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. 

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