One of the good things about being an English girl in an Orthodox country is that you have the chance to celebrate Christmas (and therefore to eat and loll around all day) twice. And so I did…
Christmas No 1 (Dec 25th, 2013)
Christmas No 1 was to be spent in Kenya, with fellow volunteer Marlies, and Helen Masterchef, whose partner Herman had recently transferred from organising the youth scheme for VSO Ethiopia to doing the same for VSO Kenya. He and Helen, were now living in the coastal resort of Malindi, an hour’s drive from Mombassa, and I couldn’t wait to get there!
Anyway, as soon as I arrived in Mombassa (accompanied by a retired Italian called Luca, who I’d befriended when we’d both nearly missed the connecting flight at Nairobi) it immediately felt different from Ethiopia. Everything was different – the people, the scenery, the food being sold on the streets, the music playing in the taxi to Malindi – I felt like I was really in Africa. One thing I also began to realise was that my Italian friend was representative of the tourist demographic here. Malindi, it turned out, was a resort where middle-aged Italians came to hang out with much younger Kenyans. Gratifyingly though, it wasn’t just older men with younger women. On several occasions I saw Italian ladies of a certain age canoodling with hot, young Kenyan guys…awesome! It’s always good to see a bit of equality!
Anyway, all of that is completely irrelevant. I had a brilliant week in Malindi, which felt like absolute luxury after the village. Helen and Herman were the perfect hosts – unsurprisingly, we ate like kings (barbecued fish, anyone?), we relaxed in their beautiful beach front apartment, we went to the beach every day, (I even went scuba-diving at a nearby resort) and we had a lovely Christmas Day starting with bucks fizz and traditional Dutch Christmas poems (Herman and Marlies are Dutch), followed by Christmas presents, Christmas dinner, Christmas walk on the beach and ending with the obligatory Christmas film and falling asleep on the sofa. Nice!
Incidentally, most astonishing of all was the local supermarket. It was big, well-stocked, modern (with trolleys, barcodes and everything!), and I hadn’t seen anything like it for almost a year. Amongst other things, they sold Marmite, Dairy Milk and 8 different types of pesto! We went on several occasions, but I was so overwhelmed that I bought nothing except for some Go-cat for Buzayeu, and some Strepsils for me… How could I possibly choose what I wanted when the only choice I have to make at the market in Gilgel is “hmmm…whose onions look the best today?”
So it was a lovely week, but somehow I missed Ethiopia – the language, the people, the food (ok, well, not so much the food) – and as the plane came back into Addis Ababa I felt like I was coming home.
Between the Christmases
I arrive back in the village to find everyone preparing for Orthodox Christmas or ‘Gena’ as it’s called here. My neighbours (the instructors’ wives and families) are brewing ‘tela’ – a local, slightly-alcoholic beer type of drink, which looks (and perhaps tastes) like muddy water. Cows, goats and sheep have been bought for the big day and are tied up outside people’s houses, mooing, bleating and baaing respectively. (Maybe I’m imagining it, but I think they know what’s coming.) There are also more chickens than ever running everywhere – if I leave my door open, they just cluck-in, uninvited! I’m going to say this – controversial for an animal-lover maybe, but… – I DON’T LIKE CHICKENS! They’re noisy, smelly, they poo everywhere, and they’re scary and flappy when you try and chase them out of your house. (I’d even go so far as to say that they have a generally belligerent attitude…) I had hoped that Buzayehu the cat would be an effective deterrent, but he’s useless. He’s more scared of them than I am, and just runs away and hides when they invade my house.
December 31st comes round, but in a remote village in Ethiopia, where they have a different calendar, and where there’s only one ferenj (me), New Year isn’t a terribly big event. In fact, it isn’t an event at all. I’m determined to stay up til midnight though, and try to find somewhere to go. Most of the ‘hotels’ (basically open air bars with a few rooms round the edge) close around 10pm, but there is one that’s open later called Kuda Guna. Kuda Guna is quite notorious in the village – it’s a ‘buna bet’, which literally means ‘coffee house’, but in Ethiopia is a euphemism for a place frequented by ladies of the night. It’s also the nearest thing to a nightclub in Gilgel Beles – the music’s loud, they play a mix of Ethiopian and African stuff, and some nights the dancing really gets going. December 31st, 2013 is not one of those nights, however, and we sit around, drinking beer slowly, and marking time til 12 o’clock. One of the Finnwash drivers (the one who rescued me from Bahir Dar) is there and we chat a bit. I ask about the meaning of Kuda Guna. (The hotels here have interesting names, eg ‘Netsanet’ – Freedom, ‘Kokeb’ – Star and ‘Kubiran’ – Gentlemen). Kuda Guna is Gumzinia – one of the local languages here – and when I ask the driver what it means, he cups his hands, moves them to his chest and says, “You know, female uhhh…” So, I spend New Year in a bar called ‘Boobs’. Classy!!
The other exciting thing that’s happened while I’ve been away is that Buzayehu seems to have hit adolescence and discovered girls…well, female cats. (Can I say pussies?? Ok, I won’t.) He’s not playing the field though; he’s got one special friend – a very pretty kind of tabby girl cat, who he shamelessly follows everywhere. Honestly, he’s got no idea of playing hard to get. She just rocks up outside, mews / whines a bit, and he’s up and out of the house after her. The only time he hesitates is if I put some food down for him at the same time as she arrives. Then he stops frozen for a few seconds, looks from his food bowl to the doorway a few times, before finally making his choice. This has led to a new game that I play with myself – ‘Girl Cat or Grub’? – in which I guess which way Buzayehu’s going to go… As I’ve mentioned in the past, I really need to get out more.
Christmas No 2 (January 7th, 2014)
I get woken up on Orthodox Christmas Day by a loud banging on the door at 7.30am. It’s not Father Christmas, it’s three of the local kids, dressed in their best clothes and armed with hockey stick-type things. (I later find out that they are for a game called ‘Gena’, which is traditionally played at Christmas). They bang the sticks on the ground and sing a song. It’s charming, but a bit early, and, frankly, I’m quite relieved when they leave (after I’ve given them sweets) and I can go back to bed.
I finally get up and I’m pottering around my house, filling water containers, doing a bit of hand-washing, when I hear more music. I look outside, and this time it’s a group of around 20 villagers who are going round the houses , all dressed in white, banging drums and singing Christian songs. They visit my neighbours, and I go out to watch. When I arrive with my camera, and ask if I can video them, they get excited, and the leader says, “Oh. This is a great chance for us!” I feel like Simon Cowell.
I’ve promised to go to my neighbour, Mulu’s house for Christmas lunch, but I almost don’t make it. When I’m watching the music group, my other neighbours, come up and, in the typically kind and hospitable Ethiopian way, invite me in to their houses saying ‘Buna teji’ (drink coffee), ‘Tela teji’ (drink Tela) and ‘Injera bi’ (eat injera). Not wanting to offend , I say yes to everyone, and am wandering off to my line manager’s house, when Mulu sees, grabs my arm, and says “No! You are my guest…and where are white Christmas clothes?” Realising my mistake, I say meekly, ‘Ishi’ (ok), pop in to my house, grab
a white scarf I got in Egypt and head straight back to Mulu’s.
Christmas lunch is good; ‘Tibs’ – pieces of beef cooked with onions, butter and chilli (I try not to think about the friendly cow that has been tied up outside Mulu’s house for the last two weeks), injera, bread, popcorn, tela (the muddy water drink), and arrake (a lethal, locally-made spirit, similar to Italian grappa). I have brought bottles of beer and a chocolate cake from Kenya, which go down well. It’s a bit strange though; meals are usually so communal here, but today everyone seems to be eating separately. Mulu and her family have eaten theirs before I arrive and some other relatives have turned up but are eating in another corner of the room. I’m alone, in pride of place, at the table next to the plastic flowers and the popcorn holder. It’s all a bit surreal.
As always in Ethiopian hospitality, I’m offered more food than I can manage, my drink is always refilled before I can say no, and after a couple of hours I’m starting to feel quite sleepy, and ready for a little lie-down. When the oldest boy comes up, armed with his high school grammar book, and asks me to teach him about the past perfect tense, I decide enough’s enough. I promise to help him tomorrow, make my excuses, and go back home to give Buzayehu his special Christmas day Go-cat treat. But of course he’s off out, galivanting with Miss Tabby. Now that’s gratitude for you…