My thoughts on Africa

Monday, November 29, 2010

All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. Galatians 2:10

I failed miserably at documenting that last part of our trip. For the first 5 days we were washed in waves of emotion. Starting with the reunion with Abe's mother and the difficult day at Legatafu, to the amazing grace of Korah and the sweet time with the babies to the reality of Kolfe and Kechene. There were so many highlights that it was easy to capture each day with a single story. The end of the week was just as sweet and in many ways much more personal. Our last dental day we were at Luke Society.

(Patients waiting at Luke Society)

This clinic was established by a doctor who experienced a rebirth in a hospital bed. Debilitated by a heart condition he met Jesus at the brink of death and committed to help the poor when he recovered. An incredible story in itself, but the reason it meant so much to me to be there is this was a special place for our dear friend Dereje. The doctor and Dereje are very good friends who share a love for God and a desire to help the poor.

(Here is Dereje at Luke Society with a sweet woman who came back after receiving dental services to thank Dr. Moody and the team and to pray a blessing over all of us for coming.)

I love Dereje is because he represents HOPE. Hope in a place so desperately in need of something good to come along. I heard a great description of hope this week from on of my greatest spiritual guides. Ok just kidding....it was Oprah, but it was so true I had to write it down. As she was dolling out a million dollars in "favorite things" to her audience she ended the show by saying she loves giving away all of the extravegant items not because of the material gifts themselves, but to her they represent HOPE. A hope that when you least expect it something wonderful can come your way and change your life. I'm not blind to the contrast between Oprah giving away a car and Dereje setting up a dental check up.....but they do represent something very similar.

Dereje is a man who was given the opportunity to be educated. Rather than take his education and flee this country that offers so little incentive to stay, he takes what he has been given and multiplies it amoung the masses. In addition to working a full time job in Addis Ababa (which is no small feat in itself to be employed) he set up a ministry for street children called the Love and Hope initiative (there is that H word again). He gathered a group of his friends and community leaders who refused to be apathetic in a city consumed by a poverty that few in our world can appreciate and they chose to make a difference in the lives of 100 street kids. They have an office at Luke Society and when we were there we were able to bring backpacks that were donated, stuffed full of school supplies for the kids they serve and two additional trunks full of items that were collected in the States and carried on the plane with us. It was as if we had given him a kidney. These kids are Dereje's passion. He shared the verse above from Galatians and told me it is their theme.

There is often a question that arises when Africa becames a topic of conversation, "Can one man alone change a country like Ethiopia?" It's paralyzing to even think about. But this one man is absolutely making a difference in the lives of 100 kids who I have no doubt will make a difference in the lives of 100 more and Ethiopia will not remain stagnant as long as he has a breath of life to give back to others.

In the world I live in, through the things I have seen, I believe HOPE is one of the most powerful thing we have to give.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Oskar Schindler: I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don't know. If I'd just... I could have got more.
Itzhak Stern: Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.
Oskar Schindler: If I'd made more money... I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I'd just...
Itzhak Stern: There will be generations because of what you did.
Oskar Schindler: I didn't do enough!
Itzhak Stern: You did so much.
[Schindler looks at his car]
Oskar Schindler: This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people.
[removing Nazi pin from lapel]
Oskar Schindler: This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this.
Oskar Schindler: I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't! And I... I didn't!

Processing through this trip IS a process. I realize it has taken me three weeks to get it all down in words. I plan on finishing documenting the trip and giving a recount of each day, each location, each story saw and heard. But before I do I need a moment to analyze.

This trip was so different from my last trip to Africa. When I went to South Africa it was the culmination of a very selfish dream. I wanted to see the country, meet the people, SAY i had been there. Even though my heart was in a place of compassion, my goal was not to serve the people of South Africa. This time everything was different. I am older, and while I wouldn't necessarily say wiser - I have had some life experiences that give me a different perspective. In 1998 when I arrived in Cape Town I was a single law student who had never really lived on my own. Sure I went off to college but there is such a security net. A 3 hour drive from home and a campus full of people just like me. I was fearless and ready to change the world and to absorb the entire experience. To this day I can't imagine how my parents just happily put their daughter on a plane alone, to live in a place she had never seen half way around the world. They knew it would make me a better person. So off I went, with no cares in the world my perspective then was different, my purpose was different.

In 2010 my life has a few more complications. Maybe complications is not the right word, more like responsibilities. I don't have the luxury of sitting down for 2 or 3 hours and just journaling my thoughts about my trip. For one, I have a full time job that I had to consider being absent from to go on this trip. I've mentioned before that my boss is one of my biggest advocates and not only was he supportive, but everyone I work with was excited for me. Another "small" change was that I have 2 children. Children who are at a very precious age. Children who love to be tucked into bed each night and get upset if their ritual prayers and good night wishes are interrupted. Children who I hate to leave each morning and long to be with each afternoon. Children that I wouldn't hear tell me they loved me for 10 days. And above all those changes I have a husband. A husband who shares my desire to use our resources to make the world a better place. A husband who works hard to provide for his family and to be the kind of father he was blessed to have. A husband who was willing to sacrifice to make this trip a reality for me.

And life has shown me things. Since I last went to Africa my father and father-in-law have both died. One unexpectedly and one as we anticipated, both leaving a gaping whole in our lives. My job has shown me things. Things that I couldn't imagine human beings would do to one another. The world has shown me things. As a country we have experienced tragedy and loss. And to top it all off we now have the Internet at our fingertips and with more information we have less communication.

As I process I realize that my heart is hardened in many ways. I am sceptical of people and their motives. I am not as quick to give the benefit of the doubt and even quicker to throw out a judgment.

But there is something about Africa that changes you to the soul. In many ways it is like holding a mirror up and seeing what your character is truly made of. As much as I think I am a grateful person, how would my attitude be if I lived in the shanties I saw. Or if I had to walk 4 miles to get water. How shallow am I for getting upset when they don't get my order right at a fast food place or if I have to wait 10 extra minutes for a prescription. I realize how entitled I have become. To look around and see these precious people with joyful smiles, it's humbling to think about what gets me in a bad mood.

(One of Bobbie Jo's beautiful images)

I also realize it is easy for me to have faith given the life I have. Africa brings about a lot of questions. How can this happen in a world that has so much? Why do the people allow their leaders to take advantage of them and why do the leaders think it is OK? Why did I get the opportunity to be raised by a stable and loving family when my birth mother could have so easily chosen abortion or tried to raise me herself or abandoned me like the children we saw. Why do I get to live in America, the land of plenty, and raise my children in a comfortable home? I have learned that I have to focus. There are not answers to these questions. I do not believe God wants me to be burdened by the guilt. I believe he wants me to be grateful for the blessings I have. More importantly it is what I do with those blessings that matter. As you stand in a sea of orphaned children and realize a few hundred dollars a year could provide clean water and clothes and education for them shouldn't that make you reassess where you spend your money? Do you really need that expensive purse or those fancy shoes (two things that ALWAYS seem important to me). As I chastise my children for wanting more, more, more am I any different?

An amazing photographer named Bobbie Jo Majors joined us on our trip.
Here she is during our first day of dental:

You can see her work HERE. She sent us a video she created. Please take a few minutes to watch THIS. She has been writing on her blog about what to do with everything she saw and felt. Thoughts of selling her home and giving up her business. It's a common internal struggle. Should I feel OK living my comfortable life? Do I really need all of the things I have grown accustomed to? It did make me think of the scene in Schindler's List where Schindler realizes all of the money he has squandered and how that money could have been used to save so many others. That was the angst we experienced, for the 450 we were able to see, there are still hundreds more that need our help. Did we do enough? It's a feeling I hope I never lose, that there is always more to be done. Part of what I should do is help and physically be the person that tends to the poor. The other part of my job is to let others know that they can make a difference. To put aside apathy or cynicism and just extend kindness. What do we do with our experience? We don't let it stay in the pictures....we take what we have and help those we can.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A friend at work has this quote as his signature on all of his emails. I've seen it a thousand times. Strong words from a man who refused to silently standby and watch the atrocities of the Holocaust. He saw a world ravaged by hate and bigotry and the insatiable desire for power. Many countries in Africa have seen this same desire ravage their homes. Not every country has seen the same genocide (though many have) as the Jews did during Nazi rule, but the people have fallen victim to the desire of those in power to accumulate and hoard at he expense of the masses. Such is the case in Ethiopia. When famine began to take the lives of tens of thousands of people, the rulers tried to claim ignorance and tried harder to prevent the story from getting out to the rest of the world. Famine in the 70s and 80s created a devestation that would be punctuated in the 90s by the massive spread of HIV and AIDS across the continent. The combination of these forces is largely responsible for the orphan crisis.

It's difficult to comprehend here in the United States what happens to children when their is no longer anyone to take care of them. We have government agencies who swoop in and non-profits that advocate. I in no way want to minimize the situation in our country - believe you me, I see it firsthand. I know what happens to chidren in foster care. The ones who have been abused or neglected. But even in that system each child receives a court appointed guardian and possibly a volunteer to make sure their guardian is doing what is in the child's best interest. A foster home goes through a thorough inspection and a licensing process. Standards have to be met for the care of the child. Counseling is offered and treatment is available for older children who may have some behavioral problems.

In Ethiopia children from the ages of 7-18 go to homes. Not foster homes where they have to share a bedroom with another sibling. Homes that resemble placese where we in America would go camping for the weekend and then complain about the circumstances. Homes where the running water is a spicket outside and the toilet is a hole in the ground. Homes where the only clothes they have are the uniforms so tattered by daily wear they are barely held together by the threads. Homes where they are cared for by nannies who make less than $2,000 a year. Nannies with good hearts and kind souls, but not mothers.

These are the children we saw on Thursday of our trip.


We went to see the boys in the morning and the girls in the afternoon.

When we arrived at the boys orphanage we set up shop in the church/auditorium. One large room with painted murals on each wall. One outlet for electricity and no water. The room reminded me of a movie set where the characters stumble into an abandoned warehouse that was once used for happier times. To say that it was dirty puts it mildly. The boys were so sweet and eager to help. They picked up the crates of supplies and dutifully put them where requested. So eager to please. So eager for praise. Some boys grabbed brooms and mops and worked to make our area presentable. The team was once again amazing. Each person found their supplies and went to their station to set up shop. As the boys waited on benches to be checked in sweet Sallie taught them the thrill of doing the "wave" and then rounds of "Head and Shoudlers, Knees and Toes" broke out. They marched through like little soldiers, ironically considering there were possibly some former ones in the crowd, and smiled as they departed with spaces where their teeth once were and new toothbrushes and toothpaste. After about 250 boys were treated we packed up, ate our lunch in the vans and headed to the girls orphanage. As we waited to to leave one boy recognzied a member of our team from a visit earlier in the week. He came up and said he had missed the dental day because he was at school. He said he was working very hard because he had to score a 700 in math to be considered for college. By his speech and his memory there was no doubt in my mind he had the ability. He said he wanted to go into medicine and do what so many people had done for him. He said the only way he could do it was with the Lord's help. What drives a kid like that. Parents dead, living in a home with 250 others, nothing in the world to call his own and a smile as big as the moon and a desire to be a doctor.

The girls were just as heartwarming. They eagerly stood in line for a chance to be seen by a dentist. As they waited, some of the girls from our group painted their nails and made salvation bracelets with them.

Sweetest smiles and gentle eyes.

I was asked on this day to share my story of being adopted. It was fitting to share it in this place. It was easy to let my mind wonder how different my life would have been if my biological mother hadn't chosen adoption. The life filled with love, protection and opportunities I have had with my family was not a likely scenario. I even said it outloud, while my life would have been different if raised by my biologically mother, it still would not have been what these girls where facing. It's hard not to wonder what will become of these girls? What does their future hold? These girls abandoned by death and disease. The life of a young girl abandonded is not pretty anywhere on the planet. They are so much more suseptable to the evils of the world. Knowing how fragile the self-esteem is of a young girl, who will tell them how beautiful and worthwhile they are? In some ways it felt like a cruel tease to come in and shower them with love for a few hours. My prayer is that they take this small moment to know there are people out there who do care for them and love them and believe they are worth traveling across the world to give them a hug.