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, trans. from Amharic by Martin Orwin, Sarah Maguire and the Poetry Translation Centre Workshop, SOAS London
Mengistu Lemma was an Ethiopian playwright and poet. He was part of the socially committed trend in Ethiopian literature, which was concerned with popularizing indigenous culture; his main contribution to this movement included a collection of poems called ‘Yabbatoch Ch’ewata’ (Pastimes of the Forefathers).
Sarah Maguire is a British poet and translator. She is the founder and director of the Poetry Translation Centre, which opened in 2004.
Martin Orwin is a British linguist, scholar and writer, specializing in the languages and cultures of the Horn of Africa.