A year ago, in November 2005, my daughter Molly Samuel, 24, accompanied me to Addis Ababa to visit the two foster homes of Mrs. Haregewoin Teferra.
A small silent boy of two, named Yohannes, attached himself to Molly.
An orphan of the HIV/AIDS pandemic devastating his country, Yohannes – like many small children – barely knew what he had lost. Under the supervision of kind caregivers, he had enough to eat, clothes to wear, a bed to sleep in. He moved from hour to hour obediently, asking nothing of anyone, not feeling himself especially loved, not missing it.
Molly, on the staff of ForestEthics in San Francisco, was not a huge fan of small children. She humored her six younger brothers and sisters, but had been known to protest, “For the love of God, will you stop with the noise?”
But Yohannes, sidling near her, closing his eyes, lifting his arms, needed her, and she complied. Every day that week, whenever Molly was in Haregewoin’s compound, Yohannes was on her. Did he fantasize that she would be his mother? He was too young to elucidate such a thought; but if she had carried him out of the compound in her arms, ridden with him in a taxi to the modern airport, and flown home with him to her San Francisco apartment, he wouldn’t have protested. He would have awakened to the happy reality that once, long ago, he had had a mother, then he had lost that mother, and now he had a mother again. He would be a good boy, you could see it; he occasionally pulled back from Molly’s shoulder to gaze up at her. He snuggled closer when other children romped nearby; he was claiming her.
It is hard to say goodbye to these children. None of them has a mother. Whenever I visit Mrs. Haregewoin’s houses, a couple of times a year, the orphaned children pile around me boisterously; they call my name, cover me with kisses, twiddle my hair, sit beside me and on top of me. The older ones know I am not their mother and will not be their mother; but, when we are together, we act as if it is kind of true. I love these children; I’ve known many of them for years. On my day of departure, many of them feel sad. They pull away from me, refuse to make eye contact.
So Molly and I said goodbye to all the children at the end of our visit, and Molly had to ask a caregiver to pry Yohannes from her neck. He didn’t cry. This was what happened with mothers. They went away.
When we left, Yohannes was sitting on his little chair at the child-size table. He wasn’t doing anything. He was just sitting. He had re-entered the rather blank state of existence that is the lot of an institutionalized orphan.
On my website, I posted the above photo of Molly holding Yohannes.
Now, a year later, I receive an email from Calgary, Alberta, Canada:
“Hello Melissa Fay Greene and family,” it begins.
“In April of 2006 we traveled to Ethiopia to adopt our son, Yohannes, who was for a time at the Atetegeh Worku Memorial Orphanage in Addis Ababa.
“Today, my step-daughter Kristin sent me an e-mail about your book release as she recognized Haregewoin’s picture from our visit to the orphanage.
“I checked as many of the links as I possibly could, a sponge for information; I checked out your family pictures and, being a methodical person, I started with what looked like the oldest first – your daughter Molly. And there it was, a picture of Yohannes on Molly’s knee. I called my husband with such fervour that I think he thought something terrible had happened to me. My skin was alive with goose-bumps!!
“Anyone who has traveled to Ethiopia is permanently touched by the experience, and I thought that Molly might like to know that that little boy is now in Calgary, Canada as the youngest member of our family of six. He is thriving and probably wouldn’t be recognizable without this sequence of pictures. Please share these pictures with Molly.”
I forward these photos to Molly as fast as I can type and she phoned from San Francisco within the hour, shouting in disbelief and joy.