While a brilliant sun sparkles over the spectacular city of Asmara, Eritrea, my sister and I are lounging in the semi-dark living room of my grandmother’s house whining to whoever wanted to hear, “There’s nothing to do!” A dazzling array of shops and cafes line the manicured avenues of downtown Asmara. Historic cathedrals built by the Italians, grand mosques constructed by the Ottomans, and palm-lined city parks offer weeks of entertainment for the cultured adult tourist. For two American girls brought up on Nickelodeon and Nintendo, “culture” would never do. So, again, we are bored. Yohana leans against the arm of the couch fiddling with the useless remote control while I, leaning against the other arm, wrack my big brain for ways to entertain ourselves. Since my grandmother and her daughters, my mother and aunts, are by the courtyard in the kitchen, playing with the rooster was currently not an option. One of my aunts has a wedding in a week, and they are all busily chopping garlic and onions in preparation for the million and one dishes they would have to make. Whatever I decide to do, I would have to be careful not to let them see me. Not only would I be at risk of getting in trouble—they seem to think everything we kids thought fun counts as “trouble”—but, even worse, they might force me to help with the cooking. Armed with my twelve-year-old wisdom, I made sure my plans for entertainment would keep me far away from the kitchen.
What could we do? What could we do? The lack of familiar options seriously bugs me. In America I could think of a thousand fun things to do, but here… I turn to Ramon and ask him for ideas. Eritrean-born, I figure he would be able to come up with some kind of exciting diversion. Friendly, smart, and the same age as Yohana, Ramon easily fit into many of our adventures.
“I don’t know,” he says, sounding as frustrated and bored as I am.
“Monkey!” I swear, using “monkey” to make it adult-proof.
“Tartar sauce!” Yohana punches a couch pillow.
“Sheeeet!” wails Ramon in his Eritrean accent. His accent totally botches the “i” sound into a prolonged “ee” that makes all of us laugh. Ramon, like all Eritreans, learned how to swear in English way before he learned most other English words. When a hero or heroine swears in a movie, you know what they mean regardless of what language they’re speaking. Ramon could swear without mispronunciations, but he botches them anyways just to get us to laugh. It totally works, and I feel a surge of hope that we would indeed find something fun and exciting to do that day.
My mind slips back into creative mode, carefully assessing all the possibilities. Thinking about the ways I could avoid cooking for the wedding reminds me of the bull in the backyard. My uncle and his friends had brought the bull there the day before, and there it would stand for a few more days until it eventually joined the pots of garlic and onion.
“Hey!” I call out, startling Yohana and Ramon. “We could go see the bull! I mean, all the cartoons say cows don’t like red, so we should find out if it’s true or not. It’ll be like a scientific experiment! And if mommy says anything, we’ll just tell her it’s educational.”
“What, what?” Ramon isn’t following my English. I have to clarify.
I stand up and point to the other side of the room, “Over there, bull,” I say in broken Tigrinya. I point to where I am standing, “Me, here.” I grab a sweater off the couch and wave it energetically, “Torro! Torro!”
“Aha! Yes!” Ramon leaps off his chair and heads for the door.
“Wait!” I call after him. “We need something red!” Just to make sure he understands, I point to the sweater and say the Tigrinya word for red.
“Oh, OK, where can we get something red?” asks Ramon.
“In the bedroom!” I race out into the hall and turn left into our bedroom. Ramon and Yohana are close behind. The luggage my sister and I share is kept under the twin bed, so I have to lift up the bed a little to pull it out. Within minutes of searching I rise victorious with a shirt completely red except for some writing on the front.
“That’s my shirt!” Yohana protests.
“I know, but we’re just going to hold it. It’ll be fine.” She crosses her arms and says nothing, and I proceed with the plan. We leave the bedroom, cross the hall, and enter another bedroom. The bull is tied up to a tree about four feet beyond the bedroom wall, which places him almost right under the bedroom window. Carefully, Ramon and I pull open the window and peak over the edge. I see a big dark form that must be the bull.
“He’s tied up, right?” Someone had told me earlier that the bull was tied up, but for safety’s sake I wanted further verification.
“Yes,” says Ramon. “So, are you going to do it?” Beneath his question I hear another one: So, are you brave?
I hesitate. I desperately want to prove my bravery, but my deceptive little stomach is churning with fear. He’s tied up, I remind myself. My uncles would not bring a bull to our yard that could hurt one of us, right? The bull had to be sufficiently tied up. I would not let fear stop me from having fun, or get in the way of scientific discovery. Cartoons are known to spread lies, so it is absolutely vital that I determine whether bulls really hate red. Bolstered by this noble cause, I hang the red shirt out the window, shake it, and run.
I try it again, this time holding it out longer and shaking it hard to get the bull’s attention.
I feel furious, insulted, and desperate to get a reaction out of the bull. “We have to go outside,” I tell Ramon and Yohana. Ramon nods his head and goes towards the door.
“No!” Yohana intercepts him and blocks the door. “You can’t! It’s not safe!” She is almost shouting at us, not quite, but almost.
“Yohana, don’t worry,” I assure her. “He’s tied up, he can’t do anything.”
“Yes he can! We’re going to get killed!” Her fear, however hysterical, starts spreading around the room. What if the bull gets so mad he breaks the ropes binding him and goes charging after us? What if I misjudge the length of his ropes and inadvertently get too close? Yohana’s frantic wails were beginning to sound like wise advice.
Despite my rising fear and sense of caution, I desperately needed to counteract the overwhelming sense of boredom we had experienced all afternoon. Ramon was counting on me to do this, and if I failed him he would undoubtedly call me all the nasty Tigrinya variations on the word coward. Yohana saw the issue only in terms of safety, but there was so much more at stake. My precious pride was on the line, having been humiliated by the bull in my attempts to get a reaction out of him. How dare he not even moo! Nothing bugs me more than when a person deliberately ignores me, and when a bull ignores me, that’s going too far.
Unwilling to give up my plan entirely, I offer up a compromise. “OK, how about this: you stay in here and watch us through the window. If anything happens, you can be the heroine and call for help. Me and Ramon will go outside, but we’ll be careful, I promise.”
She just stares.
“Yohana, please,” Ramon pleads, and still not saying a word, she stomps away from the door and lets us pass.
Running outside and around the house, we skid to a stop at the corner of the house right before the bull. Stepping around that corner would bring us right in the bull’s line of vision. In fact, taking that step would bring us within about six feet of the bull. Thinking about Yohana’s warning, six feet seemed too close.
I shove the bright red shirt into Ramon’s arms. “Here, you first!”
“Hey!” Stunned, he jumps back about three feet, then leaps at me with the shirt. “No, you first!”
“No you!” I try to give it back to him, but he stays well out of my reach. I suddenly realize that Yohana could hear us through the window, so I had to make up my mind: to be a coward or not to be a coward?
Taking just one step forward, I find myself face to face with the bull. Just six feet ahead of me stood the large dark form of the bull. A mere blur, but I remind myself that it is indeed a very dangerous blur. Yohana had described the bull, but somehow I am still not entirely convinced of its presence. To fully know its shape and size I would need to go right up and touch it. Only fear prohibited me from doing so. My curiosity would have to make do with the next best option: hearing a mighty moo or feeling the ground shake beneath its movements. To indulge this intense curiosity, I begin my first stint as a bullfighter.
I raise the red shirt and shake it between my two hands. Cartoon scenes of Speedy Gonzalez and others flash through my mind as I beg the bull to react. I try waving the red shirt to the side of me, in front of me, above me.
“He’s not doing anything!” I complain to Ramon. Would it be possible that the bull is blind? Ramon snatches the red shirt and takes my place in front of the bull.
“Torro!” Ramon shouts. I shiver with horror. He used The Word! Ramon jumps up in front of the bull waving the red shirt in the air. “Torro! Torro! Torro!” All the jumping and floor scraping starts looking like a wild dance, a dance I feel certain will finally elicit a response from the stubbornly silent bull.
“RAMON!!” a woman’s voice yells. Hearing the warning in her tone, we don’t even wait to find out who it is. We turn and run back into the house, back into our private world far away from the women cooking in the kitchen. Yohana rushes out of the bedroom to greet us and we retell the story over and over to ourselves, comparing all three perspectives. Ramon earns top marks for his daring performance, and Yohana decides it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. The excitement of the encounter—our titillating moments of courage and cowardice—temporarily wash away the sense of boredom. Though we failed to gain the bull’s recognition, we succeeded in finally creating the type of Third World entertainment we craved.