The other day I hailed a cab from my hotel to Union Station. I struck up conversation with my driver, an Ethiopian man named Biruk. When he inevitably asked me what happened to my leg, I began to talk about the Peace Corps and his face lit up. In the 1960’s, Biruk’s 7th grade math and science teacher was a Peace Corps volunteer named Mr. Brown.
As I asked more about his life, I discovered that Biruk was an agriculturalist in Ethiopia and worked with the World Food Program and studied drip irrigation in Israel. He told me of the differences between Latin American coffee and Ethiopian coffee and how his mother cannot get up in the morning unless she inhales the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans. We discussed religion and the extreme factions of Islam that have spread in Ethiopia in the past few decades. He told me about his childhood; how men and women, boys and girls of both Christian and Muslim descent mixed and mingled, intermarried, celebrated each other’s holidays, and lived in peace together. He told me that now, only a short time later, there is fear and distrust growing between the two groups, that the youth are taking up an extreme form of Islam and spreading it through the poor areas like a virus.
He asked me about my time in Guinea — my host-family, my work, the people I teach, how much money I make, what cabs are like there, how I felt about my safety, how I felt living so far away. I told him that in Guinea at least things are still the way he once knew, with Christians and Muslims living in solidarity and unity. We talked about Ebola, my removal, and the guilt and sadness I feel.
We spent Georgetown to Union Station together, mixing and mingling our two worlds and comparing the Peace Corps of the 60’s to the present. When we pulled up, I didn’t have enough cash to pay him and began to pull out my debit card to use a fancy new swiping system set up on a touchscreen in the back. I briefly paused and tried to imagine paying for a bush taxi in Guinea with a credit card — a funny thought. Biruk put his hand out, stopping my imagination and debit card. He told me the ride was on him.
He helped me pull my bags out of the trunk, we shook hands, smiled, and thanked each other.