There’s a word in Amharic PCVs and Ethiopians pop out: Izo/Izosh. There’s no direct English translation, the word being a combination of, “Be strong,” and, “I am with you.”
You can use the word in almost any context — tumbling off a bus, tripping in a drainage ditch, finding words to fill conversation, easing a friend in distress.
The response rocks, too. Yibejish. (YEE-bej-ish.) “You make me strong.”
There are multiple women in my town who make me strong. For this post, I’m going to loosely focus on two — more on one than the other. Others will find themselves laced into future posts, in a series of those who have molded what site has become to me.
There are two young women in my town, whose lives follow no parallel, despite being similar in age.
The first is Eden, the grade 9 student I met last fall. The girl who has spent countless hours in my house studying English, listening to Elton John songs to pick apart new words and rhythms (and discovering she’s a fan of kaleidoscopes). This is the girl who asks questions, stretches her limits, opens her heart to her friends.
The second is Maroke, a grade 10 student who lived on my compound before moving to Addis Ababa with her husband this summer.
Did you say your tenth-grade friend has a husband?
I did. She got married a few months before she finished the ninth grade, in spring 2014. I refused to believe she was married until her husband showed me wedding photos.
When she lived in town, she went to class in the mornings, came home around lunchtime and began preparing lunch and dinner for her husband, who worked at the water factory about 10 kilometers outside of town. Then she would wash laundry. Then dishes. Sometimes I saw her washing and braiding her own hair. At night, she pounded bunna beans, softening them to a fine powder for the next day.
When the shint bet needed to be bleached, that was Maroke’s job. When the ferenji on the compound did laundry for the first time, it was her who stopped what she was doing to come over and teach me her technique.
When rain drummed hard enough to keep us all confined to the compound for days on end last year, she came inside my room to watch Discovery Channel documentaries (a word now pronounced as doc-U-men-TARY) and asked about the white rain falling from the sky (snow).
When I tore my meniscus in the shint bet, it was Maroke who kept me in bed, washed out my house, put me to bed and stopped by a few hours later with dinner. Once a week, she invited me over for dinner and coffee. We’d read together and sometimes dance. As our friendship developed, she began letting me prepare wats (sauce-like dishes) with her. She’d let me beat the bunna beans. Most nights, she asked me to hold a light up while she grounded the beans.
On the nights when her husband was gone and she couldn’t get a hold of him, she’d come over, sit in my room and say, “Issu tefah.” (He is lost from me.) Where did he go? I’d ask. Some nights, she’d shrug her shoulders as she said she didn’t know.
Maroke, a grade 10 student who should have spent all of her waking moments studying to pass the national exam, never did an hour of homework. School was a government-mandated formality.
She moved this summer to Addis Ababa when I was in Addis Ababa for a week of mid-service medical exams. I didn’t realize she had moved for good until two months after the fact. (I thought she had returned to her parents’ home in Adama for the summer, as she had last year. It was only when I saw new people moving into her room that I realized she may have left. Even then, I saw my new neighbors as short-term renters, individuals who would pack up and leave once Maroke returned.)
Maroke hasn’t returned and her phone number has since changed, but she remains a piece of me. By extension, a part of her remains rooted in this small mountain Gurage town.
When I ride into town, her voice fills my head. Yet tefash? Where have you been lost from me? Never Where have you been? but always a soft tefash, a “my friend, I missed you,” intonation strong in her voice.
She has shown me, time and time again, that there is never too little time to care for someone you love. Time and time again, she has demonstrated racial and linguistic barriers mean nothing in friendship.
I have no idea if she ever began the eleventh grade. (We can assume she didn’t…) She’s one of the many faces to the millions of girls whose lives take on a new direction as a result of factors beyond their control.
She’s one of the faces of a few who can see the scope of her situation yet smile through each day. You hear it in her laughs, see it in the energy she invests into household chores, feel it when she greets people as they walk onto the compound.
Does Addis Ababa give her the opportunity to continue her dance between adolescence and adulthood? Has it thrust her, more prematurely, into adulthood?
She has taught me to best serve others, we must understand others second, and we must respect ourselves first.