Our son Lee Samuel graduated from Druid Hills High School in Atlanta in December 2005; in February 2006, he flew to Addis Ababa as a volunteer for World Wide Orphans (WWO). His job was just to play with orphanage children, many of whom had just started receiving the life-saving anti-AIDS medications and who were feeling good for the first time in years.
A high school baseball player, who ran a neighborhood summer baseball clinic, Lee had envisioned organizing the children into baseball teams, into Ethiopia’s first Little League team! This proposal was met with stupefaction and whining on the part of the children who had never heard of baseball and didn’t want to play it. He organized “football” (soccer) teams instead, culminating in a little orphanage soccer league — with coaches, rosters, and schedules — which is still going.
Here’s his first letter home after a day with the children of AHOPE, an orphanage for HIV-positive children:
Hello there family. Yesterday, my orphanage had a field trip to what I guess is the only amusement park in the country. The 33 of us crammed into one van which is supposed to seat 8. The ride was long, incredibly hot, and a few of the kids began throwing up on the bus (including one of the four kids perched on my lap), but otherwise, it was incredibly fun. We discussed astronomy, European soccer, and the strengths and weaknesses of America’s and Ethiopia’s respective Olympic teams (“Why American runners get so tired after 10 seconds?”).
On the bus ride, the kids gave me a full tour of Addis Ababa: “There is bank!”, “There is goats!”, “There is dying man with no legs!” Also, the kids were always quick to point out every ferange to me (I can’t help but think that ferange really just means Crackah). “LEE!!! FERANGE!” they would yell. I think they wanted to assure me that I was not the only white person on the continent. In response, I would point at any random person on the street and yell, “KIDS!!! ABESHA (which means Ethiopian)!!!”. They didn’t think it was funny.
When we got to the amusement park, the kids ecstatically took off in every direction. There were swings, giant slides, a ferris wheel, and bumper cars. Unfortunately, the bumper cars had no electricity so I had to run around pushing the children’s’ cars into each other. I did this for about 30 minutes in 95 degree heat until I passed out from heat exhaustion. They didn’t care. They had a great time. Those turkeys. Later, they forced me to go down the giant slides with them, despite the fact that about half of them are deathly afraid of heights. I had to grab a child, place him/her in my lap, take off down the slide, sprint back up the slippery metal ramp, grab another kid, and repeat. I went down the slide at least 75 times, always with 2-3 kids. At American parks, they have attendants at the top of this type of attraction who tell the kids when to go. Not here. All of them would kind of just leap on to the slide at the same time and kind of tumble down in a heap. One girl got halfway down and then wailed for me to rescue her. I tried to climb down and get her, but i slipped and kicked her the rest of the way down. Then we had lunch. The food here is so delicious that I have gone through only a bottle and a half of Maximum Strength Pepto-Bismol in 8 days!
Last night I slept at Haregewoin’s with all the kids. We played dodgeball all afternoon, had a dinner of injera and kikwat, and then stayed up until 5AM playing Go Fish and watching Arab television.
Thanks to dinners such as kikwat, I am quickly running out of my Maximum Strength Pepto-Bismol. In addition to quickly following every meal, it has sort of become a staple of my diet: A Coke and some Pepto actually make for a delicious lunch. My driver, Baby, is trying to convince me to try some of his favorite Ethiopian delicacy: raw meat. He tells me that it gives you tapeworm about 15% of the time, but me contracting intestinal parasites is a risk he is willing to take.
Speaking of raw meat, this morning I was witness to one of the most fantastic cultural clashes of all time. Around 11AM, while I was still playing at the orphanage, a group of about 30 blonde blue-eyed religious Christian Norwegians came to see the kids. They kind of stood on opposite sides of the compound staring at each other (believe it or not, Ethiopian orphans and Norwegian missionaries have little to chat about).
The Norwegians broke the ice by lecturing on how much Jesus loves each and every one of us. A woman said: “Jesus died on the cross not just for white people, but for you all too.” Anyway, back to how this story is related to raw meat. This week, a two-month fast (no meat, no dairy) begins in Ethiopia. For the big, pre-fast feast, the compound had two sheep delivered earlier in the morning and I was excited to have some new playmates. Sadly, halfway through the Norwegians’ rendition of “Jesus Loves You,” a man in the back began slaughtering the first sheep. Unfortunately, it took 4 or 5 hacks to fully kill it, so it was loudly squealing/moaning right in the middle of the Christian hymns. It kind of sounded like this: “Jesus loves you this I know. For the ERRRRRRGAAAACCCHHHHHHH . . . uhhh . . . bible tells me UMMMMMBLACCCCCHH . . . so.” It only got worse as the sheep’s blood began trickling down and puddling at the feet of the horrified Norwegians. They quickly said, “Thanks for having us,” and sprinted out of there while me while the kids jumped on me and all rolled around in the dirt/blood on the floor in hysterics. I have sheep blood in my hair now. I love Norway.
I slept at Haregewoin’s again last week and I brought my laptop along this time. My grand plan was to show them the movie “The Sandlot” and then teach them baseball.
The point of all this is for the kids to learn a sport in which I can beat them handily. My already bottomed-out self esteem can’t take any more soccer game debacles.
Unfortunately, they didn’t really take to the baseball scenes in the movie, but they liked when Squints kisses the lifeguard and when all of the boys throw-up at the carnival after taking chewing tobacco.
When the movie ended, I asked if they wanted to learn baseball, but all they wanted to know was, “Why they no play football?”
Later, I let Hailegebrial write an e-mail to the man in Lyons, France who is in the process of adopting him. Here is an excerpt: “Thank you for sending me the CD player. The CD player is very nice. I like very much. I practice my French every day. Como Sa va? i am sad because of celebrate Christmas without you. But I am thinking of you always and it makes me happy. I like very much the charger for the CD player. It is very nice.”
The following morning, I took Pinl, Hailegabriel, Betti, Mekdes, and Daniel (five of the kids from Haregewoin’s) on a field trip to the super-rich (and thus very un-Ethiopian) American private school for a small carnival they were having. The place was so decidedly un-Ethiopian, in fact, that nobody there was able to communicate with the five Ethiopian children I had brought. There was also no food there that the kids could eat during the Ethiopian fast months (no meat, no dairy) except cotton candy. However, there was a dunking booth, a video game room, a movie room, and a dodge ball playing area. The kids instantly took to the dodge ball (which they learned from me) and beat the crap out of dozens of ambassadors’ kids. Seeing the Swedish ambassadors’ son knocked out by Daniel and then running off crying was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Later in the afternoon, I took Pinl (8-years-old) and Daniel (11-years-old) to one of the bathrooms on campus. This was instantly the most magical and fantastic place the boys had ever seen. First, they spent five minutes washing their hands in the miraculously hot water. Then, Pinl experimented with the box on the wall and discovered that it automatically dispensed soap when you put your hand under it. This was the greatest thing both Pinl and Daniel had ever seen. The two of them emptied two boxes getting so much soap, and then tried to run out the door to alert Hailegabrial of all of the fantastic things in the bathroom, but their hands were too slippery to open the door, so they had to run back and play with the hot water some more. Then they saw the urinals and asked me what they were. I told them that they were toilets, so Pinl quickly turned around and sat in one. I quickly showed him how it is meant to be used, but he didn’t approve, so he went into a stall. In there, the automatic flusher scared him and made him jump away. Meanwhile, Daniel discovered the automatic hand dryer and was heating up his whole body with it, even taking off his shirt and pants to better feel the warmth. After recovering from the shock of Auto-Flush, Pinl brightened up and joined Daniel, completely undressing under the hand dryer. Finally, they both successfully used the bathroom, but then walked out without washing or drying their hands.
From the toilet episode, I took the kids to the video game room which was too mind-blowing to even be comprehended. They sat there gaping at the screens for ten minutes before they mustered up enough courage to try to play. Daniel, Mekdes, and Pinl were very interested in the blood and gore of Mortal Combat, while Betti liked Lord of the Rings better. After a few fights with me doing most of the controlling, Daniel got the hang of Mortal Combat and began beating some white people. His strategy was to constantly walk his character forward and hit the triangle button over and over again, disabling his opponent from ever blocking or fighting back. He actually won a number of matches that way and made the Swedish ambassador’s son cry again. While we were in there, Betti wandered off and ended up getting dunked at the dunking booth, fully clothed. After coming back to me, she seemed completely shocked and hurt from the whole experience. Seeing how upset she was, Daniel walked over and grabbed her hand, talked to her in Amharic for a minute, and then led her away to the boys’ bathroom. I went in there after him and saw that he was showing her to undress and dry herself off under the automatic hand washer. Never again will I take our western bathrooms for granted.