Last month I arrived at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with my mother. Though my mother had been to Ethiopia since we made America our new home 20 years ago this was my first trip there.
Not knowing what to expect, and in utter disbelief that finally I was in Ethiopia, my heart began racing as I took my first steps outside of the airplane and into the terminal. Once situated with our suitcases we exited the terminal where there was a crowded waiting area. Since no one is allowed inside the terminal, people had to wait for their loved ones behind a glass window. As I looked around, not sure on how I would locate members of my family, I heard my name being called. It was my younger cousin who greeted me with a hug and beautiful flowers. After some time of meeting other family members and friends our suitcases were placed into a truck and we were off.
We hit the road of our capital city with one of my cousins serving as our unofficial tour guide. He pointed out several landmarks central to my family like where my mother used to live, where she used to go for a drink of leslasa (soda) after school, etc. At that moment the sweet reality that I was in my home country set in.
Reuniting with relatives, old neighbors and friends was an experience I will never forget. My mother and I were hugged tightly by people who thought they would never see us again and kissed on the cheeks more than the occasional three times. To my surprise Meseret, my childhood friend, was back home after spending several months working outside of Ethiopia. It was a reunion which I’ve waited for since we left one another as two six-year-old girls.
As the days passed I soon discovered, like the paths of home in our old neighborhood, Ethiopia was how I left it. The school my brothers remembered us attending still stood, though gated. The path to where they surrendered long afternoons to playing soccer in was still vacant and Meseret still lived in the house across the street from where my family used to live. Though the scenery did not change much, it is the people who will leave a lasting impression on me for years to come.
I felt sincere love from people who last saw me as a child. While back in America I felt like I did not fit in with other Ethiopians, in Ethiopia it was the exact opposite. I felt like I belonged and did not feel awkward while I sat among other Ethiopians. Suddenly, in a room full of loved ones, my broken Amharic did not matter. I stumbled over words and they marveled at how I did not forget my native language. Whenever we visited family and sat in large groups, I would often wonder just how different my life would have been had I stayed in Ethiopia. Would I have finished school? Would I have been married by now and had children? That’s when the other part of Ethiopia, outside the confines of home, comes to mind.
Although family and friends were keen on showing us a good time, everywhere we turned we were reminded that Ethiopia is a poor country in need of desperate change. Beggars filled all of the places we went to including churches. The sight of mothers sleeping on the side of the roads with their infant children or begging for money with their infant child strapped to their back is a sight I won’t soon forget. Young children, some transporting heavy loads on their back, walked unoccupied. Though brutal to watch and that much brutal to turn away, I faced every scene of poverty and it only added to the love I have for Ethiopia. After all it is my country. I love every beggar, the poor mothers, and the children with ripped clothing that walk alone. It is my sincere hope to someday play a role in changing it.
As quickly as the last months preceding our trip came, so did our departure day. On our last day in Ethiopia family members and friends came for a final sendoff. The house was full of people I missed during my life in America. When the time came to leave for the airport, a line had formed outside. One by one, I kissed my family and friends goodbye. Leaving was the hardest thing to do. While I didn’t cry as a 6-year-old leaving Ethiopia, I made up for that night as my eyes were soaked with tears. And so we were off to the airport, one hand holding a tissue drenched with my tears and the other waving back at our family and loved ones.
Once we were inside the airport I noticed that during our haste to be on time, we didn’t say our final goodbyes to the members of our family who accompanied us to the airport. After our bags were weighed I looked for them in the crowd of Ethiopian faces behind that glass window I grew to dislike. How could anyone find their family? Throwing anger into what was already a heartrending moment I found myself giving up. Slowly, I approached the boarding gates with my eyes glued to the crowd. As I got closer to the gates, still unable to find my family, I tried to come to grips with leaving without saying my last goodbyes. Then, in the middle of the crowd, I saw a single arm waving at me. I noticed the dark colored jacket, it was my uncle. Without any hesitation I exited the platform and found my way to him. He was occupied with several members of my family. Though shaking uncontrollably I remained strong as we said our final goodbyes and as we hugged. One of my older cousins, the unofficial tour guide, paused then to give me some last minute information and that’s when I felt time itself pause. Flashbacks of my trip came to mind. I saw his lips move but I couldn’t hear a word. I took a piece of paper he handed me and nodded. I gave him a hug and took a deep breath. As I walked away from them, I tried to remain strong but on my way back to the boarding gates, I felt my strength diminish. Draped with the scarf Mesert had given me earlier that evening, with the colors of the Ethiopian flag, I was no longer able to hold back tears. I found comfort in the scarf just like I had found in Ethiopia.
After visiting Ethiopia I’ve realized that it was a trip that I could never be ready for. While I lived in regret of not going to Ethiopia sooner, my family did not mind that it took me this long to make the trip. Being face to face with my family and witnessing my culture from my birthplace I no longer felt like an outsider. The trip gave me confidence about who I really am – an Ethiopian. Though I have always known it deep down inside, now it is magnified.