Quite a performance (one way and another)

posted in: Ethiopian project | 1

It had finally arrived, the day of the performance, the reason I was here in Ethiopia.  It did not begin well.  I discovered that, for the third or fourth time I have been here, there was no water in the apartment.  As usual, I messaged Anchu, and as usual she responded immediately, to apologise for “the inconvenience”, and to send a man who would deliver a ten gallon drum of water.  Then (again for about the third or fourth time, the power went off, knocking out the wifi, and with it the radio – my lifeline.  No point in ringing Anchu this time; power cuts affect Addis on a regular basis.

At lunchtime, I had arranged to meet Binyam and Bezu; they had invited me for lunch (an invitation I regarded more as a duty than a pleasure.)  When we met, outside Angla Burger, he relayed the request from Alazar for 6000 birre, to pay for a celebration after the show.  And this was the final straw.  I told them I had been asked for money out of my pocket just about every day, and… well, let’s just say that I became a little emotional.  Awkward all round, but I thought they’d got the message.

We took a taxi to Beza’s sister’s house, their own house being too far away for a sensible return journey.  Her sister and brother-in-law had a most attractive modern apartment, but, like so many buildings here, what must once have been most luxurious, with a marble staircase and fancy banisters, was now mouldy with damp, with bare wires poking out of stained walls.  They had BBC News on the TV as a concession to me, which caused me and the brother-in-law to agree on how awful the news was from Gaza.  I was asked whether I believed in God; it is something I have been asked several times here.  I conveyed my own views as respectfully as I could, then joined them in saying grace.  As expected, the meal was enjira with a couple of hot dishes and some salad, and I did my best; I am finding enjira increasingly unpalatable.

The taxi dropped me back at the Film School, while Binyam and Beza went off to do some chore or other, assuring me they would be back at 5.30.  The cast drifted in, as I knew they would, and they immediately lifted my spirits; I really do like them a lot.  I eventually chivvied them into the classroom (herding cats), ran through some notes, sorted out the ending (dreadful last night), and just began a warm-up… which swiftly had to be abandoned when I felt I was on the verge of throwing up.  I rushed off to collect the key and take myself down one flight to the utterly disgusting toilet.

I am certain that this was not pre-performance nerves, but lunchtime enjira.  I am certain there was nothing wrong with the food itself, but I had felt similarly ill the last time I had tried an Ethiopian meal, and some sort of muscle memory was kicking in.

Binyam was late, of course, arriving out of breath with ten minutes to spare.  Then Alazar asked for ten minutes so that he could get the video camera ready.  Then more people arrived, meaning more chairs had to be fetched from the classroom.  Then Atala’s mum and stepdad arrived – God knows how they made it up the stairs, both pretty ancient and dressed traditionally, white-robed both.  It was a good thing the start had been delayed; the play only lasts thirty minutes, and they would have had a long journey for ten minutes of confusing theatre otherwise.  And then more people arrived.

But, at last, we began.  And it was… terrific.  All of the things that had gone so wrong last night went right tonight (“that’s what makes for a great performance!”).  I had successfully persuaded Binyam to cut out the superfluous sound he had added last night – including a doorbell.  I assured him it was both safer and funnier to have the sound delivered by the human “door”, and it was gratifying when that particular moment got a laugh.

The whole cast lifted their game, including the weakest members, and the action scenes ran smoothly.  I was hugely proud of them, and felt, at last, that the effort and emotional strain had been worth it.  I suppose I wished the audience had been more responsive, but maybe that was a cultural battle too far. On the journey home, with Binyam insisting on accompanying me for some of the way, he told me he was having trouble changing the dollars I had given him as a wedding gift.  I did offer to exchange them for Birre, at a mildly favourable exchange rate, but he told me this was not enough, that he wanted the black market rate (or rather more than, I believe.)  Ah well, I told him, that’s all I have.  He did mention an ATM, but I brushed that aside.  And we parted.

  1. Pamela Blair

    That’s one of the things I hate most about traveling in economically poorer countries–I’m inevitably seen as “rich,” even though I don’t see myself that way, and the natural treatment follows.
    Aside from that, congratulations once again for pulling the rabbit out of the (rather ragged) hat.

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