Saturday, April 13, 2024

Sweet, bitter nostalgia


The man is a regular customer of the grocery which is located around the old Menen Girls’ Boarding School, now Yekatit 12 Preparatory School. He is so decent that he gives salutation to everyone by taking off his faded khaki hat. For those who observe his clean baldhead and shrunk skin hung round his neck, it is not that match difficult to guess his age.
One day I happened to take a seat by his side in the grocery. I had to raise up whenever he returned after relieving himself at the latrine. “neworu, sir!” I would say welcoming him back to his seat.
“No need! Beigziabher (for the sake of God)! Please be seated. Thank you, my son!” he would respond holding his hat with his right hand. “I sometimes feel good when I meet such young people like you who respect our culture. Let God give you long and healthy life…. Health is a priority. It is a good blessing. Life without health is valueless.”
After devouring some glasses of drought beer, he patted me with his thin and dried hand on my shoulder. When I turned my face towards him, he started talking to me after wiping the foam of the beer from his moustache.
“My son, God must have frown on what we are doing. We are violating His commandments. We are against one another. Hate is hovering over us! A man is hating his own brother… This is the day in which our miseries are piling up like Mount Zukala. I am against you and you are against me. If you get something valuable, I will go around talking things shrouded with spite. I mudsling your name across the village that you stole what you have got…. This is the ugliest day of all other days… Our long and golden days have gone never to return. Those were the days of kindness and generosity…. These days of yours are the kind in which we are leading lives of woe. Crooked people who are selling us injera made of sawdust are popping up like popcorn. We are being given, on sale, red pepper made of clay… Some young people of your age can hardly walk a pace due to unprecedented sickness on their joints. They are wobbling like hobbled donkeys… We are living the doomsday. This is the day of misery… But thanks to the Almighty I have not yet lost hope. I can still see good young people like you… God bless you! … Are you listening to me?” The man pulled at the sleeve of my jacket thinking that I might be distracted by the commotion of the grocery.
“Yes, I am listening to you, father!”
“There you are!” he stared at me for a long time with eyes that look dwindled spring. “You, young people sometimes act like little babies… What does ‘father’ mean? … Isn’t there any local word you should have used instead? … Anyways… here we are! … this is the time in which we are witnessing chaos. We are living the doomsday. We see the young ones being cut like flower buds before they are ripe. Sometimes, I think of my long years of life experience as a curse. ‘Am I cursed to see all this?’ I sometimes ask myself. How many people did we lose during the tahissas girgir (military mutiny of December 1961) and after the bloody revolution of 1974? My son, this is the life we have been blessed with…”
“I was employed as a soldier when I was only 15 years of age. Can you believe that? … Though I am from Oromo ethnicity, I am a proud Ethiopian. I was born and raised in Ejere area. Do you know where this place is, my son?” It is around samasenbet locality. I am sure you know the famous samasenbet; don’t you?”
“Yes, I know it, fa… Yeah, I regularly travel to that place,” I said.
“Yes… I am from that area. When I was 15, I was recruited as a soldier by the famous guard of honor of his imperial majesty, emperor Haile-Silassie. You don’t ask me how I love my sir girmawinetachew (his majesty)! He was gentle, religious, generous and fatherly to us all…”
“You must be too young to be a soldier at that age!” I commented.
“I was 15! I swear to God… that was my age when I was recruited as a boy soldier. But as a rural lad, I was so strong that I was like two men of your day…” he laughed showing his bleached teeth. “I worked hard. I used to eat whatever I got. There was not selection of food items during our time. See? You children of this day always need delicious dish… we don’t care whether our food is palatable or not… We used to eat raw meat… We used to sing, do physical exercise and dance… We were very healthy…”
The man stopped talking and lost in thought. He has his little eyes gazing at the vacant air. I thought that I should give him some time so that he could dwell on his past for a short while. I gulped down my drought beer. Then a couple of minutes later, I cleared my throat nudging him to keep on talking.
“Yes, my son… to be a soldier is everything. That’s my lovely memory… You go all over the country. We travelled to places in the country where girmawinetachew was going. We had to drive to Assab Port three days before his majesty touched down the airport there. We should escort him wherever he went… Every one of us had to serve our country and our king for the monthly salary of birr 15. The then value of this amount of birr is equivalent to today’s 9,000 birr. You could buy a lamb for birr three. Only 0.50 cents were enough to have a live chicken. A rental house with two rooms could be available for birr two… A bottle of beer was amounted to birr 0.45 cents… Our kids were raised by drinking milk, consuming bread made of wheat… We used to eat pure teff injera…. It was not blended with sorghum or maize like what we do this day… We used to buy two loaves of furno for birr 0.5 cents. Can you believe that? You go and ask your parents… Our children and the entire family members used to receive medical treatment at kiburzebegna Hospital. Do you know where this hospital was located? … Yes, adjacent to Janmeda. The medical service was free from charge. All my children were born there… Can you see that big and wonderful hospital this time at its old place? No! they demolished it! What does this mean? Is Ethiopia capable of providing medical services to all citizens? Do we have sufficient hospitals for the nation this time?”
“No!” I replied.
“Then, what is the significance of demolishing that big hospital? This is, of course, destroying history! … After all, no need to bother you over this issue at this very time whereas we are witnessing the destruction of the big country!
“My son, I beg your pardon. … you may be a product of this big learning institution…” he pointed his index finger towards Addis Ababa University, which is a little way away. “Do you know that girmawinetachew left his first palace so that it could be used as a university? … But what did the students do after acquiring knowledge? … They killed him! They killed our king! My king! Your king! He was our peace. He used to give us sound sleep. We had peaceful life during his era! We are unfortunate we lost him because of the students who went to the university established by him. Did he deserve this?”
“You, young people who stepped out of this damned compound are spoiling our country… You are impairing the peaceful co-existence of the people. I beg your pardon… That’s what being done in this country. Now you are pushing our country into an abyss of misery… destruction…. Once during the coup attempt led by General Mengistu Neway, the compound was inundated by the blood of innocent royal families and honorable citizens. Then you students ran into the same compound before it was blessed with holy water… What we are observing currently is the outcome of this unblessed compound… I am very sorry if I talked too much. I am an old man with one last Thursday left with…”
He gulped what was left in the glass and clapped calling the bar tender. Up on his coming he said, “young man, please refill this trophy before I leave for my abode. It is getting dark.”

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