U3A Writing

Brian’s encounters give readers a stark picture of refugee struggles to survive.

Open Writing - BETWEEN THE ANVIL AND THE HAMMER - The Ethiopian Refugee


BRIAN BARRATT (Melborne, Australia)

Winter, and something had to be done about the wind blowing through the gaps under the
doors. No luck. They didn’t have any draught stoppers, or even draft stoppers, in stock.
Outside the shop were a few young people with tins labelled World Refugee Day. One of the girls
was having a little sit down on the bench.

Her perfect face said something about ‘the Middle East’ but her beautiful eyes said ‘the Far East’.
As it turned out, she was from Afghanistan, and is studying in Australia for a year. The money for
the draught stopper went into her collecting tin, and she proffered two cotton carry-bags. There’s a
rough drawing of a cow on the outside and the label inside says Made in India.

Further along, another group included a tall, thin young man with distinctly north African features.
He was from Sudan. A fluent speaker of English, albeit with a strong accent, he spoke of the
situation in his homeland. He said little about himself. We compared notes on Kenya, Tanzania,
Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Zambia and, to the west, Nigeria.

We discussed the Shona and Ndebele, the Bemba and Lozi, the Christian and Muslim. He told of
the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of colonial settlers (invaders) in the past, and of the conflicts arising
from religious differences. ‘Conflicts?’ We’re talking about persecution, starvation, murder and

We didn’t pussy-foot around the issue of slavery and the rôle of non-European countries in the
abhorrent past. It was alive and well - if that is the right choice of word - long before white people
found Africa. And it still is. In some places, people are owned by other people.

Ethiopia became the next talking point, because that country managed to retain its traditional
culture, including the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and even Ethiopian Jews. Why? He explained
that it had never really been colonised. True, the Italians and British had been there, but never as
colonial masters.

When we discussed languages, he immediately recognised the chiZezuru (Shona) word ‘Mwari’,
meaning ‘God’. It must have cognates in many African languages. He referred to Swahili more
correctly as Kiswahili but it wasn’t the occasion to discuss the bastardised versions which used to
be known in southern Africa as ‘Fanagalo’ or insultingly as ‘Kitchen Kaffir’.

Ah, languages… the old memory bank came to life. He smiled when he heard the chiKaranga,
‘Baba wedu uri kudenga’, ‘Our father who art in Heaven’. Alas, the rest of it is no longer in the
memory bank.

This young man’s knowledge of African countries, languages, religions and history was vast. His
conversation was all-embracing and his smile frequent. We parted with a long-extended traditional
African handshake.
Later, there was opportunity to read his printed hand-out…
‘…My parents, like others, didn’t die a natural death, but human hand was responsible for their

‘…My cousin, his wife and I ran to Ethiopia in 1991 following a devastating attack which shall ever
remain as a painful form of manslaughter in the history of the south.’

‘…Turning to the refugee life in Kakuma, Kenya, where I spent most of my life, 12 years, the life
was something that was full of anguish.’

‘…Food scarcity made life utterly unbearable… Almost all families lived on one meal per day… Eat
two meals a day, but be prepared to spend the rest of the 15 days with no food.’
‘…The camp felt as if between the anvil and the hammer head — poverty on one side, fear on the
other side and refugees in the middle.’

The draught stopper? I reckon I can do without it.

The quotations are from ‘Agonizing Refugee Life’ by Azok Mach, whose ownership of these words
I respect.

No copyright notice. The final note MUST be included.