My February 20 post, “A Time of Political Madness,” tells the harrowing true story of my dear Ethiopian friend Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu’s two years in prison under the Derg, the military regime that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie and presided over a reign of terror in Ethiopia until 1991. Despite the disruption of his life, his suffering in prison, and his near-execution, Tesfagiorgis was able to resume his career at the Ethiopian Government’s Central Personnel Agency and eventually marry and have a family. It gave me great pleasure during my return visit to Addis Ababa almost a year ago to see Tesfagiorgis and his wife Almaz enjoying a happy life together in their comfortable home in Addis. The following excerpts from Tesfagiorgis’ recent letter to me tell about his post-prison journey to a fulfilling personal life.
After my release from prison in February 1981, people who wished me well advised me to get married before it was too late. However, it took me almost 10 years to actually get married. In 1986 I went to Italy for short-term training in public service management. There were about 20 trainees who had come from India, Indonesia, Morocco, Madagascar, Ghana, and the Philippines. The majority were younger than me. Many introduced themselves in class as a father or a mother of one or more children. I really felt bad admitting that I was single. Moreover, when we went shopping, many were buying things for their children and their wives or husbands. I was not very clear what to buy and for whom. Feeling somewhat purposeless and empty, I bought some clothes for myself and some gift articles for some friends.
After I returned from Italy, I completed the small stucco house that I had started building before going to Italy and began for the first time to live in my own house. I knew some of my close neighbors, and all were married with children, making me feel sort of out of place in the neighborhood. One of my neighbors had in fact been a student at Haile Selassie I University when I was there. It wasn’t long before we began to talk candidly with each other. We are around the same age. He had three children – a boy and two daughters. One day in the evening while I was watering the small trees I had planted outside the fence of my house, he came up and asked why I am watering them. I replied “to help them grow”. He said “Tesfa, we are mortal. You may not live long enough to see them fully grown. You need to have someone very close to you to own the plants and your house and the piece of land with you and share your life “ And he added, “Otherwise it is better to live anywhere in a small rented house”. Furthermore, with many of my friends getting married I felt more and more lonely. My growing unhappiness finally led me to decide to get married. My criteria for my future wife were simple. In addition to being a Christian, slim and at least as tall as I was, she had to be committed to marriage.
The younger brother of my old TMS friend is a distant relative of my wife Almaz. He told me about her family and her life and arranged for our meeting. And one day he came to my house with Almaz and introduced me to her. The three of us had lunch together and exchanged our telephone numbers and I walked them home. Then both of them visited my home until Almaz felt comfortable enough to come alone.
My wife Almaz was born in Addis Ababa very close to Tafari Makonnen School. Almaz’s father, who was an officer in the army during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, retired not very long after the Derg came to power. Her mother was a house wife. Almaz had completed her elementary and secondary education at Etege Mennen School (named after Emperor Haile Selassie’s Empress). Itege Mennen was the best known girls’ school in the country. The school, now named Yekatit 12 Secondary High School, is located very close to TMS and in front of the house where we used to live, Doug. She is an Orthodox Christian and a regular church goer.
I regularly gave her calls and met her at my home and out in coffee houses and restaurants. We talked about different things including the village and the people we knew around TMS, those who were married and about their lives after marriage, and our school lives. After around six months of getting to know each other, I felt pretty certain that Almaz was the right woman for me. In addition to her family background, I loved the way she carried herself, her self- confidence, and her beautiful long black hair.
One fine day, when we were about to say goodbye to each other, I said “Almaz, now we know each other so well, we need to talk”. And she looked serious and smiled and said, “Talk about what?” I immediately read her positive feeling inside and replied, “About marriage,” adding “Think about it and say something tomorrow. Ok?” That night I felt I had really accomplished something and was very excited.
The next afternoon she came to my house and after lunch and some soft drinks, I raised the marriage issue again. Talking quietly for a while, we looked at each other with love and agreed on our marriage. Then we felt lots of anxiety about what to do next. According to tradition, I sent three elderly people to her parents to request their daughter, Almaz, for marriage. Her parents accepted my elderly representatives, listened to them, asked them about my work, education, habits and the like and finally told them that they would consider the request and give them the reply after a week. This is the tradition.
My elderly representatives went to her parents’ house a week later and were warmly received and told that the request was accepted. This was soon followed by a small feast prepared for the occasion. This was the first important step on the way to our marriage. The marriage ceremony included two phases. The first was the church ceremony held in Miskaye Hizinan Medhane Alem Church (very close to TMS) on December 5, 1990. Twenty-six days later, on January 1, 1991, another ceremony was held at the Addis Ababa Municipality. The municipal marriage was followed by joyful celebrations, first at her parents’ house and then at our home, with lots of eating, drinking, singing and dancing.
The first two or three years of our marriage were particularly challenging. I was smoking and spending lots of time after work drinking beer with friends. Almaz repeatedly told me to quit smoking even before marriage. I promised but found it difficult to do. I was smoking in hiding from her parents. In our tradition, as you know, you don’t only shake hands with a friend or close relative but also kiss each others’ cheeks to show true affection. I avoided meeting some of Almaz’s close relatives because they would smell smoke on my breath when I kissed their cheeks and would know I was smoking. I felt the pressure and I tried to seriously quit smoking two times – one month the first time and over three months the second. I asked myself “What is wrong with me?” and thought hard what to do. I knew that in both cases I started smoking again while I was drinking beer and chatting with my friends in a bar. The third time I quit not only smoking but also drinking beer and meeting friends in bars. The first few months were terrible. I got easily irritated and was often negative to Almaz and my office colleagues. I was restless and aggressive. I was going to bed early but could not sleep. But this time I succeeded – a huge change in my life that I know resulted from my marriage. Now I was financially better off, spent more time with my family, and was able to be with Almaz’s relatives without worrying.
Our daughter, Bersabel, was born on 2 June 1991 and our son, Natnael was born on 26 February 1993. Celebrating the birthdays of our children were special occasions for both of us and relatives and friends. Birthday gifts like new clothes and shoes sent by Almaz’s relatives in the US were longed for and highly appreciated. In the midst of all of this happiness, I sometimes remember my dark days under the Derg, when I would talk with close friends about our dream of being married some day – a dream we didn’t think would come true.
One thing I did to the best of my ability was to help my children avoid suffering from the problems I had when I was a child, that is, being unable to speak up, lacking the confidence to have and express their own views, being afraid of making mistakes. I encouraged them to speak freely and loudly and never to worry about making mistakes, but instead to learn from them.
You know, I don’t know how to swim, and there were times over the years when I was embarrassed at having to stand by the side of the swimming pool or on the beach, watching swimmers enjoy themselves. So I was firmly committed to making sure my children learned valuable skills when they are very young. For example, I helped them learn tae kwon do (they both are red belt holders). Both learned to swim at the Ghion Hotel pool, and to play musical instruments: Bersabel the guitar and Natnael traditional and religious string instruments – the Begena (David’s Harp) and Kirar, another traditional musical instrument. They are now socially active and doing very well. I feel I have greatly contributed to that and I am proud of it.
One of the things I will never forget is something that Bersabel did when she was a baby. We were teaching her to use the potty, and we repeatedly said “potty,” “potty,” “potty” to her and helped her to sit down on, and get up from, the potty. One Sunday when I got home from visiting a neighbor, I found Bersabel sitting in the middle of our living room. As soon as she saw me she smiled and for the first time uttered the words “potty”. I was very happy and said “bravo, my daughter.” Then she stretched her two hands to me to help her get up from the potty. That’s when I saw that she was sitting on my lunch box! This is something I always enjoy talking about and will never forget.
The second time I went to Italy I had, unlike my previous visit, a clear purpose for my shopping trips: buying gifts for my wife and children. And when I later visited the US, I was again thinking about what to buy for my wife and children and how to save money to build extra rooms for our house. My wife and children made my trips purposeful and lovely.
It is now 22 years and 4 months since we got married. Bersabel, our daughter, now lives in Boston, USA. She is a second year student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Natnael, our son, is a second year engineering student at Gonder University. We now live a happy and peaceful life looking forward to seeing our children complete their education, start work and stand on their own feet.
©Douglas C. Eadie All Rights Reserved