Dispatch from Ethiopia by Amos Disasa
This is me on the front porch of our family home in Gambela Province.
Home Is Where the ( ) Is
I am now at home. There was a time when I wondered if home was the country of my birth. It is not. I should of been home four days earlier but the immigration officer at Bolle International Airport in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia said the emergency Ethiopian passport I carried to enter the country 13 days before was insufficient for exit. On my first attempt to board the plane he looked at my flimsy, hand-written passport and replied in good-enough English, "You go back to immigration office and receive new passport". I showed him my green card and promised the poorly uniformed guard that his American counterpart would let me in. He laughed at my card, it meant nothing in Ethiopia. I was stuck 7,000 miles from home in the country of my birth.This isn't my little brother's fault, it's mine. But his part in the story is worth mentioning. I visited him in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia where he's lived like a king the last two years. Dark skinned Ethiopian women fine enough to snap heads back home blush in his presence. Taxi drivers reduce their fares for the privilege of driving him. Getting paid in dollars, being single, carrying an American passport, all without betraying your Ethiopian roots as you stumble through Amharic makes it easy to find friends.
One of his friends took us to lunch after I completed my application for a new passport at the national immigration office. Raaji told him "we have big problem" in the broken English he reserves for conversations with Ethiopians that want to impress him with their mastery of English. He put his hand on my shoulder and said to the friend "This is my brother and he is trying to go home. He have green card but his passport is Ethiopian. He use emergency passport to enter the country but they no let him leave with our real passport." Raaji claims that the past tense throws them off so his broken English remains rooted in the present. This is entertaining - the strategically broken English requires more creativity than expected.
I trusted Raaji's friend. At lunch he told us about his PhD from a Russian university. It's hard to doubt an Ethiopian that speaks Russian. And then he asked for Raaji's help in drafting a letter to CITI Bank to accompany a loan application for his second home in Charlotte. I bit my tongue. I doubted the wisdom of buying vacation property in Charlotte but if the doctor could afford it, he probably had 10 friends in Ethiopian immigration that could help expedite my new passport. Just in case, I showed him pictures of my kids that I hadn't seen in 2 weeks. He said they were "nice", one of exactly 6 English adjectives I heard in Ethiopia. And then he pointed to the wall where graduation head-shots of his kids hung proudly. He said they went to school in London. I was impressed with this fact and my confidence in him increased.
The PhD that sends his kids to school in London and speaks Russian and is buying a second house in Charlotte called us intermittently over the next three days with instructions to keep waiting, he was working on it. Raaji and I waited in hotel lobbies with free wifi and in the immigration building's courtyard to be close if he called with good news. There were other Ethiopians without friends that could buy second houses waiting with us in the courtyard. When they confused me for a real Ethiopian and asked me in Amharic for directions to the fingerprint room, I pointed vaguely to the left. We were waiting for the same passport but there wasn't much more to discuss.
After three days of waiting it was clear the PhD didn't have friends in immigration. And so, we asked our own friend, the one that processed my application without a smile three days earlier if she could hurry up. She was slightly younger than my mother and disappointed that I didn't know Amharic. But she smiled at Raaji and respected him for coming back. She didn't have a PhD but she was earnest, like Raaji. She scolded me again for not speaking Amharic and then she pushed the application through the gates that separated me from home. Twenty minutes later we left with a real passport.
To complete the odyssey, a reverse of the journey Raaji and I are usually on where I help him to come home, he gave me his frequent flier miles to insure a seat in first class for the flight home that night. Economy was overbooked. My home is not a country. It is wherever my family remains.