Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I Almost Stepped on Her

Wednesday, February 09, 2011. Addis Ababa.

We were walking through the Merkata Market, on the hunt for an injera platter and a few other nick knacks.  We came around a corner and, amongst the masses of people, I didn't see that, lying on the road in the shade of a car parked there, was a woman and her newborn infant.  My foot came within an inch or two of the baby girl's head before I saw her and jerked my foot away.  I'm still getting over that moment.  They were just lying there sleeping.  Co-sleeping, I guess one might say.  Not on the sidewalk, but on the road-side of the parked car, on the filthy concrete.  It was a sight that was repeated many times more before we left the market.

We hired a driver for the day (one recommended by the lodge we are staying in, as well as another family staying here who hired him a couple of days ago), and he was worth his weight in gold...but we only had to pay him 600 birr (approx. $36, including gas).  We couldn't have done what we all did today without Marcos' help...he was amazing, not only for his driving in this crazy city, but for his ability to help us find exactly the best place to buy the things were looking for, and for his bartering ability (and I learned enough from him to do my own bartering later in the day).

Marcos picked us up after breakfast and we went first to a large supermarket, where were were able to buy a bunch of baby formula for our trip to the orphanage tomorrow.  After that, we went to a clothing store, where we bought traditional clothing for Matthew and his two siblings-to-be: white trousers and shirts (trimmed in browns) for the two boys; and two little dresses for a little girl.  They are adorable and we paid less than $40 for all four outfits.

After that we went to the Merkata Market.  The marketplace was something Geoff and I will never forget.  First, it's massive - many square miles in both directions.  It was a maze.  I don't even know how to describe it, but here are a few impressions and memories that I'm left with:

  • The air was thick with smog and dust and smoke from the ancient minibuses and cars belching their fumes into your face as they raced by you an inch from your head. I'm still blowing black goop out of my nose, hours later.
  • There were throngs of people everywhere.  People were shopping, walking, lying down, sitting and talking, or carrying huge loads down the road (I saw one man carrying eleven, eleven mattresses on his neck and back).  Beggars sat at every corner and against the walls of all of the buildings.  Mothers with infants were begging, or lying in the street like the one I almost stepped in.  Crippled men, women and children, often missing feet or whole limbs, would pull themselves along the roads on their bums, wearing flip flops on their hands to protect them a bit from the sharp edged rocks jutting out all over the road.  A lot of people simply lay down to sleep, wherever they were; I saw one man lying down belly up, with his face and torso completely covered with banana leaves and his legs splayed - he could have been dead for all I know. We could hardly walk a few feet without being approached by someone begging or trying to sell us something and when we walked past the tiny storefront openings, we would be pulled by our arms towards the shop door by shopkeepers saying: "sister, come, just look."  Whether you went in or not, shopkeepers would start showing you items, asking if you wouldn't like to buy.  I tell you one thing: if you are a person who has a hard time saying no to people, this is a very, very good place to practice...after a while, it just rolls off your tongue.

  • Donkeys and goats and even cows wandered the streets freely - often carrying huge loads of sugar or flour.  One donkey almost bowled me over when I didn't get out of his way fast enough - I barely kept to my feet.  A few seconds later, a man passing by pointed to my chest and made a sweeping motion; I looked down, and there was dirt and donkey hair all over the front of my shirt.

  • Everything was so dirty; I can't understand how most people appear to be dressed in clean clothing.  After just a couple of hours there, I felt coated with grime.

  • I never felt particularly unsafe there, but I would not have gone there without Marcos.  A number of times, he told us to hold onto our things tightly because the youngsters there (pointing to teenage boys) were master thieves.  I noticed that he was very watchful during our whole time there.
  • Geoff and I were the only caucasian people amongst the thousands there.  We were often greeted by shouts of "ferengi" (white person) and a few double-takes, especially by the children. 
  • One outdoor shopping alley was devoted to spices.  Old women sat against a wall, completely covered to their chests in the various spices that they were sorting through.
I am in no way describing the Merkata market adequately, but the best word I can use to describe the experience is intense.  It was very intense.  I was glad to finally leave.

By this time, it was early afternoon, but rather than stop for lunch, we went to the well-known Tomaca coffee shop, where we had another of the best machiatos in the universe while standing at a raised table.  Before and after entering Tomaca, we were strongly harassed by a street map seller, who simply would not take no for an answer.  He went so far as to throw maps into the car and then demand money.  Marcos finally started yelling at him, and drove away.

The highlight of my day, by far, was our visit to a gated, compound-like place, where hunched-over women have been rescued from the incredibly difficult job of hauling firewood up Intoto mountain.  They have developed a business of hand-weaving scarves.  While the women work, their children are cared for by other women, and they attend school in an on-site one-room school house...even the little wee ones.  When I was given the ok to peek inside the partially-open door of the schoolroom, I was immediately mobbed by a group of about 20-25 tiny children, all of whom appeared delighted to see me.  They rushed over to me, and fought to grab my hand, which they would then bow over and kiss.  I made sure to shake hands with every single child, some of them more than 2-3 times and even though about half of them were snotty-nosed!  Even that wasn't enough.  When I bent down so that Marcos could take a picture of me with the kids, they milled around me to hug me.  I ended up sitting on the dirty concrete floor with these smiling and laughing children.  It was absolutely delightful.

When I was finally forced by manners to leave the children to their school work, we learned that the scarve shop was closed for another 30-40 minutes.  We were invited to sit, just as a a group of the women weavers sat down to their coffee break: a traditional coffee ceremony.  We were invited to have the sweetened coffee as well, and so I enjoyed my third tiny cup of the day.  Incidentally, I know that I said that the cups are tiny, and they are, but they are wicked strong cups of coffee.  The coffee is pitch black and you could pretty much stand a spoon up in it, but they add a couple of tiny scoops of sugar to each cup, and wow - it is delicious!!  Of note, this was my third such cup of potent coffee today, and I can tell you that when I held up my hand in front of me, it was extremely jittery!  How fun.  Eventually we got into the small shop where the women showcase their wares, and I was glad to be able to purchase a few at incredibly reasonable prices.

After stopping for lunch at the Lime Tree, for chicken curry (yum!), we hit two book stores, where for approximately $8, I purchased two children's music CDs and about ten books - all featuring a combination of English and Amharic, and many of them stories about children in Ethiopia.  I was thrilled to cross this off of my list.

Finally (I think), Markos took us to the rows and rows of outdoor shops behind the main Post Office (I know, it sounds weird), telling us that this is where we could purchase inexpensive art pieces.  I did find a few small and inexpensive pieces that I liked (one painted on leather; a couple on dried banana leaves).

We were extremely glad to get back to the hotel shortly before dinner...exhausted and emotionally drained, it was great to grab quick showers to wash off at least the exterior grime.

We were ready just in time to join a number of other Imagine families for dinner.  I think we were eleven in all, and we went to a fabulous Italian restaurant/art gallery called Mekush (spelling?).  The food was wonderful and the company even better - we've had such a good time getting to know some of the other families who are here; though we've known each other only a short time, it seems like much longer when you're thrown into fairly intense circumstances.

Anyway, we had a great time together, and each couple eventually purchased some of the art that we saw hanging on the walls of the restaurant.  Geoff and I bought two pieces or original African art, and I can assure you that the prices were great!

We've just now come back from dinner and it's already 11:30 pm.  I'm utterly exhausted: physically; emotionally; mentally.  There's so much more that I want to write about, but I just can't.  M eyes are closing and I need to be alert for our big day tomorrow.

Let me just say one more thing before I go to sleep.  You've probably heard people say, once in a while, that it doesn't help to give money to people who beg you for it.  In principle, I probably even agree with that. But I tell you this:  when you're faced with a boy who is the age of your own son and he tells you that he has no mother and calls you mama, you will give him money and it's ok.  When you're faced with a breast-feeding mother who has nothing and who lives in the middle boulevard on a main street under an old ratty blanket, you will give her money and it's ok.  When a toddler sitting on the hip of his mother is playing with the butt of a cigarette as a toy, and his mother tells you that they have no food, you will give them money and it's ok.  When you look at the disfigured face of a boy who slurs his words as he speaks because of his deformity, and know that he will only face uphill battles for the rest of his life, you will give him money and it's ok.

What's not ok is that we need to be doing this at all.  Today, we have seen hundreds of thousands of dismal little shacks that an even greater number of people call home.  Ethiopia is a beautiful place with beautiful and dignified people; it horrifies me that so many have been reduced to such abject poverty and hard existence, that so many of them have been forced into the situation of needing to relinquish their children to an orphanage in order to give them a better chance at life.  And I say this as a woman who is so excited to go tomorrow to meet two children of such situations and bring them into her heart and home.  How's that for something to work through.

I hope this post hasn't been too heavy, and I'm sure that tomorrow's post will be considerably different.  However, as much as I find myself captivated by something in the heart of Addis, I don't want to sugar-coat or turn a blind eye to the world that my children were born into.  There is so much more to say, but I can't - I need to sleep.

Blessings all.


  1. Hope you got a good night's rest for your big day! So excited that you'll be able to meet your kiddies today (Thursday)! Enjoy every single second! Can't wait to see if you actually pull out the measuring!

  2. This is so beautiful Ruth. I have always lived by the "you will give them money and it's ok" mantra, even in our own core area.

    I am praying for you and keeping you in my thoughts in the days to come :)


  3. HI Ruth
    Today is the day !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Or maybe you are playing with them right now or measure many little children's feet.

    I am so grateful for this last post and so glad you where blessed with the gift of being able to write with such grace. Feel like I was at the market and facing the intense day right beside you,, sad of course that I was not as I sure could use a friend when the day comes to face so much emotion.

    I am thinking of you both
    and of course wait ............ for the next post coming soon . I can not even imagine what seeing the children was like.

    Much love from far away

  4. Hi Ruth, I'm Shannon's sister, she passed along the link to your blog. Thank you so much for writing this post, and for blogging in general, it helps to have any little bit of preparation for when we head to Ethiopia (hopefully sooner than later). All the best and thank you again!


  5. Ruth,

    I am LOVING following along with your adventures so far, but I am SO LOOKING FORWARD to reading your NEXT post, about meeting your children. It just gives me goose bumps to think about. I am sooooo excited for you!!


  6. Ruth,

    I am LOVING following along with your adventures so far, but I am SO LOOKING FORWARD to reading your NEXT post, about meeting your children. It just gives me goose bumps to think about. I am sooooo excited for you!!


  7. Ruth, I am really enjoying reading about your trip in Ethiopia and have been checking for new posts every day. I feel so strongly on the issue of giving money on the street that I can’t help but respectfully disagree with you on that one. It’s a complex issue for sure, in the moment it makes us feel better to give because we are so struck by the poverty and being in a position of power and wealth we want to help. But if you don’t give through a proper channel like an NGO who is to say the boy who runs up to you asking really does not have a mother or a home. He could in fact be a boy with a family who is being employed as a beggar by them rather than going to school because it is more lucrative for the family. If the money went instead to an NGO then they can ensure it is being used in a way to give kids in the area a chance at an education and a job, something that may raise that one family out of poverty. It’s a sad reality – there are millions of poor people like the ones you described and we as foreigners travelling can’t help them all, and the NGOs probably can’t either. But maybe the money us foreigners do have to spend on the issue can do more if it goes through a charity where they understand the culture and the issues and know how to use it in the best way to empower the people in need. We think the little bit we give won’t make that much of an impact on increasing the culture of dependence and furthering the problem of poverty, but I think it does. You might want to consider asking Marco if there is an NGO that helps people near the Afroland or near Marcato. There is also a place near the Churchhill shops where you can get food stamps to hand out – I can look up the name if you want (If you really feel the need to give something in the moment when people run up) that might be a better choice than money. Sorry, just my opinion, Shannon (-:

  8. Your last few paragraphs are so well written and echo so much of how I felt when I was there. There should not in this world exist the need that it literally right underfoot there. It is unfathomable given all that we in North America have. Your words are so profound and so full of truth.

    I woke up this morning knowing that today was the day that you would meet your children and got butterflies. I can hardly wait to hear about your day.

    The kids and I have been praying for your court and I am praying for peace for you as you go in.

  9. I don't want to make this comment thread into a debate forum - really I don't - but I just feel compelled to clarify that many of us do give through a variety of NGOs - some of us have even worked for them - but the reason I give money to impoverished, desperate people when they ask me is not because I am choosing that over an NGO.

    It's because to say "no" in that moment, is to lose a little piece of my soul. I know not everyone feels that way, but I - overwhelmingly - do. It feels wrong in my heart to say no, and I have faith that I am meant to trust my heart.

    Blessings to you Ruth, can't wait to hear about the trip and see photos when you're back :)


  10. I read your post to the men in family....telling them that this is what I wanted to hear about their trip last month.

    They were speechless..."she actually saw all that"....was their comment.

    Silly boys.

    Thank you, Ruth, for giving me a glimpse into the life of my children.

    Waiting anxiously for your news!!!!

  11. what a fabulous post Ruth! it was a great reminder of our trip 3 months ago; I'm so happy for your family and your new children; I look forward to your new adventures when they arrive home!