As Kevin helped bundle her into the back of the blue and white taxi, he innocently suggested the woman would ‘perk up’ now she knew someone was finally taking care of her. It took roughly 15 minutes to drive round the Ring Road from Medanealem (Saviour of the World) to Shola Market and on to Dr Mikael’s El Dina Clinic. On arrival, the nameless woman was stinking to high heaven, was as stiff as a board and most definitely dead! So much for ‘perking up’ we all thought. Jill and Kevin consoled themselves in the belief that she would have, at least, felt loved and cared for in her last moments on earth, and heaven forbid she felt manhandled and mauled to death. Fortunately, Dr Mikael was, as ever, ready and willing to receive his next ‘Food Run’ patient after receiving a string of similarly motley characters over the years. Just this time, his medical knowledge might not be up to the task! The price of bringing someone back from the dead was not yet advertised on the clinic’s list of current services. A back room was quickly and discretely opened up for this hopeless outpatient. It was never good for business seeing people leave the place dead let alone going in that way. Sammy the taxi driver and some local lads graciously helped to remove the body from his car and laid her deftly on a soft and luxurious bed. Something she had probably never experienced in life? Sammy was just happy to have her out of his vehicle being somewhat squeamish and freaked out by the whole affair.
And that is when I received the call. My days at work were always relatively varied and no two days ever seemed the same. Yet, every time I received a call from Jill, during work hours, I was guaranteed a further departure from the normal pattern of daily events. And so it was, straight out of the blue, that she asked me if I had some spare cash for a coffin! She explained further and I immediately suggested that she come by as I had a bundle ready for emergencies in the safe. I heard later that she and Kevin had selected a Barbie styled bright pink coffin which was tied to the roof of the taxi with nothing more than a piece of string. The string subsequently snapped, spilling the coffin and lid across the dual carriageway. Fortunately, the coffin stayed in once piece and as yet no one was resident inside to add to the chaos.
Back at the clinic, and just as I rang through to Jill, the corpse was transferred to the coffin and the lid sealed back down. This time I had a suggestion to make. What if some relative wanted to know how and why Kevin and Jill had picked their mother, sister or daughter up off the streets at 12.00pm and buried her in the ground at 2.00pm. Surely Jill and Kev, our newly appointed funeral directors ought to pick up the company camera and at least take a photo of the deceased woman for later identification purposes. Jill agreed and thought it a good idea. She promptly arrived back at the office, practiced a little with the camera and left again to deal with her uncomplaining and captive client. The gaudy pink coffin was crow-barred open, revealing once more, her tired and yet serene face. As rigor mortis set in, her whole head was then cranked over to the side for her last ever mug shot. In the midday heat the stench of death pervaded the room and hung in the air.
With photo taken, prayers said, the coffin was finally resealed and then transferred into the back of our company-cum-family minibus. There was little chance of getting this trip on expenses! Our nameless woman then was whisked off to the largest cemetery in town. On the way Jill stopped off briefly at Medanealem and passed the camera around to see if any of her fellow street dwellers knew her name or anything about her. They knew nothing, except that she has been there for a few weeks and had obviously been ill for most of that time. Her compatriots were grateful, not only for the clothes delivered earlier that day but in recognition of Kevin and Jill’s efforts to get her to a clinic and their unorthodox administration of the last rites. I was surprised and somewhat relieved by their reaction as our rapidly converted hearse drew up alongside their ‘houses plastic’ in Medanealem district. From the comfort of my office I had assumed what any rational person living on the mean streets of Addis Ababa might have thought. Here’s the sequence as I imagined it. Along comes a foreign couple offering blankets and clothing from the back of a random, unmarked taxi, scooping up an unsuspecting woman, who admittedly might be dying. Then, no less than two hours later she is buried six foot under with no paperwork or due process save the receipt for a gaudy pink coffin and a nameless mortuary style mug shot on a cheap company camera.
The day’s adventures, twists and turns, were nevertheless not yet over. At the cemetery two rival gangs of grave diggers spotted our vulnerable foreigners and immediately assumed they could hike their rates, clinch a great deal and potentially knock off early. And so the usual turn by turn protocol was dispensed with. Both gangs of grave diggers began arguing the price with Jill and arguing between themselves whose turn it was to dig. Jill eventually went with the lowest bidders, finally and most unceremoniously getting the poor woman into the ground. Ashes to ashes dust to dust, bish, bash, bosh and back home after an exhausting day for a nice cup of tea.
It was at this point in time that Jill realized the company camera had been stolen from the minibus, most likely by the aggrieved gang of grave diggers. Down on an easy 200 birr, my camera was no doubt being, justifiably fenced for the same price as compensation for loss of earnings. I was not best pleased, but I did console myself with the following scene of terror on the face of the new owner as he flicked through my photo album ending with the aforementioned, end-of-life mug shot. The preceding twenty or so pictures were all work related; mainly bland images taken across a number of construction sites and recent concrete pours. Our contractors were all of Ethio-Italian descent and few people are unaware of the Italian – Mafia – Construction Industry connections. Their preferred methods of disposal including ‘concrete boots’ or burial in the new by-pass. The thought of Jill and Kevin being taken for Mafia henchmen on a quick disposal job instead of hopelessly incompetent do-gooders will remain with me forever.