Prelude to Ethiopia
We boarded Ethiopian Airlines to Lusaka, Zambia picking up passengers and continued on to Addis Ababa, the capital of the ancient country Ethiopia. I traced our path gliding my fingers over the glossy pages of the in-flight magazine. I pondered many things during those hours in flight…
Bordering Ethiopia to the west lay the great Sudan, stricken with its multi-generational civil war, pock-marked by the history of rivaling tribes, military feuds and occasional alliances, divided by land, oil and foreign powers.
I wondered how many people breathed their last breath while I sat on the plane far above. How many had survived the arduous journey without food and water, through sand swept deserts and thick brush to a refugee camp? How many Sudanese victims actually received humanitarian aid? How many mothers gave birth to children with little chance for a future?
I thought about the oil companies preserving their interests. I thought about Emma McCune—the naïve British humanitarian worker who thought she could make a difference.
And I thought about what it would take to bring this nation to peace.
To Ethiopia’s east is Somalia, another country where unspeakable atrocities have occurred – another country suffering endless famine and war. I was miles above in a dark sky, imagining a terrain where people lost their lives, their loved ones, and their histories. Perhaps it was better that the sky was black…
Ethiopia is one of those countries; you remember hearing and studying about during your elementary social studies and geography classes, and yet it retains a certain mystique. The only thing I knew about Ethiopia was that it was the inspiration for AIDA, the Italian opera by Giuseppe Verdi. A beautiful Ethiopian princess was captured and taken a slave in Egypt, during a war with Ethiopia. I had watched the opera, complete with live elephants on stage at the age of fourteen in West Berlin. My mother was on a press trip—I came along to carry her heavy Nikon cameras in addition to documenting my trip through Europe to report back to my freshman Modern European History class.
A year after we visited, the Berlin Wall came down. I can’t forget my other connection to Ethiopia—the food, my first experience was at an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington D.C. I savored the injeera bread—sour, fermented, and full of holes, absorbing like a sponge the wonderfully healthy mix of yellow dhal, red bean curries, boiled spinach and pickled cabbage and carrots. Spices that reminded you of a traveling caravan. At the time, I never knew what would lead me to this country.
We came to know of the Ethiopian NGO Hope for Children, through our friend and international health consultant Sylvia Delafield, who visited this organization in 2004, while on a work assignment in Addis Ababa. She had visited on a Saturday to attend a soccer game and have a field day with 400 children. All of the children were affected by HIV. Surrounded with giggles, jokes, and affection, Sylvia was greatly inspired by the children and decided to sponsor an eight year old girl with big brown eyes named Robe.
And yet—all the children had lost someone in their family to AIDS. For this weekly activity organized by Hope for Children, they could be children; free from the burden of having to raise their siblings, free from thinking about begging for food, free for a moment in time.
The morning after our arrival, we met with a young, soft-spoken woman with braids and a sparkling smile and a glimmer in her black shiny eyes. She had seen a lot of hardship in her lifetime—but it was her quiet courage that I sensed. Her life was revealed in her eyes and her name was Addis. As the first hired staff member assisting Mrs. Yewoinshet Masreshya, the founder of Hope For Children Organization, Addis witnessed the birth of this organization and has grown with it to become the outreach project coordinator.
Inspired by the lives that she meets every day in the field, Addis began to tell us a skin raising story of a frail infant. The frail infant had been fed water for eighteen days rescued by a grandmother too poor to afford food. The grandmother told Yewoinshet all her children (including the baby’s mother) had died of AIDS. When Yewoinshet found the baby she thought the infant would not survive, and fearing the worst, Yewoinshet took the baby to the hospital. They told her to prepare herself and the family for death.
Miraculously, after a few days being fed with nutrients, the baby made a turn for the better. Taken to a group home, the child who was named “God’s Work,” or Yabsera in Amharic by the other children. Now this darling little girl is two years old. (See photo on our website.)
My mother and I visited the Hope for Children baby group home, where children happily wrapped themselves around our arms and legs. They all wanted to play. The housemother was holding a toddler of about two. “She never stops smiling,” she said. I looked into her eyes. This baby was Yabsera, the child they called the miracle baby.
“She definitely has a purpose on this earth,” I thought.
Hope for Children Organization helps individuals affected by HIV in two ways: 1) Through awareness and outreach and 2) rehabilitation. There are four group homes with one to two house mothers who take care of children that are orphaned by HIV and have no one to take care of them.
During the outreach work, fieldworkers carefully identify children who need sponsors, those who are affected by HIV hardships. Usually the story is that a parent had died of AIDS and the child is being taken care of either a family relative who is also infected with HIV or an old granny who doesn’t have an income to sustain the family.
The children know that there is a chance that their relatives will become “sick with the virus”. The older children know that they will have to take care of their younger siblings—often three to four other children. There are always other relatives in need – – – widows and aunties and grannies who help with the children’s care.
These faithful caretakers are given monthly stipends used to help raise the family. The family members are also able to come for counseling and other services through Hope for Children. The organization has been able to reach a large pool of the community through these efforts. Sadly, it must also keep track of those children whom are likely to be orphaned.
Addis helps to organize a unique and traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, where she brings women together to talk about HIV awareness and prevention, incorporating the local culture into public health education. “I can’t leave this place [this NGO],” she smiled. “Everyone is dedicated to helping. There is much need and we have many people to help. In just four years we have helped over 450 people. We must continue.”
Addis began to tell us about the first college graduate sponsored by Hope for Children, an orphan under the care of Hope for Children.
“Actually all of our staff is somehow involved with HIV,” Addis softly said.
I didn’t know what she meant until we arrived at the office.
Mom and I were presented with large binders with at least 100 pages. We could hardly balance the books on our laps. On each page there was a photo of a husband, a wife and children. Each page contained information on not just one single life history–but a family’s many lives.
Addis pointed out that there were more binders on the shelf. Some of the children in the files were already sponsored. Then she handed us a stack of new children that had their family histories recorded, affected by HIV and residing in the impoverished community of Gulele.
Sponsoring a child for $250 a year, we were informed, would provide for food, school supplies, an education, and medical care and the immediate needs of a child.
We asked to take home the entire set of files because we felt it was a decision that warranted more time.
That night, we looked at the faces, the eyes, the histories—the children who had parents pass away, the jobs of their families, the fact that they lived with an aunty or a cousin who would eventually die from AIDS. The next morning, I said to my mom: “How can we choose? No one child is any more important then the next!”
Mom said quietly, “We have to sponsor all of them.”
And so we are, all of the nineteen children that looked at us from a page in a very contemporary history scrapbook. They ranged in age from infancy to teens. They are our family now. They are part of Ananda’s global family.
The next morning, Addis introduced us to the woman who would be taking us to meet some of the children we were going to sponsor. Her name was Amarech. She had thick hair and deep ebony eyes, set with love and sadness. She took us down dirt roads and up to a slum area where we met our first recipient, Wonwosen, and his family. We climb makeshift stairs to a mud house held secure with bits of straw. There was no electricity. The mud walls of the one bedroom house were damp and cold. I remembered that I had candles that I bought while in Kenya and I gave the whole stack of candles to Wonderson’s auntie. She smiled and was grateful. They were able to afford this simple commodity.
We had brought donated clothes with us that we lugged throughout our journey. I gave Wonwosen a blue and crème surfing shirt that had belonged to my younger brother. If only my brother could have seen the happiness on Wanderson’s face! Both were the same age; fourteen and yet their lives were in completely different worlds. Wanderson is helping his auntie take care of three smaller children. Her sister (his mother) had died from AIDS and now his aunt too, was infected. It was only a matter of time for her. I thought about how life could have been different. Any one of us could have been fated to live a different life…
My brother’s cotton shirt fit perfectly. My heart skipped a beat as I said, “I am your older sister now, ok? I want you to study hard and make us proud and I will think and pray for you everyday. You have a new extended family.”
As we went from house to house past chickens, cats, narrow alleys, open fires, buckets of wet laundry and elflike mud-carved doorways, we couldn’t help but feel happiness that at least we were helping reduce the financial burden of a few families.
But it was what happened next, that was a pivotal point for me during my visit to Ethiopia.
On our way back from the slums, we came across a blind boy who was walking slowly down the dirt road. Abel was his name. His eyes were clouded over by thick clouds, scarred corneas. Much to my surprise, my mother jumped out of the car, to embrace this young stranger.
His surprised companions told us that Abel was fourteen and lived in a little shack on the side of the street on his own. He was from a village 300 km away and somehow came to Addis because there were no schools for the blind where he came from. His neighbors helped him cook to prevent him from getting burned by the open fire. When he didn’t have money, he said, he begged for it. My mother gave him another hug.
Stunned myself, I saw his friend gasp in friendly amazement at this foreign woman who didn’t mind that he looked disfigured and embraced him like her own child.
I was so moved! I took his hands in mine and said “Love is not something that has to be seen. It can be felt.” Then he squeezed my hands and said. “I feel it.” It warmed my heart. It is moments like this that I live for. When you meet souls like this young man, how can you give up on humanity?
When we returned to the office, my mother asked Amarech, “Do you have any children?” She replied: “I have three.”
Amarech’s big eyes filled up with tears. “Now I am alone. I have no husband now. He died from AIDS a few years ago.”
My mother and I felt her pain. I wanted to cry with her. What do you say? What can you say?
All I could say was “Amarech, you are doing good work, helping others and saving people’s lives from the pain that you have suffered.” We gave her a hug and encouraged her to continue to be strong. Can any of us comprehend such pain?
Each group home at Hope for Children consists of around eight children. The children become as close as siblings and look after each other, while the housemother is responsible for the house, meals, and the loving family environment.
We walked to the first group home, where smiling children stood in the doorway waiting to meet us. One little girl of about eight in a red shirt with braids and a radiant smile named Radeat invited us in. She proudly showed us the bunk beds and all her teddy bears on her bed. My mom, acting like a tired child, yawned and climbed in the little bed. The children had a great laugh. Then the little girl tucked mom in and gave her a teddy bear.
The boys, aged five to ten, wanted to show me their room —-so I walked and sat down on the bottom of one of the bunk beds. Each child came and proudly showed me a stuffed animal. I met panda bears, teddy bears, beanie babies, and long- legged, spaghetti haired dolls that looked like thin versions of cabbage patch kids. Each boy whispered his toy’s name to me. Ohhhhh and ahhhhh, I awed at each and gave the teddy bears a peck on the cheek. We entered a tiny long room with a table and a few chairs. We had brought some crayons and paper. We sat down to color pictures. Some of us did flowers while others drew pictures of cars and geometric designs.
One of the children led us to the garden that they had planted outside of their home. There were some flowers and green plants. A little boy tugged at my shirt. He wanted me to see a sore on his arm. He blew on it as a gesture to make it better. I looked at it intently and gave him a hug and motioned that he would be okay. Then the fieldworker told me his name, Elias. Elias with big eyes and a smile so big you cannot help but smile back. He was five, lost his parents to AIDS and had tested positive for HIV. My heart filled with a sea of emotion.
While we were in the office, I could tell the staff was talking and saying something referring to my mom. The fieldworker’s eyes revealed all. Something touching had happened. Little Radeat had told her housemother after we left: “My parents both died of HIV and I already have a sponsor who is taking care of me, but there are other children who are not taken care of. Maybe I can share some love and help them out.” How unselfish and giving of this little soul. She was a gift to the world and in her way as a child, gave compassionately of herself.
Our friend Sylvia wanted us to meet the young girl (Robe) that she sponsored. So we made our way to another group home. When we pulled up, big grey gates gave way to an outside compound, filled with the happy sounds of fifty children and teenagers and loud crackly music. There was a dance class in session, taught by a tall young man about seventeen years old. As the music played, I was mesmerized by the movements. I’ve never seen anything like it, jerky motions in which the shoulders move up and down and are isolated from the rest of the upper half of the body. The children did swinging motions of the neck as if there were no vertebrae. Their heads just spun around and around as if gravity was holding it on a single axis. It was just one of those —you had to be there to witness it moments. I did get up and try the dance, but quickly got dizzy and out of breath. Of course, my efforts brought laughter from the children.
Someone brought Robe over to us. We conveyed the message and love from Sylvia and took a photo to send back to her sponsor. We asked Amarech how Hope For Children came to know of the dance teacher. He was a college student and was volunteering his time.
That afternoon when we went back to the office, Amarech pulled out one of the binders that contained the life histories. She pointed to a picture. It was the dance teacher. I took a deep breath. He had lost his parents and was one of the older beneficiaries. He was teaching dance as a way to give back to Hope for Children. He struggled trying to earn a living and pay for college. After some discussion, we committed ourselves and Ananda Foundation to sponsoring education for this young man with big dreams of studying information technology and computers.
Amarech paused for a moment. As tears welled up in her eyes, she carefully turned the page of one of the books. Then she pointed to a small picture of a handsome man. “That was my husband,” she told us. Along side his photo, was a picture of Amarech and a photo of each of her three children.
One never knows the journey that life will take. But love, love knows no boundaries…
— Field notes by Levani, April 2005.