Abiy decided, sitting as the third person on a two-seater row in a minibus taxi on his way to work, that today’s lesson would be the interdentals. He listed topics to be covered under that and after a mental preparation of under five minutes, he was ready for class. Freed from such trifling responsibilities, his mind could now go back to focusing on how he was going to live out this ball of greatness he felt inside of him. He got off the minibus at one of the newest buildings in central Addis Ababa and went inside. He found the elevator empty and jumped in to go to the 9th floor. Inspecting his looks in the full-height mirror, he saw he looked refined. He never felt uncomfortable standing upright in his short stature; he knew brains were more important than looks.
Abiy was a little ahead of himself and bounced a little as he walked around with the air of someone who has brilliantly discovered a shortcut to where everyone else, ungifted, was taking the long walk. Born in a regular Addis Ababan family, a son among other self-absorbed siblings, he grew up watching English cartoons on satellite TV and by the time he was showering by himself, he was already rapping along with Tupac. Later discovering this skill in English was one that one could get paid for, he became a teacher in one of the several English language schools dotted throughout Addis Ababa.
In class, he addressed his students with great confidence, gesturing with his hands. He carried no books or papers to class; such dependencies were not for an expert like him.
Protruding his tongue between his teeth and sounding th, he demonstrated the interdentals. “Look carefully how I put my tongue between my teeth and let air out through the inhibited opening. Theatre, thin, thank! This is how you say through,” he instructed “not sru! Okay?” The classroom was full of youngsters who, growing up speaking Amharic, never expected to someday have to ask this of their tongue. This was among the skills that had gained Abiy respect in the past. His American English had classmates staring at him long after he was done answering a question. He could say water with the trilling r and not wa-tar. He said bau-ttle and not bo-tl. They stared with hanging jaws, wanting to hear more of this white man speaking through the mouth of their classmate. When in the eyes of his fifteen-year-old classmates he became omnipotent as far as English was concerned, Abiy extended this to apply to everything he was destined to be.
“Okay, again, let me hear everyone say th-rough,” he said, snapping his fingers above his pupils’ heads who were all staring up at him, tongue in teeth.
Abiy was happy in the two years he taught in this school. But he wanted more happy. He wanted his great success to begin and wanted to get closer to that thing inside of him, that thing he saw glowing from under his skin when he looked in the mirror. He told his friends, sitting in a dingy bar, cigarette in hand, that he was going to be rich. He was one who thought that being modest and hiding one’s desires and plans to get rich was passé. When he was in university, he read and became deeply persuaded by How to Get Rich books that made becoming a millionaire seem as easy as making a paper boat.
Abiy gnawed at his below-half thumbnail as he deliberated on how to access a high-paying job. He knew that once introduced into this world of English-speaking elite, he would impress one employer after another before, in one big, detail-unspecific-for-the-moment leap, he would be at the top and everyone would be working for him.
He riffled through newspapers, looking for job openings and he spotted one at an international school, one of the best in the country, the one where children of African diplomats and big businessmen whose names everyone knew went to. He decided to apply and went online to search for an application letter template. He wrote confidently: “I am a fluent speaker of English and I was a distinction graduate of a BA program in English major.”
After a week of staring at his phone screen and committedly returning all missed calls, he was finally, not to his surprise though, called for an interview.
Abiy prepared for his interview, but not too much. In his rented one-room place the night before, he walked up and down the full four-meter breadth, practicing, rehearsing answers to questions he expected to be asked.
After producing IDs at security checkpoints at the school, he walked the long distance from the gate to the admin building under the new, global warming-induced Addis Ababa sun that seared the skin. He had tried to dress up for the event; patent leather shoes, grey pants, and a briefcase just to complete the look. Stepping indoors, he wiped the side of his nose and found the oiliness on his fingers. He was at the right place. People were standing in groups, many of them much older than he was. They were dressed formally too although, to him, in retro style. The men had their paunches fastened in brown and black belts. He looked at the women, their hairstyles, and knew this job was his. The older-looking people glanced at him. You are so not what they’re looking for, he said to himself looking at them, with so much as a look, they’re gonna know I’m their guy.
He had to be their guy. It was critical time that somebody other than himself noticed he was special; time this dream came true. It was finally his turn for the interview and he walked in. In front of a ceiling-high shelf full of books, sitting simply on chairs were two persons that at first sight knocked off his outmost layer of confidence, leaving him reeling in self-preservation to protect the rest. He saw one man and one woman, dressed impeccably, both white. They held papers on their laps, and ballpoints in their hands. He had always felt unparalleled with locals but native English speakers were a different story.
Discomposed, he really trilled his r to say, “I’m here for the interview,” or did he slip a little? His accent would sometimes escape him, sliding down the sides of his mouth like the peel of a boiled tomato. But his examiners did not seem to take note, and impressed they did not seem.
“Of course. Come in please,” the lady said. Waving him in with her hand that held a pen. “Selam,” she added, after he sat. Amharic?! The lady was trying to be friendly. The more Abiy talked about himself and his teaching experience in the following ten minutes, the more the interviewers looked at him from the side of their faces like they were trying to imagine what he was describing and that they would rather not.
Then he said, “I have given in-rodu-tory courses to beginners many times.”
“I’m sorry, what? Can you say that again?” the lady said, uncrossing her leg and leaning forward, really giving him her ear. He dug into the exposed nail bed on his thumb. He had to say it the way his students said it in order to be understood.
“Ah! Introductory courses. Okay, fine.”
She asked him questions about the science of teaching English as a second language, and worried him. Abiy wished the man would say something. Perhaps, with him the balance of things might be regained.
“What would you say are the core, critical issues in teaching English to students whose first language is a different one?” she asked looking squarely at him.
He mumbled and put his mind to quickly deciding which was the smartest-sounding answer. “For instance, we realize that a speaker’s growing up with the sounds and intonations of their first language might limit their ability to pronounce words in English the way native speakers do,” the lady began, “and this sometimes discourages learners from practicing the language.”
All Abiy could do was nod.
“Which is why for instance, we believe being understood is more important than accent,” she was smiling that smile again.
Outside, Abiy saw that the other older interviewees had staff IDs hanging on their chests, they were the school’s staff internally applying for the post.
He dashed out of the building and damn it was raining now. It was sunshine one minute and raining the next in Addis and he had endlessly put off the purchase of an umbrella. He walked out of the school and joined the many running in the increasing downpour. In his stomach, he felt the ball drop.
He kept walking as raindrops glided off the polish of his shoes.
Translated to Ndebele as “Ilanga likaAbiy” Ilotshwe nguLinda Yohannes by Junior Moyo
Linda Yohannes (@LindaYohannes) is an Ethiopian writer. Since in secondary school, she has written for and edited several publications. She has an MA in English Literature from Addis Ababa University where she taught English and Literature courses for four years. In 2012, she won the Burt Award for African Literature and her short novel for young readers titled The School Newspaper was published. She is manager and writer at The Writing Company, her own enterprise, and is currently working on short stories and a novel.