Ethiopia – the orphanage in Soddo

    Before we visited the Children’s Cross Connection orphanage at Soddo, I was told I could not take photographs of the children. So I can’t show you the best part of our visit — the beautiful wide-eyed babies, the curious toddlers, the smart, bright-eyed, affectionate and eager-to-please school-age children.

    Soddo orphanage director Stephne Bowers and Tesfanesh deGuzman, who once lived in the orphanage.

    But I can show you where they live. And I can tell you they are loved — cherished, in fact — by each member of the orphanage staff, from director Stephne Bowers to the cook, the teacher, the secretary, the nurse and the nannies.

    We’ve all heard horror stories of children left to languish in the orphanages of some countries that allow international adoptions. We’ve heard about failure to thrive. Failure to bond. Developmental delays due to lack of stimulation. Communication and learning delays due to lack of opportunity.

    The children in this Ethiopian orphanage are not like that. They are healthy, vibrant, insatiably curious. Their clothing, though second-hand, is immaculately clean. Some were near death from starvation or disease when they first entered the orphanage but they now reflect the advantages and glowing health of good nutrition and medical care. Except for a few runny noses (something you’d see at any preschool, nursery or classroom of children in the U.S.) they appear to be absolutely perfect. Exquisite.

    They seem so normal, so unspoiled, that it’s hard to believe the back stories you hear about many of the orphans of Ethiopia. Children born of dying, HIV-infected parents. Children born of rape. Children who have lost mothers, whose fathers have remarried, whose stepmothers do not want them in the new family. Children who have been abandoned, left somewhere to die because their families lacked the resources to feed and care for them. Children rescued from impending genital mutilation or the continuing practice, among some tribes, of child sacrifice by drowning.

    Keri deGuzman, holding daughter Tesfanesh, looks out the door of the administrative offices at the Soddo orphanage, no doubt pondering her daughter's fate had this place not been available to take her in. Photo by Brian deGuzman.

    These are happy, hopeful children awaiting homes and families. They are unaware of the powerful forces manipulating circumstances behind the scenes, forces that quite likely will make their chances for adoption even more bleak than they already are. A pebble is tossed into the pool — whispers of child trafficking are seized upon by an ambitious TV journalist and one negative story is played hundreds of thousands of times around the world. Its ripple effects wash over these children and the systems that guide their future. Governments crack down, procedures are tightened, requirements for adoption become even more complicated and hopelessly expensive because of additional travel requirements. Orphanages, like this one in Soddo, are filled beyond capacity and can accept no more children. So more will die.

    When we visited this orphanage, Keri deGuzman warned me that it is quite likely the “Taj Mahal” of Ethiopian orphanages — the best of the best. She knows Stephe Bowers runs a tight ship. That she insists on cleanliness, organization, structure and a predictable routine. Children need all of that; they thrive in the sense of security it provides.

    Not all orphanages are this well kept, I am sure. But seeing this one gave me pause. If one staff of caring individuals — most of them Ethiopian — can provide this kind of a loving home within an institutional environment, what would happen if more could be taught, and funded, to do so?

    As we said our goodbyes, Keri was overcome by emotion. She hugged each member of the orphanage staff, thanking them for their loving care of her two babies — “this gift, this blessing” of two perfect children who are now part of her family.

    A staff member remembers Tesfanesh and Solomon, who left the orphanage in March (after their referral to the deGuzman family) and spent several months in a foster home in Addis Ababa before their parents were allowed to come get them.
    The teacher in the classroom for school-age children, all of whom were clustered on the floor at her feet when we entered. Stephne called out names of several countries, to which they all shouted the appropriate capital cities in response.
    The cook in her neatly organized kitchen. From this room, which is no larger than a small child's bedroom in most homes in the U.S., she prepares meals for more than 50 children.
    In the kitchen: Stehpne shows us an the device used to make injera, the spongy, sourdough, pancake-like bread served with meals and used instead of utensils to scoop up bits of stew.
    This is the kitchen "stove" -- a collection of shiny, well-scrubbed pans boiling water over propane flames in preparation for lunchtime cooking.
    A covered, outdoor courtyard where the children eat their meals.
    Stephne shows Keri a row of high chairs where the toddlers eat their meals.
    Orphanage staff wash the children's clothing, scrubbing it with soap and water against a concrete slab. It will be hung on a line to dry -- a challenge during the rainy season.
    Because they come to the orphanage with nothing of their own and must share so much while they live there, Stephne insists on maintaining one small area for each child's personal clothing and toiletries -- so they know they have something uniquely theirs.
    Keri (holding Solomon) looks at a list Stephne keeps on her door of children who have come through the orphanage, and their current status.
    I took this picture for my RAK family, so they can see that Stephne keeps a copy of our May 2009 issue on the desk in her office. The cover photo, of Keri deGuzman and her oldest two children, Jesmina and Musse, is what launched this Ethiopia journey for me.
    Keri is overcome by emotion as we prepare to leave.
    We were all quiet and reflective as we walked away from the orphanage compound.