Wonji is my birthplace where I didn't celebrate my first birthday but had my first period on a visit when I was thirteen. Tadele's graduation parties at two locations, two happenings and two songs altered the course of my life. Tadele graduated from Teachers Training College thirty five years ago. His sister Tesfina, a family friend, hosted the first party. Their parents invited lots of people at their residence in Wonji town. The moment I laid eyes on Tadele's friend, Fantahun, I had an unabashed crush! That was some overnight party in this capital city! A week's stay in Wonji transitioned me from a girl into a woman. 'Upside Down,' by Diana Ross and 'Sunshine in the Music,' by Jimmy Cliff are the two songs ringing in my ears whenever I reminisce.
Dan, my big brother, had quite a collection of cassettes at the time. In his visits to our house, Tadele always checked out songs by inserting cassettes in the tape recorder. He assigned Dan the task of DJing at the overnight party. Konni, Tesfina's daughter, a year older than me, Bruck, my younger brother, and I were the only children mingling with the youth. They let us have first hand experience of what it is like to behave at social gatherings. We watch and learn with such devotion. They rank second in command but not anything like our parents. Dan doesn't hesitate to take action if he noticed what goes on is unsuitable for us. The question uppermost in my mind was, would Dan let Bruck and I stay the whole night?
I was excited looking forward to the night out of home. It was a rare treat. Braiding my hair took me forever. I soaped the braid when I showered so it became manageable. I still remember the extent I went to cover my bare forehead. A strap of my mother's bra served as a bandana. I let few braids slip through the strap so it holds down just the way I liked. Three items I picked out of my closet. A canottiera which outlined my budding breasts, a jeans jacket and baggy pants. How acutely I felt my femininity when I was with Fantahun! Nothing had prepared me for the emotions I went through that night.
When Bruck and I showed up at Tesfina's house, it was packed. As I ate dinner, I wondered where the dancing would take place. I needn't have worried for it was at its full swing at a neighbor's. Young men and women were drinking, dancing and loudly chatting. The music was deafening! Okay, I thought. This is it. The DJ, Dan, would tell Bruck and I to go home with mom. He would surely decide, it's no place for children. We presented ourselves at the spot he was at. He actually welcomed us beaming and all. Was he drunk or just drugged with happiness? A plump girl was with him. We sought out the graduate. Tadele was everywhere entertaining his guests, dancing and having fun.
Fun meant sitting next to Fantahun after the introductions. His curly hair and amazing teeth he flashed struck me. I was hooked. What's more, he wasn't drinking alcohol like his agemates but soft drinks. What was his excuse for the attention he gave me throughout the night? Konni and I danced with him taking turns. She kept breaking away from us to cater to the guests. How convenient for me. Teased him about his name. 'Fantahun! You are Mirinda! And a replacement a share a part!' Fantahun means be like Fanta in Amharic language. The second meaning befitted the situation. He was interested in Konni. He curbed himself not to jeopardize his friendship with her uncle. I was oblivious to this blinded by admiration for him. He willingly succumbed to it. I was the replacement. The unsuspecting shield.
Turning off the light at home parties, signaled cuddling and kissing time. How I wanted him to kiss me! Fantahun didn't try to put his arm around me let alone kiss. I envied the ones who were holding and kissing when light is off as slow music plays. Dance moves I made in front of Fantahun resulted in tingling on my nipples. Unnerving but I loved it. He must have enjoyed my company or he would have made excuses to circulate or something. We were either engaged in exchange or dancing.
He told me he was to go to Russia to pursue his education. He was granted a full scholarship by the government. Special privilege used to be given to the children of families who serve in the army during the Derg Regime. Was I sad to learn of his leaving? Not that night.
A week passed. Time stood still for me though. Fantahun ruled my world. Daydreaming, a favorite pastime of a young girl! School was out. Children spend time on playing and running errands for parents. Major responsibility was looking after my baby sister. She was two years and eight months old at the time. One morning, Tadele annoyed me asking me about his friends, 'how do you feel about Fantahun and Samson?' 'I love Fantahun but I like Samson.' I proceeded to prize out more information. Fantahun's father and sister live in Wonji. The graduate was the reason for the life changing experience I had but all I cared to talk about is his friend. Fantahun stays with his uncle and cousin Samson in the capital city. When mom gave me permission to go to Wonji for a week I was on the seventh sky!
Tesfina, her family and I packed clothes and arrived at La Gare to board Loncina heading towards Wonji. Mom and Tesfina, their friendship started at an evening school. Tesfina's husband, daughter, father, and some of her siblings live with her in Addis. The rest of the family resides in Wonji. When her mom, Tsedale, comes to see her family, she brings delicious food. How delighted I was to see Fantahun and Samson were to ride in the same bus with us! I asked boldly to sit with him. Was it his charm which fueled my energy? The journey was full of animated conversations! Normally, I talk about what I see through the window of buses on a long journey. I have no recollection of time and place on the way. My focus was on Fantahun. He disappointed me one time though.
We made a stop at a checkpoint. Soldiers went through our stuff after we vacated. Fantahun and I veered off to the Awash River nearby. I said to him, 'mom warned me not to go near the Awash River. It has a satanic power. It pulls you towards it and you drown.' Fantahun situated himself right behind me. Clapping his hands on his laps, feet pounding the ground, 'it's going to get you!' I was terrified! He burst out laughing. No, I didn't like what he did. I don't understand this about men in general. They get a kick out of scaring people. Mom must have used the story as a mechanism to stop me if I was tempted to go to the river. Fantahun trailed behind as I furiously headed back to the bus. I wouldn't talk to him.
Wonji town where mother gave birth to me is magical in my head. I grew up hearing stories about it. My parents met at Paper Factory. The way mom use her fingers to describe how many papers counted looks as if she is showing finger exercise. I developed fondness for the town picturing mom in uniform riding bicycle using one hand on the way to school, the spots she hang out with the girls, smooching with their sweethearts, weekly visits to the hair saloon, trouble they went to get the trending style, being bridesmaid, group pictures at photo studios, cooking with her aunt who raised her, the noisy neighborhood, the interaction with teachers and coping with the strict school rules. Mom's sweet childhood memories are closely tied to Wonji town where sugarcane is found in abundance.
Sugarcane(shenkora ageda in Amharic) quenches thirst. As children, I loved the way we ate it. We extract the skin biting into the tip of the stalk. Peeled stalk is held close to the mouth and as you wrench bits of it away, tugging at it is fun. There is a crunching noise as you sink your teeth in it. We chew while making smacking sound as we close our lips together to suck and retain the juice. The joy fills up the whole being! We spit the fibers out. Sugarcane plantation is suitable for the production of sugar and candy. Employees of Paper, Sugar and Candy Factories were given houses to live in. Kuma, mother's uncle, used to bring a package of Desta(Happiness) Keremela(Candy) when he came to see us in Addis Ababa City. The dusty town was far from welcoming. The cousins split at the bus station. We continued the rest of the way on an open carriage pulled by horse.
Tesfina's family welcomed us. They live in a big house which has a large yard. Heavy cooking was being conducted by lots of women. Part two of Tadele's graduation party already underway. We were ushered into the house. The rooms with no doors but billowing curtains uplifted my dispirited countenance! It blew away my bad mood. Way of living in this town was not what I was accustomed to. People design their lives adjusting themselves to the hot weather. Once you set foot inside the house, the coolness makes you forget the outside. Mosquito nets fascinated me! During the day, you fold and keep tied to the base. The hook securing the base has a cone shape more like an umbrella. All the beds have mosquito nets which make them look like brides anxiously awaiting grooms.
Lochinvar is a fictional romantic hero I used to idolize. Fantahun, my Lochinvar! All around me people were buzzing. I just beamed watching them lost in the fantasy world. Did the dust settle on him on the way home? I wish it was I instead of Samson next to Fantahun on that carriage! Is he affected by the hot weather like newcomers? What kind of house do they have? What was he doing? Would he come here? Would he show me around? Silly thoughts were dispelled by the appearance of the girl next door. Konni and Mimi hang out together. Mimi is younger than both of us. We hit it off right away. Food was served for those of us who arrived from the city. Konni and Mimi promised to show me around. Konni couldn't break away as she liked. Her grandma assigned tasks to her.
Mimi and I slipped out of the house off to the river to see the hippos. It wasn't that far from the house. We weren't lucky that afternoon. I admit the idea of watching a wild animal was disconcerting. You have to be quiet and motionless for the hippos to come out of the sparkling water. The rays of the sun were too much for my eyes. I obliged Mimi by following what she does. When she said it was enough, I didn't want to leave. The surrounding area of the river let me forget the dust for sometime. The town's dwellers didn't mind stepping in to the dust whenever they venture out of their houses. In my week's stay, I saw a bit of the back of a hippo for a brief moment. Mimi and I were inseparable. She took me under her wings.
Her wings stretched up to two neighborhoods. Konni's youngest uncle, Belay, joined us on our way to my mother's uncle Kuma's house. Belay was delivering invitations to people. It was a celebration of his brother's graduation! Kuma was one of the invitees. I got to meet the whole family. It was only Kuma whom I knew. He's grandpa's half brother. He was a large hearted gentle soul. His warm distinct voice is etched in my memory. He spoke Amharic fluently. Oromigna is the language widely used in the area. The children used it effortlessly with their parents. The uniformed soldier I met intrigued me. It's Kuma's daughter. I couldn't find things to say to her. She wasn't friendly. Her younger siblings related better. Kuma bought us soft drinks. We were grateful. Belay left before we did. We head back home for it was already evening.
Goat meat was served at the family dinner. We sat around the table eating out of a huge tray. I was hesitant to taste the fried goat blood for the first time. When Ababa Zewde, head of the family, noticed that I avoided it, he encouraged in that booming voice of his, so I ate. The second day, there was a feast. Relatives, neighbors and invited guests came to the house with gifts. Tadele's friends and acquaintances stayed for the overnight party. Come the third day, I regretted eating the goat blood believing it brought about my first period. Tesfina and Konni fussed a lot but I didn't appreciate it. It was beyond me to comprehend the fact that I started a different course of my life in a town far away from my mother. There was no pain, no discomfort, nothing. True, cramps marred my emotions for years. The weather played a significant role in the change my body underwent more than the goat blood.
What Fantahun did at the party did contribute to the turmoil inside. A girl about his age wouldn't leave his side! They were kissing in the dark during the popular love song by Tewodros Tadesse which runs for five minutes! It was a depressing sight. I should have been the one in his arms not that girl I wailed inside. Konni was incensed too. How could he do this? The sense of proprietorship we exercised over a player! Fantahun eventually made his move cooking up ways of meeting Konni and I in the city. We were to go out on a date with the cousins! Mothers got wind of it. Konni had lickings from her mother. I got away with scolding because mom doesn't beat us. He kept in touch with us after he moved to Russia through letters and postcards. Fantahun asked to marry Konni when he came on a vacation. She refused.