The Time I Lost it all in Ethiopia, Then Got it Right Back

On rare occasions during my time living in Ethiopia (or Benin and Burkina Faso before it), I have gotten so maddeningly frustrated that if an Aladdin-type genie suddenly appeared with a one-way plane ticket home, even if I would’ve had to surrender all the injera I owned, I would not hesitate. Yet without fail, every time one of those moments of utter despair arrives, the universe almost immediately counterbalances with an equally heartwarming moment. This is one of those times.

A few months ago, I was chasing someone more important than I for a work meeting (hard to believe I know, but I tend to reside in the lower end of the pecking order in the Addis Ababa power lunch scene). I had sort of given up on the meeting when his secretary randomly called me some Tuesday, and asked if I could come to their office this second. Dropping everything (literally, our office pet turtle almost broke his back), I ran down the six flights of stairs out of the office and onto the main road. Luckily my prospective meeting was on the same road and not too far away, but still would require hopping a minibus to get there in time.

Despite boasting sub-Saharan Africa’s only metro system (South Africa aside?), minibuses continue to be the public transportation mode of choice for most of Addis Ababa-ans. Referred to affectionately as ‘blue donkeys,’ the streets of Addis are filled with the ubiquitous sight of the frequently blue and white 11-seater vans zooming in and out of traffic. They ply set routes, which can be a bit confusing to learn at first, as there are no route maps (we’ve tried to create one here) or officially-designated stops, and the language of instruction is always Amharic. On the plus side, they are frequent on major routes, and best of all quite cheap (usually between 2-5 birr depending on the distance, or 7 to 18 cents).

light rail

the light rail actually costs about the same as the minibuses

After getting over the initial intimidation, the minibuses are actually quite easy and efficient to use – as long as you know where you are going of course. Christine overcame the steep learning curve in our first few months by literally just taking random ones around the town to figure out where they went (that is before she became a legitimate working woman) – a maddeningly complicated process of trial and error. But if you see a crowd of people standing on the side of the road in the city, it’s a good chance they disappear inside a blue donkey within a few minutes.

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blue donkey in action

In any case, I ran out of the office determined to catch a minibus to go 10 minutes down the road. Unfortunately our office is on the airport road, which means anytime a dignitary or the like visits, the entire road gets shut down (with Addis Ababa also being the headquarters of the African Union, this happens a lot). So it was just at that time when I ran out that police were mobilizing to close the road, which meant no minibuses would be coming my way.

Frantically, I decided to run down the road past a big circle, to see if there were any still on that side. A large crowd had mobilized after the intersection, all trying to hop into the few minibuses that still remained. One other thing I didn’t mention about the minibus system that also makes it confusing – at some stops there are well-organized lines, but at others it is just a free for all. Those who push their way get in, those that don’t, well don’t. Initially I was not in a pushing mood, but once I realized I was going to miss my chance at this meeting, that changed.

Nonetheless, with the impending road closure and the sizable crowd, even pushing wasn’t working – there were just too many people and not enough spaces (even if the minibuses overcrowd themselves to fit in around 18 passengers in 11 official seats).

I began freaking out a bit – I contemplated running down the road to the office, but this would take at least twenty minutes and would force me to arrive drenched in a vat of my own sweat – not the first impression I wanted to make (though it would distract from the fact that I had nothing of value to truly say). So I resolved to stay in the crowd, and just hoped the supply would quickly meet our demand.

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sadly that day, even the horsies were nowhere to be found

The minibuses that arrive don’t always stop exactly at the same spot, so when it’s crowded it is sometimes a comical process of running 20 feet in one direction, only to get stymied and run 20 feet back in the other. This time during this process, a man in the crowd somewhat befriended me, the only struggling foreigner in his midst. He insisted I follow him as he aggressively pushed his way through the crowd. I was wary of it but needed to get on and had no other transport option at this point (much of the road has already been closed so no taxis were coming down either, just a few remaining minibuses).

I followed the man back and forth a few times, before he pushed me ahead of him and we got on one. I made my way to an open seat in the back row. Despite being another open seat one row ahead, he came and sat next to me. I was still panicking a bit and didn’t make much conversation; I just wanted to get going. Squeezed next to me in the back row was a middle-aged woman with a young child on her lap – both paid scant attention to me, and the feeling was mutual.

In any case, we got a move on and quickly came to where I want to get off (you must verbally signal your stop to the driver’s assistant in order to dismount). The man who had helped me get in was a little surprised, and said in English “oh, this is your stop?” I replied affirmatively, and not wanting to get involved in any long conversation, starting the process of trying to extract myself from the sardine can that was the minibus. Instead of shifting his position to let me pass, however, he made me step over him, and took a long time in doing it. I finally got past his seemingly intentional blockage of my path, and exited from the minibus triumphantly – I was going to make my meeting!

As soon as I got out, I quickly patted my pockets to make sure everything is there, as I always do upon exiting (Addis and minibuses are quite safe in general, but there is a degree of pickpocketing that goes on). When I patted my back pocket I realized my wallet was not there. My mind immediately flashed back to the ‘friendly’ man who was lazily blocking my exit just a few minutes prior. But then I thought I was in such a hurry to get down here, that I may have just left my wallet at the office (I had some small change in my pocket to pay the few cents minibus fare).

I momentarily decided that was had happened, and started walking up to my meeting. But thinking about it more, I realized that could not be case – I never forget to bring my wallet anywhere (unless it is intentional act during one of those famous Addis Ababa power lunches I mentioned earlier). I still had my phone and keys – how could I have selectively forgotten my wallet then (as I keep them next to each other in a drawer at work)?

But maybe it had just fallen out as I was squeezing myself to get out of the overly crowded minibus. So I ran back to where I got off and began looking on the ground. Something kept bothering me about the ‘friendly’ man though, and it just sort of hit me – he must have it. There was no proof, but just a suspicion about our entire interaction – specifically his concern for me, and how he had insisted I get on the crowded bus ahead of him, and then he sat next to me despite being an open seat elsewhere.

By the time I was getting incensed – I was panicked about not being able to get to my meeting due to the road closure, and now was dealing with a missing wallet. I saw the minibus I had been on up ahead – I ran down the road about 100 meters after it. For some reason despite the road closure it ran into a spot of traffic and was sitting there. I ran up to it and asked to open the door – the driver’s assistant refused, probably saying in classical Amharic which I did not understand, that they weren’t allowed to due to the road closure. I didn’t take that for an answer – by this point I was sweating, flailing, and shouting a lot (so much for a good first impression) – screaming that my wallet was on the minibus. I grabbed the door and he kind of smiled nervously, as in a ‘I got another crazy foreigner trying to force his will upon me’ sort of way. I was convinced at this point and when he opened the door and I was about to jump in to a seated crowd of about 15 Ethiopians staring quizzically at me, I realized this was actually not the minibus I was just in.

Cursing very loudly, I retreated and turned back up the road – only to see the minibus I was in pulling away too far to catch up to (or at least I assume, it could’ve been a repeat episode, a groundhog day sort of situation). Too angry and flustered to be embarrassed, I started walking down the road in the direction of my meeting, resigned to my fate. Well not so resigned – I am sure I very much looked like a crazy person, more so than normal. I was red with anger, sweating profusely in my work clothes, and cursing quite loudly to myself. I was about to lose it – well I probably already had.

It was at this precise moment that, wallet-less, all I felt was rage at everything I could think of – mad at Ethiopia for always closing the road, mad at my situation for not having a car that could drive me to meetings, mad at the meeting setup given the lack of notice, and mad at myself for not realizing that ‘friendly’ man was clearly a hustler. The only think I could think of is why, why do I do this work, why do I live here, what is the point, and of course F-it all (aside from the heaven-inducing Ambo mineral water they have here of course – I could never get mad at that).

That lasted about three intense minutes. I still had to make my meeting, so exhaled, cursed a little more for good measure, and composed myself. Wallet or no wallet, life would go on. I began mentally calculating what was in there and how much of a pain it would be to replace my American credit cards in Ethiopia (luckily there wasn’t too much in terms of cash – getting a new wallet and replacing all the cards/IDs would cost more than the hustler had gained).

In any case, I went up to the building where I was to have my meeting, now more than 30 minutes after the assistant had called to tell me to come immediately. Given that this was an official headquarters, security wouldn’t let me in without ID, which of course was in my missing wallet. I protested that I had been here yesterday (in fact, trying to secure the same meeting), but they insisted. Finally, I explained my wallet was just stolen and with it my ID, which seemed to make them relent (in fact, this has happened to me before in a difficult situation where authorities were demanding ID – as soon as I played the wallet-was-stolen card, especially emphasizing the fact that I am foreign guest in your country and this is how I have been treated, the local hospitality instinct kicks in and people change their tune).

In any case, they let me through and I was about to get on the elevator when I got a call from an unknown number. Typically I would have ignored this (telemarketing hasn’t really taken off in Ethiopia, but thought it best to ignore still just in case they figured it out that day) – but I answered, I think subconsciously holding out hope just in the slight chance this had something to do with my missing wallet. On the other side was the receptionist from my office, and she said bluntly uttered the magical phrase “Omar, did you lose your wallet?”

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the rage that was in inside me suddenly dissipated, just like the Meskel celebrations . . . 

Flabbergasted I stammered a ‘yes, how did you know?’ She said someone called her and had my wallet in their possession, and asked me to contact him. I explained I was about to run into an important meeting and couldn’t do it, but could she arrange somehow (in fact, I had to wait another hour-and-a-half for my meeting partner to become available, so I definitely could’ve done a lot in that time span, including ride many more minibuses and lose many more wallets). She said ok and hung up – I wasn’t sure if that was the right choice, or if I should’ve dropped everything to resolve this. In any case, all was not lost and my anger had been for naught! I further composed myself, and combined with the one-and-a-half hour wait, was fully calm during the ensuring meeting.

About two hours later, I strolled back into my office, taking another minibus on the return despite the receptionist’s advice not to (I no longer had a wallet, what else could I lose – if they really wanted my pants, they could have them). When I walked in, she was holding my wallet triumphantly at the front desk. I had no idea of its whereabouts over the past two hours (we had much to catch up on), but certainly was glad to have it back.

Stunned, I asked her what happened. In between spurts of laughter, she explained the story to me. The ‘friendly’ man from the minibus indeed had not been so friendly after all (while I was waiting for the meeting I began feeling bad for my immediate castigation of him, as perhaps I had just dropped the wallet somewhere and someone else had found it – but clearly my instincts to judge everyone immediately without evidence proved apt). He had been ‘helping’ get on the minibus, and ensuring I sat next to him, with a clear objective in mind.

Apparently when I was trying to get out and he was not being so conducive to that, it is because at the same time he was unbuttoning my back pocket, removing my wallet without me even noticing, and then on top of it re-buttoning the pocket (that was part of my confusion as when got out of the minibus – my wallet was not there, but my pocket was still buttoned)! I actually find that to be quite skillful and tipped my gnarled Redskins hat off to him, as he exceeded even my highest expectations with regards to the delicate art of pick pocketry.

Apparently, this did not amuse the woman sitting to my left with a child on her lap. She witnessed the whole incident, but did not say anything at the time, perhaps unsure of what to do. After I got out, they went a few more stops until the ‘friendly’ man also exited the minibus. At that moment the lady decided to get out as well and followed him. As soon as they were out of the minibus she began berating him loudly, yelling at him for stealing my wallet. A crowd was forming around this spectacle, and apparently fearing he would get caught, the man threw the wallet on the ground and ran.

She picked it up, but didn’t know what to do with it. She turned to another man in this nascent crowd who I suppose looked trusting, and apparently just said I’m busy and can’t deal with this – can you return it to the owner?

So at this point my wallet had been in the hands of three different Ethiopians, all unbeknownst to me. Luckily the man she chose who looked trusting in fact actually was. He looked through my wallet and found my business card, calling our office to track me down (at that point our receptionist sent our office cleaner to go retrieve it from the man, and she came back to hand it to her – so a total of five people in possession of it until it got back to me!).

Thus as soon as I got back to the office and saw it, the world was righted again. There was nothing at all missing from the wallet, no cash, no Redskins collectable stamps, nothing. This is what restored my faith in Ethiopia and made me proud to live there – the random act of kindness of an individual (or in this case multiple individuals) far outweighs the damaging actions of one single degenerate. And thus a moment of complete despair is followed by one of utter happiness and pride – but the effects of the latter are always more profound than the former. And in that sense a small, internal crisis averted– until the next time I get pickpocketed on a minibus, without a benevolent but timorous benefactor to witness it!

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next time ditching the blue donkey to hail this