Saturday, December 08, 2012

Ethiopia: Sometimes It's the Little Things...

For new arrivals to post whose vehicles are still in transit, the Embassy provides a shuttle service between home and the office.  There are several different routes which cover the different areas of town, but the employee residences are not evenly distributed around the city.  As a result, the shuttles to the Bole and Old Airport neighborhoods routinely serve a dozen or more employees each, while my shuttle down Debre Zeit Road has never had more than three riders.  Living in the unpopular part of town has its advantages.

There is one shuttle each morning heading to the office, but two in the evening heading home.  Because of the two evening options, the Debre Zeit Road shuttle rarely alights with all three of its passengers.  I often ride home by myself, or with only one other person.

One evening, I was riding home with my colleague, Rosemary, and the driver elected to go to her house first as he often did.  As we neared her house, Rosemary stopped the driver.

"You don't need to pull in," she told him.  "I'll get out here."

This was a move we all employed because it was much faster to get out of the car on the street and walk through the pedestrian door in the gate than it was to wait for the guard to open the whole gate so the car could drive inside.

Rosemary hopped out of the car, pulled out her keys, and walked over to the gate.

Our driver Elias was waiting until Rosemary was safely inside the gate before driving away, so naturally he and I watched her every move while we sat in the car.

It took her only a few seconds to reach the gate, and then for a few seconds more she fumbled with her key in the lock.  In an attempt to help out, Elias bumped the horn a few times to try to get the guard's attention so that he might open the pedestrian door from the inside.

Then Rosemary stopped playing with the lock, scrutinized the gate once more, and turned to face the car.

"This isn't my house," she sheepishly announced.

We were one house off, and just next door (at Rosemary's actual house) her guard had heard Elias honking and was standing halfway out of the gate trying to get her attention.

"Madam, madam!" he was hollering.

Rosemary walked the short distance down to her house while Elias and I drove slowly beside her.  We both understood how embarrassing this situation was for her, so we maintained complete composure.

Once she was safely inside her compound, we pulled away.  Then for about 10 meters, we drove with an awkward silence in the car.  It was as if the sound of smiling permeated the air, and what happened next was unavoidable: Elias and I lost it.

We were laughing so hard Elias had to pull the car over.

Maybe you had to be there to fully appreciate this, but the whole sequence of events was hilarious to us - Rosemary's confident leap from the car, her subsequent confusion and sheepishness, her guard flagging her down from next door...

When the laughing finally started to subside, Elias had a thought.

"Imagine if the residents at the first house had opened the gate," he tried to say, but he was in tears before he could finish.

A hardy laugh is contagious and almost intoxicating, and the two of us laughed uncontrollably for what seemed like several more minutes.  Then Elias started driving again.

We didn't get far before the laughter returned, but soon enough I was home.

And for the next few days, Elias and I couldn't make eye contact without cracking up.


At all the employee residences in Addis Ababa, the Embassy provides night guards (well, for the American employees, anyway).  Beyond this, many people elect to hire additional household staff including mamitas (ladies who cook and/or clean inside the house), gardeners, drivers, day guards, and nannies.

While initially not wanting to hire any household staff, I decided to retain the gardener/day guard, Chane, who basically came with my house.  When I drew up his employment contract, I opted to use a fill-in-the-blank form available at the Embassy.  This contract template had blanks for salary, paid holidays, bonuses, working hours, and other employment particulars, and there was also a biodata section to fill-in.

My gardener speaks very little English, so I decided to complete the biodata section during the guards' shift change at 7 AM.  That way, I could enlist my night guard, Yonas - who was going off duty - to translate.

Yonas was more than happy to help, and he started conversing with Chane in Amharic to collect the requested information.

After a minute or two of chit-chat, Yonas had recorded Chane's address, phone numbers, and date and place of birth.  Then I looked the form over, and something caught my eye: Was Chane really born on June 10, 1937?

By now my shuttle had arrived, so I didn't have time to delve into the issue any further.  In any case, assuming that this was his correct birthday, I wasn't going to not hire him just because he was old.

That day at work, Chane's age was on my mind.

I showed his contract to my colleague Julia to get her opinion.

"Are you sure you want a 75-year-old man for a gardener?" she asked me.

Chane actually looked to me to be in his 50s, so I wasn't convinced that he was 75.  Still, Julia got me thinking.

A few days later, I broached the subject with Yonas.

"Oh, that birthday is totally wrong," he told me.

Then he went on to explain.

Apparently when he asked Chane what day he was born, Chane had no idea.

"It was during the rainy season..." he started to explain to Yonas, and then he continued his explanation with some other agrarian references.

"We don't have time for this," Yonas told him.  "Your birthday will be June 10."

"What year?" Yonas continued.

Again there was confusion.  Since the Ethiopian calendar is based on the Coptic calendar, and the Western calendar is Gregorian, the year in Ethiopia is always 7 to 8 years behind the West.

As with his day of birth, Chane wasn't sure about his year of birth, but he guessed it was 1937.  Assuming his guess was based on the Ethiopian calendar, however, that would make his year of birth 1945 on the Gregorian calendar.

So, Chane was possibly 67, 75, or more likely, none of the above.  That's the tricky thing about being born in a rural village, I suppose.

Realizing that his date of birth was completely meaningless, I didn't bother including it on the final contract.  At least the whole experience had been good for a laugh.


One day on the ride home from work, I was talking with my driver, Feseha.

"Where's a good place to take a girl for a drink?" I asked him.  Specifically, I was interested in a lounge, as opposed to a club or a bar.

Feseha was very eager to help and started throwing out ideas.  After mulling over several options, he decided that the best choice would be a place called Radio in the Bole area of town.

His suggestion was very helpful already, but then Feseha took the helpfulness up a notch.

"Do you want me to drive you?" he asked me.  "It would be no problem; I live only 10 minutes from you."

Obviously Feseha was a paid professional driver at the Embassy, but he was offering to drive me in his personal car on his personal time.  This was exceptionally generous.

Before I could respond, however, he interrupted me to sweeten the offer even more.

"Wait, I have a better idea!" he exclaimed.  "Did you get your Ethiopian driver's license yet?  In that case, you can borrow my car.  You need to make a good impression after all."

This was off-the-chart generous, and I was touched by his offer.

In the end, though, I didn't accept for a few reasons.

For starters, the woman I was meeting had a car and would be handling the driving herself.  Also, I hadn't yet gotten my Ethiopian driver's license.

So, I thanked Feseha and explained to him why I wouldn't accept his offer.  Besides the two reasons I mentioned above, there was of course one more thing:

"If I go out for drinks," I explained, "I really shouldn't be driving."

Just at that moment, we had to swerve to avoid colliding with a kamikaze mini-bus.

"Maybe a few drinks wouldn't be such a bad thing," he joked. "I think half the people on the road are drunk already."

Amen, brother!

We both had a good laugh over that one.


My colleague Diane threw a great garden party one weekend, so fittingly we were standing in her yard admiring her garden.

In the center of the yard was an evergreen tree of some sort, and it was trimmed in a most unusual fashion.  Basically, all the branches on one side had been cut off.

"That's an interesting way to prune a tree," I remarked.

Well, my comment touched a nerve, and Diane proceeded to give us the back-story.

If I understood correctly, another tree in the yard collapsed one day and slightly damaged the fir tree.  In hopes of making the damage less noticeable, Diane's landlord hired a professional tree service for a touch-up grooming.  When the professionals arrived a few days later, however, Diane's gardener sent them away.  He thought it was a waste of money to pay these so-called experts when he himself was quite capable of grooming a tree.  Needless to say, both Diane and her landlord were less than impressed with the results.  Ha ha.

Once my tree comment got her started, Diane continued discussing her ongoing challenges with her gardener.    As she swept her hand across her garden, she delivered one of my favorite lines in recent memory:

"I keep trying to explain to him," she told us in her Boston accent, "the goal is not to have one rose that's nine feet tall!"

And throughout her garden, there was ample evidence to support her frustration.  The roses were indeed long and lonely; different varieties of ground cover had been allowed to grow tall and spindly, and a few of the shrubs could have used a trim.

I had a good laugh.  To be fair, though, while it wasn't quite ready for Better Homes and Gardens, Diane's garden wasn't too shabby.

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