August 31, 2008 – Awassa, Ethiopia
We were beckoned again this morning to prayer by our Muslim friends. Not to be outdone, a rooster offered his morning call to worship. (perhaps he was a Muslim rooster?) Awakened from our sleep, we started the day.
I should mention a bit about our hotel here in Awassa, the Lewi. It is very nice – a bit nicer than the Desalegn in Addis. However, one noticeable difference is the bed. The mosquito net hanging over the bed was new (we are now in malaria country). But the real uniqueness of the bed was its extreme firmness. I’m not talking a super firm, padded mattress like we’d find back in the States. This puppy is box spring firm. In fact, we checked to see if we were sleeping on the box spring, it was that hard. The funny thing is that we actually slept pretty well. I think our good sleeping can be attributed mostly to exhaustion rather than an affinity for overly firm mattresses.
The view outside our hotel again brings together a poignant dichotomy. In the alley outside our room is an unfinished building and more tin roof shacks that people call home. Clothes lines crisscross an open courtyard where garbage is everywhere. We have a clear view into a makeshift restroom. What I see is hard to reconcile as I anticipate a hot shower, a breakfast buffet and a strong coffee.
A quick update on my red, sore, itchy eye that I developed on the plane ride over. God answered prayer as it is nearly back to normal with only a little tenderness and itch. I’m thankful that it was nothing more than a slight irritation rather than full-blown pink eye.
Well, the biggest event of today was meeting our daughter’s mother. At breakfast our group had a nervous giddiness as we anticipated meeting the relatives and caregivers of our children prior to their being adopted. We were well aware of the emotions those meetings would likely invoke.
The meetings occurred at a neutral site. It was actually the place our girls spent their first couple of days away from their mom (“M”). It was a very small clinic about ½ mile from Lake Awassa. It had a little kitchen, sleeping room with about a dozen cribs and an office. The bathroom was open-air and smelly. There were a half dozen turtle shaped kiddie potties lining the cement wall. The clinic was surrounded by walls and fences which enclosed a small yard. In the yard we saw several lizards about 6-8 inches long climbing on the concrete walls.
We didn’t know who was to meet their child’s family member first. The order was pre-arranged. Katrina and I were chosen to go first. I wanted to go first, mostly because I dislike prolonging stressful situations.
As we waited, we milled about in a gated 20ft x 20ft cemented courtyard. This courtyard bordered a dirt road that was busy with activity. As Katrina and I contemplated our role as pioneers for the group, we were suddenly summoned to the interviewing office. Almost on cue, a woman appeared at the gate. She was traditionally dressed with a white wrap that covered her head and body. She was about 3-4 inches shorter than Katrina and shuffled her feet a bit. She made little eye contact with anyone and seemed embarrassed or ashamed. It was M, the birth mother of our girls.
We proceeded ahead of M into the office and situated ourselves in chairs – me on M’s right, a young male social worker across from M, and Katrina directly across from me. The social worker did the interpreting and Alemu used our camera to videotape the next 20 minutes. A third gentleman, the director of this clinic, was also there with his assistant.
After we all settled into our chairs, there was a few seconds of awkward silence. I contemplated how to handle the ball that was clearly in our (my) court. Observing that Katrina was getting emotional, I knew I had to lead. I stepped into the tension by introducing myself and Katrina. M responded in kind. I carried the conversation further by telling her where we lived, which led to the photo album we had prepared for her. It was the only thing we could give her – no gifts or money or anything of value is allowed to be exchanged. The album was a simple way to give M a glimpse of the life her daughters would experience as part of our family.
I opened the album, bridging the gap between my leg and M’s. I explained each photo to her (through the translator). The second photo was of our boys. In that photo they are holding a photo of our daughters. M recognized her girls and pointed curiously. As I told her the names and ages of our little men, she began to relax. I sensed she was pleased to see our boys so happy, holding construction paper hearts and a photo of her girls. This was a welcomed change from the sadness she brought with her. This was also the first time I experienced the common Ethiopian practice of taking-in a quick breath as a way of acknowledging something or someone. She did this several times during our meeting. I found this behavior to be inviting and honoring.
We slowly worked through the rest of the pictures. M saw pictures of the girls’ room and I told her how we would home school them. I showed her a picture of our kitchen and eating area, at which she became more animated. After observing the poverty and hunger in Ethiopia, it is easy to understand why.
The conversation continued and we all relaxed a bit. Despite her outer timidity, M was forthright and firm with her answers. She began making more eye contact with Katrina, and even cast a few sideways glances at me. We asked some general questions and learned a few things about M, our girls and their extended family. I asked what kind of work M did. The social worker said that M is very sick and lies down often. Katrina asked if she would like something to drink. She eagerly took the water we had brought with us. It appeared to us that she is not doing well.
We asked M about her religious beliefs. She said she is Orthodox Christian. This was a great opportunity for us to share our faith. We told her we are Protestant Christians and went on to explain how faith and church life is very important to us. We had talked earlier about the many adopted children in our church and showed her a picture that include adopted children of color. That resulted in a quick draw of breath and a smile.
The last page of the photo album had a handful of Bible verses written in Amharic. There was also a brief personal note from Katrina and me. We wanted to be clear with M that our faith guides our parenting. During and after the meeting, Katrina and I felt a powerful connection with M in regard to faith. Katrina asked M if she had a favorite Bible verse. She hedged a bit. My guess is that M is illiterate. Nonetheless, she offered some advice that was an encouragement to all in the room: “Don’t count on any other; count on God.”
Our meeting coasted to a natural close. It became obvious to us that life for many Ethiopians is about survival, not specific personal details of likes, dislikes, and dates. Katrina asked M about things the girls like. She grinned and said they are very happy children and that one of the girls really likes toys. Her advice to us was they have each other, they will help each other, and everything will be all right. When asked how she wanted her girls to remember her, she simply said that she wants them to know that she is okay and not to worry. It was a sad moment. M is far from okay.
Despite a staid countenance, it was obvious that M still very much cares for her daughters. When I asked her if she had any questions for us, she made a simple request for pictures of the girls – many pictures. She smiled wide as we promised as many as she would like. Her request brought home the reality of why we were sitting in this room together.
We finished with the compulsory photos of the three of us. When those were complete, Katrina kneeled in front of M and took both of her hands. She told M that she was her sister and that she would care for her girls as a sister would. I told her that we loved her and she responded that she loved us as well. I followed with a last word of saying we would pray for her. She responded likewise – and I believe her.
With that, we all stood. Katrina and I both shared with M the customary cheek-to-cheek series of three hugs. I also received a handshake as a show of respect. Our meeting felt complete. Each shared a confidence that what was happening was good. We found M to be a loving mother who wants the best for her girls. I believe she saw us as parents who desire to provide the love and faith that will allow her girls to thrive.
Katrina and I watched M walk through the courtyard and toward the gate. She stood there for a moment. Katrina had left my side, overcome with emotion. I looked around, wondering what I was supposed to do. Quietly, M walked off – I didn’t see where.
A few minutes later, we noticed a woman standing near the main road. Katrina asked me if it was M. I said I didn’t think so; I thought she had walked the other way. We watched the woman for a few more minutes. Perhaps it was her? She was holding something under her shawl that could easily be the album we gave her. As we wondered, a blue and white taxi pulled up. The woman turned back to look at the gated courtyard where we stood. She waved and got in. It was M. I waved back, sick in my soul with guilt. She was standing out there alone, much like she has been alone the past few months. It felt unfair. Even though we wouldn’t have been able to communicate well, I wish I could have stood with her those last few minutes. I wish I could have paid for her taxi. I wish I could tell her – again – that I will work hard to be a good dad for her daughters. I regret missing that opportunity. But I’m confident she knows Katrina and I will do our best. Her wave was both confirmation, and blessing.
While we waited for the others in our group to meet their children’s caregivers, we interacted with local children walking up and down the dirt road adjacent to the clinic. A man from our group went to a small food stand just outside the gate to the clinic and bought lollipops for $0.10 US each. He handed these out to kids as they passed by. Me and another man from our group joined him as word spread of the “white people with candy”. As they came for the candy, we also took photos of these children. They are absolutely fascinated with seeing their own face on the back of our cameras.
Towards the end of the morning, Katrina decided she’d get in on the action. She purchased 10 birr of candy and, naively, stood outside the gate with all of her candy exposed. Suddenly, about a dozen kids made a mad dash for her. One of the clinic assistants, as well as Sami our driver, had to provide security as she distributed the lollipops.
After our emotional meetings we had lunch and then headed into the countryside. Our intended destination was a “coffee ranch.” We passed through a typical middle class residential community in Awassa. As we did, our guide insisted on showing us some coffee trees growing in the wild. Sounds a little strange, but this is the birthplace of coffee, you know.
We stopped alongside the road on a hill outside of town. There, we saw some coffee trees. It was a bit underwhelming. If there were hot cups of brewed coffee hanging from the branches, that would have got my attention. While gawking at the trees, we interacted with a small community of about 30 men, women and children. Some were excited to see us, some tenuous, and some actually ran away. A very tall man wearing a white skull cap stepped forward. He appeared to be the “chief”. He led us up the road a bit and gave us a tour of the residence of an old gentleman.
A typical middle class residence in Awassa is a circular grass hut about 15 feet in diameter. The hut is made with bamboo (or something similar) and has a conical, thatched grass roof. The inside is thickly coated with soot from the cooking fires. There was a cot for sleeping, a cooking area, two goats and a small cow (yes, they were inside the hut). There were no windows and it was extremely dark. Our group commented on the darkness and our guide retorted with, “why do you think they have so many children?” We all laughed and a man from our group commented that he was planning to construct his own hut (no, it wasn’t me that made that comment).
The people in Ethiopia are all extremely friendly and gracious. The children laugh and wave and smile. Their eyes are inviting and warm. The adults are gentle and pleasant. It makes for a wonderful interactions despite the language barrier.
We all pinched ourselves as we boarded the van thinking only National Geographic photographers get to experience what we just did. Touring the hut was certainly a highlight. We continued to the coffee ranch which was still about 45 minutes away.
We entered the old capital of the Southern Region (can’t remember the name of the city) which was very busy. In the poorer sections, kids came very close to our van and were insistent on running alongside us. Our guides spoke harshly to them, yelling at them to go away. They were concerned that one of the children would get hurt, which would mean trouble for all of us. It must have been in the midst of this yelling that we lost our way. There was confusion as to how to get to the ranch, so we simply pulled over and looked for a teenage boy who could show us where to go. That’s how Jamal enters our story. He became our guide, and the envy of his friends.
The road to the ranch was the worst we’d seen to this point: slippery, unpaved, and very rocky. But we were determined and made it to the ranch – with Jamal’s guidance. The “ranch” was really a posh resort tucked away in a jungle-like setting. Several bamboo bungalows greeted us. It was obvious this was a retreat for the wealthy. But we were not there to enjoy such Ethiopian opulence. Unbeknownst to us, we were there to trek through the wet, slippery, muddy jungle.
We began our jungle hike heading down hill, following a man who’s English was bad and tour-guiding worse. Fortunately, Alemu was with us. Unfortunate for Alemu was that some bug had crawled up his pant leg and was making its presence known in an unpleasant way. Alemu erupted into a strange jig and grabbed, swatted, pulled and pinched at his upper thigh region. It was quite humorous seeing this confident, authoritative man thrown into a panic over a bug.
Not to be outdone, Katrina decided to do the “I’ve got a bug in my pants” jig. (Katrina here: my jig was nothing like Alemu’s because I actually killed mine right away and another lady in our group also had a visitor in her pants. Those were sneaky bugs that don’t bite until they got above the knee. I’m not making this up!) I’m glad these ladies and Alemu were at the front of the pack, absorbing the wrath of mysterious African biting bugs. The rest of the group didn’t have any trouble.
Down the trail a ways, we climb up to a cave where the daughter of some Ethiopian king hid for five years while her father fled to Europe. She not only hid in the cave, but also stashed some weapons that apparently helped in the regaining of power by the Ethiopians. After being a bit confused by the story, and thinking the King to be a wimp for leaving his daughter behind, we trekked back out, past the pants bugs, and on toward the elusive coffee trees (this was supposed to be a coffee ranch, right?). We did stumble upon about a dozen trees planted sporadically. I had seen enough and was ready to settle into one of the posh bungalows for a “mekato”. But I was mistaken as apparently we still needed to take the wildlife portion of the tour.
We walked quite a bit more, all the while getting muddy. We entered a gated area. I cynically wondered what they were keeping in, or out. We trudged on. Finally, we slowed to a stop as our non-English speaking guide pointed to the trees. It was hard to see at first, but eventually we made out a Colobus monkey. These monkeys are black and white, rather large, and have a long tail with a big tuft of white hair on the end. As we began to focus our cameras, suddenly 4-5 monkeys chased each other through the treetops. It was pretty neat. Then, on cue, a single monkey perched in a leafless opening for the perfect photo-op.
With monkeys seen and photographs taken, we made one last stop to view the garden used to supply the ranch restaurant. The lettuce was interesting as far as lettuce goes, but it was a relief that our next (and last) stop was the restaurant for a drink and the use of a clean restroom (Katrina here: a twenty star restroom by Ethiopian standards—I took a picture of it, I loved it so much).
As we relaxed with another Mekato, we enjoyed seeing “Jamal the King” have a Coke (major treat for him) and interact with us “frenges”. I’m sure we made his month with an 80 birr tip ($8 US). As we rode back through the town, he sat a little taller, basking in the awe of an admiring crowd who watched him ride in a van with a bunch of “wealthy” Americans.