There is a story about Bedru that I would tell if I knew for certain that he was dead. But Eritreans are a proud people and should my telling of the tale ever come to his attention I could not be sure that he would forgive me. He held fast to one grudge back in 1968 the year he lived with my family. A teacher’s innocent remark which made a classroom burst out laughing burned in Bedru’s heart until the end of the school year. Mr. Wilker, one of my favorite teachers, was crushed at year’s end to receive Bedru’s angry letter accusing him of racism.
Years later when I tried to learn my old roommate’s fate I discovered that my Mother had thrown out all the letters he had sent my parents after his return to Ethiopia. They made her feel guilty as though our family had abandoned him. We did. This was the last thing I could have expected when our local AFS Program (American Field Service) announced that no families had volunteered yet to host the next year’s male foreign exchange student.
I don’t know what possessed me to ask my parents if they would be willing to be hosts. I was dumbfounded when we filled out the application. When my Mother expressed reservations about answering “yes” to the question about our willingness to host a student from a different race the rest of us shamed her into going along. Not long afterwards we were informed that our student would be from Ethiopia. He would be an African. Not only that, he was also a Muslim. Never in anyone’s memory had Mankato High School enrolled a black student or for that matter a Muslim.
We picked Bedru up in the Twin Cities shortly before school started and peppered him with questions on the drive home that he could not answer. However well he could read English he could barely speak it. It would take a few months before he was fluent enough to get by and it was probably during this time that he concluded Mr. Wilker had mocked him in front of his classmates.
Bedru was smothered with a lot more “Minnesota Nice” than racism in Mankato. I once saw an acquaintance mouth “Black Boy” as he stared at Bedru in a crowded hallway but I was the only one who noticed. Most Mankato kids were simply curious about our exotic guest. We didn’t have any snow that year (if you can believe that!) but a gang of sophomores took him snowmobiling on a frozen lake. Poor Bedru only wore leather street shoes on that expedition and got very cold toes. It was another escapade, this time with some of Bedru’s fellow seniors, that I can’t bring myself to write about. But even here juvenile curiosity seems to have played more of a role than anything mean-spirited.
While racism was not an overwhelming factor in his stay it was a factor. Bedru’s attraction to one of the cheerleaders was awkward. She reluctantly agreed to go to a movie with him even though she had a steady boy friend. She didn’t want Bedru to think she was a racist. This was the kind of racism we encountered; the kind where people bent over backward to prove they weren’t racists. To her credit Pam was probably the first white girl to “date” a black man publicly in Southern Minnesota during an era when a dozen states would have jailed them for breaking the law. However, there were limits. When he asked her if she wanted to kiss him she declined. That would have been disloyal to her boyfriend. Bedru was a little put out after the date probably because he had gotten a lot of his ideas about western women from characters in the James Bond movies he’d seen back in Ethiopia, characters like Pussy Galore.
Although my family had placed an arrow facing Mecca on the floor of our bedroom Bedru told us that the Prophet excused traveling Muslims from praying while in foreign lands. I got the impression that Bedru felt he could store up his neglected prayers and fulfill them all upon his return home. We had one close call over his eating pork during one school lunch but the cooks assured us that the hot dog he’d consumed had been made with beef. Frankly, I don’t think he missed his religious duties any more than most kids miss attending Sunday school.
Despite nuisances like frozen toes and mayonnaise Bedru was probably more at ease in Minnesota than he had ever been in Eritrea. He relished our secular freedom. His ambition was simple and universal. He wanted to attend college and make a good life. He hinted strongly that he would have liked to stay in America to attend college. This hope greatly troubled my parents.
Had he been allowed to stay my parents would have felt obligated to host him for another four years but that’s not what they had signed up for. AFS rules spared them this worry. Owing to the reluctance of foreign nations to lose their most talented students in a “brain drain,” AFS students were required to return home when their school year ended. My father, a lawyer, held firmly to this part of Bedru’s contract. No doubt the INS would have backed him up.
Whatever fate awaited Bedru back home in 1968 it didn’t seem a whole lot worse than what was happening in Vietnam War plagued America. In April Martin Luther King was assassinated and riots broke out in dozens of our largest cities.
Being an African this calamity did not affect Bedru the same way it affected black Americans. Having grown up in Africa with nothing but Africans around him he had not been made to feel inferior to white people. But having been raised in an authoritarian colony Bedru did identify with our nation’s Democratic evangelism. President Kennedy’s Peace Corps program had sent several dozen American volunteers to Bedru’s hometown and he greatly admired the martyred President. When Kennedy’s younger brother, Robert, began his charge for the White House Bedru followed his campaign even more avidly than my politics obsessed family. The rest of us went to bed the moment Kennedy’s victory in the California primary was announced. Bedru stayed glued to the television. He turned the lights out and went to bed quietly that evening without waking us with the news that he had just seen Bobby Kennedy’s murder. He returned to Africa a few days later.
Notwithstanding these horrors Bedru’s visit to America gave him a glimpse into a world of possibilities. Sadly, his Minnesota adventure caused him to forfeit his opportunities back in Ethiopia.
Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 was launched from Eritrea an Italian colony on the Red Sea. After the Second World War the UN awarded the “protectorate” of Eritrea to Ethiopia thus giving landlocked Ethiopia a seacoast and a large Islamic minority. Ethiopia was an ancient Christian kingdom. From the moment of their annexation Eritreans set out to gain their independence.
While in America Bedru was safe from the conflict. He had studied five languages and fully intended to attend the University in Addis Ababa. But while Bedru learned spoken English in the United States his facility with Ethiopia’s national language, Amharic, withered. When he took the entrance examinations back home he failed Amharic. His letters to us complained bitterly that less deserving students could gain admittance by bribing government officials.
The day Bedru arrived in Minnesota I had asked him eagerly about his wonderful emperor, Haile Selassie, so famous in the West for his brave but futile stand against Mussolini’s invasion. Before the year was over I came to realize that our “hero” was Bedru’s oppressor. After taking command of English he remained circumspect about Selassie. There was no telling what kind of dossier Ethiopian agents might be keeping on Bedru, one of their own “foreign” foreign students.
Long after our last letter from Bedru I found a slip of paper with some notes Bedru had jotted down. Some of the notes were written in Triginian his native tongue but he had written down his options in English. His first option was attending the University which of course had not panned out. His second option was to find a job which he was eventually to do. His third option was to join the EPLF. The EPLF was the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Next to this option Bedru had written the names of five Eritrean friends.
Although the letters to my parents are lost I still have four letters that Bedru sent to me. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t write back to him very often. I was too busy enjoying all the opportunities that he was denied. The last letter he sent my parents was mailed in 1972 and it was the one I was specifically looking for. It was oddly vague and read as though he was trying to get it past censors. Since his written English was already labored this letter was very cryptic indeed. He told us that he was in a dark place by himself with only a small friend to keep him company. My Mother said it sounded as though he was in jail feeding left over crumbs to a mouse.
The war between the Emperor and the EPLF continued to heat up after Bedru’s return. Since educated and ambitious natives are always viewed suspiciously by their colonial masters it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Selassie’s government did jail Bedru. The notes I found certainly hinted at his disloyalty. A decade later Selassie himself would be murdered in a coup. A clique of military officers with the ominous sounding name, the DIRGUE, would plunge Ethiopia into an even more rapacious war against Eritrean rebels. They unleashed a man made famine in the mid 1980’s which starved a million innocent people to death many of them Eritreans. How Bedru could have survived that decade I can’t imagine.
It’s been over three decades since Bedru and I shared a room. I’ve had the luxury to live a life he might have imagined but never got the chance to enjoy. I’ve tried not to take my good fortune for granted.
Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com