The train hauled me out of London —
out of the smoke, the smog, the grime,
the filthy mix of soot and dust —
while the train spun fog from the fabric of steam,
clothing the land with its garment
of blessings and punishment,
Yizze kataf, yizze kataf, goes the powerful weaver.
Isn’t it amazing? Life’s a miracle:
coal smoke set free through the power of coal!
The carriage was big enough for ten,
but no one was brave enough to open the door
I’d shut fast to keep in the warmth.
Instead, they huddled in the corridor,
unwilling to share the warmth with a black man —
even though coal is black, even though
the wealth of England was forged by black coal.
The train whistled like a washint flute;
haystacks dotted the distant fields,
just like the straw roofs of houses in a village at home. And, in the blink of an eye, I turned into
‘a traveller of God’ in the meadows of England….
‘Greetings to your household’, I cried,
I am your “black”, your unexpected, guest:
your kindness to me will bring you God’s blessings’. ‘Welcome, come in!’, the head of the household replied. Then his wife brought a bowl of warm water,
and kneeling down happily to wash my feet,
‘Don’t be shy, my friend’, she said.
First my mouth blessed that tulla beer of Gojjam,
then a bowl arrived, and my empty stomach began to fill
as I licked the linseed oil of Gondar from my fingers;
next, chicken stew rich with curds. Contented,
I yawned. Sleep overcame me as I lay down
on fine cotton and was covered with wool….
Dimly, I heard the door slide open — but was fully awake
by the time it slammed shut. I jumped,
but then calmed myself down,
glowering at the reckless young man,
the brave one who’d dared to enter my den as I slept.
But his spotless shirt and neat matching tie made me laugh: he was so amazingly clean!
Mengistu Lemma (1928-1988) was a playwright and poet of the post-1941 period in Ethiopian Amharic literature.
The African Book Review is posting a poem from each of Africa’s 55 countries over the next few weeks. Poem suggestions can be sent through the comments form below. ‘Like’ us on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to read all the poems.