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. 

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