(Think I forgot about that whole yibejish thing? I didn’t. I’m just embracing my erratic update style. Here’s to the next segment!)
The Horn of Africa is a male-dominant society, and Ethiopia is no different. Despite men’s upper hand, though, is the understanding women rule the household.
The finances, not so much. The social constructs of childrearing and empathy, the household chores, those are women’s spheres.
Unless you’re Mesi.
Within our compound, Mesi keeps us together. My landlord’s son lives on the compound with the 15 of us, yet despite being the landlord’s son, even he knows this space of land is Mesi’s reign.
Every afternoon, during lunchtime, she knocks on each compound door, saying, “Bunna tatchi! Bunna tatchi!” (“Come drink coffee!”)
Twice a week, in the evenings, she brews coffee for the compound. We sit under a freshly installed lightbulb that emanates a glow through our grassy area when clouds hide the moon and stars, passing kolo (grains) and sinis of bunna. Alemu, one of our newer renters, never hesitates to crack a joke. (It’s not hard to master when you’ve always got a grin plastered on your face. When my door collapsed on Christmas Eve, he all but pranced over as he said, “Sierra, selam nesh?” If it had been anyone else, I would’ve screamed – hell no, there’s no peace! The door just came crashing to the ground! But it was Alemu, so I hid my head under a pillow so he wouldn’t hear me laugh.) Occasionally, the women quiz me on everyone’s names, and to their pleasure, I’ve got everyone down.
If there’s something to discuss, some matter to rectify, Mesi handles it.
Mesi is short for Meseret, the Amharic word for foundation. Fitting.
During one of our evening bunna gatherings, as we leeched to each other for the warmth of body heat to abate chilly mountain air, Mesi reminded the compound to wash our hands regularly and to always dump any urine from the night before down the shint bet, amid a typhoid outbreak in town. People nodded, chiming in on what we could do to stay healthy. That’s Mesi, the teacher.
There’s Mesi the counselor, whose door is always open to young women when they experience heartbreak, when their fresh marriages seem to falter, when women doubt who they are. Mesi takes them in, prepares shay, serves them dabo, and listens. She listens better than most people I’ve met. She lets people excise their thoughts, then chimes in with her thoughts and offers her advice to keep these women motivated.
There’s Mesi the healer. During Timket, Ethiopia’s Epiphany, she invited me into her house before I could even unlock the door to my room.
“Sierra,” she said, “bunna tatchi.”
“Ahun?” I asked, key in the door.
Gotcha. Coming right away.
She motioned toward her mattress-style couch, I sat down, then broke out my flashcards and journal. As she prepared coffee for the two of us and stuffed me with an unbelievable amount of bread (to think I liked carbs before Peace Corps – those days are gone), she sang along to the Orthodox music reverberating from her phone. I asked how her family was, her job (she’s a librarian at the local primary school), herself.
I’m at a point in my childlike curiosity with language, and with Ethiopian culture, where I’ve graduated beyond observing and now want to ask questions about everything. (Does this make me 3 or 4?) She doesn’t have children, she’s unmarried. Is she unmarried because she’s a widow or unmarried because she never married? It’s not exactly a question you pop into conversation, there is such a thing as consideration, but I’m curious, and I am baiting my time to ask. In a world where women are disrespected unless they belong to a man, this woman has risen above that boundary. Everyone looks to her.
And she knows it.
As we sat, in between intermittent conversation, song and pen scribbles, Mesi poured cups of coffee, reminding, on a holiday that celebrates rebirth, it’s okay to be sad as long as you remember to be happy.
How did she know?
Because it’s that level of perception that allows you to command a community.