20 May 1939
The first time Faven fell sick, it was in the spring of the late 1930s, when she was a young girl of the age of five. The illness in question was smallpox. Of course when the scaly and crusty lesions spread all over Faven’s body, the villagers were disturbed. They knew what the disease was, and they knew it was contagious, so no one except Faven’s mother dared to come close to her. Even Faven’s mother was scared, but she stayed by her daughter’s side next to her cot, feeding her genfo by hand until she recovered.
Up until the early 1940s, the land of modern Eritrea was a colony of the Italians. The village of Teseney was of particular importance. Because the fields of the village sat by the Gash River, it became the perfect place to construct a dam, and cotton growth was expansive due to the richness of the land. With the strong Italian presence in the village, Faven received proper medical treatment from the nurses in the army, and she made a full recovery.
Faven grew to be much older. She watched as Italian Eritrea went to the British and then became its own country. The wars of independence destroyed whatever infrastructure the Italians had built up, but Faven always remembered stroking the soft creamy skin of the nurse who tended her back to health; how it pressed against her pustule-covered body, how light blond hairs fell from her bun onto Faven’s body, how Faven would pull them apart, and play with them.
2 April 1955
When Faven was giving birth to her second child, she was unsure if she would make it. The birth attendants told her family that she was most likely going to die. The baby was just too big, and Faven’s womb simply too small. Because the pain was great and Faven’s spirit was dwindling, Faven prayed to God. She made sure to keep her mind on the image of the cross, bathed in golden light. It felt like her body was being torn outwards from the inside of her. It felt like someone had taken a watermelon and was forcing her to pass it through her whole.
Faven heard the sound of the angels. They told her she would be blessed with a beautiful boy. He would be responsible and giving. He would do so much for their village, and for the world. Faven heard what God was telling her and almost cried from the beauty of it.
Then after hours upon hours of hard work the baby came out. The attendants ululated with happiness, showing the child off. The birth of the boy was successful, with no damage to Faven’s body. The women went house to house passing titiqo. A few hours later, women came with jugs of milk from the goats as gifts for the home. In passing they asked curiously for the boy’s name, and Faven said, “Anbessa.” This was the Amharic word for lion, which Faven had chosen because of how loudly the voice of God had roared out his destiny while she was giving birth.
18 September 1961
By the 1960s Faven had birthed three children. This was a small number compared to what was normal in Eritrea, and the people of the village often teased her for her lack of fertility. It was a known fact that her husband was going about sleeping with other women and often impregnating them. Nonetheless Faven did not care. She was happy seeing her children playing outside with the goats and sheep, helping the other family members tend to the sorghum. In far off places like Asmara, coalitions were forming, trying to find ways for Eritrea to break off as a territory from Ethiopia.
But for Faven such things were as far from her as the news of the construction of a Berlin Wall. She lived her life in the fields sweeping the dust in her small hut, cooking meals for her family, and passing the time away talking to her various cousins and siblings.
10 June 1984
The war of independence was brutal. During the thirty-year period, Teseney and its villages were constantly bombed and bombarded. The village’s proximity to the border of Sudan had been its great commercial strength for most of Faven’s life, but now it resulted in so much upheaval.
But in the first month of 1984, the EPLF came to liberate the town of Teseney from the Ethiopians, and in the following months the Ethiopians came back with a vengeance. Faven and her loved ones would hide under the tables and the mattresses. Glass would randomly shatter from the mortars. People would go to the market to buy vegetables and never come back.
It was in those days that the sound of shattering glass and the whooshing of airplanes around them became imprinted in Faven’s mind. She would wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat and shouting her children’s names. She would be peeling vegetables in the middle of the day and ducking under something, afraid that the sound she was hearing was of an army coming to attack them again.
And it was also during those days that Anbessa’s thinking began to change. Unlike his brothers he had never really liked their village, but because of the war Faven could see that he was really starting to despise it. She knew that in the back of her son’s mind, he was growing a disgust for this country. She could feel it in the tips of her hairs and in the emotions he never took the time to announce, but she could detect.
She wanted to talk about it but never knew how to bring it up. She had never talked profoundly about such topics with her children while they were growing up; the idea of raising emotionally challenging subjects was not in her realm of practice.
8 September 1984
And then Anbessa found placement in a good hospital in Asmara. He decided to stay with her brother as he settled in the city to work there, and he hardly visited.
9 October, 2007
It was just like how her grandson from Asmara was eventually accepted into the school of his dreams in a country Faven did not know how to pronounce, let alone imagine, and after that Faven never saw him again.
15 March 2018
When did Faven start to lose her mind? Truthfully, she had never been encouraged to think or question in her entire life, and so thinking for her was routinely confined to what would be best for her children, what would be best for her mother, and how to manage a husband who had little interest in her well-being. Her husband was long dead, and she was surrounded by grandchildren who loved her. And yet she kept forgetting their names. Her hands would twitch for no reason. She would have trouble holding things, but when her daughters-in-law tried to help, she scolded them. She hurled insults at anyone who passed by. She was angry to find herself in one room at one moment, only to realise in the next that many hours had passed since she had gone outside.
Her son from Asmara would come to visit, but only once in a while. He wore fancy clothes from Europe and rarely liked to sleep in his old cot in the hut, trying to limit his time spent to a day trip. Whenever he left, the relatives made fun of him, and Faven felt sad. She wished she knew how to actually talk to her son, but instead she found herself nagging at him for never bringing her grandson home and asking why he wasn’t married yet.
Faven found herself becoming uncontrollably angry. Faven found herself falling into fears. She found herself hating everything about life, and she didn’t understand why.
She found herself wishing she could relive the last eighty-four years of her life all over again.
29 July, 2023
« Why is she reacting like this? » Father shouted. He was squatting on the ground, facing his mother on the cot in their familial hut. Their mother lay completely immobile with fear in her eyes. No matter how much Father tried to grab her attention, it was like he wasn’t there. She was trembling, stuttering to make a word.
« Bo-bo, bo-bo… »
His elder brother, Massawa, scolded him for all the dirt he had brought into the hut with his shoes, while his younger brother, Robel, mused on why the medicines weren’t working. Father took a moment to turn away from his mother. The weather in the village was hot, and Father wasn’t used to being without constant air-conditioning inside of a home. He looked at the sanded land and the small shrubs growing around the rocks. He thought about going for a walk.
When he looked back towards his mother, she was pointing her palms towards the sky as if afraid of someone striking her. Father remembered the roughness of his own father and winced. He hoped that was not what she was remembering in the moment.
Suddenly his mother’s glance dashed towards the cups. His mother was always so diligent in cleaning, spending most of her time crouched by the bucket after a meal was done and plates and utensils needed to be washed. It was one of the closest things she had to a hobby, but now she was so weak that even standing to do something like that would be difficult. Father could not help but let out a sigh.
Massawa heard the sigh. « Anbassa has become like a woman » he joked. « Look at how he holds his body. Look at how he talks. » Robel and Massawa laughed.
Father crossed his arms around his chest. He thought of taking one last look at his mother for a small health examination. He crouched beside her once again, taking a long look at her face. The lighting in the last half hour had changed. Some of the clouds had disappeared, and more sunlight was streaming into the hut. It made Father hotter, and he really thought about taking off his shirt.
Suddenly his mother lifted up his hand up to the sky. It was like she was grabbing at something but nothing was above her except air. Father shouted out with concern. « Inati, what is it? »
His mother looked into his eyes. And in that moment, a wide smile came to her face. Father could not help but smile back. He cooed, as he would to a baby. « Inati, do you recognise me? Do you know it is your son? »
As the light glinted up and around Father, his mother started reaching for his hair and pulling at it. It was like she was trying to uncurl a piece of wool, or how a kid for the first time might pull on the horns of a goat. Father started laughing because it was such an odd way to be touched by his mother. « Inati, why are you doing this? It is like you have never touched my hair before. »
Yet his mother smiled so fondly, with a pure and unadulterated joy that Father wished he could have seen in his mother when he was younger.
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