One lonely Saturday afternoon in my apartment at the Bingham Academy compound, in Addis Abeba, I had reached that low point known to most writers. I had travelled to Ethiopia for several reasons, among them the yearning to find a story – a really good story. I hadn’t found it and soon I would be returning to Australia.
You may well ask, what is wrong with an Australian story? Go home and find one there! Certainly there are many stories yet to be discovered in Australia, but I wanted something different, a challenge to test my writing skills. Australians are inveterate travellers who go far and wide exploring other cultures. I wanted to explore Ethiopia in a story and share my discoveries with a wider audience.
That afternoon when I was feeling sorry for myself, I started searching the internet. It was unusual and serendipitous to have internet access, as the internet is often ‘shut down’ in Ethiopia. My search words were ‘Ethiopia’ + ‘newsworthy story’ + ‘personal victory’. I don’t know why I added the last one – perhaps because I hadn’t experienced ‘personal victory’ in the previous months!
The name, Feyisa Lilesa, appeared for the first time on my screen, with a photograph and description of his protest at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. That afternoon I searched as far as the limited internet access allowed me. My husband, who watched the closing stages of the men’s marathon on the TV in the teachers’ lounge of the school, says he immediately thought that this was a story for me. If he told me at the time, I have forgotten, as I was fully preoccupied with the school’s administrative requirements and an unfamiliar syllabus. Anyway, I’ll give him the credit!
I really found my story that afternoon in the apartment and I made plans: 1. contact Feyisa before someone else nabbed his story; 2. visit his home before I leave Ethiopia; 3. research and network! I was certainly challenged in the years ahead: what did I know about elite running, Ethiopian politics and Oromo culture? Next to nothing. I was soon to discover that all these factors contribute to a big, sometimes controversial, sometimes disturbing, sometimes heartrending story.
I could not immediately contact exiled Feyisa in Arizona, so I worked on Step 2. Find a driver and go out to the athlete’s village in Oromia. His home is in Tulu Bultuma village, in the aanaa, ordistrict of Jaldu, West Shoa Zone, Ethiopia.
I hired a driver and his van at the cost of quite a few US dollars and set off in good spirits. I had not left the compound often enough during my time in Ethiopia and leaving the city behind felt like a great adventure. Alas! We saw wonderful scenery and arresting sights, but the driver was reluctant to go beyond the main ‘highway’ to reach Feyisa’s village. He claimed that the road was very bad and it would take too long to get there and back in the day. I was very disappointed. I realised later that he was afraid to venture too far into Oromia. Tensions between the Oromo people and his, the Amhara, were taut. According to him, the Oromo were ‘troublemakers’.
Back in Australia I was busy. Thanks to a network set up with surprising ease, I made contact with Feyisa. Yes, he permitted me to tell his story. That was the easy part. Fitting into his running schedule and finding the right interpreter of his language (Feyisa’s grasp of English was limited and I knew not a word of Afaan Oromoo). In August 2017 I was in Flagstaff, Arizona, to meet the subject of my story. Elite athletes are strictly self-disciplined. Feyisa trained early in the day, then went home to rest before a second training session later in the day. Interviews were sometimes conducted in the car as we drove to one of his favourite running locations; sometimes in my small flat kindly provided by a new friend in Flagstaff; sometimes in the interpreter’s motel room. My little recorder worked overtime.
What were my impressions of this young man, who is 31 years old today, February 1st? He is personable, even charismatic, with intensely brooding eyes and an articulate tongue, even if I couldn’t understand what he was saying (we ended up with many pages of transcripts)! I have had it said by one reader of my story that he thinks he knows Feyisa from reading my book, but is it the real Feyisa? You shall be the judge of that. Here it is at last: A Time To Be Born: The Feyisa Lilesa Story.
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