With one hand his bare fingertips grip the tire and stick game caked in mud with sweet fragility, as if the silky slop from this morning’s rain will dirty the raggedy red and blue sweatshirt he pulls overtop a red t-shirt (inside out and backwards), or ruin his grey sweatpants and purple crocs (on the wrong feet), all of which are, too, caked in mud of course. With the other, his small fingers, different shades of black from the now-dried-and-cracking filth, grasp mine.
He strides with a smile in his step; the happiest boy I have ever seen, and immediately I am in love.
His name is Llessa, and he stays by my side even after his friends have long come and gone, satisfied by all of the customary high-fives and hellos they’ve collected from us as we pass through the town. We exchange no words; he knows no English, and I no Amharic, the most prevalent language in our small village in Ambo, Ethiopia. Instead, we exchange sweet smiles, his soft-resting happiness growing into a gleaming, yet comfortably humble, buck-toothed smile (straight, white teeth and all) every time I look his way.
As we walk through the village he calls out to his friends along the side of the road. He says nothing more, but out of the corner of my eye I spy a confident smile and slight head nod my way as his friends look our direction. Today, I imagine, he feels like the most popular boy in town.
We walk through the village for ten minutes before one of our friends runs into a familiar face, and when we stop to chat I expect the boy to scatter off back to his daily life like many of the other children we see. Instead, he stands quietly by my side waiting for us to finish, occasionally letting go of my hand only to show me how his handcrafted game works. Each time he is hesitant to let go, quick to grab ahold again.
He plays effortlessly, glancing back in my direction for approval and praise with each twist and turn, but eventually places the slippery ring in my hand. Your turn, he says by raising his eyebrows. I try twice… and.. fail twice, of course. Athletics were never my thing, and I’m definitely no match for a village boy.
“How old are you?” I ask, crouching down to eye level after I admit defeat.
Completely lost, I look to my sister for guidance before I’m hit with a sudden blast of camp counselor brilliance. I point to my fingers. “Show me.”
He focuses intently on his little hands, holding them close to his face and recounting twice just to make sure he’s right before he holds up nine fingers. Nine years old.
Soon enough we are off again, and there he is, smiling right beside me, hand in hand. A few minutes later we stop off at a small shop on the side of the road, and for the first time since my arrival to Ambo, my heart drops. He cannot come to the window with us, and we cannot buy him any goodies or even a simple snack. I know this. We were warned upon our arrival that to do so would draw a crowd and could put all of us, Llessa included, in a potentially dangerous situation. But I think of my niece, who I’d spoil beyond any means in these situations, and I so desperately want to do the same for my new friend.
“Ciao,” I say, wishing he could stay, but hoping that he will leave and escape the false hope of free food. I don’t want to have to disappoint him.
He waits by the sidewalk until I am finished and then grasps my hand again, in the same calm and innocent fashion. No words.
We walk again, now with an additional posse of four new boys who spotted us outside the shop. They long for our bags of goods and the attention I blatantly give to my adopted sidekick. “Dollar, dollar,” they say, pointing the beige travel wallet around my waist. “Food, food.”
My friend never begs or asks, but instead tries to give me a silent tour of his city — over there, he points to the public swimming pool. There, a street vendor selling an authentic Ethiopian snack. And over there, a sick man on the ground, begging for money. Our tour is conducted through points and gestures, followed again by his sweet smile. He is proud of his beautiful city, and he wants me to feel that way, too.
We walk far, but he doesn’t care. More than twenty minutes away from his home, our new followers become jealous and pull him away from me, entrapping him in a bear hug so he will have to watch me walk away. He is screaming, and my heart drops again for my new friend. I stop for a split-second, desperate to help, before a friend reminds me that we can’t get involved. We don’t know their relationship. We have no authority here. I try to drown out his screaming.
But a second later he is by my side again, having escaped the trap of the other boys who are long gone now. We’re no longer holding hands, but he remains glued to my hip, smile and all. At times I think I lose him, that he has just decided to stop or that we’ve been separated by the mass of people we attempt to weave through — we are far away now, and I didn’t expect him to keep up forever. But just as quickly as he is gone, he is at my side again. Sometimes he runs too far ahead, but I watch as he searches for me again, his smile reemerging as he realizes I’ve just fallen behind. He slows down subtly and waits for me to catch up, his pace realigning with mine as I reach his side.
Thirty minutes into our trip we reach the hotel for dinner, and he realizes that this is our final destination. With no one else around, we decide to give him a few of the shortbread cookies we bought from the shop earlier. A special treat for my special friend. We hand him three broken crackers, and his face brightens up with even more joy than we could have ever anticipated. Who could have known that this happy boy could be happier?
Maybe this is why we became instant friends, I think quietly to myself — maybe our spirits and souls share the same divine purpose: finding happiness in all we can.
In a matter of a half an hour with maybe 10 words exchanged, he has become one of my most cherished friends, and I wonder if he will remember this day like I will.
I am hesitant walking into the hotel. Hesitant to part with my friend and to leave him alone. We say our goodbyes and now he knows we will be gone.
I stop once to wipe my shoes at the mat outside the hotel and look back, just to check on him. Crackers in hand, he waves. I smile. Again, up the steps, I stop and turn to make sure he’s not waiting for me. He’s taken a few steps toward the road, but he too is waiting for another goodbye. I wave. He smiles. I walk through the door, but peek my head out one last time, and a little further down the street, still he looks for me again — he waves. I smile.
And I have missed him every day since.