Chameleon Days: An American Boyhood in Ethiopiaby Tim Bascom
In 1964, at the age of three, Tim Bascom is thrust into a world of eucalyptus trees and stampeding baboons when his family moves from the Midwest to Ethiopia. The unflinchingly observant narrator of this memoir reveals his missionary parents’ struggles in a sometimes hostile country. Sent reluctantly to boarding school in the capital, young Tim finds that beyond… See more details below
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In 1964, at the age of three, Tim Bascom is thrust into a world of eucalyptus trees and stampeding baboons when his family moves from the Midwest to Ethiopia. The unflinchingly observant narrator of this memoir reveals his missionary parents’ struggles in a sometimes hostile country. Sent reluctantly to boarding school in the capital, young Tim finds that beyond the gates enclosing that peculiar, isolated world, conflict roils Ethiopian society. When secret riot drills at school are followed with an attack by rampaging students near his parents' mission station, Tim witnesses the disintegration of his family’s African idyll as Haile Selassie’s empire begins to crumble.
Like Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Chameleon Days chronicles social upheaval through the keen yet naive eyes of a child. Bascom offers readers a fascinating glimpse of missionary life, much as Barbara Kingsolver did in The Poisonwood Bible.
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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 am fine. How are you?” but that didn’t sound like Johnathan really, and it didn’t give me anyone to play with.
Finally, my brother did arrive for a brief, weeklong break, brought up the escarpment in a Volkswagen van along with several other boarding- school kids, a crate of Lyles Golden Syrup, and five boxes of Amharic New Testaments. We all hugged him, even Nat, who was getting old enough to imitate us. At my turn, Johnathan smiled shyly, embarrassed. His arms stayed at his side. He wouldn’t listen to anything I said, glancing away toward Mom and Dad as if they might vanish. Only after I had snatched the dark blue Kansas City Athletics cap from his suitcase and run away did he pay attention to me.
“That’s mine,” Johnathan yelled, and he lunged, accidentally knocking my head against the stone fireplace.
“Johnathan!” Mom scolded him. “Remember your age.” Suddenly, too quickly, he was all apology, patting me on the head and placing the cap there. “You can wear it,” he said. “That’s OK.” But it wasn’t OK. I had taken the cap because I wanted him to forget Mom and Dad and act normal. Instead, here he was patting me like a newborn puppy and looking up at Mom as though desperate to please her. This was not the Johnathan I remembered from before we left him at boarding school the boy who had chased me down the guesthouse hall and past Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Johnathan stayed unaccountably meek until, with only two days left in this short holiday, Mom and Dad planned one last family activity.
They gathered several other missionary families and took us hiking. While Nat rode on Dad’s shoulders, Johnathan ran with me on the rock-strewn slopes. Unencumbered by fences, the two of us raced wild. At last I had my brother back the carefree one who wasn’t thinking too hard to simply be.
Johnathan chased me over the crest of a little hill. Then we both stopped dead. We were completely unprepared for what lay before us: an immense drop-off that stretched away a mile to each side, as if marking the edge of the world. We had both been so engaged in our immediate surroundings, celebrating the hummocky green ground and the rocks under foot, that we were stunned by this abrupt end to the landscape.
Mom and Dad caught up with us and drew in their breath. The other adults came up too. They all exclaimed as if watching a particularly good display of fireworks.
Then someone spotted something we had overlooked a herd of baboons huddled in the grassy hollow to our right.
“I can’t see them,” I complained.
“Look down my arm,” Dad said. “Now can you see them?” I nodded, sobered by how close the animals really were. The big males had lifted their gray beards and were grimacing with yellow fangs. The silent females stared suspiciously, while wide-eyed babies climbed the fur on their bellies.
Malcolm, an English missionary with bright blond curls, whispered, “Now for the show.” “Malcolm,” his wife cautioned, but too late. Already he had begun galloping down the slope directly at the herd of baboons, yelping and caterwauling.
Pandemonium. The panicked baboons split off in two directions and stampeded. One cluster came right at us, then veered to the cliff. The other cluster wheeled around Malcolm and raced halfcircle to rejoin their comrades. And all the terrified babies sent up a chattering wail as they clung to their mothers.
When I saw the baboons bounding toward me, I scrambled up my father’s legs, clutching frantically at the sturdy cotton of his shirt. They bolted by on both sides, running pell-mell toward the cliff. At the edge they didn’t slow. Without pause, they leapt into space, leaving behind just the grass and the wind and the African kite gliding high above, wings still as welded steel. Then I screamed.
“It’s OK, Timmy,” Dad insisted. “They’re gone now. Look, you can see them climbing down.” Malcolm came loping back up the hill, his face red with exertion.
He echoed Dad: “Really, lad, take a look.” Even Johnathan jumped in, acting as if he were another adult: “It’s not that big a deal. See. I’m not afraid.” He grabbed at my bowed head, trying to force it off Dad’s shoulder; but I only protested more shrilly. Dad had to carry me right to the edge of the cliff and turn around, waiting until I had the nerve to open my eyes. Then I did see the baboons. The whole clan had reassembled and was rippling down the sheer rock-face like a muscular brown liquid, descending so quickly they seemed to be falling. The infants, still clinging to their mothers’ bellies, bobbled and stared up toward me. They made no sound as their primal families dropped away, sucked into the abyss.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Johnathan said, which hurt because it came close to the truth. I still felt terrified in a panicky, helpless way. The rapidity of the baboons’ descent tugged at me made me feel I must go too. I gripped Dad more tightly and wouldn’t let go even after he stepped back from the cliff edge. As our group reassembled and started across the rocky plain toward the language school, I stayed perched on his shoulders, refusing to get down despite Johnathan’s offer to race me to the next tree or rock. I wasn’t in such a hurry now to outrun my brother.
Eventually, Dad began to sing in his rich baritone voice: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days, all the days of my life.” Then Mother joined in, her cheeks flushed red from the cool breeze and the exercise and the happiness of the wild open spaces. Her clear soprano rang out like a hand bell, and the rest of the group picked up on it. They became one big walking choir belting out the lyrics: “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And I shall feast at the table spread for me.” Little Nat had fallen asleep in a sling that Mom had rigged on her back from a native shawl, a white strip of cloth called a shamma. Safe on Dad’s shoulders, finally I joined with the other singers, compelled by the unified sound of our group. I imagined our voices carrying for miles, lifted on the cool wind and blown across the treeless pastures: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days, all the days of my life.” Could the wind carry those words all the way to the edge of the great escarpment above Addis Ababa? Could it carry the song down the mountainsides to the distant city, even to the walled academy where Johnathan would be returning to school?
I looked to my older brother walking alongside Mom, his hand almost touching hers as it swung back and forth. His lips moved with the words of the song, but I couldn’t hear his voice. Eyes fixed on the horizon, he seemed to have already gone.
Copyright © 2006 by Tim Bascom. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
TIM BASCOM spent much of his childhood in Ethiopia, where his father, adoctor, worked in mission hospitals. A graduate of the Nonfiction WritingProgram at the University of Iowa, he has been published in The Best American Travel Writing. He lives in Newton, Iowa, with his wife and two sons.
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