Yves Stranger, auteur de Ces pas qui trop vite s’effacent, nous envoie cette nouvelle en anglais, la journée de Léopold Abeba, éthiopien spécialisé dans la grande distribution des balais à franges. Pour ceux qui ne lisent pas l’anglais, réclamez une traduction à l’auteur!
It’s the pitter-patter of the rain on the tin roof that wakes Léopold that morning; that and the muezzin’s call to prayer from the Abadir mosque. Why, why, do they have to use loud-speakers, he wonders?
Léopold had been dreaming, again, of the Belgium embassy. The embassy had somehow drifted to the top of the Entoto hills and was under siege from an army of rhinoceroses draped in gabis with crimson edges. The rhinoceroses were ridden by boys attired in shiny cosmonaut suits and they were armed with mops. ‘Mol-we-ya! Mol-we-ya! Mol-we-ya!’ they chanted. The pachyderms were on the move, advancing on the battlements as their artillery bombarded the Belgians with rolled-up ingera, fired out of the Sebastopol cannon that they’d hauled up from Theodoros square. Preposterous, thought Léopold, as he rolled over to gather some warmth from the large back of his wife, Moli. Quite unheard of, I’m sure. Moli was snoring gently and he pinched her bottom absent-mindedly, to make her stop.
How could ingera ever be a weapon? Although, for sure, it wrinkled the noses of the Flemish envoys. Léopold would always get a pat on the head, at these garden parties on the lawns of the embassy. Lawns and flower beds which were tended by his father, Abebe, Abebe the gardener as he was called. Abebe Mekonnen who had seen fit to give him the name of a ridiculous king from a ridiculous country. And even though Léopold had suffered a martyr for his name in the schoolyard, he’d never been given the scholarships his father had been hankering for. Léopold pinched Moli again, a little harder, but she rolled over, escaping him. He swung his feet over the side of the bed, and pushed off to the sitting room. The maid had prepared him fitfit, and was nowhere to be seen. Probably gone back to bed! He thought with an outburst of outrage, assuaged by the buttery taste of the fitfit. He thought of the round moon face of Tiggist, and the large blue cross tattooed on her forehead.
The fitfit is superior to the face, he thought maliciously, remembering the proverb, and repeating it to himself in Amharic -‘Kefitfitu fitu,’ – then translating it back into English again –but here, kefit fitfitu… Hum, the Amharic is better. But then a proverb on porridge would probably sound better in English.
Léopold, back at the embassy, had spent many a cold keremt day in the ‘library,’ a little cubby hole where the cleaners kept their mops and brooms and somehow, old books that no one wanted. He’d read ‘Great Expectations,’ Samuel Pepys’ Diaries, and Gibbon’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ and all that in English and before the age of 12, his father liked to declare. Léopold was so small, he’d sit on the shelf like a book himself! Abebe would proudly declare to his friends. Léopold, in this seat of higher education, had learnt to dampen his expectations, perched above the mops, a little to the right of the dusters.
Léopold looked up from his fitfit, to find Tiggist’s moon face staring at him. The cubby hole had also smelled of fitfit, for the workers kept their lunch there. ‘Where have you been?’ He asked her suspiciously. ‘In the yard.’ He looked at her with what he thought of as his hard look. ‘Woizero Moli is going to wash her hair this morning.’ Oh. Moli was still snoring as he grabbed his coat and cloth cap and made for the door. It was 6 am and the loud-speakers of Mekanisa Abo, the Orthodox Church, were full of crackle. A short circuit, with this rain, Léopold decided.
Léopold sold mops. He’d began by selling them himself, on the street, when his father had thrown him out over some thing or another, what precisely, he didn’t want to remember, and Léopold regularly dreamt during the winter, of a gigantic mop falling from the heavens and drying the city up. The mop trade, and a habit of quoting to himself from the classics, were what he’d retained from the cubby hole. Great expectations indeed.
Léopold was now boarding a blue minibus whose woyala was screaming at the top of his lungs: ‘Mexico, Mexico… Sar Bet, Mexico.’ The main road near Léopold’s house was under work, had been so for some two years, and was now a river of sluggish brown water in which old ladies were rumored to drown and crocodiles to lurk.
The windows of the minibus were frosted over and Léopold decided to leave them that way. He could tell exactly where they were just from the twists and turns. For instance, he knew that they were now arriving at Sar Bet from a certain bump in the road. Alexander Pushkin would be forlornly gazing out towards the abattoirs of Kera –or the new trendy Kaldi’s café, depending on if he had a squint or not. Poor chap, under the wind of death and cappuccino all the time! ‘Storm-clouds whirl and storm-clouds scurry…’ and he’s just there, all the time, stuck between a Starbucks look-alike and a mountain of bones higher than Mount Dashen.
Someone at the Russian embassy had remembered that the poet was rumored to have an Ethiopian great-great grandfather, or else, and a statue had been erected. And Léopold had one day found a dog eared copy of ‘Devils’ in the cubby hole. The minibus was now chugging down towards the International Evangelical Church.
At first, when Léopold had started to sell his mops and brooms, he’d go as far as possible from his own neighborhood. He didn’t want to be recognized –not that he had any friends, but he had books after all. This was before Moli. His favorite route would take him from Bole Avenue, with its drive-in cafés –think Peacock and La Parisienne- to Japan embassy road. There, he’d take a quick turn down towards Rwanda before coming up towards the Satellite Bar through the rich suburbs that lay there – avoiding the Somali quarter to the west where, ‘to try and sell a mop would just flop’ (Léopold’s puns often flopped too).
Léopold especially liked that route on rainy days as it was mostly paved. ‘Molweyaaa; Molweyaaa!’ –Mops; Mops! – He would sing in a clipped voice, the word sounding like a Japanese dish marinated in kotkocho. Maids came out of metal doors bigger than the houses they enclosed and drove hard bargains for his mops. They fluffed them and they plucked them; they shook them and they prodded them –they’d be using them a couple of months or so.
And Léopold would walk down the hedgerows of these rich enclaves, surrounded by walls of green and with the blue-gray sky above his head. He saw the gigantic mop from heaven, coming down into the city and sloshing through the streets, cleansing them and driving out the dirtiness and the snotty maids. But, later, as he read Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ curled up on his bed, he had to conclude, together with the Walrus and the Carpenter, that it would be nigh impossible: ‘If this were only cleared away,’ they said, ‘it would be grand!’ ‘If seven maids with seven mops swept it for half a year, do you suppose,’ the Walrus said, ‘that they could get it clear?’ ‘I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter, and shed a bitter tear. And the next day, Léopold would be out again, on a different route, say down Bole from Wollo Sefer, and then into Meskal Flower by way of the Mega Building. ‘Molweyaa, molweyaaa…’ he would sing again, hawking his bitter-sweet dish.
Léopold now arrived in Mexico and he tumbled out of the minibus together with his fellow passengers. Léopold liked the name, Mexico. He winked at Hayat the beauty queen, all smiles and curved shapes above the fumes, on her billboard advertising SENSATION, safe condoms. Léopold thought of Moli, still curled up in bed. She had lots of curves too. When he went to the little corner shop that sold everything, he’d always say ‘How’s Hayat?’ and the Gurague shop owner Mezgeba would groan and give him two little blue boxes for a birr a piece.
But what was it with these billboards, Léopold wondered? Soon people would arrive in Bole Airport, be driven to the Sheraton and the Hilton, and wouldn’t see the town, for the billboards would form a corridor all the way. Maybe it’s meant to be like that. Like putting up fake facades in Rome for Mussolini’s birthday, to make the city bigger than it was. But now, Léopold’s attention was taken up by a traffic incident. Ah! Ah! Some action! A minibus had rear-ended a Mercedes-Benz. The two vehicles had stopped in the middle of the road, a sizeable crowd had gathered and a traffic policeman was walking with nonchalance towards the scene. Why is it that all traffic police are gumboras, Léopold wondered? Maybe their head grows in order to fill those funny round helmets they wear? And why is it that automobilists who have accidents or a punctured tire in the middle of the road, never pull over but rather block the traffic? Léopold vaguely asked himself. Hey! Hayat had just winked at him, he was quite sure. Maybe a sign. He would go and buy one of the little blue packets today.
Léopold walked over the zebra crossing towards the gas station, together with a herd of donkeys, a waif perched on stilettos, three beggars, ten school children and an oxen. The gas station had once been a Mobile gas station. That it was no more, but, quite confusingly for newcomers, was still called ‘Mobil.’ And the café to his left was universally known as ‘Café’ and was a regular meeting spot.
The places names of the city and what they represented were an endless mystery to Léopold. Mexico he thought of as a far away place where Hernan Cortez had burnt his boats, but it was also the place where you got your shoes shined, and found a minibus for Bole, Arat Kilo, Piassa, Lideta, Kera and his own home of Mekanisa. Léopold stepped over a beggar with no legs and boarded a taxi bound for the Mercato, which is where he had his office.
For Léopold no longer trudged the streets armed with mops. He now sold mops, lots of mops. In fact, he was the Mercato mop king. Léopold, king of the mops, he thought ruefully, as he settled himself down in his store after having braved a thousand street scenes fit to fill a Decameron thousand fold. ‘He who is tired of London is tired of life…’ declared Samuel Pepys in his Diaries. But still, one giant mop is all it would take, to clean this city clean once and for all. One giant mop… Léopold would spend his day, high above the tumult of the Mercato. His office, from where he now dispatched skinny young men newly arrived from the country on specific itineraries around the city, looked out above the cityscape.
To the north lay Entoto covered in the tall green plumes of the eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptopolis, some people had wanted to call the city in the 1930.’ From there, if you looked downwards, past Finfine, where the conurbation proper had really started, the high-rise buildings of Bole could be made out, so many stubby blue knuckles strewn around. The rest of the city’s skyline, seen from above, was a shiny mess of tin roof welded to the landscape. The molten tin was constantly seeking to escape the melting-pot the capital had become, by lapping ever further up the hills that had marked the initial boundaries of the town.
Léopold the mop king surveyed his mock kingdom from the heights of his Mercato office. A hundred years ago, this was a landscape, he mused. Taitu had named the camp for the flowers around the springs that did so much for her ailing feet. ‘All one has to do to solve urban problems, is to build cities in the countryside,’ Alphonse Allais, the French humorist had quipped. And now the landscape had become a cityscape.
Ten donkeys were being harried along by a man wearing a tired suit, trousers tied up with a piece of string; a man balanced on his head a conical bundle of bush-peas; minibuses : countless. Blue and white ‘contract’ taxis: innumerable; a young lady in trousers so tight she should be choking; a goat eating a piece of rubber. A man in a neat suit urinating onto the pavement. A beggar with no arms; a beggar with no feet; a beggar with a patchwork of colors sewn together to form trousers -equipped with skiing sun glasses, he has, alas, no eyes to see his glad rags. 16 fat tailed sheep on their way to celebrate some feast with their death; ten mountains of hay with four legs each and nothing else –after careful observation, they appear to be a cross-bread between donkey and grass. A table full of boisterous young men and women talking into their mobiles in a pidgin best described as ‘Los Angelese Amharic:’ ‘You know, malet, he is betam askeyami, really, bawnet, I couldn’t believe it…’ etc, etc and other such discussions, conducted between two macchiato, a hair-cut and a visit to the Sheraton sauna.
Five more beggars, four with things missing, another with too many children; Volkswagen beetles that would be collection items anywhere else; cars that are certainly very common in the trendiest parts of New York; people in thread bare clothes; others covered with enough gold to open a jewelry store; middle aged men full of ingera, and draft beer; starving young men wolfing down bambolinos with intense burning eyes. Enough listros to polish the shoes of a million pairs of shoes… And over all this, the smell of ground coffee, human sweat, cake, donkey dung, exhaust fumes. The smell of heat even, cooking this churning molting mix and serving it up boiling hot. As to sound, well, just stop reading for a second. Prick up your ears: hear it? A thousand cars, a billion radios, horns, shouts, screeches, clashes, bangs, prayers…
‘Crowds without company, and dissipation without pleasure,’ the mop king sighed, together with Gibbon, talking of London. The cityscape swam and shimmered before his eyes, as it does in your inscape, reader, and entered his paper thin conscience. Léopold felt weary –it was another gigantic mop moment.
Let us follow Léopold one moment more, as he makes his way back to Mekanisa. He stops on the way for his three daily brilles of teuj –just follow the little road in front of Pushkine, down past the Betesaida clinic (satisfaction guarantied, only the best honey; no sugar, thinks Léopold). He arrives home, fumbles with the lock of his gibbi, and swears once under his breath. Moli, of course, is dozing, and we can hear her soft breathing from the sofa where she has fallen asleep. It is time to put that mop to work: Swoosh! There goes Léopold Abebe and his inscape with him, a minor Bloom offered to the cityscape of the new flower.