The Rastafarian in leather skins and rags had fixated on me, frozen me with his fierce eyes, and something told me that a friendly Tenyais tillin and Indeminadderu might not get me through this situation. What I remember most clearly was his bushy beard, the dreadlocks, and his overpowering smell. I had grown up on a farm and in the close confines of this classroom the wild man brought back to me all the barnyard smells of my youth.
I took another step closer, still clutching a handful of composition books, as if they were any sort of weapon to defend myself, and the man made a lunge, stopping me in my tracks. Two girls sitting in the front row screamed and knocked books to the floor. In the doorway the guard took another tentative step forward into the classroom. He raised his club as if to strike but didn’t.
I kept thinking someone in the Headmaster’s office must have dialed Addis Ababa’s version of #911, but there were no police sirens wailing into the school’s compound. No outside help was arriving at my classroom door. I might add that all my romantic notions of the Noble Savage in the African bush swiftly slipped out of mind. There is something about the reality of a situation that focuses the mind.
Then from the back of the room, the 2E class monitor, Abebe Kebede Muleta, stood and spoke calmly to the man. All of us who taught in Ethiopia came to appreciate and respect the classroom monitor, the student selected by the others to represent them, to dole out punishment, to negotiate with the Headmaster.
I didn’t know enough Amharic to know that Abebe Kebede wasn’t speaking in Amharic. This student was from a rural village south of Addis. I did not know at the time that he was an Oromo who were then called Galla, and which is now a pejorative term. He was speaking calmly in Oromo to this man. The Oromo were [and are] the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and have lived in the Horn of Africa as long as recorded history, but were considered second-class citizens by the ruling Amharas. They are hardly that. Abebe Bikila was an Oromo and the first African and Ethiopian to receive a gold medel in the Olympics, running the marathon barefoot through the streets of Rome. He was the first of many Oromos who have won medals at the Games.
I learned later that Abebe Kebede did not know the man, but he knew he was an Oromo, and he swiftly and unexpectedly took control of this classroom confrontation, which was all right with me. The Rastafarian was surprised, I guess, to hear his mother tongue. His eyes shifted from me to Abebe Kebede, then back to me. Abebe Kebede kept moving forward, still speaking softly to the man. I did not move. Abebe was a row over from me and moving slowly towards the front of the room. No one was else was moving. The classroom was silent, though out of the corner of my eye, I saw several boys rise in their seats. Boys really is the wrong term. These guys were in size and strength bigger than me. And they were also Oromos.
Abebe Kebede was about my height but twice my build. If he had been a boxer he would have been a natural light heavyweight. At the time, he was 18 or 19 years old, but had such a sweet nature he seemed much younger, more innocent. Yet on that day, and at that critical moment, none of his innocence was evident. He approached the man with the calmness of a hostage negotiator. Later I would be reminded of the old western, Whispering Smith, starring Alan Ladd as a soft-spoken railroad detective who goes up against his best friend, played by Robert Preston.
Abebe had moved himself in front, blocking the wild man’s view of me, protecting me, and the wild man had backed off, banged up into my desk. Several of the other students moved up their aisle, as if they had already worked out a plan to corner the stranger at the head of the class.
This he must have realized as he wheeled his sword to keep them back and then thrust it in my direction one last time. Abebe Kebede raised his voice, said something urgently, gesturing towards me and waving his hand as if to dismiss whatever it was that the Rastafarian might be suggesting.
The wild man was up against the blackboard and the front of the aisles were blocked by a students. I was safely behind them all. Abebe spoke again, gestured with his chin that the Rastafarian should leave. He motioned towards the open door. The school guard, I saw now, had melted away.
Again, and unexpectedly, the Rastafarian made a lunge at me, then halted, turned, and ran. He sprinted from the room, out the door and across the gravel compound, passed the bust of Haile Selassie and out the gates of the school. I reached the door to see him run into the traffic on Smuts Street and disappear from sight. Then I saw Ato Seifu, our Headmaster, rushing from his office and into the courtyard, followed by several other Ethiopian teachers. He was shouting in Amharic at the school guard, and heading straight for me. Now I was in trouble, I thought, first the Rastafarian, and now the Headmaster!