Baboons on a Cliff
As we left the Addis Ababa airport and started across the city, my brother Johnathan and I stared out the windows of the Volkswagen van like dazed astronauts. He was six and I was only three, but we were both old enough to sense that life might never be the same. A torrent of brown-skinned aliens streamed by on both sides, treating the road like a giant sidewalk, their white shawls and bright head wraps bobbing as they weaved around each other. Donkeys and oxen bumped into the van, whipped along by barefoot men in ballooning shorts.
After sixteen hours in an airplane, we found that our whole world had disappeared. Gone was the quiet stucco house in Saint Joseph, Missouri, where we had lived while Dad began his medical practice at the state hospital. Gone were the tire-thrumming brick streets of Hiawatha, Kansas, where we were given candies and back-scratches from Grandmother. Gone were the maple trees and the old-fashioned street lamps, lit up like glowing ice cream cones. We had stepped onto a Pan Am jet in one world and stepped off in another, as if transported clear across the galaxy.
Our driver braked for a truck being unloaded, and children pressed their faces against the glass, shouting, “Ferengi, ferengi, hey you, my friend, give me money.” They left mucous streaks on the windows and patches of breath that faded as we drove on.
Older, broken people approached too, holding out open palms. “Gaetoch, gaetoch,” they murmured, using the Amharic term for lord. A legless man on a wooden scooter shoved himself into the road and thumped on the sliding door with his tar-stained hand. Next, a fingerless woman thrust her stump through the open window by my father, and my brother Nat, who was not even six months old, began to whimper.
“It’s OK,” Mom whispered, even though Nat was too young to understand. “She just wants money.” “What’s wrong with her face?” I asked, having a three-year-old’s curiosity about the woman’s caved-in nose.
“It’s leprosy,” Dad said. He gave the woman a coin. Then, as the van eased away, he called back to my older brother, “Johnathan, do you remember any lepers in the Bible?” Johnathan was quick with his answer: “Yes. The ten that Jesus healed!” I wanted to be just as smart. “I know that story,” I yelled. But no one seemed to notice.
Subject to their parents, children learn to adjust. When our parents moved to Ethiopia in 1964 to become missionaries with the Sudan Interior Mission, my brothers and I spent our first two days and nights adjusting to an environment from which we would soon be thrust, forced to adjust again. Blissfully unaware, Johnathan and I ran footraces around the hallways of the three- story tarpapered guesthouse. First, we raced down our second-floor hall, dashing toward a color print of Jesus the Good Shepherd. We turned sharply in front of this Jesus, who was leaning out over a cliff edge to hook a lost lamb with his crook. Then we sprinted onto the open balcony, where we could see to the lawn through thick wooden railings. Elbowing each other on the stairs, almost falling, we stumbled onto the grass and galloped back along the asphalt driveway, past the clinging purple-and-white fuchsia and up the stairs that led right to where we had begun, the hall where Jesus hung with his shepherd’s crook outstretched.
At night we bedded down with our baby brother in a room that had uneven adobe walls and shiny blue enamel paint. A dividing sheet could be pulled across the middle like a shower curtain to cloister us from Mom and Dad and their candle. However, we still couldn’t sleep — too disoriented by jet lag and car lights on the ceiling, too pumped up by all the change. We picked at cracks in the wall, exposing hardened mud and flecks of straw. We whispered to each other and flipped our pillows to put the cool side on top.
And when we woke at noon — barely in time for lunch — we lay paralyzed on our metal-frame beds, sweaty under the wool blankets and not sure if we were in the right story. Everything felt so jarring and out of place: the unexpected belch of diesel trucks below our open window, the haze of exhaust fumes floating into the room, and the weird babble of foreign voices drifting to us on the crisp, high-altitude breeze.
Soon came our second major adjustment. Mom and Dad were told to report to language school four hours north of Addis in the Amhara highlands, which meant Johnathan had to start boarding school immediately. An elderly missionary drove us to Bingham Academy, the school set aside for all the children of the Sudan Interior Mission, and we simply left Johnathan there, standing next to his new dorm mother, a squat woman in a gray wool skirt.
Johnathan’s face crumpled as we drove away, one eye squinting against the bright tropical sun, one hand lifted in a weak salute. He looked smallerrrrr than he should have, standing in the middle of the red cinder parking lot.
Mom cried. She cried all the way out of Addis Ababa even though she tried to hide it, biting her lower lip and looking out the window of the van. Dad reached over and rubbed her neck as the vehicle climbed, switching back and forth up a thin mountain road. We passed hobbling donkeys half- buried under stacks of wood and hay. We passed stone-walled houses with thatched roofs, roosters that scattered at our approach, and little top-knotted boys who wore only shirts and waved so high that their privates showed.
Every time that we got close to the edge of the road — where the sky took over and I looked down on nothing — I fought back a wave of vertigo.
“When will Johnathan come to see us?” I asked.
“Soon, Timmy. Soon,” Mom replied, wiping the corners of her eyes and turning on one of those terrible smiles that signaled unspoken sacrifice.
But a week after we had settled into our little two-room apartment at the language school in Debre Birhan, high on the plateau above Addis, Johnathan still hadn’t come and I still didn’t have anyone to play with. Mom and Dad were busy studying Amharic all day, and Nat was interested in nothing but Mom’s breasts or things small enough to fit into his mouth. As for me, I was left in the care of an Ethiopian nanny whom I refused to acknowledge.
Another week passed and Dad received a message sent by radio from the academy. He looked grim. I could hear him whispering to Mom in bed after the generator had been turned off and only a candle guttered in the next room, sending yellow light flickering up the walls.
“I’ll go down with the supply van,” Dad murmured. “If he sees me, he won’t feel so far away.” “He’s too young,” Mom whispered back.
“Maybe, but what else can we do? They all go to the academy.” “Not the Stuart children.” There was a pause before Dad spoke again. “You know the rumors.
Everyone says they’ll end up misfits.” My mother sighed. It was one of those deep sighs that she allowed herself only when she was away from the other missionaries.
“He’s too young . . .” “I know,” Dad whispered back. “I know . . .”
The next day, when my father went down to Addis Ababa in a supply van, I hoped maybe he would come back with Johnathan. He had sounded as if he might. When he returned alone, I quit thinking about my older brother. Letters still came each week, always starting with the same blocky printed words. Mom showed them to me, mouthing the words slowly — “I a...