The Other Side of the Wall
by Nadia Owusu
We watched from a safe distance. The civil war and the poverty that it wrought had brought us here, but we were only observers. In the morning, the guards, armed with rifles and machetes, opened the gates to let out our fleet of chauffeured white SUVs bearing diplomatic plates and the logos of UN agencies, international NGOs, and embassies. From behind tinted windows, we watched the other Ethiopia go by. It was built of mud and cardboard. It was full of crumbling buildings. We passed through it on our way to ballet lessons and the Hilton pool.
Behind the walls and barbed wire of the compound, we lived in cozy cottages with manicured gardens of roses and chrysanthemums. We had seesaws, tire swings, and paddling pools. Our parents entertained each other with cocktail parties and barbeques under the stars. The compound was a miniature suburb where Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride had been made real. Our families were from India and Bangladesh, from England and America, from China and Japan, Sweden and Denmark, Kenya and South Africa. Some of our families were multinational and interracial. We ate each other’s food, listened to each other’s music, celebrated each other’s religious and cultural holidays. We were the kind of community that people wrote hopeful songs about. Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do.
After school, all twenty-one of us would gather in the large green lawn at the compound’s center. We’d play with bicycles, kites, and skipping ropes until our private tutors and house-girls summoned us indoors for homework and dinner. Later, our parents would come home with family-sized bags of potato chips from America and chocolate from Switzerland purchased at the UN commissary. They would ask us about our days spent at the international school where we did not learn about the history that was being made around us. We learned to speak French and made erupting volcanoes out of papier-mâché. Our parents would read us bedtime stories and tuck us into mosquito-netted beds, leaving us to sleep peacefully under whirring ceiling fans while they whispered to each other about impending coup d’états, rebel armies, and food shortages upcountry.
On the other side of the walls, shanty towns sprawled for as far as the eyes could see. People with amputated legs dragged their bodies along the rock-littered dirt roads, balancing themselves on one hand to stretch the other up to stalled cars for pittances. Donkeys carried filthy sacks of grain to barren markets. Raw sewage flowed like creeks between the corrugated tin shacks. There were days after school when we would sit in our treehouses, built for us by the compound’s gardeners, and look down into that other Ethiopia.
Sometimes, we called out to the children in the shantytown who played with balls made of plastic bags and tin can cars on sticks. They fashioned these toys themselves with scrap from Addis Ababa’s giant landfill, which was patrolled from the air by vultures and from the ground by the stray dogs our parents warned us never to touch. We held our noses when we drove by the landfill to keep from gagging. Those children climbed up its rancid hills of waste, scavenging for plastic, metal, clothing and food that their families might repurpose or sell. One man’s trash, etc. We waved to them and they waved back. We were fascinated by their lives. We watched them as one would a television show, gossiping about them and imitating what they were doing.
Once, bored of our treehouse perch, a small group of us contemplated going into the other Ethiopia to find adventure. Because it was forbidden, even talking about it made us tipsy with fear and excitement. After hours of plotting, and assessing the repercussions of our parents finding out, we voted to fly the coop. In just a few breathless minutes, we threw a rope over the wall and shimmied down one by one. We played soccer with the children from the other Ethiopia, weaving around their makeshift homes and kicking up dirt. The house-girls, discovering that their charges had escaped, deployed the guards from the gate to apprehend us and bring us safely back behind the walls. We were easy to find. A multicultural group of children in brightly colored T-shirts and shiny white sneakers, Swatch watches on our wrists, we did not blend easily into the backdrop of extreme poverty. Our parents scolded us for our recklessness.
“You could have been abducted,” they said. “You could have been…hurt. It’s not safe out there.” Their pauses were full of dangers that we did not yet understand.
Sometimes, on Friday afternoons, the children of the house-girls who lived in the servants’ quarters behind our cottages would come to visit. There would be knocks at the compound gate and the guards would ask the children’s names and the names of their mothers. They would come to our doors to seek our parents’ permission to allow the children in. Our parents would say, Of course. They would give the house-girls the evening off.
Most of the house-girls’ children disappeared into the servants’ quarters and we wouldn’t see them again until Sunday when it was time for them to leave. Sesai was different. He would walk through the gate swinging his long arms and whistling. He would gravitate toward us and ask us about our game. If we were running races around the lawn, he would sprint past us, pumping his fists. He would jump into our games of double-dutch and skip faster and higher than any of us. His mother, Mulu, would stand in front of the servants’ quarters, laughing and waiting for him to run over to her for his dinner of injera and stew.
We loved it when he came to visit. He didn’t come often because he worked as a gardener at the home of a wealthy Ethiopian family. He spoke English quite well and he liked to ask each of us where we were from. When we would name the country or countries, he would nod his head with a serious look on his face and say, ‘Ah, yes.’ He had a big gummy smile and when he laughed, he opened his mouth wide and his whole body shook, but no sound came out. He taught us how to do backflips and how to walk on our hands. Sesai was thirteen.
One weekend, some of us had been playing cards in one of the cottages when we heard what sounded like rain falling on the tin roof. The weather had been sweltering hot so we threw down our cards and ran outside to feel the cool drops of water on our skin. The sky was blue, and the sun was still fierce. One of the guards came running over, shouting at us to go back indoors. He went around to every cottage to give all who were home a warning. The pattering on the roof was not rain. It was the sound of falling bullets.
Bands of rebel soldiers had been arriving in the city by the truckload. They waved their weapons from the truck beds. We pressed our noses to the windows of our cars and stared at them. They did not look like the guards at the compound gates, nor did they look like the uniformed, government soldiers who we saw everywhere we went. They looked wild and desperate. Their hair was matted into dreadlocks, their skin ashy with dust. Some of them were children.
The next week, school was closed because of a security alert. On the eighth day of freedom from study, we were playing tetherball on the lawn when Sesai walked through the gate. We shouted his name and started to run to him, but he did not look at us. He did not ask us where we were from. He just walked straight into the servants’ quarters where his mother lived.
We waited for Sesai to come back out. When he didn’t, disappointed, we went inside to watch cartoons. Our families back home recorded our favorite programs on VHS tapes and sent them to us in the mail because there was nothing to watch on Ethiopian television except for the news in Amharic. Between us, we had a pretty big collection of videos. We decided to watch Tom and Jerry and we all piled onto the couches or sat cross-legged on the floor. Someone went to get us chocolate chip cookies and Kool-Aid from the kitchen. We sat there for hours. The sun set and darkness fell. The adults came home from work and patted some of us on the head, asked after some of our parents. Soon, it would be time for those of us who didn’t live in this cottage to go home for our evening baths and meals.
Mulu and Sesai burst into the room. Mulu, whose voice rarely rose above a whisper, was shouting, trying to get the adults’ attention.
The adults came out of the study, the father with a newspaper in his hand, the mother with a cup of tea. They looked irritated, but Mulu’s obvious terror jerked the lines of their foreheads apart so that their faces were wide and uneasily alert.
“What is it? What is happening?” the father asked.
“The soldiers!” Mulu searched for more words but could not find them. She was pointing in the direction of the gate. She opened and closed her mouth like a fish out of water.
Sesai stepped in front of his mother. “They have come for me,” he said.
Both the rebel and government armies had been forcibly conscripting soldiers. They did not care how young they were. We never learned what made the soldiers burst into the compound that day. Perhaps they were looking for potential recruits like Sesai whom we might have been harboring. Or perhaps they were angered by the sight of our pristine enclave, our oasis in the desert of their bloody battle.
The soldiers charged into every cottage. They threw porcelain plates and glass vases full of pink roses from our gardens to the ground. They brandished their weapons and laughed. They barely acknowledged us as we sat trembling on the floor, holding each other and crying. On the television, Wile E. Coyote blew himself into smithereens. The father of the house tried to be brave.
“I am calling the United Nations,” he said waving the telephone around as though it was a match for guns. The soldiers sneered.
Sesai had been standing when the soldiers threw opened the door, but as they tore through the house, he had nestled among us on the couch. Mulu distanced herself from where we sat. She leaned against the door to the kitchen.
After what seemed like a flash and an eternity at the same time, the soldiers moved on. As they made their way around the compound, we could hear our parents’ shrieks and protests. Sesai stayed sitting with us on the couch. We stared at the television, no one speaking, until the guards came in to tell us that our brief occupation was over.
All of us, children and parents, rushed out onto the lawn to recount the horror, to exchange the details of our damages. None of us had been harmed. Damage to our property was minor.
The sons of two of the house-girls and one of the gardeners were taken. The house-girls were weeping. They stretched their arms up in the air. They asked God or the moon to grant them some mercy. Mulu cried for those children too. She cried while she held Sesai’s head to her chest. He was safe because the soldiers thought that he was one of us.
We disappeared back into our cottages so that our parents could wait for instructions from their employers. Non-essential personnel and their families, they were told, were to evacuate Addis as soon as possible. In the next few days, all of us would board planes destined for Kenya or Tanzania. We would watch Ethiopia fade from view until all we could see was sky and clouds. A few of us would come back for a while after the government had been toppled and the country split in two. Most of us would never return.
We don’t know each other anymore. We only see each other on the internet. We are adults. We have children and master’s degrees. We create global monetary policy and write for newspapers. We go on safari vacations in Africa. We wonder what happened to Sesai, but we don’t wonder enough to find out. We see him trembling in our nightmares. We tell this story to friends and lovers. We tell the parts of it that we know, anyway.