“A precious stone,” the owner of the souvenir shop had assured me. I loved the shiny pendant, so we spent our last birrs on the necklace before flying back home. Now the fading red paint reveals plastic, and I know that I’ve been scammed. But I don’t mind.
About seven years ago, my husband and I spent ten days in Ethiopia—days we’d been looking forward to so long. We had planned to make it a vacation, to explore Addis Ababa and its surroundings; to get to know Aisha’s country, and to give her the opportunity to say goodbye. Photos of monuments would serve as memorials of her roots.
Instead, the Lonely Planet Guide we pored over during our preparation, lay unopened on my nightstand. We spent most of our time in and around our hotel, immersed in bonding with the nine-year-old girl who now was our daughter.
Aisha bubbled with energy, despite the restless nights she spent coughing and tossing between us. She was relentless in her demands, but her little voice wafting through the air as I pushed her on a swing—wada fee, wada sa, wada fee, wada sa—made me give in every time. The first time in the swimming pool, she tripped and nearly drowned. It didn’t stop her from soaking in the pool an entire afternoon, until her golden skin showed goose bumps—and my teeth were chattering. We played Memory at least a hundred times. I only won once—the first time. That was when I explained the game to her.
She liked joking. During dinner, we felt something tickling our knees, and Aisha explained, “A cat. A big cat.” Looking under the table, we didn’t see anything but a pair of little hands. “Oh—it’s gone.” Her laughter at the look on our faces echoed through the room.
Milk and cheese were labeled “me no,” whereas chewing gum was at the top of her list of favorite foods. Our “no” to some of her wishes triggered several crying fits. I spent an hour rocking her, holding her tight and whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you…” to reassure her that even if we didn’t allow her to watch television all day, we still loved her.
Standing in front of the mirror for hours, she adorned her short, curly hair with pink ribbons and countless flower clips. Her best friend was my lipstick.
What little we experienced of the city affected us deeply. Modern office buildings rose high above corrugated iron shacks. Goatherds and donkeys wove through rows of honking cars. Elegantly dressed businessmen strode among begging lepers.
Each day, on our way to the nearby breakfast bar, we passed a person so marred by leprosy that it was impossible to tell whether it was a man or woman. We always put some money in the stump that was once a hand. One morning, my husband shared the Gospel. In the absence of a lower jaw, the person could only nod to confirm his words.
Just as we were about to continue our walk back to the hotel, Aisha cried, “Wait!” From her pocket, she fished the chewing gum we bought her that morning. Carefully, she pushed one—then two—sticks out of the package and laid them in the stump. The person nodded again, and Aisha skipped away, right into my arms.
We didn’t make photos of monuments, but monumental moments in our first days as a family were forever engraved in my memory.
So today, as I put on the red necklace with its fake gem, I feel grateful; a worthless souvenir from a country that birthed my greatest treasure—Aisha.
Although she doesn’t speak it anymore, Aisha’s native language is Amharic. Her song on the swing, “wada fee, wada sa, wada fee, wada sa” (written phonetically, as I heard it) means “back, forth, back, forth.”