So I’m living in a compound like expats the world over but it’s probably not what you have in mind.
The compound is small in size and gated with a crude corrugated iron fence. There are two normal size houses (small by Irish standards) and one of these is for me alone. The only other proper house in the compound is where my landlady and her large extended family live. They are pretty houses. Behind these two houses are single rooms where many other families live. One room with a bed or in most cases cushions on the ground and that is it. Because of this lack of private space much of life takes place communally here. Washing oneself and ones clothes, preparing, cooking and eating food are all done together outside in the courtyard. They live their lives for each other and are never to be seen alone. I’m a very private person in a lot of ways and so this constant interference could be wearing but I have come to really appreciate this.
Living in such close quarters with people of such vastly different circumstance than yourself could create many tensions I am sure. General advice was that they will be extremely curious of you and while you should make a big effort with them you should also be on your guard somewhat as they could be victims of temptation. I’m not sure whether I wilfully disregarded this advice or whether I knew I could trust them somehow or whether I decided to have blind faith in them but we have become very close and though they sometimes smirk at my foreign ways they generally delight in my ability to handwash my own clothes, cook and clean for myself and speak bad Amharic.
One of the lads next door has better English than the others and on meeting me he pointed to my house and protested numerous times, “Do not afraid, do not afraid, I am your brother”. And while I could have scoffed at him for being so overly familiar I remembered that the last time I chuckled at an Ethiopian who claimed to be my brother I was laughing on the other side of my face very shortly afterwards. They have taken a chance on me, the strange foreigner, and I have taken a chance on them. In fact they now spend as much time in my own house as I do myself! So I have no qualms in saying these people are my brothers and sisters and I am so glad of them 🙂
Before I left home, my actual sisters gave me a “This is your life” style album with various of the most important bits and pieces of the last 27 years stuck into it. Without being able to make myself clearly understood in either Amharic or English initially I have used it here as a way to let the people into my life and it has gone down an absolute treat. I showed them a picture of my family and they all unanimously declared that Shelley was the most “betam consho” of us all, that me and Siobhán are a “copy” and that Dad is also betam consho/very beautiful! Ha ha ha ha! Watch out Kit! 😉 The sight of snow in Scrouthea amazed most of them as they have never seen anything like this white powdery stuff that covers the ground. But in hindsight I probably should have been more selective with the photos I showed them. The one of me, Shelley and Niamh dressed up as Princess Fiona from Shrek, a farmer and Harry Potter at a fancy dress caused consternation and there weren’t enough words of pidgin English or Amharic in any of our vocabularies to explain away the following successfully.
In the compound I play the role of pied piper and on evenings and weekends there is a regular slew of children in my living room, playing card games or indoor soccer with my giant inflatable globe, colouring pictures or marvelling at my head torch. My best friend is undoubtedly the eleven year old boy who lives next door. His name is Hayatu, he comes in every evening to play cards with me regardless of my mood and like children the world over, cares nothing if you have had a bad day at work and want to be left alone and so he is a tonic for all that can ail a person.
There are two babies in the compound, Mohammed & Ammanuel, which brings everyone together I think. The two are rarely to be seen with their own mothers and the child-rearing responsibilities are borne equally by everyone. Baby Mohammed is spoiled rotten and his constant tantrums amuse us all. He comes into my house in the evenings with I think the express purpose of weeing indiscriminately all around the living room. (I say indiscriminately but really his favourite place to wee is in the cupboard. He sidles up to the cupboard, struggles with the handle, clambers up and in and closes it after himself. After some time, he opens the door again and emerges once more into the living room having done the necessary.)
Last week, I returned home from the University an hour later than usual, stopping for tea with one of the other teachers along the way. When I entered the compound I was set upon from all sides by the women who laid into me. No English was spoken, but there were enough voices raised, arms flailing and quizzical eyebrows that there was no ambiguity to what they were saying.
“Well! Would you look what the cat dragged in?! If it isn’t Miss Aisling Healy? And just where do you think you’ve been til this hour young lady might I ask you?! We’ve been worried sick about you I needn’t tell you! Mohammed couldn’t even eat a scrap of his dinner he was so sick with worry!”
Before mellowing a little, patting me on the head and seeming to say, “Well, the important thing is that you’re home and safe now.”
I’m not sure what I have done to deserve such a soft landing here and such beautiful if over attentive neighbours but I am certainly glad of it.