“Laws control only the lesser man.”

20 06 2011

-title from Mark Twain

by Joy Ogunmuyiwa

June 13, 2011
11:32 pm
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

This is a traditional wooden set for a coffee ceremony I found in a shop. Many times when we enter the home to interview, the hosts kindly begins with a welcoming coffee ceremony.

There is this concept called the law of averages. It is the unscientific, but reasonable, assumption that things are bound to change some time. We, as humans, work constantly to go against it. For any goal, we first assume the task of setting up a process, a routine even, to achieve it. A morning routine. A work routine. We strive for minimal change, saving us both time and energy in the long run.

As the weeks had gone by, I had come up with my own inherent routine. Set up camera. Turn mike on. Open notebook. Signal speaker. Ask question. Translate. Ask more questions. Translate. Ask even more questions. Translate. Consent form. Exit. It was when we interviewed a young girl in Addis, this law somehow seemed to enforce itself.

Seven of us sat comfortably in the one-room home of a young fifteen year old girl, Shikriq, and her caregiver. Their house was in a compound near a military camp and they lived by themselves. Her older sister had gone to Saudi Arabia two years ago to look for domestic work. After a nice coffee ceremony, her caregiver had left to attend to the injera she was cooking to sell, so we were left with Shikriq and her best friend.

The interview went as usual and we seemed to be at the point where we took out the consent forms and ask if they have any questions for us. Up to this point, the questions they asked were usually to see their recorded interview, or something along those lines.

A bookstand in Piassa, the center of Addis. One of Shikriq's favorite activities was reading these novels.

So, the interviewer who was translating, Biniyam, asked in Amharic if she had any questions, and I started packing my things. No sooner had I started packing, then the young girl said something and everyone in the room started smiling. I sort of learned how to deal with situations like this and started smiling along with everyone else, all the while oblivious to a joke that Shikriq seemed to have told.

She repeated herself and Biniyam started laughing, clearly telling her no and seemingly denying her something. Curiosity cast its curse, and I asked him what she wanted. He turned smiling and said, she wants you to put your stuff down because she has some interview questions for you. I gave my best I-hope-you’re-not-serious laugh and pulled out a consent form. Shikriq and I both looked at the consent forms, and as if some universal language was spoken, we both knew who was in control of this situation. I sat down quietly–I had indeed met my match.

She laughed that laugh that makes everyone in a room laugh, took a deep breath, and began her interview. Through Biniyam, she asked questions that would make college admissions interviews seem as easy as following an episode of Dora the Explorer. What grades are you making in school? Why did you wear that shirt today? How old are you? Are you married? Are you engaged? Do you at least have a boyfriend!? Then why are you wearing makeup? How tall are you? What is your favorite music? You’re still in school? What do you want to be? Do you wear a uniform?

The interview began as quickly as it had started as her mother came in with a fresh platter of injera. Not wanting to get in trouble, the girl and her friend slid past her caregiver, and flashed a smile that only fifteen year olds are mischievous enough to give.

 

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