It must be an omen from God. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Impossible weather for the subtropics of Addis Ababa in late July, the height of the rainy season. The sun is preciously scarce this time of year, and a chance like this mustn’t be squandered.
Doing laundry is tough during the chilly, dark rainy season – drying the clothes is a losing battle. The best you can hope for is a cool breeze and a few minutes of sunlight filtering through the clouds, and even then it takes all day and night to dry. Then of course they must be ironed, which helps to dry and soften them, and kills any bed bugs or fleas hiding in the tucks and folds. Washing machines are rare even amongst the wealthy here, and dryers are unheard of outside of laundromats.
Everything is harder when you don’t have hot water. Bathing, cleaning the house, washing dishes. Thank goodness for the ubiquitous gas stoves, swiftly boiling water for cleaning, tea, and soup.
My girlfriend Mahi and our housemaid Genet immediately go to work washing the clothes (they only giggle or shoo me away when I try to help). This miraculous, liberated sun will bake them dry in an hour.
I take advantage of the warm rays too, setting up a dusty old dining room chair in the driveway of our compound, sunning myself while reading a grand story of East Africa and Arabia.
Life flourishes around me. I’m encircled by emerald gardens blooming with bright pink, orange, lavender, and snowy flowers, petite prickly bulbs of jade cactus, and uncut grass hiding miniature wildlife within. A cool highland wind keeps me company, the perfect complement to the fiery sun. Busy ants dance across the moss-laden indentations of the cement driveway. Tiny grasshoppers freeze when I approach them, perfectly camouflaged against the grey rock hemming the garden in. A spider-eating sunbird with a sparkling lavender breast floats like a hummingbird, its long curved beak dipping into a flower for a sweet snack, competing with the fuzzy bees for nectar. A plump red-eyed dove hops boldly near me, dining on fallen seeds. I see the blink of a giant shadow as a vulture soars overhead.
Everywhere around me is the din of an African city. Half-domesticated bony cats mew incessantly for hours. Guard dogs bark all night. Dimly-lit bars play speaker-busting, eardrum-bursting music. Cars honk at the slightest provocation. Nocturnal crickets shriek from dusk ‘til dawn. An Orthodox priest recites Mass through church speakers, in competition with a muezzin’s call to prayer from the minaret of his mosque. The locals are so used to this symphony of African city life that they hardly seem to notice.
I hear birds and grasshoppers chirping; a neighbour’s dog wailing mournfully; a stubborn donkey braying as a shepherd smacks its bottom; an itinerant broom-seller hollering “Molya!” as he passes by; children chanting in unison somewhere off in the distance; coffee beans being ground; water boiling. The prattle from an American T.V. show floats outside through the open door, its nearly commercial-free broadcast censored through a pious oil-funded Arabic channel to the dim screen of our decrepit Japanese television.
Genet gossips with the neighbours’ maids in the backyard, where she lives in a tiny room, learning everything she can about city life. She’s an Amhara from a rural Oromo region, whose father orchestrated her escape to Addis to avoid being kidnapped as someone’s bride. She’s far too shy to make eye contact with the strange white man living in the house.
The modest white house with grey stucco stands demurely over me. As is typical in pockets of wealth among the tenements and hovels of a poor city, the compound is a veritable fortress. The steel gate has multiple locks and menacing triangular crenulations jutting from the top like teeth. The walls are foot-thick ashen cinder blocks, bolstered by a strategically-placed impenetrable green hedge, and topped with smashed soda bottles cemented in, their jagged edges sparkling green and maroon in the sun. Every door in the house has a lock, and every window has at least one set of painted bars. Pet dogs here are lethal weapons. All that’s missing is archers on the parapets, a moat, and boiling oil. It’s as though the sliver of wealthy patricians and merchants expect at any moment the dregs of society to advance upon them like the living dead.
Inside, a traditional white cotton gabi blanket, embroidered with a thick diagonally patterned line, rests on the long sofa. Its four layers are wafer-thin, but massive enough in breadth to cover Mahi and me during the crisp evenings.
Despite the butchery witnessed in this land, life is revered by the common man and woman. The door is always wide-open during the daytime, and there are no screens. All that scurries and flutters is free to amble in. A gecko on the wall; a cockroach under the table; ants on the counter; a praying mantis climbing the curtains. A mouse’s scampering can be heard from somewhere between the cracks and crevices. About a dozen arachnids currently call our tiny bathroom home. If I try to kill them, a look of horror crosses Mahi’s face and she protests. “Wayah faranji nehgehr!” Foreigners are so strange!
I hear it all the time. When I eat injera with my left hand like a barbarian (here it must only be eaten with the right); when thirty bug bites well up all over my body, while Mahi remains totally unmolested; when I panic as the Internet stops working; when I refuse to leave the house without a shower; when I put only one or two sugars in my coffee or tea instead of the traditional four or five; when I say please and thank you as often in Amharic as is common in English; when I sit and wallow in the hot sun. The ways of the foreigner are truly strange.
As it turns out, the weather is indeed too good to be true. After a brief reign, the sun is vanquished as clouds invade the sky again, but not before our life-giving star leaves her crimson mark on my poor pale shoulders. Then, as if in protest, the water hides somewhere deep within the pipes, refusing to burst forth from our taps.
Power outages are an almost daily occurrence, a minor nuisance at worst, but when the water ceases its flow, life grinds to a halt. Dirty clothing and dishes pile up. People start to smell. The toilet doesn’t flush. Sometimes the pipes remain lifeless for days on end. The reserve water tanks towering above us can only last for so long.
Finally, the rain. It takes centre stage as usual. Imagine a hulking titan scooping a great lake into a colossal bucket, hoisting it over a city, and releasing it. The infinite wall of water plummets from the sky, soaks the laundry, pounds the fortified house, forcing us to close the door. Its wet roar drowns out the sounds of the people, the animals, the traffic. Life below flees.