Cameraman, they all call me. Everyone, that is, but the steely-eyed sentry in charge of issuing visas at the Addis Ababa airport. He labels me journalist, with an accusational tone. And almost immediately threatens deportation. He is a short, thick, dark-complected African with a clean blue suit and a chilling stare. His tone is curt, his questions short and pointed.
With his glare fixed, his intent seems clear. There is a plane leaving in an hour and he is bent on having me on it. It’s a fate that seems too much to bare after having flown half way ‘round the world, literally. Here, I find, journalists are treated with a seriousness not found in other places.
Whatever the case, I mean no harm. My intent is benign — simple, and honest. I am in Africa to document the charitable efforts of a medical mission and, just maybe, come away with a visual sense of a place I’ve otherwise only known in books. Never the less, the man with my fate in his hands has his way with me. I’m spared immediate deportation, although the threat is still quite real, instead my sentence is a stay in the confines of the airport with armed guards until there could be a meeting with the county’s minister of information the next morning. Only then would I learn my fate.
At this hour, the terminal is dark, quite, and uninviting. A heavy layer of cigarette smoke lingers about eye level. It blankets my airway and compounds an already splitting headache. I manage to make camp in the corner of a deserted lounge, pushing together two roomy chairs that look and feel as though they were plucked straight from the seventies. Soon it’s clear I’ve found an appropriate spot, as a half dozen other travelers — from who knows where, sleeping in the airport for God knows why – congregate and bed down in similar fashion. But for me, sleep is illusive. I try, to no avail.
I read, stare down the empty terminal, study my book more, then try again. Still nothing. What time is it anyway; It was morning when I left home, nighttime when I connected in Washington, afternoon (I think) in Rome, and now – just simply dark in this cold empty place.
After what seemed like forever, mercifully, my body settled. My mind followed. And I drifted.
I rose shortly before the sun, feeling like hammered shit. I wandered aimlessly and made a few pictures. Soon the feeling of sickness faded. But a flood of doubt quickly rushed in. Would I really be sent packing? I was asked an honest question and gave an honest answer: I am a journalist. Would my honesty be my undoing? How long would the waiting last…
Hours later, across a long, busy, marble room, I spotted Sammy, the group’s congenial in-country problem solver whom I’d met briefly the night before. He was flagging a piece of paper bearing the stamp of the minister of information. We hugged, I paid twenty bucks, and like that, I was once again a free man.
In the safety of one of the group’s rented minivans, I stared from the window like a wide-eyed child. Addis Abba is amazing. Later that night we weaved our caravan of vehicles through city slums to an oasis of a restaurant tucked down a cobblestone alleyway ringed with barbed wire. We ate, we drank, socialized, and I decompressed. It was wonderful.
Today we were met at the hospital by a hoard of perspective patients hoping for a new lease on life. The crowd buzzed with our arrival. Although their words were completely foreign to me, their body language spoke volumes. They stared at us, or maybe just me. I stared at them. I’m not sure who was more fixed on whom.
My fascination, however, was short lived as the medical team organized and quickly set into action. Hundreds of needy Ethiopians coursed through the one-room clinic, station by station. Brothers accompanied siblings, mothers held daughters, and fathers led families. They came from far and wide, all with unique and equally compelling stories.
By day’s end, the team had screened some hundred and fifty perspective patients. Labeling a great many high priority — those that would likely receive the corrective procedure in the days to come.
The second day of screening was considerably easier. Most of the patients had been evaluated the day before, easing the pressure and leaving the team part of an afternoon free.
With map in hand, I struck out on foot. I didn’t get far before being beset by beggars, lepers, and street kids. I fended off all but one 13-year-old charismatic self-proclaimed orphan. Clean, sharply dressed, witty, and clever, Abush feeds me bits of Ethiopian culture little by little. Ultimately our path ended at the foot to a 19th century church, complete with crypts and a great deal of the county’s history.
I waited while Abush worked his charm on the church’s deacons and head priest. There was banter, silence, and raised voice. When the dust settled, the head priest ushered me in to the church, cameras and all. I was as respectful as I knew how. I stripped my feet bare and stepped into something truly spectacular.
It was like time stood still and the world outside washed away. Like I had thrown the curtain back on history. The church consisted of one tall square room, lit only by a small uniform row of windows near the ceiling. The ages old artwork was alive with color, texture and form. Occasionally the feel of time worn stone under foot gave way to the boom of cast iron trap doors otherwise hidden under layers of ornate carpets. Heavy metal doors that the priest, Abush, and I would later heft to reveal the underground resting place of some of the country’s historical figures.
When we parted ways, Abush had talked me out of about 100 Bihr. Less than $10 US dollars. A fair price, I figured, for a chapter of memories I wouldn’t soon forget.
Addis Ababa is an urban puzzle of wonder and grit. Dirty, big, and beautiful, the city is a kaleidoscope of life. A place that barrages foreign senses from every angle. New high rises jut through waves of rusted shanty town rooftops, traffic scurries, sounds dance and crash, and smells sear the memory.
A short drive outside the city center we find the rented room one potential patent and her father call home during their quest to be seen by the Operation Smile team. Arafassi and her father have traveled long hours by bus and by foot from their remote village for a chance to be seen by the Americans. The only place in the city they can afford to stay is a tiny room nestled in a catacomb of dirty passageways hidden away from the main street. A place known by locals as a haven for sex workers.
At thirteen, Arafassi has never been to school. Ashamed of her cleft lip, her personality is shy and reserved. She hardly speaks. When she does it’s in a voice little more than a whisper. Her eyes rarely leave Africa’s Earth floor.
Many of those looking for help come from places far outside Ethiopia’s capitol. Most have either begged, borrowed, or sold all they could to pay for passage to Addis Ababa.
Among those long distance travelers are 11-year-old Solomon and his father Teshome. Solomon’s village is small and remote. It consists of a tight knit series of earthen huts that sometimes double as house and barn for the family’s livestock – a valuable source of income for the axiomatic people.
In his element, Solomon is a fun-loving little boy. An all but normal pre-teen son in a family of many siblings – with yet one more on the way. On the farm, Solomon’s cleft lip is hardly an issue. He runs, plays and works with a smile.
But outside his element, Solomon slips into reserve.
Like most parents, Mengistu Enkossa would do nearly anything to help his daughter lead a better life. But as a farmer of meager existence, Mengistu’s quest would involve four rejections before selling his last cow to fund what he considers a final attempt to be seen by the visiting American medical team. This time, however, fortune would smile upon the simple man and his family.
At almost five-years-old, Mengistu’s daughter, Meti, bears the physical appearance of a toddler. Her frame is tiny, but she is not gaunt. She is little but her features are round and full. Her small body hardly seems the appropriate vehicle for all the personality packed in it.
Like most in her in her situation, Meti is reserved in public but animated in her comfort zone. Among friends, she comes to life. She is spirited and opinionated, with all the energy and enthusiasm of her peers. She is playful, even a bit mischievous. But cross her line, get too close, and she shuts down.
All roads leaving Addis are long straight shots cut across vast miles of open land. Small towns occasionally seep out from the shoulder of the main road and traffic belts out a chorus of horns at it flows around livestock and stray animals. Hit a dog and no one really seems to notice. But cow, sheep and the like are a different. Like money in the bank. In many cases, it’s all a family may have.
In route to Saedu Shemsu’s village, we spend an hour or more on the paved highway then make one hard turn onto a dusty, gravel road littered with potholes and long sections of washboard bumps. The body beating I suffer in the back of our driver’s aged SUV is brutal. I’m tired, cramped and sore. But as the landscape of a hillside village grows on the horizon, thoughts of discomfort dissipate.
Saedu’s village is rural, quaint and inviting. A world away from the ghettos of Addis. It’s lush green with beautiful views. The village is anchored by a good sized school in the shape of a small compound. There are long rows of classrooms laid out end to end. The earthen huts here are larger and better constructed than others in the area. Saedu’s home is particularly nice. It’s big and looks as though it’s built to weather the worst of storms. Shemsu, the patriarch, has erected a smaller, but equally sturdy, mosque next door where he and other men in the family practice their faith.
The Shemsu family is friendly, but they find the American visitors with cameras very curious. Never the less they welcome us with genuine smiles, pecks on the cheek, and a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. I’ve had lots of coffee in my life, but nothing like this. The women of the family skillfully grind the sun-dried beans in a knee-high mortar with a pestle the size of a Medieval weapon. The fire-brewed result is then served up in tiny cups and complimented by handfuls of half popped kernels of roasted corn.
As the day goes on, all eyes seem to be on us. The women watch and whisper. They refuse to let my cup empty, there seems to be no end to the flow. And it’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted. My definition of coffee is changed forever.
Back in Addis
For the 85 million people of Ethiopia, there are just three plastic surgeons. But on this day most of an entire floor of the Black Lion Hospital, the country’s largest, teems with Operation Smile volunteers and patients in all stages of cosmetic surgery. Preop is abuzz with nerves and giddy anticipation. Procedures in the operating room move like clockwork. And people who once knew ridicule and shame so well now face life with new found self esteem and confidence.
It’s said visiting Africa changes a person. Am I changed? The short answer is yes. In some intangible way I’ll never be the same. But part of that change is the realization that my experience here can only pale in comparison to the deep and meaningful turn of events that have happened in the lives of the people touched by this medical mission. I can truly say I’m proud to have been a witness.
A complete collection of images can be found on my editorial site; http://www.carlcostas.com