‘Look, you were born in July, now it’s only May.’
‘My life has started the day I met you.’
This is not her real name though it suits her perfectly. Addisallem has lived more than one single life can bear during her skinny three decades. Equally true: she has come to life again.
She grew up in Bahir Dar (Ethiopia) with her mother and an Auntie, a sister of her mother. Her father was living in Addis Ababa, far from any potential wife. But he did have another family; the important was: no wives.
He had no permanent job and, according to the fluctuations of the touristic season, he was a bus driver. Fluctuantly, he was sending money to Addisallem’s mother.
Maybe it’s just that she does not remember much prior to going to school because at 7, she says, she was already working. The days were all consistently the same: wake up early in the morning, no breakfast, the rush to a neighbour´s home to do house chores, the long walk to the well to fetch water, a faster rush back home to prepare coffee for her mother before she would wake up . And the rush to school.
Categorically empty stomach. Empty stomach even when there was no school.
There are no memories of school, just a whispered ‘I was not good at it.’
The afternoons were simply a photocopy of the mornings: the rush home and, before lunch, the cleaning of the kitchen, the usual mess her mother used to make.
Addisallem’s mother was not any mother. She was a heavy drinker: a seller and consumer of Areki, a homemade alcoholic fermented drink. She was even running her own Areki House in town, working at night and consuming large quantities of alcohol.
The Areki came with the joints and the qat – locally called khat – the mildly stimulant leaf chewed in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen, mainly.
Addisallem’s memories overlap: her mother never home or home and nervous.
Money was never enough.Until, one day, Mother was gone. That day lasted 5 years. Without a letter, without a word, without a phone call. She had moved South, almost on the border with Kenya.
It is Auntie to take care of Addisallem until Mother decides to return. She is in a bad shape. Skeletal, nervous, with peaks of cruelty and paranoia.
Addisalam spies on her: she sees her mother injecting something- most likely drugs, but the girl is too young to know – in her arms or sticking cotton up her nostrils after having soaked it in something the girl cannot understand what it is.
In silence. Because the day she decided to ask her mother why she could not have a new dress considering the father, occasionally, sends some money, the mother finds nothing better to do than grab the kettle boiling on the coal and pour the water on Addisallem’s back.
She still bears the scars.
Or the night they were walking home and two dogs started barking at them. The mother, scared, upset, paranoid, most likely high on Areki and drugs, pushes the daughter in front of her, towards the dogs. Addisallem is bitten on the leg, falls on her head and cracks the skull.
Auntie is gone, Addisallem is sore. She decides her only way out is to go to her grandmother – from her mother´s side – to Addis Ababa. 600 km is nothing when you are fleeing for you life.
She will return a year after when informed that Mother is bed ridden. It will last only 1 month. Mother dies on an anonymous day weighting 20 kg.
Now Addisallem is totally alone. If she wants to survive, she needs a job. School is for the fortunate. She finds a job cleaning homes.
This is when her Father reappears. He helps her enrolling in an evening school. Hotel Management. At the end, he knows that with its fluctuations, tourism can bring money.
Addisallem earns her diploma and lives on her own. She has always been alone, at the end. ‘Had it been my father instead of my mother to die, I would be dead too. I am happy and strong now. Because, now, I know everything.’
Addisallem is still afraid of dogs. But she knows everything now. She dreams of a family and a son. She knows how a real mother should be.
Yes, she knows everything. A New World awaits her and when she meets a new friend, it’s like a birthday to her. Earned.
with Danilo Vallarino in Bahir Dar photos: © Danilo Vallarino