As we began the new year of 1958 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the most valuable member of our assorted household was unquestionably Asegaditch, the children's mamita, inherited from our United States Foreign Service predecessors. She had helped raise their three small children, just as she now helped with our four sons.
Along the way, Asegaditch had picked up a smattering of American ideas on sanitation and kitchen techniques and enough English to act as interpreter between us and the houseboy, the night watchman, and the teenage gardener - all of whom were from different African tribes.
In addition to having domestic skills, Asegaditch was also a beautiful young Amhara (the principal tribe of the Addis area) with even, white teeth and almond eyes outlined in kohl. Beneath her neat white turban she was blessed with an amazing amount of curling black hair, which she washed and dried in the sun by the servants' quarters and fluffed with a patterned silver comb with tinkling bells, to our sons' delight. Her figure was plump beneath a full skirt and ample apron as she bustled around our house issuing orders to the men. There was nothing servile about Asegaditch.
Unfortunately for our family, Asegaditch was also raising children of her own in a tukul mud hut somewhere up in the warren of alleys of sprawling Addis, with some help from relatives, a servant, and a husband. Therefore she arrived at our kitchen door on the dot at 9 a.m. six days a week and departed at 6 p.m.
On Saturdays she carried weekly wages knotted in her shamma shawl and an extra Ethiopian dollar for a bath en route to her home.
We were enormously grateful to have Asegaditch, my husband and I, especially during our first chaotic months in a very different, almost Biblical land in darkest Africa - ''Not even in Europe,'' as a startled realtor exclaimed when we had discussed renting our Washington house.
In February, I finally got around to driving Asegaditch to the small local hospital for a checkup, at her request. As we bumped up the road in our Land Rover, Asegaditch turned toward me with her lovely smile, lowered her dark lashes demurely, and thanked me for driving her there.
After a quick examination, Dr. Steen called me into his spartan office.
''Your mamita is in fairly good shape,'' he began.
''I was sure she was,'' I replied.
Dr. Steen smiled patiently. ''It should be a healthy baby,'' he said.
''Baby?'' I stammered. ''You mean our Asegaditch?''
''Why yes. Didn't she tell you?'' the doctor chuckled. ''About eight months along, I would guess.''
Asegaditch seemed surprised at my distress. She had three sons at home, she reminded me. ''It's all right, Madam. I will help you again after the baby comes.''
But we'll miss you so,'' I repeated helplessly. ''How long will you be away, Asegaditch?''
That depended, she said, on whether it was a boy or girl. By Ethiopian Coptic custom, a baby boy is christened 40 days after birth, a girl 80 days after.
''Pray that it's another boy,'' I told my husband at suppertime.
''I don't see how we can manage,'' he sighed. ''Even for 40 days.''
On Saturday two weeks later, Asegaditch failed to appear on the dot of nine. ''Maybe the baby's arrived,'' I told my sons midmorning. ''Let's ask Mengasha to ride the horse up to her house to find out.''
Our gardener's thin adolescent face beamed with pleasure when he understood my pantomimed request. He nodded, tightening the rope belt on his ragged trousers and repeated, ''Ow, Madam.'' (Ow is yes in Amharic.) He and the watchman managed to saddle our unwilling horse, and we all waved him off. He jogged bravely up the rough road, arms akimbo, scrawny legs dangling.
All day long our sons constructed Dinky Toy highways in the muddy yard and watched for Mengasha. We were starting supper when a clatter of hooves summoned us to the front gate.
''Here comes Paul Revere,'' shouted our 10 year old. ''How about it, Mengasha? Did the baby come?''
The gardener climbed from the saddle, his thin face scarlet from exertion and exhaustion. ''Baby,'' Mengasha said proudly. ''Asegaditch baby.'' With grimy hands he indicated the baby's size. Very small.
''Very small,'' we agreed in unison. Mengasha bowed, nodded, and backed toward the stable, beaming shyly, proud at the success of his fact-finding mission.
''But Mengasha,'' I said, carefully avoiding the horse's hind feet. ''Was the baby a boy or a girl?''
It took considerable pantomiming from each of us to get the idea across.
Mengasha shrugged. He didn't know. He had forgotten to ask.
We trailed back into the dining room to our cold supper. After so much suspense, the boys were deflated, four-year-old Tony most of all. It had been a bewildering day.
''Why didn't Asegaditch lay her egg at our house?'' he wondered.