelter from the sun and rain… a permanent home, one wonders. Where does the water to drink come from? No water fountains or spigots are in view. The bathrooms are wherever the urge strikes. Men urinating into gutters or on trees in full view are so common they are not even noticed. If needed, a squat in a field and a wipe of a leaf will do. Painting all of this is a dust of filth from the diesel, fires, animals and dirt. It coats everything creating a dullness that seems appropriate to the scene.
Then there are the beggars: the aged beggars who can’t stand, laying prone, extending their hopeful hand out to their countrymen praying for some sympathy. Back home, this scene would make the paper or local news and all would rally to change that person’s situation. Here, there are thousands like this and, most of the time, the extended hand goes empty. For the beggars that can stand and move around, the swarm occurs around a vehicle when traffic stops. If a westerner is spotted, that vehicle becomes the preferred target. Experience tells them that’s who’s most likely to be sympathetic and give money. Child beggars are particularly heartbreaking, some blind with a handler, but most missing limbs or digits. You recall the briefing where it was explained that parents sometimes purposely maim their children to make them better, more sympathetic beggars. As much as it hurts the heart, you know you can’t give money as not to reward the insidious practice.
Thoughts of the children linger. The beggar children, of course, but thoughts of all the children. You wonder about the existence they are born into and ponder their struggle to survive in such a bleak environment. One can’t help but reflect on the children we know back home and how they might fare if thrust into such an environment. In Africa, children take on adult responsibilities at an early age. Children who we think should be riding bikes or be on the playground are instead helping the family survive. In Tanzania, you see the Masai children alone tending the family herds of cattle and other livestock at age six or so. The cattle are three times as tall as the child, yet they follow their lead as the child smacks their rumps with a stick, guiding them to grazing ground. The child is responsible for the livestock’s safety: crossing bodies of water and lingering predators in the shadows. Rocks and yelps are hurled to drive those threats away. Other chores such as wood gathering and fire making are common children responsibilities across Africa. Only once, during this trip and previous ones, do I recall seeing a child at play.
At most, four seconds. A brief scene captured in my mind which I want to keep for myself. A moment I alone could recall that might help keep the world in proper perspective after my return home.
It was off the paved road outside Arusha on the two-mile rugged trail taking us to the Movara Coffee Plantation for the night’s stay. A visual dichotomy for sure. The opulence of the plantation in dramatic contrast with the scenes of utter poverty one must pass to reach it. As we bounced along, out my window to the left, a barefooted boy and his toy.
One could see the toy was recently made for the boy since its proportions were ideal. The stick used to control the toy was perfect in length for the boy’s height, angling up at a forty-five-degree angle into his tightly grasped hand. The stick, like all the components of the toy, was not made of smooth, finished lumber one might purchase but rather carefully fashioned wood harvested from the bounty of the surrounding forest. The raw roughness of the control stick had been smoothed with a knife or by some other method as to prevent splinters in the boy’s hand. Attached to the base of the control stick, was the main body of the toy. A plank of an almost rectangular piece of wood, with nature’s bark still attached. It must have been cut with a saw from a large limb. A top and bottom cut made with skill as its thickness appeared uniform throughout its length. Attached to the bottom at each end of the main body of the toy, were two axels of some kind. Scavenged or fashioned material, one could not tell but it seemed to suit its purpose well. At each end of the axels where the wooden wheels of the toy. These appeared to be crafted from a branch as well, bark still attached. One can visualize the toy’s maker searching the forest for the appropriate branch. One of sufficient length and approximate roundness, cut with a saw into equal sized pieces. The wheels were rough but so was the ground where the boy would play. If on a smooth surface, like a paved road, the toy would bounce around as it rolled. Two miles to the closest smooth surface, so perfect roundness didn’t matter. It looked like the toy’s maker intended it to be a model of a truck since the final piece appear to be a cab. At the end of the flat plank of wood on which the wheels were attached and near where the control stick was affixed, secured somehow was the bottom of a plastic milk container that had been cut in half. Like everything in Africa seems to be, it was dirty.
To the boy, the toy’s crudeness and dirtiness did not matter: it was crafted with thoughtfulness and love. Blissfully unaware of all the fancy ones, happily the boy with his toy played.