I’m in awe as we pull out of Addis Ababa airport on our way to the ministry where we’ll stay for the first two nights in Ethiopia. A city set upon the mountains: the skyline echoing against shadows and shades of green and blue, and it is absolutely breathtaking. The dirt roads twist and wind through multi-colored aluminum shacks, most of which are covered with stripped paint that desperately need another coat, but whose bright colors still manage to reflect the spirit of the people flooding the street: happy.
It’s a different kind of beautiful.
We pass fruit stands on every corner with perfectly stacked mountains of orange and green fruits, more bundles of bananas than you would ever need. Goats and donkeys and chickens mixed in with the floods of people navigating their way through town. Soccer games with worn down soccer balls and ripped nets in empty lots that attract massive crowds of spectators. Children who smile big at us through the windows and who chase our car down several blocks, catching up to us just to show us they can. Run down shacks alongside grandeur chapels and temples of baby blue and marble. And everything fits. This is Addis.
We pull into the seminary and the clapping and music that poured through the streets follows me into my room, their songs echoing through my window and sweetly interrupting the quiet. I do not mind. Everyone is filled with so much life here.
I ask about the singing at dinner — why so much spirit? Is there some sort of festival or celebration going on in town? I can hear the singing from my room, I say.
We are told that we are in one of the poorest regions of Addis, and that the music helps keep the town and its people alive. They sing and dance to escape their worries and troubles and to create a life of happiness for themselves. This isn’t an isolated incident — this is their every day. Here, they have nothing, yet they make everything.
“We are represented poorly by the news,” the priest tells me. “But that is not how it always is. We are more than that.”
“You! You! You!” the children call out to us as we stroll down the dirt roads on our first day in Ambo. We are told they are showing off their english to us ferenji, foreigners. Their faces brighten with the biggest of smiles as we wave — Salem, hello — and they break into a thunder of giggles every time we tease them back; “Me, ferenji? No… you ferenji! You, you! Ferenji, ferenji!” we call out in a playfully mimicking manner.
We are celebrities here. The kids shake and kiss our hands, crowd in for pictures the second a phone or camera is produced, and tug at my mystifying red hair when they think I’m not looking. Their parents smile from the sidelines at their children’s amusement, to our easy entertainment — Salem, we wave.
I am taught a new “fist bump” I am sure to never forget, and of course I try it out with each of the 30 kids now surrounding me, their ferenji. fist-bump, fist to the chest, peace sign around the head. Thirty times. The first boy does it the best.
Their hands are gritty and covered with dirt, their clothes torn and their feet bare, but they are beautiful. For those few minutes, as I am entirely surrounded by gleaming smiles and chitter chatter of “You! You! You!” mixed within the infectious laughter, I forget any signs of the desolation around me. I don’t know if I’ve ever smiled so much my entire life. “Ciao! Ciao,” I say when it’s time to go, not wanting to leave. I decide instantly that we have to go back to the market later this week.
And again, I am struck with awe. The Saturday market is crowded. Formal shacks and shops are set up on each side of the road, but the further you get, the more rugged it gets. And the more beautiful it gets. Sacks of straw, seeds, fruits and veggies lay on the ground in no particular order next to livestock for sale, manned by children and their mothers. Men walk down the street holding hands nonchalantly, in a pure expression of friendship. Mini arcades are set up outside of some shops and consist of just one foosball table, but still attract upwards to 10 boys on a Saturday afternoon. And everybody knows everybody. Father Asfaw tells us that in just a year of living in Ambo, he already knows over 5,000 people. That is their life: community.
However, there is nowhere I see this more evident than in the small graveyard community Willie and I visit on our last day in Ambo. The village, if you can call it that, is made up of a few houses built within the graveyard next to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Ambo. It represents the poorest of the poor; those deemed “too ill” — either physically or mentally — to live within society. I don’t see that.
Instead, as we approach, I am granted a sneak peek into the quiet moments of a thriving community. I saw laughter and chit-chat and soft smiles — fleeting feel-good moments. Neighbors stopped mid-chores to share a story, some conversation. I ask to take some photos, and as I walk around the yard the rest of the community looks on adoringly, proud of whoever is in my spotlight. I approach a woman doing laundry, and instantly she gestures for her daughters to come to her side as if to say, these are my girls — aren’t they so beautiful? I picture my mom doing the same thing. Her daughters respond by embracing her so quickly, so genuinely, as if to say, this is our mom — isn’t she beautiful? I would say the same thing. Another woman’s smiles with content, humble pride in herself and her community despite their poverty. But what I love most about that picture is the background — the sweet and pure smiles from those in the distance that ask, with this community, what more do you need?
For me, this is happy.
For me, this is beautiful.