Tesfaye told me he was really worried about losing his job. It turned out he didn’t actually have a teaching degree, he had taken a course and a test right out of high school to become a guide.
“Now they have changed the requirement to a college degree,” he said pensively. “My hope is to become a taxi driver.”
His hope? It must have seemed hopeless to him to earn a degree. Why wouldn’t the government pay for someone like him, who was obviously smart and experienced, to get a degree? Or why not grandfather him in? Was it some scheme to make sure all the jobs went to cronies of government officials? As often happens when you travel, there are questions to which you’ll never have answers.
He showed me some of the earliest paintings, and others that were created by the Portuguese. The difference was stark, both in the brightness of the colors and the features of the Madonnas. I wasn’t sure why the Portuguese Madonna’s face was so white. I mean, I’m sure they wanted to impress on the Ethiopians that the Virgin Mary was white, for God’s sake!—but this white?
“The Portuguese tried to convert us, and a lot of Americans come today to do the same.”
Oh ick. “What religions are they?” I asked.
“Many different ones. There was one old preacher who was following our girls, so we made him leave.” That was a nice way to say that they ran the guy out of town. “We have heard that the Eritrean women prostitute themselves,” he said abruptly. “Is that true?”
I had told him I worked for an NGO that was operational in the Eritrean refugee camps in the north. “Uh … I don’t know,” I stammered. “I haven’t heard of such a thing, but sometimes when there’s no other way to make money, people do things they wouldn’t normally do.”
He looked at me and nodded. “Would you like to have a glass of honey wine with me after we are done?”
Again, uh …awkward. Coming on the heels of the comments about lechers and prostitutes, was he coming on to me? He was probably younger than my son. I’m sure he was lonely, with his wife gone, but. Maybe it didn’t mean anything.
“I have to do some work after this,” I said, trying to sound light. “But thanks for the invitation.”
Tesfaye shrugged and walked on.
“Ethiopian Christians are supposed to make a pilgrimage to Lalibela or Jerusalem in their lifetimes.” Tesfaye said. “They are especially supposed to visit Lalibela at Christmas.” I had seen some pilgrims wrapped in white gauzy robes. The thought of thousands of people in white floating around Lalibela during the Christmas season sounded lovely.
Tesfaye talked about the Italians. The Ethiopians had fended them off in 1895. Humiliated that an African country had beaten them, the Italians came back and won in 1935. “But we were only a colony for five years,” he said proudly.
We walked back to Tukul Village and I paid Tesfaye the agreed upon 600 Birr, which amounted to about $25 for the four hours we had spent together. I wondered if I should invite him for a beer in the restaurant, or tip him, but I was tired and just bade him farewell.
The huts had Internet, so I gleefully spent several hours online. There’s a myth that “There’s Internet everywhere,” and that “everybody has a smart phone” and is on social media. At the office, I couldn’t even get an Internet connection using a cable. Maki gave me some kind of Chinese dongle that was supposed to work but didn’t. I couldn’t get a 3G signal in the hotel. When I did get online, the connection was excruciatingly slow.
I was grateful to have a signal. I was grateful to learn that I could lose five pounds with one simple trick, to see that my son’s friend had installed a new faucet in her kitchen, and to watch a video about Albinism Awareness Week in Australia.