I softly tap the keys of the laptop perched upon my thighs, listening to Mahi’s rhythmic breathing on this cool night in Addis. Her wavy Habesha hair peeks out from under the covers and a surge of tenderness rolls through me. Love comes in waves like that.
On the tiny wooden bedside table to my right lies a year-old receipt from the Hôtel des Mille Collines, also known as the infamous Hotel Rwanda. It’s a memento from a special day last summer in Kigali. I was there doing an internship with a local newspaper, and Mahi was visiting from Ethiopia. I still remember her standing on the verdant hotel grounds between the shrubs with blood-red flowers, the wind puffing on her turquoise dress, pressing it against her cinnamon skin. And of course her brilliant white teeth, sparkling through her smile. I call her Fendisha – Amharic for popcorn, it’s also used as a term of endearment for a smiley girl with pearly white teeth.
Falling for Mahi that day stung like a hornet, since the plane taking her forever away from me was leaving that same night. Despite this lingering, gloomy fact, I couldn’t seem to stop my right hand from taking hers in the crowded taxi van on the way home from the hotel. This simple act of intimacy instantly and perhaps forever changed my life. Not only was it an absurdly hopeless move, it was also risky, since she was in Rwanda visiting my Ugandan roommate, her boyfriend.
The Hyena. His mendacity, profligate cheating, and humiliating treatment of her eased my guilt, even when I kissed her later that night in their bedroom. The Hyena was in the living room at the time, but I couldn’t control myself. As we all rode in another taxi later that night to the airport, I sat with Mahi in the back seat and stroked her hand under cover of darkness, as he sat oblivious in the front.
We arrived at tiny Kigali Airport and learned she still had a few hours before her flight. The Hyena immediately bid Mahi a curt adieu and turned on his heels to abandon her forever – a broken young woman far too well-acquainted with loss in a foreign country for the first time.
Our wonderful roommate Gloria, also Ugandan, was with us too. She adored Mahi and mutely watched through the mistreatment of the past few weeks. She could finally take no more. “Go home then,” she told the hyena in her motherly Swahili cadence. “But I’m staying with this sweet child.” I made another historical decision and stayed too.
The Hyena couldn’t have cared less. He had barely taken two contemptible departing steps when Mahi and I embraced like magnets, and she burst into tears. It was all just too much for her. It was also too much for Rwanda. There we stood, a young white man and a radiant Ethiopian woman. Two differently coloured foreigners locked in embrace in a traditional society where even married couples seldom show affection in public. The airport collectively stopped to gape, but we scarcely noticed.
It was sweet Gloria who quietly inquired when Mahi’s visa expired. She had been with us at Hotel Rwanda, telling us what a cute couple we made, and nothing got by her. She trusted me, knew we were good for each other, and was our earliest ally. “The visa’s good for a few weeks still? Hmmm…” And then it was Mahi who had to make a decision. She chose the irrational, with faith in the unlikely. She made the gutsy decision to give us a chance, and changed her ticket.
But where would she stay? I made a quick late-night phone call to some Canadian classmates and friends who lived near our place and had a spare room. “I need to ask for a huge favour…”
Luckily, they agreed to take her in for a while. The next few weeks were bliss. She was mine, and I hers. Neither of us had had any luck in love. She had only known deception and abuse; Me, heartbreak and futility. We mended one another, purged the venom from our hearts. Decades of waiting bore the fruit of harmony between souls finally at peace.
The poor Hyena was clueless. He had been a good friend to me, and a dark pall of guilt still hangs over me for going behind his back. But he blew it with Mahi, and knew it was over. Still, I feel like I betrayed him. He was a big part of Rwanda for me, and every time I think about my experience my guilty conscience leaves an ugly blemish.
Soon it’s time to say goodbye. I have one more year of journalism school in Ottawa, and Mahi has to go back to her job in Ethiopia. She dreads the valediction from day one, while I am carefree until it hits me just hours before her departure. I stand there taciturn in the kitchen, just staring at her as she cooks her roommates a supper of gratitude. I’m ready to blubber like a child saying goodbye to his mother on his first day of school.
In the airport I give Mahi my red Rossiya t-shirt to remind her of me. She blithely peels off her own shirt and puts mine on, right in front of everyone. “I’ll always remember your face when I did that,” she later giggles. Our tearful embrace at the security gate causes yet another scene at Kigali Airport, and the airport attendants take mercy upon us, letting me stay until the last possible second.
Finally, it’s time to say goodbye. After the decades it took to find each other, we’re ripped apart again by jet engines. But our love was a magnet immune to distance. We spent a year with the Atlantic between us, but maintained our relationship with the help of modern communications technology and a stubborn faith.
My friends and family were supportive and happy for me, and had open arms for Mahi, but I saw the doubt in their eyes. Why did I have to make it so difficult? Are there no nice girls in Canada?
I was never too fond of or skilled at contemporary Canadian dating practices. I had no desire to find a girl at a bar or online, like some consumer product (though admittedly such methods have produced quite lovely couples). I learned romance from movies I watched as a child, and I thought love should be impractical. Love at first sight, across boundaries, with impossible odds. Most people dismiss this as unrealistic. About as unrealistic as flying to Ethiopia to pursue a girl.
Canadian women in my experience are wonderfully intelligent and pragmatic. They make exquisite friends and they’re easy to date. We just generally have discordant values when it comes to romance. Everything must be sensible and controlled. Searching for a mate is like shopping, checking off every item on the grocery list. Non-smoker? Check. Liberal? Check. Same long-term life goals? Check. It’s mechanical love, and it’s not for me.
Perhaps I’m trying to compensate for my own stodgy English roots, but I yearn for passion and soul. I’ve always longed for the Old World values that I admire so much in my Ukrainian grandmother. Spirituality; sincerity; devotion; nurturing. Modernity, a young culture, and the easy life borne of prosperity have diluted these traits in Canada. Mahi’s life of perdition has educated her soul and made it bountiful. It’s given her a deeper sense of empathy than I’ll ever know. I see my Baba in her, and I pray one day they’ll meet.
One day I was excited to show her my favourite movie, Braveheart. I was taken aback when she had to shut it off, but for her the explicit violence was abhorrent. When I considered this later, I found it refreshing. It is abhorrent, but I hardly notice since I’m so accustomed to watching such carnage.
The thing about Mahi is that she’s artless. She’s not jaded or desensitized, and lacks affectation or condescension. Her speech is free of sarcasm, satire, irony, and political correctness. She doesn’t need to prove how independent she is or how little she needs me. She loves inspirational movies with happy endings, and the innocent humour of Tom and Jerry. “Cheesy” as a pejorative has no meaning for her.
Mahi’s love is irrational and uncontrolled. She expresses it with fierce embraces, as she whispers “A hug can speak,” in my ear. She cries easily, yet at times shows bottomless strength and astonishing courage. She chats with shoe shiners on the street as if they’re old friends, and if she sees cruelty she takes it on with a lion’s ferocity. When she walks into a room it’s like opening a curtain to let in the morning sun. She inspires smiles wherever she goes, even on my stubborn, prickly face.
The way Mahi tends to me would likely make Canadian feminists cluck their tongues, but their ideology closes their minds. She cooks for me every day of her own volition (though I do the dishes as a feeble compensation), but if I ever ordered her to do something, she would laugh in my face. If I insisted on cooking for her every second day the way I did with Canadian girlfriends, she would react the same way my Baba would – amusement at best, offence at worst. “This is Ethiopia,” she reminds me.
On the plane, as I soar closer and closer to my Fendisha, I feel a mixture of terror, doubt, and lustful anticipation. At the eleventh hour, I ponder my 12,000 kilometre leap of faith, and am assaulted by an onslaught of questions. What on earth am I doing? How soon will I know if I made the right decision? I wonder if she’ll sound and taste and smell the same way. Will she be different in her homeland, surrounded by her compatriots? Does she look the same? Do I? What will her family and friends think about a white man coming to be with their girl? I wonder what we’ll talk about, fight about, cry about? Will she smile when I call her Fendisha?
The Facebook messages, the patchy voice I hear for 20 minutes after dialling the numbers on a phone card, the flickering image of Mahi via Skype from an Internet café somewhere in Addis – all of these things will materialize into a real, complicated human being, complete with faults and idiosyncrasies.
As I try to make cold butter melt onto a stale airline bun, I watch Field of Dreams on the tiny screen in front of me, a movie I adored as a child. It gives me confidence in the irrational. He did something crazy simply because he felt it was the right thing to do. Then I look at a picture of Mahi taking a bite out of a giant slice of watermelon in Kigali, her mouth cartoonishly wide, and it erases any hesitation. A warm wave of love comforts me. I just want her in my arms again, to hear the childlike inflection of her voice when she’s excited, to smell her perfume. I think about all the heartaches, all the missed opportunities in my life. This is something I must follow through on, leaving behind no What ifs to haunt me in the future.
Finally I arrive, and there she is. My beautiful Fendisha with her singsong voice and popcorn teeth, who loves watermelons and chocolate, who waited a year for me. She weeps when she sees me, her tiny body quivering as she keeps whispering, “I can’t believe you really came.” For me it’s all too surreal and I don’t feel anything until we embrace in the backseat of the taxi a few minutes later, and an ocean of memories and relief rolls through me as I realize I made the right choice.
If you liked this, please click here for similar pieces.