Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ethiopia 2011: The Day-to-Day Adventures

Maybe I should have done my typical "before" blog post with my expectations for this trip, followed by the "after" blog post with the reality of it. I was so busy up until the day that I left that it didn't really cross my mind, and perhaps I didn't want to jinx myself with formally documenting my expectations for this trip. All I can say is that it was nothing like I imagined and everything that I expected all at the same time.

I arrived into Addis Ababa at 9pm on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt and my friend and her mom were there to greet me at the airport, which was a nice surprise. We traveled to the guest house at which we were staying (, but since it was dark, there was not much for me to see. My friend and her mom had checked in a couple of days before me, so they were all settled in and helped me get that way too. I got the top bunk in our room so it felt a little like girl scout camp. In reality, I was the only one who could reach it! After some catching up, and them explaining the lay of the land to me, we went to sleep. Or rather, tried to go to sleep. The dogs and the roosters outside seemed to have a different plan. The dogs are all strays, so they are scavengers and pretty much sleep all day and are very active at night. Hence the incessant barking. And I don't know what was up with the roosters, but last I knew, roosters are supposed to start the day with their music, not serenade people in the middle of the night! Luckily after the first night, the dogs and roosters behaved much better!

A Background of CFI
Compassion Family International (“CFI”) - - is the ministry that we served with. It is run by Peter Abera, and we worked along Peter, his wife Elizabeth, and the amazing staff at CFI during our three weeks in Addis. Peter and Elizabeth were also often our private tour guides :-)

In a nutshell, CFI provides pre-K and kindergarten age children with an education, so that when they get to government school at age 7, they are not behind their peers. Because these children come from the poorest, and mostly all uneducated families, they have no means of learning English and Amharic as they cannot pay for private school. If they do not know English and Amharic before they enter government school, they will be set up for failure, continuing the cycle.

CFI not only provides them with this education, but also two meals and snacks every day. And these children are provided a safe place to run around and play, all under the umbrella of a loving and caring Father.

So what did a typical day look like for us?
We got to sleep in a bit as we didn't have to be at CFI each morning until about 9:30am. I was usually the first one up and showered. That's the "morning person" in me coming out in true form. We had breakfast downstairs at the guest house every morning, which generally consisted of some type of egg, or pancakes, waffles, french toast, or cereal, and always a glass of fresh juice. And since this was a guest house, it was a group breakfast with whoever else happened to be staying there on that particular day.

Most of the people staying there were adoptive families, so we got to meet a lot of the kiddos that were about to head stateside to start their new lives with their new families. We met some amazing people and kids and enjoyed being the one constant group there for three weeks. And if you never believed in adoption or always thought it was for other people to do, I'm telling you - meeting those adoptive families and realizing that they are just normal people trying to offer an orphan a home, made me think twice and really opened my eyes up to the beauty of adoption.

The walk to CFI was only about 5 minutes away from the guest house. The typical scenery along the way included donkeys carrying bags of cement powder, or other building materials, kids walking to school in uniform, and roadside stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables (none of which we could eat), in addition to the usual road traffic. We were staying in Lafto, which is outside of the city centre, and one of the poorest areas of Addis. The first few days we always got some stares because I don't think the people of that area are used to seeing white people walking around the streets. Before too long, however, we became well-recognized due to our numerous trips along that street! And we also knew at which areas along the way we needed to hold our breath. Some of the smells coming from the drainage ditches were enough to make you lose your breakfast!

One thing I noticed each day is that whoever we passed walking along the street, no matter their age or gender, if I made eye contact with them and smiled, I always got a smile in return. I loved that about the Ethiopians! They didn't hate Americans :-)

Once we were at CFI, we pretty much had the same routine. We did an activity with the kids during morning break from about 10-11am. This could range from playing dodgeball, to blowing bubbles and playing with sidewalk chalk, to blowing up and playing with punch balloons, to making foam crosses or simply coloring, etc. More than anything, I just enjoyed spending time with them. I loved their excitement to see me each morning, the adorable and enthusiastic way that they called out my name "Leeeeeesa!", and the endless hugs and kisses that I received.

I remember the first couple of days I was a little apprehensive about them climbing all over me. I mean, they were dirty, smelly, unmatched, little children, and my Western, semi-germaphobe mind was inventing all kinds of bacteria and diseases that they were probably carrying around with them. (And truth be told, several of them had lice and ringworm.) But you know what? Each one of them is a child of God. And I came to realize that I would rather have a dirty, smelly, lice-infested child climb on my lap and give me a hug if that's what that child needed, then to shun them for something that they have no control over. Who am I to deny them love?

After our morning activity, we generally stayed around CFI for a bit to help out with various tasks and prepare for the afternoon. We walked back to the guest house each day for lunch and then had a bit of a rest before heading back to CFI in the afternoon. For two accountants who are not used to being around and working with children on a regular basis, Lauren and I struggled to maintain energy! And, unbeknownst to me before this trip, Addis sits at an elevation of over 7,700 feet above sea level. So not only were the kiddos wearing us out, but the altitude was affecting us as well since we live at sea level; especially on the walk back to the guest house, which was straight uphill.

In the afternoon, we did another activity with the kids after their quiet time/naps, and then once they left for the day, we hung around for a bit and helped organize the office and all of the donation item and supplies that we had brought and those that were already there. Lauren is extremely gifted at organization, so she was completely in her element! One of my favorite times of day was when we had to say goodbye to each kiddo as their family members came to pick them up. I loved meeting their moms and dads and siblings, and (for the most part) seeing the excitement of each kid in anticipation of being picked up. And more than anything, I loved the passionate little hugs that I got from them as they were bouncing out of the gate, and the endless kisses.

Each evening was up in the air and a little different; sometimes we stayed in the guest house for dinner and sometimes we had a driver take us out for dinner. Addis is not really a city (and in particular, the area of Lafto) where, as a white person/foreigner, you can just walk around and stumble upon a place to eat. The streets are safe, but daunting and intimidating for someone who is not used to them. And we could only eat at "clean" restaurants, so each one that we ate at had to be on a "pre-approved" list. During our time there, we ate at Chinese, Korean, American, Italian, and traditional Ethiopian restaurants. Several people made the comment to me that they were surprised to have all of those types of restaurants in Ethiopia, but really it's no different than having ethnic restaurants in America, right? I know Houston as an Ethiopian restaurant, and I'll definitely be visiting at some point!

The food in Addis was really cheap. We ate a LOT of food when we went out, and generally only spent $5-10 a piece, including perhaps a bottle of wine or a couple of beers, an appetizer and a dessert.

During our trip, we also did a couple of touristy things and took some time out of our weeks to visit some other ministries in Addis to see more of what God is doing over there. And let me tell you, He is doing A LOT!!! Most Ethiopians are Orthodox, so it was inspiring to see Christians living and ministering over there to share the gospel and introduce these people to Jesus; to give them hope and an understanding that they always have Jesus, no matter what situation that they are in. And that this life is just temporary, but there life in heaven will be eternal. And it will be perfect!

Some of the other places that we visited were another program similar to CFI, a street kids' ministry (, a government orphanage, a leprosy hospital and craft shop, Beza International Church, the Entoto Mountains, and Korah, the community in Addis that is based around the trash dump. Each one of these visits, in its own way, was impactful on me!

Leprosy hospital and craft shop

Our visit to the ALERT leprosy hospital (,_Ethiopia)) and craft shop was inspiring! There are a number of lepers, most of whom have a severe deformity (generally loss of fingers or hands, toes or feet), who are able to live in this place where they are taken care of and where they can make craft items to sell and support their home and themselves. It was incredible to see a man with no fingers and just stubs for hands, on a weaving loom. What was more incredible was how happy he was! Smiling and singing and showing off his skills. And it must feel so good to them to be able to contribute to society.

We saw numerous lepers in different stages of the process of making blankets, tablecloths, bedspreads, curtains, table runners, jewelry etc. And we walked away with bags full of goodies, all in the name of supporting those amazing people.

Do you know that there are over 4,000 new cases of leprosy in Ethiopia each year? This is in contrast to the 200 new cases in the United States. There are a total of approximately 6,500 cases of leprosy in the entire United States. So you get the idea. It's still a big problem in Ethiopia.

The government orphanage
I will start by saying that I know that they are doing the best that they possibly can with the resources that they have. But, their resources are simply not enough. It was heartbreaking. There are 150 children in this particular orphanage - it was at capacity. There was no color in the entire place, no toys, no stimulation of any sort. It meets the very basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. That's it.

We walked through the various rooms to see how the children lived. The infant room brought tears to my eyes. Some of them were a mere 3 weeks old and had been left on the side of the road. And they are precious little lives who were created by God just like you and me. The toddler room was probably more difficult for me because they are old enough to actually consciously crave the love and attention. And they look at you, and smile, and put their arms out to you wanting to be held. And others are self-soothing themselves, because they know that crying really gets them nowhere.

Most of the children are taught from a very young age to hold their own bottles and it was hard to see these wee little bodies feeding themselves with a bottle that was propped up on a blanket. There were fly strips hanging from the ceiling full of dead flies – which is better than nothing – but I still would rather see these kids in a place where they didn’t have to worry about flies to that extreme.

The ratio of child to caretaker is 10:1. Everything is so methodical and routine. I guess it has to be with that many children and so few people looking after them. What probably broke my heart the most was when we were leaving, the 2 year olds were finishing up lunch in the main room downstairs, and a couple of them were walking around leaving puddles in their footprints. They had completely soaked through their diapers and clothes and were dripping at this point. And nobody seemed to notice; nobody but the guests who were visiting. So please pray for these children and for this orphanage. They need it so badly!

Beza International Church
Both Sunday mornings that I was in Addis, we attended Beza International Church. This is an Ethiopian church that has one service in English (as opposed to an English church), so we were told that it was quite a bit more of an "authentic" Ethiopian experience. I will say up front that this Baptist girl is used to church services that are about an hour, no more than an hour 15 minutes. Baptists like to eat lunch. Ethiopians....well.....lunch clearly is not a priority to them. Which I guess is a good thing when you are worshipping.

We had been prepared ahead of time for an approximate 2 hour service. So I was mentally ready for that. When we hit the 2.5 hour mark, I shut down. I was angry. Why does this pastor feel like he can keep me in church for now going on 3 hours? At least that's what I was feeling at the moment. I had hardly slept the night before, I was hungry, and there was no end in sight. But you know what? I survived! And I had thoroughly enjoyed the first 2 hours. We spent an entire hour doing praise and worship. And let me tell you, these Ethiopians don't take praise and worship lightly. There was lots and lots of passionate singing and dancing, and an amazing worship band and leader.

I eventually got over myself and happily returned the next week. It was so refreshing to see a combination of Ethiopians and "white people" at church together. A lot of the foreigners were adoptive families, some were visitors like us, and others looked like they had been there a while. In any event, Ethiopians know how to worship and they have a fierce love for their Savior!

Entoto Mountains
Our last weekend in Addis, we headed about 30-45 minutes out of the city to the Entoto Mountains. After spending 2 weeks in a large city that has no emissions standards, I was in desperate need of some fresh air. One of the things that I loved about making this trip out of the city was seeing the different parts of the city as we drove through it - parts that we had not seen before. The further we got out of the main city, the scenery changed to more of the countryside with a plethora of donkeys walking and working along the way.

Once we started on the road up to the top of the mountain, it was instantly more peaceful and serene. There were loads of pine trees, eucalyptus trees that came from Australia, and just that overall mountainous feel. And then.....coming around every corner on the way down the mountain.....was one of the saddest sites that I laid my eyes on during this trip. Women, young and old, were trudging down the mountain. Tied to their backs were huge mounds of tree branches and logs that spanned half the width of the road. These women were hunched over from the weight, some with a look of fierce concentration on their faces, some with a look of agony, but all of them hardened. This was their job. They live at the top of the mountain, and carry down branches and logs to be used for various things, then walk back up the mountain and do it all over again. I’m not sure how many times they do it in a day, my guess is 2 or 3, because that is hard work and a long walk back uphill.

My first question was, why don’t they use trucks or donkeys for this??? The trucks can’t get up and down that mountain very easily, and not everyone owns a donkey. There were some donkeys along the way, but these women need to earn money and this was their only option. We would see them stop along the way for rest, and I just wanted to cry for them. But this is their reality and what they are used to. Somehow, that doesn’t make it ok for me. But who am I to judge; I don’t live in that world. I have not become de-sensitized to it like the people who live over there, and I hope that I never do.

Once we got to the top of the mountain, we visited the historic mud palace and the museum. Both pretty interesting, but even better, was the picnic that we had afterwards! We walked a little ways into the forest and our host (who is American) served us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, yogurt, popcorn, fresh mangoes, and cookies. It was divine and just what we all needed! A refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable break from the big city. I wish I would remember to get out of Houston more often for a little chance to recharge.

Livin' Like the Locals
A few things that we experienced during the trip made us feel like the locals. Specifically for me, those included the following:

• Taking the “public transportation” (i.e. old, crammed packed buses affectionately known as “blue donkeys”) to the fancy Sheraton Hotel to go swimming one Saturday. You can pay to just swim for the day, and the day that Patty & Lauren were sick, I went with our hosts. Needless to say, I now understand why Ethiopians win so many races. They come out of nowhere while you are patiently waiting for a bus and beat you to it. Sneaky little buggers. Finally, we caught the 4th bus home :-);

• We decided to cook at our hosts house one evening, so we went to three different stores to get all of the ingredients – one for the produce, one for the meat, and one for the bread. They do have “all in one” stores, but apparently those are only good for certain things, and really expensive for the others. Needless to say, for a girl who loves grocery shopping, it was fun for me to see the different places and walk around;

• Lauren & I came up with brilliant idea to get “corn rows” in our hair. Well, Lauren got a full set of corn rows since her hair is thick and curly. I just got a few on the sides since mine is fine and straight. Our hosts introduced us to a local salon, and we managed to come out looking pretty local and definitely got some stares from the people at church. We realized it was because they had probably not seen many white scalps in their lifetime :-) The kiddos at CFI loved them and could not stop playing with them. We often wondered what they thought of us trying to look like them. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, right?

• A couple of times, our drivers took us to Kaldi’s, which is the Ethiopian version of Starbucks. It has a similar green logo and everything. The atmosphere is very similar to a Starbucks, except it is not counter service and they have a more extensive food menu. Students would be studying there, friends would be catching up, and white people would be enjoying a nice macchiato :-)

Alright my friends, I think that’s enough for Ethiopia Blog #2. I think there will be one more, and hopefully just one more. This is exhausting! And I truly hope that through these stories, you were able to close your eyes and maybe be there with me for parts of this amazing, truly life-changing trip.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ethiopia 2011: Leaving a Piece of My Heart in Addis

I’ll be honest with you up front. Starting this blog is a very daunting task. There is so much that I want to put in here, but I know that I will never get it all in, nor would I subject you to the pages upon pages that would certainly be the result if I did. If I were to tell you everything I wanted to, there would be a lot of emotion, some pretty funny stories, some graphic descriptions of bodily functions, and overall an outpouring of genuine love for the Ethiopian people. But I won’t do that. At least not right now. Because I don’t think I have it in me to do all at once. And I don’t know what this blog post will end up being like, because I haven’t thought it through, so I beg your forgiveness up front for what may seem like a sporadic ramble of stories and emotions.

I will start with this: I left a piece of my heart in Ethiopia. And the story begins…

I played a game when I was in Ethiopia with my two travel buddies (my good friend Lauren and her mom, Patty). I would ask them for the first two words that came to mind to describe a particular something or someone. I liked this game because it was a quick way to understand their impression of something without the opportunity for them to filter things. And it worked great! So I’m curious, assuming that most of you blog readers out there have never been to Ethiopia, what two words would you choose to describe your impressions of Ethiopia?

I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that maybe they would be poor and hungry? Or hot and dry? Perhaps you know a little more about the country and the humanitarian issues that it continually faces, and maybe you chose orphans and poverty? All of these would be right. But after spending three weeks over there, they would not be the words that I would choose. Because while all of those words describe Ethiopia perfectly, that is not the impression that I walked away with; that’s not what I felt about the Ethiopian people. My words, to describe this poor, poverty-stricken, hungry, hot, dry country full of orphans, would be compassion and resilience.

You see, the people of Ethiopia have fully embraced the notion of compassion. They truly live it. Suggested synonyms for compassion are sympathy, empathy, concern, kindness, consideration, and care. And these are all words that I would use to describe the people of Ethiopia. It goes without saying that not everyone in Ethiopia can qualify as a compassionate person. But my goodness, I encountered so many compassionate people during my three week journey that I have no reservations in making that general statement. And I’m not just talking about people who are involved in the humanitarian effort there or who are acting as the hands and feet of Jesus serving God’s people. I’m talking about those people AND the people on the streets, the people who work in the guest houses, the poor families and their poor kids – all of the people of Ethiopia whom I ran into and interacted with on a daily basis. They are no superstars, but they are making a difference. And their compassion was apparent.

Ethiopians consider everyone family. Kids roam the streets from dawn until dusk unharmed. They have to roam the streets because they often have nothing but their legs and feet to get them to where they need to go, whether that be school, running errands for the family, fetching water an hour and a half away from their home, finding or begging for food, perhaps working a minor job like shoe shining to help bring in income; whatever it may be. They don’t stay home because at home they are idle. And Ethiopians really can’t afford to be idle. Most of them don’t know how they are getting tomorrow’s meal, or may need today’s wages to buy it. And most of them eat once a day, and that one time a day is anything but a feast. I wonder if all of the compassion hovering over the city of Addis Ababa helps sustain these people? It must, right? Because there really is no other explanation for it.

During my journey in Addis, I was fortunate enough to go on eight home visits. The organization that we were working with makes home visits for each of its kiddos at least once a year, kind of as a general check on the status of the family, but also to deliver some “gift” items such as oil or sugar. We did a few other home visits on our day spent visiting Korah (more info to come on that in a separate blog.…I think). Each of these home visits provided a completely different experience, but the one thing they all had in common was the living conditions. Imagine a tin or mud shack the size of your kitchen (unless it’s really big!) or office at work. Or perhaps your outside patio. Now imagine that with no floor, just dirt, and either tin or mud walls. And there could be anywhere from 2 – 8 people living in this structure. Most that we saw had only one bed and no “real” other place to sit. All of their possessions fit into this one room, which should indicate how many possessions they have. Some had one light bulb hanging from a wire running across the ceiling, and some had no electricity. None of them had running water, but some had access to a pump relatively closeby, where they may or may not have to pay for the water. Others had to walk up to an hour and a half each way to get water. So I’ll stop there, but you get the idea.

Now, here is a brief glimpse of each of our visits: 1) a single mother with one daughter who loves and cares for that sweet girl so much that she left her entire family in the countryside to come to Addis for work, 2) an HIV positive mother with one son who fights her disease every single day, but loves that boy to pieces and is so proud of him, 3) a schizophrenic mother who is not on medication, a father with ulcers who only sporadically works, and two of the most precious girls that you will ever meet, who crave love and attention because they don’t get it at home, 4) a great aunt who loves on her great niece because she was abandoned by her mother, 5) a single mom who tries her hardest to make a happy home for her sweet little daughter and the love that she has for her radiates in that little shack, 6) a room so small that the front door hardly opens, but is home to four people who cling together tightly as a family, 7) an 88 yr old blind leper and his family, and 8) a crazy funny lady who lives with her husband and one daughter in a tiny room with a menagerie of other “collectibles”.

Do you get it? Can you picture any of this?  I’m guessing probably not, because as an American, I would not have believed it until I saw it. And my mind, as quirky and creative as it can be at times, would never, ever have created these images as homes. But this is their reality. And even with this reality, these people are full of compassion.

Where else did I see compassion amongst the people of Ethiopia? When I observed a parent picking up a child from school, about to start the 45 minute walk home, and that child looked up at mom or dad with a big smile and got a loving hug in return, that’s compassion. When I saw parents toting around their little ones in slings on their backs, while carrying bags of other items and clearly burdened by their load, that’s compassion. And I saw an Ethiopian who is physically handicapped, either sliding across the road on skateboard or walking very slowly with a cane across the street, and people were patient and helpful, that’s compassion. I don’t know that the Western world has that kind of compassion; at least that which is not out of obligation or pride.

When I think of the word resilience, I think of a man who gets back up again each time he is beaten down. Or someone who perseveres through trying times, or perhaps a woman who stands up for what she believes in despite the consequences. Synonyms for resilience include flexibility, spirit, hardiness, and toughness. In Addis, resilience is seen in just about every face that you encounter.

Just to give you a frame of reference, there are approximately 100 birr to every $6. So each birr is about 6 cents. A normal main dish at a restaurant costs anywhere from 30 – 60 birr, so give or take $3. And when you are walking along the streets and someone comes up to you begging for money, they ask for 1 birr. ONE BIRR! That’s how precious money is to the Ethiopians. They are resilient. They fight back every day; fighting against the things that continually try to push them down, like a growling stomach, aching pains from hard, manual labor, the struggle to learn English and Amharic, inclement weather than can destroy what home they have, and countless other factors.

I like to think that children are known for their resilience. Maybe it’s because they are so innocent and trusting. This world has not yet robbed them of that. Looking into the faces of the 24 children with whom I loved on, hugged, was the happy recipient of many kisses from, played dodgeball and soccer with, sung with, danced with, prayed with, cried with, blew bubbles with, took pictures of, created with – I can’t help but see faces of resilience. Each family situation is different, but those kids are still young enough to bounce back. They know hunger, they know pain, they no true sadness and hurt. But they know how to love like nobody else. And a piece of my heart remains with each one of them still today. It probably always will.

Being realistic for a minute, it is in our human nature to desire love and affection; and acceptance and affirmation. As children it comes in the purest form. As adults, generally it takes on a different form. But is it any wonder that I was literally on a high over there? I mean, this girl was getting loved on and attention more than I EVER have in my life. For three weeks solid! It felt strange to me, that I was supposed to be putting forth the effort to love on THEM and make THEM happy, yet I was feeling so loved. I guess that is the true meaning of God’s love, isn’t it? It works both ways.

Here are a few other tidbits or thoughts of interest from my trip:

• The streets of Addis work in harmony. Cars, trucks, donkeys, goats, people, sheep, buses, horse & buggies, stray dogs – they all dance together in a weird, fascinating way. There are few stop signs or traffic lights. It works. It’s chaotic and frightening for an American, but it works;

• The Ethiopians generally dress in many, long layers. Even in the middle of summer. Apparently they are cooler keeping the sun off of them then they are with less clothes on;

• The children over there have no concept of gender-specific clothing or colors. I guess it makes sense when you don’t have a lot, but I always did a double take when I saw a boy wearing white socks with green lace, or a pink sweatsuit, or a little girl wearing a Cars hooded sweatshirt ;

• They pick their noses and spit like it’s nothing;

• They love having their picture taken and they love white people. We’ve never colonized or corrupted them.

So here I am at the end of this blog. I will eventually write another blog telling more about the day to say things that we did, work in some funny stories about the kids, and hit the major sites that we saw. I will end this by saying that I was moved like never before. I expected to feel something major in my bones after this trip. And with no doubt, my bones are feeling the impact of compassion and resilience from a people who have every excuse not to be compassionate and resilient.

It is apparent that God is at work in Ethiopia. And I am so happy to have had the privilege to be a part of it, even if it was only for three weeks. And I also know, without a doubt, that a piece of my heart resides in Addis Ababa still today. It resides with each one of those children whom I came to understand and love. And it resides with a people who surprised me with the hope that they hold in their hearts, despite the reality in which they live. More to come, my friends…