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.


  1. Thank you for the interesting and colorful writing in describing your experiences. I'm glad I caught your Tweet today and found your blog. I'll make sure that my friend sees it too when she returns on Sunday from her mission trip to Ethiopia.

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