I, Too, Am An Abyssinian Nomad

I went to the local grocery store to pick up some items for breakfast. I bought a bottle of water and a couple of bananas. The price of the bananas hadn’t been posted so the clerk had to key in a code and run a price check. The banana code was 1009. I told the clerk that 1009 was an allusion to my birthday (October 9) and the clerk told me that it would be my lucky day.


In DC I was drawn to the numerous Ethiopian restaurants where I knew I would find healthy food and friendly service. And DC is full of them, because it is home to the largest community of Ethiopians in America, which I learned on my visit.

Upon entering Ethiopian establishments in DC, I have been told how much I resemble Ethiopians. My fluffy afro, red-brown complexion and predilection for delicious coffee was evidence enough to support their belief. Alas, when they discovered that I couldn’t speak Amharic, my Ethiopian facade came crashing down.

On at least one occasion, after greeting the establishment’s Ethiopian owner with a confident “Selam”, to which she assumed I was Ethiopian and responded in kind with “Denane?” she sensed something was amiss and correctly surmised that I was not Ethiopian when I did not pick up the conversation.

In English she remarked: “Oh, you’re one of those.”

One of those? Who are they? I asked her.

She said: “you’re one of those guys who doesn’t know anything more to say in Amharic than ‘Selam’.”

I laughed because it was true. To my credit, I knew how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’, too.

Even though I am not Ethiopian, I returned to Ethiopian restaurants daily to practice the new Amharic phrase I was determined to memorize within the last 48 hours that I learned it. I had successfully spoken Amharic at Dukem, CherCher, and Addis Ababa restaurants.

With a little effort I was determined to improve my Amharic speaking ability.

Now I also visited the Sankofa Bookstore & Cafe, which is owned by retired Howard University professor Haile Gerima, where I found award winning author Maskarm Haile on the day she presented her book, Abyssinian Nomad.

I noticed her book when I entered Sankofa as it was displayed on the counter. The book’s title and cover art struck a chord with me. I am an Abyssinian (if only in my appearance) and I am a nomad! This book is about me. I thought. However, with no real connection to the book or its author it seemed like just another work among thousands written that I would very unlikely find the time to read without a good enough reason.


So after putting Maskarm’s book down, I moved around Sankofa in search of a book that would pique my interest. In doing so, I made eye contact with one of the Ethiopian patrons at Sankofa, who in that moment, I did not know was Maskarm Haile, the author of Abyssinian Nomad.

So it was sheer coincidence — serendipity — that we met as I was not aware that she was presenting a book or that she was an author!

I was simply drawn to the Sankofa Bookstore which any Howard University student can attest is an institution in the community. In fact, it was on that day that my desire to rebuild with reinforcements my Ethiopian edifice which had been torn down several times over the past week by intuitive Ethiopians that led me to seek refuge at Sankofa. There, I hoped to find a study guide on Amharic. My edifice would stand if only I found the building blocks. What I did not know was that Maskarm would provide me with those building blocks.

I audaciously approached her to ask if she would spend an hour teaching me Amharic. It was then that I was notified by her Habesha friend that she was the author of that book I picked up and then put down moments prior. Her friend continued to inform me that I had missed her presentation. Embarrassed, but also impressed, by the serendipitous nature of the day’s events unfolding, I wanted to make up for, my ignorance about, and absence from her presentation, so I bought her book and promised to read it. I had implored her to help me learn Amharic and by then she had sensed my desperate state and genuine desire for Amharic guidance that she agreed to instruct me.

She signed my copy of her book, too!

She and I met on Monday for my Amharic lesson. Thereafter we had lunch at Addis Ababa restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland. We spent several hours together talking about travel adventures and she even taught me several new Amharic phrases. Her presence, conversation, and generosity with her time was much appreciated.

I was lucky to have met Maskarm Haile. Now I’ll eat a banana to celebrate.