The black metal gate to my office compound is slightly ajar. I can just make out the company vehicle, affectionately nicknamed shmagalie, old man in Amharic, parked outside on the road. Shmagalie is an old gold Toyota Land Cruiser with peeling, faded hot pink decals—maybe once racing stripes?—down his sides.
Exiting the compound, I step over a piece of metal that stretches across the bottom of the gate. It’s always been there and I’ve always stepped over it absent-mindedly, as if it’s totally normal. Walking around Schmagalie I see rows of corn lining the property of the local primary school. The tall yellow flowers with black tips, called cirque abeba—forever flowers—fill the gutter alongside the road.
I turn left and head toward the main road. The street is still wet from the previous night’s rainstorm. I’m sure that the streets have names, but they have been lost, referred to instead by the nearest well-known landmark. There are a lot of people on the street, at least thirty that I can see.
Three women wearing the all-white local scarves wrapped around their heads turn off a newly cobblestoned intersecting road. Shortly behind them is a well-dressed older man with a clubfoot and a homemade wooden crutch attempting to step down onto the dirt road. There is a difference in height of at least one foot between the two roads.
As the man struggles down, we take a step up. It’s only been finished a few weeks and is wide, thirty feet at least, and still very clean. Beside me, two children are playing with limes. The girl looks about ten, in a brown skirt and black sweater, both monochromatic dusty. The boy is probably six or seven in a khaki-colored trouser and black sweater. They toss the limes as high as they can into the air, spin in circles and then attempt to catch it. Their toddler sister keeps getting in the way, wanting to participate. They push her away, letting out irritated sighs and yelling, “MITA! NO.” The toddler sits down and begins to cry. Their mother is not amused as she rushes out to pick up the screaming child.
On my left, a worker at Hanny Bar and Restaurant is painting their dulled metal gate a bright yellow, the symbol of a draft house serving St. George’s beer. Outlines of coffee cups and beer bottles are spread all over their brown outer walls. I step over a mango pit that has just been discarded, it isn’t covered in dirt yet. I hear the crunch of bicycle wheels on the road and turn to find two young boys on purple bikes. The one in front catches my eye and begins pumping his arms like a WWE wrestler. His blue jacket is too small for him, the sleeves only reach halfway down his arms.
Ahead is a twisted old ficus tree, its branches spread wide to reach across the entire road. Next to the tree is a well-constructed stone restaurant. Curiously enough, the lovely patio and bougainvillea covered portico is surrounded by a crossed barbed wire fence more reminiscent of a war zone than a fine restaurant. Even the plastic chairs on the patio are more intricately designed and well-kept than the average patio furniture.
We arrive at Hospital Road, a paved thoroughfare. The crosswalk paint is faded. We dodge the blue and white bajaj auto rickshaws, zooming down the road toward the government hospital. A TVS-branded bajaj stops on the road next to me. Inside I catch a glimpse of a woman in a turquoise skirt holding a black purse on her lap. Her face is covered in shadows.
Reggae music is blasting from a draft house ahead. There is a butcher at the front, painted white with a large red cross indicating that the meat is slaughtered according to Christian custom. Inside a small, skinned sheep is on display. The butcher lazily waves a horse-haired swatter across the carcass to keep the flies away.
Turning right onto another cobblestoned road, I see a line of blue and white men’s button down shirts drying on a line outside a shop. The shop is painted dark blue and fashioned out of metal, like half a shipping container, with a single display box full of mangos. I hear hooves on the cobblestone. A mule attached to a cart overloaded with 100 kilogram bags is struggling up a slight incline. His owner is pushing, attempting to help, but to no avail. As I walk past, I catch a scent of berbere, the national spice of Ethiopia. It burns my nose and eyes as I increase my pace to escape it.
The road bends left ahead and an old, red painted but rusting water tower rises above an unkempt patch of land, covered in a tangle of old acacia, ficus and sesbania trees and bushes of lantana. With a rapidly growing population and not enough land to go around, this piece of property must belong to the government to lie fallow for so long, at least twenty years based on the size of the acacia trees.
In the far left corner of the property is the Kebele 13 police station, confirming my idea about the land’s ownership. They are closed for the night. Above the gate there are bright yellow signs declaring the station’s mission and “vission,” an artifact of Ethiopia’s international aid heyday.
Ahead a group of boys is playing football in the road. Large stones signify the goals. The players are unconcerned with the passersby, moving fluidly around any one not involved in the game. The boys’ clothes are very dusty and they are wearing plastic sandals. As they kick the undersized ball made of cloth scraps, the ill-fitting shoes slip off their feet, but they seem unfazed.
I am finally at my road, one of the only unpaved ones left in the neighborhood. There is a freshly dug ditch and rock berm down the right side of the road. In the middle of the road four toddlers, completely unsupervised, are playing with a metal makina, a two-wheeled toy that children all over Ethiopia create with found materials. A boy in a bright green jacket and bold red knit hat is pushing the long metal “steering wheel” of the makina as the other kids chase him down the street.
My compound door is locked. I open it and see my landlord’s baby standing in the middle of the courtyard. He is naked, save a tiny wooden cross necklace. He watches me for a second before turning and toddling back into the house.