Ethiopia Boyby Chris Beckett
Chris Beckett grew up in 1960s Ethiopia, a country he describes as a barefoot empire, home of black-maned lions... old priests decked out like butterflies and blazing young singers of Ethio-jazz’. Ethiopia Boy plunges the reader into praise poems that sing and boast and glory in the colours and textures of this extraordinary country. Here is a world of
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Chris Beckett grew up in 1960s Ethiopia, a country he describes as a barefoot empire, home of black-maned lions... old priests decked out like butterflies and blazing young singers of Ethio-jazz’. Ethiopia Boy plunges the reader into praise poems that sing and boast and glory in the colours and textures of this extraordinary country. Here is a world of feasting on spicy kikwot and of famine sucking the water from rivers, of lion buses and a prayer child, where Earth sings greetings to the feet that walk on her. Haunted by the memory of his friend Abebe, the cook’s son, Beckett celebrates and laments a lost boyhood in poems of vivid immediacy.
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By Chris Beckett
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2013 Chris Beckett
All rights reserved.
Abeb, the cook's son
Abebe, from a distant afternoon
Abebe, from an afternoon where everybody naps
even the donkeys propped against trees
on their little hoofs
Abebe, tall as a eucalyptus tree
Abebe, black all over when he pisses on a eucalyptus tree
who jaunties down dirt tracks to the honey shop
buys two drippy honeycombs in a box
Abebe, the cool boy in drainpipe jeans and sky-blue sneakers
Abebe, the busy crossing where girls stop to chat
who clicks his fingers to the funky Ibex Band
as we saunter back up track
Abebe, calling come here! to the dog called Come Here
Abebe, trotting round the dog-yard like a horse
who saddles up the smoky horses and takes me prairie-galloping
who makes a dash at mud-caves where hyenas sleep
who shows me how to cook kwalima beef and ginger sausages
and a chickpea fish for Lent
Abebe, gobbling up the afternoon like a kwalima
Abebe, grinning like a chickpea fish
while everybody naps
kwalima: a spicy dried sausage made with minced beef and ginger, as well as plenty of pepper, cardamom and turmeric
Brow of a giant, tufty, full of birds
Dad cuts the engine, calling
so our car swoops down the giant's back
with gasp of tyres
just then a raggy boy appears
flings out his gabi like a bustard's wings
racing down the roadside on small springy feet
on the 't' of take-off
now a fierce astonishing idea flies in the open window
am I leading the wrong life?
all it would take is to open this door
all I must do is to jump out into the wind, shouting
but when I turn the handle, with Dad yelling over his shoulder
and our car still plunging like a stone
the boy and his life leap in
gabi: a thick shawl worn over normal clothes for warmth
Egg yolk, petrol, honey on coarse bread ...
you rebel son of stuffy parents!
piss-brother to a woolly cloth for hermits
who sticks so fast to the long rough threads
not running even when you're boiled
ohoo! you make the boy look at a robe and wonder
could I be simply colour?
xxxx one night he dreams he'll wake up not a boy
not white or black
but bastard yellow, blind, an attribute ...
he is a rich light flooding the bedroom
he is the raffish sweet sound of your name
now he feels bold enough to hug another shape
and change it! define it!
what will he do with this, who will he love?
adults are like insects, mistaking you for pollen
but you are what the boy sees, how he remembers the future
Praise-shout for Asfaw, the best cook in Africa!]
Lips-on-fire! is his spicy lamb
tummy-in-heaven! is his mango jam
awo! he is Mister Cook
our Mister Happiness Cook
his face is rounder than stew-pots
but his fingers run fast as billy goats
his t'ibs cut crisp as a shoe-shine
his fenugreek water, araa! cooler than limes
when he's shredding a fitfit, he whistles
when it's fasting and hushhush, he whispers
dogs howl for his gristly bones
sheep sidle up with muzzling and moans
how can I praise the man who feeds me?
he is my father because he feeds me!
I stand at the iron gates and shout:
Asfaw is the secret I will never let out!
do you know Asfaw, the husband of Almaz?
negus of kitchens and sons?
he cooks all day to feed his families
he is a hundred wooden spoons!
t'ibs: fried meat
fitfit: injera (moist unleavened bread) mixed with spicy stew
hushhush (shifinfin in Amharic): stew hidden under a layer of injera, to be ordered under one's breath during one of the many religious fasts!
What's for dinner? Dad calls
flooring bulgy briefcase ...
we holler all we're worth
Wot's for dinner, Dad!
his forehead puzzles up
that's what I'd like to know!
by now we're giggling so hard
we nearly wet our pants
three shrieky wriggle-sacks
he scoops to covered basket
tears off ant-hill hat
look! spongy pancake splashed
with knuckle-squirts of stew
and staring eggs, long sticktooth
shreds of goat, gooey
angel peas and half-bean kikwot
Dad prissies at our fists
tearing food apart
looks on scandal-browed
out, forks! out, schooly Englishness!
we trill, loading our strips
of injera with bombs of
senafich and slither-chicken
drop them on our tongues
three, two, one..... blast-off!!!
then wave our gluey hands
straight up like gum-trees
Asfaw marching in
with bowls and towels, sprays us
in a froth of tut-tuts, scruba-
dubs all reeky colours back to pink
... bar little nubs of black
tucked under our nails
in the chattery corpse
of our freckle-potato fingers
wot: wot and injera is the Ethiopian national dish, eaten with the fingers. Wot is a hot spicy stew made with chicken, beef, eggs, tripe. Strips of injera are used to scoop up the wot
kikwot: half-bean stew
the one who roars at gates and donkeys
the one with more doors than a house
the one with two rich tones of skin colour and a flashy
the one who takes neat heads to school
who takes sorrow to the airport
the one with strange songs bubbling out of his windows
as he dusts off to market
the one who holds his warm nose out of the mud
who stuffs a feast of yams in his back pocket
the one we tap and brother as he shoulders along our street
the one who gets a splashy sponge and rub-down
every morning by his own boy
the one we own with our shiny eyes
the one called Zephyr, waxy and proud!
'giving transport service for the city of Addis Ababa from
6.15 a.m. to 9 p.m.'
you who honk and stagger down Progress
through Cooperation Avenue
you who lick us with diesel, swaying this way and that
with our shopping and hot flesh
where is your pride, lion bus?
where is the lioness to do your hunting of kudu and goat
while you snooze under a tree?
we don't believe that lions can be buses!
we don't believe that painting Anbessa on a bus
in big gold letters changes you
you slow slug of metal
you cramper of knees and buttocks
yes, there are cars that run like the wolf
there are small trucks as patient as donkeys
but then there are buses, buses ...
anbessa: lion (Amharic)
Goat, Doney and Dog
in the style of Kebede Mikael
Once upon a time, little friend
Goat, Donkey and Dog
took a taxi to the Monday market,
now how should they divide the fare?
with many bas and haws and barks
they finally agreed that
each of them would pay a third,
but Goat searched every fold of skin
and couldn't find a single birr
so he butted at the door and ran away,
then Donkey shook a smallish note
from the wallet of his right ear
and offered it politely clamped
in his long yellow teeth,
while Dog turned paw to palm
and handed over a twenty
crisp as any Monday morning
and waited on the kerb for change.
But the driver was that kind of man
whom God tests by giving him a car
and once behind the wheel
he loses sight of his humanity ...
his eyes become narrow and greedy
because he believes that
no one else has such a dashing taxi!
no one else can go as fast as him!
he forgets to say to himself:
Yefat, you have the speed of lizards,
but you cannot make milk like a goat
you cannot cart firewood like a donkey
or guard the house like a dog ...
Yefat, you are still just a man
with two legs for walking into church
and two knees for praying!
So all the taxi driver did was laugh
and spit and speed away ...
and that is why, little friend,
Goat runs off whenever a car appears,
why Donkey always stands so stiff
and righteous in the middle of the road.
It is also why Dog, poor cheated Dog!
always barks at cars and chases them
and tries to bite their tyres.
Kebede Mikael (1914–1998) was an eccentric and much-loved poet and playwright who translated Romeo and Juliet and Faust into Amharic. His poems are often amusing parables, with titles like Adamna burrew ('Adam and his ox') and Anbessana t'ota ('Lion and Monkey'), in which man and animals complain to God about their lot and receive his impatient replies.
birr: Ethiopian currency
imitation of an ox lament from the Kafa highlands
O, my horse, let me sing!
O, my stormy horse, who neighed
like a wind in the big rains
like a drill at the new airport, let me sing!
my horse, who galloped out of rusty gates
whose tail was still in the stable while his head swept
past the church of Yeka Mikael
O, my horse, let me sing!
O, my speedy horse, who overtook buses of every make
lorded it over mules and pissed on dung-beetles
your mane was a flag
your legs were marathon runners
you were not for the gharry trot-trot or carty sticks to market
you were not even for the lucky boy to enjoy riding
you were for the pride of being a horse
O, my horse, let me sing!
O, my fidgety horse, who liked to ripple the skin
up/down your body, let me sing!
you who threw flies off your carpet
who threw dust-writing up in the air, telling other horses
where you'd gone
O, my horse, where have you gone?
O, my brotherly horse, who took me out of the back seat
out of the stuffy windows
who rode you after I went away?
who saw the world from your back, felt your blood beating
under his knees?
O, my horse, let me sing!
O, my sleek horse, what are these shabby bone-bundles
clopping down Yeka Road?
Wondwossen, the prayer child
after Nega Mezlekia
When you are born as the result of fierce and persistent prayers
when you are born from prayers to all known saints
and from a fortune spent by your mother visiting a holy man
who has just returned from Madagascar and is said to have
the most up-to-date knowledge of the dead and the unborn
when you are born from the gift of a sheep and five kilos
of clarified butter in a tin and a box of expensive oudh
when you are born despite the spells of your father's brothers
to stop another boy inheriting the family's farmland
despite the fact that nobody in the family is a farmer
when you are born and straight away dressed in little frocks
and spend your first four years on earth as a girl called Kutu
when your fourth birthday is marked by the most lavish party
to which four hundred guests are invited, including neighbours
and relations, local bigwigs and their wives, plus all the good
and bad spirits who preside over the town
when your fourth birthday party is also attended by twenty-two
street dogs, seven stray cats and five famished eagles
when your mother brings you out in boy's clothes, with your hair
cut short like a boy, and announces that you are a boy
when everyone is overjoyed except for the evil spirits of
body-snatchers who have no more power
then you know that your speaking soul
and your thinking soul
and your soul that is capable of being saved
and the earth and wind and fire and water
that together make up the seven elements of your being
have been brought into the world because they were all desperately
wanted by your mother
who will always want you, even when she is dead
and you are dead
and because of the fierceness of her wanting
you will always want yourself too
Nega Mezlekia's wonderful memoir of his childhood in Jijiga, eastern Ethiopia, is called Notes from the Hyena's Belly (Penguin Books, 2001). Wondwossen was Mezlekia's best friend and the book is dedicated to him.
oudh: the dark fragrant resin produced in south-east Asia by the agar tree when it becomes infected with a parasitic mould. It is highly valued for use in perfumes and incense
Excerpted from Ethiopia Boy by Chris Beckett. Copyright © 2013 Chris Beckett. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Chris Beckett is the winner of the Poetry London competition and was recently recognized in Chroma magazine.
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