You could say my life didn’t start off on the right foot.
They told me that I was a bastard child. They called me useless like it was my name. They said evil spirits were inside my body. I am the shadow of the devil. I am an unholy creation. All my life, they told me this.
My grandpa was a wealthy and powerful man, a man with horses, sheep, and cattle. He had servants on his farm and owned land that stretched for hundreds of hectares away from our village, Mizou Mariam. In 1984, when the people of Welo in Northern Ethiopia had no food to eat, my grandpa shared his animals and grain. I never really had anybody to look after me, but my grandpa, he was a great man.
My mama worked as a servant, and even though my daddy was already engaged to another woman, he still managed to get her pregnant. She was ill, they say, and Zegeye—my father—took on the task of delivering her to the nearest clinic many kilometers away. I suspect he must’ve done more than just take her to the clinic.
My mama survived the illness, and I began to grow inside of her. But every day, she carried heavy loads of wood from the forest and water from the well back and forth all day on her back. She tied the loads around her belly with a belt and made it so tight, I couldn’t even move. I don’t believe in any evils spirits. I believe my mama was just working too hard for me to grow right.
My mama denied being pregnant all the way up until the moment that she squeezed me out right between her legs. When that day finally came, my legs were deformed. Imagine the workshop where they put humans together. On the shift I was born, the factory worker put my feet on backwards by mistake. I was born with distorted legs and buckled feet, and my mama was shocked. She never wanted me and was disgusted so she buried me deep in a pile of horse manure, but my grandpa rescued me from suffocating on horseshit. He said every man had the right to a life, and that just cuz you give life don’t mean you can take it away. He looked at me and my deformities and said that someday I could watch the chickens on the farm.
After being baptized in manure, I was baptized a Christian. When a boy is baptized in the Orthodox Church, he also gets his name. Some 45 days after my birth, my mama took me to a nearby church. They called me Fekadu, which means ‘God allows’ in Amharic. I often wonder what God is supposed to be allowing.
The priest picked me up and dunked my naked body in the cold water. My deformed feet dangled in front of the villagers. These people cursed my mama for creating such a grotesque baby. When I was just three months old, she quit working on grandpa’s farm and left.
You could say my life didn’t start off on any feet at all.
I cried like all babies cry and crawled like all babies crawl. But when it was time to stand up and walk, I just kept on crawling. Sometimes they called me snake. When I was strong enough, I tried to use my hands. Already as a five year old, I had a mind to replace my legs with my arms and my feet with my hands.
As a boy, I watched grandpa’s livestock and carried sticks back to the farm. I learned to ride his donkeys and never let go no matter what. Since my grandpa was wealthy, he gave me a white horse when I turned eight. Every morning, I begged someone to help me get on the horse. Then I spent the entire day on that horse’s back cuz I knew getting’ off the ole horse would mean havin’ to get somebody else to put me back on her. I wasn’t gonna bother good people anymore than I deemed necessary.
I watched the animals with diligence, and grandpa knew it and was proud of me. I started talking to the white horse and we got to know each other real well. She was my only friend at the time and I’m guessing that I was her best friend too. Soon I learned to get on her back by myself from a nearby boulder and to call her by speaking to her in horse language.
Yeeee-yeeeee-yeeeee! I would call her in the morning, and she’d come right up to me.
I remember once when the horse fell on top of me on a steep mountain slope. She slowly and carefully stood up while I was on the ground crying. She waited for me to get back on, but there was no way for me to go about doin’ it, so I crawled my way back to the farm and that ole horse followed close behind begging me to get back on.
My horse didn’t have any kind of name cuz in Ethiopia we don’t give names to horses. For most Ethiopians, it’s silly to think that a horse has a name, yet Ethiopians themselves sometimes have two names: a family name and a Christian name. Today when I’m sad I think about that horse’s kindness and how well she treated me, and I sometimes wish I had only given her a name.
When I was ten, Grandpa decided I was spending too much time on my horse. He took her away and sold her down the valley into another village. I never saw her again. Grandpa wanted to send me to a murgeta, a religious instructor for deacons in the Orthodox Church who aim to become priests. I never saw a disabled priest and I never did see one of them with a horse, so I thought that I didn’t much want to become a priest or a murgeta.
I had a friend who was the son of a blacksmith and together we set off to find a murgeta in a nearby village. The people say blacksmiths are dangerous. People tell stories that at night the blacksmith turns into a hyena and then for fun he goes around and eats people. Me and the blacksmith’s son left at 4am to travel 15 kilometers to Hamusit. I was nervous about going anywhere with the son of a blacksmith, but when I saw him that morning, there were no signs that he was recently a hyena or been eatin’ any folks. He walked and I crawled.
When we got to Hamusit, I saw a maquina for the first time, which moved much faster than horses and carts. When it moved, clouds of dust went flyin’ through the air behind it. I was scared, but the blacksmith’s son said we could get closer cuz he swore he had seen one of these maquinas before. The people in the maquina looked out of the windows and threw money at me. I was happy to get it, but I had no ideas why they were throwin’ their money at me.
I spent the money on tea. It was my first time and I drank five teas in a row cuz the tea was so sweet and it felt so good. I reckon I could’ve just kept on drinking tea after tea after tea for all my life. Meanwhile, the blacksmith’s son had gone and convinced the people in the maquina to take us to Sekota, at least another 40 kilometers away. Even though I was making new friends in the tea house, I said yes and crawled into the big, white maquina. I quickly regretted taking the ride when I started to feel dizzy and nauseous. The chauffer stopped, and I vomited all those teas into the rocks on the side of the road.
Sekota is more than a hundred kilometers north of Lalibela, and back then, it was known as the biggest modern city near my village. I was amazed by the lightbulbs that were like little stars that you can reach up and touch, but I don’t recommend touchin’ the stars, cuz they get hot.
In Sekota, I found the murgeta, and he accepted me to his classes. He was blind and liked to hit me with his stick. When I tried to move, he would strike again next to where I was sitting. When he was really angry, he pulled my ears. One day I was practicing walking on my hands, like I always was doing, and one of the deacons called me Tameru, which means ‘miracle’ in Amharic. And then everybody called me Tameru after that, I reckon cuz I walk on my hands instead of on my feet.
For several years, I moved around Welo from village to village looking for murgetas to show me how to become spiritual. My grandpa always told me that the orthodox Christians would take care of me if I’m ever in need. Except the murgetas seemed to hit me a lot and did everything except take care of me, so I decided against goin’ to get spiritual. I reckon these murgetas liked blaming me for their problems. I was used to blame.
I was still a child in 1991 when the government was finally toppled. A few years later, some patriots came through our village, and they saw me and decided to give me a plot of land cuz the new government wanted men like my grandpa to have less land. My mother heard about this and came looking to get her hands on my land, which I was fixin’ to give to grandpa.
She came into the village and brought me some sweets, but I knew the love she was showing me wasn’t the love she was feelin’. I reckon she only wanted some of my land. Her second child was dead, and she was carrying a baby girl in her arms. She said Fekaduye to me over and over, but I knew better.
A few days later, she made an attempt to get my patriot land and called the shangah, or the old men from the village who meet under a tree to solve the people’s problems. The old man looked at me and told me to decide who would keep the land in my name.
I don’t even know that woman, who is she? My grandfather raised me, I said.
This woman deserved nothing from me. She left me alone over ten years before. I don’t remember having any feelings as a baby, but I’m guessin’ hearing that made her feel the way a baby might feel after being abandoned. She called me useless and said that the insects would eat the food on my land. Then she disappeared again.
Grandpa was thankful for havin some extra land but he kept tellin’ me to go back to school with the murgeta to become more spiritual. I was 12 years old when my left foot became diseased and my ankle began to puss and my skin looked like ‘shiro wot’, a paste of garbanzo and hot pepper spices. I reckon the pain never left my foot and I pretty much smelled as bad as the donkey himself. A murgeta told me to travel to a health post five hours away. I had to crawl over the mountains, but this time in the sharpest pain I’ve ever known. That walk took me nearly ten hours to crawl.
On the way, I cried out to God and asked him why he gave me this disease if my leg was already deformed. I didn’t understand any of what God had planned for me. At the clinic, they told me a hospital needed to cut off my leg and my hope was so thin that I agreed to do it. But they wouldn’t cut it off there, and I kept crying from so much pain. I imagined a hospital cutting off my leg, and the leg growing back. But I knew it wouldn’t.
So I crawled around and collected some leaves, every kind of leaf in the forest. I ground these leaves up into dust and mixed it with water and spread it out on my ankle. I prayed and my leg got better. It got so much better that I decided to go back and see my grandpa to share the news. Only grandpa was an angry man. He had lost land to the new government and was going blind. I helped him through the village, crawling out front holding onto his robe with my mouth. Sometimes grandpa would speak to me in tongues. I reckon we looked like a couple of crazy folk, me with my teeth around his robe and grandpa screaming words that even the murgetas couldn’t understand.
Then one night, I left grandpa and his delirium. I filled my pockets with roasted chick peas and started the 75 kilometer trail to Lalibela. I had a feeling I would never see grandpa again. It took me four days to crawl the entire way. I slept in trees cuz nobody showed any interest in helping me. I guessed the hyenas wouldn’t get me in the trees, and my bag of food was safe in my pocket.
I had never seen the white man before I got to Lalibela, and then there were suddenly several walking around looking at these churches we Ethiopians built from the rock. If it was so easy to attract these tourists with churches, I wondered why every village didn’t build some churches from rock.
One day, I started walking on my hands to show some kids in the street and a tourist walking by gave me 50 birr. The people stopped making fun of me and instead encouraged me so every day I was walking around on my hands and begging people for money. Sometimes I shined their shoes.
I met Dr. Morris one day way down on the inside of a rock church. He looked at me deeply and never took his eyes from my legs. I held my hand out to receive money and his guide told me that the doctor said it’s possible to fix my legs. The rest of the village said not to trust any white man cuz the white man speaks in colorful lies and only when you know how to read a lie, can you know the truth. And then when a white man is speaking the truth he still uses all sorts of color to cover it up. But either way, I was interested in knowin if he was speakin truth or lie.
The doctor gave me fifty birr and the address to a hospital in Addis Ababa. He told me to hurry there because he was flying to the USA. Addis Ababa is over 700 kilometers away and crawling just might’ve taken me an entire life, I figured. A crowd of Ethiopians heard about my chance and donated 300 birr cuz back then, you could fly from Lalibela to Addis for 160 birr.
It was a very nice feeling when I crawled into that airplane. It smelled like everything was clean and there was beautiful music but I didn’t see no musicians. I crawled into a seat and asked a woman in nice clothing if she could open the window and she laughed at me.
There was a lot of noise and we moved quickly into the air. I wasn’t scared none and I watched the world disappear from the window. In one hour, we were back on the ground in the capital city Addis Ababa, where many maquinas were moving around and making noise and buildings were higher than the sky. The women were driving too. Addis Ababa was different from all the villages I had seen.
Some Germans took me to the Black Lion Hospital and I met Dr. Temesgen who said he was gonna be fixin’ my legs. Cuz my left leg was still stinking and diseased I could tell that some of the doctors wanted to cut it off, but Dr. Morris put his foot down. He said I was going to keep that stinkin’ leg no matter what.
When I left four months later, I had iron boots around my feet and two crutches under my arms. Standing and walking made me proud of being alive and I practiced how to walk, even in my sleep.
The Germans that I met on the airplane helped me while I was in Addis Ababa and I went to school for kids who can walk. In 1991, I started the first grade in the Selam Elementary School even though I was already sixteen years old and my classmates were just 7 years old. I sat in the back of the room, but the children liked me. In the breaks, I walked on my hands to entertain them. I was gettin real strong too and with my arms I was lifting the littlest kids up in the air. They became my best friends and they never made fun of me for using crutches neither. Sometimes the children can be real nasty and sometimes they can be just kind enough.
Even though I had crutches and could walk upright, I kept on walking on my hands. And sooner than later I started walking on my crutches on my hands. I swung my body up and lifted my skinny little legs right over my head. I worked on that talent every day cuz I never let those crutches leave my hands. Back then, there was no way of knowin’ that this talent was to become my most important skill.
When I was in high school, I lived with an Austrian family, worked in their garden and was able to save some extra money. When I finally graduated high school, Dr. Morris stopped sending me money cuz he reckoned that I was an independent man now and I would have to do things on my own.
I used my savings to buy two computers, two color printers, a laminator and a scanner and opened a print shop in Sidist Kilo. I had my own business, but something did not feel right. I thought I made a big mistake after just a few months of printin’ things. I sold everything.
The word Europe was always in my head. I heard about it and everybody wanted to get there. I started to dream about Europe and looked at maps. Nothing was too far cuz I had my legs and crutches and a voice in my head said to go and find my future.
The easiest way to Europe from Ethiopia is through the Sudan, Libya and then across the ocean. This was the idea I had two years ago. I knew there would be a lot of obstacles to Europe, but obstacles and me, we know each other well. I took a bus to the border town of Metema and met a Muslim on the way who always wanted to stop and drink beer. In Amharic we call these beers ‘enquefat’ and that means obstacle.
The Sudan government said they wouldn’t give me a visa. Ethiopians aren’t welcome in Sudan even though we been neighbors for a long time. Together with the Muslim, I set off at 4am into the Sudan crossing the border outside of town. I expected to see a big thick line like you see on the maps, but there was nothin’ except dirt. I used my crutches as fast as I could to get past the border into the Sudan. As the sun came up, the land got harder and it got hotter. Twelve hours later a police man in the desert caught both of us and I sure was happy cuz I was tired and thirsty by then. They took all our money except for the money in my sock. They didn’t want to touch my diseased leg. For once, my leg had done me a big favor.
I wasn’t giving up and tried again further north. The police caught me there and demanded more money. I spent 10 days in prison where I met a guy who knew a ‘delala’, or a fixer, who could get Ethiopians to Europe. He got me over the border and then all the way to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
From Khartoum, I spent $700 dollars to get to the Libyan border and the maquina set off with 15 people inside. We were packed into the maquina and it was uncomfortable. Inside the maquina, a little part of us was dying just to get to Europe to have a better life. Outside of the maquina, I saw skeletons in the desert.
We never crossed the border into Libya cuz the Sudanese police stopped us and sent us back to Khartoum. I reckon the delala made a lot of money and maybe was even a friend of the police. The people like me spent a week in prison in Khartoum. It took me four months to get back to Addis Ababa. All my money that I had saved was gone. I had nothing and never even saw the ocean.
That’s my life story up ‘til now. As you can see, my life was never very easy. I don’t have a mother or a father. I don’t have a brother or a sister. I don’t even have a place that I can call my home. I reckon I know pain better than most, but only because I have never felt much enjoyment.
I was happy when I was riding on my white horse and I was happy when I was with grandpa. But I lost both eventually. Nonetheless, I am a positive thinker, and I reckon it’s sometimes hard to stay positive cuz I was born with legs that don’t work right. But my grandpa always said to be happy with the things that God gave us, and since God gave me a pair of bad feet, I should be thankful because at least I have feet.
I reckon every baby’s soul is born with the same amount of happiness inside. Then it’s up to each person to add happiness to his soul or take some of that happiness away. Walking on my hands makes my soul happy, and I use that talent to make other people happy.
I have been walking on my crutches on my hands for the past ten years, practicing almost every day. I realize that walking on crutches on my hands makes me different from everybody else, and I want the world to see this, I want them to see that I am evolution.
Today, I have made a promise to the world to become the first man in the Guiness World Records for walking on my hands on my crutches, up and down stairs and the furthest distance. Many Ethiopians have records for running in marathons and long distances. I reckon I will be the first Ethiopian with the record for walkin’ on my crutches on my hands.
If I can help other disabled people find their own talents, then I feel that I can be useful. And if I am useful, then I know my name is not useless.