Ethiopian Culture / Ethiopian Identity / Family / Immigrant Life / Language / Names / Travel: Ethiopia

The Possessive Tense

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When you are born everybody knows you. Half the town turns up to the welcome party to take a good look at you. The only other times that many people who you barely know or don’t know at all are going to turn up on occasion of you is for the two other life biggies: wedding, death – hopefully in that order. The important thing is, the fact has been established from day one: you are Somebody’s So-and-So. You are never just So-and-So. From the day of that first party-on, whenever you run into the aging original attendees, no matter how long you’ve been gone from the neighborhood/city/country/planet, it is as such that you are addressed and/or introduced, fixed: Somebody’s So-and-So.
Oh, her/him, don’t you know? She’s/He’s intina’s So-and-So iko!
Ere? Indet nesh/neh? Adegu beka! etc.

That’s assuming you cross paths with this person from your early days when you’re out and about with someone who is also of that era. If you’re caught alone though, stopped purely on a hunch, on the clue of some facial features that you didn’t have the sense to inherit only partially but instead carry around an exact copy of on your fresh face, it would be unwise to respond to their selamta with Dehna igzger yimesgen, I’m So-and-So.
All you’ll get is a blank stare, a still-searching stare, until you clarify that with
Somebody’s So-and-So.
Understand, this requirement only applies to the original revelers at your arrival party, and maybe to the latecomers, the fan club that collected in the years since and the size of which depends on the extent if your parents’ tangible successes/claims-to-fame.
(or your siblings’ fame – hopefully that of an older one. If it’s the younger one that you’re identified by, my condolences.)
Oh, iswa? She’s Little-intina’s-talak-So-and-So iko!
Ere? Little Intina? Ye-intina-yemecheresha lij?
Raswa!
Ayy, iswa lij iko indet asdenaki nech. Meche let intin yaderegechew aydelech?
(intin = most prolly gabicha)
…and somewhere in the fog that builds up around you during this exchange you beat a hasty retreat (to the personal ads perhaps?)
Even when you’re in faraway places where you think just So-and-So is sufficient, the Somebody’s is bound to pop up on you from just around the corner, from that alley down the block, while you’re strolling along ager selam zemed selam engaged in your personal brand of scandalous activities.
Speaking of, your comrades in said activities are the only ones around whom just So-and-So is enough. Even last names are optional, who needs the trouble when even your first name (assuming that it’s your actual one) is going to get resized into something cooler anyway? But, still, nevertheless and so on, you can’t shake what’s deep down inside so easily. Chances are that once you’re out of earshot, some version of the Iswa iko ye-Intina So-and-So nech convo is going to take place. Funny thing is, that’s what will most likely bring on the blank stares and sound of crickets chirping.
Ya, so? What’s she got going now? is the question. Who’s she hanging with now? is the thing.
Of course, even out there in the far yonder, leave it to the keepers of the original party track to bring the Somebody’s back into play. Usually this happens around graduation, emigration or most likely when two mere So-and-Sos decide to tie the knot/take a free fall/dive into the deep end/walk off into the sunset/decorate the respective fourth fingers of their left hands with hollow circles fashioned out of precious metal … take your pick. It never fails to amaze me how, around such times, one of these original folks will for sure ask the trillion birr question (a million ain’t kaka these days, I hear): Yeman lij nat/new lemehonu?
And it’s on. It may take them a few minutes, it may take them a few hours or maybe days, it may take more of them than started the inquest, but at some point they will have gone through all the Somebodies they know, knew, in all possible directions and generations removed and traced the unsuspecting So-and-Sos to a Somebody they went to school with, used to buy the annual kuntal of teff from, or died just last year. (Sounds like a great idea for an ETV game show. Trace that So-and-So!). That’s when their faces relax and they look at the photos – often it’s the photos that get them going – with new eyes.
Ohh, Ye-Somebody So-and-So, iswanima/isunima bedemb new yemawkew/at. Abatu/wa iko yene…

It is traditional for us the So-and-Sos in question to somewhat halfheartedly bitch about this, or to act like it’s a tendency completely alien to us. Maybe that is true for some, but if there is any explanation for the terror I feel at stepping out in a city where I know for a fact that I’m Nobody’s Anything, it has to be that some part of me secretly loves this ritual exchange. Being a tourist is one thing, forget that. You’re not worrying about the long term, about the What if something happens to me here? But going to live someplace as an NA is another matter.

It wasn’t until early one Monday morning in the sweltering summer of 2011, with my hand on the inside door handle of my first Wenzhou apartment, my heart beating a mile a minute, about to step out into the city by myself for the first time since my arrival a week earlier, that it hit me: I have near to zero experience with this. With walking about in absolute anonymity in every sense of the word, as close to an actual alien as it’s possible to be. The only other time I’ve felt that way was Vancouver a year and some back, when I stepped out the same afternoon I arrived in the city, pretty nerve-wracked even though the cultural and linguistic gap between me and the other pavement users wasn’t that big. I was still scared, nervous. I felt like there was a big sign on my forehead, invisible to me but flashing neon to all others. I’M NEW HERE. DON’T NOBODY KNOW ME HERE. GO AHEAD, HAVE YOUR WAY WITH ME. Fortunately the feeling was gone by the time I got to the end of my street.

For obvious reasons, I was hella more scared when I ventured out into the streets of Wenzhou, beginning with the alleyway lined with really old folks who had all day to sit on their doorstep running commentary which you didn’t have to know Chinese to catch the gist of and spitting gobs. (To my credit, I managed to get a smile out of one particularly crusty one, for whom giant blue boxer shorts was enough clothing on most days. It took about a month but a military salute finally did the trick).

Shite, I said, I’ve managed to sail through most of the first two decades of my life always walking down streets where I knew that I was Somebody’s S&S, where necessity has redefined the concept of blood and chances are I could easily find someone along the way who could acknowledge some part of that if the need arose. And double shite, I said, why do I keep picking cities with little-to-zero population of habeshas to settle in? Clearly, I have a love-hate relationship with this S&S versus Somebody’s S&S thing.

Or why else would I, fast forward a year and some later, decide to step out solo into the streets of Addis knowing full well that it had been almost ten years since I did such a thing? What am I thinking?
Well, I’m thinking Hey I’ve done this in x, y and z. I can do it here too. Nobody knows me here anyway. On some level that is true. I’ve rolled with enough people who know and are known by enough other people to be certain of this. I’m the one who politely looks at the shoes of passersby until I get introduced into the reunion. I’m the innocent bystander. But that’s the tricky thing about flirting with anonymity. It can bail on you at the worst possible moment. Like when you, I, am strolling down that whatchamacallit road that runs past CMC (which stands for what again?) I wait for the familiar initial terror to pass, for that moment when it clicks that no one has spotted me as the new bird in town and I can carry on incognito.

…It doesn’t come. If I felt that I had a big sign on my forehead before, I feel like I am a walking billboard here, front and back blazing. For the first few hundred meters the feeling is bearable, since there are more sheep droppings than people around anyway. But then comes a densely populated stretch – shops, shoeshine boys and the employment-challenged abound – and I…well…the expression sweatin’ bullets comes to mind. Where do I look? At the ground? At the horizon? At the shops? The people? (Oh the shops and the people! What I would give just to walk at my usual pace – turtle – and ogle absolutely everything.) How do I arrange my scarf? Seriously?!
Still, I march on, way too fast, looking everywhere, looking nowhere, while somewhere in that disco party that’s the inside of my head a weak but persistent refrain struggles to come through and I try to keep time with it so that I might slow down, relax, remember that, sense of self-inflicted adventure aside, I’m out here to hunt birthday cake for my dear old (but only in years) dad – my Somebody.

Half an hour later, the Kaldi’s I was sure was just down the street having pulled an evil disappearing act on me, I turn back. Yeah, I’m empty-handed but the return is a cakewalk. Don’t you know? I’m Somebody’s So-and-So.

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