On the way back from Awash National Park, Matthew, Zerihun and I ran out of gas. We coasted to a stop behind a ten-ton truck. Zerihun got out an negotiated for the driver to tow us with a cable tied around the frame of our jeep. We banged along like that toward the next town, which was supposed to be what, nine, fifteen kilometers away? After about twenty kilometers, Zerihun said, “Well, he’s either towing us all the way to Addis, or else maybe he’s towing is to Maljacha Ferenjecha.”
“What’s that, like, the land where they eat foreigners?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“And more interestingly,” Matthew said, “if you run out of gas by a crossroads, and you know one road goes home and the other road goes to the land where they eat foreigners, but you don’t know which is which, and you don’t really trust the driver, where do you ask him to take you?”
“Did I tell you about Maljacha Ferenjecha?” Zerihun asked. “During the time of the Derg, there was an administrator of roads, or something like a secretary. He was in front of a big meeting of officials where they were going to review the progress of the Road Authority. The administrator thought, ‘All these people, they don’t even know their own country.’ So he began to tell them, for example, that ‘work on the road from Addis to Debre Zeit was complete, the Tendaho-Galafi road is nearly complete, and we are about to start work on the Malgacha-Ferengecha road.’ Maljacha Ferenjecha means, ‘What is this foreigner saying?’ but still everyone clapped and was very happy, because they really didn’t know anything.
“Another time, an official wanted to go make some business in Harar, but he knew the road was very bad. So he went to the Administrator of Roads and said, ‘Please maintain the road to Harar so I can make some official business.’
“The administrator told him, ‘It’s very simple. Go to the storekeeper and ask him to show you the rollable asphalt. We will take some and unroll it between here and Harar, and when you have completed your business, we will simply roll it back up. Finish!’
“And so the official went to the storekeeper, and in the meantime, the administrator phoned ahead and said, ‘When the official asks to see the rolls of asphalt, take him to see a crusher belt,’ because a crusher belt is very big and wide and black like asphalt.
“When the official got to the storehouse, he said, ‘Take me to see the rollable asphalt,’ and the storekeeper told him to come this way, and he showed him the crusher belt. And the official said, ‘Oh, very good,’ and went away.
“And the administrator, he thought he should not make a mockery of the official, and so he sent out a grader to smooth the road to Harar. Finish!”
On hills, the cable between the truck and the jeep would lose its tension for a second and then suddenly pull taut, jerking us out of our seats.
“I knew a man,” Zerihun said, “he used to work as a butcher, and he had a small butchery shop. This was during the Selassie time. Once he got in a fight in the street with another man and he slaughtered him, with a knife he had. He was sentenced to life in prison.
“But on weekends, the Selassie family would always want to have a big party for their friends, and they needed to have a cow slaughtered and butchered for this party. This butcher was very famous for being able to do this very nicely. He didn’t need a helper to slaughter a cow. He would just put the knife in the back of the neck, and kill it and butcher it.
“So every weekend he was being let out of jail to help with the party. He would work and enjoy himself all weekend, and then he would go back to jail. Eventually a judge let him out of jail for good behavior, well, not for good behavior; for services rendered.
“So he went back and opened a small butchery shop on Mexico Square. And every night he was just shutting the door and sleeping there; he didn’t have any other home. And he was sleeping there with another man, and they were always getting into some fights, and the other man would threaten him and say, ‘If you touch me I will go straight to the police,’ because the butcher was released on probation. And one night they were having a fight and the butcher caught the man and started to slaughter him with his knife, running it around his neck like this and cutting him, but not finishing the job.
“And the man ran out and ran to the police station, to tell what had happened. But the problem was, there were no witnesses, so there was no way to prove what had happened. When the police got there the butcher had simply washed off the knife and gone to bed. He denied everything. They took him to the police station but they had to let him go, because there was no proof. But he did not want to go. He said, ‘I just want to sleep here in this police station.’
“So every day he was going out to do his work, and after work he was always starting fights and making trouble. And at night he would either walk or be carried back to the police station, and he was always sleeping right in front of the door. And if he was really drunk or had gotten into a bad fight, a policeman would carry him back.
“This man, he did not like to wear shoes. One time, my father’s aunt, the one who raised me, bought him a new suit and a pair of shoes. He simply cut the trousers off at the knees, because he preferred to wear short pants, and he sold the shoes. He said his feet never felt comfortable in shoes. Most people who wear shoes, their heels are very tough from where the shoes rub. But his heels were very soft. All his life, he had been walking around on the balls of his feet.”
We coasted to a stop in front of the fuel shop. Zerihun went out to negotiate the price of a can of gas. The truck driver untied the cable.
Addis Ababa, 1997