From Lalibella to Nagano and back
Askal Berihun, a 32 year old resident of Werk Dengaye, a suburb of Lalibela is set to wedge an international battle against her elderly ex-husband, Takeda Kazu Shige, the father of her children with Japanese citizenry who she feels are not adequately supported and are receiving the education they are otherwise are entitled to.
In an exclusive interview with The Reporter, Askal reflected on her life, challenges and the difficulties of raising two adolescent children of Japanese ancestry in a heterogeneous society with little infrastructure.
"I met my ex-husband when I was 17 and he was 57," she told The Reporter. "I was a high school student when I became pregnant and was forced to quit school, in order to raise our first daughter as my husband was working on a forest project on behalf of the Japanese government in Laibella".
The children, now aged nine and twelve, moved to Nagano, Japan for a year as children, along with their mother, after their father belatedly returned to Ethiopia, in order to reconcile with their mother. However, that was short-lived.
The mother was not able to adapt to the Japanese culture and the age gap between them became an issue. "I learned Japanese quickly but was overwhelmed with the loneliness. My only contact became the personnel at the (Ethiopian) embassy, who spoke to me at length to help me escape boredom and loneliness but I was overwhelmed," she told The Reporter.
"My then husband always suspected I was cheating on him but I was not. He became controlling and I became depressed on such a foreign land and he decided to return us to Ethiopia and without warning, he disappeared."
The now remarried Askal and pregnant with her third child lost contact with him. With no communication, she approached the Japanese Embassy for assistance about a year and a half ago, but had little success. "I had a meeting with the then Japanese ambassador and he promised to help, at least connect my children to my ex-husband, but there was little success. They have forgotten about my plight and they even neglected updating me. "
The children named, Mune Hiro and Sara Takeda Kazu Shinge have now lost the little Japanese they learned in Japan and have now fully learned Amharic but are known, in the neighborhood as the "Chinese kids". Mune is now in grade six, while his sister is in the third grade.
"I love sushi and that is what I miss most about Japan," Mune said, as she brewed an Ethiopian traditional coffee. "But, honestly, what I miss the most, is my father. I wish I will get to see him but more importantly, I will receive a great education that is not available in Lalibela," (The Reporter was not able to interview her brother as he was as school).
Within Lalibela, an interracial relationship is not unique. There have been children born out of wedlock, often time to much older men, who had come to the historic, dusty tourism area. Most of the posh hotels and restaurants that were started here were born out of a relationship born between locals and foreigners.
However, what sets the children of Takeda apart is, which is rare, they have been totally abandoned, even as their mother moves with her life and starts a relationship with another man.
Neighbors still remember, Takeda, as a kind and considerate man, who loved his wife and built his family a two storey building uphill that became a symbol of wealth, painted blue. "Askal is young, she was selling wood on the street when he met her," a neighbor said.
Askal is grateful for that, but is quick to remind The Reporter that while he started the construction for them, she had to take a loan through a microloan program to finish it. Her building is now occupied with her new husband, a tour guide and extended family members, including her siblings and the rest is rented to supplement her income.
Now, Askal admits the shortcomings of her relationship with Takeda but wants to give her children the kind of education she did not have for herself.
"I quit school young, I made many mistakes as a teenager after I met Takeda but why are these children punished for my mistakes. Do they deserve that?" she asked.
Now 32, her former husband is 72 and is a grandfather, to his own biological grandchildren, fully Japanese she hardly met while she was in the country.
While she dated him, everybody in Lalibela saw her relationship for what is it was worth, she was seen as a gold digger and she was aware of that. Her friends mocked her, she saw it an escape out of poverty. Little did she know the burden that would fall on her.
The Reporter reached out to the Japanese Embassy in Addis Ababa for comments and received this email response.
“We sincerely hope that the issue will be resolved amicably between the husband and the wife and that everyone in the family will become happy, particularly the two young children. Unfortunately, the Embassy cannot intervene in private disputes between two individuals. We wish for an early resolution of the dispute,” the Embassy stated.