Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Camels on the moon

Much of what I used to do when I was with Gabra nomads on the Kenya-Ethiopia border was hang out with the old men in the shade of a rare acacia. We’d sit and chew tobacco. I’d ask questions, they’d tell stories.

Sometimes they asked me questions.

“Where is your country?”

When this would come up, as it did, I’d usually point toward the northwest and say it was that way, a long long very long way. “Gudho faago!”

One day I was feeling mischievous so after I’d said it was far to the northwest I pointed to the southeast and said it was also that way a long long very long way.

This puzzled them. How, they wondered, could anyone get to the same place going in opposite directions?

Well, I said, the earth is round, so you can get to the other side going either way. I held up a round rock to explain.

They didn’t believe me. I couldn't blame them. I knew next to nothing about anything that was important. The earth did not seem round to them. It seemed flat. But for the sake of conversation, they asked the logical question: How do you know?

I said people from my country had taken a plane – they’d seen planes pass overhead but they’d never heard of rockets and I wasn’t sure I knew how to explain rockets, so I just said "plane" – that they had taken a plane far out and looked back and seen that the world was round.

In fact, I added, they’d taken the plane to the moon.

This got their attention. They’d been amusing themselves and humoring me, a foolish ferenji. I might as well have been telling them a Jack Tale.

But the moon was serious. Gabra have a solar and a lunar calendar and organize their rituals and sacrifices by the lunar calendar, marking new moons, counting days of waxing and waning. The moon is an important, recurring symbol of renewal in their lives.

So though they didn’t believe me about the earth being round or people traveling all the way to the moon, they were curious what I had to say.

“What is it like on the moon?” one of them asked.

“It’s a lot like it is here: covered in rocks and dust. It looks a lot like this.”

The old man leaned forward with interest.

“Do they have camels on the moon?”

If the moon were like the Chalbi Desert, where we rested in the shade of a solitary tree, then it would be a good place for camels.

I grew up thinking about the man on the moon. That old Gabra man imagined camels there.

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