Once upon a life: Dinaw Mengestu
Flying back to his native Ethiopia for the first time in 25 years, Dinaw Mengestu is struck by how closely the childhood home of his imagination resembles the real thing – though there were no lions on the runway
The first time I saw Ethiopia since I was two years old was while looking out the window of a British Airways flight as it headed into the capital’s new airport at 3am. When my family left Ethiopia in 1980 we headed straight for Peoria, Illinois, a modest-sized city in the heart of the country, and had always but never really looked back. Peoria then was not the first home I had, but it was the first home I can remember. The fact that it would take years before I would even begin to consider otherwise says something both about how thoroughly American we had become and how willing we were to try to leave the past behind.
It wasn’t until I was almost 16 that I began to think about Ethiopia, but once I did so, the idea stuck. Ethiopia became a safe haven, an imagined country I could return to to escape the all-the-too limited boundaries of what it meant to be black in America. In mind, if not out loud, I could say I was Ethiopian, and even if I didn’t know precisely what that meant, it was one way of saying to the multitudes who wanted to see only the nigger that they had imagined for me, that I was beyond their reach, that they had nothing that could touch me.
Twenty-five years had passed since we left Addis Ababa, and in that time I had attached an almost mythical significance to what it would be like to see the city again. I pictured myself looking out on to a vista of low-lying mountains with a ramshackle city in the middle. My father, who had worked for Ethiopian Airlines before fleeing the country in 1978, four years into the communist revolution, had once shown me a postcard of a plane on the tarmac with an enormous lion crouched next to it, and that was the image I had when I thought of returning back home: a bright sunny day with a single aeroplane on the tarmac, lion and all. I was going to touch Ethiopia’s soil and, like the prodigal, drop to my knees and weep.
I was surprised to see the streetlights from the plane. They sprawled into the distance, and from 1,000ft made Addis resemble any one of a dozen small cities I could have been flying into that night. Despite the late hour I knew someone would be there to meet me at the airport. With the exception of my uncle Berhane, though, I did not know what any of them would look like. I had never met my aunt Aster or her daughter. I’d seen only a few pictures here and there, and none at all in at least a decade. I had never once heard their voices. At the time, there was only an implacable fear of not knowing who or what to expect would be waiting on the other end. We were strangers and yet we carried all of the expectations and customs that came with close family, which in this case translated to half a dozen people standing shoulder to shoulder behind a black rope a few hours before dawn.
I would realise later, after two months of never being without a relative near me, just how much had been lost during all those years away from one another, how much could never be regained, and at the same time just how easy it was for a family to claim you as one of its own – and how much I wanted to be claimed.
The drive from the airport to my grandmother’s home, where now only my aunt and her daughter live, was a significant one in that so much of what I had hoped to see now passed by me for the first time. I had a mental list of places and streets that had been important during the 1974 revolution and therefore, by my reckoning, important to my family’s history. These included Meskel Square in the centre of the city, and Roosevelt Street and Mexico Square, all of which we flew past in a few seconds on our way to the house. I wished time could be held still so I could be certain I had fully captured every sight.
It was only a month before arriving in Addis that I saw my first pictures of my grandmother’s house. Only one had made its way out of Ethiopia with us. It was a close-up shot, with me crawling on the top step of a short porch, my mother standing above me with my sister in her arms. There is no sense of the house, its shape or size; just that porch, with a chipped blue wall behind and my mother, 28 and startlingly beautiful. Despite its visual absence from my life, the house had a narrative power that more than compensated for what was unseen.
Here was what I knew about that house going into it that first night: it had been built by my grandfather 40 years earlier; at one point its three bedrooms had held my grandparents, six children, my sister and myself, along with servant’s quarters in the rear. During the height of the Red Terror, when my mother’s brothers were either headed into exile or jail, Berhane, 15 years old, had spent months hiding in one of those rooms, sometimes under a bed, until eventually he turned himself in to the police rather than continue to risk his family’s safety. My sister, then only three, used to run and tell him when someone was nearing the house.
That first night in that house I came closer to understanding just how malleable time really was. If I had a memory that was legitimately mine, I could say that after 25 years, nothing had changed; that the house was waiting for my mother, my sister and me to return. The bedroom I slept in was the same one I had slept in almost three decades before. The bed was the first one my mother and father bought when they got married. When my father went to Italy on a business trip and never returned, my mum packed up everything they owned and brought it all here with her. The orange paint was the same, as were the stickers of Disney characters; faded, yes, but the same nonetheless.
Over the course of one evening a few days after my arrival, my aunt ran through every piece of furniture that had been left by mother and father. In the dining room was a picture of two moose standing in front of a lake, with snow-capped mountains in the background. My father had brought it back from one of his trips to Europe, and no one had thought of taking it down, despite how awkward it looked. There were the letters my mother and father had exchanged once he arrived in Illinois. Certain phrases were blocked out for the sake of the government censors. One envelope included copies of the letters my father’s bosses at the Caterpillar factory in Peoria had written on his behalf to his local congressman and state senator. It was those letters that, more than anything else in that house, left me lying awake late into the night trying to imagine the sacrifices that had to be made in order to leave here.
After my mother, sister and I went to America, my grandmother was careful to keep everything just as we had left it, because our trip out of the country was only supposed to be a temporary affair – a minor fluke in history that would pass once the country’s military dictatorship was destroyed. Life was supposed to return to normal. All we had to do was sit and wait in our little apartment in Peoria, Illinois.
Of course that never happened. One year gave way to the next. My grandfather died; my uncle Fekada made his way from Sudan to Paris, then Washington DC. Berhane was released from jail and took a job with the government that had sent him there. Over the next two decades one aunt after another would leave, and my grandmother went with them, leaving that once overcrowded house with its immaculate little garden of banana trees and flowers, to sit and wait it out, almost entirely alone, because even though none of us goes back as often as we promise to, it doesn’t mean we don’t do so regularly, if only for a few seconds, for the sake of memory, or in my case affirmation that the home I imagined does indeed exist.