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Timothy Spence

Timothy Spence

Spence is an independent journalism trainer, newsroom adviser, lecturer and reporter, Washington editor and overseas correspondent. He has managed and led newsroom training and workshops for universities, government agencies, civic groups and private foundations, including experience in post-conflict environments in Africa, the Caucasus, Middle East, and Balkans.

The recipient of two Knight International Journalism Fellowships, Spence most recently received a U.S. Fulbright Specialists grant to teach at the African University College of Communications in Ghana. He has also been selected by Freedom House’s international executives programme to provide newsroom management expertise in Algeria.

Naked Lady is his first creative fiction


 Naked Lady


She did not look as destitute as all the other beggars who had accosted me. She had a strong, determined gait, quite unlike the uncertain movements of most beggar women. Her body was rather ample, a full tummy and hefty buttocks, built broad and sturdy in a manner very different from the stick-frames that are predominant here. Her breasts were drooping black pendulums that ended in plump aubergine tits, coarse and covered in the grey grit that dusts everything in the dry season.

I had heard about the Naked Lady for weeks. She was described variously as crazy, rude, a fraud, definitely a foreigner because she did not share the aquiline features nor slight form of the locals. Aware of my penchant for rambling the streets and bazaars of the city, my friends were astonished that I had not seen the nude woman amongst all the proud and modest people. I figured she was a fable, one of those urban legends that spread across the city like fire, gaining in inaccuracy and incredulity along the way.

The Naked Lady and other extracurricular banter were part of the conversations my friends and I had during coffee breaks at the university, where I was a visiting lecturer. We would talk politics, a national pastime though one fraught with risk when you live in the shadow of authoritarians. We would talk about the predictable affairs of academia — under-performing students, under-performing colleagues, arcane directives from the administration. They quizzed me about life in America, which for most of our students was the promised land. They would ask me how Americans could be so tolerant of the increasingly ruinous policies of the president at the time, an enquiry bathed in irony given their own leader’s close alliance with mine.

It was April. It would be several weeks before the rains began to blow like curtains across the mountains and the penetrating highland chill set in. During those days, the sun took no rest and we sat on the dusty terraces of cafés strung along the dirt paths that pass through campus. Pebbles spewed from wheels of old Toyota taxi vans, horns hooted, and there was incessant, metallic banging from a construction site across the street.

It was a gritty, clamourous, dynamic stage where part of my day played out. The aroma of freshly roasted coffee competed with the jarring odours of a world far distant from the sanitised one I came from — pit latrines across from us, open sewage ditches, wafts of animal and human waste that only grew more profound in the heat of midday, and the stifling pollution of boxy Soviet-era Ladas that plied the dirt roads.

Often they talked and I listened, through one cup of sweet, muddy coffee after another. The conversations even nibbled at class times, for punctuality was neither a trait of the locals nor a necessity. Talk is cheap but meaningful conversation is rare in this society, which is still destructively hide-bound to its past deference to authority. By showing trust and respect, I had managed to break down the barriers to free expression. We developed friendships that transcended our different circumstances and distances.

These campus klatches were not all about political polemics and arcane university policies, and it was these deviations from the norm that I cherished the most. Aster held a post of senior lecturer, the rare woman in a male-dominated institution. She had studied in Moscow, a privilege for someone from a poor country, and she returned to her homeland with a passion for the literature of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and others. She dreamed of translating these works into her native language, to show her people how these writers explored the political and social traumas of czarist Russia through powerfully evocative literature, something she wished her own society had more of. I shared her fondness for these writers and we could talk at length about them and the samizdat of Soviet times. But if we strayed too long and too far into these deep discussions, a colleague would guide us back to the realities around us. Another story about the Naked Lady. Or jokes, garbled by faulty English, that nonetheless brought raucous laughter and usually more ribald attempts at humour.

I was new here and these long, convivial gatherings gave me insights into the people that no book or article had done. I was enjoying the new setting and people, and they gave me, the foreigner, the respect and admiration that were vacant in my old workplace. We worked very closely at a bustling university with scant resources and in a discipline, journalism, that is loathed by the ruling authorities and rarely practised with any mastery. My fellow lecturers were well off by the standards of their society, and I wealthy beyond comparison even though middle class back home. My friends and I respected one another for our work and devotion to our students, without regard to race or the gap in our fortunes.

Yet I could not wear blinders to the conditions of life for the millions of people less fortunate than we ever were. Debate, civic action and public accountability, all fervently fixed in my psyche, are missing or forcefully repressed in this nation. I was tormented by the privation and desperation that I saw, and quickly shed any precept of being the neutral observer in a foreign country. Scepticism gave way to cynicism and resentment of the political system, as well as the swelling numbers of foreign diplomats and development agencies who sustained it. The foreigners’ main contributions to this society seemed to be employing legions of servants and enriching those who owned the villas in the guarded compounds of the capital. Their transplanted first-world lifestyles struck me as profoundly incongruous given their mission to alleviate poverty and build just societies.

I was also growing increasingly uncomfortable with the warm welcomes and bright faces I encountered everywhere. Faringe, as we foreigners are called, are treated with admiration and unfailing respect, remarkable given the blinders that most outsiders wear to avoid seeing the rot around them. In the marketplaces, women wrapped in their brightly coloured, thick cotton capes stepped aside for me. Men in faded suits and leaden ties nudged me to the front of the queue at the bank. Children giggled as they cleared a path for me at bazaar stalls. And in supermarket lines, smiling young women offered to carry my basket or fetch things from the shelves. Outside the city, in villages teeming with donkeys and goats, I was offered glasses of sweet tea or platters of watery bread or blobs of spicy lentils from people who could ill afford such kindness.

It’s as if I had discovered some magical and magnanimous land where the mirthful life was to be shared with visitors. “You live in hell and we live in nirvana in your country,” I once told a journalist friend, who saw no irony in this respect for outsiders.

In my own culture, the combination of a privileged class, political duplicity and economic privation would reap consequences, through revolution at the ballot box if not in the streets. I could help my students to be good journalists — for that was why I was sent here to do — but I could not readily encourage them to be daring, to challenge their leaders and the ineffectual aid workers, to hold them accountable for their actions. To have done so would have put my students in peril, a perverse catch-22: to piss off the government meant almost certain intimidation or a prison sentence; to piss off the aid community might deprive them of their best hope for a decent job.

Aster used to explain to me that respect for authority and the faringe is an immutable part of the local culture. If I were to enjoy my time and be effective, she told me, I should relent and accept the way things are.

I relented. I was here to teach students to be good journalists, in the hope they someday could be, not turn them into revolutionaries. I begrudgingly accepted my status as a privileged faringe. I moved to the front of interminable queues. I skipped the security checkpoints while my friends were patted down and searched. I walked on water while everyone else swam.

And the trade-off for all this respect? I was tapped at every opportunity. In the Western world, begging is an abnormality, something done by outcasts or drunks smelling of urine and faeces, or malcontents out to profit from the gullible. But here, in a whole nation of desperation, begging is not an aberration but a necessity. The beggars came at me in all ages and forms: forgotten war veterans with mutilated bodies, twisted limbs, or mindless stares; women and children blinded by trachoma, their lifeless eyeballs teeming with flies; stick women with grimy infants lapping at bone-dry teats; stooped women aged many times beyond their years. Sometimes bands of children, streaked with filth, would sing and dance in hopes of a handout. Or they’d pester, shuffling after me until I capitulated.

“Mister, mister… birr,” they’d chime, begging a few coins.

The first tendency is to give in, only to set off a chain reaction: give to one beggar, and others flock to you, hands outstretched and a blur of pleading faces surrounding you. The other tendency is to run away, in a comical competition between designer outdoor shoes and bare feet, only to find yourself hopelessly treading water against the coming tide of want.

At first I set standards — I’d give to the old, and I’d give a small tip to the legions of boys selling newspapers gathered from the trash bins at the airport or embassies. For all others, I discouraged my tendency toward charity. In just a few short weeks I had learned the language used by my fairly well-off friends to shoe away the beggars.

Gunzub yellañim. Exiarber emusken.

I have no money. God bless you.

It was a sham response, as if I were truly penniless, as if faith offers anything other than a fanciful escape from malnutrition, ignorance and oblivion. But it worked, begrudgingly so, and I tried to explain away my cheapness and insensitivity with tortured logic: the coins I could give to a few people in the few months I am here will not make a dent in the poverty of millions. The scraps of food my pocket change will buy today mean nothing tomorrow. Am I not already giving enough, trading a well-paying job and good life to donate time and talents in the hopes that I might inspire one — or possible a few — young people?


I am talking about Ethiopia, a land of magical notions and boundless pride.

Despite their desperation and calamitous history, the people define themselves in superlatives, and are not shy about sharing this with faringe. An early clue to modern humans was found in Ethiopia, a hominid nicknamed Lucy, and she remains there to this day as an icon of the country’s seminal contribution to civilisation. Ethiopia was one of the earliest Christian civilisations whose Semitic language is based on an ancient religious orthography, Ge’ez. Their cuisine, culture, chestnut colour and aquiline looks make them more Middle Eastern than African, and they do not hesitate to reproach a foreigner for lumping them in with the rest of Africa (“We are not African, we are Ethiopian”).

The country is located in a stunning sweep of the Horn, as harsh as it is beautiful. The Blue Nile springs from Lake Tana in the north. Mountains cut across its northern frontier and through its heartland, yielding in the east to the Rift Valley, where geological wonders are masked by some of the most hostile terrain on earth. In the west, there are gentle hills and verdant valleys that produce the world’s most coveted coffee beans, as well as another stimulant — the mildly narcotic plant called quat — that is turning idle men and unemployed teens into shiftless zombies.

The ruggedness of the country helps explain two other national superlatives that no foreigner who takes time to talk to the locals can escape. The first is its extraordinary female and male competitive runners whose funny sounding names and gleaming smiles beamed from Olympic arenas are known around the world. Several of the more famous come from isolated areas where a trip to school or a functioning water well involves long hauls across roadless, craggy terrain in inhospitable conditions — extreme heat or cold, violent storms or days of piercing sun. The terrain and a simple diet tend to build the lean, well conditioned bodies that are well acclimated to diverse climates and built for long-distance running.

The Ethiopians take equal pride in being one of the few parts of Africa never colonised by Europeans (except for two brief, inept attempts by the Italians). As a young man, Evelyn Waugh travelled to what was then called Abyssinia, and his experiences gave rise to some of his greatest early writing. His fictional works and newspaper reports from there mock the Italian occupation in the 1930s as a circus, and expose the regimented buffoonery of the nation’s absolute monarch and its oppressive medievalism, portrayals that tend to prick the pride and superlative notions of the people, including my friends. They cling to visions of a great nation, of beautiful people in a beautiful land, despite the distress and decay that encircles them.

I saw a much different place, a country irrevocably stuck in primitivism, riven by ethnic divisions and regional animosities. The mostly Christian mountain people look down upon the Muslims of the arid lands, and the northern tribes who dominate the ruling elite repress everyone with impudence.

I had trouble understanding the Ethiopians’ loyalty to their last monarch. Of course Ethiopia is far from being the only country where dead leaders return with immortal powers that nurture national identities and energise politicians. Turkey has Ataturk, America its founding fathers, and Stalin is enjoying a perverse revival in Russia. But Ethiopians’ infatuation with their last emperor is baffling. Even educated people idolise him as the cement of national pride.

Decades after he was deposed, Emperor Haile Selassie’s photo still hangs in many homes and his memory survives glued to the dashboards of cars and taxies. He was a diminutive man who wore large mantels — the Lion of Juda, King of Kings, inspiration for Bob Marley’s Rastafarians. Haile Selassie gave his nation electricity, airlines, universities and himself a fleet of dashing Burgundy Mercedes limousines, but he ruled like a Medieval prince with astonishing indifference to the plight of his people.

Eventually, the modern problems of a growing nation built on ancient fealty and fiefdoms caught up with him. He ignored famines and the growing restlessness among young people for reform. He turned the military assistance from Washington against dissenters, including those in Eritrea who sought autonomy. Enfeebled by age and clueless to the tempest surrounding him, the King of Kings was deposed in 1974 and killed a year later, toppled by army officers who had sworn loyalty to him. Haile Selassie’s vain and brutal 44-year Imperium was over.

Yet his killers proved even more diabolical. In one of the Cold War’s more bizarre spasms, Moscow backed the new rulers in Ethiopia and abandoned their old allies the Somalis. The Americans in turn threw their support behind the doomed megalomaniac ruler of Somalia, Ethiopia’s arch enemy. Ethiopia’s Derg (the junta was as ominous as its name sounds) launched Stalinist-style pogroms and turned the country into one of the most militarised places on earth. Yet the Derg struggled to halt an invasion by much-smaller Somalia and lost Eritrea to rebels — a defeat that torments Ethiopians to this day. In the year I spent in Ethiopia, and the trips I have taken since, I met few people who did not idolise Haile Selassie, and still fewer who did not despise the Derg.

The emperor’s assassins did not rule long. The Soviet implosion cost the junta its main benefactor, and revolutionaries outwitted and outmanoeuvred both the Derg and their Soviet advisers. In the 1990s, the Europeans and Americans invested expertise and generous sums of money to avert starvation and rebuild the shattered country. They were promised by the new leaders that Ethiopia would get its first taste of democracy. They were duped. This is not a continent where internecine wounds heal quickly or rulers cede power readily. Another war with Eritrea, this time over a gravelly speck of disputed border, was characterised both by its brutality on the battlefield and crass disregard for civilians. Soldiers on both sides were underfed and neglected, there were not enough doctors or medics to help the wounded, which explains why there are so many maimed veterans. Scores of them drag their broken bodies into the streets every day to beg for their veterans’ benefit.

A near constant state of war allowed repression to continue, compounding so many of the country’s problems, including overpopulation. More than two million people are born every year in a country that is destined, in the next 30 years, to become Africa’s largest. Nearly all the newborns are condemned to lives of poverty if not malnutrition. Few will have any opportunity for education beyond rudimentary classes led by ill-educated and woefully underpaid teachers. It is Africa’s great curse that the best opportunity for the brightest and most motivated is to get a job with an aid organisation, a career as hapless as hopeless. The luckiest escape to the West, often to jobs far lower than their qualifications or potential.

On the terraces of the university cafés, I used to ask my friends how their nation can be so resigned to tragedy and incompetent rule. We are too poor to change, they’d tell me, but we have our faith and pride to nurture us. But the words always seem to be said with a hollowness of people accustomed to failure, like an alcoholic boasting about turning down a drink. They were trying to act noble in a feudal system. It was easy for me to challenge them in those privileged hours spent at cafés. It was ever harder for me to be entirely empathetic.


The Naked Lady appeared one hot May day along the dusty main road of campus. I was the first among my group to spot her, moving effortlessly through the swarm of students. Alone, she carried the same thing she wore: nothing. One hand formed a meaty fist, the other was open, swinging in time with her strong gait.

I had a view full of contrasts. There were pretty female students moving past frail women hoisting sacks of cloth, sticks for firewood, or teetering loads of vegetables on their heads. There were winsome young men, lean and wearing T-shirts and jeans like their counterparts anywhere, drinking Pepsis and smoking while grimy workmen in faded overhauls hauled stone or relieved themselves in the gutter.

Naked Lady was apart from them all. Her movements were steady and confident, unlike the short, hesitant way that so many impoverished women walk. She drew near me without the deferential dipping of the shoulders or remorseful expressions of beggars who approach faringe, without prayers or appeals to God (as if prayers will deliver a miracle and wash away the shame of a beggared existence). She walked directly to me without even asking for money, her mission very clear. Naked Lady didn’t need to utter any pleas.

I did not want to give her money. I couldn’t help thinking that my friends were right — she is too plump to be starving, too determined to be completely crazy. And rude, for this is a nation of modest people, where women cover themselves in coarse cotton shawls and headscarves to guard against the sun, the heat of the day and the chill of nightfall. These are pious people, not exhibitionists.

Naked Lady moved to my side of the table, ignoring the orders of my friends to leave me be. She bent over, her breasts brushing my back, and reached into the right pocket of my jacket. I tried gently to push her arm away, and even more determined than before, she stabbed another hand into the other jacket pocket. The group around me was yelling orders in words I could not understand and in authoritative tones I had not heard them use before. But the rifling in my empty pockets continued.

I froze. I did not want to hurt the woman. I did not want to be forceful with someone who might react violently. And some mental impulse told me not to touch her body, that she may be ill and carry some communicable disease — stupid and irrational thinking, I realise now. Yet her stench repulsed me, a vile cocktail of faeces, sweat and menses, and I was hoping someone would grab her dirty, blubbery body away from me.

Someone finally thrust a coin at her, and muttered in a scolding tone. She accepted the money, opening the clutched hand and exposing a palm with three or four other coins of insignificant value. She turned away without a word — without the customary thank you and blessings of God — and moved away, exposing two ample buttocks.

Crazy, someone said.


How could someone so fat be hungry?

Definitely an “African” given her roundish, Negroid features.

A walking example of the godlessness that threatens our country.

Things like this didn’t happen in Haile Selassie’s day.

I left Ethiopia some months later without having seen Naked Lady again. But I grew curious, the journalist in me wanting to interview the woman and learn more about her. From where do you come? How do you manage to stay so plump when so many beggars are walking skeletons? How do you respond to accusations that you are deranged, rude and godless? Why naked? What is your name, so that I can call you something other than Naked Lady?

In subsequent trips to Ethiopia, I never had the time to enquire about her, let alone go in search of the plump, persistent nude beggar lady. But on my last trip, I felt compelled to satisfy my curiosity. I went to the campus to visit my friends and to see all that had changed in the more than two years since I left. I also kept a keen eye out for the Naked Lady, but I never saw her and my friends reported that they had not seen her since the day she accosted me. She was gone, a woman so different from other beggars and yet so symbolic of the raw hardships and profound troubles that grip this country. An enigma in an enigmatic nation.

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