This is the one I can't get out of my head. This is the smile I can't forget. I know I've been a bit morose lately so I promise my next blog will be a hilarious take on my marriage or a foray into sagging middle-aged skin.
But this one I've been thinking about and had to write.
Benjamin is Beniyam Kefele. He is 14 years-old and in the 11th grade. His favorite subject is English and his best friend is Ephrem Kibru.
Benjamin is one of over 130 boys who live at Kolfe Orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He has a kind face. Little dimples appear when he smiles. He is thin like all the other boys but he is tall.
We played a game one day. The boys were sitting on the steps to the rec room and I suddenly realized one of them looks exactly like Tiger Woods. Then they all wanted to know who they looked like. Ephrem you look like Jimmy Stewart. Of course they're too young to know Jimmy Stewart. The older boy, he looks like Brad Pitt with his new goatee. Then they asked about Benjamin.
I was stumped. I said I had to think about it.
It occurred to me later that night that he looked like Usher. So I told him the next day.
"Oh yes. I like Usher," he said.
We'd greeted each other in the standard Ethiopian way. It's sort of how men greet each other in the US, by clasping hands, pulling each other close, and bumping chests. Only I kiss the boys on the cheek too. I don't think I'm supposed to do this but I do.
Benjamin greeted me and then we went to work again. The day before we'd bonded over paint. We were painting and we kept trying to clean up but we'd get our hands dirty again. It became a running joke.
More painting that day. New black latex paint that was very difficult to clean. He always smiles this boy even with black paint all over him.
When we finished painting we moved on to the next project, photographing the boys for the non-profit's website. He left briefly and returned with a huge American flag draped around his shoulders. More smiling. He loves this flag.
In a storage room we were photographing boys, one by one. The idea is to create a visual record of them, their ages and their "future jobs". Their dreams, their ticket out, what they want to be some day. Never mind that we learned later the Ethiopian government will choose what they study, if they are lucky enough to study. Today it was about their dream.
Later I was invited to see Benjamin's photo album. He showed me photos of the parents he remembered, dead now. Photos of him with his twin brother China. Photos of him with his brothers at the orphanage--photos carefully arranged in an album.
As I sat there, maybe 8 other boys sat with me on a tiny bunk bed mattress. When I first came to the orphanage, it made me uncomfortable how close they came to me. They wanted to see my iPhone or they wanted to read the bios I was writing about them. They would pin me in a corner.
If you know anything about Finnish people or Scottish people, my other clan, you know we're not a touchy feely lot. They would sit so close to me I felt their skin, their bones. I felt one of the boys flicking my hair behind me. Then Gitane, another boy, started twisting my hair like my son Will used to do when he was a baby.
This was a very special moment for me. First, I conquered my fear of being so close to them. Mainly I felt accepted and loved. Like one of them.
I did some interviews with the boys, compelled to pull back into observer mode. As I sat scross from them asking how the hell they ended up here, I knew I didn't or couldn't understand anything about what had happened. This isn't reality TV. They aren't screaming or yelling or throwing things. They sat there quietly describing waking up to a dead mother and a neighbor taking them to an orphanage.
When I had to go, Benjamin walked me to the car. He started to cry but he was crying in that sad way big boys do because they can't cry out loud anymore.
I waved goodbye and held it together until we left. Then I started crying thinking about Benjamin and the others. How can I say goodbye to him, to all of them?
I don't know.