Saturday, August 18, 2007


One of the things I've noticed that a lot of people in the United States accept as true is that a homeless person - a truly poor person, living in the street, that is - can make some huge amount of money begging in a major city. I've heard numbers as high as $50,000 quoted at me. I can't say that I think that's an actual fact - it's a little too outrageous. But I do suspect that a person begging in the street in, say, New York City, will probably make at least enough money each day to feed themselves. Not well, maybe, but they can probably get at least one or two food-like meals from Burger King for ten bucks or so. I've been wanting to talk about poverty in Ethiopia for a while, but trying to describe what I see, and what I think it means, will almost certainly make me look foolish. I can honestly say I don't really understand world politics, or world monetary systems, and so I'm forced to talk about the people I met in Ethiopia who so very clearly had little or nothing to their name, and how they made my heart hurt sometimes, and how I still couldn't do anything. On a basic level, Ethiopian currency is the Birr. A one-birr note is worth about ten cents in United States currency. One dime. Two birr will buy you a small cup of VERY strong coffee in Ethiopia. Can you imagine going into Starbucks, handing the person behind the country twenty cents and getting anything? I suspect that if you tipped twenty cents you might get a dirty look. Another thing to consider is this: In the southern region of Ethiopia, most of the families could really use a goat (to what ends, I don't know - I do know that food is one of them, but they have other value as well). A goat costs - well, take a second and guess. Okay: 600 birr. About sixty bucks. Now, here in the States, if I take my wife, my friend, and his girlfriend out to dinner for someone's birthday, I'll probably drop sixty dollars, easily. But in the southern region, people tend to live on - again, take a guess. Okay: $120 a year. The person who told me this fact noted summed this idea up by saying: Think about what you're wearing. Now, add it up. It probably comes (easily) to more than $120. Now, as numbers, these seem oddly outlandish. In fact, I don't know that the average American can picture someone living on $120 a year. It seems so odd that your brain kind of rejects it. But the poverty leads to an odd climate in the streets of Ethiopia. Driving along the roads to the southern region, we'd often see kids standing by the side of the road, holding a finger in a the air. I didn't know the meaning of this until someone pointed it out to me - they were asking for one birr. In the city, we met and took a picture of a woman and her baby. She asked for money before we did it, in much the same way. Several of the folks who were with us did the same, and we all gave her (and the guy who was standing behind her, apparently hoping for some money himself) a few birr each. Later, at the airport, we were told not to give anyone money, because there are literally dozens of people trying to make (or beg for) money there - some ask for it, some offer to help with your bags, and yeah, there are probably a few pickpockets there as well. By the time we went back to the airport on our last day, we were out of money - we had spent it all. And here came a woman, with a baby on her back, who spoke some English. This is what she said: "Help me. Help me. My baby has no father. We sleep in the streets." Now, like I said, I had no money. It was spent, gone, and the twenty dollar bill in my wallet was there to pay a fee to get me out of the country. And even if I gave it to her, I don't know that she could have taken it to a bank and changed it for something useful. So what do you say? To something like that? To someone like that? And what would I have done if I had money at the time? Do I give it to her, and risk being mobbed? Potentially create an unsafe place for everyone else who was there? I don't know. And as sad as all that is, I think Ethiopia has bigger problems. Much (well, really all) of the country has unclean drinking water. In some of the more remote areas, people walk long distances just to bring back dirty water to drink and wash their clothing in. In the area of numbers that may or may not be true, I once read that all of Africa could have clean water for about 6 billion dollars. Now, that might sound like a lot, but consider: The cost of the current Iraq war is, roughly, 2 billion dollars per week. Of course, like I said, I don't really understand politics. Of the many pictures that I took in Ethiopia, there's one that always stands out to me. I took it on a corner two "blocks" from the guest house where we were all staying. In the foreground, people are selling live goats. And also, a pile of goat heads. In the background, a ten-story building is being assembled by workers who are probably making roughly ten birr a day. (That's a dollar.) People have told me that my daughter won life's lottery when I brought her to the States, but really, I'm just an American dad like any other - capable of being right and wrong and trying to take care of our little one the very best I can. But on some level, our child will always be Ethiopian, and when I get older, I feel I'm going to have to answer somewhat as to why my country, who can afford to spend 2 billion dollars a week in Iraq, can't scrape together 6 billion dollars and save thousands, and perhaps millions, of lives on her home continent.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Embassy

Kara asked me to cover this aspect of our visit to foreign lands. If I had to guess why, it's probably because it's not a terribly emotional or powerful aspect of the process, although it is important. A couple of notes about Ethiopia before I dive into this story. First - the concept of time is beyond loose there. We had a set schedule for everything that was supposed to happen as the week wore on, and exactly zero things happened according to the original schedule. I'm still waiting for my "class" on how to cross the street in Addis. Please understand that I'm not making fun of the program or the country - everything that needed to get done got done, and everything that needed to happen, happened. Just not when I thought they were or in the order I thought they were. So on Tuesday we were supposed to be at the embassy at a set time, with the kids, so that we could have our embassy appointments and get our kids' visas and offer up our final proof that we had enough money to afford to take care of them once we got them home. If this had happened here in the states, we would have had appointments set for, say, 2 PM. And most people, given the importance of the paperwork being dealt with, would have arrived at 1:45, paperwork in hand, ready to go. This didn't happen. While we were scheduled to go to the embassy as a group somewhere around 2 PM, we probably got there closer to 2:30. Then we had to get through security, which is so complete that they took a couple of batteries I had in my bag, despite the fact that I had nothing to use them in. All told, we probably got started more than an hour late - but no one at the embassy complained about this, as far as I know. Backing up, I want to talk about cars and vans and streets in Ethiopia. There are sections of Addis that have, for better or worse, real city streets. They are reasonably well paved, reasonably well maintained, and if you drove them in the States, you probably wouldn't think too much about them. However, on the outskirts of the city, they're made of dirt. And/or gravel. And/or rocks. And since it's the rainy season, bits of the road are often washed out to some extent. Now, in a huge 4 by 4 type SUV vehicle, this might be no big deal. but in a white late 1980s-style van, packed with people, there are complications. Add to this the fact that there are no seat belts, except for the front seat. Add to this the fact that we all had to take babies to the embassy. All things being equal, this process went much smoother than it might have. Our little one went to our appointment strapped into her Baby Bjorn, which she took to with no problems. Mihret just likes to look around, and she just kept on glancing this way and that during one of her few trips outside of the building she lived in. Once we got there, and got through security, things got... dull. Well, first there was the great baby strip-off, as all the parents had brought "special" outfits for their kids, so we dressed them in cute little clothes. Then there was the great baby feeding, as we all pulled out bottles. I should mention that this was probably the most time we had spent with our kids up to this point. On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, we had spent perhaps an hour or two a day playing with our kids in a pretty controlled setting - all the nannies were around, and they would change the kids and put them in new outfits when they got dirty. But on this day, we were on our own for five or six hours. Kara took the first shift, walking the kid around for a couple of hours, and giving her the first bottle we ever gave her. It should be noted that we weren't even sure she would take a bottle. For health reasons, all the kids at the care center are cup fed, though that's another story. Naturally, right in the middle of feeding the baby, we were called up for our meeting. So Kara handed her to me and I fed her and walked up the long flight of stairs. I think I always assumed this meeting would happen in a big office with us holding the baby and paperwork on one side, while a social worker looked on like a personal lawyer and made sure we didn't say anything dumb. In reality, it was a lot more like going to a bank. We stepped up to a window. We handed over some papers. We got asked a bunch of questions, which we expected. We were a little surprised to learn that the woman behind the glass had never done one of these before, but the only reason I picked up on the fact that something was a little odd was because everyone else in our group got asked, perhaps, three or four questions out of a possible twenty or so, and we got all twenty. The hardest part of the process was signing the forms - our baby fell asleep in my arms, and so I had to sort of lean forward and lift her a little bit, and sign the form in question. But pretty soon, it was all over, and we went back down the stairs and sat, and before long it was time to take her back to the care center. -Josh

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Gee, It's Good, To Be Back Home Again...

... Sometimes, this old farm... er, house... But really, John Denver jokes, folks. I'm here all week. Kara and I will go back and talk about some of the things we saw and did, but as we mentioned, the Internet was tough to come by. We were told that there would be a couple of computers with the Internet available at the guest house we were staying at, which turned out to not be the case. The paperwork we were given was talking about an older guest house. So we had to walk to the CHSFS office, which was about 15 minutes over the rocky terrain they like to call "roads" there. Of the four times we were in the office, at least once and maybe twice the power was out - so, no Internet then, either. But I digress. One of the scariest things about the trip, to my way of thinking, was coming back. World travel isn't a lot of fun most of the time - you're on a plane for hours and hours, you can't really move around, the seats don't really work for sleeping, and often the movies are terrible (Wild Hogs, I'm looking at you.). But as an adult human being, you can deal. You read your book, you listen to your MP3 player, you watch the terrible movies, and nine hours later they let you off the plane. (And then stick you on another nine hour flight.) Point being, you can rationalize the bad for the good - your spine may feel like shattered glass, yes, but there's a cute baby at the end of the line. The cute baby, however, may not be so inclined to work with you. When we got to the Addis airport at a little after 7 PM, Mihret had sacked out. We may have been riding on a bumpy "road" with no seat belts while she jounced around in her baby Bjorn, but she had decided to sleep, and I hoped she would make it through the night. She did make it through immigration and ticketing, which was nice, but then she woke up, and decided it was screamy time. Now, Kara and I both felt bad on one level, which was - poor baby, what can we do to help you. Then, on the next level were the people who were on our flight, who were giving us "oh, good, a screaming baby, thanks a LOT," looks, which was their right. But above all that was the cultural aspect - Ethiopians value kids above everything. They really do think that it takes a village, and they will get in your face about it. Not in an unkind American way, but in a loving, "must care for the cute baby!" kind of way. Eventually, I got her to calm down by NOT standing in a line with her. It seems the motion finally set on her sleep-time alarms, and she went back to sleep, and stayed that way through most of the first flight. When she wakes up, she likes to be fed and changed, so we took care of that. And things were great, until we started to land, and the air pressure just kicked her tiny booty. Luckily, a friendly flight attendant put some water in a mostly-empty bottle for us, and she made it through. For the second flight, we fed her on the way up, and then tried to play with her. But after three messy diapers and no real room to move, she started to freak about again. So she took a nap. And then she woke up, and freaked out for a bit, and took another long nap. We actually started to get worried, as her temp seemed to go up a bit each time she had a freakout. Once she was asleep, it seemed to go down... and then she woke up, and was a happy baby again. We suspect she just gave up on getting any help from Mommy and Daddy, you had nothing to offer but laps and cuddles, and take care of business herself - if bored, sleepytime. Things were okay after that. We got her some floor time in Chicago and she exercised her limbs like Richard Simmons after a cheeseburger, and then slept on the Appleton/Chicago flight. The car seat was another matter. She HATED it. Screamed the whole way home. We put her in it this morning to get it set a little better, and she screamed some more. We're headed to church in about 30 minutes, and it looks like it's gonna be a looooooooong car ride. But at least we've got seat belts again, and the streets don't resemble a gravel pit. -Josh

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Amesegenalu Means Thank You...

Ameseganalu. My friend, thank you. It has been the theme of our stay here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which began with a domestic flight to Chicago, a flight from Chicago to Germany and a flight from Germany to Egypt, and finally, our flight in to Bole International Airport in Ethiopia early Saturday morning. Despite the airline struggles and the luggage delays, we have had much to appreciate here. When we needed underwear, socks, clean shirts and pants during our three days without our checked bags, one of our two or three drivers assigned to our care center guesthouse took Josh and I to a three-tiered Ethiopian mall for the errand. The same man also ran us back and forth along the bumpy, flooded roads to the airport - about 20 minutes away from where we're staying - until we finally retrieved our luggage. One of the many things we value about our stay here in the country that has become our adopted homeland is our exposure to both city life and rural life here. On Sunday each of the seven families receiving children in our group climbed into a Land Rover and headed south to Hosanna, a community where our international agency takes children into care at a satellite care center. The trip was a four-hour drive beginning at 5 a.m., and around 6 a.m. we saw an Ethiopian sunrise. It was a Sunday, a day of rest here as well, with families, children, and lone men and women milling about. We passed little oncoming traffic but saw pedestrian traffic of all sorts, the two-legged and four-legged variety, with six-legged (man or boy driving a donkey) an occasional treat. We waved at people, who responded with a variety of stares and smiles. Little girls blew us kisses. Only a handful of times during the ride, teenaged boys or twenty-something men shook their raised arms at us in an unfriendly gesture, as if they were motioning us onward faster, and yelled at us. It's appropriate that Ethiopia's flag colors are so varied - so are the colors of the country's terrain. The mountains in the distance and the green hills reminded me of my father's family's village in Pennsylvania and the view from my grandparents' back porch, only more breathtaking. At Hosanna, several adoptive families, including ours, met and spent time with members of our children's birth families. Because this experience is Mihret's, and we are only the guardians of it until she is of the age to understand it, we won't speak about it in detail. We closed the meeting with all adoptive and birth families praying for and about each other in an entrustment ceremony, where Mihret's birth mother and birth grandfather gave us a white, lit candle signifying their trust in us and their entrustment of Mihret to us. It's an experience we will never forget. People here don't have much, but what they have, they are willing to share. On the way back to the city, we stopped to visit the traditional hut, or tukel, of a large farming family. The wife and mother of the family, who used to work at the care center where Mihret had stayed, wanted to make us tea but she had just given birth to her youngest baby and was breastfeeding when we arrived. She invited us inside her home, which smelled earthy and damp. It held little but bowls and plates for the family's meals, and mats for the floor. A firepit in the center of the tukel provides heat, light and warmth, and the smoke escapes through the straw-like material of the roof, so that from the road it looks like the huts are steaming. It had rained all day and the farmer's chicken was perched on an enclosure inside the hut, making its presence known. We took photographs and video of the children, who were amazed to see the images immediately afterwards. During our stay here, we've also visited a maternal-child hospital under construction, which is slated to open within days. We walked through its rudimentary operating room, delivery room, and patients' rooms and spoke with a physician who'll work there. He told us about the blood bank where mothers can donate blood to their children for procedures, and about the common illnesses from which children suffer, including tuberculosis, malnutrition, HIV, diarrhea and malaria. The government often dictates who gets what level of treatment, so it's not always a fair process, he said. But, he said, he doesn't expect many patients to be able to pay, so the hospital will be partly a non-profit operation. We also visited the second class of 38 health care workers in training assisted through our international agency here. Some of the health care workers will go on to become nannies, or caregivers, in the care center where Mihret has stayed, after a one-month apprenticeship. They learn human anatomy and physiology, nutrition, first aid and other courses on which they're tested. Of the first class, at least 25 young women and men already have found jobs in the health care sector. The instructor who introduced us to this current class told us that most of the students are women, and that's intentional, because women in Ethiopia still struggle in the workforce and to obtain fulfilling careers of their choice. We did find time to take in the National Museum, the residence of the fossil of Lucy, a female hominid from several million years ago who is thought to be one of humankind's closest ancestors. About 40 percent of Lucy's skeleton is housed there, with the rest replicated. The museum is also working on an exhibit of Selam, a three-year-old hominid child thought (to the best of my recollection) to be a bit older than Lucy. Selam is the Amharic word for peace and also used as a greeting. Josh is at the guesthouse playing with Mihret, who has had her first bath and sat up on her own today in my lap when she reached for her teething toys. I'll sign off here. Amasegenalu, thank you, for reading along and sharing this journey with us.


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Sorry There Have Been No Updates...

But now the power is on in the care center office where families come to take care of official business and check e-mail, and we can stop to collect our thoughts and then pass them along to you. Ethiopia is billed in tourism as the land that has 13 months of sunshine. This is because Ethiopians follow the Julian calendar, with 12 typical months and then one month of only six or seven days. We've arrived to our 6-month-old daughter Mihret's homeland in the rainy season, which stretches from July to September and turns the roads to soup. But although our trip has had only sporadic bursts of sunshine through the clouds, our daughter -who we held in our arms for the first time Saturday on her six-month birthday - has become our sunshine. We love to talk to her in the little Amharic we know. The main language of Ethiopia, Amharic sounds like music. I've been trying to emulate the pitch and cadence of Mihret's nannies' voices as they coo to her in the nursery room she shares with about eight other babies. I learned that 'fandesha', the Amharic word for popcorn, also is an expression people use to describe children who often smile. Our Mihret has a smile that lights up her entire face, and she smiles at us a lot. So we have become fond of leaning in close, looking into her big, brown eyes and saying, 'Mihret fandesha.' Smiley girl. We've been able to feed Mihret her first 3-ounce bottle, change her first diaper (a wet one, thank goodness) and, many times, cup her head with its soft, loose curls in our hands and kiss her forehead. Her weight in my arms feels so right. I can't wait to share her with her grandparents, who will be waiting for us this coming Saturday at the airport.


What Kara didn't talk about is just how insane things have been here. Here's what happened. We got on the plane in Appleton. We got to Chicago. Our flight was delayed in Chicago, so we didn't make our flight in Frankfurt. We ended up flying through Cairo to get to Addis, and we got here at 3 in the morning. Our driver got the message (thanks to some expensive phone calls) but our luggage didn't get here until Monday. Must go - out of time.