The treasures of a pack rat recently emerged from Ethiopia are scattered here at my elbow by the typewriter. They are loosely tied together in my mind, but I am certain that in context they will diminish in significance. There are two copies of the six-page Ethiopian Herald. There is a Christmas card from Donald C. Sazima describing genna, an Ethiopian outdoor game played with ball and crooked stick. "Genna," it reads, "means Christmas." On an airmail envelope, courtesy of the Ethiopia Hotel of Addis Ababa, are scribbled two important telephone numbers without further identification and a phonetic spelling of the Amharic nech ferenge, which means, in the derogatory sense, "white foreigner," and a truncated quote, "something precious," which is underlined three times. I remember it as relating to a tribute to Abebe Bikila. Torn from an Ethiopian magazine is a picture story of Abebe and his handsome family, the text pretty much divided between the writer's lamentation on having been stood up by Bikila and his panegyric on what a great, unaffected man Bikila really is.
Also among these hoardings is a touring map of Ethiopia, directing attention to the hippos around Lake Tana, the crocodiles along the Blue Nile in Gojjam, the leopards of Kaffa, the lions of Bale and the wild elephants of Ilubabor and Harar. The map is red-lined with roads that hold up in the rainy season; the others, the vast majority, presumably do not. The map was a gift from "new" Blue Omo, "for the whitest wash in the world." Ethiopia now has television, and it is easy to foresee a day when Blue Omo takes unto itself the task of supplying Addis housewives with everyday, run-of-the-suds drama.
The net worth of these pieces, together with a rare Menelik II silver coin which, through persistent bargaining, I was able to get in the old market of Addis for four times its value, is pitiable, to be sure, and in the end probably serves little as a fact-finding pool on the marathon runner Abebe Bikila, twice an Olympic champion. If they point out the sharp contrasts of the world that produced Bikila, that is good, but it is easy to draw contrasts. Ethiopia in this respect is no different from any other place being alloyed by the 20th century. For example, on a cold morning when I ran (that is, he ran and I rode ahead) with Bikila there were women wrapped in muslin chammas and kemis, implacable in their progress, unhurried or unmoved by the beeping horn, padding barefoot along the road in the semidarkness. Every now and then we came upon men standing and staring out from doorways or leaning against mud houses, men wrapped in huge brown tentlike coverings—U.S. Army salvage winter overcoats.
But the item that is uppermost in any recollection of Abebe Bikila's world is not among these mementos, because it has to do with so illusive a thing as the sensitivity of the place—it is the sensitivity that impresses, that jars, from the beginning. Imagine being cast from sleep into a live orchestra pit where all the plinks and toots are sharply defined, never muted. That is what Ethiopia is like. It is a world of vivid colors and no shadings, where casual words and acts are quarry for incisive interpretation.
We had passed a pleasant trip skipping from Madrid to Rome to Athens to Cairo to Khartoum when—halfway from Khartoum to Addis Ababa, looking directly down on the beautiful beginnings of the Ethiopian escarpment—one of the stewardesses on the Ethiopian Airlines jet, a dark, straight-backed girl with glistening teeth, a sharp, thin nose and swept-back hair, noticed that I was reading a TIME magazine account of Queen Elizabeth's visit. "That magazine tells nothing but lies about Ethiopia," she said, inserting a tray of hors d'oeuvres in my line of vision. "It is a waste to read. Here, have a snack."
I asked if she would please point out the heresies so that I might better understand her sudden pique. "There," she said, "that part about the Emperor rolling out red carpets. Our Emperor does not roll out carpets for anyone." I remarked on her good English but begged to point out that she had run afoul of a figure of speech, that what TIME was really saying was that His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings, knows how to show a visiting dignitary a royal time or two.
"I do not know this figure of speech," said the stewardess. Her eyes narrowed. "But what of the dust on our planes? It is a slander to say the Queen traveled on a dusty plane. Look at our plane. Is it not as clean as any other? That is a lie about the dust."
I reread the passage. "Plain. P-l-a-i-n. It is the dusty plain out beyond the city. All plains are dusty, even in America."
She pouted as I worked p�t� into a wafer. It was a day later that I discovered the source of her indignation. Bubbling up from the front and fifth pages of a week-old Ethiopian Herald was a passionate, colorful, hyperbolic essay: "Time And Time Again, TIME IS Caught Lying." After some exposure you come to admire The Ethiopian Herald for its nail-on-the-head journalism. One day there was a picture of a truck, wheels up in a ditch, cleanly stricken. Under it, this: "Try to foresee the possibilities." The Herald is government-controlled, as are all the news dispensers of Ethiopia. The government, quite reasonably, is sensitive to its public image. This has been particularly true since the abortive coup d'�tat of 1960, which was a manifest reaction to the country's painstaking emergence into the 20th century. (The illiteracy rate of Ethiopia's 20 million still runs close to 90%.) Censors are especially sensitive, therefore, to any perils to imperial authority, despite the great international popularity of H.I.M. Haile Selassie. A literary friend who resides in Addis swears that in the Ethiopian version of
it is Brutus who is done away with.
Back again, the stewardess proffered a platter of gum to carry us through the descent into Addis and asked, "Why have you come to Ethiopia?" The hostility had vanished. Rapport was on the way to being restored.