Friday, February 26, 2010

Disappointments Large and Small

This morning I had an email from Beniyam one of my sons back in Ethiopia. I'd asked about everyone on campus including their pet dogs. The puppy, Jerry, died. He doesn't know why. Some kind of disease he thinks.

One thing I've learned traveling outside the US, is that in a place as poor as Ethiopia, animals are often neglected. Pets are a luxury that most cannot afford. The boys at Kolfe orphanage had three dogs. Now only the two older dogs remain - Jumbo and Bob.

For the boys at Kolfe Orphanage, losing a pet is a disappointment, but it's one of so many that I doubt they will give it much thought. After interviewing dozens of boys who don't know their birthdays and can't remember what their mom looked like, the puppy's death is just another twist in the road.

Before going to Ethiopia, a volunteer collected hearing aids to donate to some of the children who are losing their hearing. We had to choose two boys and two girls for testing and hopefully fitting with a hearing aid. Thankfully we didn't have to make that decision -- the orphanage directors made it for us.

We took two boys from Kolfe Orphanage, Dejene and Ephrem, and two girls from nearby Kechene Orphanage. We never even asked the girls their names. They were young, maybe 6 years-old. Both were signing, not speaking. Even I was thinking this doesn't look like a problem that can be solved with a hearing aid. After driving for an hour, waiting for an hour and then being tested, the doctor explained the girls could not be helped at all. Even in the US, surgery would only marginally impact what they could hear.

The two boys were in better shape. They could still hear. So the doctor asked a volunteer to bring them both back again the next day. For whatever reason, no one thought to show the hearing aids we had to the doctor during the first visit. More hours of driving and more hours of waiting and the doctor again could not help them because the hearing aids were made for adults and wouldn't fit in the boys ears.

The kids had to pose for a picture for a donor back in the States who wanted to see how her donations were being put to good use. Standing in front of a chart of the ear canal, the kids looked out with serious faces. Why should they smile? After hours of time spent with strangers they were no better off than they were before we arrived. Only we had given them hope when there was no hope.

The girls both seemed very uncomfortable. One of the girls had an expression I've only seen on much older people. Her friend would sometimes smile. They both looked like they'd seen more than any kid should. I did get them to smile once by showing them how to make a video on my iPhone. They videotaped me and played it back. For an American kid, I think it would be the equivalent of Criss Angel making himself disappear. Magic.

Moussa-Ali lives at Kolfe Orphanage. Moussa is about 8, one of the youngest kids living there. One evening, Moussa cut his ankle pretty badly. I just happened to bring band-aids and Neosporin with me that day. Just like my son, Moussa didn't want me to touch it. He didn't want me to hurt him. I was trying to tell him I wouldn't hurt him but he didn't trust me. Why should he?

The next day we came back and Moussa's ankle had the purple betadine (I guess) on his ankle but it looked like it was swelling and that the band-aids were dirty. I offered to give him new ones but he declined. Then he changed his mind. After making a big deal of it, I realized I didn't have any big strips left. Only the small ones. I put Neosporin on the cut and then reapplied the dirty old band-aids. I'm sure it hurt and his ankle looked like it was getting infected, but Moussa just sat there quietly. What else could he do?

As an American, it's hard to imagine what life is like for these orphaned kids. Sometimes they have water and sometimes they don't. They have food but no protein and no fruits. A pencil is a valuable commodity. There are artists without paints. Athletes without shoes. Injured kids who can't even get a clean bandage. At night, they are alone on campus. The adults are gone and the kids are by themselves. I asked one of them what would happen if a boy got sick during the night. "Wait until the next day," he said.

Almost uniformly the boys told me they liked campus life. They are happy at the orphanage. I found this hard to believe, but the more we traveled around Addis, the more I could see they were grateful for a bed and food, even if they don't like the food.

Getamelkam is a 16 year-old boy who is only in the ninth grade. His name means God is Good in Amharic. He said, "I don't like this campus. This campus is useless. I love the mother and father I lost." He's lived in orphanages for 10 years after both his parents died when he was 6.

In this bit of film, you can see the two girls we took to have their hearing tested. Note the expression of the girl on the left. I remember this word from German class in 6th grade. Weltschmerz. World weariness or sadness for the world. That's the expression on this girl's face.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Am God

"Am God," he said. "Am God."

"Sorry I didn't catch that."

"Am God."

"You're name is God," I asked?

"He's not God," said Yoftahe. "He's Gat."

Yoftahe is our driver here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His English is impeccable. He went to boarding school and college in the US. His boarding school was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That was some cruel joke his parents played on him sending an Ethiopian boy to Amish country.

Am God is Gat, an extremely intelligent Ethiopian boy living in horrible conditions. As my fellow bandmate on this magical mystery tour put it, Gat is very refined. He also speaks English very well, like Joftahe.

Gat asked my religion. "I am an Episcopalian," I said. Then Gat launched into a brief overview of the Anglican Church.

Gat is lucky. He's one of the lucky ones at Kolfe Orphanage, home to 132 boys aged 8 to adult. Gat is lucky because Gat is smart. Gat can make it out of here. He can scale the walls surrounding this orphanage and make it on the outside.

"Am God," he said.
NB Gat is on the right in this photo. He's wearing a shirt that says "Do It for Johnny".

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bull Riding is Easier than Parenting

Yesterday was frantic. Late for school. Forgot to pack my son's lunch. Racing, racing. When I get rushed I can't think. It's funny because in an emergency, I can think. I remain calm. One time my son started choking on a piece of food in an airport. He was really little but we'd taken the CPR course and I remembered the finger swipe. Just like that, swipe, he was okay again.

But something about being frazzled while say driving to school really throws me for a loop. My son was talking and talking. So I turned off the radio thinking that would help. More talking. Reading street signs. "Enterprise Rent-a-Car," he said. "We'll pick you up." Apparently he's memorized their slogan or working on a new campaign.

Then he said, "Mom, do you know Enterprise Rent-a-Car is a bull riding sponsor?"


"You don't even care, do you?"


"Well they are."

"Could you please stop talking Will? You talk all the time and I can't think."

Then he gave me that look. That look that says, "That's really wasn't called for."

I run into Dunkin' Donuts to get a small light and sweet and 3 munchkins (for him) that Will insisted he needed. Again, even though we were late.

I got back in the car and apologized. "I'm sorry for what I said. I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings." Really a chicken shit way out because of course I hurt his feelings.

"That's okay," he said. "I know I talk a lot."

"Why do you talk so much? Are you trying to give people information?"

"Yeah I guess so."

When we got to school I went in with him to deposit a check in his lunch account that was sitting at a zero balance. I said goodbye. Usually he gives me a kiss but we were inside the building now with witnesses so he started to walk away. Then he turned around to give me a kiss, I think because the coast was clear.

On the way out of school, I ran into his guidance counselor. We nodded hello and then she turned and called my name.

"Will's here today, right? I mean he's in school today?"

"Yes I was just dropping something off for him. He's here."

"Okay because he's won this big award. They're giving it to him today."

"What award? Does he know anything about this? He didn't say anything."

"No. It's a surprise. Only one boy and one girl in each grade gets it for being a good citizen. His teachers are so proud of how hard he's working and how much progress he's made."

His guidance counselor starts tearing up and then I start tearing up, standing there in front of school.

As if she hadn't noticed, I said, "I'm sorry I'm tearing up."

"Me too. It's a really big deal."

I drove away feeling like crap that on the day my son was being honored as a model student, I was giving him a hard time. You parents know what I mean. It's those times when you punish a child, only to find out they were making something for you when they made that mess.

The floor is covered in macaroni bits and paper but they hand you a little necklace just for you.

NB: Bull riding is my son's latest. He wants to know where we can find a bull riding school. Anyone?