My back hurts; my head throbs; my shirt is sticking to me, tight against my skin. The sun is high, but Father ploughs on, tutting to the oxen as he steers them in a tight half circle around each side of our small field. My brother Elias is closer to the ploughshare than I am, still beating the turned clods vigorously. I thwack noisily but with little power, longing for Mother to come and call us in from the field to water, lunch and the cool of our tukul. The reddish soil glitters, and I screw up my eyes against it. We know we must finish this second ploughing today or tomorrow while the earth is still a little soft from the belg rains, but the morning is long. I can barely walk along the furrow, let alone raise the heavy stick to pound the lumps of earth. Father eventually stops the morning’s work.
‘Enough, boys; the oxen need a rest. They’ve had little to eat the last few months and tire easily.’
Maybe the same is true of me.
‘I don’t know where your mother has got to, so Elias, you’ll have to water the oxen; Markos, come and give me a hand with the share.’
I stumble to the side of the field to put my shoes on. I struggle to pull them on; it’s as though the shoes have shrunk in the sun. My feet itch and burn as I run to take the lead end of the ploughshare, using my stick to brace the burden across both shoulders. I can tell that Father is irritated that Mother has not come for us and probably also concerned that lunch may not be ready. He strides impatiently, pushing me forward, the blade hanging down behind him to just above his calves.
We cross our neighbours’ fields and carry the ploughshare through the aloe bushes that form our fence. Mother is inside with the twins but comes out with water for our hands.
‘Where in God’s name have you been?’ blusters Father, throwing a handful of water over his head and face so that droplets catch in his dark hair. I hold my breath, anxious that Father be placated.
‘The schoolteacher came’, Mother replies. ‘He was asking about the boys, why they haven’t been in school the last three days. He’s only just left – I had to make coffee, give him kolo, promise that Elias and Markos will be back with him on Monday.’
‘Old fool! What business has he to come nosing round here? The boys will return to school when the ploughing is finished.’
Father sits down emphatically and gestures for Elias and me to sit opposite as a tray of injera and chickpea shiro is brought. We wait for him to start, flashing warning looks at the twins who, in their hunger, are pushing forward towards the tray. A brisk nod indicates that we may begin, and I tear off a moist, fresh piece of injera, wrap it round the nearest rim of the pool of shiro and parcel it swiftly into my mouth. The viscous buttery heat slips down inside, the berbere chilli stops my stomach’s colicky complaint. In a rush, I can see and hear and smell and adore what is around me again. I long to bury my head in the folds of Mother’s skirt and breathe in its warm smokiness. I want to stand shoulder to my seated father’s shoulder and declare I will plough with him as long as he wants. But I concentrate on six more efficient, fiery scoops of shiro before the tray is sent to feed Mother and the twins.
We sit in the cool of the tukul as the sun beats down outside. Father is content, mollified by the last of the coffee prepared for Ato Zewdie, our teacher. He ruffles our newest calf’s ears and calls Elias to read a page of the newspaper his brother passed on to him. Elias reads of the visit of the Deputy Minister for Capacity Building to open a technical college in our zone. I wriggle nearer and lean over his shoulder, trying to follow as he reads. Elias is the star pupil at our school, even though he is only fourteen. It doesn’t surprise me that Ato Zewdie came round to check on him. He thinks that Elias should complete secondary school in Arba Minch and become a pharmacist. Father doesn’t agree; he didn’t have a son just for him to abandon the farm on a whim.
Outside, the shadow of the tukul stretches towards the aloes, and two weaver birds flirt around the nests hanging from the old acacia tree. Mother is turning the drying chillies, and an acrid peppery dust wafts over each time she slips the woven paddle under a heap, lifts it, twists and lets it fall again.
‘Markos’, she calls. ‘Come outside and help; they’re almost dry, and I want to turn them all before the sun weakens.’
I tie an old shirt over my head for shade, rummage around the cooking pots for a second paddle and step outside, glad of such easy work as a change from following the plough. Elias grunts, sensing my escape. I turn barely four paddles of chilli before Father emerges from the tukul, yawns and shoulders the ploughshare. He’s always one to finish the job today rather than leave work undone and hanging like some curse through the night. Elias slides me a scornful look as he follows father back to the field.
When they are out of sight, Mother surprises me.
‘Markos, your father said you were tired, more than he would expect from the ploughing. What’s wrong? Do you have any pain or fever?’
I cannot remember her asking me a question like this before. Since Elias and I left the tukul to work with Father, our resilience has been taken for granted.
I shrug, ‘I’m OK; it’s just so hot, even at night.’
She moves closer, stepping lightly through the chillies, releasing their smouldering tang. She stoops, her startlingly olive eyes searching my face; then her forehead touches mine, cool, dry, skin slightly scented with hair butter.
‘You’re feverish. But it’s not the time for malaria.’
She takes me back inside, the chilli-turning forgotten, clearly a ploy. She gives me water and probes further. I hardly know how to describe some of the strange feelings I’ve had, the burning ache deep inside my feet at the end of the day, the tightness around the bottom of my toes that makes them feel remote. I pause and look up. My mother’s white front teeth hem her lower lip; her hand is pressed against her cheek.
‘So, little bird, let me ask old Alemnesh what this might mean. She delivered you and knows many things. But not a word to your father yet.’
She reinforces this last command with a tight squeeze of my shoulder as we move outside again to bring the chillies in before dusk.
Several days pass. Elias and I return to school and are set additional tasks to make up for the days we were absent. Almost half of the boys missed school to help plough, but I notice we are the only two given extra work. Still, there is plenty of time to kick a football around the dusty field and tease the students given unenviable roles in the anti-AIDS club drama. One of the girls has to pretend she has been abducted while walking to school. We heckle – she is too fat to be dragged off by the two skinny abductors – but Ato Zewdie silences us with a wave of his cane.
I have almost forgotten about the foot problem by the time my mother next mentions it. Elias and I have found a ripe guava on our way home and are busy fighting over its pungent puce flesh. She looks up from where she is rubbing coffee beans with the twins.
‘Markos’, she says. ‘I saw Alemnesh today. She wants you to go to the lake with her on Sunday morning. I have to collect a few things for you to take.’
I shrug, uncomfortable to be singled out and slightly scared.
On Saturday afternoon, Mother walks me down to Alemnesh’s house, telling Father that we’re visiting her younger sister who still lives in the same hamlet. It’s a two-hour walk, down from the highlands and into scrubby acacia land. After greeting Alemnesh, Mother hands over a small, cloth-wrapped bundle which Alemnesh tucks into the hem of her netela shawl. They gossip, and I drift outside as dusk falls and the cicadas’ whirrs fade. I lean against the trunk of an ancient acacia and feel the warmth of its rough bark against my palms. Looking up, I see the hazy quarter moon through a stark tangle of branches and weaverbird nests. Mother comes out of the house, chuckling as she wraps her netela around her.
‘Till tomorrow’, she murmurs as I come close. She ruffles my hair and slips away up the mule track to her younger sister’s house, the white of her netela visible long after her head and limbs have melted into the darkness.
Alemnesh calls from inside the house. She hands me a thick blanket and explains that we are to sleep at the lakeshore to be ready before dawn. She does not say for what we must be ready, but I take the blanket and follow her towards the lake. I don’t like being out at night. We usually bring in the animals and shut the door tight against the night air, preferring to huddle together in the smoke than be exposed to that outside darkness filled with the melancholy whoop of hyenas and the scuttle of night insects. We walk for twenty minutes towards the lake, feeling the ground change underfoot from packed soil to coarse sand. The darkness thickens, and I am startled by a cough from among the trees. Three scrawny horses stand on a patch of etiolated grass, hooves shuffling, heads low, flanks together for warmth. We hurry on, and suddenly I am aware of the lake as an absorbent black beneath the indigo of the sky. A faint odour of fish entrails, algae and damp moss makes me shudder. Alemnesh points to a fallen tree, and we lie in its lee, wrapping our blankets around our bodies and over our heads.
Almost immediately, it seems, she shakes me awake and indicates by pressing her fingers across my lips that I should be silent. We walk noiselessly towards the lake, which is now pure silver with a double-peaked island black against it. Alemnesh genuflects towards the island, feels inside her shawl for the small package my mother gave her and flings it far out onto the water. It splashes, bobs twice on the surface and then, reluctantly, slips below as the water soaks inside. I hold my breath, hoping against hope that what Alemnesh has done will make my aching feet better. I look up and see wisps of cloud in the east, the colour of papaya flesh. All around us, birds are silhouetted: giant marabous overhead, a vast crane scouring fish innards from a ditch close to the lakeshore, swifts flitting like bats in the dark trees. Alemnesh stoops, dips her right hand in the water and trickles it down her forefinger in the sign of a cross on my forehead. She whispers a blessing then pushes me down to kneel in the wet mud as she traces a second cross and a third.
As we turn to leave, we hear voices across the water. In the shallows, three men are gutting and filleting a boatload of fish in the early light. It’s very still; there is no wind, and as we move slowly back up the path to the village, the men fall silent, so all we hear is the metallic grate of knife on fish scale.
I often think back to that dawn, the purity of the lake, daylight sweeping stars from the sky. I knew nothing then of the painful journey ahead, the burden, the concealment, the way my condition would taint my whole family. Like the small package consigned to the lake by Alemnesh, my childhood bobbed a couple of times and then vanished.
That year, the kremt rains seemed to last for ever. School closed in mid-July, and we must have had a month of rain by then. The football field became unusable with red mud, and the shady square in which teachers would mark tests and take tea grew bedraggled. I hated slithering for nearly an hour to school and was desperate to get home and find warmth by the fire, trying to ignore the twins as they scratched patterns in the ochre mud that clung like another skin to their shins. Although the fire gave comfort, I found that sitting close to it made my feet ache and tingle. It was best to sit with my back towards it and legs stretching out to the sleeping mats. Every evening, the backs of my feet were puffy, and my shoe straps cut deep welts across them. I was careful to hide them, wrapping a cloth around them as though they were cold. I thought no one noticed, but Mother did, saying nothing but telling me with her eyes that she knew. The skin at the base of my toes seemed to go rough and dark even if I washed the mud off each day. My feet ached continually. At the end of kremt, as the wheat stood high and the maize higher, she found me alone, whittling a new dental stick.
‘Markos’, her hand touched mine, stilled the blade, encircled my wrist. ‘Your father will see your feet soon. We cannot let him; it will bring such shame. He will think of his aunt and of how his grandparents were forced to send her away to avoid disgrace. This curse is so heavy; I hoped Alemnesh might know how to heal you, but her prayers have changed nothing.’
‘But what is it? What can I do? How can I hide it?’ I dropped my stick, clutching at Mother’s sleeve, my heart sinking and racing at the same time.
‘It’s the kita’, she explained. ‘You step one day on a snake or a dead frog, or someone wishes it on the family one night as a form of revenge, and you are the first person to go out the next morning in the dew. It can be any of these things. Then slowly the ache, the foot swelling; it’s difficult to walk far…’ We both looked down at my feet, toes stiff and slightly splayed.
‘I’ll ask your father if we can send you to the town, to your uncle, Gash Tilahun. I’ll say the twins are almost old enough to join Elias in the fields and that you are weak from fever. He doesn’t need to know more. Listen, maybe you’ll find good work in town; maybe you’ll do even better at a bigger school.’
The encouragement was hollow, and Mother knew it. I couldn’t say anything and wandered off, throwing the dental stick furiously away. How could something so trivial in my feet drive me away from my family, my friends and my birth home?
I have no idea how or when Mother persuaded Father of this plan. He never spoke to me about it and never asked about my ‘fevers’. At the time, I thought he simply accepted Mother’s view. Looking back, the better explanation is that he did not want his hunch about my condition confirmed. Before the beginning of the second semester, on the second Sunday after Christmas but before Epiphany, we all went together to Uncle Tilahun’s house. The twins were excited because Mother had promised them new shirts, and Elias always enjoyed sitting with Tilahun and talking to him about books he had read. As the time to leave approached, I realised that neither Mother nor Father had warned Elias or the twins that I would stay. The twins threw questions at Mother – why is Markos staying? Who will sleep next to us? Eventually, they calmed down and wrapped their arms around my middle to say goodbye. Elias said little. Maybe he was jealous that I was going to the school in town, not him, but he hid this as best he could. Mother passed me a bundle of clothes and presented Tilahun with a sack of ground berbere chilli. He was delighted, and his clasp on my shoulder seemed genuinely warm as we waved after my siblings. Mother had told me that Tilahun’s wife had died in childbirth, their daughter also passing a week later. He had never remarried so had no children of his own.
‘So, Markos.’ He turned and knelt to my level. ‘Your mother says you’ve become weak from fevers and need time away from the farm. I’m happy to have you here, but you need to understand there will be work for you, not like at your father’s, but work none the less. You’ll be able to go to school in the mornings, just as you did, but you’ll have to earn your keep in the shop and around the house.’
I nodded hesitantly, having no clear idea of what such work might entail. He took me inside and showed me where I was to sleep and how to use the paraffin stove to heat water.
The first few weeks at the new school were an enormous shock. Tilahun completed my registration for the fifth grade, and I found myself in a class of eighty students, some my age, but many much older. Rather than the faded all-navy of the village school, my new uniform consisted of black trousers and a pullover the colour of the bougainvillea that was by then spilling over the fences and walls of the larger houses. I was swept to school each day as part of this violet flood and joked and jostled in its eddies and subcurrents on the way home. Rather than meeting the demands of Ato Zewdie’s individual attention, I was glad to be part of this bright anonymity where none of the teachers yet knew me by name. Among my peers, I was accepted as Tilahun’s nephew and was proud to take my turn in his shop in the afternoons, offering schoolmates discreet favours if they stopped by for ice sticks or chewing gum. I quickly learned the layout of the shop and knew which of the oil drums was safe to climb on to reach the stacks of soft paper or peanut butter on the higher shelves. I would willingly interrupt my maths homework to measure a kilo of flour or suspend revision for a spelling test to twist a birr’s worth of sugar in some recycled paper. The Amharic teacher began to call me Misserlijj after the lentils that often ended up in my homework.
Day to day through that year, I was happy, doing well enough at school and adept at the shop work. My feet were still swollen but stayed hidden under my uniform trousers and socks. I missed my family, particularly Elias, but tried not to dwell on that. Tilahun seemed glad to have me around and even thanked me for the long hours I spent in the shop. Then one day in Lent of the second year, the elder sister of a school friend of mine was sent to buy cooking oil. She was clever and glamorous with straightened hair and large hooped earrings; I was keen to impress. She said a guest had arrived, a coffee trader hoping to do business with her father. Her mother had asked her to run and buy bottled oil in preference to the cruder stuff we dispensed from a large drum. Reaching the bottles was a challenge – one foot on the waist-high fridge, one on the fourth shelf and then a wild swipe into the highest back corner. I looked down proudly with the soybean oil clasped to my chest, hoping to catch her watching me admiringly. But her eyes were fixed to a point just above the fridge where the acrobatics I had performed had lifted my trouser leg high above my ochre-coloured foam shoe. I jumped down immediately but knew from her reticence that she had seen my swollen ankle and identified the ugly puffiness.
It did not take long for the comments at school to build up and for the girl’s father to speak to Tilahun. He stopped me working in the shop, saying that customers would stay away when they heard that someone with kita was serving them. The isolation I began to feel at school deepened as my feet grew worse, the skin becoming darker and even more rough at the base of my toes and around my heel. I kept cramming my feet into the shoes, though they were now too small. Clear fluid began to seep through my skin and collect near the strap of my right shoe. The ooze was painless but attracted flies, which clustered, buzzing, like black reminders of my disease. I couldn’t face the shame of the damp patch that was left on the concrete under my desk by the end of the morning. I stopped school.
I stayed home, cleaning, washing clothes and running simple errands for Tilahun. I moved my mattress to sleep on the veranda, obsessed with the thought I might pass this awful condition to Tilahun simply by sleeping in the same room. At times, I would look through my schoolbooks, reminding myself of the pleasure I had derived from study, but as the likelihood that I would return to school dwindled, I stopped doing even this. I brooded over my options: should I send a message or even run off, back to my family? Should I ask Tilahun for money and get advice from the nurse at the clinic? Should I simply walk back to the lake and drown myself?
I approached Tilahun one evening after pouring the water for his hands but before the injera tray was brought. I barely remember what I asked, but the look Tilahun gave in response was a raw combination of his frustration at my parents’ deception and shame at his inability to comfort me. He touched his forehead to his fingertips in resignation.
‘Let me take you to the wogesha. He’s a clever man and may know of some treatment.’
I did not eat with him that evening but sat out on the veranda as food was brought, watching the neighbours’ dogs finish their brawls and slump in the cooling dust.
The wogesha was a small, wiry man with a shiny pate and a striped grey-and-white jacket. He met us near the post office on Dagm Tenesae, the Sunday following Easter, and led us back to his home. He chatted with Tilahun while I trudged behind, trying to keep pace with the flap of the wogesha’s frayed trouser hem. We smelt rich, sour butter and the metallic tang of blood as we arrived at the compound. A sheep had been slaughtered for the festival, leaving a dark crimson patch close to the gate. The skin was drying over a line, and offal sagged out of a plastic bag. Two young men were finishing the jointing, and an older woman was sweating a vast pile of onions in the butter we had smelled.
The wogesha waved us inside, where a huge three-piece suite was crammed into a small room. We squeezed around an armchair to sit on the settee and began a long conversation about my family. Tilahun did most of the talking, but occasionally the wogesha would ask me to clarify. I had the sense we were telling him little that he could not already guess, that the pattern of events was one he had observed many times before. He rolled up my trouser legs, pressed and prodded the skin of my feet and shins, studied the oozing fluid and then sat back on his haunches, balanced in the narrow space between coffee table and settee. He wiped his forehead and directed a deep frown at Tilahun.
‘You won’t find wogeshas treating this, though we often see it. I’ve heard some get relief from eucalyptus or machara leaf poultice, but rarely for long. They say that letting the fluid provokes more. The boy will be best kept at home.’
He was direct in a way few others had been about my condition, possibly because he was eager to get back to preparing the sheep. We were both invited to share in the lunch, but Tilahun declined, and we walked home in silence, hopes of treatment dashed.
The next few months were some of the bleakest. I was desperately unhappy and preparing to run away to relieve Tilahun of the burden I was placing on him. I had nowhere to go but the street, and even I knew that a boy with kita was unlikely to survive there long.
I was sweeping the living room one morning when I heard forceful knocking at the gate. It was Thursday, so not the day that the trolley boys came for the rubbish. Sometimes Mehret, who had replaced me in the shop, dozed off behind the sacks, and customers would knock at the gate instead. I clanged the bolt open, and to my astonishment, Elias sprang through, a huge smile lifting his eyes. We embraced shoulder to shoulder, gripping with one hand and slapping with the other.
‘Brother, you were lost to us!’ laughed Elias.
‘Alen – I was here’, I replied, traditionally, pulling Elias fully through the gate and towards the house.
We sat on my mattress on the veranda, piecing together the time we had been apart. Elias had repeatedly asked to visit me and had been surprised how strongly Mother had dissuaded him, saying it was best not to disturb me while I was getting used to the new situation. Tilahun had apparently once visited my family and spent more than an hour talking with my parents. Later, he had reassured Elias with a glowing report of my progress at school and in the shop, so Elias had not thought to ask Mother the nature of their discussion. A few days later, when he was going to sleep, he overheard Mother and Father arguing about who should take responsibility for me. It was only then that he realised I had kita.
Elias looked down at my legs, bloated and ugly in the sun. Most people were revolted by them and looked away quickly, often with a shudder. Elias bent closer, ran his fingertips over the skin of my shins and looked carefully at the dark moss-like skin at the base of my toes.
‘Stage 2, moss positive’, he said.
‘Ebakeh! Oh, please!’ I protested, having no idea what he was saying.
‘Markos, you won’t believe it, but I’ve found out about this kita thing. People also call it zihone or elephantiasis. Ato Zewdie took me to Arba Minch two weeks ago to meet his relative at the university. I was telling the professor about the family and somehow mentioned your condition and how we didn’t know what to do. He said he’d heard of a group close by in Humbo that treated people with kita.’
By now, Elias had risen to kneel on the mattress, facing me. He took my hands in his, gripping them as though to transfer all he knew to me by touch.
‘I persuaded Zewdie to extend our journey. We spent four days in Humbo, at the house of Ayelech, the woman leading the treatment there. She’s amazing – her legs were much worse than yours, but after three months they were clean, and after a year’s treatment, she was able to use shoes from the market again. She began helping others with the disease, finding people too sick to move from their houses, helping older people fetch water to wash their feet. Three years ago, she was selected for training in Wolaita Sodo, and since then, she has treated nearly two thousand patients!’
Elias was pulling me to my feet, unable to control his excitement.
‘Ayelech said I must bring you. Believe me, you can become free of this thing! It’s not a curse; it’s a problem that comes from the red soil, from all the farming we do without shoes. We can stay with her to learn together, and then we can continue treatment at home. She says we may even be able to start treatment for others in our village. Father said I could take you if there is hope you might be made healthy and return to the farm. Even Ato Zewdie has said he will arrange make-up classes if I get behind. As soon as we tell Tilahun, we can go.’
I look out onto Lake Abaya from the top of a large boulder behind Ayelech’s house. The sun is setting behind me, and a deep lilac bloom rises from the mountains the other side of the lake. Our family home is somewhere across there, far away over the wrinkled grey-blue surface. The grunts of cattle being urged into their owners’ compounds fade and then cease. The wind lifts a patch of moss, dislodged as I climbed up, and blows it away. A lizard flicks out of a crevice and retreats. My legs have been soaked, cleaned and oiled and now stretch before me, bound safely in elastic bandages. Ayelech says I will only need to stay another week and then will be able to manage everything for myself.
The lake catches a last, bronze ray of sun, and I remember Alemnesh’s prayers. In time, they have been answered. I have crossed the lake.
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