Neither Here Nor There: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Eritrean and Ethiopian Diaspora in America

April 7, 2010

Back in the Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 9:31 am

An iron sits on a century old base made of old metal in front of our fire place like an ornament. But this is no regular iron. The handle, still containing bits of the orange paint which must have been brilliant so many years ago,  is made out of wood with indentions carved for your fingers to rest comfortably as you press your weight into the cotton dress riddled with creases. The shell of the object is rusted on the sides, but the bottom is as sleek, cool and silver as the hood of an unpainted bobsled. The hull, an empty compartment, can be reached by sliding aside a latch, opening the entire top half of the object. This is where my grandmother would place the hot coals to heat up the iron as she pressed the clothes of her 13 children.

In 2006, I went to my grandmother’s house before she passed. This three bedroom home with walls made of cow manure and a roof made of rusty tin was painted white with green shutters and had a natural way of keeping the hot air outside that our modern air conditioning systems can not compare to. The hardwood floors had withstood decades upon decades of heavy traffic from hundreds/thousands of people and perhaps rogue farm animals. My grandmother, in her 80’s and rapidly deteriorating from cancer, still worked. She carried tubs of water from a well outside, chased chickens and milked cows. Constantly in a state of motion she maneuvered this antiquated scene as though she controlled every blade of grass, falling leaf and boulder. This way of life was alive in her energy.

I was asked if I wanted to put kibe (butter) in my hair and I politely obliged though I can’t stand the smell of the concoction as it mixes with the heat and sweat of your scalp under a plastic bag wrapped tightly over your head overnight. But the process did not start until the next morning when I was called out to help milk the cow; a massive thing which lumbered about the yard munching and billowing all day and occasionally trying to fit it’s fat body through the small side door. It was not unusual to sit on the couch to turn around to her gargantuan brown eyes and cud chewing jaws flapping in your face. Next, we poured the milk into what appeared to be a wooden drum shaped like a bulb. I was told this drum was actually some kind of root, hollowed out to store liquid and grain. This tub of milk, which I could only carry with both hands, was strapped to me using a long shawl and I was instructed on how to sit, cross-legged, in the hut behind the house, made of stick walls and a straw roof, and rock back and forth until the milk sloshed to a certain beat: “SLOSH-THUNK-thunk-SLOSH-THUNK-thunk-SLOSH”. After 45 minutes I passed this arduous job on to the farm hand who had kept me company. He must have been out there for hours sloshing and thunking. But, the next morning, they poured the contents of this tub into my hand. Amidst the butter-milk which I recognized by the pungent odor, there dropped a bit of the familiar substance I used to cook macaroni and cheese with at home.  I carefully spread it into my hair, realizing for the first time how valuable this stinky stuff really was.

Today, all over the world, this age of technology continues to transform our lives and push this old way of life further and further into history. I am, indeed, impressed with the fact that I can write blogs for people to read instantly all over the world, play video games with people in China and watch 3-D movies in my living room. But the ones who deserve the accolades for these modern marvels are far removed from the average citizen who lazily utilizes them until he become so complacent that he stops being impressed with technology all together. In the old way of life, equally as impressive in my opinion, the accolades go to every single person in that society. Every one works hard to accomplish the same tasks we accomplish today, taking hot baths, ironing and making clothes out of cotton balls. Growing food, building houses and painting. These everyday tasks come about through the collective effort of the community so every child grows up learning that he has a valuable place in his world and that working hard is the only option.

In my opinion, technology is very impressive. However, what impresses me most is the old way of life which actually instills values into people and can not be taken away by the depletion of natural resources or a technological crash, does not cause global warming, and will enable humanity to survive “real” life if that day ever came once again.  Because, trust me, there is nothing real about living life vicariously through a television screen and consuming products which are composed of so much artificial junk to make them last and look pretty that the actual nurturing portions have been eliminated. Chicken nuggets aren’t supposed to be shaped like animals, people. Strawberries aren’t supposed to be the size of oranges and apple juice/drink sure as hell isn’t supposed to be green.

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