In search of a better life, my family and I left Ethiopia when I was just 6-years-old. It has been 20 years since that dreaded departure and in less than a month I will return to Ethiopia. Though I will only be there for 3 weeks, I will savor my trip until the last minute. It feels kind of surreal that after being away for so long to finally be in Ethiopia. To be one in the crowd walking Addis Ababa’s busy paths, to be surrounded by those who resemble me, to smell the air and no longer have to imagine what it feels like, to walk amongst the churches, to see where my parents got married, and where I spent the earliest years of my life. My origin has been unknown to me and this trip, I believe, will unlock answers to some of my questions about my identity.
As I look through old family photographs, it is hard to believe that 20 years has passed. I left Ethiopia as a 6-year-old girl and will be returning as a 26-year-old woman having just completed my Master’s. I have long waited to return to Ethiopia for I have always believed there is nothing sweeter than the fruit of my roots.
The night my family and I left Ethiopia is a night that I will never forget. The whole neighborhood was outside and everyone was crying except for me. On the ride to the airport I sat on Aster’s (my aunt) lap and she asked me why I wasn’t crying but I didn’t have an answer. In the past year or two I convinced myself that as a 6-year-old I must have thought we were visiting America and that we will be retuning to Ethiopia shortly. That is the only reason I could think of that explains why I was the only one without tears in their eyes.
Growing up in America was difficult. Questions about my identity made me feel at odds about everything. I did not fit in at school nor did I fit in with other Ethiopians. In school I picked up fast, I was fluent in English and had no trace of an accent but I was deemed “not black enough.” Whatever that means. My broken Amharic was a barrier and made it hard for me to form relationships with other Ethiopians. As a young woman, while I have friends of diverse backgrounds, I feel the urgency of getting back to my roots and discovering who I am. Maya Angelou said it best in one of her famed quotes, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” To me, Ethiopia is that place.
Though I left Ethiopia at a young age, I still have many fond memories. Like the many times I went running to Aster’s house anytime my older brother would reprimand me. While safely in her home, I would sit next to a cabinet where I knew she kept mangos – a signal that I wanted one. She would then make her way over to me and offer me a mango. I remember how people would sit outside like it was a block party. One woman in particular always stood out. Her name was Abey and she was everyone’s grandmother. Abey gave most of the children, including me and my brothers, nicknames. I spent most of my earlier years with Meseret who was my best friend. We were the same age and looked more like sisters. We would hold hands together and go to each other’s house nearly every day. I will not see Aster nor will I see Abey, God rest their souls. And as the months to my trip drew closer, news that Meseret was working in another country came. Time can be so unkind. So I pack my bags with two conflicting emotions taking over me. One of regret that I didn’t visit Ethiopia sooner and another of pure joy that I will see the place of my birth and the family that I have only known through phone calls and stories.
What I have to offer Ethiopia is my unbiased love for her. I hope that she accepts me and makes me feel like I am her own. I hope that I receive the sense of belonging that I’ve desperately longed for. I hope that I can look into the eyes of family members and see parts of me in them. I hope that I attain a sense of self. Only this will truly bring me fulfillment in this life.
To be continued…