Endless strawberries

Elisabetta Bortolotti
05.04.2016
 
Endless strawberries
Silvia is seated on the settle, watching the rain outside the window. She is lost in thought, distant. Since her return she has been trying in every way possible to tell her mother the story she doesn’t want to hear. Rosa is pottering about the fireplace, stoking the fire, burning uncomfortable memories.
“It was a ridiculous idea to come back to Italy, and it’s proved to be quite a drag. Just as dreary as this rain,” says Silvia all of a sudden.
Rosa turns her back to her, but can feel her daughter’s gaze upon her. Silvia talks without pausing for breath, without any punctuation.
“Mum, I want to leave again. Once you’ve experienced it, Ethiopia stays with you, like a second skin, you know. The way the children run, people’s sweaty bodies, the redness of the earth. Africa just takes hold of you, like malaria, like a disease.”
Rosa stiffens, stops poking around in the fire, stares at some imaginary point in front of her and listens.
“My days were really intense, really hectic. Waking up at dawn, interminable roads from one muddy village to the next. Roads with the most terrible holes, you always had to have your wits about you, and the heat was oppressive. A few days after I arrived in Addis, Haile and I travelled south. The kilometres and days raced by as we passed the lakes of Zuway, Abiata and Langano until we reached Arba Minch. You won’t believe it: now, just ouside Addis, there are strawberry fields stretching for miles and miles, it’s just like Sant’Orsola.”
Silvia laughs: she closes her eyes when she laughs, throws her head back and laughs even harder.
“There was also this strawberry air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror in the jeep, and I was just looking at it the whole time. There are always so many animals on the roads, and children singing and dancing on the roadsides. And women carrying unimaginably heavy loads. When we arrived at the hotel on the first evening, there was no electricity in the tiny room, just cold water and mosquitos and the flush in the toilet never shut up. But then I found this cassette player which worked as a speaker in the car when you plugged your iPod into it and forgot all about it. C’est l’Afrique.”
Rosa is following her attentively, seeing the world through her daughter’s eyes.
“Those days were relentlessly muggy. In the evenings it always rained like it does in the dry season, and we drank refreshing beer before a magnificent sunset, a ball of fire behind an acacia. Did you know, there’s even an airport at Jinka! A little strip of grass and holes in the ground where the boys played football and the goats could graze undisturbed. We never saw a plane land there, but people swore blind they do.”
Again, Silvia searches for her mother with words. Rosa doesn’t interrupt her.
“Perhaps you remember: Jinka leads into the park where the Mursi tribe lives. Black warriors, tall and austere, who half skin themselves in order to adorn their bodies with little geometric designs, and the women deform their lips with little clay discs. From there we made our way once more along the dusty trail as far as Turmi, to get a bit nearer to the red earth and the Karo tribe with their painted bodies, along the Omo river down to the area which practically borders Kenya. And, my God, how far away from our civilisation we were, if you can still call it that. In the car we were listening to Teddy Afro, Fabrizio de Andrè, Aster Aweke and U2 at full blast. Music has no smell, no sound. We were baking inside that car - we had to keep the windows shut on account of the dust, because it got all over the place and it sticks to everything. I sat there,stunned, my nose pressed up against the window, watching the enormous termite mounds rising upwards against the blue of the sky. I watched in silence, registering every second in that land, so far away from everything.”

Rosa remembers her little girl, gaping at the stories she told her. Rosa thinks she can see her again.
“The tribes have remained completely as they were. An absolutely beautiful people, proud in the way that only the Ethiopians can be, they are individual in the way they do their hair, or how they tattoo their sculptural bodies. Perhaps it’s their diffidence which has allowed them to remain unaffected by globalisation all these years, and, who knows, maybe for some years still to come, and to preserve the traditions of their ancestors. And when we met the Hamer tribe at the market of Dimeka they hardly seemed to notice us, suspended as they were in their vicissitudes. The women wear anklets and neck rings. Their heads are adorned with braids, stiffened with mud and butter, to create an elegant bob; the men sit around on little stools, their calves bound in knee-high socks with the appearance of white lace. They wait, they watch, in the sweltering forty degrees heat of the courtyard, to sell spices and tobacco for a pittance and then, when the day is at an end, they walk back to bamboo huts with scorching sheet-metal roofs, kilometres away”.
For a moment Silvia breaks off. A pause, she seems more melancholy.
“After the aridness of the South we gradually reached higher ground and the landscape began to explode into a display of colours very like our mountains. From the edge of the road, I suddenly spotted a little watering hole which, from above, looked like a pitch-filled lake. Dante’s Inferno. I made my way down along a footpath passing little donkeys laden with sacks. Men, black and naked, come to the watering hole and dig with their hands and feet, bringing up a kind of sludge the colour of tar: salt. The sun sqeezes through that vortex of people, as though through a funnel, scorching, dying their wet skin and they change colour, and then they look more like us. Then I felt the call of the singing wells, in the way that sailors used to feel the call of the sirens. A human chain descends about thirty metres into the deep to fetch the water, pail by pail, for the herds of cows and dromedaries. I was enchanted by that maze of bodies, arms, water, sweat, all moving to the incessant beat of a single song. When I reawakened it was late, it was already evening in Negele Borana: there was a celebration for the Ethiopian soldiers who had left Mogadishu and they had given the room that we had booked to someone else. So we ended up camping outside in a tent in the hotel garden.”
Silvia approaches her mother, reaching for her hand.
“I saw where you left it Mamma. Italy feels very distant for me now. I’m already so homesick for that land, that land which is mine now.”
Rosa cries in silence, hiding her face so that her daughter cannot see. She swirls the saliva round her mouth, mixing it with the salt. Vasco Rossi is singing on the radio “...when life used to be easier and we could eat strawberries...”
Rosa can well remember the voices of the children, crying iù iù, farangji farangji, the women’s laughter as they touched her pale skin and the hairpins in their hair, the overwhelming fragrance of incense, the heat rising from the gound.
She knows that Silvia will choose the smooth road.
She knows that she will lose her, as happened once before.
“You’re just like your father,” she thinks.

Translated from Italian by Rosanna Forte
 
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