OBSERVATIONS FROM THE MOTHERLAND : COMING OR GOING, EITHER WAY, I’M HOME
By Dr. Gelane Gemechisa
I hope you all enjoyed my last blog about experience in Bale. It’s always difficult to convey experiences because there are so many subtleties that escape words.
All the same, I will do my best to share with you the amazing time I spent with family and friends in the land that carried my ancestors for generations. Situated in the heart of western Wallaga zone of Oromia, Dembi Dollo is a home away from home for me.
I few weeks ago my friend and fellow blogger, Nabila Aliyee related her story of traveling “home” to meet family she’d only known by name. Her account reminded me of my first visit to Dembi seven years ago when I met over 130 family members in a big gathering my mother arranged. I was interested to see how this experience would differ or be the same as before. Come with me as I retrace my steps through my “home” turf affectionately known simply as, Dembi.
I was already awake with angst when my alarm went off at 5 a.m. I barely slept the night before, ironically not because of excitement but because I stayed up to watch the Manchester City-Liverpool match which lasted until 1am local time and was a complete disappointment. I arrived at the bus station in Asco an hour later and met my cousin there who was also traveling to Dembi with an entourage. Once we hit the road, my angst quickly faded to tiredness and I fell asleep before we even reached Holota. The next thing I remember was my cousin waking me up in Ambo where we stopped for breakfast. When we came out from the restaurant the mechanics were already changing a tire on the bus which I now recognize in hindsight was an omen for the rest of the trip.
One hour later, we set out on the road again. I was so overcome by sleep in the first leg of the trip that I failed to notice how fast our driver was speeding on open road. I looked around the crowded bus to see if anyone else was bothered by how fast we were going up and down the windy roads but people were just chatting with one another as though we were on a smooth-riding train. I can’t say I was all that surprised given this was my second bus trip, but I don’t think the feeling of taking a turn in a huge bus at 60kph is something I could ever get used to.
The road was pleasant until close to Gedo, about 175km west of the capital, but after that it was quite possibly the most back-breaking terrain I’ve ever travelled over. Every so often along the way, we would come upon an active construction site and from far away it looked like a scene from rural China with all the workers wearing Chinese pointed bamboo hats. Up close you could see that the foreman was the only foreigner in the pack but even his skin tone looked like that of an Ethiopian from spending days in the equatorial sun.
We stopped two more times before reaching Naqamte, the captial of Wallaga, for tire problems. Changing tires took so much time that we couldn’t reach Gimbi on the first day and ended up being one of the last buses to reach Naqamte (which meant almost no hotel rooms left). As we drove into town, we passed Wallaga University – a large and relatively new establishment, on our left and I could see students hanging around chatting at the end of their school day. It reminded me of my college days of hanging around campus fraternizing with friends. I imagined they were talking about professors or sharing frustrations about assignments or maybe what they were going to do that weekend.
I found myself smiling at the idea that the college experience was more universal than I thought; A time when young adults set off into the unknown to learn about the world and themselves. Interestingly enough, in almost the same thought, I felt a sense of hopelessness for these students after having countless conversations with jobless college graduates. Sure anyone can get a college education if they work hard enough through high school but it’s certainly no guarantee of a career or financial security for the future. That’s a whole other topic in and of itself.
The city proper was quite larger than I expected it to be and there seemed to be about as much construction as there was in Finfinne. The sun was just beginning to set as we walked around town to find rooms for the night. To our disadvantage, not only were we late getting in but there was a championship soccer game for Wallaga zone that day so the streets were busier than usual, or at least that’s what the locals told us. After some smooth-talking and extra payment we finally got rooms at Desalegn Hotel, one of the only places that had running water in the city. The city is set up with water and sewage systems, however because of the its overwhelming growth rate, supply can no longer keep up with demand so there is ongoing shortage.
Freshly showered but still weary from the treacherous commute, we wandered downstairs to the restaurant for a quick dinner and then settled in for the night. We left early the next morning before the city woke up and thanks to the good asphalt road we reached Gimbi in time for a late breakfast.
Finally we were on the last leg of our trip. I didn’t care at this point that the road was terrible again because we were less than half a day away from Dembi. What should’ve been about a five hour trip took double the time because of tire problems and stops to let people off at their destinations. It seemed like we spent 20 minutes in every town; Alem Teferi, Machara, Canqaa, you name it, we stopped there. We pulled into the Dembi bus station dusty, tired, and just about out of any more patience to be on the road.
As I jumped off the bus, I heard somebody shout “Galee!” There were so many people that I couldn’t tell who it was but I just walked in the direction the voice came from. Ah, there they were! My two aunts, uncle, and cousins were waiting with strong hugs and kisses to welcome me back to Dembi Dollo after seven years. I was immediately overcome with emotion and struck with awe that I could feel so attached to people so far away and so removed from my life.
When we got to my cousin’s house in the 0-4 neighborhood, the electricity was out as I quickly learned was a common trend in Dembi and surrounding towns. After eating dinner using a flickering candlelight, we spent the rest of the night catching up about relatives from both sides of the ocean. While we were talking, family members were calling to welcome me and invite me to their houses. I know there would be a lot of invitations, but nothing could prepare me for what I was in for over the next two weeks. As I lay in bed before falling asleep that night, I felt a sense of nostalgia not simply because I was returning to a place I’d been seven years ago but because I was in the land of my ancestors.
The weekend after I arrived was the Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas but since most people in Dembi are Protestants so celebrations were on the more subtle side. I spent the weekend attending church and going from relative’s to relative’s house for each meal. We spent the whole weekend without electricity but it didn’t matter because everyone was just happy to be in each other’s company. We looked at pictures and shared stories together. It was a lesson to me, that I could have so much fun without all the gizmos, gadgets, and distractions we usually employ to entertain us.
Everyone I talked with told me how excited they were that I could communicate with them in Afaan Oromo and couldn’t believe I learned as much as I did, being born in the U.S. It felt awesome to be there ‘on my own’ and build personal relationships with my family. The love and warmth was something so special; Something that was unique to a homecoming experience. I felt so accepted and cherished and like these people had always been a part of my life, whether I realized it or not. Amidst the reunions, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would’ve been like to meet my grandparents. Sadly, they all passed away either before I was born or before I had a chance to visit and meet them. In a way, being with my aunts and uncles made me feel closer to them. When they talked about ‘Babboo’, my father’s father, and ‘Harmee’, my mother’s mother, it was like they brought them to life for me and I could imagine their personalities and behaviors from the stories I heard.
Over and again, as I met more family members, there was a recurring theme of love and acceptance which truly sparked such awe in me that I found myself reflecting on it again and again. My aunts and uncles advised me like parents and I could feel how much they truly cared for me. I, in turn, advised my cousins and encouraged them to stay strong and not lose hope about not finding jobs. We all talked so openly with each other like people who grew up together. I still think about it now, how awesome the bond of family is and how fortunate I am to have realized this so clearly throughout my stay.
Monday morning came sooner than I was ready for and it was time to head to the hospital. I started the day with rounds in the surgery ward to learn about each patient. The surgeon was out for a few days so there were no surgeries scheduled but there were plenty of patients to see in the outpatient department. Being it a Monday after the holiday, the volume of patients was truly nothing like I’d ever seen before. The combination of holiday celebrations plus no one wanting to come to the hospital on the weekend made for one of the busiest days I’ve experienced in this field altogether.
Most people came with simple complaints like stomach upset (which is pretty typical considering a lot of people gorged on holiday food) but then there were some people who showed up with serious problems like seeking care for the first time for advanced breast cancer. My first thought was “How could somebody live with a deformed breast for 40 years and not think something was wrong?” After the shock of her situation subsided, I realized that a combination of issues were responsible for this lady’s and many others’ situation. The fact that Dembi Dollo Hospital serves people in extremely remote regions of the country who have no access to regular medical care and don’t have the information to understand dangerous diseases played major roles in why this lady waited forty years before seeing a doctor. Of course there are so many other variables specific to her that weighed in but in general, from a public health perspective, those two carry the brunt of the load.
On a lighter note, I had a patient come in and complain of an allergic reaction every time he eats lamb. I asked what other foods he had allergies to and he said nothing else just lamb. I chuckled but then took a moment to consider what he was expecting me to do for him then asked him that exact question. He laughed and said he didn’t know. “Well” I said “it would be a good idea to stay away from lamb since you know it doesn’t agree with you and you could have a more serious reaction in the future.” He laughed again and said “I was afraid you would say that.” I think he wanted a magic pill he could take that would allow him to keep eating lamb.
I spent the rest of that week in the outpatient and emergency departments seeing routine complaints and the occasional surgical emergency which, because our surgeon was out of town, we had to refer to Iraa Hospital 125km away.
I took Thursday morning off from the hospital to visit a farming co-op in Shuffee that family and friends in the U.S. are involved with. The land was franchised out by the government as part of a nationwide reforestation initiative and has been set up as a self-staining forestry project. The 25km trip was definitely a genuine off-roading experience and at some points I was almost sure that our Land Cruiser was going to tip over. We reached Shuffee in one piece and set out on foot to explore the farm lands but the midday sun was so hot that we only lasted about half an hour before turning back to head for the car. I was able to see the rich harvest stockpiled in storage which contained dried berbere, white beans, and other spices. This harvest
The rest of the weekend was filled with invitations to relatives’ houses with almost no downtime. One of the coolest experiences I had was at my uncle’s house where he showed me a three-legged chair that has been in my family for generations. It just looked like an ordinary old chair to me but it was definitely smaller than the normal 3-legged chairs I was used to seeing. My uncle explained that the chair belonged to my great-great-great-great-great grandmother and traveled with my ancestors as they migrated through Shawa and Wallaga until they reached Gutee, a sub-village of Dembi.
As tradition goes, the chair is passed to a cherished person in the next generation at the time of the chair-owners death. My grandfather gave the chair to my uncle’s wife as he lay on his death bed and it will remain with her until she passes it to a family member of her choosing. I would be so incredibly honored to have the chair passed onto me and would cherish having such a priceless family heirloom in my house not to mention the chance to pass it to another family member in the next generation.
A tug-of-war with a monkey
Later that evening, just after I returned home, I began to unwind from the long weekend and get ready for another week. My cousin and her husband were still out visiting with friends so only I and the house-workers were at home. I let myself in through the kitchen door and headed for my room.
The next thing I heard was a terrifying scream from one of the maids. “Wayyoo, wayyoo, wayyoo hin lixee!!!!,” she yelled from outside where she was standing on the veranda. From the sound of her voice I knew it wasn’t good. My first thought was some thief or crazy person got in the house so I made a bee-line for the bathroom and locked the door. From the bathroom window, I yelled outside to ask what was going on and she replied “Wayyoo, weennii mana kessaa lixee!!” which means a monkey got in the house! Weennii is the black-and-white Colubus monkey.
Apparently the monkey came in the kitchen door after me and went to the living room. The maid looked into the living room from outside and saw a small figure sitting on the couch, legs stretched out. It was too small to be me so she looked closer and it was the monkey, getting comfortable on the couch! All it needed was a wine-cooler, TV guide and a remote to feel more at home! I remember learning in biology that we share over 99% of the same DNA with monkeys, but this behavior is a little too human-like for my comfort!
He started looking for a way out of the house and went into my room. When he couldn’t get out through the window, fear must’ve kicked in because it went CRAZY and threw my things all over the room.I cracked open the bathroom door to see if I could catch a glimpse of the primate. I could see it in my room sitting in front of my suitcase plotting its next move. The room was an absolute disaster; Jewelry and clothes were scattered on the floor, the mirror torn from the wall and all the while, the naive American-raised part of me still thought it looked cute and cuddly. Luckily, the few episodes I watched of “When Animals Attack” stuck with me and I didn’t dare confront it, since I’d already seen what it did to my things.
After making a mess in my room it went to the dining room to try another window but they were all closed. Adrenaline was surely pumping by now and it jumped on the dining room table, got a running start and busted head-first clear through a 5mm thick glass window to freedom. I don’t know how the impact didn’t injure the poor thing but once free we saw him up in the trees rubbing his head, so I’m pretty sure he had a decent headache…poor thing. I’ve always liked watching National Geographic documentaries on Africa’s animals but I never imagined I’d find myself in the 3D hi-def version of one! A little too hi-def for me!
Well this was just week one of my stay in Dembi Dollo and there is plenty more to share. I’ll split the experience into two entries for everyone’s sake and I hope you’ll tune in for the next blog. As Nabila highlighted in her blog about Bale, there really is nothing like family and I feel blessed to have rekindled ties with my relatives back home. Thank you for reading my blog and see you next time!