mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Sport 43: 2015

Sarah Jane Barnett — Addis Ababa

page 119

Sarah Jane Barnett

Addis Ababa


When I wake up I think of my street. It is Sunday today, the day Aamina and I would walk down to the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It is January so the akafa rains will have come, the high winds that ripple the cables of construction cranes and the open palms of the trees. Their branching florescent seeds are plucked to the ground. Walking across Revolution Square the hills are mist in the distance. Street lights hang like glass fruit. The puzzle of this place is the people. A group of boys argue in the dusty street. A man yells, bright yellow crates on his shoulder. A woman hangs out a window to shake out her voice. Her Amharic tongue is rich and brisk. Around us, people move through the boroughs as though visiting the houses of their children—Arada, Bole, Yeka. They greet us and each other as they stream towards worship. This is how it used to be. I can see Aamina in our bedroom. Yes, she would be adjusting her white shash headscarf, rolling the fabric under her chin. I can’t get it right, she would say to the space where I used to stand. She would kiss my mother goodbye three times on the cheek. She would slip on her shoes and walk down to meet her brothers and my sisters. After church, Aamina would often want to bus up the Entoto Mountains. We would walk between St. Mary’s and St. Raguel, its white walls a modesty. She would point out across our home to the farmlands and the eroded trails. I can see them now. It was from here that the city, my yälb lb, was first conceived, when looking down.

page 120


Sunlight dislocates, and the red
erythrina flowers swell like a woman.
My wife’s face—the sighing hook of her nose
and andäbät mouth, the downy black hair
at her temple. She bends to sweep
the front step
in this memory
her uneven skin and teeth
take on a smoothness. I can hear the broom’s swish,
taste the heavy metallic midday heat.
This I did not leave behind: In a moment, qom alä
a woman’s neck
can be broken
under a twist of concrete. Her face thrown,
her kemis ridden up in the sunlight, in the fraca terror of morning.


It is cold in Wellington. I wait in the immigration office.
Every season of this year a winter, the sun a pale scar.

A woman walks towards me across the bouncy
carpet, between the pillars of native wood. ‘Kia ora,’

she says, tadiyas, and offers her hand. At her desk we look
over the forms, these rumpled old friends. She raises

her blonde head, smoothing her hair. ‘There,’ she says,
and ‘There.’ She points to questions she has highlighted

in bold yellow. ‘You need to answer these too.’ She smiles,
her hand rests lightly. ‘Shall I read them out?’ she asks, as if

page 121

lightness is a face she often wears. I say, ‘I have good English,
I’m a translator,’ but she reads to me, pointing and smiling.

She makes sure I understand. New Zealand welcomes people
who will contribute to our country. We believe migrants help us

develop and strengthen our relationships with other parts of the world.
We can impose requirements. If you don’t meet those requirements

you may become liable for deportation. You and any family applying
must be of good character, whatever the category.

‘I am without family,’ I say. ‘No brothers or sisters?’ she asks
and scans the form for evidence. ‘They are happy in Ethiopia,’ I say.

‘And why do you want to move to New Zealand?’ she asks
as her bər pen taps at the table. First, smoke

carrying across the city, a bridge to visible light,
down into sewers. Then there were flames, my broken

voice, and other thin voices in the distance. I searched.
On the street I begged a man. I put my hands on his throat

to seal his wound with my skin. Soldiers ripped
their uniforms from their bodies. How easily identity

can be discarded. Then it was dusk again.
‘I’ve been offered a job at the university,’ I say.

page 122


He wants to communicate the meaning of the source-language.
   He gently smoothes the original text.
      He moves through the shape of the words,
which, strictly speaking, are his shape.
   The concept of metaphrase is imperfect, he knows this.
      A translation is often not word-for-
      style, concordance, word order
         and context—they all matter. They are crucial
values in seeking equivalents.

Here, the ground has a different name. The sky is quartz blue.
   Yes, he thinks, this is literally a re-languaging.

He carries his words
   in books and on his tongue. Bilingual,
      the translator’s key, target language,
         paraphrase: these are all words
imitating words in his language.
   What is beautiful in one language can be nonsense in another,
      or it may still
         be beautiful, amarä, qonjo.
That is the translator’s job—
to find the right word
         to remember beauty.
   He has many words
         for death—mot, hlfät hywät, hlfät, amwamwa,
but only one for near death, bämot afaf.

page 123


It is Sunday again. I walk up from central city
to meet the agent at the rental house, the address and map
printed neatly on an envelope. I follow a curving road
through the brick university and suburbs,

and then over a stony viaduct. I take a turn—ay, no— then turn
back, the sky rolling above my head
until the city falls behind me: the disrupted sea,
the one room of which I know the edges. I push

down the streets and the anger bgnät in my chest,
the blood fierce and elastic. When I find the house
it is behind a concrete wall and up a narrow set of steps.
The house is large, almost comically so, and a sadness

rises in my throat. ‘The climate’s no good for lavender.’
A woman stands in the doorway. She sweeps one hand
towards purple flowers. ‘It’s the clay, too damp,’ she says.
She wears a burgundy linen suit and thick heels.

‘Glenda,’ she says as we shake. Her hands are warm yämoqä
and plump; she’s the first person I’ve touched this week.
‘Kaleb,’ I say. I am surprised; I am pleased to meet her.
Her face is kind and she looks me in the eye.

‘We don’t see many black Africans in Wellington,’ she says;
a translation of my face. I nod, her own paleness
like clarified butter. ‘It’s good,’ she says, ‘it’s good to meet new people.’
Glenda shows me the rooms—bay windows,

yellow walls—laying one hand on each doorframe
as though in introduction. I stand stiffly,
my anxiety held away like a piece of bad fruit.
With a flourish she ends her tour in the kitchen.

page 124

‘Sorry, the place is a bit pokey,’ she says.
I smile. ‘It’s very suitable, thank you,’ I say.
‘We can always look for somewhere bigger—
maybe with an ensuite?’ she says, and begins to rifle

through her spiral-bound notes. ‘I’ve never lived
with a flush toilet.’ Her brow creases, asäläfä. ‘This place,
it is affordable and close to my work,’ I say. I don’t say, Aamina.
I don’t tell her that at home the electricity comes in surges;

that during a cut people gather outside to smoke and gossip,
to watch the hazy dusk tumble over the skyline sämay,
a sight as familiar as the whorls on my head. Glenda seems to
relax; again we are two people, talking quietly in a house.

page 125


Day One

We cry loudly. We close our hands around air and strike our chests. Friends and relatives arrive, and they kneel beside us, also closing their hands. Food is placed on the table. Cups are washed, and as air fills our mouths the cries break against the windows. Under the sky, the casket floats to the earth. We bury her body in the church compound, and the priest speaks, his mouth moving slowly as though calling to someone in the distance.

Day Two

My mother shaves my head. Dust hangs over the city, a cloud of soil fragments, of volcanoes and human hair, of meteorites—that’s what we tell the children. Sometimes the dust turns orange and I can see my city burning away.

Day Three

Family and friends once again visit the house. Again they bring food. Today their hands are open and we place our open hands in theirs. After they leave quietness chokes the house. It floats in the windows and through the dark and humid rooms. It engulfs the specks of human skin coating the floor. It soaks through the wood like sweat stains on my shirt.

Days Forty, Eighty, and One Hundred and Eighty

On each of these days we gather at the church, and each day my friends grow brighter. Some no longer wear black. My mother rests her hands on her knees. I say a few words and then we sit in the church hall and eat injera and stew. Each day the priest cuts up the leftover bread and hands it to beggars by the wooden gates. Each day I am the last to leave. I carry my body carefully, as though it’s a twisted foil figurine. My ears whine. At the National Archives, I make my way to the basement and to my bench where a Ge’ez text is unrolled on tissue. Four weights rest on its 126 I start to translate. The black script falls blankly on my mind, the consonantal letters creasing into the diacritics, the inherent vowels collapsing into beetles and spiders. In the florescent light my hands bulge, as though grief is a swelling disease. Back outside the city buckles; every street corner and shop, every market and town square, their very colour and shape dissolves. This is not the city of my childhood. This is no longer the city of that tentative young man. This city is Aamina.

Day Three Hundred and Sixty Five

We hold a memorial service. As I weep my stomach reshapes my body. My sister takes me from the church and through the tin streets. She says, ‘Brother, brother,’ as she hauls my body to the bed. My passive head spills onto cotton. My hair has grown back.

The Seventh Year

At the seventh anniversary of the death, a feast is held at the house. My brother-in-law kills a goat and someone has brought homemade ale. We have a ceremony like the others, but there are more people. The maximum for mourning has been reached. I talk quietly. I make my way through the press of bodies to find my mother, and she holds my face in her shaking and crinkled palms. She nods, the slight movement of a boat at sea. I take a flight to New Zealand.

page 127


I move into the house and start work,
the days scratching by in halting conversations,
in my neighbour’s dog barking
at daybreak. Over the weeks my routines

become solid lines—a pencil traced over a map,
my footfalls a graphite shape. My tongue
learns manner and utterance, the syllables
of Raroa Road, Moana Road; The Rigi.

I wave to the man in the antiques store, I learn
to put sugar in my tea, to not greet every stranger.
I learn the night sweeps over the hills like rain.
I join an African choir, The Voice

of Wellington’s African Communities. As I open
the hall door a few people look up. Some wear
traditional embroidered shirts, others business
jackets and jeans. After a moment the talking begins,

and their voices roll in the rafters. One man walks to me—
on his sleeve a green, yellow, and red flag; a star with sun
rays at its centre. He clasps my shoulder. ‘Negasi,’ he says.
‘Brother,’ I say, ‘brother.’


We sit on Negasi’s doorstep, his hands moving food from plate to mouth. He is younger than me, resilient. He arrived in New Zealand as a child. He is my first friend. ‘Let’s relax, man,’ he says as he puts on some music. Soulful keyboards spill from the bedroom window and Negasi starts to sway, his arms braced. My body is harnessed in the afternoon sun, my feet drum the warm step.

page 128


The papers from the Fildes Collection are in an acid free folder. I place one on the work bench, the Amharic letter forms ancient and rooted, voiceless and voiced. Another language rises like breath into my chest. I begin to translate.


It is my turn to buy the biscuits. In the aisle
of the New World I examine the packets:
chocolate domes of marshmallow, swirled shortbread
with a cream filling, hard ginger rounds.

Last week a woman brought bright pink buns
filled with sweet cream. People had clapped.
An old man is touching the tea, his hand
lifts one box and then another, holding each

like a cubed puzzle. I see his arm tremble.
‘Go home,’ he says, his head still down.
I look over my shoulder. Me? Hot needles prick
into my face, my throat thick and salty.

The man turns to face me. ‘Go back home,’
he says, ‘we don’t need you here.’ His eyes
are liquid and raw. Sun spots blotch his cheeks.
For a moment, I look back. ‘Isn’t this home?’ I say.

page 129


He knows he will lose his language. A translator who habitually speaks both languages cannot see the world as a monolingualist does. Each object has a layer of words: a horse, a färäs; a house, a mäkan. His habit of use decides which comes first, the change most noticeable in everyday speech. He can feel new words in his mouth, others dropping away. They are tied to ground he no longer walks. He watches his thoughts for interference, when the second language disrupts the first. Proper nouns are the most in danger. He will forget the names of certain birds and the word for his local drink. He will forget the green strip where those birds once roosted. He has already forgotten the tawny flash of their wings. When asked for these words he will search for a moment. What was—where is? A drawing someone has rubbed away.

page 130


I tell Glenda about the supermarket. We are sitting
in my lounge. It is Sunday so she’s wearing her velvet
tracksuit. She has become my friend. ‘You get that,’
she says, ‘people always find something to hate.’

Last week her son moved away so she’s
brought me what he left: a soft towel,
a box of CDs, a bedspread depicting a tiger.
She talks about that morning and emptying his room,

the carpet pockmarked from the weight
of the furniture. ‘Wait until you have kids,’ she says,
sighing back into the folds of the couch. ‘It takes time
for these things to get out of your bones.’


Late summer, the road curves and evening
traffic inches beside me. It is almost warm.
Over the ground the weeks layer like transparencies:
Glenda, Negasi, my broken front step. They are the shape
and syntax of this place. My mother:
Just because you have two legs, you can’t climb two trees,
she used to say. I haven’t yet thought of her today, or Aamina.
When I remember Addis Ababa the pavements are black,
the largest buildings, black. The sky a deep charcoal. They have many
phrases for the sky: sämay, leT’a sämay, hbrä sämay,
but my favourite was always goh: the reddish sky just before sunrise.
I would often see that sky after waking early. Goh, I would sound
out in my head, as though a word could trap that moment in time,
the brilliant fire arcing above the buildings. Then it was morning.

page 131


The poem ‘Addis Ababa’ is a work of fiction. The idea for the poem grew out of conversations with my friend Judah Seomeng, my own grief that Christchurch, the city of my childhood, no longer exists as it once did, and my interest in the African communities in New Zealand.

The Ethiopian Civil War began in 1974 when a coup d’état was staged by the Derg. It lasted until the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front overthrew the government in 1991. It is estimated that 1.4 million people died during the war, and many civilians died in the final conflicts. New Zealand statistics on Te Ara show that from 1993 to 2002, when this poem is set, 966 Ethiopian refugees arrived in New Zealand.

The details in the poem were sourced from a personal interview, news reports of the Ethiopian Civil War, traditional Ethiopian grieving practices, and first-person reports from African immigrants to New Zealand. Various details were also gleaned from street maps, my own experience of working with archives, New Zealand immigration forms, and images of the exquisite Addis Ababa on Google Earth. The translations of English into Amharic came from As with all of my poems, I have worked hard to be as faithful to the facts while also allowing room for the poem.

Addis Ababa is the capital city of Ethiopia and means ‘new flower’ in Amharic.