Third place MabratYellem

Timeless Travels Magazine - - BRADT TRAVEL WRITING COMPETITION - by Joanna Grif­fin

Yellem’. ‘There isn’t’. I’d learned the word as quickly as the Ethiopian greet­ings. In a more buoy­ant mood I’d speak it with ac­cep­tance, but it would take on a bit­ter tone when the small pri­va­tions of life be­came too much. Aban­don­ing at­tempts at con­ju­ga­tion, I’d weave loosely it into con­ver­sa­tions with my friends. In our lazy hy­brid of English, Amharic and Ital­ian left from the brief oc­cu­pa­tion, it had come sim­ply to sig­nify ‘ab­sent’.

Any­thing could be yellem; rain in the dry sea­son, sun dur­ing the rains, milk or meat dur­ing the long fast­ing pe­ri­ods. But mostly it was mabrat, the ‘light’, the elec­tric­ity. At first, as the dry sea­son had lin­gered, turn­ing the high­lands to dust, there had been no warn­ing. Light­bulbs had sud­denly flick­ered and died and fans had stopped whirring. Peo­ple would mut­ter ‘mabrat yellem’ be­fore re­turn­ing to their tasks; lit­tle of any im­por­tance de­pended on a power sup­ply. It would re­turn even­tu­ally, and I’d fre­quently wake in the night to a glow­ing light­bulb above the bed.

For the past few months we’d been on a gov­ern­ment ‘sched­ule’: a one-day-on, one-day-off ap­proach to the elec­tric­ity sup­ply, which al­ter­nated be­tween the two sides of Gon­dar town. There was a cer­tain ac­cep­tance in sim­ply know­ing when we would and wouldn’t have power.

But tonight the lights had gone out at dusk and the in­jus­tice of it had stung: it wasn’t our turn. My house­mate, Reiza, and I had stum­bled up the track to the kiosk on the cor­ner. Yassin, the owner, was a man of very few words in­deed. I liked him for this, and for his un­com­pli­cated ac­cep­tance of us, the for­eign­ers in his neigh­bour­hood. Our in­ter­ac­tions were sim­ple: I would ask for an egg or a cone of tea wrapped in a page of a dis­carded school­book and he would hand it over with a grunt. No niceties were nec­es­sary: ‘on­colol’ or ‘shay’ was enough. There was a word for ‘please’ but no-one ever used it.

His kiosk was be­hind a hole in the stone wall, shel­tered by a yel­low tar­pau­lin and usu­ally lit by a sin­gle bulb. Above the hatch was an Amharic word in the Fidel script, a se­ries of loops and squig­gles I wasn’t able to read. I sup­posed it might have been ‘su­per­mar­ket’, a mis­nomer that graced many a small neigh­bour­hood shop.

Tonight Yassin was stand­ing in the re­mains of the day, com­muning with the neigh­bours and watch­ing the chil­dren play. See­ing us ap­proach, he vaulted through the hatch into the black­ness of his shop, catch­ing the hang­ing pens and pack­ets of soap with his heels. ‘Uh?’ He turned to greet us with a barely per­cep­ti­ble raise of his eye­brows, the in­ter­na­tional ex­pres­sion for ‘what can I get you?’ Reiza and I turned to look at each other. We must have known the word for ‘can­dle’ in this world where dark­ness was ab­so­lute, but it seemed that our mem­o­ries had failed us. ‘Mabrat yellem’, I tried. ‘Yellem’, Yassin agreed, shak­ing his head. He in­haled as he spoke, in that pe­cu­liar man­ner used by Ethiopi­ans when com­mu­ni­cat­ing re­gret, as though suck­ing the word back in and swal­low­ing it would some­how mean that it wasn’t true. He’d en­tirely missed my point. Clutch­ing an imag­i­nary match­box in one hand, I struck it with the other, and held it against an in­vis­i­ble wick. He stared for a mo­ment be­fore thrust­ing a small packet of cheap bis­cuits across the hatch. I shook my head and struck the match­box again, harder this time with a flour­ish and a ‘zh­hhh’. He looked at me with­out com­pre­hen­sion, prof­fer­ing some tis­sues as the light faded fur­ther.

Be­side me, Reiza sprang into ac­tion and leapt into the air, swing­ing her arms in wide cir­cles. This was ‘light’, ap­par­ently. She jumped and I struck, but we couldn’t make our­selves un­der­stood.

The spec­ta­cle of two ges­tic­u­lat­ing for­eign­ers be­gan to draw a crowd. Chil­dren aban­doned their games and gath­ered round, gig­gling and shout­ing ob­jects at Yassin as though it were a guess­ing game. Teenagers slouched against the wall in ca­sual ob­ser­va­tion, and women re­turn­ing from church in their white robes chuck­led as they passed.

A youth sham­bled by and es­tab­lished what it was that we wanted, and a gasp of re­al­i­sa­tion went through the by­standers as he com­mu­ni­cated it to Yassin.

Of course. ‘Sham-a’. Al­most the same as the word for ‘shoe’.

So, we had light but it might be many hours be­fore the elec­tric­ity re­turned, and the thought of light­ing a kerosene stove to cook dinner was sud­denly a lit­tle too much. I turned back to Yassin.

‘Bis­coot’, I pointed to the bis­cuits with the too-pink fill­ing, still ly­ing on the counter. ‘And beer’, I added as an af­ter­thought. This time he un­der­stood. Some things are uni­ver­sal.

Our in­ter­ac­tions were sim­ple: I would ask for an egg or a cone of tea wrapped in a page of a dis­carded school­book and he would hand it over with a grunt. No niceties were nec­es­sary: ‘on­colol’ or ‘shay’ was enough

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