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Memoir

The cigarette seller of Addis Ababa

THE CIGARETTE SELLER of Addis Ababa works her corner, near the entrance to the compound. She buys her cigarettes by the packet at the wholesale shop a twenty-minute walk away, and sells them one by one to the men who pass by on the street. Some days a man will buy a whole packet at once and she has made an afternoon's fortune in a minute.

At the beginning, the cigarette seller of Addis Ababa needs only enough capital to buy her first packet. She works her corner in the afternoons after school. The cigarette seller lives with her family in the compound of the St George beer factory, because her father has an important job there. He is responsible for the smooth running of all of the machinery. If anything goes wrong, day or night, the cigarette seller's father has to fix it. Her father's job is so important that, if he goes to the stadium to watch the St George soccer team on a Saturday afternoon, which he loves to do, he has to tell his men in which section and row of the stadium he will be sitting, so that if there is a problem with the machinery, one of them can run into the stadium during the soccer match and fetch him from his seat. They don't have mobile phones at this time, in Addis Ababa or anywhere.

Her father's job is so important that, two times, His Royal Highness the Emperor Haile Selassie (to use only the bare minimum of his titles) came to the St George beer factory in his imperial vehicle, a luxury car imported from Europe, and paid her father his monthly salary in person. The Emperor Haile Selassie happens to be the owner of the St George beer factory. He is remarkably small and slight, as everybody knows, but he has a power. The entire world respects him. He stood up to Mussolini. It is said that he is descended in a direct line from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Even if this hasn't been confirmed, it is true he has a power.

The cigarette seller doesn't tell her father she is selling cigarettes. He wouldn't want his daughter selling cigarettes. No other girls sell cigarettes. She doesn't care what other girls do. She has no interest in the dolls they play with. She will never be able to make coffee properly. Even when she is eighteen years old, if her mother asks her to make coffee, she will straddle the coffee pot with her legs apart, and her mother will tell her to get out. Her mother will never enjoy watching her make coffee in this fashion.

Being on the street enables the cigarette seller to understand people when they are drunk. This knowledge will come in handy sometimes, later in her life.

If she has sold enough cigarettes for the afternoon, the cigarette seller plays table soccer or ping-pong with the boys, her friends who wash cars, barefoot in the dust. All the bad boys are her friends, because she can do tricks. She can show them things she has learnt from Bruce Lee movies. She can do the splits and she can hit them. Also, she can read their minds. They are not so scary. They are too afraid to hit her like they hit her sister.

The cigarette seller's sister will always be in trouble. She is too beautiful. She is six years older, but when the cigarette seller is eight, the older sister asks the younger to teach her how to do a walkover. A walkover is like a cartwheel with one hand. The cigarette seller spends time trying to teach her sister how to do a walkover. Her sister is hopeless. She is the opposite of the cigarette seller. She is clean, decent, and prays all the time, every night and every morning. She says 'Thank God for the day we have had.' The cigarette seller doesn't thank God every night for her earnings.

She says to her sister: 'I've taught you everything about how to do a walkover and now it's up to you.' But her sister is hopeless. And the boys still hit her. She is too beautiful.

After this, the sister stays always near the lounge room of their home. She keeps it spotless.

The sister has beautiful clothes, which the cigarette seller loves to wear sometimes. They are actually exactly the same as her own clothes, but bigger. She prefers them. Because they are much too big for her, she ties them up with a belt. She steals her sister's clothes, ties them up with a belt, and jumps out of her sister's window. Her mother catches her and threatens: 'Don't you ever do that again!'

But even though the cigarette seller says she never will, the next day she is out of the window again with her sister's clothes on and the belt. The cigarette seller is scared of nothing.

She has left her house since she was eight years old to sell her cigarettes. She is not like any other girls. At the St George Elementary School, which lies on the same road as the beer factory but on the other side, she sits at the front of the class and she cleans the blackboard. She is covered in white dust but doesn't care.

If her older sister stays out until after seven in the evening her parents are worried about where she is. The cigarette seller tells her parents: 'You don't like me. That's why you don't worry where I am.' Her mother tells her: 'You are not the daughter of me. You are the daughter of Chagago!' The cigarette seller knows very well that Chagago is the mad guy down the street. When Chagago comes by, all the kids run.

The cigarette seller of Addis Ababa does well at her trade. She looks like a boy, with her hair cropped short, but people are more likely to buy from her than from the boys. She is loud. She sings, she dances and does flips. It is very hard for the others to compete with this cigarette seller. She is business-oriented.

The cigarette seller diversifies. She sells small pastries in plastic wrappers, and chewing gum, a well as cigarettes.

She shares her money with her friends. She takes them out to buy espris – rainbow-striped juices, thick as soup, with layers of papaya, guava, mango, banana and avocado.

She shares her money with the boys who wash the cars and the others who sell things with her outside the compound. If they have no money of their own she buys goods from the wholesaler for them to sell.

At home the cigarette seller is never still, even if she is watching Bruce Lee and Dutch variety shows on television. She is always wrestling with her brothers or using the beds as trampolines.

Her brothers who, afterwards, will be lost or far away.

She has a problem with remaining still. She is of no use to her mother. At Easter, there is two months fasting. All this time, the cigarette seller's family eats no meat or dairy. At the end there is a feast, where the family, which is large, eats four chickens. There is a certain way to cut each chicken into twelve pieces before cooking, a very certain way it must be done. The cigarette seller's mother gives a chicken to each child so that each of them can learn to split the chicken properly. But the cigarette seller never learns to split a chicken properly. She says to her mother: 'I need to go to the toilet.' Then she climbs out of the window and doesn't come back.

 

THE ST GEORGE football team lives in a house in the cigarette seller's compound, at the beer factory. One of the families moved out and the St George football team moved in. Whenever the St George football team goes to training, the cigarette seller hops on to their bus. She trains with them. They kick the ball and she does flips and bends her body into shapes. They say to her 'Come on, Mimi' – because Mimi, little girl, is her nickname – 'Come on, Mimi, show us some tricks. Show us a dog, a cat, a six. A nine.' The cigarette seller knows all of these tricks and more.

Inside the entrance to the compound of the St George beer factory is a pub. You can buy dinner there, and St George beer from the tap. It is the freshest beer in Addis.

One day, the managers of the St George beer factory pub visit the cigarette seller's father, at his office. They are angry. They have collected up all the empty plastic wrappers from the pastries that the cigarette seller has sold. They show the plastic wrappers to the cigarette seller's father: 'Your daughter is taking over our business. We are losing customers – look at how many pastries she is selling. This many in a day.'

They wave all the plastic wrappers at him.

But the cigarette seller's father says to them: 'Calm down. My daughter wouldn't do that.'

He goes home and says to the cigarette seller: 'Sit here and tell me honestly what you are up to. Are you selling cigarettes, and these pastries with the wrappers?'

'Yes,' she says straight out. 'Yes, I sell the cigarettes. I sell everything.'

The cigarette seller's father asks her to stop selling.

'I don't want to stop,' she says.

Then they have a very big argument. She tells him that she is not going to stop because there are a lot of poor kids who live outside the compound and she shares her money with them. If she sells something, she shares her money with the other kids who are trying to make money by cleaning cars. So, she says, it is not only for me, because I share it with the other kids, and I am not going to stop this.

The cigarette seller's father tries to negotiate a peace between the managers of the St George pub and the cigarette seller. He brings them together to discuss the situation. He says to the managers of the pub: 'Don't worry, she is not going to sell the things inside the compound, she is only going to sell them outside the front gate, so it should be fine.'

The managers are still not happy.

The cigarette seller's father becomes angry with the managers now. He says to them: 'Do you think, if somebody is coming here to eat a roast at your pub, they are just going to eat that little pastry instead and leave? Are you that stupid?' And he walks off.

The managers all call out after him: 'We don't want to see her around here anymore! Okay?'

The cigarette seller's father comes right back to them and says: 'This is her compound, this is where she lives and where she plays and you can't stop her being here.'

And the cigarette seller says to the managers, who have all shaken hands with the Emperor Haile Selassie, the owner of the St George pub and brewery, who in turn may be directly descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and certainly, at this time at least, has a power that emanates from every fibre of his diminutive body; she says to these imperial hotel managers: 'I am going to sell my cigarettes right here from my own front door, behind the gate of our house, here inside the compound, and nobody can stop me because I am still inside my house.'

The managers don't know how to deal with this cigarette seller, who is so small and insignificant but seems to also have a power.

The cigarette seller's father asks her one more time to stop. 'Just stop this thing and go to school and when you finish school I will try to put you in a good job', he says. But the cigarette seller is very strict with her father: she tells him that if he wants to put anybody in a good job it should be her sister, who is beautiful but has already left school and doesn't have a job. 'Don't worry about me,' says the cigarette seller, 'I can get myself a job. I can do any job. You don't need to put me in a job.'

Her father sighs and says to her: 'You are not like any ordinary kid.' He wonders where she came from, how she came to be his daughter.

 

BUT ACTUALLY THIS brings about a remarkable change in the cigarette seller's father, hitherto very strict and unbending in his family, and never known to change his mind. Now someone else in the family is unbending in her beliefs, but on top of that a very good negotiator. The cigarette seller's father learns from his own daughter how to negotiate and be flexible.

Her mother says to her: 'You're making money, but now you need to start saving money.'

Her mother says to her: 'You need to start an ekube.'

An ekube is a traditional system for saving money in Ethiopia. The cigarette seller knows already how one works. You gather together a group of people and each agrees to put in so much money once a month. Every month it will be the turn of a different member of the group to draw out all the money put in that month, and use it as they need. You all come together and socialise, drink coffee, bring along your monthly savings and place them in the pot. The one whose turn it is to draw out the money each month has been determined at the beginning of the ekube by the picking of the names out one by one: first name, first month and so on. And if the January person doesn't want to take their money in January they can sell it to the October person, minus ten percent.

But the cigarette seller's mother organises it so that the cigarette seller's name comes out last in her ekube. She will receive her money only in the final month.

There are twelve people in this ekube, including the cigarette seller. Every month the twelve will each put in one hundred birr.

In Ethiopia there are thirteen months every year, and every year starts seven years, eight months and eleven days later than the same year in the Gregorian (western) calendar, but for leap years when they wait one day more. The cigarette seller of Addis Ababa lives always in the past. The months have thirty days, save for the last, Pagumen, which has only five. Naturally this short stubby month does not count in the ekube.

After a year has gone by, the cigarette seller's mother hands her, one day, an envelope with 1,200 birr inside. The cigarette seller is speechless. She doesn't know what to do with all this money.

She says: 'I'm going to give it to my Dad.'

Growing up in Ethiopia, it is every child's wish to give money to its family. There is no welfare system.

The father of the cigarette seller is sitting in the lounge-room watching television when she brings him in her gift. He looks inside the envelope and at his little girl, this cigarette seller with her cropped hair and her spunk. Then he cries and cries for ages, because he has been against her selling cigarettes the whole time. He wonders where this cigarette seller came from, how she came to be his daughter. He asks the grandmother of the cigarette seller to come to bless her, to bless his child, for God to give her everything she wants. The grandmother is the elder of the family and age has made her wise; she is best equipped for blessings.


From Griffith Review Edition 37: Small World © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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