Ethiopia: White Lady Scrubbing
By Sara Bathum
Before I even step inside the lunch hall, the children zero in on me. “Sara! Sara! Ciaoooh, Sara!” A pack of them, all boys, rush at me as though the circus has come to town. They pluck at my clothes and play tug-of-war with my hands, fighting over who gets to hold a thumb or two fingers. A wrist. They try to drag me this way and that. They are delighted by my unexpected visit. Aggressively delighted. Raucously and jealously delighted, as if there might not be enough of me to go around. (There isn’t.) There is only one of me and a couple dozen dusty little boys. Their shouts and laughter echo through the hall like a flock of hungry seagulls, birds as distant and unknown to these children as any ocean.
I can’t step in any direction without risking a set of bare toes. Small fingers find all my buttons and pockets. One youngster squats down to feel the buckles on my sandals while another gives my elbow a vigorous yank. I turn. “Ante! Ie!” But Amharic from my mouth invariably provokes fits of giggling from groups of children and these boys laugh heartily with open mouths.
I scan the hall quickly for Beatricia, but she is nowhere to be seen. “Beatricia?” I ask the boys hopefully.
“Iza!” they shout with enthusiasm and point through the hall toward the water pump outside. And more words I cannot understand tumble from their mouths like marbles down a staircase.
White lady tug-of-war continues until the white lady is tugged out. “Becha! Becha!” I cry uncle. Enough. An older boy, perhaps ten years old and six inches taller than the rest, strokes my arm in cheerful sympathy as if to say, We like you, but we don’t know why, and we’re awfully sorry you’re too dim to understand what we’re so obviously telling you—Now do some other silly thing to make us laugh. He looks familiar, but I don’t know his name. He wears a red, white, and blue striped shirt with a bright red collar that looks impossibly clean and pressed. What buttons remain, he keeps fastened up to his chin. Before I can remember his name, I will come to know him by that shirt; just as I will come to know his friend by the giant soccer ball on the front of his blue tee-shirt with the words “Jamestown Soccer”.
Beatricia, the Italian doctor who runs the lunch program, comes to my rescue and scatters boys in every direction with a few sharp words. Red Collar and Jamestown Soccer stay by my side, self-appointed bodyguards for the newcomer to Table of the Poor, the Salesian Fathers’ feeding program for Dilla’s malnourished children.
“Ciao, Sara,” Beatricia says. “Welcome.”
The large open-air hall is filled with long, child-sized tables and benches, now swarming with hungry children still wound up from the excitement of my arrival. As brightly colored plastic bowls are distributed among them, however, their fascination with me diminishes. Beatricia introduces me to a small knot of women who cook and help run the feeding program, and we squeeze out seats at the end of a table. 112 children arrive everyday to eat a lunch of corn, beans, and vegetable soup. Meat when they have it. Twice a week they drink milk. These children are not orphans, she explains, but many have lost their mothers or have fathers who cannot provide for them. The children have started eating, but the decibel level in the hall remains high, just like any elementary school cafeteria back home.
“Where does the food come from?” I ask, as a gap-tooth youngster proudly shows me her bowl full of beans.
“From the fathers,” Beatricia replies. “What they cannot grow they buy in town.” A stray dog skulks into the hall hoping for a lost bit of meat. A cheerful roar rises from 112 food-filled mouths as the cooks give chase. Beatricia smiles indulgently and shouts over the din, “Can you come again on Saturday?”
“Sure. What’s on Saturday?”
On Saturday afternoon, English teaching obligations nearly done for the day, I sneak away while the girls are busy with bible lessons. Sister Sundari is off on some holy business and has left me in charge again. In charge of what, exactly, is unclear. In charge of being the only white lady on the playground? In charge of not being able to communicate with the girls, beyond volleyball scores? In charge of my sunburn? The girls manage better without me. So while all their brown noses are deep in little books with stories of Mary and Jesus, I follow my peeling pink one down the path past the clinic to the lunch hall.
Along the way, I join a procession of marching children, most with younger siblings in tow. “Sara, Sara! Ciao!” Two little hands slip into mine, one on either side, like kisses blown through the dust. A small flock of pilgrims in search of soap and water, we continue on our way. Before we reach the hall, we hear it. The racket of bath day puts the raucous lunch hour to shame. “Enhid, Sara!” My companions hear the shouts of their friends and pull me along in eager anticipation, unwilling to give up the prize of my hands held tight.
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