I sit in the dirt-floored ful bet*, surrounded by blue tarpaulin and a circulation of young Ethiopians quickly settling, saying their 45-second hello's, drinking their hot sugared buna (traditional coffee) and bread, then moving on to the next stop of the day. As the only motionless one in the shop, it was simple to notice when someone entered with my same momentum. An old Oromo man with a hazel face lined with a light beard and curled white hair sat on a short stool in the corner furthest from me, but closest to the entrance constructed of dried eucalyptus branches. [*Ful bet: literally, 'ful house'. A minimalist restaurant dedicated to serving the delicious fava bean and local spice-enriched breakfast called ful.]
The late morning light filtered through the quivering mango trees and bent around the tarpaulin to caress the man's wizened figure. His torn clothes glowed as he looked upon the bustle of decades-junior compatriots through cataract clouded eyes. From his low perch set under a heavy bunch of habesha bananas, he offered the server no more than a mumble, yet she knew to bring him a well-sweetened chai and a piece of dense bread to satisfy his hunger. He ate his humble meal with the tough hands of a farmer, but his broken body spoke to the likelihood that he hadn't worked the land in a very long time. Also, the fact that the ful bet's owner didn't ask him for payment in return for his meal—and I've never seen her pose the question—told me that this man's circumstances are both extraordinary and melancholy.
As I remain in my corner, reading a book and writing these notes, he cradles his chai and looks forward with a tilted head, gazing at nothing in particular. An aura of contentment enveloping him. Perhaps this is exactly where he wants to be. Perhaps this was very far from home, far from his past, and approaching an uncertain future. Perhaps none of it matters because the space he now occupies is kind, safe, and charitable, and he will always have his perch available, and will again be the man under the bananas.
He pushes his well-worked flesh from the stool with the help of a modest cane gripped by long, skeletal fingers. He nods a barely perceptible and certainly inaudible ‘ciao’ toward my corner, and slowly steps from the cool, damp earth of the shack, to the singed, dry dust of the street. He shuffles his way along the cobbles with a dignified gait, supported at each step by his battered swagger stick.
The man under the bananas wends his way through the city, carrying with him the same sun-rimmed glow that drew my attention in the breakfast spot. His day’s route is a mystery and his past is a long, rich story waiting to be told, but I know I will see him again in the morning light, sitting most humbled under those bananas.