Yonas is cross and munching saltbush. He swivels his head towards the rusting armaments left many moons ago by the Somalis and then back towards Habesha and Bworo.
“Come on, you crabby old banda!” Bworo says. “We have work.”
Yonas raises his head to the sky and emits a groan of extreme reticence, the guttural groan of the despairing slave in captivity. Habesha giggles and Bworo shakes his head. They are accustomed to the protests of their only camel.
Tearing off more leaves, Yonas snuffles them suspiciously. His lower jaw juts first left, then next chew to the right, but his eyes remain fixed stonily on Bworo’s.
Bworo had chased his daughter early from sleep too. “Hurry Habesha, we’ve got wat and injeera, but we don’t have much time.”
“Daddy? But… today is school, isn’t it?”
Today there would be no school, he’d said. Today they would be making a different journey. Habesha knew not to question Bworo when there was urgency crackling through his sentences. While she was mopping the sauce with the spongy bread, half remembered thoughts had flitted in and out of Habesha’s mind. Had there been commotion? – a disturbance in the night? Had she woken to see Bworo standing at the entrance to her room?
Yonas growls and crouches, resting his belly on the ground, knees pointing forward. Bworo supports Habesha’s rebellious hand as she mounts.
“Solis, solis! Ay!”
And quickly, they are on their way, leaving the mud-huts on the mountainside, Bworo walking alongside Yonas, and Habesha sitting astride him, the rough straw-like hairs chafing her soft thighs. Heading down and towards the three boulders, they have barely begun when Yonas bumps to a halt, grumbling all the while. Habesha hears frustration rattling in her father’s throat.
“Come on, we need to make some progress here!”
Yonas arches his shoulders and Habesha finds herself lying on her back with a tail thrashing her hair and face before being thrown uncomfortably forwards onto his hump.
“Daddy, I think he’s about to–”
A stream of pulpy brown liquid sprays from the camel’s mouth to the ground.
“Has something frightened him, daddy? A mountain snake, perhaps?”
“No, he’s just a reluctant servant. At least we won’t have him forever.”
Bworo gives Yonas a sharp tug with the rope and they are moving again.
“Is he ill?” Habesha is patting Yonas’ neck.
“No! He’s just old.”
“I know that! He’s around fifty years old.”
“Yes, Grandma Zenabu remembers him from–”
“When she was my age, daddy, I know.”
By way of joining in the conversation, Yonas gives a series of snorts, as if to confirm that he too is familiar with Grandma Zenabu’s childhood recollections.
“He’s not happy, as he was up and about last night.”
“Last night? Did something happen? And where are we going?”
He does not answer, which is no surprise. Habesha’s grandmother has been heard to say, “Bworo is so stubborn, the President of Ethiopia could not persuade him to scratch a circle in the dirt with a stick.”
“You are not taking me to meet a husband, are you?”
There is a pause before Bworo answers.
“To meet a husband? Of course not.”
Habesha finds that she is sticking her jaw out. Distracting herself, she tries to remember Grandma Zenabu’s story from the evening before. It was about three elderly sisters living on the other side of the mountain, but Habesha must have drifted into sleep and cannot recall any details.
“Grandma Zenabu rode Yonas when she was your age. Just like you’re doing now,” Bworo says.
“Yes, she tells me many things about her childhood and about yours too, daddy.”
The Ogaden desert has opened before them – bleak, hazy and magisterial.
“It’s enormous,” Habesha whispers, allowing herself to sway with the camel’s movement.
“It is indeed. But it can be our friend if we treat it with respect.”
From nowhere, two children cross their path. Sharing the burden of transporting water, which rests centrally on a carrying pole, they impress Habesha with their casual speed.
“Daddy, I know you must think I am pretty useless because of my bad hand, but I can help more on the farm. I’m frustrated just preparing the teff flour for injeera. You have to believe I can do more, daddy. Otherwise, my life will be as barren as this desert.”
“I don’t understand ‘as barren as this desert’. You’re speaking the language of books again.”
“The boys cannot bear to look at my hand, daddy. Because it points in the wrong direction. You know that none of them would want to be my husband. That’s how it is, daddy.”
Bworo stretches up high and pats his daughter twice between the shoulder blades.
“Your beauty is inside you, Habesha.”
“Although to be honest, there isn’t one of those boys that I’d actually want to marry. They’re all so irritating and childish!”
They continue silently and then Habesha tries again.
“Why are we going through the desert, daddy?”
“It is the quickest way to Jijiga.”
“We’re going to Jijiga?”
She has heard many stories of the city; the fighting and floods, the hubbub in the market place, the donkeys pulling wagons, the loud speakers and multi-coloured headdresses, the men with wheelbarrows and the stooped stall holders, the cars and cafes that sell bottled Coca-Cola.
“And you promise that this has nothing to do with me being married – because I’m much too young?”
“It would be against the law, daddy! I learned that in my lessons.”
“You have my word, Habesha.”
“That’s good. Did you know, Jijiga has telephones and even an airport?”
“I expect you found that out in your lessons too.”
It has been fourteen months since her father announced that she would be starting school. She knows how strange and difficult that was for him. For the longest time, Bworo had been caught in a storm passing between his mother and his wife. The arguments raged at night in the hut when Habesha was trying to sleep. But that conflict is over now.
“I am making really good progress there, daddy. Mr Amoudi tells me what an advanced reader I am, and how well I can understand complicated ideas. I know Grandma Zenabu thinks the journey’s too long and dangerous for me, but –”
“Grandma Zenabu doesn’t believe in girls going to school. She says there’s nothing to be gained from it. You should thank your mother for the fact that you’re going.”
“I do, in my prayers, I thank her every night. Perhaps, at some point, Grandma Zenabu can be persuaded –”
“She is ill, Habesha.”
“Grandma? No, last night she told me a story–”
“Listen to me. In the night there were problems. Mr Belete came over, but he couldn’t help. He told me our only hope was to take her to the hospital. Grandma Zenabu rode on Yonas. I took her there.”
“This all happened in the night?”
But now he, Bworo, is with her. So Grandma Zenabu is alone in a hospital.
“I came back for you, Habesha. I thought you’d want to see her.”
“Thank you, daddy.”
Grandma Zenabu is lying alone in a hospital.
“Is she very ill?”
“We don’t have much time, that’s all I can say.”
It took time to find the hospital as the criss-crossing streets perplexed Bworo more in the daytime than in the darkness of night. But Habesha was able to read a sign pointing the way and she now finds herself sitting next to an iron bed in which Grandma Zenabu lies motionless. Except that it is not the real Grandma Zenabu, at least not the same one who told her a story last night about sisters on the other side of the mountain: how Habesha wishes now that she’d stayed awake for that! And this is the first thing which Habesha says, apologising for her lapse, and adding that it was no reflection on Grandma Zenabu’s storytelling abilities (her stories being the very best in the world), and saying how she wished that Grandma Zenabu would open her eyes just one last time and finish this story off. But Habesha knows this will not happen as the student doctor from Holland has explained (with a nurse, translating) that “the patient is unconscious and slipping away” and that there is nothing more to be done, leaving aside the fact that the doctors avoid using drugs, which probably won’t work and will simply add to the family’s bill.
Years later, Habesha would look back to these last minutes spent with Grandma Zenabu as she lay dying, and would shed tears that she could not remember the precise words she’d said to her (as if those words alone would have been enough to bring back the moment and thus the person), just as Grandma Zenabu’s last words to Habesha have been irretrievably lost. She’s reasonably confident about having said that she never asked to go to school (not even after her mother died from Malaria, which had prompted Bworo to change his mind on the vexed subject), and that she understood that school was the last thing that Grandma Zenabu had wanted for her (quite possibly adding how Bworo also often told her that he’d got through his whole life without being able to read and so couldn’t see why she needed to). What is certain is that after what seemed like no time at all, the Dutch doctor came back to the bed with her father, signalling that the time for goodbyes was over. Habesha believes that she leaned towards her grandmother’s creased face and whispered that she loved her more than anything. Just a few minutes later, the old lady was dead.
After leaving the hospital, they walk with Yonas along the subdued streets of Jijiga. Judging by the position of the sun, it must be after midday. There is a sudden roar as a moped ridden by two boys tears past them and around the corner. Yonas opens his huge jaws and howls a rebuke after them into the fume-filled air.
“D’you know what that machine was?” Bworo asks.
“Yes, a moped.”
A street beggar at the crossroads has overheard their conversation and gives Habesha a large and friendly thumbs up to confirm that she has the correct answer, and Habesha smiles before noticing that the palm of his hand faces outwards with everything awkwardly pointing the wrong way, just like her own hand. Bworo’s fingers tighten on her shoulder in a way that conveys he feels a powerful emotion, then he quickly steers her round the corner.
“Are you thirsty?” Bworo asks, and then surprises Habesha by tying Yonas to a post outside a café. “Come on, let’s go in here. You can try Coca-Cola.”
They sit with their drinks by the window. There are students with bags and books. They had both noticed the university building rising tall in the distance.
“You must go too,” Bworo says.
“Go where, daddy?”
“To the university.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mr Amoudi came to our home one evening. He came to tell me that you are a clever girl–”
Habesha feels excitement stirring inside her. But she interrupts and says that she can’t possibly leave him. Who will carry the water first thing in the morning? And who will prepare flour for injeera?
“Your cousins can help out more, the lazy bandas. Mr Amoudi told me that you are such a clever girl you could go a long way. The university is what we should be aiming for.”
“But Grandma Zenabu says schooling is wasted on girls. Just last week she said what a mistake it was to send me to school. She said that I’d just end up getting married, and that anything I learn will only help my new family.”
“We don’t need to worry about everything your grandmother said now. She’s not here anymore to argue with me about this. We must do what is best for you. How is the Coca-Cola?”
Habesha sips liquid through the straw just as she has seen in text book photographs.
“It is strangely explosive. And very, very sweet. But I think I can learn to like it.”
“So you must ask Mr Amoudi, what we should be doing to get you to university.”
In her mind, Habesha sees a corridor in a hospital, a door opening to allow a woman to be wheeled through on a trolley. “Are you ready Dr Kibebe?” her assistant asks. She makes a start straight away, sometimes seeking help with the stethoscope and other medical implements as her rebellious hand cannot perform all that is necessary. When the operation is over, her assistant pours coffee into her china cup. “With your skill and God’s blessing, we will make Malaria a thing of the past,” he says.
“You will have a great future. That’s what Mr Amoudi told me,” Bworo says.
Habesha’s focus returns to her father.
“Did he really say that?” she asks.
Through the café window, life on the street is getting busy once again, with children running along the sidewalk, women carrying baskets of vegetables and men chatting and smoking cigarettes. There is a whole new world out there and it is exciting and visceral. And she, Habesha, is going to be a part of it.
“Is that your camel outside?” The café’s proprietor has approached the table and is standing over them.
“Yes, that is my camel,” Bworo says. “His name is Yonas.”
“Well, Yonas has fallen asleep outside the door of my café. My customers are having to leap over him to gain entrance.”
“Yes, that’s because Yonas is tired. But please don’t worry about him, the sleep will do him the world of good. And also, you should know that this is the first time my daughter is trying Coca Cola. One day, she will be going to your university – yes, that one over there.”
Habesha looks up at her father’s face and she sees that his eyes are dancing with mischief.
James Woolf’s short stories have been shortlisted in various competitions including the Bridport Short Story Prize. He was highly commended in the London Short Story Prize and placed second in the Greenacre short story competition. His works have been published in Ambit, Kingston University Press, Disclaimer, Cabinet of Head and Cafe Aphra. He completed his first novel last year and also writes plays which have appeared in London theatres. He lives in London with his partner and daughters.