Last month, I made what would become a life-altering journey to Ethiopia with my partner, his family and a group of friends to inaugurate the school we’d built in his late mother’s honour. At the outset, all I knew about the country – beyond its delectable cuisine – was what I’d learned as a child in the 80s. Charity singles Do They Know It’s Christmas?, Tears Are Not Enough and We Are the World brought worldwide attention to the famine in Ethiopia. Images of wide-eyed, listless children with parchment paper skin stretched over protruding bones and distended bellies are still imprinted indelibly on the darker corners of my mind.
I was in Grade 5 when a group of bullying ‘Mean Girls’ in my class bestowed on me the nickname Ethiopia Eyes. I have large, dark brown eyes that dominate an otherwise tiny-featured face. It was even more pronounced in my youth. I deeply resented that small connection with a group of highly marginalized children, even as my heart hurt for them. I didn’t want to be marginalized. I wanted to fit in.
That memory, largely buried with the passage of time, resurfaced for me as I explored Ethiopia. Turns out, while the intent was mean-spirited, the nickname itself was apt. I saw my own eyes – the shape, the deep, burnt coffee colour – on more than one face as we journeyed across the country. As an introvert, I reserve direct eye contact for the most intimate of moments with people I trust. Rarely do I truly look into the eyes of a stranger. Yet I found myself doing just that with alarming regularity in Ethiopia.
I no longer resented my small connection to the people of Ethiopia; I embraced it. Ethiopian eyes tell countless, timeless stories of the human spirit. You fall into the rich, dark warmth of them, and feel the pull of something older than time. Ethiopia is often called the cradle of civilization, and when you look into the eyes of its people, you understand why.
One set of eyes in particular stands out for me. We were exploring a small village in Omo National Park that is home to the Mursi – a tribe of agro pastoralists who live in huts and off the land their herds graze on. Spacers, lip plates and mud-painted bodies are signs of beauty among the Mursi – a beauty you can fully appreciate only if you manage to shed your North American sensibilities. I did.
Soon after we arrived, a small sprite of a girl with large wooden spacers in her ears and a face spotted leopard-like with mud claimed me as her own. The tribes of the Omo Valley charge 5 Ethiopian Birr (around 28¢) per photo that tourists take of them – having become wise to the fame and fortune photographers the world over have earned from them. My new friend, tiny hand clutched tightly around mine, dragged me around the village and asked the rest of our group to snap our photo. She pointed to her chest and mine, saying “five, and five.”
Her face and her spirit enchanted me. I wasn’t feeling well that day, having been hit hard with a respiratory infection. The heat was making me dizzy and nauseous, and I sat down in the dirt to regain my equilibrium. She sat too, hand in mine, soulful eyes searching my sweat-beaded face.
The entire village was driven into frenzy when Chance started making balloon animal hats. The little girl’s eyes lit up. I could see how badly she wanted one, but I couldn’t drag myself to standing. I pointed at Chance and tried to wave her over to him. She stayed by my side. The kid eschewed the novelty and excitement of a balloon to offer me comfort and companionship, however fleeting. My heart squeezed inside my cough-battered chest.
I’ll never forget that face, those eyes, that moment, the human connection. My Ethiopia Eyes are smiling.
Stay tuned for the next instalment in my Eyes on Ethiopia blog post series: Addis Ababa.