For some reason, when I meander through the sidestreets and dirt roads of my village, Debre Zeyit, in many ways, I feel more like I have traveled in time and have popped out somewhere in Medival Europe—or perhaps I should rephrase that to say it conjures up literary and Hollywood-created images of Medival Europe, considering that I’m not quite old enough to have any basis of comparison to the real thing.
Debre Zeyit has a few very large paved main streets, which resemble what I remember of Addis—bursting with all sorts of incredibly noisy traffic, and surrounded by a jumble of newly constructed three-story buildings and small shoddily-constructed market store-fronts.
But to me, the soul of the village lies outside these crowded streets. As soon as you veer off the main roads, you find yourself in a very different world. Instead of pavement, you enter a maze of streets, some covered in cobblestone, carefully constructed in concentric circles or other ornamental patterns, regularly swept and maintained by community members; but most streets are simply dirt paths, the source of a perpetual swirl of dust in the air, tickling the nostrils and covering all who pass in a faint beige haze. The streets are surrounded by living compounds, primarily constructed of mud and straw, some of stone and cement, and some entirely out of view, concealed by ornate, brightly colored steel gates adorned with pointy decorative arrows, or swirly filigree. Art appears to be an important aspect of the local culture here, because even the “simpler” dwellings, walls, ditches, and other structures have hexagonal or faux-rock patterns etched into them, and as you explore, you feel surrounded by sublime beauty. From the compounds, grow rich hanging ivy, flowering plants, and towering green trees, which draw your eyes upwards and into the surrounding, mostly uninhabited and undeveloped green mountains, encircling the village like a fortress. The tops of some of the lower hills are adorned with single structures, like jewels on a crown: huge, brightly colored, yet stoic churches, which have a strange sort of middle-Eastern or Mediterranean appearance, and several rather treacherous-looking roads pointing up to them, creating an obvious focal point for the village. As your eyes continue upward, your attention will almost immediately be caught by the vast wingspan of pair of giant, dark, ominous falcon-like birds gliding through the sky above, making it their own, as they survey the land below, almost like mystical protectors of the village.
Of course, if you get too distracted in the lofty view, you’ll quickly be brought back down, as a horse-drawn cart clamors by, nearly running you over as though you were invisible (which you almost certainly will be for a bit, until the dust kicked up by the horse settles). Although most of the other pedestrians are wearing modern clothes, there are still many women who wear traditional white, flowing dresses adorned with bright embroidery and scarves around the head and neck, adding to the feeling of being in another time. Streets buzz with activity, lined with merchants with bins of vegetables for sale and the occasional makeshift home-based storefront, people burning trash, shepherds wearily slumped against a shady tree, watching a small herd of goats, sheep or cattle (it is rare to see animals without their caregiver here, and I must say that the vast majority of animals here are treated incredibly well, even by Western standards), all the while traditional music floats out of the compounds, and calls to prayer drone from the nearby churches.
If you stray far enough to reach the fields, you will see a sea of yellow grassy barley and teff, and farmers out tending or harvesting the crops by hand. It is harvesting time now, so the fields are full of men wielding large knives slashing through their crops, as the falcons (I’m calling them falcons; I have no idea what they are) gaze down from soaring above. The finished fields are cleanly cut and evenly dotted with bundles of grain and large circular haystacks, which look almost exactly like the Monet paintings of the haystack (I am not an art buff by any means, so I don’t recall what the series of paintings was called; sorry, guys). All the while young children play, and older children closely study their parent’s activity, preparing for their eventual participation.
Of course, there are plenty of reminders that I am not, in fact, in Medival Europe—the large trucks and bejej (I really must remember the correct word; the enclosed motorized tricycle taxies I described in an earlier blog), people talking on cell phones, occasional homes playing Shakira or Beyonce (although the vast majority of music I’ve heard here has been traditional), power lines in some places. Some of the items sold at the markets alone are telling—modern t-shirts, “bling,” and even some very immodest undergarments (which are often in view for sale directly adjacent to tomatoes and bread). And, obviously, technology. And I should point out that these comments are not meant in any way to be disparaging. On the contrary, I adore my village, and as my friends and family know, I have a very active imagination, and I rather like thinking of it in a romanticized fashion, even though it’s entirely possible that no one else sees it this way. But to me, at least after two weeks of observation, this is Debre Zeyit.