Who Watches the Watchmen?

by Scott McAllister

I got this idea into my head that it would be fun (and informative) for me to riffle through my photos of life here in Ethiopia, choose one that is particularly poignant to me, and to expand upon it for my friends and family living 7,604 miles away. (And yes, that distance is accurate; I googled it.)

Without further ado, here’s the first story of what might become a serial.

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Meet Tesfay, the former guard of our former house. We moved out of this house last summer, shortly after the ‘incident’ I’m about to describe occurred.

First I’ll limn the backdrop. The walled compound we lived in contained one huge yet untenanted manse – which is what Tesfay was charged to guard – as well as the smaller, much smaller, musty three-room add-on that we occupied. There was a paved driveway within the walls of our compound, situated directly in front of our rooms, and it was in this makeshift courtyard that we’d exercise, grill out with friends and hand-wash and air-dry our laundry. Although Tesfay customarily sat outside our compound when on watch duty (as pictured above), he never failed to come inside our compound if he heard me or Jess outside in the driveway.

He’d come to watch, silently watch. He spoke no English (although he could count to ten in Italian) and, much to our annoyance, he would remain as taciturn as a mute whenever I tried to converse with him in Tigrinya, even though he definitely spoke Tigrinya. He was like a helicopter, just hovering right behind you, but quiet and unobtrusive, but that eerie quietness was all the more annoying because he would just stand there and watch your every motion with these unreadable beady eyes.

Washing clothes, he’d just stare. Jumping rope, he’d just stare. When I got to planting a garden, he’d just stare. I’d speak to him and he’d just grin cheshire-wide, and stare. I got to thinking there was something wrong with him, in the head, but every now and then, when I’d get frustrated with him and tell him to back off and give me some damn privacy, a sly smile that seemed to signal how he knew just what he was doing and knew that I knew what he was doing would creep onto his face just long enough to freak me out, and then he’d slink away. And I checked with our neighbors to make sure he was all there in the head. He was.

This guy was just good old fashioned weird is what I’m saying.

So one week before we’re supposed to move out of our house and leave this creep behind, which happened to be the busiest week of my service – the week leading up to a summer camp that I largely helped organize – I swing by the house on my lunch break to pack up a few things and to explain to Tesfay that we’ll be moving our things out over the course of the next few days. Only Tesfay isn’t around. I saw him from far off, when I was walking up the street to the house, but when I arrived he was nowhere to be seen. No matter, I thought, he’ll turn up by the time I’m done packing a few things and I’ll talk to him then.

It was when I walked outside the compound, after not finding Tesfay napping within the larger house, as he was wont to do, that I first sensed something to be amiss. As soon as I emerged onto the street he started moving at a canter to cross the street. Slowly, casually, I make to follow him. He looks over his shoulder, eyes me with this guilt-stricken sidelong glance, and starts jogging down the street like he’s trying to flee me. I holler out his name and his pace only quickens. Confused and not just a little annoyed, I break into a stride to catch up. When I accost him, he refuses to face me straight. He won’t stand still, squirming like some kindergartner that’s about to get scolded for having his hand caught in the cookie jar. What gives?

The reality of his captivity eventually sets in and I can talk to him without having to hedge him in with this silly merry-go-round dance I was pulling. While I’m talking to him – or rather talking at him – Jessi rolls up and starts tapping me on the shoulder. I ask what’s up and she points to the shorts Tesfay is wearing beneath his long careworn overcoat. I look and think, “hey, those are nice shorts”. And then, as fast as light illuminates a dark room, it dawns on me that those are my shorts he’s wearing!

Contrary to what you, dear reader, might be thinking, I did not flip out. Not yet. Calmly I inquired, in the local language, when and where he bought those shorts. Magically, the mute replies, saying he bought them in the city a month ago. I say that is not possible because those are my shorts; I bought them. He promptly, unthinkingly, calls me a liar. Now, what you need to understand is that the word for liar in Tigrinya is not one that gets tossed around lightly. You best mean it if you’re going to say it. It’s insulting. Jess and I, dimly recognizing this invective when he heard it, look at each other in disbelief, conferring with our eyes to try and confirm what we both thought we just heard. Remaining as laid-back as possible, I once again tell Tesfay that those are my shorts. Raising his voice and ranting in a rare display of volubility, he proceeds to call me a liar, amongst other unintelligible things, once again. Fed up, I cut him off, my temper snapping like a tightly wound up cord and my words flying back into his face like so much whiplash. Now it’s me ranting and raving about how he’s a liar, That I – not he – bought those shorts, That I have pictures of me wearing them, just check facebook! Are you crazy old man!?

Of course, in hindsight, I should have known he didn’t have a facebook to check…

By now the neighborhood has turned out to see what all the ruckus is about. The owners of the shops we’re standing in front of have stepped out, their customers, too. Passersby have stopped for a gawk, and I suddenly realize that we’ve got an audience. Fueled by the high-octane mixture of righteous indignation that anyone who has been a victim knows all too well, I turn to enlist the looky-loos by explaining my plaint in the best Tigrinya in can muster. Luckily I’m understood, more or less.

Next thing I know the crowd has corralled Tesfay. His back is pressed against the compound wall, the spittle of fierce accusations is lashing against his face, fingers are wagging, shouts are flying, and there Tesfay stands, motionless, cornered, as wide-eyed as quarry trapped by a predator. It’s at this point that I step in to deescalate the crowd. I tell them to just keep an eye on him while I go get my police officer friend from the cafe down the street. I distinctly remember having to tell the crowd not to hit him.

Tesfay and the crowd surrounding him is still there when I return with the cop in tow. I’ve explained the nature of this “incident” to the cop during the walk, and I leave it to him to exact justice on my behalf. As the cop and Tesfay are talking, one of the onlookers approaches me and says, in perfect English, that he’ll translate everything that’s being said and be my voice to the cop, since the cop, like the guard, speaks absolutely no English.

Here’s the gist of what went down.

Tesfay:  These are my shorts.

Cop: The Foreigner says they are his.

Tesfay:  He is a liar.

Cop: I don’t think he is a liar. Where did you get the shorts.

Tesfay: I bought them.

Cop: Where?

Tesfay: In the city.

Understanding the conversation so far, I vehemently interject: He’s a liar!

Everyone looks at me, more amused than astonished at my ability to follow the conversation and express my needs in their language.

Cop: You did not buy those in the city.

Tesfay: I found them.

Cop: Where did you find them?

Tesfay: Outside. In the streets.

“Liar!”                                            <—————– That’s me again.

Cop: Where did you find them?

Tesfay: Inside the compound.

I interject: Show us.

We – this whole motley crew of shopkeepers, wayfarers, school children, ferenji and a police officer – walk inside the compound, me thundering ahead of the group demanding Tesfay to indicate where exactly it was he found these shorts. Cowed by all the attention, he points to a spot directly underneath our clothesline.

I ask:  Were those shorts wet when you found them?

Tesfay: Yes.

My follow up:  Then do you think that they might have fallen off the clothesline – my clothesline – and that they didn’t magically fly over the compound wall and land here on the ground? (I had a lot of help translating that question!)

To this Tesfay finally owned up and confessed. A relief.

There was no punishment; no trial, no prosecution and no arrest. Tesfay simply went inside, disrobed, and turned the pants over to their rightful owner: me. I could see that the shame Tesfay endured was punishment enough and I had no desire to see him punished any further, even though a few vocal folks in the crowd were demanding that he be taken into custody. That would require paperwork. And time. My time. No thank you. I was busy enough with this impending camp. I wanted to end this as painlessly as possible; so I had my newfound translator friend translate my sincerest wish for us to put this ordeal behind us – to forgive and forget.

Extending my hand in what I thought was a magnanimous gesture of forgiveness, Tesfay flatly refused me. As churlish as a little child, he wouldn’t shake my hand and accept my forgiveness. Nor would he apologize. His recalcitrance stoked the enmity of all the onlookers and, before I knew it, it was chaos all over again. Folks were yelling at him, demanding him to say sorry and shake my hand. Eventually he crumbled under the pressure, but by then all my magnanimity had withered away. I still took his hand, but I looked him square in the eye with what I hope was a cold, hard, mean look – a look that communicated my downright disgust with him and his thievery.

What, you’re probably wondering, is the moral of this story? Where’s the silver lining?

I’ll tell you.

It’s about community. Integration. Friends and a sense of belonging. I doubt I would have been able to recover my shorts without the help of my neighbors. I may not have known them all by name, but they sure knew me – the resident ferenji that somehow speaks their language. That’s what saved me. The language. Life in Peace Corps can be grueling, a slow uphill slog through a mire of cultural misunderstandings and other faux pas nightmares, but it’s crazy moments like these – the time your guard steals your shorts and you’re a breath away from socking him in his mealy-mouthed face to get them back – that reaffirm your purpose and all the hard work and overtime you’ve been putting in to integrate into a community that more often than seems indifferent to you.

I was grateful that day – as I have been every day since – for my community.

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