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I Came of Age in a Sh*thole Country

How a multi-cultural childhood enriches us.

Affectionately named the Kiremu Hilton, for the large number of guests we housed.

Ethiopia remains the home of my heart. My starry-eyed awkward little self quietly absorbed Africa. Heartbreakingly beautiful, it snatched my heart, and saved my soul.

My love affair with African sh*thole countries began when, as a missionary family we trekked Ethiopia’s rugged terrain by mule train, looking for plateaus of indigenous people in need of medicine and education. Our first outpost was nine days by mule to the nearest road during the Monsoon season – Land Rovers couldn’t ford the swollen rivers – and half a day further on by auto to Addis Ababa. We steeped ourselves in Ethiopian language and culture, and as a child, linguistics came easily. By the time I returned to the United States for college, I dreamed in Amharic, so second nature was that lovely Hamitic language to me. To this day, when my husband and I eat in an Ethiopian restaurant, I am told I have no accent, which always warms my heart.

Lucille, our battle scarred Land Rover, named irreverently after a grouchy, wrinkled, life worn woman of indeterminate age, creaked and groaned as it labored across Africa’s rugged, rock studded terrain. One wheel climbed a boulder, slid off with a sickening thwack, and threw me unceremoniously against the door. Elbows and knees banging each other, we kids got upright as Dad negotiated beds of boulders, but Lucille’s underbelly hit a rock, and with a horrible grind, we lurched to a halt. Lucille had a broken axle.

We scrambled out, and looked around. The shallow valley was home to a dozen thatched roofed huts. At our unexpected appearance, the villagers paused and fell silent. I felt a bubbling sense of adventure. Mom looked like she’d rather be drawn and quartered. The chieftain approached. Children peeked around their mother’s skirts. Dad and he exchanged respectful greetings, and with wry resignation Dad explained our predicament.

Dad would need to travel, by mule – could he buy one? – back to Shiambu, which had a ham radio, in order to signal our Addis Ababa people to come with a new axle. The ride back would take a day, getting an axle – who knew? Then transporting the axle, well, probably a week all told.

“My wife and children need a place to stay. Can you help us?”

Hospitality was freely given. We could use his wife’s hut. We rolled Lucille close to our temporary home. Three of us would sleep in the hut, three in Lucille. We gathered wood, boiled water over our in-hut campfire for safe drinking, and I spread my wings a little wider into the life of this easygoing but busy village.

Back home at Kiremu, our highland outpost, I cherished working in our clinic and teaching school. I adored riding Mengustu (my horse) from one village to another visiting women and children there. I was devoted to our pet leopard, Gifte, who was my alter ego. My best friend, Mulunesh, married a Coptic priest, and told me about the pleasures of sex. She taught me practical things too; like how to make Berbere – Ethiopia’s spice base, injera – the sour dough crepe used to scoop savory wat (stew), and the ritual of coffee making, her dark eyes dancing over the top of her cup. The scents of my adopted sh*thole country imprinted my psyche and my heart. Indelibly.

We brought the Ethiopians we were privileged to serve, education and medicine, but they gave me so much more. They gave me connection – the “I’ve-got-your-back” kind of connection. With open hearts, they welcomed my fractured one into a great big bear hug type of acceptance. It was to them I entrusted my heart. Around them I laughed at the drop of a hat, was insatiable about their rituals and customs, experienced the gift of giving, reciprocity, and gratefulness. They learned my music, I theirs. They lightened my spirit. They enriched my soul.

It was to them I went, when Dad, in a rage, battered me to the point I couldn’t walk. I crawled to Mulunesh’s hut. She helped me inside, then defied my father by barricading their door, and kept me from him until he cooled off. When our house radiated waves of hostility, I found my people, be it an outdoor market, a home visit, or working in the clinic. They were my stabilizer. My adopted family.

I got to see the larger world as we traveled to and from this sh*thole country I love. I drove our Land Rover as a pre-teen, learned to fly at 16, was completely safe as I roamed hours from home following Colobus monkeys, or finding the hut of a woman who was to teach me how to make ‘birs’ an Ethiopian honey wine.

Born in America, I have dual citizenship of the heart. I care deeply about the country of my birth, and yearn for it to be functional and healthy again. I will do my part. But, this ancient culture – Ethiopia – took me both inside and outside of myself, taught me the value of history, of revering one’s elders, respect for customs other than America’s, of spontaneous grins – often hidden impishly behind a hand, the gifts of laughter, dance and ritual, and infinite connection. I can imagine no better land in which to have come of age. With deepest gratitude, Laura

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