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.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Story from Addis

We've Lost Five Staff in One Ward
Thursday, November 30, 2006

MEDICS on the frontline of Ethiopia's fight against Aids are increasingly dying of the disease themselves. On World Aids Day, Metro Chief Reporter AIDAN RADNEDGE discovers the grim reality of the risks at one typical hospital in the country's stricken capital.

I have to be satisfied just prolonging someone's life a little.' Dr Wondewosen Desta is depressingly realistic about how much or little he can do, running perhaps the most beleaguered children's ward in Aidsridden Ethiopia. Every day at least 40 HIV-positive, emaciated children are checked in for a lengthy hospital stay, with hundreds more sent away, sure to return again soon.

But it is not just the survival rate among his young patients that concerns him – but also among his staff. In this ward alone, five employees, including two top doctors, have died in the last few years after contracting HIV in the course of their duties. It could be during a rushed blood transfusion, using inadequate protective gloves. Or a fatal infection could follow when blood gushes from a patient's wounds into a medic's eye.

Malnourished, wide-eyed children perch in cage-like beds on the wards, each one looking much younger than the ages given on the bedside charts. Those employees who are not sickened or killed by infection are often driven away by despair. About two-thirds of the 600 children on the hospital's books are under five. Six are thought to have contracted HIV through sexual assault.

Two-year-old Mersi Kassahum shows a chubby, baffled face on a barrel-chested torso yet a stick-spindly pair of drip-fed legs. She is HIV-positive, just like 23-yearold mother Nardos, both condemned by a father and husband long since fled, leaving them and a ten-strong extended family abandoned on the outskirts of the capital. Nardos seems philosophical as she insists: 'I don't want to really worry very much about HIV. What's done is done. So I have to live with it, for myself and my daughter.

'This is the only outlet that could mean my child survives. It's not important to worry about something that's already been done. It's not worth worrying about my husband now he's left. There's nothing I can do about it.'

Read the rest of the story:

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Letting Children Go

I came across a blog that is written by an Ethiopian family living in Addis Ababa. I've only read one story thus far but I am sure that it will give valuable insights. It might give you a moment of pause or cause you to think in a different way.

In the story an Ethiopian mother surrenders her child, but the story follows the father who feels the need to search for him.

Parental bond is a wonderful gift of God – an unseen and perpetual
umbilical binds the parent to the child. If ever it gets severed the world of
the parents comes to a halt – nothing else in the world matters. What happened
to Mary and Joseph for three days happened to Wondesen for seven good years.

Wondesen fell into a relationship their teens and the unexpected happened –
she got pregnant. Both of them had to flee from their homes and parents. They
went to live in a different suburb of Addis Ababa where nobody knew them. That
was when life began to harden for them. After the baby was born, the only thing
they could afford was to buy a loaf of bread daily dissolve in water and feed
the child. At a point they could no more agree because the girl wanted to go to
her parents since they were in the process of sending her abroad.

At a very short notice the girl revealed to Wondesen that she had made
plans to give the child away. Wondesen was terribly disturbed. But the girl
passed on the child to a woman who passed it on to other hands and the child
ended up in an unknown destination. Three weeks prior to this Wondesen had
become born again. The girl disappeared into the Diaspora, but the Wondesen was
sore grieved until life was no more worth living for the sake of the severed

A Colorblind World is Still a Blind One

I don't have any great fascination with living in a colorblind world. As I've often said if the world were colorblind then a colored girl like me might be invisible. I think it is better that we all keep our eyes open and engage each other in healthy discussion around the things that effect us whether we are black or white and every hue in between.

That's a big wind up for the picture that was posted in the NY Post today concerning the newly signed Stimulus Bill. Who signed it? President Obama signed the bill and drew this reponse:

Sunday, February 15, 2009

It's My Birthday

Today I get to celebrate my favorite day of the year. I don't get hung up on the numbers and today I proudly turn 43!

I'm not Oprah but here a few of my all-time favorite things:

My favorite trip: Going to Ethiopia to see my kids.

My favorite holiday: Thanksgiving

My favorite book: All God's Children by Fox Butterfield

My favorite movie: Anything with Sidney Poitier but we can start with In the Heat of the Night and Blackboard Jungle -- maybe even Lilies of the Field.

My favorite song: Stand by Donnie McClurkin

My favorite writer: Langston Hughes

My favorite person: My Daddy (yes I call him daddy) who sent me the best birthday and Valentine's day cards.

My favorite food: Indian food

My favorite desert: Ice cream -- vanilla works fine

My favorite book of the bible: Nehemiah

My favorite scripture: 2 Timothy 1:7

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Color of My Culture

Reposted from months gone by in celebration of Black History Month. It's not the color of my skin that we celebrate but the depth of a culture that has survived against all odds.

The Color of My Culture
Valarie A. Washington

My culture is colored by the family that raised me. It is the soulful blackness of the church that loved me and the colorful mix of the the foods and flavors that nourished me. My culture is the red-hot rhythmic dance of a people, the jazzy blues of music that beats in my heart, and the brown-eyed melodies of life that I learned how to sing.

The color of my culture is dark green and life affirming like collard greens on Thanksgiving. It's rich and strong in orange fibrous keratin like yams on Sunday afternoon. It is golden yellow like fresh cornbread crisp from that old cast iron skillet, and it is the conspicuous black spot staring back at me from black-eyed peas cooked on New Years day. My culture is as colorful as any soul food dinner served on mix-matched plates and as shiny as the Reynold's wrap we use to take our plates to go. It's sour green pickles, wine candy, red kool-aid, grape now-n-laters, red-hots, lemon heads, and bomb-pops.

My culture is multi-colored like kente clothe weaved together in a really tight pattern. It is jewel-toned and ruby red like the church ladies hats. It's soft pink and lilac like little girl dresses on Easter morning. It is beautiful like the stained glassed church windows that we propped open on hot summer holy ghost days. It is as majestic and and rich as Mahalia's voice on Precious Lord and the regal way she stood in her choir robe on the back of those church fans we use to wave. My culture is far-reaching faith in a Thomas Dorsey classic like Peace in the Valley. My culture is as white and pure like the hearts of the stewardess' board and the church mothers sitting clustered on the front row. My culture is contrast of pure whites, whiter than snow that we sang about in familiar hymns cast against the blackest covered Bible that holds God's powerful word.

My culture is bright yellow like the smiles on our faces listening to the children's sunshine band sing songs from their tender hearts. It is as complex as the synchronized turns that the ushers and the urshers made walking up and down the aisles of the church. It is the melodic hues flowing from the voices of the young adult choir singing the chorus of "How I Got Over!" My culture is intensified by the click clack joy of tambourines and that shrill B flat that sister Mary always managed to squeeze out just a little off key. My culture is concrete gray and unshakable like the faith we were always taught to have. It is as thunderous and moving as the morning prayer that would raise you from your seat, wake the sleeping child, compel you to wave your hands, testify, and shout -- AMEN!

The color of my culture is cocoa-brown skin, light, bright, and almost white. It is colored like the ashy knees in summer, Vaseline, and blue hair grease or the kind that we scooped out of the red jar. My culture is colorful barrettes, beads and ribbons that little girls wear in their hair. My culture is colored by the rhythmic way we in which speak, the way we roll our Rrrra's, and the way that only my mother could turn a phrase. It is the worn-out beige handle of that old worn out pressing comb that was always sparking on the kitchen stove. It is lively and colorful like our conversations and slips of the tongue that only grand-momma or big momma can make.

My culture is the royal blue way they we love and revere our mothers. It's the gold-ribbon honor that The Spinners gave to "Sadie", and Boys II Men gave to "Mama". My culture is loud like my mother and her sisters when they hear their favorite song on the radio. It is as deep as the deepest note that Barry White ever sung and higher pitched than the notes Minnie Ripperton sang about, "Lovin' You" and every note she sang in between when she took us, "Back Down Memory Lane."

My culture is crimson stained from the blood shed by the Martin King's, Emmit Till's, James Chaney's, Malcolm's and nameless men that died to make us free. My culture is played out in the soundtrack of our lives sung by Marvin, Curtis, Otis, and James Brown who first told us to be black and proud before he sang anything about feeling good. My culture pours out red heart love and chocolate covered soul like Patti, Aretha, and Gladys. The color of my culture changes effortlessly like a chameleon. Because, when we had little to believe in, we sang, hummed and waited when Sam Cooke told us "A Change is Going to Come..." And even now when we feel like we want to give in, we can still hear Luther saying, "Never too much, Never too much..." My culture is familial and connected like, Marvin Gaye's, "Brother, Brother, Brother" and the true refrain he sings in, "Make You Wanna Holler." You know, "throw up both my hands."

The color of my culture is true blue American and the color of hope that Barak Obama had the audacity to write about. It is the silk ribbon in Stevie Wonder's sky. It is the crayon box of colors that drew out the richness of a people before MTV had a generation and Beyonce ever had a hit. The color of my culture holds the supremeness of the Supremes, the emotion of the Emotions, and the dreams of the original Dreamette's . My culture is found in the rainbow colored way in which we were loved, protected, and encouraged that allows us to love, honor, and share in return.

My culture is the red carpet red that led me to every good thing that has and will ever happen in my life. It is a shinning star that announced the birth of a King and the same bright light that will lead the way for every little black boy and girl for generations to come.

The color of my culture is a legacy that won't end with bars and tones at midnight and it is the hope of a people that will never ever fade.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ethiopia Celebrating Black History Month

On my recent trip to Ethiopia I was told over and over how much people there love President Obama and Oprah. It was funny that people would say, "You're from America, do you know Obama?" So, this story about Ethiopia's celebration of Black History Month acknowledging the influence and achievements of Blacks in America really caught my attention. The celebration is being observed under the theme “Quest for Black Citizenship in the Americas.”

From the

The Civil Rights Movement: from Martin Luther King Jr. to President Barack Obama-Personal Reflections”.

The United States ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Yamamoto said Black history is a A panel discussion, organized in commemoration of the day, was held on Tuesday morning under the theme uniquely American journey that inspired all people.

Black History Month in the USA is an opportunity to recognize the achievement of the African Americans reflected in the building of a strong nation,” said Ambassador Yamamoto.

The celebration of Black History Month has been observed in the USA since 1924. The month is a remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African Diaspora.

The Black History Month is the history from slavery as we now move forward to where we are now, the election of President Barack Obama.” Said Ambassador George W. Haley, civil rights activist in the USA. “The election of President Obama is not only the pride of African Americans but also the pride of the world and it is incredible to see that the efforts of the movement has come to the position.”

Professor Andreas Eshete, President of the Addis Ababa University (AAU) said the civil rights movement mobilizes several people across the world, particularly in Africa to fight for their freedom from colonization and racial segregation. “Ethiopia, as an African country which was not colonized, was a pride to black people across the World,” he said.

He said the country has also inspired African Americans to fight for the respect for their rights.

Black History Month is celebrated annually in most countries worldwide in the month of February, while in the UK it is held in the month of October.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Life as a Habesha

One site that I often read is I like the portraits and Q & A's that they do with young Ethiopian immigrants.

Here is a post from the site.

This Film Conveys a Coming of Age Story about Young Diaspora in America Washington, D.C. – January 30, 2009 - Zanta Media releases “Habesha Life,” a web based episodic series that explores the lives of young East Africans coming of age in the Washington, D.C. metro area. The series will be available free for viewing at the website beginning February 15, 2009.

Everybody Has a Story

Many months ago I read a great book called Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey From A Refugee Camp To Harvard. It was written by a young man that immigrated to the US from Ethiopia at the age of 8 or 9. I was interested in experiences since he grew up literally around the corner from where I will raise my children. Below is an excerpt from a recent interview.

In the case of Mawi Asgedom, when he was a young boy he made ‘it’ out of Adi Wahla in Tigray with his family and into neighboring Sudan when countless thousands didn’t. From there again his family made ‘it’ out of Sudan and immigrated to Wheaton, Illinois.

Living in America, how do you feel about identity and how do you identify yourself?

Mawi: Well that is hard. Identity is a very American thing, and often times it is assumed for you before you can consciously do it for yourself. I would say in the past I thought of myself as part African-American, part African, Ethiopian and Eritrean and so on. At Harvard it was difficult to fall into one group because I would hang out with African-Americans. I would also be around white students because growing up in suburban Chicago (Wheaton) I was always around white people. Slowly I began to see that America was built on classifying people as this or that race. Today I feel like I belong both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I don’t feel fully abesha, because growing up here, there is somewhat of a disconnect. (Laughs) I like basketball more than soccer. I feel like I am beyond simple classification now. As a speaker, strictly identifying yourself in one particular way closes you off to many potential audiences. It’s an advantage. As a speaker, I feel I can identify with diverse groups. I recognize cultural differences and can adjust to them.

Your book deals with the experiences of you and your family after emigrating to the U.S. Why do you think family is important and why did you choose to make it the theme of your book?

Mawi: I just felt that my story could not be isolated out of my familial experiences. Though I have experienced many things as an individual, the elements that shaped me the most were those that I had at an early age with and within my family. Also it was a story that needed to be told. That is not mine specifically, but it was the first book by a black immigrant refugee. It offers a different perspective than typical memoirs because I wrote it at a relatively young age. (Twenty-three)

Since your first book was published, you’ve also become a sought-after motivational speaker. How did it all come about? Have you always had public speaking aspirations?

Mawi: No way man. I was one of the shyest kids. I didn’t want to share my story with anyone because I was worried people would make fun on me. But as I matured, I saw my family and myself in a different light. I realized not only did I love my parents, but also I was also very proud of them. I would have never thought I would become an author or a speaker. But I love what I do. It all started after I graduated from college and was living in Oklahoma. The youth pastor at the church I was attending couldn’t make it one day and I took his place. The kids really seemed to enjoy my story and received it warmly. That’s how I got started.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I Wonder as I Wander

I wonder if I showed up a preschool in Anywhere, USA and offered up ice cream to a bunch of four, five, and six year old kids if they might rush for it, grab for it, and eat as much as I would allow them too. What if I returned a second or third day? Would I see the same thing? What could I conclude from that exercise?

  1. They were starving because they'd not been fed at home.
  2. The children had not been fed lunch by the school.
  3. The children just like ice cream.

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