Mornings in the city of Mekelle always look like mornings after a holiday. The excitement from a previous night’s party is still a fresh etch in everyone’s mind as they lounge around on tiny wooden chairs on the side of the streets, crabby but fixed on staying awake, grass and bottle corks everywhere, a lingering air of a happy sun shine like a smile must have stretched to become the whole morning.
Strong rays from the optimistic sun reflect in a spectrum of colors off of my spoon as I spin it in my coffee cup.
“Put that down. You’re going to blind me.” She says.
“Makeda!” I get up to say hello.
Always in the back of my mind, I imagine running into her because it is likely as much as it is unlikely. You never know. She could be anywhere. Flyaway hair, blue jeans with the ankles folded and way too many gadgets on her small wrists, she’s like the wind and she is like the sun. She smiles at people but only with her eyes and once in a while, you get whiff of that vanilla sugar she’s been spraying at the nape of her olive colored neck all her life.
She likes telling people about her name.
“It’s the Queen of Sheba.” She would say. “Sheba is where the queen was from. It was not her name. Her name was Makeda. The title is self-explanatory. I don’t know how we got that wrong.”
She’s never above formulating her theories about people as if she knew them even if she didn’t. “Menyilik probably did steal the arc of the covenant from Solomon. I mean the king might have been the definition of wise and good looking but that probably means that he was a jerk too. So, his son did him justice by shaming him like that.” She once said to her mother’s priest. The old man blinked several times trying to formulate a proper response and was glad to not have to when Makeda’s mother came back into the room. “Your daughter is quite the young lady, God bless her.” He said to the mother.
For a minute, I wonder if maybe we’d made plans to meet up and I’d forgotten because she just pulls a chair and starts to get comfortable.
I never have anything to say to people. So, she sits and searches the café with her eyes to spot someone to serve her and I try to think of a social and acceptable thing to say to avoid the awkwardness about to commence.
A waitress comes and Makeda orders a bottle of water.
“You don’t want coffee or tea? It’s early in the morning.” I say.
“Who the hell made that rule anyways?” she says.
“I think it’s supposed to keep you alert for the rest of the day.”
“Coke has caffeine too but we don’t get up in the morning and drink coke.”
“That’s because coke tastes better cold and you want a warm drink in the morning.”
“I want water.”
It sounds like an argument but it isn’t.
The waitress serves the water and Makeda takes a small sip from the bottle.
Across the railing of the café balcony we sat on, a little street kid of maybe six years, in dirty clothes and no shoes, sat snaking his filthy, dirt caked fingers on the rail. His large glassy eyes watch carefully as Makeda picks up the sweating bottle of water and touchs it to her lips for a second time, another small sip.
“This is just sad.” I say. I wasn’t talking to her and the words escape my mouth before I could regulate my tone. She looks at me then follows my eyes to the little kid. Then she follows the little kid’s eyes to the bottled water.
She picks it up and hands it to him.
An automatic smile lighting up his face, he reaches through the rails to receive the bottle of water and then runs away so fast like he thought she might take it back.
“It’s not sad.” She says. “Begging is shameful, isn’t it?”
“It is.” I say. “I can barely ask anyone for a small favor like to pass me that sugar.”
“There’s a woman who sits over there.” She points in the general direction of the empty road. There is very little traffic this early. “She doesn’t beg. She doesn’t utter a word. She just sits there and if you’re feeling like it, you can throw her something and she will take it. She will not thank you.
I don’t think she ever got used to that shameful feeling of begging. But I think we people get used to humiliation through time. Hell, we can get used to anything through time.”
“I hate that we have to sit here and look at this. We’re drinking luxury water and imported coffee and they’re across the street looking in at us. They probably think we’re something amazing but we’re just a bunch of idiots sitting in a café because we have nothing better to do.” I say.
Makeda smiles at me but her lips don’t part. Her eyes brighten for a moment and they dim again like she is sad but sad for me.
“We’re city people. We dress a certain way and act in certain ways that we can’t help but look like we have more going for us when really the most exciting thing in our life sometimes is getting to see the sunrise.
“We walk around here every day dodging out stretched hands begging for five cents that will only stay stretched out for more five cents to make for a two-birr breakfast. Don’t you hate it when you give them some money and you see them go to the next person and beg for more? You want to feel like you’ve done them a favor with that money you could have used for taxi fare and sometimes they thank you for it and the older people shower you with all the blessings you feel like you sure don’t deserve.”
“We should do something.” I say. “We should do something to help. There must be something we can do.”
“Don’t beat yourself up.” She says. “Some problems are too big. All the motivational speakers and the people of faith will tell you that nothing is impossible if you believe and all that but somethings are just too darn impossible. You can’t feed all the hungry people in the world.
“We give them coins to stop that churn of guilt we feel if we don’t give them coins.
“Let me tell you how to stop it. You can stop caring so much about it and accept that some people will just have less of something. Some people have no food, some people have no love, some people have no empathy, some people have nothing. It will always be like that. Always. Or you can give them everything you have. Everything until you have nothing too. So, that feeling of guilt that shakes you because you are more fortunate than some, goes away.”