Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ethiopia return trip Part 4 (second day in Burji)

Day 7

Teenage boys make the best babysitters, especially if they like soccer, are really tall, and can easily pick your kid up and carry him around. A had a lot of fun with Dawitt's younger brother Y all day, and I was thankful to have him around.

It was Saturday, which is market day in Soyama. After breakfast, Dawitt, Y, A and I walked around looking through the stalls set up along the road overlooking the market itself. I bought some soccer jerseys for the boys and T.

Then we met up with A's people again and they took us to see the orphanage where our boys had lived in Soyama. It is now a family home. No one was there, but we went in the yard and looked around. A had little memory of it.

From there we walked to the market itself. We bought some fruit and retreated to the shade of Dawitt's sister's stall to eat it.

After lunch, we were in the van about to leave for the village when a relative came to find us. Within minutes we were surrounded by relatives, old neighbors, and curious onlookers. I helped A greet the relatives one by one and I made a little speech. Then we got back in the van and drove to the village.

At the village, we were walking toward a shady spot where we could sit and talk when I realized that A wasn't with me. I backtracked to the van and found him playing soccer with the village kids. I was thrilled that he already felt so comfortable and left him to play with Y and the kids while I went off with a small group of adults.

That day we had a long conversation about life in Burji and life in America, with Dawitt doing a wonderful job translating as usual. I took notes on the yearly planting cycles, weekly and daily routines, and gender roles. We talked about the effects of climate change. I explained some of the ways life in America was different, and described our family's daily routine. They thought it was very strange that we don't grow much of our own food, that T cooks better than I do, and that the average American woman gets married in her late 20's. We laughed a lot. The whole time we were talking, A was having a blast playing soccer. He said it was his favorite part of the whole trip.

After a very nice afternoon, we said our goodbyes and went back to Dawitt's house in Soyama.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ethiopia return trip Part 3 (Burji)

Day 6

We all met for breakfast at the hotel restaurant. After breakfast, I asked A's people about the Burji clan system. Every Burji person I talked to in the U.S. asked me what clan our boys are in, so this seemed like important information. Working together, A's people came up with a list of twenty-two Burji clans. Our kids are Gooda. That means that their ancestors were from the Gooda "house." Every other Gooda, no matter where they live, is considered their "brother" or "sister" and they have a mutual obligation of assistance. The clan is passed down patrilinearly, a woman retains her clan upon marriage, and a member of a clan cannot marry another member of the same clan.

After I'd written down the information about clans, it was time to set off for Burji. Dawitt asked me to drive again. The road was newly-graded gravel and was much better than the main highway. It took a little over an hour to get to Burji. It was a really beautiful drive.

We went straight to the village and drove directly to the new school to deliver our donation of school bags. Here's some of the video Dawitt shot of the drive. The voices you hear are those of Dawitt and the kebele chief:

Unfortunately, when we got to the school the students had already gone home for the day. So we got back in the van and drove over to the house of one of the village leaders. That's when the real excitement began. Up until then, the only people who knew A was returning for a visit were the people who came to Hagere Mariam - a couple of relatives and a couple of village leaders. They had not told anyone else we were coming because, until they saw A with their own eyes, they hadn't completely believed that it was true. The morning before, they had made up some excuse for going to Hagere Mariam, and had gone off without telling anyone else their real purpose. So now, when A hopped out of the van, people reacted as if they were witnessing a miracle.

A handled everything incredibly well, but the first hour or so of our visit was COMPLETELY OVERWHELMING for him. I will keep the details of these reunions private, but I will describe a few things that made them easier. First, I insisted very firmly that we go somewhere more private and limit the number of people who could interact with us at one time. Dawitt made this happen right away. Second, I used my camera to show people videos of D, taking the attention off of A. Third, we got out the soccer balls and got a couple of games going. Finally, I took videos of some of the kids and showed them the videos of themselves, which proved to be almost as exciting as staring at us (some children even tried out English phrases).

We spent most of the day at the village. There was a coffee ceremony and many speeches. I gave the gifts we had brought with us. I delivered photos and news to two other families who have children in the U.S. and I took photos and videos.

Around 4PM we went back to Dawitt's family's house in Soyema, the main town in Burji. Two of the village leaders came with us. We met some more of Dawitt's many siblings  and had a very late lunch. Then Dawitt and his stepmother graciously invited A and me to stay the night there.

In the evening we went for a walk around Soyema. Then we sat in the courtyard of the house, I delivered some messages from Dawitt's brother in Colorado, and his siblings in turn gave me messages to deliver. It was all quite formal and very different from how this kind of conversation would go in the U.S. It was more like speeches again (by the time we left Burji I had given a lot of speeches).

Finally before turning in I went to use the toilet. It was a typical squat toilet and while I was peeing a mouse ran out of the hole and I peed on the mouse. Of course I screamed and ran out too. From then on, Dawitt, A and I referred to going to the bathroom as "visiting the mouse."

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ethiopia return trip Part 2 (reunion)

Day 5

It is hard to feel you are having an "African adventure" when your hotel shower has three kinds of shower jets, a radio and an AccuWeather forecast. Dawitt and B joined us for breakfast and we were enjoying the fancy buffet on the hotel balcony overlooking Awassa when the kebele chief called. A's people were already at our meeting point in Hagere Mariam!

Earlier I posted about some good advice for planning a return trip. I would add scheduling the initial reunion away from the home village. We met our people in a hotel about an hour's drive from the village, and it was so much better to reunite without hundreds of people watching.

We got on the road and started driving south. Hagere Mariam is about 120 miles south of Awassa, so in theory it would take 3 hours to get there. But the road south of Awassa is incredibly bad, and gets worse the farther south you go. By the time we were past Dila, there were not only giant potholes everywhere but also the pavement had warped into "waves" so that driving was a little like riding a speedboat over a choppy ocean. So the trip took more than 6 hours. South of Dila Dawitt let me drive for a couple of hours, which was exhausting, but fun. Dawitt was wonderful about not saying anything when I hit a pothole particularly hard, just raising an eyebrow at me. I'm happy to report I did not hit any of the people, goats, donkeys or cows sharing the road with us.

There is road construction going on from Addis Ababa all the way to Kenya and beyond, and when it is done, the upgraded East African highway will make travel much faster.

We finally reached Hagere Mariam in the middle of the afternoon and checked into the Bule Hora hotel. B went to catch a bus to continue his trip south to his family in Yabelo. Then Dawitt went to get A's people.

A and I waited in the hotel courtyard. A chewed on some sugarcane. We both felt nervous and at the same time blank, from not knowing what was going to happen.

I asked the receptionist to videotape our reunion. A went upstairs to our hotel room for a few minutes. Then the van pulled in the courtyard.

Part of me wants to write about the moment of reunion, to show that moment to people who choose to not keep in touch with their child's first family, to say, They feel exactly as you would if you hadn't seen a beloved child in two years. But it is not my moment to share.

Later we were sitting together on the hotel balcony and Dawitt was showing our photo album. We had shown him the album a few days earlier in Addis and when he started talking, he remembered every detail and who everyone was. I will never forget that moment, looking at Dawitt and feeling such gratitude that I will never adequately express it.

That evening we all had dinner together at the hotel restaurant. It was actually very comfortable. I talked about the boys' school success, their personalities, the things they liked to do. It was like any other getting-to-know-you conversation I might have, except with an interpreter.

After dinner we had a partially successful attempt to Skype with my mom and D. We got a very pixelated video and were able to shout a few words at each other.

Finally A and I went back to our room, and everyone else went to sleep at the homes of nearby relatives.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Ethiopia return trip Part 1

Day 1

Our plane from DC was a little late, so A and I had to rush through the Dubai airport. We got to our gate just as the flight started boarding. A few hours later we were arriving in Ethiopia. It was early afternoon. As we dipped below the clouds, A got his first glimpse of Addis Ababa and said, "I like it."

We got our bags with no problems and the owner of the guesthouse was waiting outside. The guesthouse was on a side road a little bit behind Addis Ababa University, between Arat Kilo (Fourth Kilometer) and Sidist Kilo (Sixth Kilometer). After we got settled in, we set out to find some dinner and an ATM. We walked along the side of the university and then down the main road (King George St.). We had no luck with a working ATM, but I had some cash from our last trip. We found a little restaurant with courtyard seating and had shiro for our first dinner in Ethiopia. Being back was wonderful. A seemed a little intimidated and commented that there were more cars and more people in the streets than he thought there would be. He had no conscious memories of Addis (but unconscious memories are there. By the next morning he felt completely comfortable, which is not like him in a new place).

We were both jetlagged and A fell asleep at the table. After dinner we stumbled back to the guesthouse and were asleep by 6PM.

Day 2

B, the cousin of my Colorado friend, is a student at the university and he had asked me to call him when we arrived. I called him before breakfast and he came over mid-morning with Dawitt, my Colorado friend's brother. Dawitt was to be our driver, interpreter, host and guide during our trip south. I'm going to use his name because I want to shout it from the rooftops how wonderful he is. Where do you go when you've gone above and beyond above and beyond? That's where Dawitt went.

After we all got to know each other a little, we set out to run some errands in Addis. Dawitt was driving. We went down toward the city center and tried a few spots until we found an ATM that accepted my card. We picked up a plug adapter for charging my camera. And we drove to the transition home where our boys had spent ten weeks while waiting for their visas to be processed. I expected it to be mostly empty because I knew our agency had drastically decreased the number of adoptions they were processing. But it was completely empty. I found out later that the agency had moved out of that building almost a year ago. Now there was no one there but a young security guard. He was nice (and curious) enough to let us come in and take photos. We went up to the roof deck and I showed A where he and D liked to stand and watch the nearby construction (still going on). We took photos of the living room where the kids had performed their goodbye ceremonies.

For lunch, Dawitt and B wanted to take us somewhere special. We went to a Yemeni restaurant and they gave A piles of all kinds of meat, including goat liver. I told him he had to at least try everything. Since I'm a vegetarian, I got away with bringing in shiro from the restaurant next door.

We went back to the guesthouse in the late afternoon, and B entertained A with arm-wrestling, ninja battles, and a push-up competition while I took a nap (thank you!). He stayed until our friend S came to take us to his house for dinner. S is the brother of our old Amharic tutor, and we had met him and his lovely family on our previous trips. He has three very entertaining children who speak pretty good English. Every time the littlest one did something mischievous, his slightly older brother would shake his head and say wearily, "This is so embarrassing." The night ended with the kids chasing each other around the coffee table. A had so much fun he didn't want to leave.

Day 3

In the morning we walked over to the National Museum. The human evolution exhibit had been my favorite on our first trip, and I wanted to show A. He preferred the imperial crowns and especially the swords, which reminded him of Ninjago. There were several school field trips at the museum, and the youngest students were far more interested in me than in Lucy. A did not like that at all, so we hopscotched around the museum avoiding the kids.

After the museum we walked south along the main road and had lunch at a restaurant with outdoor seating, then we walked back to the guesthouse for a rest. By this point A was already feeling comfortable and he walked ahead of me. I let him get a good way ahead and just watched him walk. He looked completely at home. He never once looked back. My heart felt like it would swell right out of my chest.

In the afternoon we met up with B at the university. We visited the Ethnological Museum (more swords) and walked around the campus.

Back at the guesthouse, B gave A some sugarcane. Now, in two years, A has only shared about five memories of his life in Ethiopia. But as soon as he bit into the sugarcane he said, "We had this in Burji." B confirmed that there is even a kind of sugarcane called Burji sugarcane. When we went out again, A was chewing and spitting like an old pro. He and B walked ahead of me arm in arm and my heart got really big again.

In the evening we had a special visitor at the guesthouse, the man who works as a driver for our adoption agency. When our kids were in Addis they loved this man, because he was very kind to them and because his presence meant a ride in a car. When they first came to the U.S. we spent hours looking at his pictures on facebook. It was wonderful to see him again.

That night we went out to dinner with another American adoptive family who was in Ethiopia for their first return trip. I think it was great for A to see other kids who were in a situation similar to his.

Day 4

We had a lot of delays this day. First we were supposed to meet B at 9AM but he couldn't get anyone to check him out of his dorm room until 11AM. Then we walked to Piazza to buy some school bags. (Earlier I had told Dawitt I wanted to make a donation to a school in Burji. He had called the kebele chief of our boys' village and had reported that the students needed backpacks.) But we couldn't find the right kind of bags at Piazza, so we decided to go to Merkato instead. We tried for a long time to catch a minibus. There was traffic everywhere, both in front of us and on the sidewalk behind us. Then we moved to an even busier spot full of minibuses, cars, beggars... we were darting around the minibuses trying to get one before the rush of people who were all trying to get on the same vehicle. A was not too excited about shoving his way onto a minibus, but finally B found one that was practically empty.

At Merkato we bought a pile of backpacks and B went to find Dawitt. A and I hung out at the backpack stall having a nice cup of coffee and talking with the stall owner. When B came back with Dawitt we drove back to the guesthouse, got all our stuff and drove to the garage where our van for the trip south was being checked over.

The garage was a business owned by Dawitt's family, so we got to meet his sister and a couple of his brothers (there are 18 of them in all!). A got to practice being hugged and kissed a lot. We had lunch near the garage while we waited for the van to be ready. And waited. And waited. Waiting is a characteristic of every African society I have been in across the continent. I might be a little sad if I ever have a trip to Africa that doesn't involve a long wait somewhere. Ordinarily A hates to wait, but maybe he was getting in the swing of things - or maybe it was his new tablet - but he was perfectly happy hanging out by the garage all afternoon.

The van was finally ready at 6PM. I was so happy to be on the road. We reached Awassa around midnight, checked into a swank hotel and went right to bed.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Some general notes about our trip

The family of my Colorado jaal are possibly the nicest people I have ever met. Our trip was a smashing success because of Dawitt.

Memories may not be conscious, but they are there. A felt at home much faster than he usually does in a new place.

Waiting is the quintessential African pastime.

Children in Ethiopia are treated and behave very differently than children in the United States.

The moment when they reunited... thank goodness there is video, because I could never adequately describe it.

After the intensity of the first reunions had passed, it was all very comfortable.

I am proud to be part of a group of adoptive families who are staying connected to their children's first families.

If you think our children are only ours, you are completely, totally, off-your-rocker, gone-round-the-bend, not-playing-with-a-full-deck, out-of-your-mind DELUSIONAL.

Our next trip must be much longer.

Details to follow...

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Gifts and donations

Let me start out by saying that there are a lot of different perspectives on gift giving from adoptive families to first families, and I do not think there is any one right way to go about it. It all depends on your family, your situation, and the situation in the community your child's family is from. I will share what we are doing, and a few thoughts on what I wouldn't do, but there is no way to generalize from one family to other families.

We are heeding the advice I got from Ethiopian friends and from Americans familiar with Ethiopia, and are bringing the following:
  • Clothes (this was what most people recommended). Since I am not sure who we will see on our visit, I got a variety of sizes for both genders and for both adults and children. For the men's clothes I got button-down shirts, jackets, and canvas pants. For the women's clothes I got long skirts from stretchy fabric and large scarves. The children's clothes are polo shirts and button-down shirts. Everything I got could be described as somewhat formal and conservative (no T-shirts) but comfortable and practical. I got the clothes at thrift stores, discount stores like TJ Maxx and Marshalls, a workwear store, an Islamic clothing store, and by raiding my kids' closet for shirts they have never worn.
  • A duffel bag to put the clothes in and leave with the family.
  • A photo album with captions written in English and Burji. (Galatome, jaal!)
  • Solar powered lights that can be used as flashlights or to give light inside a hut at night.
  • Soccer balls, with a couple of pumps and a supply of pump needles.
  • For donations to the community, I've decided to go with school supplies, since I am a teacher. I will shop for them in Ethiopia. It would be very heavy to carry school supplies across the Atlantic, and it will be good to put some money into the local economy. And if I wait until I get there, I can try to find out exactly what supplies would be most useful.
Again, this is just what we are doing, and it doesn't mean anyone else has to do it. I do feel there are two options that are probably inappropriate for visiting adoptive families, but even for these options, I can think of exceptions. The two probably-inappropriate options are:
  1. Bring nothing. When you are visiting your child's family before you have received your visa from the U.S. embassy - in other words, while you are still in the midst of the adoption process - then you should not bring anything besides photos. But when you are returning after two years away, I think bringing nothing is wrong. Any relative returning from abroad would bring something, right? Even if that something is just a token. To come completely empty-handed just seems rude. (An exception I can think of is if the child was removed from an abusive family. You may want to see them to give your child some closure, but you wouldn't feel obligated to bring a gift.)
  2. Bring a lavish gift that will set the family apart from the community. The latest iPhone, designer shoes etc. can create the impression that you are exchanging material wealth for your child. It may also encourage other destitute families to consider relinquishing their child in hopes of receiving material support. And it will cause problems for the family after you leave, because people in the community may now expect them to have more resources to give.
Our overall guideline was to bring something in line with expectations for a visiting relative, but err on the conservative side. A Burji woman here in the U.S. sent me a large suitcase packed full of clothes and shoes to take to her family; we are taking much less for our family. I had a momentary freakout that our family would be disappointed that we didn't bring more, until my jaal in Colorado knocked some sense into me: "You are bringing them A so they can see him with their own eyes. Do you really think they care what else you bring them?"