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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007 05:28 pm

Topper

Finding the Christmas tree in Gondar, Ethiopia, in 1971

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The Peace Corps nurse knows where we can get a real tree. Five days before the 25th of December, with Tsegaw as interpreter, Clark collects our Ruth and Tommy and they all pile into the family Beetle to find the spot she has described: Aba Samuel’s slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouse is south of town, between Gondar and the airport. Built with help from Israel, it provides kosher meat for Ethiopia and other parts of nearby Africa. Our kosher canned corned beef that’s packed in Asmara comes from Aba Samuel’s. When we see the young bearded men, wearing black hats and black cloaks and carrying black briefcases, arrive at the tiny airport on the afternoon plane from Asmara, we know that it’s time for the slaughter. Families here in Gondar know the young men and enjoy their visits. Finding the Christmas tree is one of Clark’s favorite stories. The drive into Aba Samuel’s is short but winding and steep. Shaded groves of giant fir trees, which we’ve been told were planted by Italians during the occupation in the 1930s, line the way. It’s hard to believe that the firs are that old, but Italians have been in Ethiopia, either as invaders or entrepreneurs, since much earlier — ever since the late 19th century. In recent decades they’ve lived here building houses and running hotels. I can imagine them developing this slaughterhouse, fir trees and all, to have dependable supplies for their meatpacking businesses and customers, both Jewish and otherwise, up in Eritrea, especially in Asmara (said to be very European and beautiful). At the slaughterhouse Clark and his entourage are met by a guard — a tall, thin man dressed in brown trousers and a uniform jacket. He speaks no English, just Amharic, but with Tsegaw’s help they ask whether this is where “forengees” can buy a Christmas tree. The guard marches off, behind the building, and up a steep hill covered in 60-foot firs. He asks whether this is what they are looking for. Yes it is, Clark answers. But they must go to the Princess Tenagnework Vegetable Farm to get permission from the manager before a tree can be cut. The Princess Tenagnework Vegetable Farm is located on land belonging to the oldest daughter of Emperor Haile Selassie I, Lion of Judah. Early each morning and last thing each afternoon, an open-bed truck comes into town bearing cabbage, carrots, Swiss chard, potatoes, oranges, tomatoes, and sometimes zucchini, maize, limes, papayas, or shallots. As Tsegaw suggests, Clark gives the guard 10 cents. They head out for the vegetable farm. The farm office is empty. By the time Tsegaw finds a worker in a far field, the sun is going down. They are directed to the barn, where the assistant manager is taking care of a small herd of Jersey milk cows from the United States. He tells them that the manager has already left for Gondar with the evening’s load of vegetables. Clark piles everyone back into our Beetle to drive to the tiny vegetable shop in the center of town. By now it is 7:30 and dark. With no streetlights and very few store lights, Gondar is very dark, but the vegetable shop is still open for business. The tree-seekers explain their mission, and the clerk directs them into the shadows toward the back, saying that the manager is in the next room. Clark knocks as instructed on an unpainted door. Tsegaw interprets the response: “Sir, they are saying we may enter.” They all crowd into an even smaller room, lit with one low-wattage bulb in the center of the ceiling. The floor is dirt. The walls are of chicka construction — saplings filled in with mud. Five men are crowded around a small table, each wrapped in heavy white homespun against the cold night air. The men appear surprised. Clark thinks that he, Tsegaw and the two children must look strange to them, appearing suddenly out of the dark. Tsegaw speaks first, bowing slightly and making the traditional greetings that are necessary when entering into the company of important people. The men around the table greet Clark in return and gesture that he should sit down with them. Clark returns with the children so late that I have already gone to talk with our neighbor, Ato Makonnen, about driving out to search for them. Clark reports that Tsegaw did a good job helping him explain their mission. They have permission to buy a tree. One of those 60-foot firs will be made into a 10-foot Christmas tree. Clark wonders whether it will fit into our house. We may have to put it up outside in the garden. The next afternoon, all four return to the slaughterhouse. An elderly man, nearly naked except for a brief pair of shorts, leads them up a hill. He jams a small hand scythe into his belt and pulls himself quickly up into one of the trees. They watch as he climbs up, up, up. Then he disappears into the foliage, high in the trees. Clark estimates that he is 40 or 50 feet up. Chopping noises begin. Finally a head pops out from among the branches, a hand waves everyone away, and the man lets it fall. Our Christmas tree, 15 feet of old Italian fir, slowly somersaults from the sky.
Barb Olson is a Springfield writer currently working on a book about her experiences in Ethiopia.

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