By Tsion Syoum
For most of my classmates the word summer is a verb: summering in the Hamptons, the Berkshires or the Vineyard. My summer home is in East Africa. And it really is home.
Sitting on my grandparents’ front porch in Asmara, the blazing sun hits my face and the roasty smell of Buna, traditional Eritrean coffee, consumes my senses. A girl who looks my age, 12 at the time, drags her donkey across the road. A 1997 volkswagen lumbers by, honking at the traffic of people and their attendant animals.
The vehicle disappears into a shroud of dust. I’m reminded of the tumult in this region when I was an infant. Eritrea, a new nation bordered by Ethiopia and the Red sea in the horn of Africa, won its independence from Ethiopia in a bloody war two decades ago. Dad grew up in Ethiopia, Mom was raised in Eritrea, and they found the American Dream when they met in New York.
By the time I was born, politics had ruptured my family tree. Mom is not allowed in Dad’s homeland. My own inner-battle was not in being both Eritrean and Ethiopian. It was in being both American and East African, spoiling the excitement of a field trip in 3rd grade. “Museum of Natural History, pack lunch this time!’ my classroom advisor announced.
When we broke for lunch at the museum I looked around the table as students opened up their lunch boxes, exposing Americana: Lunchables, Mac and Cheese, and grilled cheese. My hands became sweaty. I slowly unzipped my lunch box. The smell sprung forward. Ethiopian food: a variety of stews and pungent spices with distinctive aromas that cling to your clothes, anchored by injera, a spongy sourdough bread. I shut it immediately hoping no one detected the foreign smell, the foreigner, amongst them. It was too late.
“What is that smell!”
My face turned red with embarrassment. This shame faded with every trip to Eritrea in the following years. By the time I returned to school in Seventh Grade, I was ready to spotlight my culture’s vibrancy and beauty. For a project on our summer experiences, I presented a video of me brewing that potent East African coffee, Buna, at my grandma’s house. The ooh’s and ah’s from attentive peers was an affirmation that I was pretty cool after all.
My awareness of Eritrean life beyond the coffee and Summer beauty grew after I reached peace with my heritage, I became conscious of the other side of my summer country, such as two young girls, around the age of 6, asking for water one day. Heartbroken, I solemnly obliged and as I handed them my bottle of water. Guilt washed over me.I became frank with myself. How long would that water last these distant cousins of mine? An hour? A few minutes? All I had done was give them what was expendable to me and a momentary relief for them. I decided to turn this guilt into action, and to turn short-term charity into sustainable partnership.
It was the summer before freshman year. After months of research, I decided to build a well. Eritrea’s Ministry of Water helped me find a school in the small village of Sheka Wedi Bisrat where thousands of students often missed classes, or left early to walk several miles to the nearest well to pump water to take home to their families.
My goal was to raise $25,000. I created a Gofundme page, a website, a Facebook page, and an instagram account, friending everyone. I sent links to all of my family, friends and junior year, I reached the fundraising goal. The well was built by Christmas — around the same time that I launched my current, larger-scale campaign. It is another opportunity to support a country and a people, that will always be a part of me.
Tsion Syoum, a graduate of The Chapin School, will be a freshman at Haverford College in the fall.