How a Dam Works


Abay is not just the name of the river which springs from the heart of Ethiopia, cuts through Sudan and Egypt, and ends in the way of all rivers big and small. It is also the name by which I best knew my grandfather. Officially, he was known by the more intimidating Shaleka – chief of thousands. He was a military man used to long walks – all over that hot, dusty, messy area between Sudan and Ethiopia in the north to start with and, in his old age, between his house and ours. There, in the garden, he would lay down his cane – a fancy adjustable one imported by his prideworthy children – and help himself to the pungent yellow fruit of the koshim bushes that fenced in our yard, the thorns of which he would afterwards pick his teeth with, as if in contempt of this poor excuse for domestic defense.

If he told me stories during these times I don’t remember any of them. I was too busy watching for the moment when he’d prick his gum with the thorn and draw blood, a moment which never came. I also don’t remember saying goodbye to him, or exactly when I last saw him alive and spoke to him or what was said between us.

How a Dam Works: Part One
As far as I’ve been able to grasp it, a dam works by obstructing the natural flow of a moving body of water, creating a reservoir which collects what would have otherwise flowed right on as it had done since its genesis. Eventually, that reservoir will fill to the brim with enough water the tension of which, when released strategically, will unleash more energy than anyone can ever think of ways to use up.

Thirteen years after I came into his life and about six years after I became conscious of him in mine, Abay ran out of time. Not long after, I came across a photo of his gravesite while poking around where I had no business. Looking at the print, I wasn’t sure what to make of the marble and cement that had become of him. It wasn’t until another sixteen years had passed that I decided to go poking again, this time around the burial grounds of Selassie (Trinity) Cathedral in Addis Ababa, looking for his grave. Well, suffice it to say that my shoes had more luck finding mud. With daylight on the fade, I had to give up the search, heading out only with what I had brought in with me – a faint mental image from a long misplaced photograph. Later, I learned that the resting place of anti-Fascist freedom fighters is a specially protected zone, not accessible willy nilly to the anonymous public, i.e. me.

How a Dam Works: Part Two
It all starts with the first pile of soil that is clawed out of the chosen site. And since clearly there’s no sense in digging a reservoir whilst the river continues to flow into and through it, a diversion is simultaneously needed. For the time that it will take to make a reservoir that is wide enough and deep enough, the water has to be gently but firmly distracted from its natural course; whereto it flows during this free time in new grounds or what it does while there is anybody’s guess.

I hope I’m not forcing a connection where there is none when I say that after Abay stopped, there seemed to follow a chain reaction of same. After him came the passing of too many, cutting too deep to the bone – great great grandmothers, great aunts, grandmothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, mothers – all in punishing succession. With the exception of two, I have no idea where the others are laid to rest; at least I had a general idea of where to go looking for Abay, even if it was too late and without success. With the exception of the same two, news of their passing was delivered to me in the neutral tone of “in other updates…” instead of in the grim tone of “you need to sit down and not be alone for this…”, as if my anchors were perfectly aware that I was incapable of working up the correct feeling anymore.

How a Dam Works: Part Three
When it is time, the wayward river is coaxed back into its natural course, where it will find itself collecting into its new home rather than surging on as before. It collects and collects, its level steadily rising until it is ready to manifest its potential in controlled, timed bursts.

Incapable, that is, until, on a regular Tuesday morning less than two weeks ago, for what might be the only time in my in my life, I heard of the passing of someone who initially felt like one more distant relative, one more person I barely knew, except this one was not the momentary hollow pang which I would normally neglect to feel after a while. This one stayed and quietly started to agitate something deeper. Perhaps that was because, purely by an accident of timing, I wound up bearing live witness to the unleashing of an entire nation’s grief day after day, whether I felt like it or not, whether I was in-the-know about exactly what we’d lost or not, whether they were being genuine or not. No matter where in the city I was or what I was doing, there was no place that was not in the thick of it.

How a Dam Works: Part Four
My understanding of dams is pretty rudimentary, as unsophisticated as the next lay person’s. But I feel confident in claiming that the source is everything. Far from the source, I have the luxury of storing up in relative peace, controlling the timing and quantity of release. Right at the source, however, is a raw churning that surfaces all the blood strangers whom I’ve lost but never managed to mourn in the way they deserved. With each passing day and with new fact I learn about this lately beloved one, I am hit with the hundreds of stories about my own distantly beloved which will never be known, no matter how sweet or crafty I am in trying to coax them out of those who are still left to tell.

What the above-mentioned did tell me, completely unprovoked as we strolled among hundreds of black-clad mourners near the National Palace, was of where two of my relatives are buried. But by then I was too weary for tombstone-hunting. If I had to muster up suitable feelings back when I was a safely far from the source and floating in the still waters of my reservoir, now it was as if I was dashing up and down the entire length of Abay, trying to shore up all that was sloshing about and doing a very clumsy job of it.

About a dam, people will say that it is a good thing, an excellent thing, that those who can think one up are visionaries and those who can make it a reality are inspired. Would you say, in my own amateurish way, that I’ve caught their drift?

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