I cautiously peek my head out of the front gate of my compound. I step out, waiting for the affront of stares in my direction. While I love my house, I’m unfortunate enough to live on the main road, meaning there are constantly people I don’t know walking outside. As I step up to the road, I have to make a decision. Main road, or back roads. The main road is sure to get me far more attention, but the back roads are drowning in mud. So, I go for the main road. I turn right, putting my “game face” on. I’m ready for this walk into town.
As I start walking I pass students on their way to school. They greet me with my name and some random English phrases they like to practice on me. “Courtney! What is your name?” or simply screaming “My name is!” not realizing these don’t really make sense. I pass my suks that I am a constant customer at and wave hello. I pass the houses of children who always insist on running to me and shaking my hand. I don’t, and probably never will, remember these children’s’ names, but they have never forgotten mine.
As I continue down the road I pass carpenter shops, cafes, and hang outs of out-of-work young men. Some days it is like they are waiting for me. They scream at me “my honey, my beautiful!” “she is white!”, “foreigner!”. Occasionally I yell back, usually I simply ignore. I know I don’t look beautiful. My hair is a rat’s nest because I haven’t washed it for two weeks, I’m sweating profusely from the heat, and my clothes are dirty. I don’t even look remotely nice. The unwanted attention, while once funny, has lost its hilarity. They know I can speak their language, they know I understand what they are saying. For some reason, they can’t recognize how rude they are. Most days I can brush it off, but sometimes it ruins my mood and my day.
I almost always pass a teacher from my school, on their way to work. We stop and have the typical conversation, “are you fine? How is your family? How is the air condition? How was summer?” We depart and I continue on my way.
I pass farmers and their livestock. Since the farmers live in the rural areas, they are typically not expecting to see a random foreigner walking around Woreta. They stare, but are usually stunned into speechlessness. I am more preoccupied with their animals, spotting different types of adorable donkeys has become a habit of mine. I dodge sheep and horses; my heart starts to race as a giant ox approaches down the road. The cows are terrifying to me; I try to keep my distance.
Occasionally I pass one of the town crazies. There’s one woman who simply sits by the side of the road and plays the drums with jerry cans. She’s one of the harmless ones. I’ve learned the not-so-harmless ones by face and have learned to cross the street if I see them approaching, as some are sure to grab at me if I walk by.
As I near town I start to see more familiar faces. I walk by the suk of a kind, yet slightly crazy woman. If she catches me I am drawn into an at least 10 minute Amharic conversation in which I catch about five words. As she talks to me she yells to people on the street “she speaks Amharic you know! She is clever!” She inevitably invites me in to drink tea or coffee, though I usually politely decline.
I pass the fruit stand where I buy bananas. There is a hoard of street kids around it, and they yell out “Corky! Corky”. I don’t have the heart to tell them that’s not my name. One of the workers at the banana stand once used one of these kids to deliver me a handwritten love note; although he is so shy he barely speaks to me. Some come up and ask me for bread or shoes. They break my heart, but I know that if I buy something for one, I have to buy it for all, so I say no.
By now I am in the center of town. It’s busy, with people heading to the market and going about their daily business. I’m shocked at how many people are out, it’s a weekday and no one seems to be working. People yell at me, they stare. I dodge horse carts and bajaj’s as I cross the street. Mini buses drive by and yell “Bahir Dar” or “Gondar” out the window. I’m foreign, so why wouldn’t I be going to a big tourist city?
By this point I am close to my destination anyways. Even though Woreta is a fairly large town, almost everything I need is within five minutes of the center. The walk to town, while only ten minutes, can be a rollercoaster ride. I never know exactly what to expect. I’ve learned to tune out the side noises because tuning in often makes me angry. But by doing this, by not being present, I miss out on things. Friends tell me they yelled my name and I ignored them, or I don’t see or hear children chasing after me just wanting to shake my hand. I suppose it’s a survival skill, but I sometimes wonder what else I have missed. Because on the days that I do pay attention and am alert as I walk to town, despite the negative attention, I always find something that makes smile.