When my sons were young, a family at their preschool lost their home to a fire. Some time later, I was volunteering in the classroom during art time. The little girl couldn’t decide what to draw. Someone suggested she draw the fire.
“I can’t,” she said. “It’s too big.”
I had an experience in Ethiopia that I need to write about but it also feels “too big.” I have thought about it every day, unable to forget the faces of the people, the sounds of their suffering, the terrible reality of their lives.
And yet the hopeful smiles of their children.
“We have a surprise for you in Soddo,” Keri deGuzman told me on our last day in Addis Ababa, as we prepared to head south to visit Children’s Cross Connection orphanage director Stephne Bowers. Keri was excited and smiling, but I sensed this wasn’t going to be a pleasant surprise.
The next day, we left early for the four-hour drive to Soddo.
I was relieved to get out of the crowded city, its muddy streets lined with people and goats co-existing in tiny huts or lean-tos, protected from the rain by nothing but thin tarps. Compared to the filth and squalor I witnessed in parts of Addis, the rural areas we passed — neatly terraced hillside farms, lush groves of banana trees, dignified tukuls with smoke from cooking fires filtering gently through thatched roofs — were surprisingly reassuring.
Yet I knew that poverty looms large in these rural areas, too, its face softened by the natural beauty and apparent bounty of these rich, verdant lands.
When we arrived in Soddo, Stephne greeted us with hugs and tears of joy to see Brian and Keri deGuzman and the two babies they adopted — Solomon and Tesfanesh — who had once been under her care at the orphanage. As we removed our shoes and entered her tidy home, the enticing aroma of freshly baked quiche, stuffed with vegetables from her backyard garden, was overpowering. We had left without eating breakfast that morning, and we were all ravenous.
After lunch, Stephne explained the plan for that afternoon. We were to visit a different type of CCC orphanage — not the one she runs, from which children are (hopefully) adopted, but one devoted to the long-term care of older orphaned children who will remain in-country and need to be educated and trained for purposeful lives. The next morning, we would visit Stephne’s orphanage.
“Does Karen know what we’re going to do tomorrow afternoon?” Stephne asked Keri.
“No,” Keri said. “I told her it was a surprise.”
Stephne looked at me, her face thoughtful. Then she turned back to Keri, her gentle voice both compassionate and resolute.
“I think she needs to know,” she said. “I think we need to prepare her.”
There is something in the quality of Stephne’s voice that inspires instantaneous trust. I felt it when I first met her in May, in the deGuzman’s Paradise Valley home. Maybe it’s the calm thoughtfulness it conveys or the pleasant accent of her upbringing in South Africa. I suspect it’s something more: a compassion so deep, a grief so overwhelming and a faith so strong that she can find joy despite any harsh reality. Somehow I knew that, whatever she was about to tell me, whatever I was about to witness, she would guide me through it. I was not alone.
I was prepared, before I made this trip to Ethiopia, to see the orphaned children — babies like the two Brian and Keri recently adopted, completing the family they began three years ago when they adopted Ethiopian-born daughter Jesmina and (about a year later) her brother Musee, now 2. I was prepared for the fact that the sweet faces of these orphaned children would tug at my heart, making me wish I were younger (and braver) and able to offer the permanence of a home and family.
But I never thought about how it would feel to see the adults. People who started out just like these perfect, cherished deGuzman babies but didn’t get the same breaks. Young adults who look ancient, lines of worry and fear — and starvation — etched across their faces. People who likely will die of hunger or disease long before they reach my age.
“Tomorrow,” Stephne said. “We will participate in a food distribution.”
I looked at her, puzzled.
When donations allow, she explained, food is purchased for “the poorest of the poor.” The timing of such distributions, and the number of people who can participate, is unpredictable. We were fortunate that a distribution had been scheduled that week in Wolayta, the village adjoining Soddo. Ten churches in the area had gathered its neediest families for the event. Up to 250 of these people would be there for what Stephne promised would be a rare and significant experience. And not an easy one to witness.
Tomorrow: Food distribution day.