Bizuayehu watches four men bring in poles and erect the green khaki tent with practised efficiency. The dullness of the fabric against the gloomy, grey sky will make the day more unbearable. She turns away and walks back inside the house, making sure her gaze avoids the coffin in the living room. Somebody has moved the dining table that used to be outside. She stands at the door of her bedroom, trying to remember why she came in.
“Bizuye, you’re not dressed yet? Where’s your netela?” Seble’s question launches her into motion. Bizuayehu begins rummaging in her closet, haphazardly throwing clothes onto the bed, looking for a white netela with black tilet. She can never find it when she needs it. She puts on dark tights under her grey housedress and reties the shash that hasn’t left her head for nearly a decade. Seble moves the pile of clothes from the only chair in the room and sits down.
“You still haven’t found it? Qoi, let me look.”
Bizuayehu glances around the room blankly. A small, pink, plastic-gilded mirror hangs on the wall right next to religious posters: a pale Mary carrying her pink-cheeked cherubic son, a handsome Michael heroically standing over a dark-as-night winged figure, a series of talismans guarding against bad omens and bad dreams.
Seble stands over the pile of clothes on the bed, frustration beginning to shadow her face.
“When was the last time you wore it? Was it Eteye Zenebu’s funeral last week?” She tries to inflect kindness into her voice to mask her irritation. Now was not the time to get annoyed at her grieving neighbour. “Never mind. I’ll bring one from home.” She gives the pile on the bed a final toss before leaving the room.
Bizuayehu heads to the window. The men are carrying long wooden benches into the tent.
Seble has returned. “Here, wear this. Are you okay in those shoes? Bey eshi, let’s go outside and check on the food. You never know about those people hired by the edir.”
Bizuayehu follows Seble out of the room, through the hallway, and into the makeshift cooking area at the back of the house.
Two women sit silently on low chairs; one peels onions while the other chops.
“Eshi endet new? How can we help?” Seble pulls up a chair without waiting for an answer, picks up a large knife, and joins one of the women at her chopping board. The synchronised rhythm of the two blades against the wooden board lulls Bizuayehu’s already numbed senses.
I bought that board with Emaye. Baba was still in prison, and Kelemua refused to cook anything, so Emaye and I had to do all the work.
“Bizu, come help. Let’s finish this before the qebir,” Seble cajoles.
A sharp wail pierces the compound. The ladies chop unperturbed, but Bizu is shaken. She walks back inside to see her sister, Kelemua, surrounded by cousins, sobbing.
“Weyne Emaye, I’m glad you’re not here to see this. Weyne…” she shrieks.
The cousins try to comfort her, but she continues, pacing with her hands on her waist. She wears blue jeans and a deep-green silk shirt, too dressy for the occasion. A black scarf is elegantly draped across her shoulders. Kelemua is an administrator at a hospital.
“Your house…oooh all your friends are here…Emaye…Ema…my mother, yene konjo…” She wrings her hands, limbs failing to connect to the fashionable body.
Bizuayehu and Kelemua’s eyes meet before Kelemua promptly turns around, crouches, and exhales loudly. Their brother, Brook, finally approaches and steers Kelemua to one of the chairs in the tent. She sits down quietly, as if her animation seconds ago never happened.
Her eyes rest on a black-and-white photo of her father sitting to her left. He wears a Major’s uniform from the Derg era, his youthful face staring back at her, devoid of the gravitas it’d gained in old age. She turns around in disgust. Kelemua hadn’t known her father was ill. When Brook had called her early this morning to give her the qebir details, she’d felt nothing. She’d gotten dressed, called work to tell them she’d be taking a personal day, and headed to the childhood home she’d only lived in while her mother was alive. Despite how close their mother and Bizu were, it was Kelemua who’d inherited her independent spirit.
Brook leaves her side to check on the work in the kitchen. He notices one of the cooks struggling to lift the large tub of chopped onions into the edir pot, and he rushes to help her. He takes the large wooden spoon from her hand and begins to stir.
“Ere, what are you doing? The women will take care of this,” the edir cook reprimands, alarmed at his enthusiasm. Brook continues to stir.
Seble enters from the house, carrying packets of water some guests had brought. “Brook, where’s your sister?”
“Who? Bizu is resting, I think.”
“Ere Kelemua. Why is she even here? It’s been a while since she’s been in this house. Why isn’t she doing anything? It’s her father’s funeral.”
Brook remains silent, not wanting to get caught in another fight between his older sisters or with Seble as Bizu’s proxy.
“Yerasih guday. Do what you want. But her disrespecting her father on the day we lower his bones into the earth…” She’s irritated by Kelemua’s misplaced grief. “Esti, go check on Bizu.”
Brook gives the spoon to Seble and goes back into the house. He sees her standing in the hallway. Bizuye watches her youngest brother’s lanky figure approach in his cosy, white gabi, and she’s momentarily envious of the warmth he likely feels in it.
“Bizuye, are you okay?”
She gives a weak nod. He stares at her lined face, the greying hair peeking out of her shash, her weak, tired eyes. His sister had aged suddenly, growing exponentially older as their father’s health declined. He had been unbearably moody in those final years. Brook had rented a house close by, leaving Bizu with their father in this small house that rarely hosted guests, unwilling to endure the claustrophobic tension. He had loose entrepreneurial aspirations, working as a broker in the city. He was the only one amongst his siblings to attend university, but he couldn’t find a job as an engineer.
“I know you’re scared, but I’ll move in with you. I’ll be the man of the house now.”
The morning passes without any event of note. The threatening early morning clouds had dissipated, leaving a scorching sun in their place. Relatives, close and distant, trickle into the house, their eyes teary, embracing the family and each other before sitting down. More people from the Major’s edir join neighbours, friends, and friends of friends under the tent. A murmur goes through the crowd around 2pm as four men in shabby, dark suits and oddly small fedoras enter the house. Everyone stands at attention when the men exit, carrying the casket. Close relatives follow, Bizuayehu leading the procession, holding a large framed photo of her father. She sees Kelemua enter a dark car that follows the hearse. She realises most of the cars belong to Kelemua’s friends.
Seble rushes Bizu into a minibus hired to transport mourners to the funeral. The vehicle quickly fills up and takes off.
“Ay Shaleqa. He was a good man.”
“Yes. Thanks be to God. He’s resting now, though.”
“Yes, God rest his soul.”
Two women seated behind them are chatting.
“You know he was an officer of the Derg?”
“Wezero Hamele, his wife, was a wonderful woman. So strong. She raised the children all on her own while he was in prison. Visiting him with food every week, making money on the side for the kids’ schools and clothes. They were well off but, you know…” Her companion nods knowingly.
Traffic lightens by the time they reach St Selassie Cathedral. Bizu gets off the bus, dazed. Seble and her cousins lead her past the church to the graveyard. The procession follows. She stares at the hole in the ground. This is too small. He won’t fit in there.
A sonorous voice delivers a prayer over the casket. Bizu bows her head along with everyone, automatically recites the verses of abune zebesemayat, goes through the motion of counting the prayer on the rungs of her fingers.
The priests move, and the body is lifted. Bizu turns her head. People begin to wail, moan, and weep. The silence from a few moments ago is irretrievable, gone in the chaos that ensues. Grief is performed loudly and collectively, and Bizu hears Kelemua calling for their mother.
Afterward, aside from a few tears, silence reigns once again as they make their way to the cars. Bizu, Seble, and Brook enter the same van as earlier. An elderly man from the edir joins them. He’s followed by Bizu’s cousins, Elfenesh and Alemitu. The car makes its way to Arat-kilo, a rubble-filled no man’s land.
“We have lived in this neighbourhood all our lives, and now we’ll have to move,” Seble says, surveying the view from the window. “I don’t know what we’ll do when they force us out. God help us. I don’t know what we’re going to do, Bizuye.”
Right, there’s that too. Brook will have to talk to the kebele. She makes a mental note to remind him.
They are close to what used to be Fit-ber, a name that’s been erased from memory as other parts of the city grow to overwrite the past. The sombre mood of the burial has lifted as mourners grow more animated on the ride back home.
“Wiy, that’s terrible. Our lives are destroyed in the name of progress. How can we live?” says Elfinesh, looking out the window.
“It’s full of duriyes now that they demolished half the houses to expand the road. They’d take the clothes off your back if they could. Aremene. Cruel,” adds Alemitu.
“Awo, Adisaba is becoming difficult to live in. Aynawta. They have no shame,” says Seble.
Everyone has returned to the house, and the crowd of mourners that opted to skip the funeral fills the tent and overflows into the street. Platters of nifro are passed around, along with absurdly small bottles of water. The tense atmosphere of the mourning is broken. There are no more tears. People comment on the funeral, the slow demise of edir in the city, and the changes in the neighbourhood.
Kelemua eats the obligatory plate of injera and debates whether she should go inside to wash her hands. She decides against it and stands up to leave. She notices Bizu close to the main door, accepting dirty plates from guests, and feels a twinge of guilt. She dismisses it immediately. She has work tomorrow. She’ll try to stop by the house at some point but this will not consume her. She reminds herself she doesn’t owe these people anything. Freedom is too precious.
Bizu glances up from the precariously towering pile of plates to see Kelemua leave.
Everything is over so fast.
Hiwot Abebe is a writer primarily focused on analysing and reviewing visual arts from the Addis Ababa art scene. She’s interested in internet culture and the relationship between popular culture and social movements within the East African community. She’s currently in an African Studies programme focused on contemporary African literature, gender, and the spiritual realm. She’s based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
*Image by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash