A Poor Man’s Guest in Addis Ababa

Illustration by Luci Gutiérrez
Illustration by Luci Gutiérrez

Addis Ababa: Oct 28, 2015 – I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Indian parents who were hired by Haile Selassie to teach in the schools he had built across the highland empire. Every middle-class home there had to have a full-time guard, or zabanya. The particular zabanya who shapes this memory had moved to the capital from the provinces. His name has vanished, but not his perpetual grin, which suggested that life in the metropolis seemed grand to him. The shack by the gate where he slept barely had room for a cot, but it was probably more comfortable than the hut a mile away where his wife and child stayed.

This man’s duty included opening the gate as the family car came and went; as night fell and the mist descended at that high elevation, we would hear him walking around the house, tapping his staff on the ground and clearing his throat to make would-be robbers (and his employers) aware of his presence.

His wife sent him his daily meal in a deep round-bottomed bowl with a tightfitting lid. This type of vessel was exceedingly popular in Ethiopia, and you saw it displayed in colorful stacks in the mercato. The cheap white enamel was baked onto the tin, and it flaked off readily in configurations more interesting than the original floral pattern. The guard’s daughter, who was 10 years old, like me, carried the bowl to him in a gauzy cloth slung over her back, as if she were carrying an infant.

On the rare occasions when I witnessed the drop-off, he insisted that I join him. We would wash at the garden tap, then sit on his cot. My mouth would water even before he pulled off the lid. His wife had lined the cavity with the bread known as injera, porous side up. Made out of a fermented grain called teff, injera batter is baked on a giant flat plate much as a crepe is. Because it isn’t flipped, the top becomes a lunar landscape, spongy and full of crevices.

On top of this lining, his wife had poured the wat, which typically was just shiro: mashed lentils cooked in butter and spices, the poor man’s staple. Sometimes she sent a fiery red version with meat or a boiled egg in it. (My mother would often send meat or eggs home with him when he went to visit his family.)

A napkin-size slab of folded injera covered the wat, and we would begin here, tearing off pieces and using them to scoop out the stew in the center. As host, he would insist — as is Ethiopian tradition — on feeding me the first morsel from his hand to my mouth.

The best part of the meal was always the last: The wat would have soaked into the injera used as the liner to the tin bowl, saturating its every crevice. Whenever I hear the expression ‘‘silver lining,’’ what comes to mind is not clouds but delectable, soggy, saturated injera peeling off chipped enamel.

nytimes

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