It’s All the Same

In this tongue-in-cheek story from Ethiopia, a man ponders his spending habits, his proposal to regulate Ethiopian beggars, and whether to end his own life

 

1. 

I walked from Haya Hulet Mazoria to Arat Kilo. Walking is good for the health–it saves you from the headaches that come from having to pay for taxis. Another advantage is being able to admire God’s handiwork in making legs so sturdily–had God made legs from chalk, nothing would have remained below my waist after the walk from Haya Hulet to Arat Kilo.

 

2. 

For many years my daily spend was fifty birr. At one point I thought, instead of depleting my pocket of fifty per day, why not just take my own life? It wasn’t just a thought—I decided. I figured the best option would be to use a noose. But if I wished to remain the sort of gentleman used to being able to spend fifty birr a day, it seemed hardly fitting to submit to death brought about by a rope worth only a quarter.

So I decided I would see if I could manage to die by being hit by a luxury car instead. Being run over by a piece of machinery worth five hundred thousand birr felt a suitably dignified way to go, like spilling milk rather than blood. Having made my decision, I stood on the side of the road at Arat Kilo and began to wait. At first only old or rusted cars, buses cloudy with dust, and mud-covered bulldozers drove by. There wasn’t a single luxury vehicle in sight. I began to get tired and bored. My left armpit began to itch, and as I lifted up my other arm idly to scratch it, a car pulled over thinking I was trying to hitch a lift. The door opened and there was a lady inside. Not a young lady, exactly, but nor would it be appropriate to label her old. Perhaps it would be best to say she was a woman already in her prime who might remain there another thirty years.

Once inside I quickly appraised the car and concluded it could not be worth more than twenty thousand birr. It was no matter, as I concluded that it was better to be driven home in comfort by a car that cost twenty thousand than to be killed by one costing half a million.

So the woman pulls up, opens the passenger door, and asks me, “Where are you heading?”

I told her I was going home and she told me to get in, which I did. Once inside I quickly appraised the car and concluded it could not be worth more than twenty thousand birr. It was no matter, as I concluded that it was better to be driven home in comfort by a car that cost twenty thousand than to be killed by one costing half a million. (By the way, I eventually married the woman who was neither young nor old and had given me the ride, and we lived together blissfully for a while until I resumed my old habit of spending fifty birr a day and she divorced me.)

My father is bald and looks like a miser. When I turned thirty, I bought myself a mirror for fifty birr and saw in my reflection that I had gone bald like he had. I cried in front of the mirror for a good twenty minutes. I tried to tell myself that my tears were for others, not for me. That my old neighbor who I paid to cut my hair would now be losing income because of this. Eventually I realized I should not be getting so emotional over lost hair. I spent another fifty birr and bought a hat–alas it is only baldness and not frugality that is hereditary.

Being that as it was, I walked to Arat Kilo today. I really am making an effort to save. I still have the seventy birr in my pocket that I left the house with, and I have decided I must go home with at least fifty. I have been undisciplined in my spending habits thus far only because I have not been thinking in exact numbers and figures. Damn my third-grade math teacher–if he had only taught me more about numbers, I might not be so lost now in this age where even the tiniest children know how to use calculators.

I walked into a restaurant to rest my feet. It was a new establishment, and the eager staff, keen to create a good impression, gave me the VIP treatment. The owner himself brought me a Coke, his wife brought me the opener, and yet another waiter appeared with a glass. They stood around me, watching with anticipation as if I were the first person to ever taste a Coke. When I picked up the bottle to pour my drink, I noticed the price on the menu for a single Coke was three birr. I prayed silently to myself, “Lord, let me drink only half this bottle and let them charge me only half the price.”

A moment later, an elderly gentleman walked in and ordered some key wot, and as they brought it to him, the scent made its way directly into my nostrils. This seemed a deliberate attempt at causing trouble. I warned my nose: “Forget the key wot and think about smells that are free–the smell of meskel flowers, for example, or urine on the sidewalks.”

The smell of the food got stronger while my difficulties got worse. The aroma seemed to have fixed itself right underneath my nose rather than on the man’s plate. I could not take it anymore and covered my nose with my hand, pretending I had been amused by something.

“Join me,” said the old man. Now I was being tempted by his invitation as well as the smell of his food.

“No, thank you,” I said and looked away.

“To eat alone is against our culture,” he said to me. The old man was right; when he said this, I had no choice but to get up, wash my hands, and join him. It would not do to break with tradition, after all.

While we were eating, a bookseller walked in carrying enough books to fill half the National Library. The old man stopped eating, and with his clean hand picked a book off the top of the pile. He read a paragraph and returned it to its place. The seller gave him an inquisitive look.

“I don’t think you have the books I want,” the old man said. 

“What do you want?” asked the bookseller. 

“I’m interested in finding a particular book of poetry and one other called The Emperor’s Trip to Geneva: The External and Internal Political Problems and the Hope He Would Gain during Foreign and Local Diplomatic Relations. Might you have this one?”

“If you make a down payment, I can track it down for you. Repeat the title for me again. . . .”

 

3. 

The food was nearly gone and I didn’t want to appear greedy, so I began a conversation with the man to distract me from eating. “So you like books?”

“Yes,” said the man. “I especially like big books like War and Peace. The bigger the book is, the easier it is to find it when you lose it in the house. What about you, do you read? Is there a particular book you like to read over and over?”

“I only read and reread menus, never books,” I said, attempting to be humorous.

“Yes,” said the man. “I especially like big books like War and Peace. The bigger the book is, the easier it is to find it when you lose it in the house."

When we were done eating, we walked together to wash our hands. It didn’t take me long to rinse the berbere off my hands. I returned to my seat while the old man was still washing his hands. I thought he must have become mesmerized by the flow of the water, because he stayed there for nearly twenty minutes. It would not even have taken that long to install the faucet the water was coming from. Eventually I realized what was going on­–he wasn’t trying to wash the colored spice from his hands, he was waiting for me to pay the bill.

I paid the fifteen birr the waiter asked me for. After the bill was paid, the old man returned to sit beside me.

“I have yet to meet someone your age as nice as you are. You have more than made up for my encounter with the young man that was so insolent at the bus stop this morning,” he said.

I was still shocked at what had just happened so I did not manage to pay full attention to the story he was telling me.

Later, when I got home and thought about it, I realized that this is what he’d said: while he was standing at the bus stop waiting, he had turned to the young man standing next to him and asked, “Does sixty-four come back around again?” “The bus or the year?” was the reply he got back.

In the café, I had been distracted when he was telling me this story. How could I give my attention to a person that I had just had to pay for?

“Isn’t it sad?” he had continued on with his story despite my distraction, determined to solicit my opinion.

Having heard him say only the word “bus” and guessing at the rest, I replied quickly, “Yes, it is sad. He should have stood up and given you his seat.” 

“You haven’t been listening!” he yelled. Fearing he might now expect me to order drinks as compensation, I said goodbye and left.

 

4. 

When I left the old man, I went to find the secretary I’d been using to type up a project proposal I had written. I had come up with an idea for the Ethiopian Millennium. The project would cost a few hundred thousand birr. I was really hoping to secure the funding with my proposal.

Whilst Millennium celebrations are underway, beggars will wear good clothes, not rags, and those who say they do not possess such clothes will be sponsored by local garment manufacturers.

The project I want to do focuses on begging. It is well known that Addis Ababa ranks top amongst cities whose beggar populations are beyond control. This factor contributes to the negative image the rest of the world has of the country and results in the loss of respect for its people. My proposal puts forward a way to resolve the situation. I am suggesting the following steps be taken: 

1. Recruit a team of sociologists to conduct a study on the standards of beggars and grant those that are the most honest begging licenses.

2. Prevent those that can be proven to be dishonest from begging. If they complain, advise them on how to create other jobs for themselves and, if they are not able to do so, remove them from the capital. 

3. Once out of the city, track the ousted beggars by satellite, follow their movements into the regions to establish whether or not they have returned to begging. Those that persist as beggars must be removed from the country and stopped from finding homes in neighboring countries (better a country that forfeits some of her own citizens rather than one filled with dishonest unlicensed beggars). The people assigned to remove the beggars will be compensated from funds created from a specially assigned budget.

4. Honest beggars would have begging stations opened up for them and be allowed to beg on several major avenues in central Addis Ababa as well as on a few of the roads that spread themselves widely across the capital. As well as a license they would receive training that would help them to learn how to distinguish themselves from the unlicensed poor.

5. If any licensed beggars are found idling or attempting to beg in places outside of the designated begging stations, their begging licenses will be instantly revoked. Beggars who manage not to beg from foreigners will be given special rewards. The money for this will come from a specially assigned budget. 

6. Whilst Millennium celebrations are underway, beggars will wear good clothes, not rags, and those who say they do not possess such clothes will be sponsored by local garment manufacturers.

7. Beggars’ ragged rucksacks should be replaced by good quality leather bags.

8. Beggars should be ordered to stop calling out the names of saints to aid their begging and be made, instead, to wear a sign that says “Homeless” like most beggars in modernized nations.

9. Because beggars sometimes appropriate children that are not their own to use for begging purposes, all beggars found with children will be immediately sent abroad for DNA testing. The funds for this will come from a specially assigned budget.

10. Concerts will be organized for licensed beggars playing flutes or other musical instruments in order to showcase their talents. The funds necessary for the organization and implementation of such will come from a specially assigned budget.

I paid the secretary for the typing. 


5.

It was getting late. On my way home I saw a beggar searching a dumpster outside a restaurant. I felt like telling him he shouldn’t bother. Plenty of worthwhile things are thrown into the dumpsters of restaurants in Bole, but the dumpsters of restaurants near Arat Kilo are not so richly stocked. Even finding the wrapper the food once came in is rare. If anything gets thrown out from restaurants in Arat Kilo, it is usually the customers themselves–those that don’t pay their bill.

I inched closer to the beggar intent on his search and employed a tone imbued with the kindness my Ethiopian-ness gives me. “What are you looking for this time of night, my friend?”

“Its obvious I’m not looking for diamonds,” he growled at me in a tone no doubt fuelled by his hunger. “I was hoping to find a piece of bread.”

I was so saddened I gave him ten birr and he went immediately to a shop nearby and bought a flashlight with the money I gave him. Then he came back to the dumpster and resumed his search.

When I got home, I had five birr left in my pocket. My inability to avoid spending was getting to be too much. I would indeed have to put an end to myself!

I hurried to the neighborhood shop before it closed and in my desperation asked, “Do you have any poison?” 

“Yes.” 

“How much is it?” 

And as if God himself had deemed it so, the answer came, “The price is the same as yesterday and the day before. The poison will cost you five birr.”

Translation from the Amharic
By Cheryl Moskowitz 

Bewketu Seyoum is from Gojjam, Ethiopia, southwest of Addis Ababa. He studied psychology at Addis Ababa University and published his first collection of poems, Nwari Alba Gojowoch (Unmanned houses), in 2000, a year after graduating. He has published two further verse collections and two novels. His poetry has appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation and Callaloo. In 2008 he received the best young writer award of Ethiopia from the president. In 2011 he was attacked and badly beaten by a church deacon for writing a “blasphemous” article (“A Saint with No Legs,” www.thereporterethiopia.com). His story “Waiting” and two poems appear in WLT’s September 2012 print edition.

Cheryl Moskowitz is a US-born, UK-based poet, novelist, and playwright and was a lecturer at Sussex University where she taught creative writing and personal development at the graduate level from 1996 to 2010. Her publications include a novel, Wyoming Trail (Granta, 1998), and the poetry collection The Girl Is Smiling (Circle Time Press, 2012). She was a prizewinner in the 2010 Bridport and Troubadour Poetry Competitions and the 2011 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.

Glossary

key wot – a traditional spicy stew made from cayenne peppers

Bole – an upper-class area that has commercial and residential centers

berbere – a richly colored spice mixture

Editorial note: To read Cheryl Moskowitz's essay ("A Journey to Translation") on translating Seyoum and meeting him for the first time at the Poetry Parnassus in London in June 2012, click here.


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