Remembering Ethiopia
By Carol Beddo

Once again I stand on Lake Tana’s southern shore and feel the pushing breeze that begins every afternoon at precisely one o’clock. Listening to the bird chorus in these trees, I recall the gentle, musical rhythm of the Ethiopian countryside in the mid-60s, when I lived and taught in Bahar Dar for two years.

Even though Bahar Dar has been transformed from country village to planned city, the morning sounds of the countryside can still be heard near the lake and on the city outskirts. With the first direct rays of sunlight, a choir of East African birds perches in the tops of fragrant eucalyptus saplings. While birds scream out individual choruses in an undirected symphony, donkeys bray the day a hoarse welcome. When I lived here, this riot was punctuated by gray doves perched on the handhewn timber eaves just outside my bedroom, their regular morning performance a steady alto he-hoo-hooo hehoo- hooo.

Outside of the city, nervous noises of industrious neighborhood chickens compete with the bird choir. Hens, chicks and roosters, all busily clucking or crowing, scratch and peck at moist, red dirt under short grasses at the edges of a dirt footpath. Barefoot steps of men and boys thud almost silently as they trot alongside livestock. Soft earth on morning-moist paths muffles hooves’ quick drumbeats. Men gently guide cattle, sheep and goats with dula, mumbling commands while herding them to the lake for morning water.

I first stood here forty years ago, behind the even-then old Ghion Hotel, at this same fig tree and let the freshwater wind clear my head of Ethiopia’s exotic, distinctive aroma. It felt like homecoming when I arrived in Addis Ababa three weeks ago, when I was embraced by the heart notes of Ethiopia’s amazing perfume offered warm welcome. But here, in Gojjam province, even more cooking fires give body to the bitter, sharp odor. Thick, vaporous smoke from eucalyptus firewood and dried dung flows up and through tukuls’ round thatched roofs before it settles in a low cloud on the ground. This haze permeates clothing, hair and skin and carries a whiff of whatever food is being cooked on its gummy, black soot.

Close by, a woman dark roasts green coffee beans, and memories of my African home float to me on dense, drifting smoke. On this return to Bahar Dar, I’m still able to identify the familiar base notes that extend Ethiopia’s bouquet. Spicy red or yellow stew, watt, bubbles in open pots. Floppy spongy bread, injera, steams on round, black-clay plates. Nuts, seeds and spices dry roast over open fires. A pungent, sour cheese scent comes from butter applied to dry skin and hair. Red dust, raised in a cloud by wind or galloping animals or a passing vehicle, seems to stay afloat forever, all the while working its way high into stinging nostrils, finally settling and collecting at the back of the throat. Then there’s human ripeness from heated bodies and cotton clothing that’s been pounded on river rocks and broiled on bushes in burning African sun. Finally, the entire mix often includes the familiar top note of frankincense, like a floral cologne intended to cover up, disguise, but can’t quite.

These are the things I enjoy the most during my sentimental return – all things that are still the same. Also, I realize that much of Ethiopia is now available in the Bay Area – Amarinya, injera na watt, traditional music and dress. But the smells and sounds of Ethiopia’s countryside, unchanged for centuries, are available nowhere else. I’m grateful to once again experience authentic Ethiopia, with its proud, ancient culture, and it deeply saddens me to know this probably is my last time.

Carol Beddo lives in San Jose, CA and grew up in Santa Clara Valley. In 1964, while still an undergraduate at San Jose State, she began a two-year Peace Corps teaching assignment in Ethiopia. She completed her BA, English, ‘68, married and raised two daughters with her husband, Louie Barozzi. For many years she worked as a political consultant and public policy adviser and consultant. November, 2003, she once again stood at her favorite tree on the southern shore of Lake Tana.

Carol Beddo

Bahar Dar