The strawberry flavored gum I was chewing since the start of the trip tasted bland against my tongue. Impatience has already crept into me . . . and a certain kind of lightheadedness (and unexplainable mood change) that could only mean a migraine was coming. The early-morning start was certainly not a good idea, I thought, and I was sure I was not going to enjoy my post-Christmas holiday in Bahir Dar after the bumpy three-and-a-half-hour journey. I was looking blankly at Silvester, who was mumbling about something I couldn’t even figure out. We should have stayed one more day in Gondar, I thought, as I nodded absently to whatever he was talking about.
|The road to Bahir Dar is long but scenic.|
When the mini-bus screeched to a halt and the conductor announced we’ve arrived, I almost threw myself out of the front seat and imagined throwing myself into a hotel bed until it was time to get on another bus to Addis the next morning. Peter and Doreen didn’t look so keen on a field trip to the infamous Tis Abay falls either so I was saved the trouble of enduring another excruciating bus ride.
We settled in our rooms and slept and slept until our grumbling stomachs woke us up. The four of us, rejuvenated by sleep but still eaten by boredom, wandered around the town, looking for the bus station and a place to grab some lunch. As we turned in one corner, we didn’t know that that was going to turn our otherwise uneventful day into a surreal experience.
He was just another ordinary boy selling chewing gum on the streets. You know, like the ones who tug on your shirt or grab your arm until you get annoyed and buy a piece of overpriced gum, or if you don’t, go away with murderous looks and insulting remarks—the ones I’m always wary of and ignore. But he wasn’t trying to sell us his goods. He was just asking us if we needed help with something. We replied in a rather rude “no” and he backed off but came back less than five minutes later and started a conversation with me and Silvester, who were walking ahead of the pack. Later, he would tell us that he felt we needed help because we looked as if we didn’t have any idea where we’re going. Which was true.
|The quaint street where we met our chewing gum hero.|
As with most casual conversations with strangers in the streets of any town in Ethiopia, he started asking where we’re from. Silvester jokingly answered, “Nigeria.” And the boy’s face lit up and quickly added he knew somebody from Nigeria working in the university. The boy’s genuine amusement must have brought a surge of “guilt” to Silvester, so he admitted he’s from Uganda. As if not bothered by the white lie earlier, the boy quipped, “Ah, I’ve met someone from Uganda too.” At this time, my paranoid mind was already working overtime and was waiting for him to start telling us some hard luck story, trick us into doing something, and run away with our money.
I tried to quicken my stride as we crossed the street, in a vain effort to lose him. How can I when my companion was already smitten? He was asking for Silvester’s name and when he got it, he exclaimed, “Oh Silver, like a necklace!” At this time, I was already smiling. “And what about her?” he motioned at me with his chin. Silvester answered, “Reiza.” The boy grinned widely and said with even more energy, “Like rice we eat!” At this time, I was already laughing. His name was Mulu, which means “full”. A rather apt name for the full life he’s living, as we came to know later.
“Don’t listen to people offering help because they cheat, especially ferenjis (foreigners),” Mulu warned us as we were entering the crowded bus station. (We needed to have our tickets refunded—long story.) He then added in a low voice, almost like an afterthought, “People cheat all the time.” Then he looked up at Silvester and said, “When I grow up like you, I will be a doctor.” Without waiting for us to respond, he said, “I don’t want to be in the military like my father. He died fighting. Fighting is not good. Only animals fight. People should love each other.”
A lump was already forming in my throat that my question barely escaped my lips, but he heard it anyway, “Where’s your mother?” “She’s at home because she’s sick.” “Who takes care of her?” “I do. I’m the only child. I cook her food in the morning before I go to school. And then at lunchtime I go home, eat, read, make my assignments, and then sell chewing gum,” he answered nonchalantly, as if he had been asked these question so many times already. “You said your mother is sick, is she taking any medications?” I asked suspiciously, thinking he would eventually ask us for money. “Ah yes, she is. For us poor people it is no problem. The government gives us a paper (what they call a poverty certificate) and then they give us free medicines.” He later told us that he went to Gondar Hospital once to get medicines for his mother and went to visit the castles. “They only charge 5 birr for Ethiopians and 50 birr for foreigners,” he added with a proud smile, head held high. He was proud he was Ethiopian.
I then walked silently, engrossed in my own thoughts, of how this twelve-year-old boy could carry a heavy burden of taking care of a sick parent without being daunted by it, without even complaining, as if he had already accepted he was born with that responsibility. I then went back to my senses when I heard him ask Silvester boldly, “Is she your girlfriend or wife?” while looking at me with a sheepish grin. Shocked and at the same time amused by the question, I looked from him to the dumbfounded Silvester, curious of where the conversation was going and thankful I was not the one who was put on the spot. After what seems a minute of uncomfortable silence, Silvester answered, “Yes, she is my friend.” “Now friend, but later wife.” Mulu sounded so sure as he spoke. The now-red faced Silvester could only mutter a timid “maybe”. “Don’t bear too many children,” Mulu advised. “Too many children and your money will be gone. Buy this, buy that. Two is enough. A boy for you”—he pointed at Silvester— “and a girl for her.”
To break the awkward moment, Silvester started to talk business. “How much do you earn in day?” Like a real businessman, he said, “It’s variable,” then added, “but I already have savings of 20 birr. I asked my mother to keep it for me so I can buy my uniform. It costs 150 birr. So I need to earn 130 birr more.” He then looked at his precious merchandise in all colors and flavors—his life.
|Just call him Mulu.|
As we were walking down the street toward the center of town, Doreen, who had been suffering from stomach ulcers since that morning, gestured she was already hungry. Mulu quickened his pace and said, “I’ll take you to Piassa Restaurant. The food is good and many ferenjis eat there.” When we were about to enter the restaurant we decided to give him a generous tip (to cover for his uniform) for showing us around, but he held up his free hand (the other holding his box of chewing gum) and said, “Please, no money.” The smile disappeared from his face and stared at each of us with the look of someone who has been insulted. We tried to convince him to take the money “as our gift” but he said, “I don’t take money.” Perplexed and in awe of the young boy, we decided we’d buy some chewing gum from him instead, which put the smile back on his face.
“Why don’t you join us inside, Mulu?” I offered, thinking it was the least we could do to repay his kindness towards us. He willingly followed us in and sat with us on the table. “What would you like to eat? Please order anything you like,” I said while handing him the menu. He glanced at the colorful photos of food and quietly said, “Please don’t spend your money on me. I will eat whatever is left over of yours.” I could feel my chest tightened. At the other side of the table, Doreen was fighting back tears and Peter’s jaw dropped. Silvester was silent, trying to focus on the menu, maybe fighting back tears too. “Please, it’s Christmas, can you at least have something, a drink?” I pleaded. “Okay, I’ll have a Coke.”
|Cheers to life according to a 12-year-old boy.|
While we were eating and shoving half of our food on Mulu’s plate, Doreen asked him what he wanted someone to do for him, something that will make him happy. He paused and thought for a long time before saying, “A feienji I met last week has promised to buy me a bag. So I don’t need a bag. It’s also very expensive.” “What about notebooks, pens . . . .” “Oh I would need more chewing gum. If you could buy me chewing gum that would be good.”
We forgot about the chewing gum for awhile while he talked of things like Obama being Kenya’s president because his father is Kenyan and of a dead Philippine president whose face was in the note I eventually gave him. He talked of how his ferenji friends taught him English, and how he watched BBC and CNN from a bar owned by his mother’s friend. He bragged about his collection of notes and coins from different countries and proudly told us he was the best student in his class.
He was trying to smoothen a wrinkle on his shirt when I asked him if he took a shower and changed his clothes every day. (I am obsessive-compulsive when it comes to personal hygiene.) “I am not like you rich people who have so many clothes and can afford to buy water every day for washing yourself and your clothes.” Filled with guilt and embarrassment, I told him defensively, “I am not rich.” Realizing he must have offended me, he quickly said, “No, no, I am not talking about you. I am talking about other people.”
When he saw me playing with my leftover rice and fish with the fork, he gently nudged me on my side and asked if he could take our leftovers for his mother. Before I could finish my “of course you can”, he had already motioned the waiter to bring a plastic bag for him to put the food in.
We were already standing outside the restaurant when we remembered the chewing gum. Because we had wanted to go back to the hotel to rest, we handed him money as additional capital for his “business”. But he gave us the same insulted look and said, “If you want, one of you come with me and we will get the chewing gum from the store. I won’t take your money.” At this point, some of the street boys were already harassing him, then I understood. Mulu was afraid the money might be taken away from him. Maybe he had been robbed by his fellow street boys a few times already.
“No, it’s expensive here,” he said, dragging one of us outside when we were entering a rather posh supermarket. He then led us to a small shop that displayed chewing gum in all colors and flavors on the shelves. Like a child, like a real child, his eyes brightened with amazement. He started pointing at the ones he wanted and counting his fingers and arranging his new buys in his box. After we’ve paid for it, he suddenly fell quiet, almost detached. Was it because he was overwhelmed, or was he embarrassed for asking us to buy him his goods? We would never know because he just stood there so silent that Doreen’s friend had to remind him to thank us.
“Thank you.” Those were his last words before he turned his back at us, not taking his eyes off his chewing gum box.
“Thanks to you,” I mumbled under my breath, as I drank my cappuccino, suddenly mindful of how good it smelled and tasted, and how lucky I was to be there sitting in a cozy café, chatting and laughing with friends.
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