Tuesday, March 9, 2004

The Emperor and the Popcorn

“HA HU HI HA HAY HER HO, ME MU MI MA MAY MER MO,” came the droning from the schoolroom. There are 251 letters in the Amharic alphabet, which really represent syllables formed by a consonant followed by different endings. The best way to learn was to join in the chant.

When Mother and Daddy had first arrived in Abyssinia, their language study occupied every spare minute. They both learned to speak in Amharic, the principal native language of Ethiopia.

After language study in the capital Addis Abeba, the couple moved forty miles to supervise the Boy’s School in Addis Alem. Addis Abeba means “New Flower” and Addis Alem means “New World.” There wasn’t much time for studying the language while supervising the school; arranging the furniture, which was uniquely adapted packing crates; planning menus with the cook; and decorating their home.

The walls of their new home were made in traditional style with varying thickness of mud, straw, and cow dung held together with water and decorated with whitewash. Mother fancied the effect of wallpaper and found some designed with vertical stripes. Using a paste made from flour, salt, and water, and working dexterously to make the stripes and uneven walls come artistically together, the task was finally accomplished and the effect viewed with pride. At dawn the next morning there came the realization that the ants had had a banquet on the paste, and all the wallpaper had rolled onto the floor.

Mother also had some novel experiences with the cook. One of the first mornings she had asked him to place a tablecloth on the high clothes line. As he jumped up, a pocket full of sugar streamed forth. He announced, “Now look what those boys have done. They have filled my pockets with sugar to get me in trouble!” After that my mother measured out ingredients for each recipe.

Even though some food products could be found at the Addis Alem market, food, when available and at the right cost, was brought in by horseback from Addis. Lentils and other grains piled on the ground of the marketplace could be taken home and washed. The ever-present rocks caused speculation that the person preparing the lentils could become a “rock hound.”

The market women would bring eggs to my mother, who would direct that they be checked in a full pail of water. In this way, the rotten eggs could be eliminated. One woman became very upset when her eggs were found wanting, and she angrily removed herself and the eggs. At one time the family from the German Mission found that their shortage of eggs was due to the entrepreneurship of the yard boy who had been selling the eggs elsewhere and collecting the “tehunes.” This small coin, the size of a farthing, was often kept inside the cheek of the women in the market. They were expert at spitting out necessary change.

The subject of meal planning and food was ongoing; sometimes it was very much a trial. Mrs. Bergman found her cook was boiling strawberry jam for hours. It would not thicken as he had stolen the sugar. Mother always supervised the milking of the cows. This way no water could be secretly added. Of course, all water and milk had to be boiled.

Without immunizations and no antibiotics, we survived typhus and typhoid.

It was better not to take too much notice of every detail of food preparation. Verena’s family had a houseboy who made their toast. On one particular morning, the toast was late. Investigation showed this young lad by the outdoor fire. With bare feet extended on either side of the fire, he was holding a stick over the flame to toast the bread, and then placing the slices between his toes. The toast had not arrived at the table because he had not filled all the spaces between his toes.

Fresh vegetables were grown in the mission garden. It required painstaking effort to plant the garden from precious imported seeds. Placing a fence of thorns around the garden discouraged porcupines but did little to prevent the thieving birds, deer and monkeys. Consequently, boys watched the garden night and day.

When my parents first came to Ethiopia, Empress Zauditu was the ruling queen. My father had visited her in her previously and knew her without royal regalia. Her husband, Ras Guksa, seemed to be of ordinary birth. After her death, he was beheaded and persons could view the grisly proof of his death as it was carried around the countryside in a basket. During Empress Zauditu’s reign, there was speculation that the young Haile Selassie, who was of royal blood, would be the next king. He was fluent in several languages, interested in betterment of his country, and wished to meet the few foreign educators and doctors.

In 1925 my parents were settling into the routine at the Boy’s School. They wrote letters to America, made out shopping lists from the Montgomery Ward catalog, and every month took the daylong horse trip to Addis. At this time, my mother was also supplementing their income by churning butter for sale in Addis. This brought the fantastic sum of five dollars to her small metal cash box. No one tried to steal this small box. We still have it with attached key, still in perfect working order.

Early one morning, a runner came with a message for my parents. He unfolded the paper from the end of the split bamboo, where it had been placed for safekeeping. This message brought great excitement to my parents and the boys in the school. It was a message from Haile Selassie announcing that he would arrive the following day. The entourage would arrive on horseback, for there were no cars in those days.

What does one serve to royalty? Mother supervised cake baking and sandwich making. Dad remembered his one great success, popcorn. The seed, brought from Iowa had produced popcorn, despite the onslaughts of monkeys, and was harvested for a great occasion as this. Haile Selassie tasted these fluffy white puffs for the first time. From this day forward, there was a deep friendship and trust between Haile Selassie and my father.

After the coronation in 1930, there would be visits to the royal palace, both for holiday and other occasions. My father would interpret for visiting dignitaries, always remembering never to turn his back to the Emperor. After the British liberated the country from the Italians, my father again had friendly visits with the Emperor.

In 1953, and again in 1974, the Emperor visited the United States and received my father with a warm handshake. The Emperor had not forgotten those who were loyal to him and his country. Perhaps popcorn should be known as friendship food.

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