My Eritrean Sister by Laurel West Kessler (Ethiopia)
By Laurel West Kessler (Ethiopia 1964-66)
Mhret clasped my hand as she pulled her filmy shawl over her face, looked down at her lap, and shed silent tears. Sitting on low stools on her patio, we were looking at photos of her son, Tefera, who was living in our city in California. He had gone there in 1991 to earn a soccer coaching license. Now in 1996 my husband, Wayne, and I were living in their country, Eritrea. Mhret wondered when and if she would see her only child again. Her diabetes — which occasionally put her in the hospital — certainly gave her reason to worry.
I had first noticed Mhret and Tefera in October 1964, when they arrived by bus in Adi Teclesan, the village in Eritrea where we were Peace Corps teachers. In the crowd of arriving and departing passengers, they stood together holding hands, a young mother in a nylon print dress and plastic shoes waiting with her four-year-old son while their wooden footlockers were carried down from the roof of the bus. I continued on my errand to buy a quarter kilogram of blue laundry detergent powder and some onions, not knowing yet who they were.
Ghebrecristos, her husband, was teaching with us at the elementary school and was also giving us Tigrinya lessons twice weekly. Once their household was settled, he invited us for tea to meet his wife and son — surprise, the pair waiting by the bus! This was the first of many mutual invitations, and Mhret and I were soon calling each other haftei, my sister. We joined a women’s club that met weekly to drink coffee and contribute to purchasing eyeglasses for needy students. She introduced me to many Tigrinya words, often demonstrating them in pantomime: for t’el, she put her index fingers by her forehead and bleated like a goat! She insisted that I needed a mogogo, the traditional oven for cooking fermented sourdough pancakes and simple unleavened bread, so she built one in our backyard and showed me how to use it. I often had tea with her after school, and one day she surprised me by saying in Tigrinya, “When I have another child, I will name it for you or Wayne.” In a flash I imagined the difficulty a boy would have with the name Wayne, so similar to a girl’s name, Weini, meaning grape or wine, or a girl with Laurie, sounding exactly like lorry, British for truck. But I blurted — no chance to consult Wayne, “If we have a daughter, we’ll name her for you.”
Sadly, Mhret didn’t have another child, and seven years later, our daughter, Joyanna Meherette was born in California. We chose Joyanna because she was born on our wedding anniversary and Meherette — with adjusted spelling — to honor my promise.
In 1994 having completed a year of study in France, Joyanna visited Eritrea to meet Mhret. After they exchanged traditional kisses on both cheeks — but this time way more than the usual three times — and “Welei! Kame alohi?” (my goodness, how are you?), Mhret at last knew her namesake.
Joining the celebration was Colin, Joyanna’s brother, who was teaching environmental science in the Asmara Teacher Training Institute. He asked if he could prepare the traditional coffee. Not unusual for a visitor to do this, it was unheard of for a man to prepare coffee. Mhret must have been itching to do it herself, and she sat on a low stool on the patio, giggling in apprehension and admiration as Colin performed the whole coffee ceremony — roasting the beans, grinding them with mortar and pestle, boiling them three different times, and serving the coffee in tiny cups. Tefera’s wife and children stayed in the background.
Before Colin’s year at ATTI, I had volunteered for the Ministry of Education and stayed in this family’s home for seven weeks. It was the first time I’d seen Ghebrecristos and Mhret in over two decades, and she was just as special as ever. I was surprised that she was much thinner, had a goiter, and used false teeth. Now living in the capital city, Mhret continued many village ways: she washed clothes by hand, cooked over a single kerosene burner, made coffee over charcoal, and had her hair braided in tiny rows close to her scalp. She also enjoyed city conveniences: a single water tap in the compound and an electric mogogo for baking the sourdough pancake bread.
One evening I attempted to pour the batter in a large circle from the outside to the inside and ended up with lacy pancakes, too thick in some places, too thin in others, and riddled with big gaps — so funny that we broke out laughing. I was successful, however, helping her to peel nearly five pounds of garlic, my fingers burning and the papery layers sticking to them.
When Wayne and I lived in Asmara from 1995 to 2002, Mhret and I continued to call each other haftei. She welcomed us and various friends to visit, serving tea or coffee and delicious traditional meals. She purchased wheat and corn at the market, picked out the chaff, and had them ground into corn meal and whole wheat flour for us. And she continued to help me with my Tigrinya vocabulary. She did favors for us, and I was about to do one for her — carrying homemade berbere (powdered hot red pepper and spices), shiro (a powder of garbanzo beans, onions, garlic, and berbere), and dried sourdough pancake bread to Tefera on my return to California. He had earned his professional soccer coach’s license and, by 2002, he had not yet returned to Eritrea and his family. Until he went back in 2005, I lamented that I was not with Mhret to hold her hand again as she shed silent tears over his absence.
Laurel West Kessler (Ethiopia 1964-66) served in the Peace Corps with her husband in the province of Eritrea, teaching in a village. There she gained her career calling: ESL, teaching in California, Kenya, and again in Eritrea 1995-2002. Her other pursuits have been motherhood, Wayne’s photo business, and an organic vegetable plant nursery. She and Wayne live in Mount Shasta in far northern California.
7 CommentsLeave a comment
A beautiful story, Laurel, well told. Thank you for posting it.
A delightful memory! The most beautiful aspect of this story is that most PC Volunteers have similar memories of aspects of their experience. What a treasure trove. Thank you for sharing it.
A very nice story, reminds of many others I have heard from RPCVs over the years. I visited with my Dominican community development ‘boss’ for about 33 years until he died in 2014 from diabetes. I am still in touch with his wife and youngest son, and I visit Fe, his wife when I go to the Dominican Republic every 2-4 years.
Wonderful memories. Thank you.
Gee: this is an excellent story and very good writing. I live in California also, i was in the first group to Ethiopia in1962 to 1964. So I guess we missed each other. Too bad for me as i like the story so much. I live nearby, Chico. I was at the university here for 37 years. May be we might meet some day.
thanks for the writing and the story. loved it.
jon ebeling, Eth 62-64 and then again 1967-1969.
love and peace.
As a friend and former Eritrea volunteer, I share some knowledge of Tigrinya with Laurie. It’s wonderful to discover her great talent as a writer and to see the way she touched other RPCVs. This is the best way to deal with our memories: to distill and marinate them until they reveal a deeper truth.
Hello Laurel. This is Al Jensen. Just wanted to reach out after all these years to say hi. Been about 40 years since Roxanna and I lived in Redding along with her family, Baldwin’s.
Hope all is well. Warmest greetings to you and your family.