SAO PAULO, Brazil — As an Ethiopian national living in the heart of Sao Paulo state’s sugar cane country, 34-year-old Weinshet Kifle is part of a very, very small ex-pat community: herself.
That means that unlike Americans in search of peanut butter in Paris or Brits craving cricket in Karachi, Kifle lives a life of almost complete isolation from her native culture in the half-million person city of Ribeirao Preto. Though she takes solace in a few traits the locals share with Ethiopians, like a natural friendliness and love of expertly cooked meat, there are no stores that sell berbere spice or teff flour, and no friends to chat with in Amharic.
“Being here is lonely,” she said. “Missing people is not easy. In my culture, I’m very close with my family, more close with my parents, and more close with sisters and brothers,” she said. She is the oldest of 10 siblings.
Her husband Brian Hamilton is the closest thing she has to a fellow Ethiopian — though the white 41-year-old British project manager, who came here to open sugar cane and ethanol mills, doesn’t look the part. He did live in Addis Ababa for six years, five married to her, and his jolly demeanor sometimes seem African-inspired, even if he Anglicizes her name to Winnie. “Our house in Addis was always full,” said Hamilton. “I’d have to book time with my wife. On weekends, I’d ask, ‘Oh, Winnie, how many weddings are you going to?’”
Here? “Empty house,” she said. “No one. Just quiet.”
In 2002, they got married before 1,000 guests in Addis Ababa (he knew 34 of them), and in 2007 moved to Malaysia, the first time Kifle had lived abroad. That was a big adjustment, too, but there were plenty of Africans in Kuala Lampur, and plenty of speakers of English — which she speaks comfortably.
How many Ethiopians currently reside in Brazil is a tough statistic to come by, but when she went to the Brazilian embassy in Addis Ababa to apply for a visa, the officer in charge told her there were no other Ethiopians living in Brazil at all. An Ethiopian woman married to a Brazilian man had once applied, but the officer did not think the couple had actually gone to Brazil. And it was such an unusual event to have someone apply that she was treated very well, Kifle remembered.
A bit of a technophobe before leaving Ethiopia, she now spends a chunk of time each day chatting with her siblings, two of whom live in Dubai, on the internet. She is also a loyal Facebook user. “I got all my old friends, I’m so happy,” she said. But Ethiopian internet service is very expensive, she said, so her family’s home does not have access. That limits her chat time with many friends and relatives to the morning hours, afternoon in Addis, when they are at work.
She also spends time reading a weekly newspaper, Addis Admass, although Amharic script doesn’t always appear correctly on the internet. And Google News’s Ethiopia edition provides her with updates.
But it’s not the same as being there, of course. And getting there is very, very complicated and expensive. Flying to Addis means leaving Riberao Preto on Wednesday afternoon, flying to Guarulhos airport outside the city of Sao Paulo, catching a midnight flight to Dubai, spending the next night in the Dubai airport, and catching a flight early Friday morning to Ethiopia.
In the meantime, she is taking Portuguese lessons, but the going is slow, and she has found very few English speakers in Riberao, though she has been touched by how hard people try.
“Language is a big problem,” she said. “The first time I went to the supermarket, it was very challenging.” But nothing compared to decoding hair products. She tried to explain to a cosmetics store clerk that she needed something for her frizzy hair, but ended up with the wrong product, and a headful of damaged locks. Food, of course, is also an issue. “I miss my country’s spice,” she said, especially berbere, a mixture that is vital to many Ethiopian recipes. Last October, when she made the long trip back to Ethiopia for her sister’s wedding, she brought two kilos of the stuff back. On Sundays, she uses some of the valuable stash to cook Ethiopian dishes like doro wet, a spicy chicken dish. But it is without injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread made from teff flour. “Finding teff is not possible,” she said, unlike London, which she visited recently and found to be “like Addis. You can buy injera in any shop. They have Ethiopian supermarkets. Everything.”
It almost sounds like a joke no one would get: you know you’ve been in Ribeirao Preto too long when London starts resembling Addis Ababa.
But just a few weeks ago, a miracle occurred. Through Facebook, she found an Ethiopian friend of a friend who had recently moved to Sao Jose dos Campos, a city a few hours away. “I called the same day because I was so happy,” she said. “Now every day, or every other day, she sends a message or I send a message.”
Now, Kifle is planning a bus trip soon to visit a woman she has never met in a city she has never been to. It’s not exactly Irish pub ex-pat haven or a PTA meeting at the local American school, but at least it’s something. And who knows, maybe her new friend keeps a secret stash of teff.