Hopping down memory lane has got me thinking…Addis Ababa during my youth, was a state of mind for me, not just where I grew up. Over-protected, indulged with love and bombarded with images of Western life made me one anxious teenager! I was obsessed with getting out of there to get a taste of life outside of the bubble! One thing that inched slightly closer to Western reality was this idea of going out…clubbing…a term which would make my dad’s heart skip a beat the day of graduation. Our plan was: we would all go to a nightclub after the graduation dinner and ceremony. For most of my peers this was no biggie…for some it was standard protocol for a weekend…for me and a handful of others, this would be the first time ever!
And oh boy, good ole’ Mom had to do some serious convincing so my Dad would agree.
“What if a boy asks her to go for a ride, she will go with him, menem tereter yelewem (there is no question about it!)” he stated confidently.
“Ende!”, My Mom exclaimed (this term is impossible to translate but think of it as the blanket expression you would use to react to any kind of craziness…or it could be described as the ‘WTF?’ of Amharic).
The look on her face would make anyone else think they were crazy. Not my Dad. He has seen this look many a time, he didn’t flinch. “Yes, she would!” he said stubbornly.
Nevertheless, in the end, my Mom won, as she always did. Subject, however, to poor older male Cousin accompanying me. He had to be called, picked up from home, ordered to drive me and my friends to the club, babysit all night and drive me home! With all respect, I didn’t care about how he felt about it at the time, I had to go!
It was known as Club Vogue. The classiest joint in town! As far as I was concerned a place of mystery, magic and music. It was located in a basement at the corner of a major road, next to the Ambassador Theatre. The building, constructed during imperial days, shows off the club’s curvaceous neon lights to indicate that it is indeed, with the times! To me, those lights represented everything: freedom, thrill, the forbidden fruit.
Invisible by day and electric at night, Vogue was the place to be on a Saturday night in Addis in 1997, as evidenced by the large, trendy crowd surrounding the entrance when we arrived… pulsing to the rhythm of youth. I was surprised, once we parked and got to the crowd, how such mayhem could be so organized! A long line of sharply dressed (some more sharp than others) laid back folk, wait for their turn to pay the 5 birr entrance fee and get to the dance floor. Suddenly, I spot one of my other older cousins (one of those, too-old-to-be-a-Cousin-too-young-to-be-an-Uncle type Cousins) at the door! Then it hit me! I had heard on the extended family grapevine that this Cousin recently ditched higher education to pursue a career as a DJ. News that was taken about as well as the time when my health conscious Aunt was told her daughter was dating an overweight guy, or when my academic Aunt was told her daughter was marrying a musician or when my religious Aunt was told her daughter was dating someone of a different religion. As you can tell, we have a heavy female population in my family. The lesson I took from all this is exactly what Chris Rock said, “Don’t hate anyone, coz whoever you hate will end up in yo family!” Nothing is truer.
Back to standing outside Club Vogue. My newly-proclaimed DJ cousin notices me standing outside…he shrieks out my ‘bet sim’ (‘home-name’: nickname given at birth typically only used by immediate family). No one in my graduating class knew me by my bet sim. I am completely mortified! He screams it out again…and yes…a third time while I try to hide behind my Cousin who drove us to the club. But my dear older Cousin is not the type to be easily shunned. Failing my response, he sends the bouncer down the line to bring me to the front. The entire line of people are now staring at me. And when people in Addis stare at you, there is nothing like it…they peel the skin of your body with their eyes, and then the flesh, and then the bone, and then the bone marrow, and then your soul. Seriously, I have seen it happen just like that!
I nodded slowly with a weak smile and gradually walked up to the door. Two feet from the door, he stretches his arm and yanks me towards him. After a massive bear hug, he starts shouting a hundred miles per hour, as he always does… “Heyyyyyy sweetie, endet nesh (how are you)? You ok? My, you look sharp haha!” He laughs while he puts his arm around my neck. He has the loudest laugh this side of East Africa! I am wishing the ground would just swallow me whole.
“Sorry I missed your graduation, I was sooo busy. How was it? Did you get lots of money, haha, so they finally let you go out huh? Haha, so I see you here with your friends? Great, no problem, call them, you all comin in now.”
Before I could get a word in or reply to his questions, he quickly turns to the cashier at the door, “Konjit (pretty one), they are with me.” He tells her quietly and winks. The lady looks up, smiles at him flirtatiously then chews her gum and raises her eyebrows simultaneously indicating her agreement. Chewing gum and raising both eyebrows simultaneously is the national non-verbal affirmative. I am thinking…niceeee…this family thing ain’t so bad sometimes! I turn around at my eagerly awaiting Cousin and friends, and gesture for them to come over. They start shuffling through the crowd who are not happy by the turn of events. The crowd’s faces techemadede (got wrinkled in anger) and they rolled their huge Ethiopian eyes a few times over. Despite all this, my friends successfully get to the front, where like sheep at Ethiopian Easter, we are shuffled in one at a time by my older DJ cousin while he counts us, shouting at the cashier ‘Ande, Hulut, Sost, Arat, Amest, Sedest…!’ Yes, as loud and embarrassing as he was, he was my hero. You see, my Cousin was one of those people who were made for the hustle of Addis. He was charming, confident, quick-witted and knew how to get people on his side. He knew everyone in the city and indeed over the years it definitely paid off, he eventually stopped the DJ career and moved onto owning several successful businesses.
My anxious heart and the sound of thumping base synchronized beautifully as we walked down the stairs covered with a thin red carpet to enter the club. First thing that hits me is the smell. A concoction of perfume, cologne, old carpet and body heat. Musty… but hey it was also the smell of freedom! Soon as we walk in, the crowd notices we are somewhat different, freshies or maybe fresh meat. Didn’t really care at the time. I was mesmerised by all my senses. The flashing colours coming from a glass dancefloor, the dancers grooving to the sound of ‘Return of the Mac’ (some to the rhythm, others maybe missed a beat or two). It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, suddenly, something grabs me by the arm and drags my 5’4 anxious body through what seemed like a crowd of giants and towards the back of the room. I was promptly seated onto an old couch at the back of the club. Looking up, I was relieved to see that it was my younger Cousin. ‘DO NOT LEAVE THIS COUCH’ he warned with a stern look on his face, ‘I WILL COME BACK TO GET YOU SO WE CAN LEAVE’. I nodded enthusiastically. Clearly he was still upset about the whole waking him up at midnight thing. I looked to my right to see that in fact, most of the gang had also sat down while I was standing and staring into the club mist. A sense of relief filled my teenage chest and I took a slow breathe in, followed by a cough because of all the dust coming from the couch.
Full of excitement, we look at each other and think what’s next? I turn to one of the guys in my class sitting next to us (the guys clearly had more experience than the girls) to pose the question…’Eshi (Ok), what now?’. Just as my head turns to ask, I notice a strange guy in my line of sight, staring at me. I turn behind me, thinking it must be someone else he is looking at because I sure as heck don’t know him! After confirming there is no one behind me, I turn back to this strange person. We make eye contact again. I quickly look away, pretending this didn’t happen and continue to talk to my guy friends. They smile patronizingly and tell me to just relax and enjoy myself. So I turn to my best friend to get her thoughts on the whole dancefloor situation. My best friend says “Come on let’s dance, the whole group is going”. I stand up and follow the group.
We arrive on the dancefloor and Biggie’s ‘Hypnotize’ is on. We smile at each other and start busting moves that we have done time and again at my best friend’s house, while watching recorded music videos. The bros from school are surprised by our stepping skills. The realization that this is the first and one of the last times we will be dancing together makes us dance just that bit faster, bumping hips and electric sliding. I’m all smiles…this could not be any more perfect…until, in the distance, I notice a familiar shape, now waving towards me! Oh yes, it’s the same guy. He is not only very inappropriately staring at me…he is gesturing me to come over! ‘He looks sooo old…he must be 45’ I thought to myself at the time (he was probably 23). My mouth drops in shock. Is this guy, who I have never met asking me to leave my friends and walk over to him? I have never even done that in school! I continue to ignore him and dance.
Moments later, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and all I can see is teeth, strange teeth from an even stranger person. But hey, not so strange, this is the same 23-going-on-45 year old guy who was staring at me earlier! He has followed me to the dancefloor and thinks nothing of saying the following: ‘Eshi, endet new, ancheferem? (Hey, what’s up, want to dance?) ‘WHATTT???’ I thought ‘He did not just ask me to dance!’ I grab my best friends hand in shock and walk steadfast back to our seating area without responding to him. The guy laughs, waves and walks deeper into the dancefloor. He probably knew exactly what I was thinking and what a freshie I actually was.
I see my sleepy younger Cousin taking a nap, we go and sit next to him. My best friend looks at me and says “Oh my god, can you believe that?” I’m like “I KNOW!” She says “I cannot believe that guy touched my butt”. I turn to her confused and go “What?” “Yes” she continues in disbelief, “I am almost 100% sure that guy felt my butt!” My mouth drops, I look over to where she is pointing, to another guy on the dancefloor, this time wearing tight short sleeved shirt, toothpick in his mouth and winking towards us. He looked sooo old, he must have been about 55 (we thought…he was probably 25). I then also tell her MY shock horror story. We nod our heads and express how disappointed we both were. We were done with Club Vogue.
“What do you think happens in a nightclub cuz?” my Cousin says in mid laughter when I tell him my shock horror story a couple of hours later on the way home. “But someone who you dont know?!” I replied. When we get to my house, my Cousin beeps the car horn impatiently at the gate. I am tired, hungry and my feet are about to fall off! Our dog starts barking when he hears the car horn blasting. His bark echoes across dead silence of the entire city and all its non-clubbing residents who sleep and wake up with the sun. Our guard (an older gentleman) slowly opens the gate, half asleep but pretending not to be. I say bye to my cousin who is relieved to see me walk through the gate and into my house.
I step into the lounge and sitting there in their PJs and nightgowns are both my parents! ‘Oh lord, of course they are!’ I thought. ‘They have probably been sitting here crying all night with a bible, praying to God to return me home in one piece and un-pregnant.’
My mom’s face beams with a big smile, ‘Eshi endet neber? (So, how was it?). She always had a way to bring calm to any situation. ’ ‘It was fun!’ I exclaim in English with an awkward smile (for some odd reason…English seemed appropriate to describe the experience, as Clubbing seemed like a very non-Ethiopian thing to me…little did I know!)
I slowly walk to the exit hoping to God they don’t ask anymore questions. “WAIT”, shouts my dad, also in English. I am sure this experience was also very different from what he was used to. My heart and I stop in our tracks. He gets up and walks slowly to where I was standing. I look up at his serious face and squinted eyes.
“Do you realize what time it is? The sun has come up! What kind of party goes on until the sun rises?” If only he knew this was the first of many sunrises he would sit through over the next few years…