A note to my previous entry about freaking out over T's age: Ruby was an integral part of talking me down from that ledge. I first spoke to another adoptive father staying at the guesthouse, who previously adopted a girl listed as 9, who turned out to be 11. I asked him how it had gone with their other daughter at home. He said they explained how she would always be the first daughter they had, even if not technically the oldest. He said they're fine now. I then casually talked to Ruby while doing her hair, and asked her sort of casually what she thought of the whole age order thing. She said she really didn't care what grade Tinsae was in, as long as she wasn't in first. "I just want my own grade to myself--just like I like to have my own cup to myself. You know." Very good 6-year-old logic. I then brought up the idea that, no matter what eventually shakes out, we know she came to our family first, and that must have been how Heavenly Father planned it. I said we were lucky to have had a very special six years together. "Yes, Mom," she said. "It's like we were all coming in car rides, and I got there first." Exactly. Then she added, in her new pre-teen talk, I guess, "You know, Tinsae and I are like, pals." This conversation was wonderful--it meant the world to me.
Today, again, T refused breakfast. This time I didn't offer her anything else. B refused also, even though she'd liked the waffles before, as a show of solidarity with her sister. T and R also had their first altercation: T had our digital voice recorder, which I brought to record them speaking Amharic. Mostly it gets a lot of little girls giggling. Ruby wanted a turn, and kept saying "Ebakesh." (Please.) Tinsae wouldn't give it, so Ruby grabbed for it and accidentally poked T in the eye. We made her apologize, and gave T a hug. They both sulked a bit. I thought it was great--this is much more like typical sister behavior than friend/sleepover behavior. As for the breakfast thing, these little episodes are not stressing me out as much as I thought they might. It just seems so expected. The bloom is a bit off our rose now, and they're probably missing the comforts of the orphanage. I'd rather have these things start to happen now, with translators around, than wait until we're home. Aki says they see these same things for a few days with all the children. For the most part, our days are still surprisingly easygoing. After the kids are in bed, Steve and I still look at each other and say it feels like we're tending. This is so surreal!! It reminds me of when I brought Jasper home from the hospital and I thought, "I don't know you from Adam. Are they really going to trust me with you?" It's not a lack of desire to bond, just an acknowledgement that it happens little by little, day by day.
Anyway, enjoy the post below. We'll try to add some photos.
Today we met a wise old museum guide in St. Mary’s Church at Entoto This, the first Orthodox Christian Church in Ethiopia, sits atop a hill on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, next to the old palace of Menelik II.. I was, as usual, asking many questions. As we walked away I asked Aki, our translator, for clarification about Ethiopia’s religious history. Aki, who is young, did not know the answer and insisted we go back to the guide so I could understand. The guide answered my question, and noted my curiosity with a smile. He whispered something that struck me distinctly, and crystallized thoughts I’ve been having since I first began reading about Ethiopia. “You are now part of Ethiopia’s family, with your children,” he said in a thick accent. “You must come back here, and bring others. The Western world thinks of Ethiopia as the very lowest of Africa. Someday in the future they will again recognize that it is the top.”
As we walked away from the guide, I told Aki the old man was right: Unfortunately, most of the Western world does think of Ethiopia as only poor and starving. I used to, also. He said to me, “You are a writer. Someday maybe you will write a book telling the truth about Ethiopia to the world.” I don’t know that I’m the right candidate for that, but I think I can manage a blog post. I am reading one of the great books already written about Ethiopia, There Is No Me Without You, by Melissa Fay Greene. She explains what the old guide meant, why Ethiopia was once the top of Africa.
“Standing like a mountain fortress above the Horn of Africa, near the confluence of the Red sea, the Arabian sea, and the Indian Ocean, ancient Ethiopia defied foreign conquerors for millennia and traded in slaves, gold, ivory, spices, gems, textiles, and animals with ancient Eqypt, Persia, Arabia, the Roman Empire, and India. Five-thousand-year-old Egyptian hieroglyphs mention the preference of the pharaohs for myrrh from Ethiopia. For centuries, Axum, the highland Ethiopian kingdom of the Amhara people, was the dominant Red Sea power, builder of castles and massive stone monoliths, minter of gold, silver and copper coins. Third-century CE Persian writings named the world’s four great kingdoms as Rome, China, Persia, and Axum.”
“The Ethiopian script and alphabet, the Ethiopian church, the Ethiopian calendar, the Ge’ez script (the first written language in Africa) and Ethiopian literature, the illuminated Ge’ez Bibles, the Ethiopian clock, Ethiopian holidays, and indigenous styles of architecture, painting, oral poetry, dance, and tapestry survive uncompromised, undiluted, unique on the planet. And the handsome, slender, prideful Ethiopian people know it, too.”
“For how many millennia were the Abyssinians [the name of ancient Ethiopia was Abyssinia] sitting up there on their rocky plateau, discussing literature in coffee shops, while, in barbarian Europe, less evolved of the Homo sapiens clubbed each other with rocks and rode warhorses and lofted spears at each other?” [Coffee first came from Ethiopia—it was first harvested in the forests of Kaffa.]
So why, then, is Ethiopia in the state it is in? There are many reasons, but one—ironically—is that Ethiopia managed to fight off colonization by European powers. Italy did occupy Ethiopia for five years, by deceiving its emperor with a fake treaty. Ethiopians fought desperately until the Italians gave up, so it never materialized into a full-fledged colonization. This is a point of great pride for Ethiopians; however, as a result Ethiopia never had the benefit of millions of dollars of infrastructure investment from a wealthy foreign power.
Ms. Greene explains some of the other reasons Ethiopia lost its place in line, like world financial policies, poor national political and economic management, and AIDS. Ethiopia’s ‘development’ clock began to turn backwards,” she says. And she notes a point I had never considered before:
“’Terminology like ‘developing countries’ [gives] the impression that the whole world is moving in the same direction, albeit at varying rates,’ writes Mark Heywood . . . . “The whole world is not moving in the same direction. Many so-called ‘developing countries’ are more accurately described as undeveloping countries. They are going backwards. . . . Infant morality is on the rise again. Adult life expectancy is going down. Poverty is increasing.’”
Sometimes when you’re speaking to Ethiopians here in Addis, the capital city, its hard to believe this. They are on Facebook. They have TV stations ranging from Al Aqsa to the BBC. They are healthy and well-fed; they have radio quiz shows asking which three executive-branch Americans have won the Nobel Peace Prize. (Can you name them?)
And yet, here in the capital city, shepherds and goatherds guide their animals down the side of every busy road. A starving, injured horse, with a huge, infected red tumor on one foot making it lame, stood helplessly in the middle of the road for two days on a busy road right around the corner from our guest house. Steve and I were so disturbed we finally decided to call a vet—but the next day the horse was nowhere in sight. We have only seen one working traffic light. And when traffic does stop due to congestion, beggars immediately spot our white faces and appear at the windows of our van, asking for anything. Today at the zoo two very trendy-looking young women begged for a photo with Jasper because he’s a handsome, blond, white boy.
And yet again, our Ethiopian guides are always kind to the beggars, and encourage us to give something. There is no road rage, though cars are constantly honking within inches of each other, headed in every which direction. And have I mentioned that gas station attendants stand in there parking lots with wads of thousands of Birr—the currency—right out in the open? Steve and I couldn’t believe our eyes, but Gecho assured us there is no danger of theft.
It begins to seem impossible to put your finger on this country, to sum it up or describe it neatly. Perhaps it is really two countries, and they both come together in Addis Ababa. Because when you talk to these city friends about the “countryside,” as they call it, they speak as if it is almost a different world. When I asked about female circumcision, Aki looked shocked and said, “Perhaps some, but only in the countryside.” In the capital city, most people speak and read both Amharic and English. In the countryside many are illiterate. Characteristically, though, the Ethiopian people are open, and acknowledge these differences. It is very similar to their two-pronged view of adoption. As one Ethiopian official says in the book, “I am deeply respectful of the families who care for our children. But I am so very interested in any help that can be given to us to keep the children’s first parents alive. Adoption is good, but children, naturally, would prefer not to see their parents die.”
I have asked Aki a couple of times whether Ethiopians resent our being here, taking their orphans. He assures me they don’t, and the attitude of those we come across bears him out. Today at the zoo, we were as much on display as the animals. Everywhere we went people stopped to stare at us, to look at Jasper and Ruby, and to watch us interact with Tinsae and Birhane. I could tell some were asking Aki questions about us. But they are smiling at us. They greet Tinsae and Birhane. I get the sense that many people in Addis think of these orphans as “countryside” children. I wonder if that is correct.
Many people ask us, “Why Ethiopia?” In the beginning my answers were mostly related to the reasons Ethiopia makes adoption reliable and quick, and produces children who are generally emotionally healthy. Steve and I did know, however, that you are strongly encouraged to choose a country whose culture interests you, so that you can help the children feel pride in their heritage. I still believe this strongly—Ethiopia is not right for everyone; rather, adoption is such an emotional leap that every family should only pursue the country that speaks to their hearts. For us, it happened over time. It was when we learned many of the things above, as well as Ethiopia’s fascinating interactions with ancient peoples of the Bible, that Steve and I felt we really could love this culture. Now that I’m here, seeing this green and beautiful countryside, learning the history, meeting kindness at every turn, and unlocking the mystery of these two girls, I realize it would be impossible for me not to love Ethiopia. I’ll have no problem instilling pride of heritage in Tinsae and Birhane.
It’s 11:00 PM, and I have to smile as I watch Steve carry little adorably crazy-haired Birhane to go “shent.” I think this would be much more difficult if you didn’t have previous children. For us, we’ve learned that when a 3-year-old wakes up crying in the night, it’s pretty much always because they need to go to the bathroom. Among other things, there are two things in particular that I find really fascinating about Birhane’s approach to this whole situation. One is how she is different from other 3-year-olds, and the other is how she is different from her sister.
Birhane has clearly been through it, and learned not to whine about it. It sure makes it look like I’ve been spoiling my kids with too much validation all these years. I’m sure the best parenting approach is somewhere in between. Birhane is clearly sick, so I’ve made her take all sorts of medicine, from a gross, powder-water cough medicine, to half of one of Jasper’s Allegra (OK, Dr. Lizzie?), to Tums, to Tylenol. I can’t believe how she takes it all like a pro. She’s clearly never had anything chewable, so she insists on swallowing them all, no matter how I try to demonstrate chewing. This was rather shocking because I gave her the Tums first. Those suckers are pretty big! Yet she took them, put them on the back of her tongue, took a swig of water and swallowed. You could see that the size and taste were alarming, but she went ahead without a peep. With the cough medicine, as soon as I fill the spoon this little mouth opens wide—it’s like a weird twist on Pavlov’s dog. Again—it clearly doesn’t take good, but no whining, just some water, please. And she doesn’t even have a clue why or what I’m giving her! I can’t imagine this working with either of my previous 3-year-olds. She also stops whatever she’s doing right when I ask her, and gets in her bed and goes to sleep right when I point at it. We’ve gone through two unpleasant lice washings, one of which got soap in her eyes. She made some mild sounds to alert me to the problem, but remained calm and accepted my remedy of cold, water-bottle water poured on her eyes. It’s amazing! I’m sure these are all benefits of orphanage life that will sadly disappear as soon as she realizes I’m bluffing at this whole thing. For now, I’m enjoying it while it lasts. And whose idea was that to give us two kids who were already potty-trained? I’m really liking that idea.
For the other part, it’s clear that Birhane is too young to be set in her ways or realize what she’s going through. She started calling me Mama within 24 hours. She tries, and seems to like, just about every food she is offered. (Ice cream didn’t make it past a few licks—too cold! She liked the cone so just ate that until I realized what was going on, and ended up holding a melting ice cream in my hands. I couldn’t eat it because she’s sick. That felt like a very typical parenting moment within this strange world.) We had a funny moment with waffles yesterday morning. They were from a heart-shaped waffle maker, and had the resulting pattern, but still looked kind of round, like injera. Injera is basically the national bread here. It is large, flat, soft, and circular, and tastes like sourdough bread. They roll it up here, and use it to eat with—as a way to pick up their food. Birhane looked questioningly at this bumpy, strange-shaped piece of injera. She decided to give it a go, and started to roll it up from the side. It didn’t roll well at all, and so she announced (in Amharic) that she didn’t like the food. We hadn’t caught on, and so were offering to get her something else. The Amharic cook, however, Tigist, was wiser. She showed Birhane how to break it into pieces, and then made her try some. Of course Birhane loved it. We then gave her syrup, and she proceeded to eat the whole thing by using the pieces to mop up the syrup and eating them, one by one. She found a way to make it like injera, anyway. In fact, Birhane rarely uses a fork. She is always willing to attempt it, but soon resorts to her fingers, injera-style—tonight she even ate spaghetti with her fingers. She is quite happy and easy-going all the time. She attempts English words quite easily, out of the blue, and looks at you in a very straightforward manner. She is attached to her sister, though. Today I took her downstairs to color while Jasper and Ruby did homework. Tinsae was still napping in her bunk. After a while, Birhane suddenly slipped out of my sight even though she was sitting right next to me. I got up to look for her, a bit panicked. I found her on the stairs, coming down in response to my call. She explained that she had just been going to find Tinsae. Of course the only word I understood was Tinsae, but she jabbered on and motioned confidently and I got the gist. We woke Tinsae and brought her down with us.
Tinsae, on the other hand, is understandably a bit wary. We saw two different sides of her today which we have expected, but hadn’t seen much of yet. We weren’t alarmed—just took notice, and probably breathed a sigh of relief to see that we got through it fine. This morning, Tinsae refused even to try the French toast. This is not quite like our French toast, but is made by the Ethiopian cooks here in their own way. They serve a mix of Ethiopian and American food. This is the first time Tinsae has not been willing to try something. I think she was really tired. I took her across the street to the market to pick up something else. We have no snacks to speak of (the secret to the success of our African diet is the Lean-Cuisine size portions they serve, and the dearth of snacks), and I felt she has been such a trooper so far that she should be excused for refusing one meal. She picked out some biscuits (cookies) and—I thought—ate enough. But it was clear as the morning went on, from St. Mary’s Church to the zoo, that she was hungry, tired, and maybe more. She would only admit to Aki that she was cold. I had stupidly dressed her in short sleeves on a cool day. She would not smile or play, and I worried that maybe I had been showing Birhane too much attention. She always wants to sit by me or in my lap, and she is sick. Honestly, though, we felt we couldn’t blame Tinsae for whatever might be going on in her mind. We can only imagine what she’s feeling, and she’s really been on her best behavior.
She was still quiet through the lions and monkeys at the zoo (all I can say about that is PETA stay out, and the rest of you, don’t listen to Jane Goodall’s My Life with the Chimpanzees like we did, and then go in this zoo). But then we discovered a children’s playground. This was at least as good as the worst state fair or local carnival you’ve ever been to. You know those power wheels cars we have for the kids to drive? Well they had two old ones, and were charging money to ride them around in a circle. Jasper didn’t even want to ride because it looked so boring, unless it was just to drive Birhane. But the operator pulled him and Ruby in with this “the white kids WILL go together attitude” and Jasper played along. It was really weird. Of course a crowd gathered to watch them. Then he let Tinsae and Birhane go, and they loved it. This is when Tinsae could not resist a smile anymore. She loved it. She quickly graduated to fast driving. There was also a scary Ferris Wheel, a pair of old metal slides, and some swings. Tinsae was in heaven and was just beaming by the end of play time. She had been a bit cold to me earlier, but came up after playing and said, “Mama, shent.” Meaning, she called me Mom and trusted me to help her find a bathroom. Tinsae is much slower to attempt English than Birhane, and also won’t speak a lot of Amharic on command. She is happy to translate for me as needed, though, and clearly knows a lot of English—the orphanage staff was chiding her for acting as if she didn’t. Last night she and Birhane sang the ABC’s and counted to 100 in English. I’m not sure why she is hesitant to speak much, but I don’t feel any hostility from her. I get the sense she’s just waiting—waiting to feel more comfortable, and to be able to say what she wants to say the way she wants to say it.
One thing she does do is play and giggle a lot with Ruby. Tonight was a giggle-fest! Who knows what they’re always laughing at, since they can’t speak more than a couple words to each other, but they’re enjoying something. They are two peas in a pod. This frenzy could get old if it went on forever, but I know it won’t. Right now it’s like having a friend on a vacation for Ruby. Eventually it will be more like just sisters. You can tell that sometimes Tinsae gets sick of playing, and she’ll want to come sit close to me. Even Ruby wanted to take a break and sit with her dad for a while today. (All of this sitting refers to the car, as we drive a lot.) She and Ruby will get a little irritated over electronics. They are like an addiction to Tinsae right now, and Ruby gets tired of her interest in them. Ruby doesn’t necessarily mind sharing as much as she wants Tinsae’s attention. You can see Tinsae has learned to hold her own with other children and won’t always give things back when Ruby asks. But as soon as I step in and say something she responds obediently and immediately. She clearly feels she must be absolutely obedient to me for some reason. Again, she doesn’t yet know that I’m just faking it. She took a very long afternoon nap today, which I think was the complete remedy to her mood of the morning.
Ruby, on the other hand, did not nap. Rather, she decided to throw a tantrum that started at lunch and lasted for an hour. It was the biggest doozy I’ve ever seen from her. I’m sure she’s exhausted, and emotionally overwhelmed. Steve and I stayed calm and handled it the way we always do, with warnings and time out. We eventually just put her in the next room with her food, because her screaming was making nap time impossible. We left the door open and said she could come back when she was done crying. Tinsae and Birhane watched the whole affair wide-eyed. I was worried, but this is life. I hope they didn’t think I was saying something mean to Ruby they didn’t understand. I hope they saw that we remained gentle and reasonable with her.
As for Jasper, he’s either pretty content, or blocking us all out. He loves Birhane, and has appointed himself her caretaker. She thinks he’s fabulous and chatters away at him. His response is to repeat back to her everything she says in Amharic. She seems to accept this as encouragement to keep talking. She even fell asleep on his lap yesterday. He doesn’t seem bothered by the whole Tinsae-Ruby twosome, except to make sure he’s doing his big-brotherly job of bugging them from time to time.
All in all, I would say we’re doing pretty well. Though we’re really enjoying sight-seeing, it’s getting really difficult to live in one room, and I’m getting very little sleep with Birhane’s coughing. Ruby and Jasper are getting sick of travel all together because it’s been four weeks. And Tinsae and Birhane need routine. Therefore, we’re really eager to get home!! We’re going to be hard-pressed to make it to next Saturday with happy campers. If our fingerprints aren’t ready and we have to wait another week, I don’t know how we’ll survive. Or how we’ll afford it, for that matter. Please, no!!
P.S. Tinsae and Birhane’s last name is Ayalew because that was their father’s first name. Ethiopians take their father’s first name as their last name. Women don’t change their names when they marry.
P.P.S. Melissa Greene’s book also hits the funny stuff on the head. She describes how it feels to be an American woman here, next to an Ethiopian woman. “I always felt like Major Gangly White Woman next to her,” she says. And this comes from a woman much smaller than me. Imagine how I look around here! I forget until I see our photos.
P.P.S. I think I may have to wait and start posting in the morning. I found out in conversation with Rowlina, the night receptionist, that she goes to nursing school all day. So the sleep she gets at this job is her only sleep. Now I feel even more guilty for disturbing her in the office at night.