A Rural Lady in Addis
The following story by the renowned author Sebhat Gebre-Egziabher was published in June 1992 edition of Yekatit magazine. The language- elegant, lyrical, – evokes picture of a highland woman struggling her way in the city. It provides a vivid glimpse of the old woman’s world view. Addis Journal is taking the liberty to post most part of the article here.
She is old. She looks ancient. She lives by brewing and selling tella, preparing and selling very inexpensive food, and making and selling cotton yarn. You might say she has three jobs. And she does them well. At any rate, well enough to enable her to make ends meet, or, as she would put it, to keep body and soul together. She also says, “What will you have? Life has become an existence from hand to mouth. Times were when it was different.’ These days being Woizero Simmegn is a very tiring thing. Very tiring also, always trying to make ends meet.
The old lady has seen better days ‘in her country,’ in the Highlands where her father used to dote on her and her husbands and uncounted lovers used to go crazy over her. You can see that she once used to be very beautiful indeed. It gives you a strange feeling to see the facial expressions of an outrageously flirtatious beauty playing on the old wrinkled face with those dim eyes. An eerie feeling.
‘When they bless you in my country,’ she says they say, ‘May He give you evening nourishment,’ which is to say ‘May God provide for your old age.’ What a blessing it is I am in a position to fully realize. In my case, God provided plenty for my younger days, but in my old age he has destined me to provide for myself.’
But she is not bitter-merely obstinately determined to go on with the grim business of living. Once a man said to her, ‘God will look after us.’ And she answered with full confidence, ‘Of course He will look after us. It’s His job. Our job is to do honest work for our living and to be thankful to Him and keep His commandments. ‘(It crosses my mind that she does not take the adultery commandment seriously. So long as you harm nobody, there’s no sin, she says.)
I asked Woizero Simmegn if she agreed with the dictum (Epicurean?): ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’
‘Not every day,’ she says, and adds with a wry smile, ‘in any case, we could not afford to. But within the means He has given us we should eat and drink and make merry. But on the prescribed days like Lent, we should fast and pray for forgiveness of our many sins.’
At this point she looks up to heaven, makes an entreating gesture with the palms upward, and she says,
‘Forgive me my Mother Mary!’
‘Are you sure she will intercede for you?’
‘Of course, I’m sure. Why shouldn’t I be?’
Woizero Simmegn’s name implies that when she was born her parents said ‘Just whom we were wishing for!’ She was a most wanted child.
She brews tella. This is back-breaking work, and also face-burning work, as the barely that has to be roasted involves exposure to the raging flames and the choking billows of smoke. The clients who eat and drink at her place will see her coming back from her kitchen, back bent, face determined, eyes red and brimming with tears.
(She comes in wiping them)
Baking injera also involves being semi roasted with what she is baking.
Having done with all the body-tiring load of work, she leaves her kitchen for good. You know this when you see her coming in with all the embers in the clay container which, when she does her coffee ceremony, will serve to burn the incense. For now she makes herself comfortable on her box-chair, pulls the embers close to her, surveys the room and the customers, is satisfied that all is in order, and reaches for the straw container (aghelgil) where awaits her the cotton and the inzirt ( tiny distaff).
She relaxedly starts to spin. You can see this is no work for her but pleasure. Her hands and eyes are doing productive work, and at the same time, her mind is relaxing. Now is the time to converse with her. Following are her comments on life, some coming spontaneously from herself, some prompted by my questions because I find this lady to be very interesting in her thinking, very refreshing in her courage.
On the fate of the sixty-one dignitaries who were the first group to be exterminated by the Derg: “Inscrutable are the ways of God as He directs our destiny. A king is exposed to public insult and a mere army major jumps and sits on the throne… The wealth and the power and the fame went to their heads. They really thought they were going to stay on top permanently. They overlooked the shifting hand of God. And they were impertinent towards the Creator. They presumed to choose where they would be buried. Their exalted position made them forget the simple every-day fact that though we know when and where we shall die. And there they went having their own tombs and metal fences. They tempted God. And they answered for it with their lives, the poor dears!’
On Mengistu Haile Mariam and his tyranny: ‘He has very little do with it, you know. He is merely the instrument of God. God has raised him from the dust and put him on the throne to punish us. We the people have sinned and we are being punished. When we repent and ask for forgiveness and God relents, He will remove Mengistu in his own unforeseeable ways. You mark my words,…I did mark her words. And later, when Mengistu was safely out of harm’s way and settled down as a gentleman farmer in Harare, I asked he what she thought of these EPRDF people.
‘They have very little to do with it, you know. They are merely the instruments of God. And when they will have fulfilled his plans, they will make way for other instruments who are to fulfill others of His plans. All are takers of turns, temporary, like the dew we all are. Here this moment, gone the next. I like Abrahm when he says, ‘Is five hundred years all that is assigned to me on this earth? In that case why bother to build a house of stone? I would rather pass this short life in a tent. And he did! And his faith in submitting to God’s command to sacrifice his one and only son! Already, to see your son go to war is painful enough for a father. But to be told to tie down the one and only son, take the knife and cut his throat, with your own hand, to slaughter him as If he were a sheep –now she looked me in the eye and said,
‘Would you do it?’
‘Of course not!’
‘Of course not! You better thank God you are not Abraham. Poor man, to have to face God!’
It suddenly occurs to me to ask: How come you know these things about Abraham?
‘I go to church don’t I? Besides, my soul’s father (i.e. father confessor) back home knew these things and he used to tell them to us while he and my father drank tella and talked, and talked, and talked. To tell you the truth, it always surprises me when I hear men claim that we women talk, and talk, and talk. Here we need a third party to judge us. The eunuch perhaps?’ she laughs then, she the- long-ago daughter as if it were a naughty child, and, looking up to heaven, pleads with her upturned palms:
‘Forgive me thou, my Mother Mary!’
Woizero simmegn may be all submission and prayer when it comes to the-all-powerful- who-can-do-whatever-he-likes-and who-is-to-question-him-God-and to the all sweet, all the birth-pangs of mothers, she who intercedes even for the Eater-of-Men.