Ethiopia Trip-Our Second Day in the Villages

This post was written on Wednesday, November 11.

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I woke up this morning knowing I was going to make it to the villages. I had slept soundly through the night, despite sleeping most of yesterday. After careful calculations I realized I had slept 21 of the last 24 hours. My body put up a good fight and won, I’m so thankful.

This morning we were off to Tomas and Binyam’s village first. We spent the morning talking and playing soccer with his special people. Though the crowd of 200 people wasn’t there to greet us today, we had a truly beautiful time in the hut with our special people. True to our experience in Ethiopia, there was a steady stream of community members who came and sat at the doorway of the hut just to watch the ferengi (foreigners) talk with their fellow villagers. Binyam and Dailah remained fixated on the tiny chickens. Binyam, I think, because staring back at the dozens of eyes staring at him was just a little too much for my introvert. Dailah because they were simply too cute (one of T & B’s people told Dailah she should name the chicks. She named one “Cutie Patootie” and they all really loved that. )

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I loved that the special people didn’t just ask Tomas and Binyam questions but also Tariku, Dailah and Trysten. It was clear they saw no difference between the siblings and loved them because of their relation to T & B as well. It’s rarely like that in America where one of the first questions we get asked is, “But are they brothers?” about our Ethiopians, as if the fact that I called them all my kids wasn’t enough proof that they are brothers. The Ethiopians never asked if Trysten and Dailah were our biological children or how/why our family came to be. They just started calling Trysten, Dailah and Tariku “son” and “daughter” as well. What a beautiful thing that is.

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We were served roasted beans (delicious), crackers and soda. Despite my churning belly I was struck by how relaxed I was. Obviously no one in the tent save for our family, our translator and our driver spoke English but it never felt uncomfortable. It just felt really, really good to surround our boys with so many who love and pray for them every day-Ethiopian and American alike-and sometimes just sit and marvel at the miracles they truly are.

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We got to hear funny stories of Tomas and Binyam when they were younger. Both sides of the family (Ethiopian and American) loved to hear that, though so much has changed, in many ways the boys remain remarkably similar to how they were when they lived there. We have told similar stories they told with just a few different cultural variables. Some of the stuff I had worried might be adoption related with both of them turned out to be something they’ve done from the beginning. It felt so reassuring to hear details on those personality traits and think to myself, “Oh my, they’ve been doing that since they were babies, everything is going to be ok.” Very rarely with international adoption do you get to fill in holes of the adopted child’s story so I genuinely can’t tell you what it meant to do that in so many ways for Tomas-adopted at age 6 and Binaym-adopted at age 3.

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After many photos and prayers, we were off to Tariku’s special people for the afternoon.

We found out that one of Tariku’s special people had essentially told the village they weren’t allowed to hang around their hut the two days we were there. This special person didn’t want a spectacle made of the return of a beloved. It is perhaps why it felt so much like spending time with family while we were in their village.

They set up a soccer game, Tariku’s special person chose teams this time and definitely stacked one of the teams with all of Tariku’s people. Normally I would question the fairness as Tariku’s gift of excelling in sports ran rampant through his team, but it was clearly making his special person so happy so I just sat back and enjoyed the show.

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Zach and I sat on chairs with other special people to watch. Our translator walked around so it wasn’t as if we were holding conversations but there was something so universally joyful about those moments. To be watching the two worlds collide in such an ordinary way. No fanfare, no staring. It felt like a regular Wednesday in so many ways. I have to admit it was maybe my favorite time of the whole trip.

I’ve been asked if it was weird to not be able to communicate. Of course there were times when the translator was maybe in one area and we were in another that I would’ve normally started small talk with the people around me. But without the small talk, when we were able to communicate via translator our words had more purpose and more weight.

I realized that in America it’s so easy to “know” people. Maybe we small talk on a pretty regular basis, perhaps we comment on all the social media the other posts. We share the same language and perhaps we talk all the time but we don’t know each other. One of the truest gifts we received in Ethiopia was our ability to get to know our special people. When you don’t speak the same language there’s no fluff-our conversations were about the hopes, dreams and fears the other has. The stories told weren’t just silly anecdotes they were glimpses into a larger narrative about who my boys were then and how they’ve affected who they are now.

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We had some funny moments too to be sure because there was an awareness of the weirdness of the whole situation.

There’s no doubt God never intended Tariku to be with us and not with them, adoption was never part of the original plan. I think we were all aware of that in a rather profound way. But somehow we found ourselves huddled over a large plate of injera and shiro celebrating the messy, traumatic, complicated way in which we had become a family bound together by the absolute love we share for Tariku. If Tariku’s special person would’ve allowed village members in I have no doubt they would’ve recognized the common language of love in our adoring eyes and directed smiles whenever Ethiopian or American looked Tariku’s way.

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I was asked recently if it was awkward to be around Tomas, Tariku and Binyam’s special people knowing in some ways we share the same roles in their lives. In all honesty, I feel so grateful to have partners in this monumental task of raising our sons. An open international adoption is weird and inaccessible at times but when I’m feeling dark or hopeless about my abilities to raise my boys right I’m reminded of who is alongside me and I get a tremendous amount of strength from that. I feel more reassured that the boys will be okay knowing I’m not alone in raising them.

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When Zach was speaking to Tariku’s special people he said, “I just hope that I make you proud as his father with how I’m raising Tariku to love you and to love Ethiopia. I think of you often when I’m with him and just want to do right by you. Thank you for the opportunity to help raise our son.”

I thought it perfectly summed up our time spent with all of the special people. It was our way of thanking them for the gift it is to help raise our sons and to celebrate the gift in a beautiful multi-cultural, multi-lingual way.

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Ethiopia Trip-On Water

Ethiopia Trip-On Water

While we were having lunch with Tariku’s special people at the hotel I started to feel my belly rumble. It had been feeling off all day but I assumed it was nerves and excitement for the day to come. I excused myself and made the long walk up 4 flights of stairs to our room where I got sick and then laid down until the dizziness passed. Over the next few hours I did this 3 more times, always trying to go join the group afterwards.

On the final time, the getting sick part was so violent and lasted for far longer than the previous trips so it took my body too long to stop shaking and sweating. I lied down and fell asleep until my family joined me upstairs.

This continued for the next many hours, roughly every 45 minutes. I would doze in between but because this is a family blog I will tell you I have never been as sick as I was at that time. Never.

I didn’t have a scale there but I would assume that in the next 48 hours I would go on to lose about 10 pounds because of the combination of getting sick and lack of appetite. I’m typically right around 125 (give or take a coconut milk ice cream sandwich, obvs) so 10 pounds wasn’t insignificant. I tell you this only so you can understand that after I came out of the worst of the fog I couldn’t shake the gratefulness I felt at having 10 extra pounds to give.

As I slowly recovered Zach and I tried to figure out what it was that caused me to become so violently ill. Because he and I were eating roughly the same thing for meals we originally couldn’t come up with something that could’ve made me sick and not touched him. Then I remembered eating some fresh greens that hadn’t been cooked but had been rinsed by local water sources.

The irony that I had gotten sick from unclean water was not lost on me.

Even though I’ve been a pretty passionate clean water advocate for 7 years, being sick by unsafe water put things in a whole new perspective for me.

-What happens when these children, mothers and fathers don’t have 10 pounds to lose?

-What happens when they don’t have a support system like I had in Zach who took care of me in ways never foretold in our marriage vows? (Seriously, moment of appreciation for the man that Zach is. I am crying just thinking about his service to me.) What happens if their support system needs to work to keep the family alive or feed the family?

-What happens when they don’t have the world’s best driver leave his hotel for the night to get prescription medicine, rehydration packets and bottled tonic water?

-What happens when they don’t have access or financial resources to access those in the first place?

Well we know what happens to them don’t we? 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 in Sub-Saharan Africa is still caused by water-related disease. I don’t just know that statistic anymore, after personally suffering from water-related sickness I know that statistic. Without all the things mentioned above, I’m not sure what my survival rate would have been and I’m a grown, healthy woman.

The day after the special family trip to the hotel we were supposed to go to the villages of all 3 of my boys. I woke up that morning determined to go, regardless of how I felt. I was able to put some clothes on and walk downstairs but as soon as I smelled food I made the 4 flight trek up the stairs just in time to get sick again.

I missed the first time my boys saw their villages again because I was sick from unclean water. This is nothing when you compare it to the 44 million school days that are missed because of water-borne illness in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. Or the 64% of the families who rely on women to collect the family’s water-and will often go without when she falls ill.

Missing a day in the villages was a really big deal for me and I still haven’t quite gotten over the guilt I feel about it. That said; it becomes easier to not revel in self pity when the reality of the world water crisis is so much bigger than my few days of poor health.

Once I was able to get the strength to correspond I sent my sister (in law) Leslie a text saying essentially, “After this whole debacle I am even more passionate about the Water Party, let’s do what we can to not let this happen to anyone else.”

I’m so grateful I have a healthy outlet to channel my outrage at getting sick because of dirty water.

The Water Party is in 3 days. This year the committee working on the event is bigger and more motivated than ever to get people passionate about the water crisis. We are raising money once again to provide local people (this time in Tanzania through Empower Tanzania) jobs as well mechanics. These well mechanics will go on to fix the broken wells that are pumping out dirty water and making their families and friends sick. My favorite thing about the last few years of the party is that we’ve been creating sustainable solutions to the water crisis by providing jobs and dignity to my brothers and sisters around the world-empowering them to take the crisis into their own hands.

When I was sick Tariku’s special people went out of their way to bring me bananas. Solomon, our driver, dropped everything to get me medications. While Zach took the kids to the villages, the Ethiopian people in the Lemma hotel stopped by my room every hour to check on me and see if I needed anything-offering to go outside of the hotel for more medication if necessary. Our translator came to my room offering a ride to the hospital. Tomas and Binyam’s special people gave Zach a local herb that I was to chew that settles the belly. This bitter herb smelled terrible but worked in the short term. And the next day when I arrived at the villages, before hugging the children, these special people came to me and asked if I was better-praising God when I told them I was.

The Ethiopian people didn’t withhold love or care because I wasn’t Ethiopian; they took care of me as one of their own and did it in a way that restored dignity to me.

And I want to do the same for my Tanzanian brothers and sisters. I know there is so much pain and suffering happening right here in America but if we continue to close our borders (literally and figuratively) when the world needs us they will do the same when we need them. I’m not sure what my week in Ethiopia would’ve looked like without the care given to me willingly by Ethiopians, I truly don’t want to think about it.

So this week I’m going to celebrate that in the midst of so much terribleness in the world, on Saturday we will change mourning into dancing. We can’t change lives for everyone but we can do all we can to change the lives of as many people as possible.

You can join us, if you too are needing a little celebration. If you’re in the Davenport, Iowa area please come to the event. November 21, downtown Davenport, 3rd floor of the Redstone Building. Check out the event page on Facebook to hear how we use local vendors and artists to provide global resources. We have always believed that we can do both as Americans-support and encourage small business in America while working to end the water crisis. It’s the very best kind of 2 for 1.

If you can’t join us you can still donate. 100% of your donation goes to providing access to clean water because Leslie and I fundraise separately for the cost of the event. Go here to donate.

You can also purchase these beautiful handcrafted bracelets. Designed and crafted by local Maasai tribe artisans, these bracelets are a show stopper-I’m always getting compliments on mine when I wear it out! For just $30 you’ll be providing clean water for 2 people, what a small price to pay for fashion. Buy those here.

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You can also enter our raffle to win a $300 purse, a $350 bottle of Opus One Wine, an authentic Maasai kanga and one of the Tanzanian bracelets. We will ship to you should you come out the victor! Enter to win here.

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We are living in a moment of time riff with violence and devastation. The only way I know how to cope is shine a little light in the darkness. It doesn’t necessarily help the people of Lebanon, France, Kenya or Nigeria but hope is contagious. I just want to plant a seed of hope this week and see how it grows over time.

Thank you for reading these blogs of our trip. Despite the sickness (or maybe because of?) I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to take our family and for the outlet this blog has provided to wade through my experience.

Much love.

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An image in Southern Ethiopia of kids swimming, bathing and collecting water from this river. Zoom in to also see the animals doing the same.

Ethiopia Trip-Hopes

This was written our first full day in Ethiopia-Monday the 9th. I love reading what I was hoping before it all went down, particularly because even though I clearly had high hopes-it turns out I wasn’t shooting high enough. Tariku specifically was a changed boyman almost immediately. Hallelu.

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It’s 2:30am in Ethiopia and I’m hiding in the bathroom of our guesthouse so as not to wake up the rest of my family. Tariku has been in and out to use the restroom a few times already but in his sleepy state he hasn’t noticed me in the corner. I’ve apparently become even creepier while in Ethiopia.

Zach too woke up around 1am. As the dogs barked and fought outside and a mosquito buzzed around us we got to talk about the kids we love so much, now snoring loudly around us, and this country we also love.

When we were waiting at the gate for our final flight from Qatar to Addis Ababa, Zach, Trysten, Dailah and I were the only Caucasians at the gate. I couldn’t help but feel so grateful my boys get to experience what it’s like to be a majority for the next week and half. I know it’s something I take for granted often, being a majority in the country in which I live, but because they don’t experience it as part of every day life in America, I’m grateful beyond reason they get to now-even just for a few weeks.

When you’re parenting kids who have experienced trauma it’s insanely difficult not to want a quick fix. I would be absolutely lying if I said booking the flights to Ethiopia wasn’t, in some way at least, doubling down on the hopes that this trip can fix some of the pain my boys have been through. In my head I know it’s not that easy, that’s like taking an antibiotic and expecting it to work immediately on a chronic condition that is roughly as old as you are, but in my heart I just hoped the boys would see how much they are loved.

It doesn’t work that way, I’m aware, and yet already I see the small signs of the antibiotic taking effect. Tariku grabbing my hand in the van without any discussion from me, for instance. Tomas eating plate after plate of Ethiopian food not because he’s scared there won’t be more but because he so appreciates how much it tastes like home. Though Binyam is quieter and more reserved in nature than the other two, he has yet to shut down completely-his go to coping mechanism when things get intense-which is a really big freaking deal.

I don’t think I can pinpoint what exactly I’m hoping to come from the trip other than an appreciation for the country in which some of my sons were born, a chance to see their special people and get to know them as much as possible over the course of a few days and to reconnect as a family. These aren’t specific hopes, obviously, but ambiguous ones that acknowledge the fact that it could take weeks, months or years for us to see just how much this trip has meant for our family.

It’s a big day for Tariku today. We will be heading south in a matter of hours, which explains the tossing and turning I hear coming from his bunk. I tried to engage him on his hopes and fears regarding these next few days before we left for Ethiopia but he was really closed off. I didn’t blame him, of course, but I was so frustrated when I thought about the 7.5 years he’s been with us and yet his inability to reach out when he’s feeling anxious remains.

Tariku still hasn’t voiced any questions or concerns he might have for the most part but as I bring up what the next few days will look like he’s more interested now than he was in the last months when the subject came up. Last night before bed he folded and placed beneath his bed the outfit he will wear today (he said it was his nice outfit) and as he crawled under the covers he asked Zach and me specific details about when we would leave for Hosanna and what we would do when we got there. Marking that as at least the 5th time we’ve told him.

I often think if there was a way for me to take my heart from my chest and show Tariku just how much of it is dedicated just to him he might never for a minute doubt he is beyond beloved. Maybe then he could see that I would never hurt him on purpose because it would be hurting me so deeply too. It might not be enough for him to let me in but if there’s one thing my Tariku has in spades it’s self preservation instincts so at the very least maybe he can understand that I would never willingly hurt such a big part of my own heart.

Since that can’t be done I suppose I’ll just continue to lie awake at 2am in Ethiopia, talking to Zach about the extent with which we would do anything to make our kids feel as loved as they truly are, praying constantly that this trip allows even the slow drip of that truth to settle into their hearts.

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Ethiopia Trip-Singing in Joy and Sorrow

I wrote a few blogs while in Ethiopia but never had solid enough wifi to post them. I’ll post some now and then I’ll write a recap blog that is more about specifics about our itinerary, cost of the trip, etc for other people considering taking their kids back to Ethiopia for a birth place visit.

I just need to urge any adoptive families to do it. And do it as soon as possible. Zach and I don’t have a lot of money-he works for a non-profit and I’m essentially a stay at home mom-so I understand how daunting it can be to consider. But it’s so worth it, I promise. And I genuinely believe it’s essential for our adoptive kiddos. Essential.

On to the trip…

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As soon as we touched down there were cheers, clapping and singing. Our Qatar flight from Doha, Qatar to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was full of Ethiopians-save for the 4 American borne of us and 2 other Americans we would later learn were about to bike across Ethiopia (silly ferengi). As soon as the cheering and singing started, a huge smile lit up Tomas’s face. He was home.

This theme presented itself throughout our 8 days in country. From our 3rd floor private room, we huddled around the windows overlooking the front entrance of the Lemma Hotel waiting for Tariku’s special people. Our breaths held until they let out in forceful puffs, steaming up the windows. Finally, a glimpse of our translator pulling up and our special people getting out of the car one by one. Tariku, usually one to keep his emotions tightly in check, began to wave frantically-catching me so off guard it knocked the camera out of my hands. In his excitement he knocked on the window and caught the eye of one of his special people. She looked up and started to mirror his frantic waving. In this moment Tariku forgot it was safer to not let anyone know how he was actually feeling and just allowed it all to come out without over-processing. It struck me as the first time he had behaved quintessentially Ethiopian in 7 years.

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The next day was spent in their villages of birth. Tariku’s was up first. I spent countless nights before the trip praying that Tariku wouldn’t close himself off to his special people, knowing they would want access not just to him physically but emotionally as well. Not only did I think they deserved to meet my real “Chooch” but I knew he deserved knowing what it felt like to reveal himself fully and be fully loved in return.

And he did. In the pictures it’s easy to see he didn’t just allow people to hug him, he fully embraced them as well. Tariku also welcomed the wet kisses, hands placed on forehead while prayers were whispered, and tears of both joy and sadness that ran from the eyes of his special people down his cheek and on to his shirt. Though he didn’t shout out or sing-he was at home in a way that he’s not often in America. The land had a way of reminding him that he was made to wear his emotions on the outside because the whole community would do the same. It’s impossible, in that way, to be lonely in Ethiopia.

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As Tomas and Binyam entered their birth village, the crowds began to gather. Soon enough, around 200 people had come to celebrate the return of two of their sons. A church choir was brought in to sing, 2 chairs were placed at the head of a table for which to seat their little princes. On the table, flowers bursting with color and scent-all worked to join in the celebration of their arrival. Tomas, adopted at 6-years-old, has always been good at embracing his feelings. Perhaps because he had the most time of my 3 in Ethiopia, whether it’s joy or sadness he’s feeling-it’s quite easy to tell. But in Ethiopia even the tone of his highs and lows were brighter and more vibrant. His smile had no pull at the edges, only full abandon-taking up the majority of his face.

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Our Bini is perhaps too introverted to thrive in an environment where he’s seated at the King’s table and made to sit and watch as the community pays tribute to his homecoming. So he spent the time in his villages playing mostly with Dailah and the chicks instead. It wasn’t until we got back to the hotel where he could unpack what had just happened that he told the story with giggles and gesticulations not common with our Bini. He too, had embraced his Ethiopian nature to live life in a big way.

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It was essentially the same as we left the villages on our last day as well. Though I’m sure the words in the songs were different, there was still singing. There was still clapping and there were still tears. Even as an American who considers herself pretty openly emotional I felt rather stunted, I had no idea whether to laugh or cry. It occurred to me that I can do both as it was the happiest and the saddest I had felt in a very long time. Though I’m not currently able to do what Tariku calls “The Ethiopian yodel”, I am able to feel two seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time. Arguably that’s what makes them even stronger, being able to compare the high and the low right next to each other in the same moment. One without the other dulls them both.

Only time, the true author of our stories, will tell whether they continue to allow that openness in a considerably more closed off America. I hope so, because over time they will grow to understand that their emotions and feelings are safe here too, even if we don’t express it as empathetically. If nothing else comes from our trip but the ability to better express what they are feeling then it will have been worth it. So, so worth it.

Upon landing in Chicago I turned to Tomas and started clapping and jumping in my seat. A smile spread across his face and he joined. Next time, I told him, let’s start cheering too. Yes, he said, let’s do!