I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia early evening July 18, 2009 after 28 hours of travel. Upon arrival, my greatest challenge was to hold back salty tears. Either from complete exhaustion, gratitude for three flawless connections and luggage that had made it, or from being filled with emotion that I had finally arrived in the country I had dreamed of visiting since my childhood! I failed. As I was greeted by a friend who had arrived earlier and an Ethiopian woman, Betty, the tears flowed. We drove to meet other members of the travel team and Betty’s husband.
“My name is Woudneh!” he says to me. I couldn’t understand what he said but I had caught the twinkle in his eye and his smile. One of those smiles that shined through his entire expression. “Woudneh. Woudneh. Woudneh” I rehearsed in my head. This is Woudneh!
He stopped the car at an open side road “shop” that looked more like a shabby lemonade stand to me. This shop was something I quickly discovered was very common throughout the city. Ethiopian Walgreens. He was buying candy: To welcome me to the country, but more importantly for his children. He hadn’t seen them all week…his three beautiful children. And oh how their lives differ from the life he knew as a child.
Woudneh grew up in a tiny village called Dera (southeast of Addis Ababa about 140 kilometers) the middle of 13 children. Born in the spring of 1970, he’s not really sure of the exact date. His parent’s met and fell in love, married and had a child. Her parents did not approve of the marriage and so they took her away and married her to another man, whom she had a child with. Her first husband (Woudneh’s father) searched for her and brought her back. They had eleven more children. Perhaps it was his employment that disappointed his in-laws; he was a school teacher, making the equivalent of about fifteen US dollars a month. Not enough to feed hungry mouths…at least not more than bad tasting lentils.
Perhaps it was these circumstances that led six year old Woudneh to live with his grandfather in Addis Ababa. It was just the two of them, as his grandmother had left to join a monastery to become a monk. Or maybe it was because his father had been illegally imprisoned for his activism and opposition against political leadership. Regardless, this was a time of hard work: wearing no shoes, he’d walk to school an hour each way, only after he’d prepared his grandfather’s meals. He’d return to plow the field and sell the crops of the small farm.
Two years later he returned to join his family. But he wouldn’t stay for long. At the age of ten, he was attacked by appendicitis. A Cuban doctor in a larger, neighboring village treated him and insisted he live nearby a hospital …just in case. This time he would live with a disturbed older sister and her gentle and patient husband. Again he would learn to work hard as he would now apply what he’d learned working for his grandfather.
This time he was a salesman of prepared food…working in a cafeteria. Early mornings were spent preparing food; afternoons were spent purchasing supplies and approaching people to sell it. “Today’s food is very good!” I’d tell them. “We purchase very good butter, onion!” I feel that all people are my friends. I ask questions, I have a sense of what to say, I was not afraid to talk to people. And thus he developed a keen sense of business and marketing.
The appendicitis never returned. His education continued. Important lessons of patience were learned as he watched his brother-in-law patiently live with an abusive, troubled wife. My brother-in-law is a patient person. I learned from him. I cannot judge other people. I know him well. Some of his friends would start businesses and lose lots of money. They would get so upset they would go “mad”. He was not like this. He knew he had to be patient. I learned that from him.
His positive attitude of learning from experience and from the circumstances of life was fostered and developed at a young age, with hard work and discipline being central themes to his story. Graduation came but didn’t open any doors for improved employment.
With a desire for independence, Woudneh joined the military. With it came training by North Koreans, malaria and a civil war. The war had actually begun in 1974 when Ethiopians begun fighting with Eriterea (a province of Ethiopia, located south of the Red Sea, east of Sudan and north of Addis Ababa.) Issues of severe drought, particularly in the northern regions of the country, government corruption, and better living conditions for the poor were all important factors in the fighting. (Granville, 2004)