Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thanks Be to God and Gedaye

I haven't talked in much detail about my trip to Ethiopia but I am going to start writing a series of post about the trip, my impressions of the people, and my thoughts on the country. I may even add in a couple of special things about the children. Who am I kidding, of course I'll do that. Part of holding back is wanting to process the experience and the other part is that if I'm going to tell a story I'm going to tell it and you will see that gets kind of long for a blog.

Now that I've been there and spent three intimate days at the orphanage and in the company of Gedaye the woman that runs it, not only does it give me comfort in how the children are being cared for but it also makes me feel a little protective of her and her work. Why do I need to be protective? It's not only because she is the guardian of my children but because so often I read accounts of people returning that seem to confuse poverty with lack of intelligence, or humble accommodations as incompetence or lack of drive. I read a funny but profound statement about a month ago where an AP said the people are poor their not stupid. I agree with the poster, there is a difference.

I didn't know what to expect when I got to Ethiopia and took with me only the visions that had been painted by many adoptive parents on trips before me. Within an hour of waking up my first morning I was taken about 5 minutes away to a large blue gate with a hand painted sign announcing the orphanage. To get there we went past many brown skinned people hustling and bustling to work by foot and car. We passed a hair salon, a corner cafe, a neighborhood corner store or what some might call a party store. There were three or four men sitting around a small fire they'd built on the sidewalk. We turned down an alley and made her way around the huge potholes and I saw mother's and children on their way somewhere with purpose. It was early morning and the area was already busy with intention.

I was 7,000 miles from home and this place seemed so familiar to me. This street that I went down, the alley, the people, the stores, the men sitting were things I've seen throughout my life in the U.S. I didn't know what to expect from Ethiopia but so far Ethiopia felt like home to me or at least a visit with relatives. I didn't grow up poor but I did grow up in a typical working class black community. I grew up in an area where people may have assumed that we were poor if they simply passed down the main street that ran through our neighborhood without and ever getting out of their cars to know us up close. There are people who past our way everyday without ever thinking much about who we were as people. I grew up in an area where my white classmates were not allowed or were too afraid to visit. If they had they may have learned that in this area where the lawns often had more dirt than grass, the paint on homes was peeling, a couple of gates were broken, and little kids walked around unattended; there was a neighborhood of two parent intact families. Many in homes where father's worked as bus drivers, ministers, or factory workers; where there were mother's and widows that were school principals, caretakers, school teachers, and homemakers.

Perhaps if people could have gotten beyond the look of the small modest homes and our poorly paved street they may have learned that our mothers were inside making full course breakfast each mornings, cooking and packing our lunches, and then making full hot dinners every night no matter how many hours they had worked that day. They may have found out how neighbors looked out for the children of other families when the parents had to work second or third shift. The may have learned how mannerly we all were to every adult that we encounter even if there was a hellion in the group. From their car windows, they may have seen children with pants that were too short, with patches or holes, or maybe even shoes with a missing shoelace. But, if people had inquired they might have found that our parents were telling us not to look at superficial things, that shoes had a purpose to keep your feet dry and did not have to make a fashion statement. They may have heard our parents tell us to be grateful and make the most of what we had and to remember that there were always others less fortunate.

My little Brightwood neighborhood in 1970s Indianapolis may have been a little more modern than Ethiopia but not by much. Again, I was quite fortunate as a child and had much more than many in my neighborhood but I had family members who had much, much less. We had family friends that lived in places that were not as nice or well kept as the orphanage. The value that my mother taught me was to look at people for who they are and not what they have. I've tried to do that throughout my life and where I could I've also tried to reach out to those people and help in ways that I could. What I learned from that is these sort of faceless, nameless, people that go about their business everyday want nothing more than to have their hard work acknowledged, and anyone who will listen to them, and respect them.

The gate was opened by a tall dark elderly man that literally looked like the one picture that we have of my mother's father. I walked through and met Gedaye she looked like two of my mother's sisters. She was short and thick and dark like my mother's family that I love so dearly. They were speaking a different language to each other but I couldn't help but feel like I had traveled half-way around the world to find people that I already knew somehow. I spent many hours with this lady that has cared for her countries children for many, many years. I felt strangely like I knew her but was more surprised to find that she felt the same way about me.

Her home is on the property and we went there, kicked off our shoes and curled up on the couch. I don't know how you evaluate her house by Ethiopian standards but it was small and dark with three bedrooms a kitchen and a living room. It reminded me a great deal of my grandmother's house that had more stuff than room and more things out of place than there were places for them. I laughed at the pile of laundry on one couch because that's where you would have found it in my mother's home. There were pictures on the wall, on every table, in all kinds of frames retelling the stories of her life. These weren't perfectly hanged portraits placed in an elegant fashion, they were her hidden treasured stories protected by dust-covered frames.

Her wedding picture was hanging over our heads as I asked her to tell me about that day. She told me about growing up in Tigray and how she met her husband. She stared at the picture when she talked about him and her eyes lit up. Her husband had died several years ago and she was left to raise six children on her own. She was a college graduate and at the time had been working for a government agency many years. She went through each picture telling me funny and sad stories about her life. I learned about her deceased parents and the brothers and sisters that she lost. She was the youngest of them and the only one still living. She has four daughters, three who have recently moved to Canada, Denmark, and Germany. She misses them and cried when she talked about them. But in between our conversations a different daughter would call. Her youngest son is a junior in high school, another son works with her and has a university education, and the third child I saw was a beautiful girl with the full lips and full hips that most sisters would be proud of.

I sat for hours with her and listened to her life story and how she came to care for these children, how she walked away from the security of her job just because she was tired and needed a change. She told me how her children were concerned for her future but how she had to trust God that he had a bigger plan for her. As I sat there, I was struck by the fact that she is only 5 years older than me. At times she would hold my hand to emphasize a point and I felt the warmth and hard fought years in every touch. The entire time that I listened to her, I just saw the hardworking spirit of my mother and her sisters that took on so much, rarely complained, and always thought more about others than they every thought about themselves.

This lady's job 24-hours a day is the care, nurturing, and feeding of other people's children. She rarely leaves the compound and often when she does it is to do more for the orphanage. I watched the kids run to the gate to ask her where she was going and when she would come back. She sees her role not as taking care of children until someone comes for them, but teaching them to be strong, disciplined, loving, and resilient in case no one ever comes. She not only cares for the children but she is building a community within the walls of the orphanage for all of the staff who work for her. She employs about 10 women and men full time and I watched as she challenged them to do everything that they were doing better. I watched them pull all of the cribs out of the baby rooms and wash the walls, floors, and beds. She explained that they do that every Saturday. If that isn't enough, she also runs a program where up to 50 women a week come and she provides them with freshly grown vegetables that they can sell and earn a living. I watched this process of them carefully measuring out a kilo of the most basic things so that every woman had an equal share.

This lady never rested. I watched her on my last night sitting in a chair exhausted with children hanging on her arms and neck. I watched as she told them stories and jokes and we made up some messed up version of The Farmer in the Dell. She told me about the each child and described their personalities. She said that my little girl was a genius and that my son would need a strong mother. But, I will never forget seeing the children finish their food and place their empty plates in front of her. They would say something in Amharic and bow their head quickly. She turned and looked and me and smiled, "they are learning," she said. She explained that the children often want to thank her but she has taught them that for everything they have to thank God and not her. As each of the children placed their empty plate before her they said "Thanks be to God."

Through her eyes I saw the value of an entire group of people that work in these places with little acknowledgment. When I hear people say that the Ethiopians are so nice, It makes them caricatures and doesn't begin to describe the depth and complexity of these people. I came away feeling that Ethiopians are people like people anywhere and sometimes they are nice and usually overly accommodating to nosy, ignorant strangers from America. Yes, I encountered nice people but they also have stories and histories that are deep and revealing. In my days with Gedaye I found her to be gracious but also tough minded. More than anything I saw her commitment and capacity to love in a way that is only God sent. For those moments in her presence I will be eternally grateful.


Robbin said...

Beautiful Valarie, I love your writing style and I cannot wait to read more. This story is a book in the making. A wonderful legacy to share with your children. 8 to go!!!!


kristine said...

Thank you and thank God for you!

What a wonderful listening/watching way you have, the details are just wonderful and reading your account gives me the feeling that I've traveled down those roads.

There is way too little writing of this type out there. I wonder if you would consider getting your writing and your impressions as you get to know the country out to a wider audience?

Thanks again!


Yes, I concur!

Love your writing style Valerie and this was a great story. I was glued to the screen the entire time.


Janet said...

Wow, thank you for bringing Ethiopia to light in a much fuller more understanding (much less superficial) way than many I've read on other blogs. I am glad your childen to be have such a strong role model to care for them as you wait to become a family

Angela said...

Hi Valerie,

I'm at work but I've opened and closed your site to finish reading this post. The written recollection of your experience is very vivid.

Thanks for sharing.

LoveNotes4CocoPrincess said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. I have 2 daughters who were born in Haiti and spent 3 summers in Haiti at an orphanage before bringing them home and encountered that attitude so often and I have never know how to respond. This writing was absolutely right on and said exactly what I felt but didn't know how to say. Thank you again!

Bennett said...

wow Valarie, I felt like i was there, or I was reading a novel. Thank you so much for sharing, I hope to read more about your time in ET as you continue to post your about your expereince.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for writing such an enlighting and beautiful story. Please keep sharing your story with us.


Original Court Date: April 18, 2009
Final Court Date: May 18, 2009
[607 total days & 165 days w/IAN]