A Tale of Two Worlds – Part 2 – Mulusew’s Story

Guards

One of the conditions of being a VSO volunteer, if you live in individual house rather than on a compound with Ethiopian families, is that we employ a guard. Their living conditions and functions are varied. Most buildings and building sites have guards, who stand duty all night and often carry guns (anyone who has previously been in the military has a right to own one). However, the regime for the private guards in VSO houses is a little more flexible and guns are, I suspect, a rarity. Depending on the house, their living quarters may consist of anything from a leaky tin shack, more like a garden shed, to the relatively smart, purpose-built rendered and painted concrete guardhouse in our present place in Bahir Dar, complete with electricity and access to a hot shower. Usually, guards have a day job, if they can find one, so their role is to be around at night, in case anything should happen, and everything else is a matter of negotiation and adaptation…

Gebrexavier, the guard at our old house in Mekelle, was a stopgap found by our landlord Ephrem when we moved in. Ephrem never really approved of him, possibly because of his obvious, though hotly denied, fondness for tela, the local homebrewed beer, but we never had the heart to succumb to the frequent encouragement to find someone more reliable. Gebre… – try saying his full name after a drink – was admittedly somewhat ineffective in his primary role; in fact he could have slept for Ethiopia. On our return from evenings out, we would be reassured to hear the steady snores emanating from his room. On the other hand, when sober and awake, he was helpful and mostly cheerful, though we both got riled by his obvious belief that all remarks and questions should be addressed exclusively to “Mister John”…

In town

Bahir Dar is different. We have Mulusew. Mulusew is in his early to mid-20s (the lack of precision is down to the rarity of birth certificates in Ethiopia). He started working as a VSO guard for Dr Ed, who arrived in the same cohort as us, three years ago, then for another VSO couple, and we were lucky enough to “inherit” him. Endlessly helpful, endlessly resourceful, he is the ultimate Mr Fixit. Anything we need or want, however ludicrously ferenji, he will find if it is to be found anywhere in Bahir Dar.

But Mulusew is not destined to be a guard for long, we hope. When he began working with VSOs, he spoke almost no English; now he speaks it fluently. He runs a small business here in the town, a PlayStation bet (bet means house in Amharic), originally set up with his brother using some capital from VSO volunteers. At weekends, he is at the university, taking a four-year course in accountancy. He has just passed the driving test to become a bajaj (tuk-tuk) driver, which he sees as the first step in a future larger business. Activity starts at 6 am most mornings, when he can be seen working out in the makeshift gym in the garden. Ethiopia is not an easy place for entrepreneurial activity, but we think that he has the resourcefulness, flexibility and energy to succeed…

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In the country

However, Mulusew is not from the city. One of 10 children (six boys and four girls), he grew up on a farm outside a small town 250 km south-east of here, Debre Markos. We were lucky enough to be invited to his family home for the great Fasika (Easter) festival, when Ethiopian Christians break their 56 day fast. Mulusew had rustled up a pickup truck to take us there – our spare mattress and luggage went in the open flatbed. We drove around town for an hour or so, picking up and dropping off passengers in an apparently random fashion. At the last stop, the luggage was joined by two live sheep, destined for the Fasika pot, and we finally hit the open road.

A few miles outside Debre Markos, we pulled over. One of Mulusew’s brothers was waiting there with a pair of donkeys to take the luggage (now overlaid with a delicate filigree of ovine excrement) and mattress up to the farm, a 4 km walk away.

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We went on into the town to meet his mother, who had taken vegetables to sell in the market 10 kms away, all carried barefoot, cross-country, in a basket on her back. While Mulusew went in search of her, we hung around, feeling like weeds at a horticultural show, observing and being observed. The must have accessory here was a sheep. Though Debre Markos is in the same region as Bahir Dar, it has a much more traditional feel, and there was even something of the Ethiopian South in the colour of the dress and appearance of some of the people.

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A bajaj (tuk-tuk) took us back out of town and across the fields, dropping us about 20 minutes walk from the family farm, with mother, still barefoot and still with a basket on her back. Inevitably – for anyone familiar with Ethiopian hospitality – within minutes of our arrival, we were sitting in front of a delicious bayanetu (a collation of vegetable dishes laid out on a tray of injera), cooked and served by Mulusew’s teenage sister. She is at school in the town, and usually lives there with an older sister, a teacher, but was back for the holiday, much of which she spent in a continuous round of coffee making, cooking, water fetching and washing up…..

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The house is a solid building of mud and straw, with a large living room, a bedroom and two separate but adjoining structures where the cattle spend the night. A low-level seating shelf, moulded into the wall and spread with goatskins, runs all around the living room. There is similar seating on the outside at the front of the house. The third room in the house is a storeroom, containing great jars of tela and massive clay grain storage hoppers. Although the Ethiopian countryside is crisscrossed with pylons, poles and power cables, a constant irritation to the would-be landscape photographer, electricity remains a rarity in rural houses, and Mulusew’s family still rely on the ubiquitous charcoal stoves. The kitchen is housed in a separate building across the yard The coffee ceremony, an absolute constant of Ethiopian life, be it in a traditional rural house, an urban “compound” or a modern condominium, was continuously on the go throughout our stay. The family are fortunate in being just a few yards from a stream, so in the dry season, fetching water is not the struggle it is in many places. In the rainy season, however, when the stream turns into a muddy torrent, there is a long hike to a spring further up in the hills…

After eating, Mulusew disappeared into the undergrowth with a shovel, and 15 minutes later we were introduced to the newly constructed shintabet, (loo) in a suitably secluded spot, complete with arboreal handgrips in deference to dodgy ferenji knees! Mulusew and his father then took us on a tour of the land. Easter comes near the end of the dry season, and the ox ploughing had already been done, ready for the sowing of tef, the grain, unique to Ethiopia, used to make their staple injera. There were also tomatoes growing, mangoes, coffee and even an apple tree…

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The second day of our stay was Easter Sunday. As we breakfasted on the egg sandwich Mulusew cooked for us, we were acutely aware of the sheep tied up next to us, in front of the house. Although most Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, if they can afford it, slaughter a sheep for Fasika, in the countryside the act seems to have as much a ritualistic as an alimentary significance (Mulusew told us that his family would probably only eat meat two or three times a year). The slaughter took place in the house, attended by other members of the extended family, Mulusew’s mother’s sister with her family, and his older brother with his. The animal’s throat was cut and it was allowed to bleed out over the earthen floor. Mulusew’s father threw a glass of araki, the home-made local liquor, to mix with the blood, a gesture reminiscent of the pre-Christian libation to the gods… The dying was slow and, for us at least, not comfortable to watch. After it was over, the animal was skinned and butchered, and part of it served up as tibs (barbecued pieces) with injera – from bleat to plate in less than an hour. All of us then walked on to the farms of the other two families, where the same process was repeated each time, though we excused ourselves for the first part of the proceedings.

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Queasiness (and animal empathy) aside, it was a privilege and a pleasure to be able to spend Fasika with Mulusew’s family. The rural and urban worlds are different here in a way that has long ceased to be the case in the developed world, and Ethiopia is still 85% rural. The luggage we brought for a three-day stay contained more personal belongings than you would find in the entire household. The rhythms of life are still set by the sun and by the seasons. The small children still live lives of almost complete freedom from constraint. Mulusew’s parents and wider family treated us with the openhanded hospitality that we have found elsewhere in Ethiopia, but this time in the countryside. Of course, as Mulusew told us, this was an easy time: with the upcoming rains, the wide green meadows turn into quagmires; harvest time brings backbreaking work, often through the night…

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The gap between the countryside and the cities is not so much one of space as of time. For Mulusew (and the two of his brothers who also live in Bahir Dar), the four hour drive to the family home is also a journey into an earlier century. Thanks to Mulusew (and family) for sharing your story – and your Easter!
The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

Leave a comment

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing again, Barb and John! Take care!

    Reply
  2. Boleslaw Mossakowski

     /  29/05/2014

    Thanks, fascinating read and photos too. The people are so dignified.

    Reply

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