Half-Walls Between Us

In this Eritrean community, there are no secrets

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For two years, I shared my home with more than 30 children, four freedom fighters, a government bureaucrat, a wife-beater, a Red Cross worker with a taste for liquor, a number of prostitutes, a madman, and all the customers of the tea shop next door. This was not my original intention in moving to the desert, but rather the unexpected circumstance of living in a room with only half-walls.

When I decided to work in international development, I imagined living in a small hut of my own, with a palm tree to the side. Instead, when I arrived in town, I found that no housing had been arranged for me. After a few nights sleeping outside on a rope bed, scrounging water from people I didn't know, and living on kilos of bananas, I was anxious for a room of my own. When a townsman finally showed me an empty place, the fact that the walls reached only to the level of my head seemed like a minor inconvenience.

On my first visit to Agordat, a small town in Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa, I fell in love with its mystery, its quiet, its soft sandy colors. The searing heat created a lethargy and engendered a lifestyle that seemed more like a snapshot than a moving image. At any hour of the day, one could look out onto the street and see a camel in midstep, a child with a finger in his mouth, a local tribesman carrying baskets suspended from the ends of a pole laid across his bony shoulders.

Traditionally, the desert calls mystics into its presence, and its vast silence allows them to confront the chaos in their hearts. But my half-erected home forced me away from the solitude I found so comfortable and placed me amid the chaos that occurs in the space between people. The liquid ideas of "community" and "neighbor" I had so often espoused and romanticized metamorphosed into solid matter, sometimes in the form of a crutch under my arm, other times as a thorn dug deep into my skin.

There are no secrets in this kind of community. The air itself, filled with the sounds of anger and laughter and the smells of cooking and fires, moved in and out of our homes, bringing messages from one place to another. I soon learned that the rhythmic clattering meant that a young Muslim woman whose husband had left her was teaching her sewing class in order to pay the bills. The moans and grunts meant that an old man who had lost his mind had woken from his nap. The crying of a woman followed by the singing of older women told me that a new baby had been born. Every week or so, the sound of smacks and screams meant that the one-eyed man next door was hitting his wife. And the smell of coffee from my good friend's home, right on the other side of the wall, told me I would soon receive an invitation to visit.

In this kind of community, there is no time-out when one can take a deep breath, reapply the makeup, brush down loose ends. Whatever rough ends exist become rougher. Honestly, I hated this transparency. It forced me to recognize that I was neither as nice nor as neighborly as I had always assumed. I couldn't maintain an image of perfection. I, too, was judged for my actions. In fact, my activities provided the main attraction of many people's days. Often, after a long day teaching 300 students, my roommate and I would want to vent our frustrations, but we knew that in the tea shop next door, a group of teenagers sat glued to the wall, waiting to practice their English-listening skills. Just by being a foreigner, I provided an endless supply of material. The physical nearness of people imposed vigilance on my speech and actions. It is much easier to be a hypocrite when life can be divided into public and private parts. In a community with half-walls, there is little room for pretense.

At first I thought I had difficult neighbors. By the end, I counted myself as one of the crowd. After two years of sharing lives with a vast array of characters, I had to admit the similarities between us. I had heard the frustration, irritation, sadness, and jealousy in my voice as well as theirs. I had seen the fighter, the cripple, the prostitute, and the madman in myself. For two years, this proved to be my greatest challenge: to love people through their darkness and, even harder, accept the fact that they knew mine. After all, I was probably the strangest neighbor they ever had.

Yet from this communion, times of joy and comfort emerged. One of the women who lived next door became my best friend. When the dust storms came and the lights blew out, she would place her candles on top of the wall so that we could share the light. On nights when she worked late, I passed bowls of American-style food over the wall and listened as she and the tea shop customers tried to identify and swallow the strange meals. Each night, after we dragged our rope beds out of the hot rooms into the small courtyards, we would whisper over the wall and wish blessings for the next day. She called me "sister" and her family knew me as a member.

Now, living again in America and encapsulated in my own private ghetto, I sometimes revel in, and other times am repelled by, anonymity. I have to remember that I stand before God in a room with no walls. He calls us to reach out to our neighbors over the half-erected walls, and be seen.

From re:generation quarterly (Spring 1999). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (4 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834-9369.