Remembering my encounter with Kifle Selassie, I am hearing whispering waters from an ancient African well. It’s full of a history and cultural wisdom from deep in the Earth. Its waters are those which the African Diaspora is urgently and, too often unconsciously, hungry for and of which the larger Western world is oblivious, contemptuous or covetous. It’s a water whose element connects all the human species… another kind of “Holy Water” sometimes full of fire, ultimately healing… come to the river. The best of who we are is often manifested in those waters. That is where our souls touch in that blinding universal force and we kiss the sky and water all at once, full moon and countless constellations shimmering, swirling and turning. Come to the river people.
Gidaye returns me to the De Gaulle International Airport again via the metro. We pass stately houses, others that have what I would call distinctly French masonry in character, some have a Normandy influence, some have harsh industrial function, other places the global urban tagging and graffiti make disruptive voice amongst the “normalcy”- the voices of the under class and youth if it’s anything like home.
Gidaye and I retrieve my bags from storage and push the heavy load to the Ethiopian Airlines desk. Once again, as in Minneapolis, I am not on the confirmed list. I can hear the frustration in Gidaye’s voice. I can tell from the determination in her voice. She won’t have it! There is lot of back and forth the negotiation goes back and froth in English, French and Amharic. It’s evening time and Gidaye has to be up at 4am and off to work. Taking me home and knowing I will get to airport again is not a pleasant option.
I am totally involved in this drama but I am also noticing something about many of the Ethiopian women I know, the ones in my family anyway. They are cultured, articulate, and fully present in life. They could function in a palace or traditional rural village. They have life skills with the spirit of pride of lionesses. Sisterhood is powerful. They have this matriarch thing down! Over my life I have witnessed first hand many times how this cliché of the “weaker sex” has been crushed in the dust… and yes, they hurt, they bleed, too often cry alone and yet the rise and their feet are on the road as we journey together as family… family motivates and unites.
They tell us at the Ethiopian Airlines desk that the flight is full and even over booked!! My frustration and rage come up big time, but I take a deep breath and remember to trust the journey I am on and Ancestor Energy moves me. I overhear one agent tell a man with a similar challenge as mine say there are 11 confirmed passengers who have not checked in yet. It is 25 minutes before departure and 11 possible African passengers had NOT checked in? I know my people and Western time schedules and the realities of life are telling me to get on the standby list. At least 2 out of the 11 are gonna make a way for me. Besides that, 11 is one of my favorite numbers. I smiled and waited my turn. Gidaye said, “Let’s get these bags checked with tags just in case.” Good move because within 15 minutes I had a boarding pass.
Gidaye and I hugged and kissed in the traditional Ethiopian greeting and farewell and she invited me to stop by again on my way back if I could. It would be great to connect again and maybe see the Eiffel Tower and more of her world. I learned a lot listening to her stories…about her personally and our family as a whole…joy and pain…our capacity to endure…wisdom hard won…the fierceness of love…what family does and does not mean.
Entering the plane the Ethiopian staff greeted us all warmly, but once a critical number of us had boarded it began to feel rather chaotic. Most of us came on lugging our “fully packed” carry-ons. There was hardly enough room for all the stuff we brought…personal belongings and holiday items for family and friends I assume. The man was waiting with me at the desk for a seat ended up sitting side by side with me in the middle and an Ethiopian traveler to my right in the window seat. This was a night flight and we must have all had very full days by now in preparation, so there was not a lot of chatter amongst us. As I looked about there was every flavor of dark skinned person on board from African to East Indian. Also present were Chinese who now have a strong presence in Ethiopia along with some European appearing men, women and children. I might have been the only person on board who was of African and Native American heritage, but with my skull cap on they might have assumed I was one of the region’s Muslim citizens as long as I didn’t talk.
Eventually I went to sleep after a meal with free wine. I didn’t want my claustrophobia to kick in with 8 hours in an enclosed space sitting between 2 men. I took one of my sleep aids and drifted off for some number of hours. I still didn’t have a sense of time while in flight. Soon I could see the first blush of dawn from the window. My spirits lifted as I gazed at the African sunrise…a symbol I had used in my poetry, but was now seeing for the first time in this life. If I was the first in my family to go to Africa, who were the ones who left? How long has it been? I feel a growing gratitude as the light glows and grows. *Thank you those that brought me here.* (Something weird just happened with the previous line. It went bold all by itself. I did use the asterisk to suggest a silent thought.)
As we prepared for landing the crew had turned on some Top 40 music from the 70s. As we descended, what should start playing but the Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar” which begins with the lines: “Gold Coast slave/ she bound for cotton fields/ sold in the market down in New Orleans.” This was pure coincidence I am sure!
With great patience I wait for my turn to gather my carry-ons and deplane. Fresh air!!! It is bright and crisp outside. I am smiling from inside out now full of wonder at being so far from home yet home at last. I hear Aster Aweke in my head singing the New Tizita. I am happy in the sunlight and my eyes begin to fill. Home, familiar and strange. There seem to be greeters all along the way letting us know what to do and where to go. There are also soldiers with high powered rifles strategically placed so we always know they are there. Strangely enough my anxiety does not assert itself.
Next I am in a long line to get a 3-month visa. Then to baggage claim… I find a free cart and load my bags and proceed to the airport lobby. Again I encounter more friendly greeters there to help people find taxis or hotel shuttles. I ask one of the women to make a call to my sister Elsa to let her know I am here. They weren’t there as soon as I arrived because my nephews needed to be dropped off around the same time I was arriving. But I didn’t have a long wait near the parking lot. Soon I heard a shout: Babalou we are here!
Where does Babalou come from? Well, it refers to something I first heard on the “I Love Lucy” TV series in the 50’s as a kid. It is the name of a song/chant from the Afro-Cuban religion called Lucumi that Ricky Ricardo is known for. Not many people understood that this was something out of Africa. It comes directly from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. “The name Babalú-Ayé translates as “Father, lord of the Earth”  and points to the authority this orisha exercises on all things earthly, including the body, wealth, and physical possessions.”
To bring all this to what it has to do with me is this: Baba means father in a lot of languages including Amharic, Arabic, and Swahili among others. My Ethiopian family usually calls me “Lou” or “Brother Lou”. In my grandfatherly status, my 6 year old Ethiopian nephews, Kinfa & Leelaye call me Babalou. You see the logic?