It’s about 4:30am on Friday morning, June 10th, as I begin to write this. I’ve woken at this hour pretty much all week (sometimes earlier) and I think it’s a combination of time change factors and adrenaline that have resulted in my early morning wake-ups. But given that we are picking up the kids this morning, I wanted to get a few things written down before we get busy with other (wonderful) things! I won’t have time to edit my writing, so please ignore, or work around, typos and the things that could surely be said more eloquently.
We spent Tuesday and Wednesday of this week in the Wolayta region of Ethiopia; this is the region of our children’s birth, and where they were relinquished into orphanage care. I’d like to share bits of this experience with you. Over and over during those two days, I longed for the computer that I had left in our Addis guesthouse (so that Matthew and my Dad could watch movies!) so that I could write and write and write about everything that happened, everything that we saw, everything that we experience, while we were there. I don’t want to forget a single moment of it.
I dreaded the trip to Wolayta for a long time; I had nausea-inducing anxiety just thinking about it: I was not looking forward to the drive (which I'd heard mixed things about from other families); I wasn't looking forward to seeing the poverty I knew I would see (Wolayta is the poorest region in the country); I wasn't looking forward to staying in a hotel without electricity and possibly no running water; and I wasn't looking forward to the bathroom situations. More than anything, though, I feared how the meeting with our kids' birth family would go. What if our kids' birth father didn't want to meet? What if he didn't want to answer our questions? What if he was resentful of us? What if he didn't like us? What if we didn't like him? What if he wanted to change his mind about adoption? What if we were rushed in getting through the questions we had accumulated for him? I had so many 'what ifs' about this trip that I just came to dread the whole thing.
None of my fears materialized.
Well, it’s true that our Wolayta hotel did not have electricity, but we were prepared with flashlights; and fortunately we did have cold running water so we could use the toilet, and we’d brought along toilet paper so we were ok on that front, too. The bathrooms that we stopped at on route to Wolayta were in newer-style hotels and so the bathrooms were’t too bad; and I took Immodium before we left Addis to clog me up a little (so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the worst kind of bathroom situations!), and that worked just fine! And the roads throughout our drive, at least until we got to the city of Soddo (in Wolayta), were just fine. The poverty was very difficult to see, but we managed on that front, too.
By far best of all, though, my fears about meeting with the birth family never materialized. None of them. In fact, it was one of the best experiences of our entire lives, and certainly one of the most emotional ones. I won’t share the details of that meeting, in order to preserve our kids’ privacy, but the experience truly defied description anyway. I’ve tucked away into my mother’s heart each of those life-changing moments.
So...let me tell you a bit about the trip.
The drive down was uneventful from a travel/road perspective, and it was wonderful to get out of Addis and see some of the countryside south of the big city. Because we had been to the city of Adama in February (when we went to visit the kids at the orphanage they were then staying in), I wasn’t surprised this time to see how hilly the rural country was. It was a very rolling landscape and we drove through large foothill types of crests for hours. Gradually, particularly as we neared the valley-like area of Wolayta, the land became mountainous around us, which somehow did surprise me. The horizon was breathtaking, frankly.
We left Addis at about 8:00am on Tuesday, and it took between six and seven hours to get to the city of Soddo, including the time it took to make a couple of stops. After we’d been on the road for only two hours, our driver stopped at a fairly modern-looking hotel in a little city, and told us that we had forty-five minutes to eat lunch in the hotel restaurant...and then he disappeared down the highway, headed elsewhere. At 10:00 in the morning, we hardly wanted to eat lunch, but we did eat a little bit (we partially finished a bowl of spaghetti that we shared and left most of the piles of bread that came with it) and, of course, we enjoyed a couple of macchiatos (yes, Donna, a couple...I would end up having a grand total of five espresso macchiatos that day and I loved every jitter-inducing one of them)! Our meal and specialty coffees cost us about 50 birr, including a generous trip, which works out to approximately $3. Our driver was back punctually. After another couple of hours of driving, we stopped for a(nother) coffee and then finished the rest of the drive.
In the last ninety minutes or so of our drive, we entered the Wolayta region of Ethiopia. I’ve hinted already that, contrary to what we expected, we were stunned by the beauty of our surroundings. We were in the midst of a spectacular, mountainous region that, in parts, seemed almost tropical in its lushness. Mountain sides were tiered with farmland in the process of being cultivated, and the rich red earth contrasted beautifully with the bright greens of the planted crops and surrounding vegetation. The foliage was varied, the flowers were of kinds that I've never seen before, and the treetops were tall. It was incredible. We traveled on a Tuesday, which is apparently market day in that entire region; this meant that the highways were filled: with people walking, often with heavy loads on their backs or heads; donkeys carrying large loads; wandering cows and goats being shepherded along by their whip-wielding owners. Whether the roads were flat or steeply inclined, these were the sights that filled our every view as we drove through Wolayta.
In complete contrast to the beauty surrounding us was the incredible poverty I’d anticipated and feared seeing. It became clear almost as soon as we entered the Wolayta region that we had moved into the most impoverished of areas. Just as the brown/black earth of the previous region was replaced with the red earth of Wolayta, so, too, the human and animal landscapes changed. Both people and animals were thinner, often skin on bones. Tiny, large-headed children who were likely much older than their size would indicate seemed prone to be naked from the waist down, and they played on the highway or in the gutters that ran along one or both sides of the road. In one very striking scene where a narrow stream of water trickled through a red-walled cavern, I could see simultaneously: naked children bathing and swimming; women scrubbing their laundry on the stones in the creek; cows drinking from the edge, feet in the water; and a tiny child filling his drinking bottle with the same grimy water. As I sat in my comfortable van, sipping from the water bottle I’d brought with me from Addis, it was hard to see this kinds of view, knowing that there was simply no alternative for the people living out that scene. Regularly we saw people from young to old filling up their jerry cans with water in drainage ditches and gutters, scooping it up just inches from where others washed their dirt feet and goats scampered through the trickles. How is it possible that this kind of world is the same in which I can simply buy as many bottles of good, clean water as I might want?
The other contrasts were equally profound for me. Though the countryside is rich and abundant in its presentation, the people of the Wolayta region have experienced many, many periods of deprivation and starvation...particularly during times of drought. The region is the most densely populated of Ethiopia, and its over-population has led to greater and greater drain on the available resources. Green starvation is what I have heard this called. It seemed impossible to me that such beauty and seeming abundance could co-exist in seemingly perfect harmony with the stark evidence of need and desperation. I also wondered over and over again about the role of people’s faith in regions such as this. Wolayta is a mixture of the three predominant faiths/religions in Ethiopia: Protestant Christianity; Orthodox Christianity (think Catholicism); and Islam. Given the overwhelming need in the Wolayta region, I was tempted to think that people might scorn the need for faith/religion, but the opposite is true. It is a deeply religious region/country, and people’s religion/faith seems inextricably linked with their everyday human condition. I’m not sure how my own faith would fare in such circumstances, to be honest, but I do know that I have much to learn from the believers here.
As we drove through Wolayta, it simply broke my heart to think of our little Asrat and Senait being two of many such deprived children who originate from the Wolayta region. I often struggled (sometimes unsuccessfully) against tears as we drove, and found myself shaking my head over and over as I saw things that should not exist in our world of plenty. The children...oh, the children.
There is so much more I could write about this...but I need to move on because I want to post this before morning arrives, when I know we will become consumed with preparations for picking up our children.
At long last, we arrived in Soddo, the main city in Wolayta and the location of the KVI Orphanage where our children were relinquished. We met with the director of the orphanage, received a tour of the tiny and poor facility, met many of the children living there, were presented with (yet) more coffee (even for me, my fifth cup was, perhaps, not quite as welcome as the first four!), and spent time in the office with the director talking about our children and about what the forthcoming agenda would be. We also presented him with the donations we had brought along and it was thrilling to be able to do that, knowing the impact they will have. I will post separately about donations, because it is a topic worthy of a post of its own.
One moving part of our time at the orphanage was being able to walk through the two rooms where the babies lay, two to a crib. There were fifteen babies in total, which is a too-large number for this tiny facility, especially given that there were also toddlers and school-age children living there, too. Long after Geoff and the director had moved on to tour different parts of the orphanage, I lingered in the baby rooms. I visited each crib, and spoke to each of the babies, most of whom were wide awake and very much focused on my face. Though the babies ranged from a few weeks old up to about nine months old, the oldest of them looked to be about three months old...they were so tiny. Just as I finished my slow round, one of the babies started to cry, filling the otherwise silent room with his tearful sobbing. A nurse picked him up and I stood watching them together, my own arms aching to hold that little bundle of baby. I held out my arms and gestured, to ask if I could hold him, and the nurse kindly (albeit somewhat reluctantly) held him out to me. I took him and held him, and gently rocked him as I held his gaze and talked to him. After a while, his face grew fuzzy as tears filled my eyes, and it was all I could do not to fall apart. After everything we’d seen already that day, the sight of this wee one was nearly my undoing.
Eventually, his nurse took him back, and for just a moment, rubbed her hand on my arm, I think with a sense of compassion or understanding as to what I must be thinking. I’m sure she could see how hard I was fighting my need to let go of my tears. I forced myself to move on at that point, and walked through a toddler room, where three children lay on the bottom of a bunk bed in various states of sleep. Finally, I made my way back outside, ducked through the lines filled with clean laundry, and went to find Geoff and Solomon (the KVI Soddo Orphanage Director).
One last call was made to the social worker of our children’s birth family, to confirm plans for the upcoming meeting, and then we were off, this time in a 4x4 vehicle to accommodate the roads that we would travel over the next forty minutes. During the last twenty minutes of our drive, the road was so bad that, had there been any rain in the previous 24 hours, we would have had to hike in for a couple of hours, because the roads would simply have been impassable by vehicle. Needless to say, I was very grateful for the dry conditions.
Here is where my narration of details must end, simply because of our desire to protect our children’s privacy until they are of an age to decide for themselves what they would like to share with others. (I will speak more about this another time.) It’s hard for me not to talk about it, but we’ve chosen not to. So I will simply say that the next number of hours were amongst the most amazing and emotional of our lives. None of my fears about this meeting materialized and, by contrast, it exceeded every hope I’d held privately in my heart. Perhaps the most impactful part of that experience was to understand just how much our children have been loved already, before ever entering our lives. They are very blessed to have the history they have.
When we finally climbed back into the 4x4 to make our way back, I found myself rocking back and forth in my seat, holding my hand over my mouth, unable to stop myself from crying but not wanting my sobs to be audible. I will never, ever forget.
Though it is difficult for me to move on from that part of our experience, I will. Eventually, after dark, we were dropped off at our pitch-black hotel. At the front desk, we were provided one thin, red, taper candle and a box of matches, with which we made our way upstairs and to our room. Thankfully, I had packed two flashlights (Shannon, thank you for the idea, long ago, to purchase the flashlights that you strap around your head in order to leave your hands free - they were invaluable!!) and we were just fine. One interesting note here is that we had not been offered any opportunity to stop somewhere for a bite to eat and, frankly, Soddo is not a place where Geoff and I would wander the streets on our own after dark; so the last meal we’d had was that shared partial bowl of spaghetti almost 12 hours earlier (and no breakfast was offered to us either, incidentally; the next time we were offered the chance to stop for a meal was at approximately 2:00pm the next day, about 28-29 hours after our mid-morning pasta lunch!). Though we’d not been advised of this ahead of time, it turned out to be very fortuitous that Geoff had thought to pack some of our snacks into our bag, before leaving Addis. So we each ate a couple of flatbread crackers with peanut butter for dinner and the next morning for breakfast, with some of Matthew’s fruit-flavoured gummy bears for ‘dessert,’ and washed it all down with the bottles of water we were thankful to have brought enough of.
The hotel room was aesthetically very nice, but to be honest, it wasn’t the kind of place where I’d want to leave anything on the floor, for fear that bugs would get into things. Even my shoes went on top of the little night table when it was time for bed. We decided to sleep on top of the blanket, and used a shirt to cover our pillows before lying down.
We were in bed before 9:00 (what else can you do when it’s pitch black?) and were asleep within seconds. It had been such a draining day that nothing could have kept me awake in that moment. Even the bed that was as hard as the coffee table my legs are currently resting on could not stop me from closing my eyes...and let me tell you, that’s saying something because the bed really was like sleeping on concrete. (I’m a large woman and when I sat on that mattress, not one bit of it gave way to my weight...it stayed hard and impression free!)
When I woke up, it was still black night around me, and my hip hurt where it rested on the rock bed. I awkwardly rolled over and tried to get comfortable, and wondered wondered what time it was. My mind was full of the events of the day, and I relished the peace and quiet that the night afforded me so that I could think of these things and maybe shed a few tears about those very things. About 15-20 minutes after waking up, Geoff woke up, too, and I asked him what time it was, thinking that we’d have to get up soon and knowing that I would welcome that this time, given how uncomfortable I was in that bed. Imagine my surprise when Geoff looked at his watch and said that it was 11:45 pm - we had gone to bed less than three hours earlier, and there we were, wide awake, nothing to do, and with almost nine hours stretching ahead of us before we were to be picked up. It was actually funny. Over the course of the next number of hours, until about 7:00am, we alternated between dozing and wakefulness, but were mostly awake. And it turned out to be a good night after all, despite the length of it; we talked and talked and talked - about the events of the previous day, about a zillion things that were on our minds. We were tired when we eventually got up to get ready for the day, but we knew that this was a life-changing experience we were having, and we wanted to maximize the opportunity we had.
By about 9:00, we were back at the orphanage and we were treated to a coffee ceremony, prepared in our honour. We have participated in many of these already, but we enjoyed this one just the same. One of the staff came into the room where Geoff, Solomon and I were seated (and later joined by a couple of drivers and a social worker) and carried in a small charcoal and wood fire in a tiny, clay firepit on legs. She had already prepared the sweet popcorn for the ceremony (the usual accompaniment to the coffee ceremony) and had already roasted the coffee beans, which she then ground and funnelled into the black, traditional long-necked coffee pot that she then filled with water and put on the fire. When the coffee was ready, she poured it into tiny espresso cups and sweetened each cup with sugar. She then presented each of us with a cup of the incredibly strong and delicious coffee, and continually offered us popcorn from the basket. It was a lovely time of visiting with Solomon, and we talked about all kinds of things: from the humourous, to the poignant, to the philosophical. He was lovely.
After the coffee ceremony had been completed, Solomon had to leave for an hour to attend court on another matter, and suggested that we stay there and play with the children. Sure enough, a nurse put out a blanket on the concrete floor of the courtyard and brought out six children to play with. We spent the next hour playing with them, and I loved interacting with them. I usually had a baby on my lap (a little fellow by the name of Bereket), and blew bubbles and played with the others simultaneously. One young girl, of about six years, was my secret favourite of the group. She was clearly a bright little thing, and had a warm and lovely personality. Over the course of the hour, I noticed her gradually inching closer to me, and in the last fifteen minutes or so, she sat pressed against me, and kept glancing up at me with big, shy eyes. Though I had a baby on one knee, I lightly wrapped my other arm around her, and she leaned into me. I found it heart-wrenching when, the moment Solomon came back to pick us up, she jerked away from me and looked at me with eyes that spoke of betrayal - that I would leave so soon. She then refused to meet my eyes again, even when I waved and tried to say good-bye. I felt that I’d wounded her fragile soul, and I wanted so much to hold on to her. Hers has not been an easy life, and she is old enough to know it.
Back into the 4x4 we went, this time to travel just a short distance to a local market. Our intention was to spend more of the donation money I’d brought with me from friends, and to buy some of the teff flour that we knew the orphanage was in need of. I must say that I got our of the vehicle with a little trepidation this time, for a couple of reasons. First, I was getting a little tired of being an object of immense interest and curiosity. Everywhere we went, I heard “ferengi” (foreign white person) being called out after us, and in the rural areas in particular, people (men and women alike) stared and stared and stared. I was scared to stumble on the loose rocks beneath my feet because I was so conspicuous...every move I made was watched by many. The second reason I was a bit reluctant to get out was because the market was...well...very rural, and very rough and very dirty. Men and donkeys milled about ceaselessly, the shit on the ground was hard to distinguish from the dirt around it, and it was a little hard to leave the security of the vehicle.
But...I did as I’ve done a few other times I’ve been intimidated while in Ethiopia: I decided that the odds were greatly in favour of everything being ok, put on a confident, been-there-done-that-and-stay-the-hell-out-of-my-way look, and got out, smile on my face and my attention focused on conversation with Solomon and Geoff. Carefully picking our path through the dirt and grime and shit, we made our way to the open-air vendor that Solomon recommended for our teff purchase. He and the proprietor talked for a few minutes, and then the proprietor walked through the door into the tiny milling room where the teff was being stored and ground. He came back out with two handfuls of teff, of class 1 and class 2 grades, which he gestured for Solomon and me to inspect (what do I know about inspecting, but inspect I did!). Solomon and I (yeah, right, like I had a valuable opinion here!) decided on the grade 1 teff, which was only slightly more expensive and was the nicest quality for using in the making of injera. We were able to purchase two huge, 100kg sacks of this teff, for a cost of just under 3,000 birr (about $180). This would be enough to feed the orphanage for well over a month! We were thrilled to be able to do it, and I’ll post more another time about how the $ donations that people sent along with us were used, and about how valuable they were!!! This market experience buying teff is your first installment of the donation post to come!
And that was that. Our time in Soddo had come to an end and we were once again reunited with our drive, Telahoh; by about 11:00, we were on route back to Addis.
The drive back was similar to the drive down, though my head and heart were so much the fuller for the experiences we had while in the Soddo area. Despite my anxiety about the prospects of that trip, I will forever be glad that we went. It was an enriching, humbling, life-changing event in our lives, and I will never forget some of the special moments we had.
If you've made it this far in your reading, THANK YOU!!!! I have loved writing it!!!!!
On a different note, I have ideas about other things I’d like to post about over the next little while as time permits. I am including a list of these things below, in part so that I remember that these topics are, and in part so that you can see where I’m headed.
What I’d also like to know is whether there’s something you would like me to post about. I’d be very interested in hearing the questions you might have, and what you might be wondering about...and I’ll do my utmost to answer them.
So...here’s my list of a few ideas for upcoming posts:
- obviously, I’m going to be posting about the kids for the next while - how they’re doing, pictures, adjustment, etc etc.
- the experience of being able to take along money that people had given us for the purpose of purchasing goods that the orphanages and transition house desperately needed. We benefited from being able to do the purchasing and the giving, and we very much want others to know how life-changing this can be, and how that money was used.
- my current thoughts on the comment I regularly get from people who think that Seth Asrat and Lizzie Senait are “lucky” to be coming to Canada to join our family.
- more about “green starvation” - the contrast between a fertile land and the people starving within it.
- why we will be maintaing the privacy of our children’s history for now, despite the curious questions we regularly get from well-intentioned and loving and supportive friends and family.
- our meeting with the child that we sponsor through Compassion Canada. It was a great and moving experience that Matthew was able to participate in as well.