You are not in the world a thousand years

14 Jan

When Sisay was six his family abandoned their mountain hut and headed down to Lalibela and a better life. There in the holy town they scratched an existence on the streets until, after a year of zero progress, Sisay’s parents had had enough. The promised new life having proved illusory, they would return to the old one of dirt farm poverty. But seven year old Sisay had other ideas.  He ran away; dad brought him back. He ran away again – and again, his instincts telling him the mountains held no future for him.

“In the town people may help you but in the country you can starve and no one will lift a finger.”

Finally giving up on their headstrong son the family, less one, went back into the hills, beaten, while in Lalibela Sisay shone shoes – his wooden block doubling as pillow as he slept in shop doorways – and sold cigarettes, tissues, chewing gum from a tray strapped from his neck. He enrolled at school, free in Ethiopia till the age of ten,  to learn arithmetic, Amharic script, a little history (“England, mother of democracy”, the nineteen year old tells me, “Magna Carta 1215”). Also a sound understanding of the saints, Ark of the Covenant and, by way of light relief, basic English.

My friend Marion often comes to Lalibela to teach English at the technical college where she met Abebe and Worretta, now funded at Addis University by her and a friend. Meeting Sisay, then in his early teens, on the street she struck up a friendship. Together they would walk for hours in the hills. He saw to it she wasn’t cheated too outrageously by shopkeepers; she helped him with English. By then an honoured guest at Seven Olives, Marion asked Mesfin if he could do anything for the boy. Sisay now waits tables on the beautiful restaurant terrace, doubling up on hotel reception where his good English, courteous but not unduly deferential manner – what we’d call excellent interpersonal skills – and quick intelligence serve him and Mesfin well. His days start early. He’s at work for six, breaking off to attend college from ten to four on weekdays .

On that quick intelligence, an illustration. At one point on our mountain walk (previous email) I switch­ed to wide angle lens for a shot of an impressive crag from below. Wanting to capture the detail in the cliffs without bleaching out an azure sky I screwed on a graduated density filter to “stop down” light from the sky while allowing all light reflected from the cliff. An habitual teacher I found myself telling him what I was doing and why. Soon I was speaking of dynamic range, apertures and the tricks you pull with filters. Catching myself, I backtracked to say it more simply but Sisay stopped me. He’d got it first time; he really had, yet I can spend an hour with my photography students to get the same point across.


Let me digress. Here as in India, though not on the same monumental scale, destitution and degradat­ion are all around. Everwhere you are latched onto as faranji. Many openly beg; others a little cannier invite you to makeshift homes for “Ethiopian coffee ceremony” and tediously limited English – “this is a kettle”; “that is a tree” – expecting payment for the privilege of being bored into a stupor as they drop increas­ing­ly heavy hints about their poverty and your wealth. And who could blame them? But handing out a few birr here and there changes nothing, except perhaps to make us feel better. How to make a target­ed response to that poverty? That’s the question.

In one of Lalibela’s astounding churches I saw a young man stripped to the waist and bent over as if for a lashing. But the priest in charge of the scene brandished a cross, not a whip, floating it this way and that, an inch above the man’s torso like some geiger counter for the soul. “Holy med­icine” said my guide with not a trace of irony. I watched the young man slip on his shirt and hand a ten birr note, I’d guess a day’s wages, to the priest. I’ve seen this mumbo jumbo venality all over the third world. Where there’s desp­er­ate poverty you’ll find well fed priests of whatever the local stripe – Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim – buoyed up by the unwavering faith of those who can least afford to give. Back at the 7-O I related the scene to an Australian woman who, to the disgust of her husband – I could have embraced him – had herself paid for the same piece of comedy the day before. “But you can’t be sure there is no god”, she protested. True, and I can’t be sure there aren’t faires at the bottom of the garden. It’s famously hard to prove a negative. Nor am I oblivious to the subtle power of that underappreciated thing, the placebo effect. But as I see it the road from ignorance and poverty isn’t Jesus, Krishna or Mohammed. It’s educ­ation. Back to Sisay.


He alternates work at the Seven Olives with the study of tourist management at the technical college, where Marion teaches on her visits. Tourist management? Why not something useful like medicine or engineering? But think about it: with its wealth of prehistory and history, immense variation in topo­graphy and peoples and landscapes to die for, tourism has to be part of the answer, and isn’t he already doing “work placement” as he glides between tables at the 7-O, or responds with tact to the petty beefs of exasperated faranji at reception? That keen intelligence and, more important still, a steely will not apparent in his quietly respectful presence but adducable from a string of choices dating back to the one he made at the age of six.  Sisay, it strikes me, is a horse to be backed by anyone mindful of their good fortune in being born a westerner, and wishing for whatever reason to make a difference here.

The other evening I walked with Sisay around the town. I pointed out an expensive and charmless hotel where I’d had a beer a few days earlier. This led to talk of money, Sisay observing that “we are not in the world a thousand years”, meaning we take nothing with us when we die. Hardly an original obser­v­at­ion but deeply telling from him. Later, on the 7-O terrace with Mesfin, I comment­ed on Sisay’s extraordinary life. “To you, yes, it is extraordinary but not to an Ethiopian. Eyajio”, he called. A beautiful seventeen year old, face ringed by the pre-Raphaelite locks of a seventies soccer star, came over. “Tell Philip your story.”

Eyajio was four when his father, a soldier, was killed in the war with Eritrea (one of the most senseless in history, and I speak as one aware of the stiff competition on that front). His mother died the same year, probably of TB. The woman they had rented their tiny home from took the boy in. “She was very kind”. After a few years she handed him over to the town’s doctors, who live and work in the same compound. They took over his care and furthered his education. Now he too waits tables between his studies.

I have sufficent ‘triangulation’ on Mesfin – Marion, Sisay and Abebe – to know he is a good man. Not in a pious sense; he matches a sophisticated mind with the earthiest humour and, an excellent mimic, has had me in stitches over the histrionics of uptight faranji. But even without the reports of others, there’s something you can tell at a glance if you know what to look for. All over the third world, and this country seems no exception, hierarchy is strong. On body language alone you can usually tell immediately from the way two people are together what the score is in terms of pecking order. But Sisay, Eyajio, beautiful Menulesh, veteran Arraigo and the rest are deeply at ease with their boss as they share a joke, discuss soccer or simply sort out how the day’s tasks will be approached. It’s a beautiful thing to see from the terrace as I sip my morning coffee.

Sisay earns £25 pcm. £8 goes on the small room he shares with his landlady’s son. (Last night he took me to see its unplastered walls festooned with pictures of English footballers and Bollywood heart throbs.) £10 goes to his family, who every other Saturday bring eggs and milk (Marion bought them some goats) for the town’s market. With most meals provided at 7-O he is free to spend the rest on study materials, but it is not easy. Though life has improved beyond all recognition, it’s still a struggle. What would help him most? A laptop, he says, together with wireless USB stick. That would bring cheap­er access to the internet, here exorbitant. With laptop and stick he could lower online costs to gain feasible access to the global library that is the worldwide web. Now there’s a way, I think, of making a difference not just to one talent­ed and hard working young man but, maybe and just a little, to the future of his beautiful, desperate country.

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