NERVES WERE RAW. TO REACH THE BANKS OF THE BLUE NILE, WE HAD TO FIRST TRAVERSE THE DOMINION OF THE SHIFTA, EAST AFRICA’S NOTORIOUS HIGHWAYMEN. TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, ON THE THIRD MORNING, A FLASH FLOOD SWEPT AWAY SEVERAL OF OUR MULETEERS AND ARMED GUARDS. (ALL WERE SWIFTLY RECOVERED.) THAT NIGHT, GUNFIRE ROCKED THE DARKNESS; THE MUZZLE FLASHES ILLUMINATING MY TENT WALL SEEMED SO CLOSE I IMAGINED I COULD TOUCH THEM. OUR GUARDS, NAKED AND DRUNK ON LOCAL FIREWATER, WERE SPRINTING ABOUT WITH KALASHNIKOVS, FIRING RANDOMLY INTO THE DARKNESS.
Our mules grunted and clattered across Ethiopia’s rumpled highlands, staggering beneath heavy rafts and two months of expedition food. The land was awash in green following the rainy season; tender shoots of teff (the national grain) carpeted muddy hillsides like a million emerald pipe cleaners. Daytime humidity was crushing. At night, insects descended in biblical profusion, their writhing bodies dousing campfires and covering the ground like snow.
It was amid this topsy-turvy world that I met Abush.
We were nibbling oatmeal beside a smouldering fire, when something darted through nearby shrubs. A stray dog? Eventually a timid young boy inched forward. There was a wild look in his eye, and raw cuts covered the back of both legs. Instinctively I held my bowl of oats toward him, but he remained frozen, cowering in the undergrowth.
Placing the bowl on the open grass between us, I retreated. Soon the boy darted out and devoured the porridge. We prepared a second, linebacker-size portion heaped with honey, almonds and cranberries, which he quickly inhaled.
Before long, the boy was sitting by the fire, cavorting with our armed guards, tousling their beards and laughing. Most notably, when the boy spoke – and he spoke with a confidence and assurance uncanny for one so young – the group of rough men fell silent. While they conversed in Amharic, an interpreter whispered the details in my ear.
Abush was 12, or so he thought. He was 10 when both his parents died. Having no aunts or uncles, and with no one in his village able to take him in, he was forced to leave. That village, we discovered on a map, sat 600 kilometres away.
Ever since, he had wandered the countryside, begging for food and stealing from farmer’s fields (it had been dogs, protecting crops, that ravaged his legs). He slept in the open at night; his only possessions were a tattered pair of shorts and a stained blanket. He had been on his own for two rainy seasons.
My mind reeled. Travellers often encounter such heart-wrenching dilemmas; the instinct to “fix” much of what they find, then rationalizing the indulgence of their personal voyage against the suffering exposed en route.
Teno, the leader of our guards, spoke up. “Abush, in a few days we’ll leave these foreigners at the river. If you like, you can return home with me, and live in my house. I have two boys. You can go to school with them, eat with them, play with them. My wife will take care of you.”
Essentially, this man of meagre means was suggesting he adopt Abush, an offer of dumbfounding generosity. I felt a tingle across my scalp. Abush froze everyone with his next words: “Thank you, but my destiny is to be a wanderer.”
What? Abush declared he would visit each of Ethiopia’s 13 provinces by foot, eventually finishing his journey in the capital, Addis Abba, where he would become a shoe shiner. He would save every penny, he promised, until he could afford his own tin-roofed hut.
The guards threw their heads back, and howled. “Abush, you are an orphan. You will never have a home! And what do you know of Addis?” With rampant drug use, disease and child prostitution, the city was a world removed from these country fields.
But Abush paid no heed. He would continue to shine shoes, he pledged, and continue saving until he could afford a bed. Then at last, he concluded with a toothy smile, he could have a wife.
The guards roared. “Abush, you are an orphan! You will never have a wife.” Abush didn’t listen. “I’ll buy a very small bed, so my wife has to sleep close at night and keep me warm.”
With this, he closed his eyes and cuddled an imaginary body. The guards rolled on the ground, clutching their stomachs.
Abush travelled with us over the coming days, running barefoot along the rocky path, skipping among the mules as we descended into the depths of the Blue Nile Gorge.
At last, we stood upon the banks of the fabled flow. Constrained by black volcanic rocks, silt-laden floodwater surged past, 15 metres higher than during the dry season. Just upstream lay the remains of Sabira Dildi, the Egg Bridge, named for the binding agent used by workers from the 17th-century court of Emperor Fasiladas.
Ethiopian loyalists destroyed the central arch during the Second World War to slow the advancing Italian army. Now, a gut-wrenching rope – slung nine metres above the torrent – offered the only means of crossing the river.
The 20-cent toll had previously meant that Abush was unable to reach Gondor province, on the far side. His face lit up when we offered to pay.
I asked Abush to stay with us for one more night. (Secretly, I was hoping to persuade him to journey down the Nile with us over the coming months.) But the message was lost in translation. Just as dusk fell, and the rope was taken down for the evening, I spotted Abush on the far banks. Those who had seen him slung across told me he cried with fear but still insisted on going. Now, the raging Nile, swollen by a long rainy season, lay between us.
Abush whistled and waved excitedly. I waved back. In my hand was a small package I had prepared for him: a T-shirt, a good luck necklace, and a handful of coins (too much money would only endanger him) packaged in a Ziploc bag.
As the canyon slipped into darkness, I glimpsed him one last time, sitting with a group of shadowy men beside a fire. In the morning, he was gone. In blazing heat, we rigged the rafts and pushed off. Instantly the boats were swept into a tunnel of green. Weird and wonderful sounds echoed through the surrounding jungle.
More than a decade later, I still remember Abush’s face and easy smile. I speak to audiences about him from time to time, keenly aware of the irony: It was the one with so little who gave me so much. Even if the gift is just a smile and shared optimism, it can last a lifetime.