Take a step off any bus in Bella, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and ask the first person you see, “Do you know where Ababa’s house is?” They’ll laugh. Everyone knows Ababa. They’ve all sat in her kitchen, had a cup of buna (coffee), listened to her soft voice and taken in the smell of spices heavy in the air as her rough, weather worn, hands meticulously sorted lentils.
I don’t know my grandmother that well but she fascinates me. We’ve been separated by oceans, continents, cities and dropped long distance calls. I don’t know all the people who pass in and out of her home, but I envy them. They get to sit, watch, sip, and embrace Ababa.
Years of my life were spent avoiding talking to her on the phone. My Amharic was bad; she wouldn’t be able to understand me. People would laugh if I butchered the language. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want her to laugh at me. So I hid and avoided the phone until my mother stopped asking if I wanted to talk to her. Time passed and one day I bought a ticket home to learn about her.
They have the worst paved roads you’ve ever come across. Look down, or else you’ll step in an animal dropping, or get your foot caught in a ditch. Look up, or you’ll bump into a woman with a basin over her head, baby wrapped around her back with a thick orange sash, or a crippled man with bandages wrapped around his wrists stick in hand, begging for some spare change. Or a flock of sheep bumping into one another as they totter behind a young boy, a smile permanently etched on his face.
The walk is full of greens, yellows, oranges, and browns.
Past the Italian embassy, up the hill, past three market stalls (if you’re lucky you won’t bump into Chelsea, the village drunk, who frequents market stall two), around a corner, another market stall, past tin houses with elaborate gates of blue, green, orange. A few more cobbled steps and there you are.
First the house comes to view. It’s simple with a white balcony. The kitchen is hidden beside it. Separate from the rest of the house the kitchen is more like a little den. The exterior is made of mostly earth and tin: a tin roof, and tin door. A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling of the house. An oven sits unused in one corner —gas is much too expensive and really what’s the rush? Twigs and coal are burnt or portable stoves are used instead. There are no windows, but from sunrise to sunset the door is always open. The smells of food bringing in the guests.
They call it “Ababa’s house.” It’s a place of worship, a home of solidarity, a meeting place, a place of comfort, a salon, a place where lips run looser than high schools.
The women congregate here in the morning wearing flowery dresses from the ’30s, knock off Dior and Chanel scarves draped over their shoulders and Juicy couture sweatpants. They have names that translate to “flower,” “love,” “orange,” “beauty,” “sun,” and “happy.”
They’re not all family. Some of the people who sit on my grandmother’s busted green couch are friends of her children, or friends of her children’s children and friends of friends of her children.
“How are you, child?” She’ll say getting up to kiss your cheeks.
When her gentle hands cup your face it’s hard not to sag into her touch. This close you’ll be able to smell her, she smells like the spices she cooks with. She presses her lips to your cheeks. They’re slightly wet, a little chapped. Three kisses: left cheek, right cheek and left again. She pulls away and looks at you, a smile on her face. It’s hard not to smile back.
“Oh, you know…” says one woman, sinking back into the couches.
My grandmother is sitting on a stool, a flowery lap full of dirty potatoes, as she peels and places them in a little metal pot. She has a wrap around her silvery hair, and large glasses. Under her flowery dress she’s wearing five more layers. She claims she gets cold easy.
“Ababa, let me do this for you,” says the other.
Pleasantries are exchanged as one woman takes the knife from my grandmother and starts cutting potatoes. Another picks up bowl of lentils and starts sorting through the little seeds.
“Did you hear about—” chop, “—Oh, and what about—” chop, chop, “—Can you believe it?”
They cut, stir, and sift methodically. Cooking from memory. It is a simple backdrop to their gossiping and giggling.
Outside the kitchen, my grandmother’s stay home “maid,” Lemlem, makes buna. She’s 18, loathes making coffee, and she mutters softly about the clothes she has to wash before her evening classes.
Coffee beans are crushed in a clay cylinder; the rod hits the beans with a thud, a twist a turn and thud. Repeat. Until the beans are completely ground. Hot water is boiling. Ground coffee mixed in the water and finally it’s ready to serve. One sugar, two sugar, three.
The buna is passed around the women. They work, stop, sip, laugh. Repeat. Until they leave. Chipped buna cups, with residue sugar and pressed lips lay in their wake. The cups are washed.
The kitchen is the heart of the Ethiopian household.
Time is measured with kisses on the cheek and dirty coffee cups that linger in the wake of guests.
Six cups of buna and it is time for lunch.
Men take the place of the women, bringing in food, and the old school glass bottles of Coca-Cola. Their broad shoulders make the room look smaller.
They’re grown men but they still shrink down and let my grandmother grab their faces and kiss each cheek. Left, right, left.
“Brukey, you’re alive?!” She’ll exclaim, although she saw him last week.
“Good job, my son, keep living for me! “
The conversation is different with the group of men, one of them her own son, they talk about work, about their families, they complain about their back, shoulder, and headaches.
Buna is passed around. They drink.
She excuses herself from the conversation as she sits back in the cushion and watches them converse. They talk sports, news, sports, and weather.
They stay and chat until its time to pick up kids, wives, friends, mothers.I don’y know my grandmother that well but she fascinates me.”
Four more cups are consumed and it’s almost time for dinner.
My uncle is sitting on the stool, poking a fire. The flames dance across his face, casting eerie shadows against the walls. My aunt is perched on one armchair, her entire makeup bag on her lap as she braids her hair.
My cousin sits on the couch nestled between myself and our grandmother, she has headphones in her ear listening to my iPod, she recently discovered Beyoncé and became transfixed with XO and Blow, nodding her head along and mouthing the words to the best of her ability.
Ababa is drinking a tea mixture, sighing. Her bones ache, her hands absently rub her forehead.
I reach across my bouncing cousin and hold my grandmother’s hand. I teach her more English words: “I miss you,” “I love you,” and “how are you?”
Her eyes are closed and her head is back against the cushion, she looks smaller, and frailer than she did when the sun was up and she was busy doing chores, greeting guests. She drums her fingers on her forehead as she repeats the words: “I me you,” “I lave you,” “how’r you?”
She squeezes my hand. Everyone laughs. I squeeze her hand back. There’s an underlying tinge of regret and embarrassment with the conversations I have with my grandmother. Regret for not knowing my mother tongue as well as I should, embarrassment that my younger sister was fluent in it already. The first in the family to be born outside of Ethiopia had left me speaking a mixture of Amharic and English.
I feel a bit ashamed when I struggle to communicate with her when we’re alone, when I have to rack my brain to find words in Amharic that’ll fill in the gaps of silence.
But once I look past the feelings of regret and embarrassment, I notice that the gaps in our conversations are filled with giggles, touches and squeezes. Sometimes we sit in silence in her small kitchen, drinking tea, and eating bread and appreciating this time we have together. Silently admiring each other. We’ve known of each other for almost 21 years. We’ve only been in each other’s company for five months of that entire time. When I sit with her alone in that kitchen, watching her out of the corner of my eye, I think how crazy it is to become so enamoured with someone so quickly. How easy it to love a stranger so fiercely.
And when I struggle to come up with a way to answer her question and she laughs softly, reaches over to squeeze my hand and tell me that it’s okay, she’ll ask me again when Helen — my cousin and translator — is home from school, I feel like what we have is okay, that what we have is better than most.
My grandmother passes on the last round of buna, opting for a tea instead. Three cups of buna go around. We don’t wash them this time, that’ll wait for the morning.
It’s time for bed.