Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia

Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia

by Rebecca G. Haile


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This powerful book gives readers a chance to experience Ethiopia through the personal experience of a writer who is both Ethiopian and American. It takes readers beyond headlines and stereotypes to a deeper understanding of the country. This is an absorbing account of the author’s return trip to Ethiopia as an adult, having left the country in exile with her family at age 11. She profiles relatives and friends who have remained in Ethiopia, and she writes movingly about Ethiopia’s recent past and its ancient history. She offers a clear-eyed analysis of the state of the country today, and her keen observations and personal experience will resonate with readers. This is a unique glimpse into a fascinating African country by a talented writer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780897335560
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/01/2007
Pages: 195
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Rebecca Haile lives in NYC with her husband and two small children. She is a Harvard trained lawyer, and now is a full-time writer and community activist. This is her first book.

Read an Excerpt

Held at a Distance

My Rediscovery of Ethiopia

By Rebecca G. Haile

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2007 Rebecca G. Haile
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89733-659-8


A Solid Foundation

I am a little disoriented as Jean and I work our way through Addis Ababa's tiny international airport. It is 6:30 A.M., we haven't slept at all on the overnight flight from Europe, and the armed soldiers at every exit make me nervous. Our fellow arrivals are mostly Ethiopian, so I follow their lead through passport check and customs. When we are questioned, I suppress a prick of fear and listen to myself stumble over my first, tentative Amharic phrases. We get the extra questions because we are American, and the long looks, but we aren't delayed. Moments later we are outside, almost too quickly, I think, as I squint in the early sunlight at a waiting crowd pressed up against a metal barricade across the street. Then I spot Mimi among them, shouting my name and waving a bouquet of flowers, and my heart leaps. I squeeze past a cluster of porters and taxi drivers and into her arms, and suddenly I am wide awake and aware that I am, finally, back in Ethiopia.

We greet each other in a torrent of words and affection. My aunt has met Jean before, on her last trip to the States, and her embrace sweeps him in as well. Soon the two of us are in her car for the short drive home, and from the front passenger's seat I greedily take in my first sights and sounds of Addis Ababa. At that early hour the highland air is cool, scented with the clean smell of eucalyptus leaves, and the sky is a fresh, uniform blue. It is Sunday, and the airport is relatively quiet, but outside the gates we turn on to a four-lane road that is surprisingly busy with cars of every make, and aging blue-and-white minibuses bursting with passengers. There are no sidewalks to speak of, so pedestrians — Sunday churchgoers in traditional dress, urbanites in smart Western clothing, beggars shrouded in graying rags — hug the sides of the road to dodge the steady traffic. Cars and people in turn maneuver around livestock — donkeys, sheep, goats and cattle that sometimes come to a complete stop right in the roadway. Both sides of the road are lined with a disorderly mix of businesses, nondescript apartment buildings, cafes (including one literally shaped like an airplane), restaurants and untended vacant lots where eucalyptus trees spring up in uneven groves, and bougainvilleas burst forth with vivid splashes of magenta. Large billboards feature exquisite women and smaller hand-lettered signs advertise products and services from CocaCola to car washes in Amharic, English, and occasionally, Orominya. The city's bustle surrounds us until the moment Mimi turns into the walled complex where she and Tadesse now live.

Addis Ababa, this first drive reminds me, is not a city of public places. The Ethiopian capital does not boast pretty plazas, palaces or civic buildings designed by architects and urban planners; it is not a place where residents habitually stroll through public gardens or tree-lined avenues after the evening meal. Addis Ababa is a city of hidden sanctuaries, a chaotic and rather unattractive jumble that does not speak openly of the warm homes and other oases concealed behind tall compound walls.

I am not surprised by this reminder, because at the very heart of my memories of Ethiopia is just such an oasis: the solid, two-story granite home my parents built in Addis Ababa on the eve of the revolution.

* * *

Our house in Addis Ababa. Had events turned out differently, perhaps that house would not mean so much to me. It would still be important, but for the usual reasons homes matter: as a site of family pleasures, of cherished childhood memories, of private refuge from the city outside. But our house was also the place my mother, sister and I left one ordinary morning unaware that we would not return — and the scene, later that day, of my father's violent arrest and near-death. The juxtaposition was stark, yet I have always cherished the memory of our house as a private bulwark against the rootlessness and poverty that we suffered from after we left. Over the years, I'd let myself believe that something of the hopes and dreams poured into the house's foundations and built into its walls had survived the horror of that one day. Now that I was back in Addis Ababa, the house was the first place I wanted to visit.

My parents built our house soon after our return to Addis Ababa from my father's two-year sabbatical leave in the United States. Excited by their homecoming and ready to settle into a permanent home, my father and mother threw themselves into the construction of the first house they would own together. They rejected lots in newer suburbs outside town in favor of a parcel of land off the Sidist Kilo roundabout in an economically mixed neighborhood near the university. Once construction began, my father constantly swung by the site to check on the workers' progress. On weekends, or when it was his turn to drive our school car pool, he would take me and my sister and friends with him, a detour I loved for the fun of watching walls magically rise and rooms mysteriously take shape. He took an interest in the most minute details, frequently having workers redo this or retouch that and occasionally rolling up his sleeves to make sure every feature was precisely as he and my mother wanted. Back in Addis Ababa, one of my paternal aunts reminisced to me about how the workers had grumbled about his exacting standards. "It is as if," she had overheard one mason complain, "Getatchew believes he is building steps to heaven itself!"

As I think back on the years before the revolution, I see my parents, especially my father, as builders in a broader, more fundamental sense. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the entire African continent was alive with the possibilities born of newly won freedom from colonial rule. Intellectuals like my father, many of whom had studied abroad, were full of hope for the modern, democratic and egalitarian nations they could construct through energetic, broad-based political action. They thought it natural for Ethiopia, the only African nation to have escaped colonization, to be at the vanguard of this new age of nation-building, and they welcomed the establishment of the Organization of African Unity's headquarters in Addis Ababa. The ideals of democracy, socialism, modernization and economic progress were very much on their minds (and pens); they believed that with hard work and collective action, these ideals could flourish in harmony with the traditional systems they still respected. Confident and optimistic, my parents were committed to building both a private home and a public society they expected to enjoy and participate in for years to come.

My parents' private efforts yielded a warm, comfortable home. Although we lived there for just over a year, at nine I was old enough to remember and take away with me a clear imprint of its proportions and beauty, the pleasure it gave us to be in it and the rhythm and texture of the days we spent there. I remember the delight of having so much space to play in and explore, in contrast to the two-bedroom faculty apartment we had just vacated. I remember the sharp smell of wet paint and freshly sanded woodwork and the exposed wires that dangled in sockets where we hadn't yet installed fixtures. I remember the bare dark earth of our new garden, and the tiny saplings that poked out of the ground into circles of protective wire mesh. I remember long games of marbles and jump rope and football during the single summer we spent there, and our many discoveries: a gutter to the left of the house that became, after a heavy rain, a perfect stream for racing paper boats; wood planks and pieces, left over from construction and stored in a basement, that doubled as seesaws, dueling swords and building blocks. I remember the time we spent with cousins who stayed for days at a time and the occasional grown-up parties my mother always let us stay up for.

I also remember, though with much less clarity, how life within our home was affected by the political situation outside the compound gates — the public project gone wrong. I don't remember the day Haile Selassie was deposed, nor the night Mengistu ordered the death of every imperial minister, but I do recall the hushed adult conversations, the curfews that sometimes stranded a late dinner guest on a couch until daybreak, the apprehension that seemed to weight the air. Yet none of this truly seeped through the protective barrier of our compound wall in a way that made me personally fearful. That is, of course, until the day we left the house, and did not return.

Soon after we left Addis Ababa, the Derg nationalized our house as part of a program of urban and rural land redistribution. The government decreed that each family could own only one residence, and it seized second homes, undeveloped urban lots and farmland property and leased them to renters and tenant farmers. Our house was our only residence, so its confiscation was illegal even under the Derg's own rules. But at that time my parents were in England, preoccupied with matters of basic survival and hardly in a position to protest.

The government kept and used the house for years. From time to time we heard scraps of information about its occupants: under the Derg, senior government officials, Cuban military personnel, East German doctors; and under the current government, more senior officials and then mostly foreigners working for NGOs. Once, maybe ten years after we'd left, a German professor who lived there with his family learned about my parents through mutual acquaintances and sent a snapshot of the house to us in Minnesota. The photograph showed the house framed by the garden, and we all gasped at the height of the trees, the little saplings we'd left behind. We should not have been surprised, since we'd been gone so long, but the photo was a sharp reminder of time and change in a singular place that, undisturbed by more current images, had stood perfectly still in our memories.

Two years before I made the trip back to Ethiopia, and long after I thought they'd given up on it, my parents won back their house. They hired a lawyer to challenge the original seizure, and ultimately prevailed, because the Derg had by then been overthrown by the TPLF and the new government was not as vested in defending the Derg's mistake. Once the house was back in my parents' names, Tadesse took over its care and maintenance. After some renovation and a fewrepairs, he and Mimi rented it to a British family affiliated with a local NGO.

That the house was ours again was important for me, too. Through the years of our unrooted immigrant life, for so many of which we were quite poor, the fact that we had been well-established in Addis Ababa sustained me at many levels, and the house was an important symbol of our former status. In our small town of Cold Spring, in central Minnesota, neighbors and classmates asked the most basic questions about Ethiopia, and I will always remember being asked whether we had houses where we came from, and whether those houses had glass windows. I saw myself as an ordinary kid — was I really so strange and alien to my classmates? Memories of our house helped me face my interlocutors and shrug off their questions. Since I was so young when we left, I had not yet developed a sophisticated public Ethiopian identity, and to the extent I had a sense of self, it was formed by my family and our life inside the private setting of our home. The memory of our house, of our private space, became the foundation of the Ethiopian identity I developed. As I grew older, I described Ethiopia as a proud African nation that had resisted European colonization, a country with an ancient history replete with literary and artistic achievement. This was the accomplished Ethiopia I let myself believe in, and central to this mental picture was an equally accomplished urban family who lived in a solid, well-built house.

I recognize now that this was a construct steeped in irony. For all of the positive sentiment I associated with the house, my father was nearly killed there, and "our" house was lost to us for years. Ethiopia escaped colonization, but it has been devastated by the brutality of its home-bred oppressors. Still, it meant a lot to me during difficult adolescent years in the United States to believe that I and my family were rooted in something undeniably solid. Perhaps those roots weren't as strong and deep as my parents intended them to be, but they were vital enough to nourish and sustain me for years.

Back in Addis Ababa, I tell Mimi that I want to go to the house when the tenants are out. I want to walk slowly through each room, to study every corner while I mentally replay both firsthand memories and the stories I've heard from others. I do not want to be hurried and I do not want my experience to be filtered by the presence of anyone else with a claim to the house.

We plan the visit for late one weekday morning. We approach Sidist Kilo from the Arat Kilo roundabout to the south, following a wide avenue that runs through the university district. At Sidist Kilo, we make a right into the neighborhood, and I look for the house of a girl I used to car pool to school with, a classmate who many years later told me that she'd learned that bullets left arcs of red fire in a darkening sky the evening my father was shot. I can't find it, because once-vacant lots on either side of the street have been completely built up, but I do remember the route to our house. We take a quick left, past little residential shacks with corrugated tin roofs interspersed with the occasional larger home shielded, always, by stone walls and a guarded gate. About a quarter of a mile away from the house, we make another left, this time onto the familiar dead-end access road, the one the soldiers blocked the day of my father's arrest. After all these years, it is still unpaved and rutted. A few bumpy moments later we are in front of the compound, and Mimi leans on the horn. I am about to ask her whether the iron gate has always been painted a bright lime green when the zebenya throws it open and the house is there before us.

I climb slowly out of the car and stand in the courtyard for a minute, taking everything in from the outside. The physical look and layout of the house are exactly the same — given the years of state ownership, no one has bothered to change anything. But the grounds, by contrast, are unrecognizable. The lot was barren when we built the house, and we worked hard to seed grass, plant flowers of every kind (particularly roses, my mother's favorite), nurture tiny saplings and, behind the house, lay out a vegetable garden. Now, twenty-five years later, the gardens are simply beautiful. The small lawn is a lush velvet patch shaded by several leafy trees that look exactly right for climbing. Oversized primrose bushes and false banana trees hug the length of the compound wall, with long feathery branches that reach upward and then gracefully inward over the lawn. Everywhere, along borders, in terraced areas, in proper beds and terracotta pots, flowers are in riotous bloom, cradling the gray stone house in low bursts of color.

The gardens make me think of my mother, and how delighted she will be when I tell her that everything she planted has grown so ferociously, as if determined to honor her labor no matter what. They also make me think again of how time and nature do not stop for revolutions or pause to mark gun battles or mourn the departure of a family from its home. And then, almost immediately, I am much more emotional than I thought I would be, swept up in thought and memory about the solid granite house before me.

Without even closing my eyes, I can imagine the courtyard and garden crowded with angry soldiers, shouting curses and emptying their weapons as they search for my father. Years after we'd left Ethiopia, I asked my father what he had been planning that afternoon: trapped indoors, how did he hope to escape the soldiers who had overrun the compound? His idea — to the extent he had time to think at all — was to fight first and flee second. He thought he could fire enough bullets to keep the soldiers at bay until sunset. Once night had fallen, he hoped to steal out of a terrace on the west side of the house, climb over the compound wall and disappear into the neighborhood. And this was what he tried, except that the wall is high — built to stop intruders from climbing in — and a soldier spotted him as he tried to scramble over. I study the west wall and try to guess where exactly my father attempted his climb, then I can't help but see him lying crumpled in the mud below, not realizing at first how badly he'd been hurt, not knowing what next to expect.

I am shaken from my reverie by Jean, and the two of us walk around the house, to the east side, where the entrance is. Mimi is already inside with Qesela, a handyman who has worked for my extended family for years. He has come along to look at some water damage in the ceiling of the dining room. As we climb the front steps, Jean tells me that the house is not what he had expected.


Excerpted from Held at a Distance by Rebecca G. Haile. Copyright © 2007 Rebecca G. Haile. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Held at a Distance,
A Solid Foundation,
A Monday Afternoon,
The Engineer,
Remains of an Empire,
The Moon over Lake Tana,
Lalibela and the Road Beyond,
Inside a Tukul,
Outside an Embassy,
Epilogue: Claiming a Country,

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