Woldia University is located about 6km from the town of Woldia. This, while inconvenient for the students, is actually a good thing as the further away we can all be from that town is for the best (but I’ll give you the low down on that in another post).
A bus service runs to the Uni three times a day to take the teachers and admin staff to and from work. So every morning I get up, leave home and make the five minute walk to the bus stop. On my way down the road people of all ages stop, slow down, turn around, suspend their cup of tea of coffee in midair disbelieving and put down whatever they are doing so that they can get a really good look at me. Some of them giggle nervously, some of them whisper to their friends, I greet some of them, some of them greet me and some of them shout at me.
“YOU! YOU! YOU!”
“MONEY, MONEY, MONEY!”
“ARE YOU FINE?”
“WHERE YOU GO?”
One day while standing at the bus-stop I heard a call of “MOTHER!” from behind. It soon became apparent after the umpteenth time that this insult was being waged at me! “MOTHER! MOTHER! MOTHER! YOU! MOTHER!” I turned around to identify the culprit so I could tell him in no uncertain terms that I was most certainly NOT his mother! I have since come to understand that addressing any older woman as “Mother” is usual.
Another interesting one is “CHINA! CHINA!”. The first day they shouted this at me I burst out laughing, how could they mistake an Irish person for a China-woman?! But to the ordinary Ethiopian all foreigners are white and all white people come from a mystical place called…”China“. Interesting! This is because in recent years there has been a lot of Chinese workers in Ethiopia road-building.
The other day I was walking past a fruit stall when one of the merchants bellowed across the road to me, “WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?”. I’m not sure whether I was looking particularly sullen or whether what he was actually trying to say was, “How are you?” but it caught me off guard anyhow 😉
Anyway, depending on the tone of the situation I will either completely ignore them or, to their delight, answer them in Amharigna. The Amharic option always diffuses this potentially irksome situation; they are bent over double laughing at the fact I can speak a few words of the language and I continue on my merry little way with a smile on my face.
Within five or ten minutes I arrive at the bus stop. There follows a genuinely interminable wait for the bus to come- it is impossible to predict when it will come as this changes on a day-to-day basis.
This is my most dreaded part of the day.
When mobile it is somewhat easier to shake off would-be-clingers-on but when stationary it is an absolute nightmare. The situation is made worse by the fact that where I wait for the bus is, in the most unhappiest of coincidences, also the place where jobless young men wait to be picked up for a day’s casual labouring work. So just me, the only young, single, white female (in a town of 60,000 people at the latest estimate) and about a hundred spailpín fánach with nothing better to do than to stare and stare and stare. I have also nothing better to do than wait for the bus which is like waiting for Godot and so nothing to distract me from the discomfort of being purveyed unashamedly from every angle. It is easy to ignore someone who is staring at you from afar. It is more of a challenge when you are besieged by a group of teenage boys and men who are standing (and staring) at a radial distance of about two feet away from you. Add to this that most of my fellow University teachers are unhelpfully elusive creatures in the early mornings and seem to me just like spiders who crawl out of their hidey-holes only when the bus comes into sight.
One of the teachers in the local college commented to a fellow volunteer the other day,
“Mr. David! I saw Miss Ais at the bus-stop this morning!”
“Ah, very good, how did she seem?”
“She seemed fine. She was surrounded by criminals.”
Eventually, the bus comes around the corner, like an apparition to me, and I get on, relieved.
The situation at the bus stop is bad but it is a similar enough story elsewhere in the town. I am a source of absolute fascination. In the beginning I found it very limiting, I found I could go nowhere on my own and do nothing for myself in any comfort. Over time it has gotten easier as I have become more accustomed to life here and the culture. I can now go to most places on my own if I wish and do some things on my own. People still shout and stare but I am more confident. I could say that the experience has been a good lesson in humility for me as I am ordinarily fiercely independent, refusing all kind offers of help or assistance, but now I am forced to rely on the kindness of others, particularly two male volunteers who live nearby.
In truth, children are my main fans and they are largely harmless. They demand money and new footballs from across the road but are more than satisfied with a little individual attention, a smile and a handshake when they get up close to you. The children here are the same as children the world over- they are curious and bold and I am so strange looking so I can understand their interest. But for me, it is harder to fathom a group of teenagers or grown men, following me, cat-calling at me, even trying to touch me, everything just shy of wanting to sit down on my lap.
It’s because I am so different; I know this. And I often wonder at it from their perspective and try to imagine what kind of a reception a young single Ethiopia woman would have received arriving to a town in Ireland, say in the 1950s. Would she have been swarmed and harassed by the local ne’er-do-wells and down-and-outs? Well, I don’t know really but when I think of this I remember to try and be more patient.
For your information, female volunteers with blonde hair seem to have the worst time of all and some claim to have been chased down the street before having a lock of their amber hair unceremoniously ripped out of their head by an overzealous admirer! Almost all female volunteers have been proposed marriage at some point or other. As yet, I have been disappointed in this regard and patiently await my first chance to refuse someone considerately 😉