Monday, December 30, 2013

An Open Letter to the Ethiopian Prime Minister and Parliament

Dear Prime Minister and Members of Parliament,

Regarding the recent reports calling for the closure of international adoption in Ethiopia, I hope we can agree that every child deserves a loving family.  International adoption should be a last resort, but please keep it an option for many other children like our son, Wynray.

We recognize at the root of every adoption is tragedy, brokenness and pain. We recognize the most obvious and necessary place for a child is with their birth parents, and in their birth culture, when possible. We recognize great efforts and resources should be used to reunify families, or to place children in the homes of relatives or community members in order to preserve culture and heritage. We recognize international adoption should be a LAST option, but we fervently believe international adoption should remain an option to children who have no existing or capable family, whose resources have been exhausted, and whose futures will be limited to a childhood of institutionalized care*, or worse.  Adoption is not the answer, but it is ONE ANSWER that has the opportunity to reap long-term benefits for all involved.

We recognize there has been abuse and corruption that tarnish all sides of the adoption process. There are devastating stories, and this is not an attempt to gloss over the pain some adoptees, birth and adoptive families have endured. We live in a world where the velocity, volume and weight of negative stories is much greater than positive stories. We also recognize while the negative stories should not be forgotten, and adoption reform is a necessity, let us not forget that out of brokenness beauty and healing are possible.

This is my son, Wynray. Wynray is from Gambella. His birth mother passed away when he was three months old. His birth father, Amino, is a day laborer who commutes to a distant part of Gambella for work, and returns to the family home to check in on Wynray's aging, partially blind and mostly immobile great grandmother, Ajulu. If Wynray had not been adopted, he would have been left in the care of Ajulu. I am not sure if he would have survived. There are many dangers an active little boy would have faced. Their home is remote, there is little food and clean water, there are wild animals, and disease is prevalent.

I know because I've been there. 

In October, 2013 I travelled to Gambella to meet Wynray's birth family. I needed to see and understand where my son was born. I needed to connect to his roots and pay homage to his motherland. I needed to meet his great grandmother and let his birth father know Wynray is happy and thriving. I needed his birth family to know we honor them and will teach Wynray to be proud of his heritage. I also needed to understand first hand if his birth father wanted to have a relationship with us, and if so, to begin the process of building a relationship with him. We now have regular contact with Wynray's birth family, we have made plans to Skype with his birth father, and someday when Wynray is old enough, we will all travel to Gambella to meet our Ethiopian family.

Wynray's birth father, Amino
I spent two days with Wynray's family showing them pictures of Wynray's life in the United States. There was tremendous joy, love and laughter shared in those two days as well as tears of understanding and gratitude from everyone, especially me. I was told I'm now part of their family, and I accept that honor most graciously and also with responsibility. When I asked if Wynray's great grandmother needed anything, she replied the only thing she wanted from me was to raise Wynray to be a good man. She said she could die in peace knowing Wynray is being loved by our family.

Wynray's great grandmother, Ajulu

While every adoption is different, in our case, Ethiopia remains an ever present part of our daily lives from the art on our walls to the food we eat. We adopted from Ethiopia not out of pity, but because we simply love the richness of Ethiopian culture, and we knew we would be happy to open our lives to Ethiopia's beauty and share it with our son.  Like our family, we know MANY Ethiopian adoptive families who frequently eat at Ethiopian restaurants, cook Ethiopian food, listen and dance to Ethiopian music at home, celebrate Ethiopian holidays, and go to Ethiopian music concerts. All these families in our community constantly seek opportunities for their adoptive children to learn more about and connect to their Ethiopian heritage. Many of these children adopted from Ethiopia are now Wynray's friends.

Furthermore, some families we've had the pleasure of knowing, make it their lives' work to invest time and money into communities where their adopted children were born, or communities in great need like Korah, by setting up sponsorship programs, supporting orphanages, raising money to buy goats or cows for families, and kick-starting initiatives for creating self-sustaining businesses, and countless other ways of supporting Ethiopian individuals and communities. We hope and trust this collaboration between our people is as valuable to Ethiopia as it is to the families that pour so much passion into this work.

Had it not been for adopting Wynray, we would have never taken a trip to Awassa and fallen in love with the beauty of Awassa and the people there. We would have never gotten involved with Project Hopeful Awassa and sponsored a child. We would have never visited the Ajuuja orphanage and raised almost $2000 for infant formula, or purchased goats, or given our American families a Christmas gift that sponsored a woman's business in Awassa. If it had not been for our adoption, I would have never felt the need to visit my sponsored child's family and shower them with love and some necessary items.

With my sponsored child in Awassa

Loving on my sponsored child's sweet mother in Awassa. I was honored to give her some much needed shoes, blankets  and clothes for the children, school supplies and food staples.

Adoption, in many cases like our own, creates connected societies, connected families and mutual respect. It is our belief, when there are no other options for a child, that adoption CAN create a significant benefit to children, their birth families, adoptive families AND Ethiopia. While these children won't be raised by Ethiopians, they will be raised as educated, compassionate global citizens who will love and respect their homeland. And if appropriate, children like our son, will be able to stay connected to their birth families and give back to Ethiopia as they get older.

Wynray is happy and thriving in our home.  He is loved and adored by our entire family and community. He has been a blessing to our family in more ways words can express. We will continue to be in contact with Wynray's birth family as we consider them an extended part of our own family. We do not take our commitment to Wynray, his birth family, or Ethiopia lightly.

Members of Parliament and Mr. Prime Minister, adoption reform is necessary. Let us work together to improve the climate of international adoption, but PLEASE don't shut us out. There are many families like our own who would be blessed to be the last option and forever family for a child like Wynray. 

With the greatest respect,
Allison Waddell and family

*Studies suggest lack of one-on-one relationships with primary care givers is detrimental to a child's growth and development. Evidence also indicates that infants who are placed in institutional are will suffer harm to their develop if they are not moved to family-based care by the age of 6 months.
Rebecca Johnson, Kevin Browne, Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis, "Young Children in Institutional Care at Risk of Harm" Trauma, Violence and Abuse, Sage Journals 2008

Monday, December 2, 2013

Gambella, Day 2 and Family Day

A year ago today, Fredrik, Kysa and I landed in Addis Ababa ready to meet Wynray. I barely remember those people or that family of three. Our world looks completely different now. This time last year I'm not sure getting an update about a nanny goat delivering babies would bring tears to my eyes, make me do a happy dance and go running into our front yard in my pajamas to tell Fredrik. Yet it did.

While I plan to give you some insight into the challenges and breakthroughs of our first year home with Wynray, I want to save that until we are close to our year anniversary of Wynray being home, which falls in January. Tomorrow we will celebrate our "Family Day." In the adoption world, it is common to celebrate the day you become a family. Some families celebrate on the day you bring your child home, others celebrate on the day you take custody of your child, or the day a judge rules you an official family.

We have decided to celebrate on the day we met Wynray. It is the day before we went to court and the judge officially said the words, "he is yours." It is the day we walked into the care center and I kissed his little hands and Kysa said, "that's my brother." We are celebrating on the day we all met, on the day that preempts any legal judgement, but it is the day we officially became a family in our hearts.

Dec. 3, 2012 The first look.

"that's my brother!"

In honor of the adventure of becoming Wynray's family (you can read our post Shot Out of A Cannon or How to get to Ethiopia in 36 Hours here to recall THAT adventure), I want to pick up on writing about the rest of my time in Gambella. It seems fitting as we celebrate becoming Wynray's family, we also remember, celebrate and give thanks for the family we gained in Gambella.

When I last wrote about my first day in Gambella, I was writing late into the night because I couldn't sleep. I had pushed furniture up against the door of my hotel room and I had a head lamp around my neck "just in case." I was freaking out just a little. I didn't feel like I could paint the entire picture because I didn't want to scare my family but there were some elements of risk.

Now that I am home and the trip is behind me, I can tell you what would have probably freaked out my family. I didn't publicize that when I arrived in Addis Ababa, I learned there had been a bombing. Actually, two men blew themselves up near the airport, trying to build a bomb intended for the Nigeria vs Ethiopia soccer game. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility, the same group that terrorized the mall in Nairobi just a couple weeks before I arrived in Ethiopia. My friend, Fekadu, delivered the news after he picked me up from the airport. Fekadu has a calming effect on me, so I didn't freak out. But I immediately was concerned my family would hear the news and worry. Apparently, the bombing didn't make mainstream news back home. This has absolutely nothing to do with why I pushed furniture against the door of my hotel room, but it is something I didn't want to reveal while I was traveling. 

On the day Fekadu and I were to fly to Gambella, he got a call during breakfast and his face changed. We had a standing agreement if there was news of any fighting or civil unrest in the region we'd change our plans and I would stay in Addis Ababa. He hung up and I knew something was wrong, but I waited for him to tell me. Several sips of coffee later...

"So, there's news of fighting in Gambella." he said. 

My heart sank and started racing at the same time. I had come so far...

"Ok. Then let's get in touch with people you know in Gambella and ask what's going on."  I was already changing my plans and our agreement. 

So after contacting a few people who seemed to have heard nothing of the reported fighting, we revised our plans. Our new plan was to still travel to Gambella and if there was anything amiss, Fekadu would bring Wynray's family to visit me at the hotel. It wasn't ideal, but seemed reasonable to me. He explained most likely the fighting was between the tribes and not close to town. 

I started mentally revising my own plan. Back home, when I explained how remote I was going to be, my travel doctor advised me to have a medical evacuation plan. He had also encouraged me to hire a doctor to travel with me "just in case." He raised an eyebrow when I told him it wasn't necessary because Fekadu (whose nickname is Doc) was a trained veterinarian. My new (highly researched and well thought out plan) was if fighting broke out or I got sick, I'd just get myself back to the airport and take the next flight out of Gambella to anywhere. 

And so we traveled to Gambella. 

We literally landed in the middle of NOWHERE. The airport was tiny. I knew there were only three flights a week to and from Addis Ababa, but what I didn't realize until we landed and I saw a small handwritten sign with a schedule of weekly flights from the Gambella airport, there were only THREE FLIGHTS OUT OF GAMBELLA EACH WEEK. PERIOD.

There went my revised evacuation plan. 

And then the almost hour long drive through the woods on a dirt road, seeing only one or two people and passing only a couple cars, I realized that escaping to the airport was out of the question. 

At this point I knew I could either listen to the voices freaking out in my head, or the calm voice that had been gently but firmly encouraging me to make the trip. I took a deep breath and arrived in the present moment and decided to let go of the what ifs....

I also decided I just wasn't going to think about how remote we were, and how far I was from my family. As Fekadu always says, "we just think positive."

To read about the rest of my day read my post Gambella, Day 1

You might recall from that post I wrote of my hotel room having a glass wall that opened to a courtyard. There was a thin fabric curtain for privacy, but I could hear everything from the monkeys moving in the trees above my room, to music from bars down the street. I also mentioned hearing men's voices in the distance. OK. The the detail I didn't give you, so I wouldn't freak ALL of you out, was two very drunk men followed Fekadu and me back to our rooms. When Fekadu dropped me off at my door, the men laughed at us asking, "You mean your wife won't let you stay with her?" Fekadu, being the most honest person I've ever met, responded very earnestly and emphatically ..."Oh, no. She's not my wife." 

The men stood and leered for a while as they listened to Fekadu tell me not to open my door for anyone. 

Everything spoken between the men was in Amharic, but you don't need to be fluent in any language to understand drunk man speak. Great. These drunk guys know which room I'm in and they know I'm alone. I knew Fekadu was next door, but there was a stairwell between us. I wondered if I needed, could I scream loud enough to wake him? I feared I'd respond in the same way I do in my nightmares; by opening my mouth to scream but nothing ever comes out. Generally, I'm not the nervous type, but it was THIS conversation with the drunk men that made me move furniture to the door and wear a head lamp. I'm not clear on what I would have done with that head lamp, but needless to say, I didn't sleep until the sun started to come up.

It must be a testament to Ethiopian buna (coffee), that I managed to be fairly chipper the next morning. So chipper, in fact, Fekadu had a hard time believing I didn't sleep. I think the malaria pills also played a role in being in a slightly altered state the entire time I was in Ethiopia. I was the poster child for ALL the side effects including hallucinations (wavy walls), dizziness, crazy-graphic dreams, mouth sores, nausea, etc, etc. And while it's easy to complain about the side effects, Fekadu came down with malaria just days after I got back to the US and spent several miserable days in the hospital. I learned most likely Wynray's birth mother passed away from malaria, not tuberculosis like we had been told, and I learned of many others lost to malaria and suffering from malaria during my time in Gambella. I know without a doubt I was exposed, so I'm very thankful I had preventative medicine, regardless of the side effects. 

Fekadu and I spent the morning hanging outside at the hotel's restaurant enjoying free wifi. We had a leisurely breakfast, with lots of coffee for me, while we sent Wendu into town to do our shopping. I was SO disappointed I couldn't go, but I knew the guys were right. Even Fekadu showing up at the market would drive the prices up on all the things we needed to purchase. 

Wendu had a bike and was speedy with the purchases of a phone, shoes, bed linens, a dress for Ajulu*, mosquito netting, 1oolbs of corn and a goat. He came back to the hotel around lunchtime, we loaded up in a bajaj (taxi) and headed out to collect the corn and the goat. 

Since on the previous day we just arrived and went straight to Wynray's family's home, I hadn't gotten a chance to see much of Gambella Town. Gambella feels like a completely different country than Ethiopia. The land is different; dense and lush. The people look different. They are much taller and darker than Highland Ethiopians or the Habeshas. The energy is different. People seemed very wary of strangers, and they do not like having their picture taken, and they seemed more tightly wound. As I learned from the following week in Awassa, most Ethiopians are excited to see foreigners. In my time with the Project Hopeful Team we'd often get mobbed by kids yelling YOUYOUYOUYOUYOU!!!!  or FERENJI!! while running next to the van with huge smiles on their faces. In Gambella, I was mostly just left alone and given shy looks. Generally, their stern scowls would melt into a smile if I smiled first. 

I constantly felt conflicted about needing to be documenting every step of the way, not just for Wynray and my family, but for the many Gambellan adoptive families back home. I tried to soak in every detail. I was able to notice right away the difference in tribes from the tall, dark, muscular Anuaks to the even taller, darker and majestic Nuer with decorative scarification on their faces. Wendu was surprised I could see the difference. Really, I just kept thinking I'd just discovered an entire population of people who could be supermodels. It was hard not to stare or keep my jaw from dropping at how beautiful they were. ALL of them. 

Riding in the bajaj gave me the opportunity to see more people without staring at them so blatantly as walking around on foot. It also gave me a chance to take in what "town" looked like with lots of open aired markets, makeshift stores, abandoned half built buildings. We arrived at the food market and packed the taxi with an enormous 100 lb bag of corn, and then Wendu told the driver a direction to drive to get the goat. 

I assumed we would go to the livestock market, or to a farm but we ended up driving around town looking for a herd of goats on the move. After driving around for about 15 minutes, Wendu saw the herd and had the driver pull over. He jumped out and approached the man herding the goats through the town. The herdsman didn't slow down, but kept in step with his herd. When they reached an agreed price on the goat, which took about 50 yards, Wendu motioned for Fekadu to come. The two of them separated the terrified goat from the herd and half carried, walked, and dragged her across the road and into the bajaj. 

Suddenly, there was a pregnant goat in the bajaj. Wendu was very proud to announce she was not just pregnant, but she was expecting TWO babies. I asked how he knew, I thought he might have been able to feel eight little legs through her bulging belly, but apparently the breed of goat we purchased always gives birth to multiples. SCORE!!

Up until this point, I'd kept quiet about the logistics of how things were going to happen, but I remembered that big mud pit Wendu carried me across the day before, and I started wondering how we were going to get the terrified goat not only across the mud pit, but to walk with us on the 20 minute hike to the family compound. Actually, I believe my thoughts were more along the lines of "if Wendu is going to carry the goat across the mud pit, who is going to carry me?"

I suggested we stop and buy a rope. 

Possibly Fekadu was having similar thoughts because he quickly obliged my request and had the bajaj driver stop at a little supply shack. Once the bajaj stopped, the goat started bleating her head off. I put my hands on her kidneys to try to calm her down, and leaned down to speak gentle words in her ears. I soon felt eyes on me and saw about 10-12 men sitting outside the shack chewing khat, and stoned out of their minds. I'm not sure who enjoyed the surreal-ness of that moment more, me or those men. But I doubt it's everyday they see a white lady giving bodywork to a pregnant goat in a taxi. As you might imagine, people have a very different relationship to animals in Ethiopia than we do. Fekadu had already told me not to bother giving the goat a name and he pretended not to notice me getting cozy with the goat I named Carolina in the backseat of the bajaj.

Allison, Wendu and Carolina (the goat)

Wendu leads Carolina while Fekadu carries the bag of corn
We arrived at the path to the family compound. The goat had calmed down a bit and the guys started hauling the corn and other goods out of the bajaj. I took the smaller bags, Fekadu took the corn and Wendu took the goat. We had only walked a short distance when people started appearing to help us. Amino's family had put the neighbors on alert and it became like a big happy parade of neighbors appearing out of nowhere helping us with the bags and giving me big hugs. Many of the faces were new. As we approached the mud pit, one of the neighbors showed us an alternate route around it. Whew. We weren't far past the pit when I saw Amino's face in the distance popping up from behind the tall grasses. He was with a handsome friend and they took the last leg home with the goat, but not before giving me a huge hug. He was absolutely beaming. 

When we arrived back at Amino's home, they pulled out stools for us to sit on just like the day before. But this time the mood was festive and the smiles were enormous. I began unpacking some of the smaller gifts for Amino. I found the dress for Ajulu and she clapped her hands when she saw it. I had given her a dress the day before, but she just put it away. The dress Wendu picked out, however, suited her just fine. She was so excited, she insisted on wearing it right away. I had to help get it over her head, and she wasn't satisfied with just wearing it while sitting down. I helped her to stand so she could see and feel what it looked like. And then she hugged, and hugged, and hugged me. And it was awesome. 

 On my first visit, Ajulu took me in from a distance and gave quiet "wup wups" of approval when I showed her photos of herself and Wynray. On the second day she was much more enthusiastic and animated. While holding on to me with one arm, she sent her other arm whooshing to the sky over and over. Fekadu said she was praising God, and blessing and wishing me peace. After she calmed down a bit and sat down, I asked her if there was anything she wanted to tell me or tell Wynray. 

one of her small whoosing gestures, they got bigger and bigger!
She was quiet for a while and then (translated through Fekadu) she told me she never expected such a day to happen, and she said she could die peacefully having met me. 

I had been so worried Wynray's family was going to be disappointed I didn't bring him, and her words brought tears to my eyes when I realized my visit had offered her some peace. After a few more moments of quiet she spoke up again saying, "I don't want anything from you. I just want you to raise Wynray to be a good man. I know you will give him a good life."

I couldn't respond. I realized the blessing of her words was one of the reasons why I had traveled so far. If my visit was going to allow her to die in peace, then her words were going to allow me to live in peace as Wynray's mother knowing I had her full and complete blessing. There was so much love in that moment between us I thought I was going to explode. 

The next hour or so felt like a visit with family. It was silly and light, there were lots of jokes and laughter. I tried to temp the neighbor's little girl with toy cars, but she stayed at a safe distance and her look stayed as unsure as the day before. Wynray's 2nd cousin, Apio, was there. She pierced his ear as an infant and made the beautiful bracelets and necklace he was wearing when we met him. She was not thrilled with my presence at all. I wondered if she was angry that I had become Wynray's mom. She had obviously spent lots of time with him and loved him. I went and sat next to Apio, and asked if I could take a photo with her, hoping it might make her feel special and warm her up a bit. Uncle Ugala, her father, responded to my request with, "You are family now, you can do whatever you want!" Everyone standing around watching thought it was hilarious, except for Apio. 

This precious one was terrified by me, but she seemed to like the toy cars. 

Apio and me, she cracked the smallest of smiles for the photo.

After I left Apio and returned to my stool next to Amino, someone decided to start practicing how to say my name and one by one, the family and neighbors started repeating my name over and over. AH-LEE-SON, AH-LEE-SON. 

All I could do was giggle to myself...
Yet another surreal and delightful moment. 

Amino carrying sugarcane.
Amino disappeared and came back with arm loads of sugarcane for everyone to munch. Carolina, the goat, seemed to settle in quickly, and Uncle Ugala sat next to me to tell me about their plans for her. When we arrived with Carolina that day, I half expected the other goat to be lunch and Carolina was going to replace the old goat. To my relief, the little white goat was still running around. Uncle Ugala explained they had big plans for Carolina. He said they would never kill her. They wanted to have something of value to remember my visit, and they wanted Wynray to have something to look forward to seeing when he came to visit. 

It was the sweetest thing I'd ever heard. I know someday, God willing, Wynray will meet Carolina, the goat, and hopefully every one of the sweet souls I met on my visit. 

Uncle Ugala and me.
Amino sat quietly next to me while Uncle Ugala and some of the elder neighbors talked to Fekadu and Wendu. Amino and I just kept smiling shyly at each other and at some point I looked at his feet and realized they were just much larger versions of Wynray's. I told him so through sign language and he laughed quietly. There were lots more pictures taken and eventually people settled down for one last round of conversation. I explained to them that I wanted to stay in touch, and I wanted to be a part of their lives. I offered that if they ever needed us to please contact Fekadu, as he knows how to get in touch with me quickly. I told them again what a gift Wynray is to us and that we will do our best to raise him to be a great man, proud of his Anuak family and of Gambella. I promised someday he would come to visit. And I meant it. 

Fekadu, knowing me fairly well at this point, saw I was emotionally cooked. We made eye contact across the circle of family and we both nodded slightly. He explained it was time for me to go, and I began to make my rounds hugging and saying goodbye to everyone. I saved Ajulu and Amino for last. Ajulu and I held each other tight and she performed another reprise of whooshing her arms to the heavens sending me off with her love and blessings. 

I finally turned to Amino and gave him a big hug. I asked Fekadu to tell him, "God loves you and I love you. God will not forget you and I will not forget you." With a quivering chin I turned towards the path to walk away, and he grabbed my hand and pulled me back into an embrace and we both choked back sobs with tears streaming down our faces.  

I've spent a long time thinking about that moment with Amino, and trying to understand what those tears and sobs meant for both of us. Shortly after coming home from my trip, my friend, Hannah, also an adoptive mom, told me about a lecture on adoption stories she had attended. She explained that so often, in adoption, we think there is one story, the child's story. In reality, there are three stories; the child's, the birth family's, and the adoptive family's. I believe my traveling to Gambella was about binding our stories together when the expectation was that they would be separate. I believe there was great healing in that moment as Amino realized not only did I want him to know Wynray and I wanted him to be a part of our lives, but I had come all that way to see him because I cared about him. I believe he realized that to me he was not just a curiosity, or a story to pass along to Wynray, but a real person with a real life. I believe he felt seen and loved.

We stood there together for just a few short but powerful seconds with our two hearts and worlds colliding. Wynray's past and future fusing together with silent prayers and promises. 

I love you. I will not forget you. Thank you. I love you. I will not forget you. Thank you, we both seemed to be saying to each other. 

In order to give myself the courage to go to Gambella, I convinced myself I was traveling for Wynray so I could meet Ajulu while she still walks this earth, and so I could be able to tell Wynray about his birth family someday. I know now I went to Gambella for me, and for Amino, and to give our adoption stories the opportunity to move towards each other rather than apart. I travelled to Gambella to pay homage to my son's homeland and his birth family. I travelled to Gambella to connect more deeply to my son. I travelled to Gambella to investigate my son's story and put all the pieces together for myself. I realize now, I went there seeking the blessing of Wynray's birth family and requesting their love for me as well.

And it was granted. 

Because they are my family.  

Happy Family Day, Wynray! We are so glad we are your family. You are indeed, as your name suggests, "A Gift from God."

December 3, 2012 Our first family photo. 

* I referred to Wynray's great grandmother in the previous post as Aguwa. We learned her name is actually Ajulu and his great aunt's name is Aguwa. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

I am because we are

I'm going to work backwards here. I am in reentry mode and trying to slough off the jet lag and gently ease myself back into life despite the culture shock. All I really want to do is snuggle with my kids and catch up on episodes of Scandal and Parenthood. Oh, and eat a salad. Lofty goals, I know.

The moment we got off the plane and crowded onto the shuttle that takes you from the terminal to customs, an American dude hurled an f-bomb into the crowd because we weren't moving as quickly and organized as he would have liked. The shuttle, as you can imagine, was filled with exhausted travelers mostly Ethiopian, many elderly, many families with young children, many not speaking or understanding English or knowing American airport protocol. His f-bomb was a slap in the face. I was disgusted and embarrassed and angry he yanked me so violently back into American disconnected "me-ness." If it weren't for the intense need and desire to be with my family, I would have probably turned around and gotten back on the next plane to Ethiopia. I immediately missed the gentleness and graciousness of the Ethiopian people.

I mention this incident, not because it really was a big deal, but because it speaks to the gap in our cultures. We are a culture so overwhelmed and misguided by materialism, over indulgence, and convenience.  Our lives are fast, shiny, clean, and easy. We rush from one event to another seeking what's in it for me. We have clean water we can drink straight from the tap. We have toilets we can rely on to flush, and hot water in the shower. We can trust the power will stay on, and we rage when the internet is slow. We throw away fortunes of wasted food and our trash cans runneth over weekly.

While I observed various levels of poverty in Ethiopia, I also observed riches beyond what I have ever experienced. I observed community spontaneously bursting into song and dance, not because someone got a new car, their sports team won, or someone got married, but to simply celebrate the miracle of life and community, and to praise God for the gift of life. What our Ethiopian brothers and sisters lack in material wealth, they make up for in community, culture and faith. We see their poverty and shake our heads with pity at how little they have, but friends, I'm here to tell you they have valuable things we don't. The real things that count. Connectedness. Culture. Faith. It's not to say their poverty isn't real, because it is. There are many needs and ways to help. But don't for a minute think there isn't anything these people can't give back. I have personally returned from Ethiopia feeling more blessed and full than I'm sure anyone I "helped" in Ethiopia.

I was fortunate to travel the second leg of my trip with a man called Pastor Rob who was part of the Project Hopeful Awassa team. Rob is also the word for Wednesday in Amharic, hence we called him Pastor Wednesday. Rob astutely realized early on that we came all the way to Awassa to meet needs, yet we were being met with more love, graciousness, and enthusiasm than we deserved.

On our first day at the Ajuuja Home for Children, Pastor Wednesday addressed a crowd of young families who had come to the orphanage for care packages with these words:"Our needs and problems are very different, but the truth is, we need you more than you need us."

I couldn't agree more.

Prior to my trip, I ordered a bracelet with the South African philosophy, Ubuntu, saying "I am because we are" on it, and I had Fredrik, Kysa and Wynray's names engraved on the inside to remind me of my precious family, and the reasons I was personally going on the trip. While I am who I am because I am Fredrik's wife and Kysa and Wynray's mom, I realize now I am who I am because of my connection or disconnection with my fellow humans. My happiness increases when I think of others before myself, and decreases when I seek personal gain. It is a very simple formula, actually.

"For it is in giving that we receive."

I saw and experienced my Ethiopian brothers and sisters laughing, loving and connecting to their community and faith in an authentic, embodied fullness I have been yearning to experience my whole life. I experienced blissful happiness erupt out of nowhere, generously shared with virtual strangers. My Ethiopian brothers and sisters, whose lives are much harder than our own, understand something we've all seemed to lose in our constant race for bigger, better, more. Our Ethiopian brothers and sisters understand we belong to each other.

I am changed because I saw in the absence of newness, abundance, and convenience what true community means. I saw what true faith looks like, and I witnessed what real gratitude looks like. I saw a culture steeped in "we-ness" instead of "me-ness." How did we lose our connection to each other as we "advanced" with ease, speed, money, technology, and abundance? How can we get that connection back, and is it possible to do so grasping so tightly to the things that make us so "advanced"?

I know someday I will return to Ethiopia not because I see needs I can fill, although that may be part of it. I will return to Ethiopia because my experiences and relationships filled a part of me I didn't even know was empty. I will return to Ethiopia to address my own poverty.

I am changed because of my time in Ethiopia.

I am because we are.

Friday, October 18, 2013


1. A journey to a sacred place or shrine.
2. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.
intr.v. pil·grim·agedpil·grim·ag·ingpil·grim·ag·es
To go on a pilgrimage.

Why would I, a mother with two young children, take a giant leap of faith to travel to a part of the world I had only heard travel warnings? I kept saying it was for Wynray, and in many ways it was. Now that I've been, I know it was as much for me as it was for him. It was a pilgrimage. 

My consistent experience in Ethiopia is that you might think you know what's going to happen when you wake in the morning, but then the day has it's own ideas, and you just hang on for the ride. The last few days have been like that. A wild and wondrous ride. I've learned so much, felt so much, seen so much... and LOVED so much. 

My plan was to try to blog daily as internet allows, but the last two days in Gambella knocked my socks off. I want to be able to fully express my experiences, but I'm still processing. I want to tell this story right. It is a beautiful one, and I want to do it justice. 

I could write a novel about the last three days, and maybe I will. 

I can't wait to share in more detail the pregnant goat transport, the last day with Amino and family, the visit to Wynray's orphanage in Gambella, a story of modern day technology and sibling love from Gambella to Missouri, a great grandmother claiming to be 120 and by chance (?) wearing a t-shirt from the new home of her great grandson adopted in Michigan, shopping at the Gambellan prison, and also telling you about the man who made ALL of it possible. Fekadu, my friend and guide, deserves his own post. The world needs to know the work he does connecting adoptive families and birth families. He is a treasure. 

I promise to fill you in. But for now the pillow calls. I meet the Project Hopeful Team in just a few hours and we journey south to Awassa. I send my love to all of you back home.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gambella, Day 1

Wed 10/16
Gambella Day 1

I am sitting in my little mosquito tent bed at 10:00 pm in the Baro Hotel, named after the large river that flows through the town of Gambella. Fekadu, Wendu and I just ate a very simple, satisfying dinner. I had rice with potatoes, cabbage, and leafy greens. Through the beauty of wifi and an app called Magicjack, I managed to speak with Fredrik and the kids (for FREE!!), and Wendu spoke with his sister, who lives in Missouri, and is now the beloved daughter of a fellow adoptive mom/friend. 

It's quiet here in the hotel room, much the opposite of the Addis View, and I have to admit it's a little unnerving. The only sounds I hear are insects and occasionally the low quiet voices of men talking in the distance from the hotel restaurant, and footsteps of people walking back to their rooms through the outdoor courtyard. The wall facing the interior courtyard is completely glass, covered by a thin fabric hanging ceiling to floor. Fekadu just gave me the don't-answer-the-door-for-anyone-speech and I pushed a chair in front of the door, just in case. His room is next to mine, but we don't share a wall. I think tomorrow I'll ask if it's possible to have a room that shares a wall so I can pound or yell, just in case. There is no working light in the bathroom, so I'm wearing a headlamp around my neck, just in case. I wonder if I'll get much sleep, the glass wall makes me feel very exposed. Can you tell I've freaked myself out a bit? I'm partially blaming the malaria pills...

Overall, the room and hotel is much nicer and cleaner than I expected. It's set back in a wooded area, and the building we are staying in is very new and clean. It's humid and warm here…but not unbearably so. The ceiling fan makes the sound wup, wup, wup, and it reminds me of Aguwa, Wynray's great grandmother and the way she said it over and over today, meaning good, good, good.

And so about today...

Words fail me, but I feel I must attempt to write in order to preserve the details. 

FIrst of all, I learned from Fekadu that Wynray's birth dad, Amino, is no longer living in the family compound. He has recently found work in another part of the region and is living closer to his work. I learned he was returning home to visit with me. I am humbled and honored that he would take time from his work to visit, and I pray my coming and his absence from work has not endangered his job security. 

We arrived around 2:00 in the afternoon. After flying over lush mountains and miles and miles of undeveloped land, the airplane dropped for landing into the trees seemingly in the middle of nowhere. 
Yet we were somewhere. 
My son's birthplace. 

The airport was small, with folding chairs in the waiting area. There were lots of military police guarding the entrance. The parking lot was not paved, but gravel. There were only a few cars, mostly UN SUVs and one taxi van. While we climbed into the van, my bag was thrown on top. Fekadu assured me it wouldn't fall off. I have no idea how it was secured. We were the last vehicle to leave the parking lot and immediately we drove onto a dirt road with grass on both sides of the road taller than the van. I asked Fekadu how long until we reached town. 
He said 30 minutes.

The airport parking lot to the main road towards town.

The road from the airport.
45 minutes later, after traveling the dirt road and having only seen a few people and maybe two houses, we see a sign for Gambella. My first impression of the town is that it's very much like other small towns we drove through on the way to Awassa back in January, only that road was paved. Small make-shift, shed like stores lined the street. But the part that was VERY unlike the towns on the way to Awassa were the people. The people are TALL here. Tall and unbelievably beautiful, like supermodel beautiful. Oh, and clothing is optional. I saw many faces, particularly on the airplane, etched in tribal scars. Often the scars followed the frown lines of the forehead to enhance them.

We rode the taxi van to the middle of town, and as soon as we climbed out, we were greeted with warm hugs by Wendu. I liked him immediately, he gave off the smart and kind vibe in a big way. He will be our guide and translator for the next few days. After hugs, I noticed we were in the center of town, people were walking everywhere, and it was busy. Finally, I was on the ground and standing among the Gambellan people. I felt short and foreign.

Wendu flagged down a taxi. Actually, it's a covered moped. Like a tuktuk in India or Southeast Asia. They are called bajaj here, and almost as fun to say as tuktuk. We took a short ride to the hotel. After we put down our bags we headed straight to visit Wynray's family. 

Wendu warned us it had been raining for days, and showed us how the river was swollen. He had mentioned earlier to expect mud up to our knees, but Fekadu thought he was joking. We took a taxi 15-20minutes outside of town and out of nowhere the guys told the driver to stop, and they started climbing out. 
There, next to the road, was a small path. 
The road to Wynray's birth home. 

The path towards Wynray's birth home.

…and so, we started walking.

The grass was over my head for most of the walk, and I said a silent prayer of thanks for packing boots. We passed some neighboring huts and I got very curious looks from the people who lived there. Almost halfway there we came to a huge mud pit. I suggested we try to walk around it, but Wendu showed me how big it was, so we made our way to the most narrow point and he told me to get on his back. 
NO. WAY.  
I stubbornly started rolling up my pants and he continued to insist, and Fekadu insisted, and somehow I found myself on Wendu's back clinging tightly as he nimbly made his way across the mud pit. BLESS HIM.

I'm not sure I can tell you what was going through my mind as I approached the compound. I could see people gathering, and I asked Fekadu if "this was it?" but then I saw Amino's face appear as he stood tall trying to get a glimpse of us. I waved my arms over my head and his face warmed into a smile. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people. Smiling, warm people. The compound looked just like the photos Fekadu had sent earlier this year, but there were people I didn't recognize. The strange men greeted me first with affection in their eyes. I soon learned one was Wynray's uncle, Ugala, and the other was a neighbor. They took my hands and bowed their heads to me with huge grins on their kind faces. I made my way to Amino and I gave him a huge hug. Our grins matched even though his eyes were shy, and I imagine mine probably were too. 

Then I turned to precious Aguwa. She was sitting on the ground, with her legs folded under her. She looked ancient, wise and regal. I kneeled down and she took my hands and there were lots of "wup wups" from her and approval "wup wups" from the people watching. They offered me a small stool. I sat, but then reached for the gifts I brought them. The clothing I brought seemed stupid to me in the moment, although Amino seemed very pleased to have an NC State baseball cap, especially when I showed him it said, "Raleigh, NC" where Wynray lives. 

Amino, and his NC State baseball cap.

But the most wonderful part of the day was going through the photos I brought. The first thing I pulled out was a laminated collage made by Wynray's teachers. It had a painting Wynray had done at school and there were pictures of Wynray doing Montessori "work" with various smiles and looks of focus and intensity on his face. His teacher Kica, had written a beautiful report about Wynray and his kind spirit. I told Fekadu to make sure they knew the report was from his teacher and a hushed reverence took over the small crowd as Fekadu translated.

Here is the report. I cry every time I read it. 

"Wynray is an amazing child with a kind and compassionate heart for others. You can often see him working with other children within the class and on the playground. When someone is hurt or sad, he is the first to comfort them or help pick them up off the ground. He helps dusts them off and often comes to get me to lead me to the tearful child.

Wynray is a friend. He giggles and works with others well. He enjoys holding their hand or mine. He enjoys sliding down the slide and racing others around the playground. He wins every race.

Wynray is honest. He always shows me when he has broken something or admits his mistake. He is truly from the tribe that can not lie.

Wynray is fast. He runs, and does it well. He runs with purpose and force. We might see him in the Olympics one day.

Wynray is loved. He comes in each day and I fall in love with him over and over. His smile lights up the room and his energy is contagious. He loves life and is the happiest child. I love the hugs he gives me and the warmth of his hand in mine. He is a spectacular child.

Wynray is heaven sent

The men nodded with pleased smiles on their faces. I'm pretty sure they laughed at the part where Kica wrote about Wynray being in the Olympics one day. I think that report might have been the best gift I could have given them. Fekadu later told me they said they were not surprised Wynray is honest, because he is an Anuak!

There were two photos books Fredrik and I made. One was mostly photos of Wynray, the other book was photos Fekadu had taken of them when he had visited over the past year. All the men and Wynray's aunt, Aryiat, gathered around to see. The photo book of Wynray brought lots of happy cheers and proud exclamations. But the second book had a wild and wide range of emotions. I knew from our birth parent meeting back in December they had very few, if any, photos of themselves. We thought it might be meaningful for them to have some. When Amino started flipping through the book, and they realized the photos were of THEM they started pointing and laughing. As they pulled the book closer to see themselves, my heart almost exploded from joy. When they got to the back of the book, there was a photo of Wynray's birth mother. Back in December we asked Amino for her photo and he brought us the one and only photo he had. We took a photo of it, and included it in the book. When he turned the page and saw her image a hushed silence took over, and I thought Amino was going to cry. I almost regretted putting the photo in there, but seeing how moved he was by her image tells me so much about how he loved her, and how much they all loved her. 

The last photo left a flavor of grief in the air, and we sat in awkward silence for a while. I then realized Aguwa hadn't seen the photos, so I asked the men if I could see the books. I got off my stool and sat next to her on the ground. She was wearing only a skirt and beads around her neck. Her head was clean shaven and her eyes had sunken deep into their sockets. I knew she couldn't see very well, there wasn't a lot of light in her eyes, but siting next to her I could feel her life force pulsing strong. The neighbor women and children came and sat around us to see over our shoulders. I showed her the photo book of Wynray first. On the cover is a picture of him standing in our yard in a superman t-shirt, waving at the camera. The neighbor woman saw the photo and waved back at the picture calling "Wynray, Wynray!" I almost melted into a puddle right then and there. I pointed out one photo with Wynray standing beside the ocean and they all breathed sighs and quiet wup wups. 

The woman in green waved back at Wynray, and talked to him as I showed them all the photos.
And then my favorite moment of the day. I showed Aguwa a photo of her holding a photo of us. 
Yes. That moment really happened. And she laughed and laughed. And got down really close to inspect the picture. And pointed and laughed and showed her friend, and they laughed and laughed. It was pure magic, and completely worth the trip across the world to show her. 

In the middle of the fun with Aguwa, Wynray's uncle, Ugala, who had disappeared for a moment, came from behind the huts wielding a big stick. He brought it over to me and started breaking it into pieces. He handed me about 1/3 of the stick. I looked at Fekadu for guidance. 
"You don't know what that is, Allison?" 
Um, no.
"It's sugar cane!"
So I politely nibbled while Ugala nodded and grinned. 

Through all this action, there was a cat, a dog and a goat wandering around the compound. Small, quiet little girls came to visit and stare. I couldn't help imagining Wynray there with them, running around half naked with beautiful beads adoring his ears, wrists and waist like them...
but they were being so quiet and still so it was a little difficult to imagine...

Aryiat, Wynray's aunt, left us and started cooking dinner. Through odd bits of conversation, I learned that it was actually Aryiat, not Aguwa, who had attended Wynray's birth. There was lots of shaking, whacking, and stirring required in the food preparation. Occasionally Aryiat would throw something at the goat when it got too close to the food. Aguwa disappeared for a bit to go smoke a pipe with Aryiat when she took a break from her cooking chores. Neighbors appeared to check things out, and disappeared again. Wynray's uncle apologized for not having a bigger celebration for me because they didn't know what day to expect me. I eyed the goat. Thankful I caught them by surprise, I said a silent prayer the goat would still be causing trouble tomorrow when I return. I told Fekadu to tell them I'm vegetarian. He just looked at me and laughed.

Things started to wind down a bit, and I asked a few questions about the Anuak tribe, about their safety, about who pierced Wyrnay's ear, how long they lived on the land. And then I asked if they could tell me more about Wynray's birth mother. More awkward silence. Amino closed himself off, and clearly didn't want to talk about her, his grief was very close to the surface, so his uncle told me what I had already learned at the birth parent interview. In an attempt to lighten things up and turn things around I said, "Wynray is the happiest child I've ever met. I wonder if his mother was also full of joy and happiness?"

Amino smiled a sad smile with tears in his eyes, "Yes, he gets his happiness and smile from his mother. She was always happy and smiling."

That was enough to crack the ice a bit and he told me about how he met her when he was visiting his aunt when she lived in another part of Gambella, and he said she was a good cook. She cooked all the meals for the family and they miss her terribly. They had only been married a year when she passed away. 

I managed to croak out, "I'm so sorry…"

There were 3-4 huts in the compound, and I asked Amino to point out the hut Wynray where he had been born. 
We had been sitting right in front of it. There I was, Wynray's adoptive mother, sitting on the ground, the hallowed ground of Wynray's birth place, only a few feet from where Wynray, our "Gift from God," made his appearance into this world.  There was more silence as we breathed in the moment. This time, the silence was filled with peace instead of grief, and there were quiet smiles all around.

The sun was getting low in the sky, and we arranged to come visit again tomorrow afternoon. We made a shopping list that involves a goat and I hope it's not to replace the current one. There were more hugs and bowing and hand shaking, and we started on our way. 

Wynray's uncle, Ugala, ran to chase after  us. I had forgotten my sugar cane.  
Sweet man, sweet gift, sweet day, sweet family.
Wynray's family. My family.