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At One With Nuns


Somehow she will find a way to get her hands on this story.  Using her rather unsettling ability to root out each and every one of my mutinous thoughts, she will sense my villainy even as I write, half a world away.  The infallible grapevine of Roman Catholic nuns will sleuth out and dutifully report my treachery.  My betrayal.  In the next instant, Sister Thomasina, Mother Superior, will holler out the kitchen door of the mission house, ordering the driver to fire up the Land Cruiser.  Then out of the lush green hills of southern Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley she will ride, with nagging memories of me, this troublesome and disobedient American, a stubborn thorn in her side, plaguing her afresh. “Faster!  Faster!” she will command, as they slip and slide around steep muddy switchbacks and careen around canyon-sized potholes in the red dirt road.  Her pale gray veil will flap insolently in the warm wind.  She’ll clutch her rosary beads tightly in a plump fist, murmuring a vengeful prayer.  Oh, there is no doubt about it.  Sister Thomasina will find a way to get her hands on my story, my greatest and most affronting of sins, and she will not fail in her efforts to track me down.

I am going to Hell.

“What do you mean you can’t be out after dark?” my friend Ruth asks in disbelief.  We sit across from each other at a wobbly little table at one of the local pastry shops.  A mere three weeks I have been in Ethiopia and a startling realization is just beginning to sink in. 

“I’m not allowed to,” I answer, still stunned myself.
“Who on earth told you that?”
“Sister Thomasina!”  I throw my hands in the air to emphasize the complete absurdity of the situation.
“You must be joking.”
“Nope.”
“You’re not a nun, for Chrissakes,” Ruth points out the obvious.  “She shouldn’t expect you to act like one!”
“I know,” I groan, frustrated and bewildered.
“You’re not even Catholic!”

“I know!”   I slurp at my mango and pineapple juice, swatting at flies and feeling defeated.  How on earth could I have managed to travel all the way to Ethiopia only to find myself cloistered like a, well, like a nun?

Ruth is British and, like me, a volunteer come to teach English in Dilla, a small town halfway between Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and the Kenyan border.  Any white folks here are mostly European or Australian backpackers passing through on their way to Kenya who might stay a night or two if they feel like dawdling over mango and pineapple juice in the beautiful green hills where coffee was born.

Sitting together at the pastry shop, I suddenly find that I envy Ruth her freedom.  She hasn’t traveled to the other side of the world only to lose it.  Ruth teaches at Dilla College, not at the mission school on the Sister’s compound.  But more importantly, Ruth lives in town in her own private house.  She does not live inside the Catholic compound’s gates.  She does not live with eight Roman Catholic nuns.  She does not live under Sister Thomasina’s thumb.

No, Ruth can sleep in past six o’clock on a Saturday morning without a worried nun or two tapping sweetly but insistently on her bedroom window to call her to breakfast. Ruth can marvel at a field full of fireflies and not be scolded when she arrives two minutes late for dinner because she’d never seen fireflies before that dark, moonless Dilla night.  Ruth can get sick to her stomach after too much spicy doro wat without having it blamed on “going about too much”.  Ruth can even spend a few days on holiday in Addis without Sister Thomasina calling her mother at home in the States to let her know what her troublesome, head-strong daughter is insisting upon this time.  (“Sara wants to do some traveling?” my mother confirms over the crackling static of a bad overseas connection.  “That’s wonderful!”  

Sister Thomasina believes she may have found the source of the problem and throws her hands in the air to emphasize the complete absurdity of the situation.)  No, Ruth isn’t made to feel like a misbehaving child.  Nor has she been forced to the confounding and outrageous realization that a stern mother superior is monitoring her every move.

“Did Amy have this problem?”  I ask Ruth about the last American woman to volunteer at the Mission.  “Or am I just crazy?”   Crazy.  Somehow I might manage to cope with the daily hallucinogenic malaria pills, the lonely and seemingly insurmountable language barrier, a telephone that doesn’t work when it rains, overwhelming bouts of homesickness and a thousand other challenges, but the Mother Superior!  I could not cope with Sister Thomasina.

“Oh yeah,” Ruth assures me.  “Amy felt the same way.  But she only had to put up with it for six weeks.  You’re here for six months!”

After Ruth and I finish our mango and pineapple juice, we say goodbye and I take my time wandering back to the compound.  It is late afternoon and the intense heat of the dry season uncovers new freckles on my pink sweaty cheeks.  My short hair is covered with a colorful scarf (for which the sisters regularly tease me, cheerfully praising my progress as a nun), but the top of my head still feels burning hot.  My sandaled feet drag and gather more dust.  Evening is not far off and I must return to the compound before dusk settles in order to be on time for dinner. 

Sara with Ethiopian children

As I walk, children stop their play long enough to shout, “Ciao, Sara!” and wave.  I wave back and ask, “Dehna nachu?”  “Dehna!” they reply and giggle at the white lady’s Amharic.  Perhaps one of them who knows me from church or school on the compound will take my hand and walk with me for a while before turning back to join her playmates.

After a while, I turn off the main road and continue down the path to the compound.  I enter through the unlocked gates.  Under a canopy of cool and beautifully green trees, I pass the brick church, the kindergarten, and a small orchard full of guavas and avocados before pushing open the rusty gate that leads to my little house. 

I do love my little house. It is surrounded by endless twisting knots of leafy green grapevines and enormous drying racks covered with freshly picked coffee beans.   My little house has bright green doors, maroon tiled floors, hot and cold running water, and a framed picture of the Pope hanging in the sitting room. Together he and I correct essays and write letters home.  From my bedroom window I can see the kindergartners at play in their bright purple uniforms and hear their cheerful shouts.  I watch groups of local women pound roasted coffee beans with giant wooden pestals.  I keep my windows and flowered yellow curtains wide open to catch breezes and exchange smiles.  

Before going inside, I stop to gather my morning’s laundry from the line.  In the hot Ethiopian sun and unforgiving dryness of the season, my tee-shirts and skirts stiffen like cardboard in no time.  Too shy to string my colorful bras and panties up within view of the nuns, I drape them around my unused kitchen, out of sight of the Pope as well.  Taking in an armload of freshly clean, sun-dried clothes is immensely satisfying.  Every scrap of my clothing, sheets, and towels I wash by hand.  I scrub.  I rinse.  I wring and I watch the water turn brown with the dirt of Ethiopia.  I plunge my pruny hands back into the cool water and scrub some more.  I empty the buckets and begin again. 

From my little outdoor laundry porch, I can look up into the bluest and widest and wildest of skies and just make out the tiny black specks of birds soaring impossibly high above me.  They mesmerize me.  For a moment, I forget how a controlling and unreasonable Sister Thomasina literally frustrates me to tears.  I forget that I may never see Dilla at night.  I forget myself in this sky.  And my hands have never been so clean.

Dilla also has the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.  I try not to remind myself that I may only see that magnificent orange sun set behind the compound walls.  One particularly lovely orange and pink evening, I climbed up one of the fences and perched atop the gate for a better view.  A white woman sitting atop a fence in Dilla, however, is a bit of a spectacle and so I soon became self-conscious and climbed back down.  So much for unobstructed sunsets.

When I finally go inside, I soon discover there is no electricity, a regular evening occurrence in our part of the country.  I dump my clothes on the extra bed and fumble about for matches in the thickening darkness.  I know that in a little while as my favorite nun, Sister Rebecca, and I set the table for dinner, she will take this opportunity to test my Amharic.  

Anchi biet, mabrat alle?” she will ask.  Is there light at your house?
Ie, mabrat yellem.”  I will answer.  No, there is no light.
Shama alle?”  Do you have candles?
“Ow, shama alle.” 

Gobez, Sara!”  She congratulates me on my progress.  Sister Rebecca is a young Ethiopian nun with a wicked sense of humor and a keen sense of irony.  Earlier, when setting out silverware, we will go through a similar routine about soup and spoons. 

For now, I will spend the last few minutes before I grab my flashlight and head to the Sister’s house for dinner continuing the latest letter home to my family.  The stack of my students’ grammar exercises can wait until tomorrow.  Having found the matches, I light the two candles on my desk, take out my letter and sit quietly for a moment.  I peer out my window to the night sky above.  When the lights go out in Dilla, without a moon the darkness is complete.  I have never seen such stars.   

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