the servant

Well, I never received a host family, and it seems we will be staying put for the rest of the trip– not that I’m complaining. I am living with the Donald Trump of Haramaya. The first time I went out with him we took a Bajaaj (open taxi) for the equivalent of about two city blocks, got gaping stares and free qat from the market, and walked through the building he is having constructed “downtown.” He has a wife and four children. The way I just presented this family, I realize, seems awfully sexist. But that’s how they see things.


His children are wonderful, but my favorite child in the house is the servant, Mahdi. Often when I’m playing with the children I see him pause and watch from a distance. Sometimes I can talk with him. He is nine years old and very intelligent. When I teach him he listens intently and understands quickly.
The other day I allowed each child to listen to my CD player. When I tried to pass a headphone to Mahdi, the other children looked at each other and shook their heads at me as he sheeped away. I made him take a turn. A smile spread across his face, shy at first, but unstoppable. He tapped his fingers and nodded his head to the beat (BSS), appreciating it so much more than the others.


My host mother was calling him. Suddenly his movements stopped. He yanked the headphone out of his ear. Brought back to reality, he looked at me wide-eyed, as if to see how I was judging him for his lapse in servitude.


And he snapped to his feet, off to serve my host mother.

The servants here live in total subservience to the families they serve. One night I woke up in the middle of the night overwhelmed with nausea. I ran outside toward the toilet but before I made it I threw up on the rocks behind the house. The host mother came out and screamed, “Malia” over and over until a girl came running outside. My host mother returned to bed and I watched as Malia fetched a bucket of water and scrubbed my puke. I tried to ask to help but my Oromo was not good enough and she wouldn’t have let me anyway. I felt horrible watching her do it.

My host siblings are sweet and loving, but it is hard to see their good fortune juxtaposed with Mahdi’s hard work. I watch them drop gum wrappers on the ground one minute, and I watch Mahdi pick them up the next. It is unfair, but it is economics. I cannot blame the family because Mahdi is lucky to have the job.

This is where I believe education must enter as an equalizer. As the system exists in Ethiopia, my host siblings will receive a good private education and go on to study at a university or become a wealthy qat exporter like their father. Mahdi will receive a poor public education and will probably continue to be a servant like his parents. The problem is accessibility.


6 responses to “the servant

  1. Ahhh I want to comment on this but I don’t know what to say! Mahdi sounds soo adorable, I feel like I’ve seen/ read about that character so many times! Could you take a picture? Aww you should play with him. I envy you. Also, isn’t walking through the blood-filled rivers like really dangerous? Couldn’t you get diseases if you slipped into it? Yikes. What an experience!

  2. Corrie just showed me how to access your blog which I hadn’t been able to do at home. We are all so impressed with your experiences and how wonderfully you can articulate what is happening around you and within you. The contrast to the life you have known up to this trip and the intensity of your own responses to what you are experiencing will surely make these 6 weeks in Africa some of the most formative memories of your life. I pray for your safety and good health everyday. I also daily applaud your courage and wisdom to live your life to it’s fullest. God bless and watch over you. With much love and pride! Grandma

  3. Hi: Just finished your blogs to date. What an experience. I admire your courage and your openess to what is happening around you. I also think it is very brave of you to share your introspective comments. These can make you quite vulnerable. I found your comments about relationships particularly interesting. In the end, they are what life is all about and the depth of each relationship varies directly with the amount of investment on both sides. The really deep ones have been few in my life but have had lasting impact and always will. Be safe and be well. You are in my prayers. Love, Gpa

  4. Catherine Porter

    Hi Rory.

    Corry forwarded your blog to us, and I have just read parts of it for the first time today. Thank you for sharing some of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with us. You write so well that it is hard to come back to my wonderful and seemingly extravagant, in comparison, life. How observant you seem, and how fortunate we are to read your insightful descriptions. I forwarded your information to my sister, Sandra, who has adopted two children from Ethiopia and has been there twice. I’m sure that she will be very interested to visit your blog too.
    Best of luck to you!

  5. Hi Rory,
    My name is Girum Mistir. My work colleague Tom Porter forward me your blog. I am orgionally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I currently reside in Wisconsin. All my family are in Ethiopia, so I travel back once every two years. I enjoyed reading your blog. It is interesting to read about my country and culture from someone as far away as the US. I am amazed how quickly you adapted and understand your environment and accepted the people and culture. I was especially impressed how quicky you understood the economics part of why things are the way they are. I know it took me a long time to understand how things are the way they are here in the US. As you have already found out, Ethiopia is a unique place. Ethiopian people are very hospitable people. I know the perception here in the US is Ethiopia is not a safe place, however, the reality is it is safer than most people think. As long as you have good guides and host family (it sounds like you do), you should be fine safety wise.
    If you any question feel free to ask me.

    Thanks for your service to Ethiopian children. Enjoy your time and experience there.
    God bless.

  6. Hi Rory-
    This has been a great read to date. Many of my initial reactions have been articulated by previous commenters. I hope your experiences there continue to nourish you and not tap you. There will always be people around you wherever you go who will want to draw off the wellspring of your enthusiasm and rich, generous persona. Striking a balance between the benefits of that generosity (for both you and its recipients) and finding its limits will always be a challenge. This is a challenge I am sure you will rise to and embrace like you do in so many things.
    Be well!

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