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Monday, June 8, 2009

9/11: Not Just An American Tragedy

Based on many news reports, observers would think that 9/11 was just an American tragedy. The truth is that the lives of millions of people around the world would never be the same again as a result of what happened that day. All our lives have become intertwined in many ways in today's fast-changing world.

Excerpt # 2 from "A TIME TO..."

One, Small World

While Al switched trains, half way around the world in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it was early evening. Tenaye Tiruneh expressed her concern to her husband Tadesse via phone about their son Alemu. Tadesse listened to her carefully explain that Alemu, a 15-year-old high school student, had been arrested by Addis Ababa police. Tadesse was in a New York City taxi cab, on his way to a very important business meeting that would determine the fate of his dream to open a vocational school in Addis for poor, uneducated children living on the streets of that city.

The boys would be taught to make furniture for homes and businesses locally and abroad. Upon graduation, they would have good paying jobs waiting for them in Tadesse’s furniture factory. The girls would be taught the finer points of growing, roasting, blending and packaging gourmet coffees for export. While exporting world-class coffee beans has been going on in Ethiopia for decades, Tadesse’s dream was to sell the finished product, where most of the profits are made. Something a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher said to him 27 years ago stuck with him.

The teacher, a colleague at the high school where he taught wood working, had been fascinated after learning that the world’s first coffee beans were grown, roasted, and consumed in Ethiopia’s Kaffee province. He had told Tadesse in light of this fact that he was surprised “Ethiopian coffee” didn’t have the same associations around the world of say “Russian vodka” or “Swiss chocolate.”

“How could Ethiopia give the world this universal drink, including its name, yet not get the credit and profits others do?” the teacher wondered.

Since then, Tadesse often thought about that observation until he finally decided he’d do something to correct the injustice. He wanted the words “Ethiopian coffee” to roll off the tongues of consumers around the world whenever they talked about premium coffee. Armed with his successful furniture factory as collateral and his dreams, Tadesse came to New York to change some lives for the better in Addis Ababa.

As the taxi he was riding in darted from one lane to the next, stopping and starting to keep from bumping into the traffic all around him, Tadesse held his head in one hand and his cell phone in the other.

“Arrested!? Alemu!? Why? How?” he quizzed Tenaye.

Through her tears, Tenaye told Tadesse, “He was on his way home from school with a group of his friends. The police arrested them for vandalizing city property.”

“No! No! I don’t believe it! Alemu would never do such a thing!”

“It’s true. I talked to Alemu at the police station. He said they just drew pictures with colored chalk on the sidewalk, making fun of a rival group at their school. The school principal filed a complaint with the police because he thought they were making fun of him,” Tenaye explained.

“That’s crazy. Even if they were making fun of him, they didn’t break any law,” Tadesse barked.

“The police said there have been many incidents recently in the area where city property was destroyed and they see what Alemu and his friends did as the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing. They can’t make up laws to suit themselves,” Tadesse countered.

As soon as he said this, he remembered a time and a place many years ago when Ethiopia’s Emperor, Haile Selassie, had just been dethroned and put under house arrest by the new ruling military party. Tadesse, like many in that country at the time, wondered what the change would mean to them. There was fear of the unknown mixed with a hope that life would get better for him, a poor country boy who was the first in his family to attend a university, and everybody else in the country – everybody that is, except the rich landlords and the few they favored.

His assertion to Tenaye that “They can’t make up laws to suit themselves” rang in his ears as he saw himself three decades ago standing in his 10th-grade class in Nekempte, Ethiopia, responding to a student’s question, “What will happen to the uneducated people in Ethiopia – those who don’t know about the laws of the new government – if they break a law?”

Tadesse’s answer - “I don’t know” – underscored the volatile, uncertain time politically. Everyone had to be careful about what they said and did. Later, Tadesse asked his Peace Corps teacher friend the same question, and he didn’t have an answer either. That helped dispel the myth among many Ethiopians that Americans knew everything. In spite of that revelation, or maybe because of it, their friendship grew. When the time came for the foriegngee to return home to the states, Tadesse called him "brother" and the Peace Corps Volunteer hugged Tadesse goodbye while wiping away a tear from his eye – knowing that this would probably be the last time they’d ever see each other. They exchanged letters for the next year, but time and political circumstances ended their long-distance friendship.

“Tenaye, listen to me. It will be OK,” Tadesse consoled. Tadesse, who earned a reputation in his community as a strong, intelligent, persuasive man, would clear his son tomorrow when he returned home. “I’ll meet with the police and Alemu’s principal. This is his first year at the school. He doesn’t know Alemu,” Tadesse said reassuringly.

“I shouldn’t have called before your meeting. Good luck. I love you,” Tenaye replied.

“It makes me more determined. If something like this can happen to our son, imagine what the poorest street kids have to deal with. I’ll call you tomorrow, before my plane takes off. Goodbye. I love you,” Tadesse said tenderly.

Just then, Tadesse’s taxi came to a screeching stop, hurling him into the security partition that separated him from the taxi driver. With his face just inches from the driver, Tadesse’s chauffeur turned his head until their eyes met. While the driver saw terror, Tadesse saw an amused, smiling face, as if they were in a bumper car at an amusement park. In an attempt to calm Tadesse and to blame the other driver for the near collision, the taxi driver began yelling and pointing his finger at the other driver.

Tadesse’s face suddenly lit up with a soothing grin because the taxi driver was cursing out the “crazy, donkey’s ass” driver in Amharic, Tadesse’s native language. All of a sudden, this strange, huge, intimidating city became less so. It also gave him renewed hope that his proposal would be approved. After all, if the daredevil taxi drivers of Addis could find work in New York City, then anything was possible.

“Wendeme’, Taynahstiling. Indemineh?” Tadesse greeted the driver in Amharic. Instantly, they began a conversation that lasted the entire trip to Tadesse’s meeting place. Tadesse looked forward to eating dinner that night at the Ethiopian restaurant the driver told him about.

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