Amongst the Gurage: 27 Years Later (page 2)

A smile from the soul
Needing a little break from all the laughter, I walked outside on the porch to watch the fading sun fall below the western horizon. While day slowly turned to dusk, a lone figure sitting atop a brown mule decked out in tribal regalia rode into the compound. Blinded by the sun, I could only see the long khaki trench coat and brown felt hat that covered this stranger. Someone moved forward to grab the reins as I wondered if this was the man who invited me into this household so many years ago. If this was the person whose eloquence and energy, whose position and power, whose patience and perseverance, made it possible for me to accomplish what little I did. Could this be Abagaaz?

The man dismounted, then adjusted his hat and coat, while those joining me outside fell silent in anticipation. He then turned towards the house and squinted his aging eyes in my direction. Recognizing whom it was, I left the porch and stepped forward.

"Ato Mikhail?" His startled voice echoed in my ears.

"Hello Abagaaz. How are you?"

A broad smile from the soul exploded across Abagaaz’s face as he stepped forward and bear-hugged me as if clinging to the last life vest on a sinking ship.

"It can’t be! It can’t be! Ato Mikhail! Ato Mikhail! Is it really you?" Abagaaz chanted.

I could do no more then continue the embrace.

The rest of the house emptied as Abagaaz and I continued our elation by planting kisses of joy on each other’s flushed cheeks. Abagaaz then abruptly stepped back and asked those around us to verify that he wasn’t dreaming. When they laughed in the affirmative, Abagaaz praised God then led me back into our old home where we sat and talked until the years of separation withered away.

Throughout our reunion I couldn’t help but admire how Abagaaz appeared and acted. Except for a gray, stubbly mustache and beard, which actually gave him a more distinguished look, he hadn’t changed at all. He seemed just as agile and strong as before, and even though he had some hearing loss, his mind and wit were as sharp as ever. He was thin but fit, more deliberate yet active, and still commanded immense respect as head of household, village, and clan. He complained about his teeth hurting and his eyes not being quite the same, but it didn’t stop him from travelling about adjudicating matters and eating whatever was offered. Whatever he did, whenever he spoke, people would stop, look and listen. I figured he had to be at least in his upper seventies but his natural charm and innate charisma made him seem much younger.

Abagaaz captivated the now capacity-filled room with story upon story of our past exploits and experiences that seemed to have taken on legendary status. He told them how there was no t’ef in Gurage country until I introduced it and how I continuously cajoled skeptical "volunteer" farmers to donate a piece of their dry virgin land for the grain trials. He laughed when he remembered that after the monsoon, when the demonstration plots turned into fields of gold, all the farmers said they knew their land was fertile and could grow t’ef! He recalled another time, during the middle of the long Christian lental fast, when we couldn’t eat meat, eggs or dairy products for 56 days. I had walked into the village soaking wet from head to foot carrying a small deer strapped around my neck that my dog had run down and finally captured in the middle of a deep creek. Abagaaz told how I hung the carcass
on my tukul, skinned it, cleaned it, then divided it up amongst the starving children who were religiously exempt, allowing them and myself to do nothing but eat meat for four full days. But the house really roared when he described the night a visitor was pronouncing a serious, heartfelt blessing over a bottle of areka by beseeching God to give Abagaaz many children, much prosperity and "Big Injera" — metaphorically meaning "lots of bread," "lots of food." At that point, having already lost considerable weight from the sparse Gurage diet, I interrupted the blessing by saying that even a "Little Injera" would be just fine.

Buzu Nesh and the children
Just after sundown, Buzu Nesh, Abagaaz’s wife, returned from her daughter’s home. I recognized her immediately and called out to her. She almost gasped her last breath upon seeing me, then prayed aloud as I approached her with open arms. We exchanged awkward cheek kisses then stood in awe of each other until Buzu Nesh, still dumbfounded, took the offered seat next to mine. Sitting there with her usual elegance, I could tell she had gained some weight, which was good to see — as were her characteristic radiant smile and dignified grace that contributed greatly to the warmth of the room. I observed that she had also grown in stature and was regarded in the highest esteem as was indicated by the positioning of her seat near Abagaaz, the other male elders and myself. I asked about the children and she beamed as she said that Gize Werk, her first daughter — whose home she had just been visiting — had four children, the last being born a week ago. Then, after a quick inquisitive glance towards Abagaaz, she asked if I knew she had had four more children, three girls and a boy, after I left Gofrer? I didn’t, so she first reminded me of Gebre Mikhail, the boy born just as I departed, and then went on to name the four others. With her help I recited the names of the previous children and added them to the latest four and came up with a double-digit number!

"So you have 11 children now?" I exclaimed to a blushing, nodding "Buzu" — which means many in Amharic. "Really? Where are the new ones?" I inquired while studying the faces of the young people sitting around the room.

Buzu Nesh laughed then glanced at Abagaaz again as if to ask "You didn’t tell him?"

"They live in Europe."

"What! No!"

"Yes!" She exclaimed. "Not only those four but three others too!"

"You’re kidding?" Now I looked at Abagaaz who confirmed what I heard with a sly wink. I stared dumbfounded as Buzu Nesh, displaying her radiant smile, explained that three girls, two born after I left, and two boys, both of whom I remembered, were in Holland, while a boy, who was a baby during my time, and girl, born long after, resided in Germany.

"Only Tigist remains at home." She said, clutching her last child.

You could have knocked me over with a dry false banana leaf! I could only listen while Buzu Nesh proudly told me that little Petros, a breast sucking baby back in 1972, was ordained as a Catholic priest in Holland two years ago and that she attended the religious ceremony.

"You went to Europe? I don’t get to Europe!"

"Abagaaz too!" She said.

My mouth dropped wide open.

"I stayed in Europe for three years," Abagaaz said nonchalantly.

I couldn’t even blink. Buzu broke the silence by telling Tigist to bring out the pictures.

For the next few incredible minutes I reviewed an album full of color photographs depicting my thought to be, humble and poor, Gurage farming family living in Europe! I saw Father Petros being ordained in Holland! I saw Buzu Nesh standing in a front row pew! I saw her children smartly dressed for the occasion standing next to their mother! Then I viewed another series of pictures showing Abagaaz, wearing a black hat and long black coat, standing with two of his children in Frankfurt and with five of them in Amsterdam! The photographic proof of their surprising proclamations went on and on!

I sat there completely astounded while the photographs were returned to their hiding place. From out of nowhere another bottle of areka suddenly appeared and a village visitor began bestowing even more blessings of prosperity and happiness upon Abagaaz and Buzu Nesh. Listening carefully, I realized these blessings were actually verbalizations of short-term objectives and long term goals the Gurage strive to attain. By vocalizing them, they remind themselves to stay focussed on the important things in life: a large healthy family, a long prosperous life, and many good friends. Once the village values were said, and Abagaaz kissed his neighbor’s forehead, all shot glasses were filled to the brink. And as they were being nursed, or drained, I looked around at Agaki, Shikur, Barega, Haile, Tigist, Buzu Nesh and Abagaaz and felt very fortunate for being there.

My photos
I also felt it was time to bring out some photographs of my own! So I reached into my travelling bag and pulled out a large stack of color and black and white prints that I had duplicated from the countless slides shot while living here during my Peace Corps service. These photographs depicted various village activities in which everyone in the room was involved. No one had seen these photos and when I passed them around they were a huge hit. I couldn’t control the silly grin plastered on my face as Abagaaz, Buzu Nesh, and everybody, saw for the first time, candid photographs of themselves, and others, working the ensete fields, plowing with oxen, grinding coffee, building the tukul, splitting wood, or just standing around, three decades ago! Hindered by their aging eyes and the quirky light from a kerosene lamp, they had quite a time deciding the correct identity of each person in
each photograph and what they were doing. When they finally did, depending on whether the person was deceased or alive, they either solemnly spoke kind words or laughed until the house shook.

Everyone was simply thrilled reviewing the photographs that served to stimulate more animated conversation and the drinking of more coffee and areka. This continued for another couple of hours until some exhausted neighbors started to excuse themselves and head home. Taking their cue, I insisted that Daniel and I return to the Endiber hotel for the night, promising to return the following day. Over Abagaaz’s protests, we readied to leave by off-loading the t’ef flour and other foodstuffs, then said goodbye to about 20 hand-waving Gurages and drove off into the warm night.

I awoke early the next morning feeling "Gurage" in more ways then one. Liters of coffee couldn’t relieve the lingering effects of the night before. While deciding upon breakfast, or not, a medium sized man with a very gaunt appearance strolled over to the table and spoke my name. It was Sahle, little Sahle, the boy who lived with me so long ago. I stood and caught his lunge with a hard hug as he exclaimed my name over and over while squeezing me faint. Sahle was visibly shaken and would never have released me had not Daniel helped him sit down at our table. Paralyzed with fearful joy, he just sat there staring in utter disbelief, waiting for my apparition to disappear. When I stumbled with the language, he snapped to, realizing that I was indeed in Endiber and this was not
a cruel dream.

Our conversation was both sincere and short. He began by quickly apologizing for having to leave rather soon due to his employment as a driver for a private, non-governmental agency in Welkite. Then over the next few minutes he told me about his marriage to Almaz and the small boy and baby girl she gave him. They were all fine and healthy and had lived in a small koro-koro house in Endiber for many years. I was very happy to hear about his good fortune. But after an uncomfortable pause,
he began telling me how his life had dramatically changed for the worse after I left Gofrer. He itemized numerous major difficulties and extreme hardships he endured alone and my previous good feelings turned to sadness. As he described his late boyhood and early adulthood, I saw those harsh years branded upon his haggard face and skeletal frame and knew that he did indeed suffer horribly.

Coffee came and when it did Sahle flashed a familiar, but old, smile and said, in effect, "but that was then and this is now." And I saw his childhood jubilation reappear when he described the love he had for his wife and children and the joy they had brought him. He was also grateful for his employment but, knowing how temporary jobs can be in Ethiopia, wanted to provide more security for his family by building a second, larger home on the same lot and then renting out the existing house. He enthusiastically inventoried the building materials already assembled: wood poles, large foundation rocks, filtered sand. All he needed now was 60 sheets of corrugated tin, koro-koro, and construction would begin. Later, I’d see what I could do.

It was good to see Sahle and to hear his dreams. I wanted to talk more but he had to rush off to Welkite, 20 miles away. Before leaving, though, he told me about Teru Nesh, the young girl who shared our lives and helped us live in the tukul. She was alive and well and living near Abagaaz in Gofrer and was working at Mission Meganassie. That was good news. Then Sahle stood to leave and as we exchanged the hug of a long lost son being reunited with a runaway father I promised to visit his home and family very soon.

Teru Nesh
After a couple more rounds of sweetened coffee, Daniel and I jumped in the Corolla and headed in the direction of Gofrer. Wanting to see Teru Nesh, we first went to Mission Meganassie, and came upon Aberre who was standing outside the infirmary with clipboard in hand and wearing a white smock. He stopped his work and directed us up a dirt driveway towards the original stone church where I could see Teru Nesh holding a basket of freshly washed clothes. As our car approached, she hurried over and met me with a welcoming embrace. She had heard I was in Gofrer, as I had heard she was in Meganassie, but that didn’t hinder our wonderment at seeing each other once again. After exchanging warm salutations, we leaned against the shady church wall and swapped our life stories.

Teru Nesh looked super. She was mature and a mother now, but managed to keep her youthful appearance and charming mannerisms. She was healthy and happy and proud to tell me about her two teenage boys and teenage girl. But her mood changed when she relayed the news of the premature death of her husband three years earlier. She confessed to missing him and told about the ensuing sudden struggle of raising three children, managing livestock and cultivating ensete all alone. But now, happily, she was safe and secure working in the mission. Her gentle happiness reappeared as she spread the village gossip about mutual friends of years gone by and remembered the joyous simple times Sahle, she and I had shared together in Gofrer. When it was time to part, she thanked God for my visit and invited me to her home for coffee and to meet her children. And when I visited them, it felt as comfortable as being back in my own living room.

My tukul
I then continued on to Gofrer where I found Abagaaz taking advantage of the morning coolness by working in the ensete plantation. It was the transplanting season and he was busy prying up a two-year-old ensete with a traditional two-pronged digging stick. He tested my memory by shouting a Gurage greeting to which I responded with the correct Gurage reply, much to the delight of all around. I wanted to help work the ensete but Abagaaz wouldn’t have it, preferring instead to see me go into the koro-koro house for coffee.

I nodded compliance but turned, instead, towards my tukul, which I hadn’t examined yet. There it was, thirty yards away, standing straight and tall and looking great! In fact, as I thought the day before, it looked almost new! The roof thatch was thick and full — yet to be weathered, while the exterior circular wall was clear and unseasoned. That seemed a bit odd, but not as odd as the shimmering reflection coming off the top of the roof!

Walking closer for a better look, I blinked when I saw a layer of custom cut sheets of shiny corrugated tin fabricated around, over and upon the apex of the roof and center pole! That is, the exterior portion of the center pole and the first three feet of thatch were covered with . . . with . . . with metal . . . with tin! To say that I was somewhat taken aback by this new look would be a gross understatement. Even though I figured this architectural innovation was done to prolong the life of the roof by preventing monsoon rain and wind from causing havoc to the grass near the center pole interface, it was still a shocking sight. Undoubtedly, this slight, but to my mind significant, modification altered the original construction to a certain extent, and, as far as I could tell, made my tukul the only one of its kind! After a long, long, wistful skyward gaze, I got over it and continued my inspection.

Approaching the entrance, I noticed that my old solid wooden door had been replaced with a thinner "Dutch" door of lesser quality. I was about to poke my hatted head through the upper portion when my attention was distracted by some small shining objects sparkling on the outside wall. Bending down to get a closer look, I was startled and sick to see that those small shiny objects were none other then tiny nail heads! I couldn’t believe it! Stepping back, as if to avoid the strike of a deadly serpent, I saw that the original exterior 13-foot vertical split timbers used to build the tukul wall, were fastened together, not with traditional hand twisted ensete rope tied around thin eucalyptus saplings, as before, but with 2 inch by 2 inch trim wood that was, oh my God, nailed on! Aaaaaahhhhhh....!!!! I thought I’d never live to see the day! Whereas before there might have been a dozen nails to hold the hinges, now there were hundreds, if not thousands, of six penny nails hammered deep into the heart and soul of my 28 year old tukul!

Rocked, I pushed open the bottom half of the Dutch door and fell inside. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, other unexpected modifications came into view. Most prominent was a solid eight-foot tall wooden plank wall with door and window cutouts, running the full width of the tukul. Although it was considered as customary in Gurage interior designing, in my tukul, it looked like a formidable fence with a gate! This wooden barrier replaced my previous design of two separate plywood walls running from the side walls to four feet on either side of the center pole that allowed easy egress and ingress into my bedroom/kitchen area. Now this new wall-to-wall wall, set just behind the center pole, served to split the tukul, more or less, in half!

Curious as to what was on the other side, I ventured through the tiny cut out door and was dismayed to see half a dozen empty cattle stalls littered with straw and dung! Resting outside the stalls were tethered two young calves busy chewing their cud and wondering who the heck I was. In addition to the confused calves was Abagaaz’s mule standing and crapping right where my bed used to be, while away in the manger were three sheep baying to be let loose and a dozen chickens dining on fleas! My tukul was a barn!

Staggering back into the side hopefully still reserved for human occupation, I noticed that the earthen floor was covered with large dirty brown straw mats and wondered whether Agaki still smeared diluted cow dung around? My weary body slumped onto a wooden stool and I saw that even this side was a little different now as the upper half of the interior mud wall was painted with a henna type coloring that made the tukul feel like a prehistoric cave. As I sat staring at the changes, my dazed eyes focussed on a wisp of white smoke drifting aimlessly from the floor hearth up towards the center pole. Aahh . . . the center pole! I had almost forgotten! I jumped up and went over to this monstrous wireless telephone pole and searched for the everlasting proof that this was indeed, regardless of the unexpected alterations, my tukul. And there it was, two feet above my head, carved deep and wide and resembling a crude airplane standing straight up with a circle around it, the trademark of the 1960’s: a Peace Symbol!

I gently ran my hands over this universal symbol of peace as if to verify that I had completed a circle of my own, then sat back down to reflect on that period of time when I occupied this tukul and was part of the Gurage so long ago. My steady gaze upon each little area of the tukul brought back warm vivid memories of the people and the life I lived and loved. Looking up into the dark handwoven ceiling, now cluttered with dusty cobwebs, brought back stirring recollections of how the entire village strained to raise the center pole, then whooped it up when it stood! That was a day to remember!

My random thoughts ended when Abagaaz stuck his head into the tukul and asked if I was dreaming?

"It sure feels like a dream." I replied.

Abagaaz pushed open the Dutch door and rested his perspiring body next to mine. As he wiped the sweat from his brow, I briefly mentioned the noticeable changes to the tukul. He looked around, nodding in agreement, then began chronicling the history of the tukul. I sat in rapture as Abagaaz began his narration by explaining that soon after I left an angry court case loser from another village tried to burn down the tukul during the night. The dogs had provided enough warning for Abagaaz to load his revolver and fire a warning shot that scared off the arsonist just as he was setting fire to part of that year’s t’ef crop. Fearing the arsonist’s return, Abagaaz removed the thatch and kept the roof open for two rainy seasons, during which time the ensete rope began to loosen its tight bind around the eucalyptus saplings holding the wall. When the arson threat had passed, the tukul was re-roofed in its "as-is" condition and that thatch held up until just last year when another roof was then sorely needed. However, due to the shortage of good quality thatch and skilled roofers, the cost of replacing the roof had become exorbitant causing Abagaaz and Buzu Nesh to debate whether the expense could be justified. After all, it was used mostly as a barn! But when the issue came up during a family discussion, Abagaaz said, everyone, even the children, wanted to save this tukul because it was Ato Mikhails!

So the new roof was ordered. But not before the outer lateral eucalyptus saplings were replaced with two by two trim wood hammered on with the spurious nails. I grimaced when Abagaaz mentioned that four-letter word — nail, and had to ask why
wasn’t the traditional ensete rope used to tie it all together . . . like before? Abagaaz replied, matter-of-factly, that the cost of locating and harvesting strong ensete, then fabricating it into rope before hauling it to the site to be laboriously woven into the wall was comparable, if not more, then the price of nails. And, he added with a sly grin, nails will last longer. Quite happy that the tukul was restored in the first place, I couldn’t argue.

When questioned about the koro-koro up on the center pole and roof, Abagaaz confirmed my suspicions by saying it was to provide a buffer against the ravages of monsoon wind and rain and thwart the nesting ambitions of pesky birds. Sure, it was an added expense, he admitted, but since the expense of building a tukul today had risen to the equivalent of 2000 US dollars, it was cost effective. That surprised me because back then, my tukul was built for only $400.

Then I asked Abagaaz why the mule and cattle were living in my bedroom, and he just laughed.

There had also been hardship
After teasing me about the livestock living in various sections of my former habitat, Abagaaz changed the conversation and told me how he and many other farmers used the knowledge and practices learned from the agricultural trials I had initiated. The following year, he himself was able to obtain enough seed and fertilizer to cultivate a large portion of virgin land and then harvested many quintals of t’ef. The arsonist did burn some of it, but not all, so there was "Big Injera" for a few years. And not just here in Gofrer, he explained, other farmers in neighboring villages also sowed t’ef with good results. And, Abagaaz smiled, many farmers also continued planting carrots and beets each rainy season, which was a big hit all around!

Everything was going along rather well until about 1977 when the communist Derg government came to Endiber to impose their political will on the Gurage. Soon thereafter, the Derg began enforcing their concept of land reform by imprisoning or shooting the village chiefs and other prominent landowners. Abagaaz himself had to flee Gofrer and became a fugitive hunted by the Derg for over three years during which time Buzu Nesh kept the family and household together. Still, he lost much of his land holdings. But, Abagaaz spoke clearly — had it not been for Buzu Nesh, who stood up to the Derg, once daring them to shoot a woman, he would have lost everything, including this very homestead.

With downcast eyes he described horrible atrocities committed by the Derg upon the Gurage. He listed individual names of elders and chiefs, his friends and relatives, some of whom I knew, that were caught and shot. It was a terrible time, for during the Derg terror, t’ef and vegetable seed became unavailable so the fields lay fallow. The Gurage relied totally, as they had done for hundreds of years, on ensete and qoch’o for survival. But with the political uncertainty and the social upheaval it was even difficult to cultivate that! Many problems ensued followed by much hunger, sickness and death. It was a bad time.

I sat attentively as Abagaaz continued trying to catch me up on the past 27 years and listened with mixed feelings of sadness and joy at the many events that occurred during that long period. We continued talking until we heard Buzu Nesh calling us for lunch. Dazed by the sudden rush of village information and stories, I stumbled slowly out of my tukul and accompanied Abagaaz back to the koro-koro house. Inside we joined Buzu Nesh, Barega, Shikur, Haile, Agaki, Tigist and others, for a meal of injera, t’ef, qoch’o, roasted barley and chick peas. And as I nursed a familiar cup of coffee, I looked around at my friends and Gurage family and thanked God for the opportunity to be amongst them once again.

Copyright 1999 Michael Santarelli

You can email Michael at michaelsanta@hotmail.com

Note: In the Summer, 1998 issue of our newsletter, The Herald, there was an article - "To Build a Tukul" - by Michael Santarelli telling of the building of a Gurage tukul that was his home as a PCV and how he had photographed the building process. In 1995 Michael prepared a set of 137 slides with commentary as an historical record of the construction. At our reunion at UCLA in August of 1998 Michael presented the slide set (that can be borrowed from our library) - with delightful supplementary comments.
     In 2001, Michael prepared a CD on the building of his tukel. Copies of the CD can be purchased from him. Write michaelsanta@hotmail.com for more information. They are also available for purchase at www.cdslideshow.com.

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