The first thing I knew about Seth was that he was a poet and a father, a husband who loved his wife, who spoke like an elder in the gates about her. A man like that is trustworthy enough on those merits alone. Then he asked me to join his team of church folk over at Deeper Church where he is editor. It is rare to have a good editor, one who pastors and who picks not at grammar and structure and prose, but who sees each piece as a mere stone in the cathedral, a beam in the sanctuary, part of a whole. Seth is that kind of editor and that kind of friend.
Our driver’s name was not Kabede, but for the sake of giving you the sense of things, it will be his given name in the following. The English translation of Kabede is “getting heavy,” so it seems appropriate, and I must admit, when I discuss my time in Ethiopia, it tends to come across this way.
As a caveat, I mostly prefer to confine my discussions of Ethiopia to the internet real estate of others. I do this for two distinct reasons. First, I enjoy stirring the pot, although this enjoyment is typically confined to the pots sitting on my neighbors’ stoves. Secondly, writing in another forum allows me some notion (perhaps a feigned one) of plausible deniability, whereafter I can pretend as if I never penned these words, as if I never opened this can of nightcrawlers. I can either hide or not, depending upon how the weather hits me at the particular moment, and currently, I feel it’s cloudy with a chance of rainy season.
Plausible deniability is, of course, the playing field of the cowardly. But lest you think I am finished with the caveats of cowards, allow me another. The following account is fictitious. Not really. It is, actually, less of a fiction and more of piling up of various nonfictions. It is a synthetic work comprising the stories of various taxi drivers, in various blue cars, pointing out the various Chinesings of the Ethiopian landscape. This is the way it has to be on Lore’s real estate, because the discrete works would take days and days, and her real estate is no more mine than the Ethiopian real estate is the Chinese. And this synthesis of peoples, stories, and taxis must, by its very nature, be Kabede.
Things are getting heavy, see.
The roads leaving Addis Ababa were slick black, fresh tarred like those of some new suburban enclave in Fort Worth, except without all King Ranch trucks. Kabebe rolled his window down because the air on the road to Adama, the wind coming up from the Great Rift Valley, was dry and clean. Arm hanging out the window, he pointed down to the blacktop and yelled, “Chinese.”
“What?” I asked over the rip of the road wind.
“Chinese,” he responded, and then added, “they paved these roads!”
“Come again?” I responded.
Kabebe rolled up his window and reached down to his iPod. He pressed play and Johnny Cash sang “it burned, burned, burned, the ring of fire.” Kabede turned the volume knob to a mere background level and said in singsong tenor “the Chinese, they’ve built all these roads. See that?” He pointed across my chest and out the window. “That is a warehouse. Chinese built that, too. They do not allow Ethiopians in, so we are not sure what’s behind the walls.”
Kabede shrugged his shoulders as I examined the warehouse. There were two empty guard shacks and a high iron fence topped with barbed wire which surrounded the complex. The yard was pristine with no signs of life, though the facility itself was larger than the ones in my hometown that produce the various and sundry Whirlpool and Rheem appliances. We sat, each internally stoking various conspiracy theories. I considered whether the yard was the staging ground for some coming Armageddon, or whether, instead, it was merely a low rent widget plant. Perhaps it made Whirlpool and Rheem knockoffs.
“I hate the Chinese,” Kabede offered. Of course, this was an offensive notion to me inasmuch as I am an American and have always been taught that racism of any sort unacceptable. “Racism,” my sixth grade math teacher once said, “is the province of unenlightened redneckery.” The application of my grade-school lessons to Kabede, however, seemed dismissive and equally unenlightened, so I turned to him and asked, “Why, Kabede, do you hate the Chinese?”
“They have come here to fix Ethiopia,” he said, which was no explanation at all. I have found this is one of the crowning qualities of the people of Ethiopia. They lead you to the water, yes, but they never make you drink.
Kabede reached for a handful of roasted barley.
“Is it so wrong to come to fix Ethiopia?” I asked. “What do the Chinese ask in return?”
“Ahh,” he sighed. “They have come here to fix Ethiopia, and in return, we give them natural resources. We give them our minerals, our energy. We give them the stuff of our ground. They come here to fix Ethiopia. They give us roads that may last twenty years. We give them resources that make them rich. And the people of Adama? The people of the Awash river? They are still poor.”
“They come to fix Ethiopia, and they go to our tourist traps; they dance to our music and throw us coins. They bring their karaoke.” Now he was laughing full-bore. “I hate karaoke,” he said. “And I hate them. That is okay, right?”
I had not the heart to tell him that karaoke might actually be a Japanese term, mostly because I was afraid that the Japanese had likewise offended him and I could not stomach this much talk of other people groups. Instead, I said nothing and we drove closer toward Adama as Johnny sang about a boy named Sue.
“This is my favorite,” Kabede said. “An American gave me this cd. It is my favorite of all American music.”
I inquired as to the American, but Kabede said he did not want to talk about it. I pushed further, and he said only that the American came for an adoption. “They came to take their baby home to America,” he said. “He was a cute baby.”
“How do you feel about that?” I asked Kabede.
He smiled and said, “they took their child home. That is all I have to say about that. Actually, I suppose I have more to say. They took their child home, and they left me this cd.”
“What is it that you call Johnny Cash?” he asked.
“The man in black,” I said.
“Ah yes,” he said. “That is right, sir.”
And with that, we drove into the outskirts of Adama.