We pull up the Land Cruiser next to a petite man walking along the road. He is wearing a sarong-type skirt; his hair is coiffed in mud and feathers. He is distinguished.
“It is Wolle!” cries Mageru as he gets out from behind the wheel. “He is the Chief of Chiefs for the Hamer people.”
They greet each other in the traditional way for Ethiopian men – clasping each other’s backs with the left hand, shaking right hands while butting right shoulders three times. Wolle’s head feathers stroked Mageru’s mustache.
In the Hamer language, Mageru introduces me as his wife. Wolle looks me over and absent-mindedly undoes and reties his sarong. He wears nothing underneath.
“We should invite him to camp with us,” suggests Mageru. “It is a long way back to his village.”
Wolle is happy to do that but insists on supplying dinner and so we swing the car off the road and bump our way across the scrubby, dry savannah. A landscape so formless, I cannot gauge how many miles we have travelled before reaching Wolle’s family enclave, a few cone-shaped huts made of sticks and grass and encircled by thorn bushes.
As I get out of the car, I am immediately surrounded by dozens of naked children and, standing back, shy semi-naked women. The women and I smile uncertainly – not knowing what is expected of us.
Meanwhile, under Wolle’s direction, Mageru and a few other men are playing chase with a small goat. The goat loses, and is manipulated safely - but not quietly - into the back of the Land Cruiser. He is wedged in tight and I pray that he will not pee, poo or upchuck on our gear.
It surely is the goat’s first car ride and it will definitely be his last. And by the time he bleats all the way back to our campsite, I am not feeling even a smidge remorseful. Our cook hustles him off (out of sight of my tender ferenj sensitivities) and disposes of him quickly; within a few hours he has become a tasty stew called figel wot. It is a pleasant camping evening; the men’s Amharic/Hamer murmurings around the fire are like soft ambient music to ears that don’t understand.
The next morning, we head back to Wolle’s home for a traditional Hamer breakfast. The interior of his hut is shadowy; a few cracks of light seeping through the sticks. There is a wide mud ledge built on one side - perhaps a sleeping platform? It also has a false ceiling made of loosely woven branches – in the dimness I can see pots up there. Breakfast is a kind of cornmeal mash and ‘coffee’ is a root, made with local stream water. Both are served in calabashes, and passed communally.
“Don’t eat it,” whispers Mageru.
“That would be rude. I should at least have a taste, shouldn’t I?” I whisper back.
“Do-not-eat-anything,” he says warningly. We lock eyes. I have a few bites and pass the calabash along, and he shakes his head and sighs.
During our ‘conversations’, in which the Hamer folk chatter away in their language and I chatter away in mine, I hear small noises and movement above.
“There is a woman hiding up there,” says Mageru.
I look at him, disbelievingly.
“Yes, it is true. She is the bride of Wolle’s son. And so she must stay hidden for 3 months, until her husband comes back.”
“What, what, WHAT?”
“Yes. When the man and woman get married, the man must go out to find the money, or cattle or whatever for the bride price. So his family hides the bride. Only they can see her. At night, she can come out to pee or whatever.”
“Oh, give me a break, Mageru . . . there is no woman in there.” I peer upwards.
“I do not joke. She is there – and she is covered all over with red mud.”
“Why is she hidden and covered with red mud?”
“It is the way they do, these people,” comes the reply. Which is a pretty typical Ethiopian answer. Not satisfactory, but typical.
More Hamer chatter ensues between Wolle and his wives. The women don’t seem happy, but after all, he is Chief of Chiefs and if they want to remain number one and two wives and not have to put up with a number three, they relent.
A hole appears in the false ceiling, and she comes down. A young woman, naked except for a doeskin loin cloth. She is glistening; hair, face and body slathered in a greasy paste of goat butter and red soil. Embarrassed or terrified or shy - she will not raise her eyes.
I wonder what an appropriate greeting is. ‘How do you do?’ ‘Congratulations on your miserable confinement?’ ‘I love your shade of slime?’
“She is beautiful.”
Ah, it appears that might be the right thing. Translated, there are nods all around. The poor bride is finally released from her ordeal and pulls herself up through the roof again.
“This is never done,” whispers Mageru. “Not even for an Ethiopian. It is a great honor.”
And it was; the rest of our visit seems almost anti-climactic. At one point, I feel a tremendous burp coming on – it takes forever to rollick its way up through my system before erupting with volcanic force.
“Uh oh,” says Mageru as he hastily bundles me out of the hut and into the car. “I told you not to eat anything.”
The next three days I am laid low with much time to replay the event – it was such a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I sure that I’ll be telling this tale forever.
But I wonder if the bride will, too?
Maureen Magee is a Canadian writer, who is still working on the same damn book of short stories.