During our three years in Eritrea, I tried very hard to speak the main language: Tigrinya, a Semitic tongue with its own alphabet and its own phonemes. It kept my vocal chords in a constant state of culture shock. An activity as simple as buying an egg was a tough workout. In English, the word is as fundamental as the thing itself. But in Tigrinya, "egg" is an onomatopoeia: the sound, I was told, that a hen makes when laying it. Very difficult to hatch in an American throat; it always sounded like I was ordering a Coca Cola.
There were two kinds of eggs on the shelf: small and brown or big and white. The grocer urged me to choose small. “They are the best,” he insisted; “The white ones are big, yes! But not so good. Those chickens eat only one kind of food. These chickens--” his hand swept over the brown eggs-- “eat whatever they can find. A variety!” True; chickens in the capital city were given great range. Still I preferred white. Especially when I got to know Ade Fana.
Ade Fana (Ade means 'mother,' a term of respect) lived three doors down. She kept chickens in her backyard. To me, she represented what was most endearing about Eritrea: toughness, humor, simplicity, dignity, an open door and a low stool to sit on because, best of all, there was always time to chat. When I came for eggs, she greeted me with three strong kisses: right cheek, left cheek, right cheek again. But she never gushed or fawned. Her manner was as blunt as her wit was sharp, and she quartered no nonsense. She was Socrates in a shawl. One day I reported being startled by a mouse in the night. What did Ade Fana think about mice in the bedroom? She shrugged. “What is a mouse, or a rat? What harm can they do? You just say Shoo! Now a snake in the house...Ay!"
My favorite moment was early in our acquaintance. I think she was still sorting out who I was. I was the first “Italian” to frequent her home; I attempted to speak her language; I was kenisha (the word for Protestant that still connoted “heretic” in the villages). Ade Fana shuffled up very close to me, tilted her head back and peered under her glasses to look into my mouth. I thought a compliment about my Tigrinya was coming. Instead she said approvingly, “Of all the Italians I have seen, you have the straightest teeth.”
Fana and her husband Abe HabteMariam lived through the long decades of war. Like so many of their peers, bad news came in swift succession, the messengers of Job running up to their door again and again: first, one soldier son killed, then another, then—perhaps most tragically, for it was after liberation—a third was shot down, and their daughter-in-law died suddenly from grief.
Ade Fana was a wisp of a woman, slender features, thin shoulders, swift little hands. Her husband was tall, stooped, big-boned. His eyesight was clouded by cataracts. Except for pumping water, he mostly sat in his chair, tended by his wife. One day I found Ade Fana sitting on a stool in front of him. She was holding his big bare foot in her hand and using a razor blade to cut away his corns. Not surprisingly, neither of them flinched.
Though he was nearly blind and deaf, HabteMariam (his name meant “riches of Mary”) walked to and from church several times a week. To do so, he had to cross the busiest road in town, guided only by a hand-carved prayer staff. It was no small wonder, this parting of airport traffic for Aba HabteMariam. His wife went at different times. During the fast seasons it was twice a day, every day, five a.m. and again at noon. Together they kept the fasts, which lasted for weeks and consumed nearly half the year. They would eat no meat, no milk products, no eggs. From drar (evening meal) till fadus (noontime next day) they ate nothing at all and did not take even a sip of water.
One day I heard that Ade Fana was sick; they had taken her to the hospital. (At that time, the one place you did not wish for your friends to go was the war-wasted city hospital). Her granddaughter told me she suspected it was all that fasting; Ade Fana just got too weak and dehydrated. One couldn't think of Ade Fana, grown thinner and at risk, without theological concerns. An elderly woman, frail as a dry reed, walking two miles fasting, standing through the long service fasting, listening for hours to the drone of an ancient language that she could not understand. A splintered cane at best, but she grasped it firmly.
When my friend was back from the hospital, I visited her. It was good to see her smile, though in an uncharacteristic pose: resting on the big bed inside the house with her feet up, being waited on. She looked happy when I gave her the gift of a Tigrinya Bible, and she nodded approval when I read aloud from it.
In the way of all flesh, the chickens eventually stopped laying and had to be eaten (in the proper season, of course). Ade Fana bought new ones, and the price for their eggs remained 60 centimes, no discounts. But you could still come sit on a stool and chat. It was a very good deal for the largest, whitest eggs in town.