Sitting at a table in the Melkem Megab Restaurant you might think you are somewhere in Africa; but then you look out onto the drab streets of Harehills in Leeds. The restaurant offers authentic cuisine for the city’s Ethiopian community.
Over a traditional meal of lamb eaten with our fingers I listen to 30 year old Yosef describe his childhood in Ethiopia. He is the son of an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father; two countries at constant loggerheads and occasionally at war, ever since Eritrea became independent from its larger neighbour.
He spoke with obvious pride about the rich culture and history of his country, so I asked the obvious question: “Why did you leave Ethiopia?”
“I was conscripted to fight in a war I did not believe in.” He said, then tried to explain the Byzantine politics of the two countries and how he had conflicting loyalties.
I wanted to know how he arrived in the UK.
“I escaped and crossed the border into Sudan. People helped me travel to Libya, for money of course. I was taken to Italy by boat where I worked for a little time before travelling to the UK.”
“Was it dangerous, Yosef?” I asked, thinking of the recent images on the news.
“This was 13 years ago, it was safer then. There were not as many refugees as there are now.”
I was interested in why, after all this time, he had not taken British nationality.
“I will go home. I am saving money to buy a shop in Aksum, my hometown. It is in the highlands in the north. It is beautiful.” he says wistfully, gazing out at the red brick terraced houses and cobble grey sky.
“It sounds a great place and good plan.” I say.
Yosef smiles. “Yes, I miss Ethiopia, my homeland.”
The prompt or task given to my writing group was to write a short piece in the form of an interview. I decided to draw on a conversation that I had in a restaurant with an Ethiopian friend , Yosef Alemayo. This longing for their homeland is often expressed by many Africans that I know. Luwam a lovely and gracious woman said to me ” You do not understand, this is not my country, my language, my home. It is painful too painful!”