When Bayele was ten years old his mother gave him 15 birr ($2 USD), wrapped a portion of bread in a towel and made her son promise not to eat it until he arrived. She tried to explain to Bayele that he was going to a bigger school where he would learn new things. He felt a rush of excitement, pride and anxiety. Wearing tire rubber sandals and shorts that didn’t quite cover his thighs, Bayele followed a woman named Emebet to the village of Lemi—a two hour climb 500m to the top of the escarpment above Murgargi Mikael. Until then, these were the boundaries of his 10 year old universe.
His mother believed sending her prepubescent son away would most certainly lead him from little boy to man. His father was dead and not coming back. She feared what he might become if he stayed and hoped for what he might become if he left. Nevertheless, floating above her head, this emotional dilemma took place in an imaginary dialogue bubble, which constantly reminded her of the possibility she would never see her first born child again.
The boy walked away from the village leaving behind his widowed mother with four little girls. When he reached the top of the mountain, the woman and Bayele boarded a bus bound for Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa. The people waiting on the bus appeared to avoid breathing altogether. They stared listlessly at the boy. The heavy motor lumbered alive coughing diesel into the thin air and began moving slowly away from his home. On one side of the bus, fields teeming with teff jostled for sunlight. Panicky winds off the Shewan highlands shook the tiny grains held safe in individual husks. On the other side of the bus, he could still discern the round roof of Bete Mikael Church in his village, thousands of steps away. Sunk deep into the earth, his village, his mother, and his previous life was out of reach.
He had been to the top of the escarpment only once before. He had gone with his father who one year earlier was working as a night watchman in Lemi—a settlement large enough to receive daily bus arrivals, beer in bottles, and Chinese plastics. His father once told him about Addis Ababa and pointed south. Bayele remembered gazing at the dirt road that cut into the horizon and faded away into fields and rivers.
His father farmed, but his life and the life of many of the men from the village of Murgargi Mikael changed drastically in 1990 when Ethiopia’s former government was ousted after a 10 year opposition and guerilla war. Shewa was a stronghold of the former dictator Haile Mengistu, and Ethiopia’s newest government wasn’t inclined to do any favors for the troublesome Shewan farmers.
With new government came new laws and new corruption. Some land returned to claimants from before Mengistu’s government, the time of Haile Selassie I. Other bureaucrats simply took land from poor families and rewarded dominant landowners sympathetic to the new government. Murgargi Mikael’s poor farmers moved down the terraced mountainside and ever closer to the “poisonous” lowland or berha, as it’s known in Amharic. Although anything will grow in the berha, a natural occurring greenhouse laid with Ethiopia’s fertile volcanic soil, with abundant crops came abundant diseases such as malaria and typhoid. At the basin, the Jema river runs its course north northwest before joining the Blue Nile, which by then is well into its journey towards Sudan and Egypt to meet the seas.
Bayele’s father tried to fight for the land he lost when the government changed. Although he threatened the lives of the local politicians who made these new laws and new claims on his land, he was powerless to stop the change. He eventually gave up on growing grain in the berha and got a job in Lemi guarding a church compound. Then one night, a man came to even the score with Wendemagen and stabbed him in his sleep. The guard bled to death and was found the next morning. His body never returned to his home village. He was buried on the escarpment near the church he was hired to protect.
At the time Bayele lost his father, the family still owned some land in the berha, but who was going to till it? And plant it? And tend it? And harvest it? Just walking to the berha from Murgargi Mikael is a three hour trip. Without a father, owning land in the berha was like owning a bountiful island in the sea, within sight but too far to swim to.
Bayele was only 9 years old but he gave everything to help his distraught mother. He stopped going to class to spend his day walking back and forth from the berha coaxing grain from the family’s land. The dry season came, and there was no longer enough maize and sorghum to feed the family. After that, Tebab—Bayele’s mother—decided to send her son away.
The Shewan people are agrarian but view themselves as descendents of prideful warriors. At the turn of the 20th century, it was the Shewan Menelik II who conquered the Oromo nation—one of Ethiopia’s largest ethnicities—as well as other kingdoms and tribes further afield to create the modern Ethiopian state. Finally, Menelik established Addis Ababa, the country’s current capital. Today, Menelik is celebrated as a national hero and as a symbol of unity. Bayele’s father often told his son he was related to Menelik and that their land came from Menelik himself. He wanted something better for his son. He wanted greatness, Menelik’s greatness.
Bayele stopped thinking about his father once the bus turned onto the paved road between Gojjam and Addis Ababa. It was the first time in his life he had seen such a smooth surface. The main road was alive with farmers and horse carts. He saw mosques and churches facing each other from opposite sides of the road. And when the bus passed through a village, the radio crackled for an instant and the voice of a great Ethiopian singer crooned with recklessness. He wondered if he would ever find his way back home.
Emebet worked as a housemaid in Addis Ababa. She told Bayele that he too could work for the same family and care for a small vegetable garden in the house compound. The landlord allowed him to go to the evening school sessions and finish the fifth and sixth grade at Ras Ababa Primary School, located on the capital’s east side near the Shola market.
Bayele learned to bake bread and cook Ethiopian dishes. Every day, he woke before dawn to begin preparing the family’s daily food. The family insisted Bayele eat separate from the family, and he usually ate only what was leftover, if anything. Bayele used his Orthodox Christian name, Woldemariam, with the family in order to appear more devout, well behaved and thus more desirable as a person. Woldemariam means the Son of Mary in Amharic.
“When you live and work in someone else’s house in Addis, you are a slave. I was so sad to see that Ethiopians treat other Ethiopians like slaves. I had never seen that before,” he explains. Then he used an old Ethiopian expression that goes: Yesew werk ayademke or another man’s gold will not make you beautiful. Wise words from a teenager living with no parental supervision.
When Bayele reached the 7th grade, Tesfay Gebreselassie—the school director—began to notice the boy’s aptitude for learning and thirst for knowledge. As a result, Tesfay called the family where the boy was living and working and suggested to allow him to attend day school with the rest of the children.
“This boy is gifted and has a lot of potential,” he explained and became Woldemariam’s closest friend and mentor. The family rebuffed the idea of losing their servant. Woldemariam ran away. He joined two street children and slept in a drainage tunnel under the ring road at Meganagne junction. Three 12 year olds on the streets of Addis Ababa may be small children, but they have a large vision of reality.
“I don’t think I ate for three days,” Woldemariam remembers. “But Tesfay told me to be strong. He treats me like his child.”
Tesfay let Woldemariam sleep in an empty schoolroom and helped him find another house. The next family provided food and shelter and Woldemariam stood first in his 8th grade class. His affection for mathematics and history blossomed, and in the rainy season break, Tesfay gave him enough money to travel back to his village to see his mother.
“I was still just 14 years old,” he says. “I couldn’t give my mother anything. It was difficult to be there knowing I was a burden on my poor family.”
When Woldemariam returned and started the 9th grade, he earned the notable distinction of the smartest kid in class, which carried the unfortunate qualification of also being the poorest. Wearing the same tattered light blue uniform from the year before, in June 2010, he finished the 9th grade at the top of the class. That same year, he became the first of his school to begin working as an urban farmer in a school yard garden created by the Urban Gardens Program. Tesfay—who was now principal of Kokebe Tsehai High School—made sure he was a beneficiary in the USAID-funded development project aimed at improving food security and income of the school’s poorest students.
The Urban Gardens Program and the school put 25 squared meters of land near the school’s latrines at his disposal and taught him basic gardening techniques. With kale, carrot, onion, tomato and Swiss chard seedlings in his hands, Woldemariam’s garden flourished. After three months, he gathered his harvest and sold the vegetables to teachers, local markets, and neighbors.
Life improved as a result of working in the garden. He suddenly had a purpose beyond studying hard and getting good grades. He began to dream of making a living for himself, sending his mother money and helping his sisters. And above all, he imagined a day when he could free himself from the bonds of servitude.
When Woldemariam wasn’t in his garden weeding the beds and watering the plants, he was in the school library studying the school’s books. Since he couldn’t afford them, he checked the textbooks out at the library. Throughout the year, Woldemariam’s employers forbade him from turning on the lights, saying that the electricity was too expensive. This restriction reduced his study time to only a few precious hours of sunlight before vanishing at 6:30pm.
Instead of buying new clothes, shoes or even books, Woldemariam took the money made from the harvest, maybe 250 birr ($15 USD), and spent it on batteries and a flashlight to study in the evenings in his small, dark room. He spent a significant portion of his earnings in this way until the end of the 10th grade.
“In a way, I owe a lot to Urban Gardens. The garden plot allowed me to have things I never would have had, it taught me new skills as well as patience,” he says.
Woldemariam became the garden expert. Other students joined the garden with varied success, but Woldemariam became the group’s default leader and inspiration. In addition to the reputation for being the smartest kid in the class, he was also the hardest worker and most independent. By the time he was in the 11th grade, he was earning a steady income of 350 birr per month selling vegetables. He rented a room with a friend and quit working as a servant.
One day last year, Woldemariam was working in his garden when he heard his name called over the high school loud speaker. Only it wasn’t the name Woldemariam that he heard rather Bayele Wendemagen, the latter being his father’s name. Nobody in Addis Ababa knew his family name and in a hurry, without washing the dirt from his hands, he ran to the main office holding off tears while begging God for good news and not bad.
Markeshew, 30, was born in Murgargi Mikael in a small thatched hut near the church. He grew up as a farmer like everyone else and moved away from home also as a result of the loss of land after the regime change. Markeshew knew Bayele’s father and on a chance visit to the village learned that the boy was somewhere in the capital city. Bayele’s mother couldn’t tell Markeshew any information about her son’s whereabouts. Not the neighborhood nor the name of the high school. Besides his visit three years earlier, she knew nothing about her son.
On that day, Bayele received the most treasured gift he could imagine: news. In the matter of a few hours, he learned more information about his family than he had gained in the last three years. His mother was healthy and working on a small plot of land near the village. His 13 year old sister was married to a man who was known as a good farmer. The year’s harvests had been bountiful and the village was thriving. Babies were born and the village priests often spoke of Bayele in their prayers and blessings.
Markeshew pulled him from his insulated world of books, homework and gardening back to the reality that one day he would be reunited with his family. The news motivated Bayele. Only by continuing his education to the end, would he become a meaningful part of making life better for everyone.
I met Woldemariam in late 2010 after he had started the 10th grade. I worked on the Urban Gardens Program documenting how land and water access coupled with simple gardening techniques could change somebody’s life. I visited Woldemariam’s garden often. I watched him peddle vegetables from a wheel barrow in front of the school on Friday afternoons as well as take over abandoned garden plots during rainy season break.
One day he told me that he knew of his mother and where she lived. I immediately told him, “One day we will go back to your village to visit your mother and your sisters.”
He almost did not believe a word I said.
Bayele and I finally organized the trip back to his village in August 2012, which included my friend Mikey as well as Markeshaw, the farmer who searched the high schools of Addis Ababa to find him, and my dog Mino. Since Bayele sent no message or news of our upcoming visit to Murgargi Mikael, the family reunion was spontaneous.
Every day farmers, grandmothers and children travel between Lemi and the villages below by using a network of wooden ladders fastened to the steep basalt cliffs with rope. In the rainy season, the ladders sink deep into the moist ground, disappear in the thick clouds, and the rungs become alarmingly slippery.
In the mid-nineties the villages erected two metal ladders over the wooden ladders to provide a long-term solution to the vertical path. And most recently, the men of the village removed one of the ladders and chiseled a vertiginous footpath into the basalt wall, making the descent/ascent seem less steep, but somehow more dangerous. Bayele was visibly and audibly worried that I, Mikey, Mino or even he himself would plunge to his death from the basalt cliffs of the escarpment.
We tried to purchase chickens for Bayele’s mother, but Ethiopian Orthodox Christians were fasting in mid-August, so we bought a kilo of sugar and a kilo of coffee and began our descent. A swarm of children and curious townsfolk followed us to the escarpment’s edge and waved goodbye.
As we approached the chiseled footpath in the first wall, a family came up behind us. We high stepped the slippery rocks 50 meters down, and when an old man’s umbrella fell into the bush, I climbed out onto the face of the wall to retrieve it. The Ethiopians gasped and the umbrella was saved. Locals became even more amazed when Mino the dog began to climb down the second ladder—the one made of metal—on his own. Never before had a dog from above or below traversed the limits of this vertical world. It was the first of many more firsts to come.
After an hour, we arrived at Murgargi Mikael as the sun’s heat was pushing the clouds out of the valley. Bayele’s mother was submerged in the shadows of her thatched hut, bent over a wood and dung fire and preparing the day’s lunch of garbanzo paste, onions and injera. Bayele’s three little sisters were scattered around the village, playing with friends or working in a small cornfield behind the hut. Tearful and anxious, Bayele ducked into the hut and surprised his mother for the first time in four years. Almost dreamlike, Tebab saw her first born as a young man, a grown-up dressed in city clothing with two strange white men and a little black dog in the background.
“Mother, these my friends they are,” he explained in Amharic.
Overwrought, Tebab couldn’t muster a word, but released her emotions through the wonderment of her eyes. It was more than apparent that she still didn’t grasp what we were doing in the village with her son. One by one, Bayele picked up his little sisters and held them in his arms as a multitude of villagers gathered around the hut to see the commotion of the unexpected visitors.
Once we dispelled the confusing notion of how and why we were there, the presence of the farenjis was met with much pleasure. The excitement of our arrival roused the village and soon almost every neighbor requested our presence in his hut, enticing us with araki—local fire water— coffee, and mountains of injera.
We visited a teenage mother whose baby was born a week before and a young deaf woman who nobody can communicate with, as sign language is as foreign in Murgargu Mikael as English or Russian. Shoeless farmers walked through the village and stopped to greet us. Every neighbor seemed to be related to either Bayele or Markeshaw, and all claimed to be descendants of the great Menelik.We met Bayele’s childhood friend Mekonnen, and asked him if he recognized his friend.
“City clothes he wears. So soft his hands are,” he explained with a dash of envy. Mekonnen is the portrait of what Bayele would have become: a rubber sandal-clad farmer wrapped in a cotton blanket carrying the shepherd’s stick who dropped out of school in the 7th grade to tend to the family’s field and flock.
The visits extended well into the night, and villagers continued to fill us with araki. Intoxicated with the honor bestowed upon us, we felt it imperative to mark the occasion and made up our minds to throw a party the next day at Bayele’s hut. For this we needed to buy two 20-liter jerry cans of tela, the local beer.
That night, we pitched our tent next to a makeshift shelter on the hill above the village and fell asleep to the pitter pat of highland raindrops. Back at the family hut, Bayele’s mother and the two youngest sisters cuddled on a small goatskin bed while Bayele contentedly slept on the floor of his mother’s hut for the first time in four years.
In the morning, the village priest returned to Bayele’s hut to bless each one of us with tsabel, or holy water from a tomato tin. After blessing the water for several minutes, he poured a splash over our heads. With the remaining water, he doused the hut’s entrance.
“You are the first farenji visitors In Murgargi Mikael,” he said. “Today you will come to the church. And we will share bread and tela.”
In the meantime, we walked further down the mountain to the next and last village before the berha to find the 40 liters of tela. Bayele stood on the edge of the village staring into the behra and pointed.
“That’s where my father had his land,” he explained in English. “And you can see the Jema river. The heat is too great in the berha. It is bad for your health.”
When we returned the priests were already on their way to a spiritual high on fermented barley and sorghum juice. We joined the circle, and the conversation turned to Bayele’s father. I asked if he was a great man.
“A strong farmer he was,” the priest said while another priest shook his head in support of the statement.
“But he worked as a night guard. Why not as farmer?” I asked.
“Meles’ government stole our land. Before Meles it was better for us farmers. Mengistu provided everything,” he said. “Bread, oil for cooking.”
“How did Bayele’s father die?” I asked.
“He was working as a guard and became sick,” the priest lied to me. Bayele glanced at me hoping I wouldn’t challenge his version of history. But I continued.
“Did police come to the village of Murgargi Mikael?” I asked.
“God is law here,” he said. “Police sometimes they come.”
The priest’s eyes turned to the ground and another filled my wooden goblet with tela and gave me a piece of bread. Eventually the conversation turned back to Mino and the amazing feat of a dog climbing the ladder from the top of the escarpment down to the village.
“This is the first time I’ve thrown a two jerry canner!” Mikey said to me as we walked back to Bayele’s house to get ready for the party, and we were both unsure if 40 liters was enough for a Murgargi Mikael hut party!
Bayele prepared the chibo, a large bunch of branches and twigs tied together and burned in ceremony, and Tebab spent the day baking difo dabo, a circular loaf of bread typical in Ethiopian celebrations. One of Bayele’s old friends said he would organize a dance competition, and somebody produced two DD batteries to ignite the radio and liven up the earthened dancefloor.
Before lighting the bonfire, the priest said a prayer, blessed the bread and asked God to continue guiding young Bayele through his complicated life. Afterwards, Bayele’s mother spoke to the crowd.
“He left his birthplace eight years ago and has come back with foreign people. I have not been able to visit him because of the shortage of money for the transport. It’s so special to see him today and knowing that even though I have not given him anything, he has worked so hard and God has helped him so much. I may have given him birth, but he became a man on his own. I never expected any of this.”
Bayele thanked his dear mother, and I poured tela into the cups and goblets of the guests. The Shewan people and children danced, shaking their shoulders furiously while bellowing hoarse guttural growls with each jump.
The next day we awoke under a blanket of rain. We packed our bags, drank coffee with Bayele’s mother and said goodbye to the priests and neighbors. We hiked an alternative path and climbed a 40-meter wooden ladder back to the top of the escarpment. After saying goodbye, we crammed ourselves into a crowded bus heading back to Addis Ababa.
Bayele stayed another week with his family, sufficient time to tell them about everything he has learned in the last eight years. When he returned to Addis, he called me on the phone.
“Thank you Nico. I got so much love from my sisters and my mother. Before, when I saw a mother with her child, it made my stomach hurt with pain. Now, I know my mother loves me. My mother’s love is all I need.”
In September 2012, he began his final year of high school and continued working in his garden. Bayele hopes to go to university to study medicine but must find a way to pay tuition and other expenses.
“I want to help my family, but I really want to help Ethiopians. Living alone, I realized that all Ethiopians are my relatives. All humanity is my relative.”
Photos: Michael Halliburton & myself.