“You must have been doing something to provoke them.” That was the text I was reading on my phone. Just a couple hours earlier, two men in downtown Addis Ababa attacked me. Provoke is defined as, “to deliberately make someone annoyed or angry.” Seeing that word from a supposed friend, hurt more than being slapped by a stranger. File it under Things You Don’t Tell a Woman Who Has Just Been Assaulted.
April 20, 2016 – 4 p.m. Holy Trinity Cathedral
Holy Trinity Cathedral is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Addis Ababa. According to Wikipedia, it is the second most important place to worship in the entire country. I had arrived in Ethiopia about a week earlier, and I had already spent a few days in Addis, its capital city of 3.4 million. Our guide insisted it had more like 8 million people. The government doesn’t count the people living in the slums.
I wasn’t walking in the slums when I was attacked. I was walking back from Holy Trinity Cathedral where I had paid the entrance fee ($5), donned my head covering (as women are required to do) and removed my shoes (as all are required to do). Show respect, receive respect. That’s how it works, right?
As I made my way along the sidewalk in downtown Addis, I was very aware of my surroundings. Women walked children home from school, old men sat on little stools or the ground sipping coffee at Ethiopia’s minimalistic cafes. I wasn’t wearing a low cut top. I wasn’t wearing a mini skirt. I didn’t have my nose in a guidebook. I didn’t have headphones in my ears. And I would never flash cash or flaunt my $500 iPhone 6 in a foreign country, much less the 9th poorest country in the world.
I hadn’t said a word to anyone since I politely declined an offer from a friendly Ethiopian man at the cathedral. He wanted to show me the tombs of the emperors. I know better than to leave with strangers.
So there I was, walking on the sidewalk. In broad daylight. In a busy, but not too busy, business district. I wasn’t in a marketplace teeming with hustlers. I was in the equivalent of Tribeca meets the Financial District. Internally, I was not at peace. I must have passed at least six cripples – some younger than me – laying on the sidewalk begging for money. Externally, I was just another face in the crowd.
Except I wasn’t. I was white. I was alone. I was female. I was foreign.
It didn’t happen in the blink of an eye. It was like slow motion. Two young men, probably in their late teens or early twenties, slowly, and strategically, approached me from behind. I didn’t say anything or change my pace. Soon we were three abreast, six shoulders in a line. Then I realized I was in trouble.
I haven’t been hit since I was a kid. And I don’t even remember being slapped. Spanked, yes, but not slapped. So I was shocked when the man on my right started slapping me. It didn’t register as normal behavior. “Why are you hitting me?” I asked, more perplexed than pissed. Then he hit me harder. “Why are you hitting a girl?” was my next question. He kept swinging.
Meanwhile, his cohort on my left had his hands in my pants. I was wearing loose fitting athletic pants—not very sexy, but very easy to violate. I’ve taken more than one self-defense class in high school and college, but none of my instructors taught me what to do if I had more than one attacker. I guess I didn’t make it to level Liam Neeson.
Now numb to the slapping, I focused on the man on the left. He grabbed my iPhone from my pocket. That black Otterbox case looked so out of place in his hand. I looked him in the eyes. They weren’t as dark as I thought they would be. But color doesn’t equal compassion. In this moment, he seemed to have none. He didn’t look like a kid, sorry that he had just got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He looked like a shell of a person. Where there should have been a conscience, there was contempt.
Suddenly, a third, much older man, was coming at me. No, wait. He was coming at the men. The one on my right stopped slapping me and took off. The one on the left did the same—dropping my iPhone in the process.
The older man who had chased the men away left as quickly as he had come. He didn’t stop to ask if I was okay. No one asked if I was okay. And there were plenty of witnesses.
Relieved I still had all of my material possessions, I was surprised at the tears I began to leak. Those tears soon turned into the guttural crying of a girl who wanted to rewrite those last few minutes of her life. If that wasn’t possible, she wanted her mom. But her mom was thousands of miles away.
April 20, 6 p.m. Hotel Jupiter International, Addis Ababa
“Mom,” I cried into my computer’s camera. “Not a single person stopped to see if I was okay. That is the most messed up part.”
“Katie,” she asked. “If you saw a stranger crying on the sidewalk, would you stop and say anything?” She had a point.
May 25, 5:30 p.m. Coffee Factory Roasters, Red Lodge, MT
It’s been more than a month since I begged the Hotel Jupiter manager for a shower, even though I wasn’t a hotel guest. I told him how I had been sandwiched between two men, and he agreed to let me shower while his staff made me a complimentary cappuccino that had “SORRY” written in cinnamon on the foam. Now, as I sit here, sipping a cappuccino in Red Lodge, Montana, the rain outside is like a call for reflection.
I can relive the ordeal, I can reflect on it, but I can not rewrite it. It had to happen for a reason, and that reason is bigger than any feelings or fears I have. I still don’t know what that reason is. One day it will hit me like a ton of bricks. Or more likely, I’ll gradually and subconsciously start to understand it.
Until then, I will continue to travel. And I will pray for those two men. Oh, the irony. I set out to observe afternoon prayer at Holy Trinity Cathedral. I never intended to bring home something to pray about.