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Saturday, December 06, 2008


First, I want to thank everyone who's reading all this, especially those who take a moment to comment on your own thoughts, either here in the comments area, or in your emails to me. It's good to know I'm not just talking to myself. Truth is, I'm doing this for all of us - trying to show you what I saw, and also processing the whole experience and trying to integrate it into my new sense of "normal". Thanks for helping me do all this. This is a long entry today. You might want to go make a cup of tea or something before to read it...

After Rick and I had been in Ethiopia for ten days, we went back to Addis Ababa (pronounced AH-dis AH-ba-ba, not ah-BA-ba) to meet the rest of our group at the airport. We went over early because Marta and Deme had asked us to. We were so honored and touched that they wanted to spend time with us, and it would not have been as good an experience without all that time they shared with us. We didn't know most of the twenty-odd others in the Cunningham Foundation's group, but we were technically part of that group, so it was time to connect and continue the trip on a different scale. Marta and Deme had left for the states a few days earlier, and we were now hanging out with Helen, who runs a tight ship at Project Mercy in Marta's absence. She's a bit of a "Sarge" when things need to be done, but when she thinks nobody's looking, she's a real hoot to pal around with. Shhhh.... don't tell. I don't want to blow her cover.

The three hour drive to Addis (usually how locals refer to the city) was a beautiful tapestry of landscapes, farms, mountains, people, and animals. The road is in pretty good shape, and the regular drivers know exactly where all the potholes are, so there's a lot of weaving and dodging, but little slowing down. Most of the time we were in open countryside, but there are several little towns along the way, filled with the usual living obstacles. Our amazing drivers would slow only a little bit, and beeping the horn in communication, they'd zip through the "traffic" in no time. I'm still amazed that we never even came close to hitting anyone, including all those aloof little goats, meandering along with cars and buses, as if they owned the road...

After our time in rural Ethiopia, Addis Ababa was a complete jolt. The traffic is insane. There are zillions of cars and buses all zipping along in clouds of dust and diesel fumes, ignoring the lines in the road, and anything resembling driving rules. There's a constant beep-beeping from all directions, not out of anger, but just a friendly way of saying "hey! I'm here, two inches from your bumper". City drivers also have to deal with city herds of cattle. There are still animals all over the roads, but here the herders walk along with them while talking on cell phones. I remember years ago, thinking that Rome had crazy traffic. Addis makes that look like a buggy ride in the park. I think Ethiopians must be the best drivers in the world. We saw only one minor fender bender the whole time. I'm usually a very nervous passenger when I'm at home, but for some reason I was completely calm and comfortable there. I even gave up on digging long forgotten seat belts from under the seats. I figured the Universe was not going to take me all the way to Ethiopia to kill me in a traffic accident...

Much of Addis is a crumbling mess, but there's also a lot of construction going on, and in some places, a lot of money on display.

The group arrived from the states late in the evening, and after all the collecting of luggage and making their way through customs, we loaded into several vehicles and drove to the Ararat Hotel for a late dinner before bed. Rick and I had driven to Addis with Helen, and three of the full-time volunteer teachers at Project Mercy, Scott, Kaitlyn, and Abbey. Helen had a nice break from the action at her own home in Addis, and the rest of us stayed at Marta and Deme's, leaving the others at the hotel. The house has a long history, being taken by the communists in the 70's and then somehow, miraculously, Marta and Deme got it back many years later. Marta says it's not their house - it's God's house. So they share it very graciously with many visitors. Still, we felt a little bit special, knowing we'd been given the best room of all. It sure beat any hotel we might have stayed in (except maybe the Sheraton, but as you'll see, that was way out of reach...)

The next day was a the busiest day of my entire life. Really. It felt like we lived a year in one day. We started out with a visit to a library Noel and Tammy Cunningham are big supporters of. They'd brought along books, and we had some nice time visiting with and reading to the kids. These kids are some of the lucky ones. They get to go to school, and now they have a growing library of books in English. Like kids anywhere, they have big dreams for their futures. And because they have support and education, they might just do more than herd goats when they grow up.

Our next stop was for lunch at the Sheraton - a place so out of character for the rest of what we'd seen, I think we were all a little shocked by it. Sure, it was beautiful, and we had a lovely, delicious, safe lunch... but I think most of us felt like there was something ethically wrong with a place like that plopped in the middle of all the surrounding poverty.

They were beginning to decorate for Christmas, although it's not celebrated there in the same frantic, commercial way we do it here. I loved the twisted little Santa scene on the lawn...

After our feast of expensive food and opulence overload, lulled into a comfort zone we thought we'd left at home, we piled back into vans and Land Rovers, and whizzed back into the streets of Addis, winding into the outskirts, and to the gates of the Mother Teresa Orphanage. The sign on the gate said that absolutely no photographs could be taken, and we later found out that it was because someone had used photos of the place and the kids online for their own purposes, falsely claiming to be raising money for the orphanage. The things I saw there are carved deep into my mind, and it's hard to tell you about it now. This was the most emotional part of the entire trip, so difficult that some of the group left the tour and waited outside... This might have been the place I had feared coming to, back when I said I thought Africa would break my heart. It did get broken that day. Broken wide open. But what also happens if we allow it, is the light flows in through the cracks, filling all the dark, scared spaces with hope and joy and love.

The Mother Teresa Orphanage is filled to the brim with 450 happy, well tended, well fed kids. The ones who are old enough to go to school have clean uniforms, and they scamper around the grounds, curious about visitors, just like in any school full of American kids. The difference is, these are all AIDS Orphans, and 95 percent of them are HIV positive themselves. Johnson & Johnson donates the medications they need, and so now most of them will thrive and survive into adulthood. This creates a new set of problems, as they'll have to assimilate into the "real world" at some point, with job skills and awareness of their medical needs and responsibilities to others they interact with. They know about their illness. They're educated about it, and never made to feel like they've done something wrong. Still, the rest of the world will not be so kind and tolerant. I worry about what these kids will face once they're "out there". I didn't take this picture, as I respected the "no photos" rule. But I found it online, to show you who these kids are. Regular kids. Not freaks. Not dangerous. Just regular, loving kids.

The first stop on the tour was the baby room. There were maybe ten little babies in cribs, all in fragile health, all with IVs in their necks, and all crying and reaching for us to pick them up. We were told not to pick them up, so as not to disturb the IVs, which could have been dangerous to us as well as the babies. But it ripped my heart right out of my chest to stand there so helpless. I rubbed one little girl's tummy and muttered stupid "shh, shh, it's OK" sounds to her. But she kept crying and reaching for me, and all I could do was tell her - or myself - I was so, so sorry, and leave the room with the rest of the group.

We all walked dazed through the halls, and began to catch our breath. Older kids began to catch up with us, and before long, every adult in our group was holding at least one little hand and attempting to chat with the little smiling person attached to it. We saw dorms and tiny bunk beds pushed right up against each other to make room for them all. We saw the dining room and the movie room with a bed sheet pinned to the wall as a screen. We saw classrooms and answered typical questions from kids just learning to speak English - What is your name? How old are you? Where are you from? And then we went to the preschool room...

We were instantly surrounded by tiny, adorable people. They tugged at our clothes and laughed and chattered in Amharic. One pee-wee girl, about two years old, reached her arms to me and said, "Up". Some English words are more useful than others. I scooped her up and she snuggled into my shoulder, holding out a treasure in her baby fist. It was a small stick. A toy I suppose, as I didn't see any actual toys scattered around. I took it from her hand and stuck in in my pocket, afraid she might choke on it.

Another two year old at my feet was trying to pick up a younger girl, and toppled her onto her head, on the hard floor. I sat right down on the floor, still holding the one I had picked up, and grabbed the one who had fallen. The other kids swarmed around us, patting her back and trying to soothe her, but she had a huge bump forming on her head and she just cried and cried and cried. I managed to stand up, holding two kids now, and found a staff member to hand the injured one over to. She needed ice on her head, but I knew there was no such luxury as ice in a place like this.

It was clear that the kids were clean and fed and had what they needed physically, but what stayed with me for the rest of the day, and stays with me still, is that they don't have enough love. There just aren't enough people to come and hold them and sit with them and love them. I can see why people adopt after visiting a place like that. I know that's not for me and Rick, but I can't stop thinking about the need for love we all share. And I can't stop wondering what I can do to make a difference, someplace, anyplace. I still have the stick I took from the little girl. I hold it and cry and still manage to feel some hope. After all, those kids have a place and people who care for them. At least they have that...

The last stop on any good tour is the Gift Shop. The orphanage has a weaving program for older students, teaching them a skill they can use to earn money when they're out on their own one day. They weave beautiful scarves of cotton and silk, and the money collected is put in savings accounts for the weavers - a nest egg to get them started when thy leave the orphanage. I bought several, and you can buy them too, on the Cunningham Foundation's website.

Phew... still with me? There was one more stop in this endless day. I was feeling kind of sick, from my malaria pills, diesel fumes, and emotional exhaustion, so I didn't participate the way I might have on any other day, but it was still a wonderful experience.

An American doctor named Rick Hodes invited us to dinner at his home in Addis - along with his 18 adopted children. He has developed a surgery for a particular type of spinal deformity that's common in Ethiopia, and travels often to do operations. From what I gathered, many of his adopted kids were once his patients. They all live together in a modest house and compound, and everyone seemed to be an important part of the team. The place was bubbling with energy and love.

We crammed into the living room, and the men were offered hats to wear, from a silly assortment reserved for Friday evenings in the oddly Jewish household. We all stood and held hands in a room-sized circle that spread into the dining room, and Dr. Rick led the prayers of Shabbat, and finally a sing-along version of If I Had a Hammer. Teen aged kids served mugs of soup, plates of bread, and platter after platter of Ethiopian foods, along with cans of beer, and bottles of orange soda. Still feeling queasy, I sat in a corner and watched most of the action from a distance. I wandered outside later to visit the gate keeper, a very nice man who spends his time between gate openings embroidering pillows with gorgeous colorful scenes from Hebrew stories. He sells them to visitors for only $20 - nothing to us, but a fortune to most Ethiopians. Yes, of course I bought one. And then, thankfully, it was time to go back to our assorted lodgings and get some rest.

Those of us who were staying at Marta and Deme's opted out of the next morning's activities, and later in the day we all drove back to Yetebon. I remember thinking - I just want to go home, but I didn't mean home to Taos, I meant home to Project Mercy.


Jean said...

Wow. this is quite extraordinary. thank you for everything you put into this so that we can understand.

kate mckinnon said...

Kim,thank you so much for taking the time to do this for us and for you.

Your writing is beautiful, and clear, and I really am feeling like a part of your journey.