It was a breezy afternoon drive on our way back to the city from Gullele. I accompanied our taxi driver, and his fatherly aura, in the front seat, and was deep in conversation with fellows Feven and Meki in the back.
In a matter of minutes, our driver’s smile spread from ear to ear and he began praising us for speaking in English. He assumed we were students at Nazareth, a private school that excels in languages, but we explained we had come from the US to work in Ethiopia for the next six months through a diaspora fellowship, which invited an equally positive reaction. He told us about his two children who attend government school, but are encouraged to speak and read in English in their free time. He was proud of us for returning to the motherland, and deeply supported the dual Amharic-English linguistic identity we’ve nurtured for so long as Ethiopian-Americans.
Not all other taxi drivers and passersby have had the same reaction. As a diaspora, your Amharic is either too good or not good enough, and no one shies away from making their opinions known. Random strangers’ critiques of my Amharic have taken the most creative forms. Instead of feeling insulted, I can’t help but laugh along with the poetic diss they’ve just served. A few of my favorites include:
“Ke wiche yemetash yemeslal, amarigna endezi yeteyazesh”
You must have come from outside for your Amharic to be holding you up like this
“Kezi belay amarigna bitwaki, aiymrebeshim”
If you knew Amharic better than this, it wouldn’t look so pretty on you
“Ye addisu Gossaye CD alesh? Egezishalew endiastemerish”
Do you have the new Gossaye CD? I’ll buy it for you so you can learn
From offering to personally deliver a CD to my doorstop to defending the cuteness of my ‘diasporic tongue’, the commentary has been pointed, yet entertaining. Three weeks in, and the consensus among co-workers, lada conductors, and aunties has awarded Feven a gold medal, leaving Meki and I to battle it out for silver and bronze in our personal game of Amharic Olympics.
Back home, my Amharic was never the center stage of attention. I recall a handful of Fidel lessons at Sunday School, which to me, served as a playground for all other elementary-aged Habeshas in Boston. I understood my parents’ long phone calls with relatives and would get an exuberant “gobez lige!” any time I chose to respond to a greeting in Amharic.
My time in Addis so far has welcomed a new proximity to Amharic, which of course sounds obvious, but there’s something more palpable and eye-opening about the attention it’s received.
Can you speak Amharic?
This question has been an entry to conversation with people I wouldn’t otherwise have spoken to. Conversations about languages have opened doors to people’s personal beliefs and worldviews. From the need to preserve ‘Yearada Quanqua’, an urban language used mostly by the youth of Addis Ababa to the expectations that we permanently return to Ethiopia, the lectures and stories we’ve listened to have spoken volumes this country and the values of its people. That afternoon, our taxi driver half-jokingly suggested we all become fluent in Chinese, preceding their inevitable world dominance.
I’ve spent a lot of time in places where language has been a wall between the world and me, where I’ve had to rely on smiles and gestures to get my points across. As my time in Addis is more permanent and independent than ever before, I’ve taken advantage of the semi-permeable barrier that separates me from conversing in Amharic. From navigating complex minibus networks to ordering customized beyaynetus (an assortment of vegetarian dishes and injera), I’ve failed, laughed, and phoned a few friends for help. We’ve been told countless times that trying and fumbling is good enough; it’s the only way we will get better. No matter how many aunties have given me a bronze medal for my efforts, I’ve learned to persevere.
I’m looking forward to (re)starting Fidel lessons and using my Amharic in ways I never could, becoming close acquaintances with a language that has a way with words and telling stories.
As we got out of the car, our taxi driver yelled “bertu! bertu! bertu!”, meaning stay strong or keep going. It’s a familiar line I’ve heard from my parents before most of my big adventures. To receive this wave of encouragement from a random taxi driver in Addis, however, is all you can really ask for.