For a long time after I returned home from a three-day visit to Addis Ababa, I carried on endlessly to anyone who showed the slightest interest that I hadn’t been to Ethiopia’s capital city, rather that I had been home, and also that Addis was not a city, but a happening; like a page torn from a history book.
I have been to Ethiopia twice: once on an impromptu road trip via Moyale on the Kenya-Ethiopia border, and later by air.
On both trips, I came back home with fond memories of the land.
But it is the second trip that holds the dearest memories, and not even the passing of the years has diminished the diaries of that visit in my mind.
ETHIOPIA AND HER PEOPLE
The spiral notebook I carried and committed every detail of the tour has long been lost.
Now that I think about it, I realise that paper, in whatever colour or length, can never really capture Ethiopia or Addis Ababa to be precise. You cannot adequately ink the sounds, the aromas, the essence and the beauty of that eternal city. In Addis, even the stray dogs were beautiful.
What made me walk into the Ethiopian Airways offices in Nairobi and plunk money that I had squirrelled away for months was the oldest of all reasons: love.
I was in the grip of that peculiar madness that knows no other cure but requital.
I landed at Bole International Airport at 6pm. My cousin, whose husband was working in Addis, had agreed to host me for the duration of my visit.
Their home was located a few miles outside the city, in a nice, quiet neighbourhood. Later at the dinner table that first night, her husband enquired why I had bought the ticket; he had assumed I was in town for work.
When I confessed the reason for my jaunt — that I had fallen inexorably in love with a young woman — he nodded in understanding.
People come to Ethiopia, to Addis, for many reasons, my cousin joined in; it is a very lovely, orderly city, after all, and then she added, “I know, they are impossibly beautiful. People travel here from all over.”
TRAILING MY HEART-THROB
She was Amhara, one of the 80 ethnic groups that make up the texture of Ethiopia. We’d first met in Doha, Qatar, where I worked briefly as a reporter and features writer for the Peninsula, an English-language newspaper in 2010. Lidiya Getachew worked for a wealthy Qatari family, but it had been hell for her.
I returned to Kenya in mid 2010. Lidiya moved back to Ethiopia later that year, after she attempted suicide by swallowing a handful of pills.
She’d explain that she had been treated so badly by the woman of the house to the point that life had lost all meaning.
Over the next few years we kept in touch, though it wasn’t easy: she spoke little English, while my attempts to study Amharic yielded only halting progress.
GIFTS FOR MY LIDIYA
The day before I flew to Addis Ababa, I bought an Ethiopian-themed shirt, and a package of several of the things every smote man must buy.
There was a bar of one of the choicest Cadbury chocolates, a bracelet and a few other mushy trinkets.
There was a photo and a postcard. I was mad; everyone is mad when the future with the person of your own choosing is possible.
The day we were to meet, I took a cab to the city, and to buy time, I walked the streets.
The city was beautiful, and the sun was beautiful, and every member of the fairer sex was arrestingly beautiful. At one point, I saw a horse-drawn cart.
According to legend, the ruling class until Haile Selassie traced itself to King Solomon, who, besotted, had found himself a habesha (Ethiopian) woman named the Queen of Sheba.
Addis Ababa means “new flower” and there couldn’t have been a more fitting name.
The city was founded by Menelik II in 1887, and to date retains a charming, crumbling deportment. Men sat on the sidewalk, sipping coffee. I walked into a store and bought a pair of red Converse Chuck Taylor shoes.
A BROKEN HALLELUJAH
My visit — specifically our long overdue reunion — melted faster than chocolate left out in the naked sun.
The day after my arrival, Lidiya and I met at a place called Haya Hulet, a prominent meeting place. I remember her hair, and the white flowing dress she wore.
She radiated just as she had the Sunday I first met her in Doha. We slowly caught up on the events that had taken place over the ensuing years after Qatar.
There was no warning, no sign at all, but I should have known that.
Haltingly she mentioned that she couldn’t bear leaving her country of birth. There was more: she mentioned a name, about her people approving of that name.
Nothing prepares one for such news; you take the information and tell yourself that it’s a different world; that you have lived in that world before, in your nightmares.
But there across the table was Lidiya Getachew, and the world was happening, and I was not part of that world. It was a broken hallelujah. But the chocolate bar was hers, so was the bracelet and the postcard.
Later, in a daze, I sat with several men around a roaring camp-like fire in the back of a bar.
The banter was friendly and we all said where we came from. A balding American offered to buy a beer.
In the aftermath of my heartbreak, I have kept my Ethiopian-themed shirt and the pair of red Converse Chuck Taylor shoes.
I wore the shoes to their death, but for some reason I could never bring myself to cart them out with the trash.
I almost missed my flight back to Nairobi, after I got in the wrong queue. But luckily other passengers allowed me to skip.
Like most of the world, I was blindsided by news that a passenger jet belonging to Ethiopia Airways had crashed, killing everyone on board.
There is of course no way I could completely relate to the tragic news as the families of the passengers and crew on the ill-fated plane.
But Ethiopia is home. A second home. You don’t forget, even when some memories are best forgotten.