By: S. Mulugeta
I was all right on the plane. The interview had gone very well. Minutes after I climbed into the middle seat in the back of a Delta Shuttle, I started rifling through a magazine, but I couldn't contain my excitement. I had to share it with someone.
I looked at the diminutive man sitting next to me, looking a bit incongruous in his tuxedo. He stared at the newspaper headline on his lap, The Atlanta Constitution, which blared the Braves' victory over the Mets. I had recognized Rep. John Lewis of Georgia as he rushed by me to make the shuttle to New York's LaGuardia.
"Hi, Congressman, how are you doing?"
"Fine, how about you?" John Lewis replied in his gentle Southern droll.
After ascertaining that he was on his way to an awards dinner honoring his historical role in the Civil Rights movement, I cut straight to what I wanted to talk about.
"I was down here for an interview. I grew up in Ethiopia and I was talking to an organization that is considering sending me back as a teacher and consultant," I said.
I wanted to hear myself say it because I could hardly believe it. "That's wonderful," Lewis said. "I've been to Addis Ababa three times. I even met Haile Selassie."
Lewis was talking, but all I could focus on was the sudden, intense, pain gripping my neck.
Lately, I'd noticed this about myself. I've always perceived myself to be a calm, rational person able to handle stress. But events in the past few months have threatened this perception. I've increasingly noticed that when I get anxious, I get physical pain, usually in the form of an agonizing neck pain. This time the source of my anxiety was clear. I was actually going back to the place I had left almost 20 years ago, a country I thought I had worked out of my system.
My story is not unlike that of millions of Ethiopians whose lives were turned upside down. My father was a lieutenant in the Kibur Zebegna and took part in the Mengistu Newaye coup attempt. He survived that and three years in prison. His marriage didnít.
My mother raised me and my sister on a public school teacherís salary. For the first seven years of my life, my life was one of a yemender lij, one of those happy little boys who meandered through a neighborhood full people who showered me with love.
When my mother got a job with one of the international organizations in Addis, my life was catapulted into middle class life. We moved into a nicer neighborhood, bought a TV, even joined St. Joseph School in the seventh grade.
To say that most influential person in my young life was my mother would be to state the obvious, but my mother was an extraordinarily strong woman who was obsessed with education. And that meant reading to her. After every trip to Merkato or Piasa, she would return laden with Amharic books.
I devoured these books for years before finally attempting to cross into English. I remember one time when I told my mother that I couldnít figure the meanings of the words in an English adventure book I was reading, she told me to underline the words I didnít understand. In a few minutes, all but about three words were underlined.
But I stuck with it and by the time I was in high school, I had read hundreds if not thousands of books on a wide array of subjects. I didnít know it then, but it was perfect preparation for a life as a writer.
Growing up in Addis Ababa, I eagerly read every local publication available. My favorite writer was Paulos Gnogno. But after the revolution the atmosphere for free expression deteriorated rapidly and I tuned out. I only listened to short-wave radio, read western books and paid no mind to the constantly blaring propaganda telling me to get excited about the latest bogus campaign against illiteracy, poverty or the rebels up north.
In March 1980 when I left for New York with my family, I was sick of the atmosphere in Ethiopia and wanted to go as far away as possible.
I thrived in America because I felt at home here. I was open, outgoing, eager for new opportunities and enthusiastic about the future. So was America. I fit in perfectly.
But three years ago, the idea of going back home started germinating in my mind. It grew during my high school reunion where my classmates had shown up from across the US and Europe.
There were about 70 of us in our class, and about half us had shown up at the reunion.
Measured by education and professional advancement, most of my classmates had fulfilled their promise. They're now engineers, doctors, scientists, and accountants. But instead of returning home, we've disappeared into the American mosaic, performing phenomenally in our adopted country, but constantly battling a gnawing doubt that more was expected of us. How do we reconcile our good fortune and success in America with the potential of what we could do in the homeland we left behind? Very few of us thought we'd stay outside our country for so long.
``First you say, 'I will go back once I finish college,' said one friend. "Then it's graduate school or becoming senior enough at work. Before you know it you're saying you will go back after retirement." He added: "If you don't come to terms with it, inhibits you from going as far forward in your life as you could. At the same time, [the Ethiopian] culture is moving away.''
Another classmate, a pediatrician, went back last summer to scout his prospects.
``I went to ask an official at the Ministry of Health about practicing there when he started berating me for my arrogance,'' he said. ``He said, `you people come from America and you think you can take over. You have to follow the proper channels.' Then he saw my name on a form I had filled out and his whole tone changed. 'Why didn't you tell me you were (so and so's) son? I will take care of everything.' íí
After his trip, my classmate concluded his impact as an individual physician would be minimal. ``I had two options: open a practice and treat those who could afford to pay so I can survive financially or treat those who need help but can't pay and go bankrupt,'' he said. ``The need is so great for the poor, I felt I couldn't make much of a difference as an individual. I needed some institutional backers.''
So he's now back in the US with plans to work within a humanitarian organization, private institutions or foundations, with an eye to bringing large-scale medical help to Ethiopia.
In pursuit of that goal, my friend is now studying for a master's degree in public health so he can gain expertise in health administration. Earlier this year, he sold his home in the suburbs of Atlanta and moved to Washington, DC to study for his master's degree.
As for myself, I've been making my way in corporate America since graduating from college, working as a reporter for some of the nation's biggest newspapers. Even as I covered fascinating stories in New York and Boston, and even while on foreign assignments in Africa, I never stopped my longing to do something having to do with Ethiopia.
As I became more entrenched in my life here in the US, with a wife and a young son, the idea of returning to Ethiopia was fading fast. Then, during a conversation with a friend a few months ago, an idea crystallized. Why not take a leave of absence? It was then that I contacted the organization in Washington, D.C.
The day after my return from Washington, the pain in the neck was gone.
A day after that, I got a phone call from the woman who interviewed me.
"Congratulations," she said. "You're in."
After 20 years, Iím going home.