Mud, Hope and a Way Forward

The summer rains are serious in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A light sprinkle quickly turns into a downpour. Streets that were caked and cracked become little rivers of brown water and finding your footing is a challenge. The slick clay is everywhere. It’s sticky. The clay clings to shoes and skin as if to never let go, hanging on for dear life like a loved one fearful of separation.

Bringing new people to meet your family is a personal and tricky vulnerability. Will they like it here? Will they love them as much as I do? Will they be willing to fight for their futures? Or will they count down the seconds before they can board the plane and escape back to the comforts of home?

On this July weekend, I am thankful for the people sent people to love my Ethiopian family. They are embracing the culture, eating excitedly with their hands, dealing with the slick clay that invades their feet in every way and dares us to slip into the mud puddles. They are embracing the young ones I love and taking time to teach them with patience, creativity and diligence.

Often, it’s easy to see that Selamta is great. Our model of forever families is working. Our kids have advantages and opportunities they never could have imagined before coming to us. But their lives before Selamta were so much like the lives of millions of children in Ethiopia…limited resources, trauma and loss, neglect and abuse. But somehow, they persevere. They come through their past to find hope in a bright future filled with possibility.

Visiting two other orphanages this week, I wonder if that hope can still be found in the desperation we witnessed. We visited two instituations in Addis for children over 7 years old…one for boys and one for girls. I’ve been to the girls’ orphanage before and knew what to expect.

The buildings are circa 1940’s. It’s like stepping into the movie Annie, only set in Ethiopia. The floor boards are deteriorated. The walls are worn and stark. Three buildings separate age groups…8-12, 13 – 15 and 16+. The oldest girls sleep 10 to a room but have their own beds. The littlest girls bunk in a labyrinth of rooms where bunkbeds can fit and they sometimes co-sleep. But the 13-15 year old girls are a large group. None of them look their age. Almost 70 children sleep in a two room dorm with bunk beds stacked side by side. They sleep 2 or 3 to a twin sized mattress. Possessions are minimal. They own what they have on their backs or can tuck into their pillow or under their blankets.

Outside, the grounds are simple. There is a volley ball net and a bit of playground equipment but it’s meager accommodations for 325 young girls. Their toilet and shower facilities are separate from their dorms. Grass, stone pathways or paved walkways are not available. Access to running water is restricted and meals are often nothing more than injera and shiro. But within the starkness of this place, there is still hope. Next week they will celebrate the achievements of students who are beating the odds; girls who with high academic performance despite their circumstances. We were honored to provide small treats and sweets for their celebration party. To think that a few bags of candy and biscuit cookies could bring so much gratitude should give us pause and seriously rethink how we approach celebration in our own culture.

But the thing that left us all quietly contemplating where we were, who we just met and why God gave us this opportunity was to look at our wrists and see the dingy, woven bracelets our new friends insisted we wear to remember them after we’d left. A beautiful little girl with thin features, a black Apple t-shirt, huge smile and hope in her eyes, placed a pink, blue and green woven bracelet on my wrist. It was all she had. Her name is Mekdes.

As gut-checking as the girls’ orphanage seemed, it was paradise compared to the boys’ facility. On another side of town, we pulled up to a dingy wall outside a bustling community. Walking through the gate, boys in ragged clothes stood around…doing nothing. A kind staff member greeted us and took us through the camp. I call it a camp because it was not a home. It was cold, lonely and desolate…think POW camp, not boy scout camp.

While this place had more buildings for dorms than the girls and served fewer children (about 200) the living conditions could barely sustain life. The oldest boys’ dorms lacked running water. Raw sewage could not be washed away. Hand washing was not possible and broken glass lay all around the buildings as gaping holes in what were windows hung as a reminder of the brokenness all around us.

There was a soccer pitch but no balls and boys playing, another reminder that they didn’t matter. The kitchen fires, fueled by chopped wood, boiled dinner…wot or stew with beans. The window through which they served the daily gruel, gave view of an open space lacking tables and chairs. Boys stood to eat or sat on the floor. When a cup or dish was done being used by one child, he passed it through another window, it was rinsed in a dirty basin (lacking soap) and used for the next boy in line.

You could see fungal skin infections just walking around. Preventable, communicable disease was shared without medical intervention or resources. They had a clinic room but no supplies other than a scale.

The other side of the compound housed the younger boys. Beds stacked, side by side, the large rooms were tidy and beds made but it all lacked life and light. They did have water running in their squatty potties to flush away waste and shower heads could be seen in the distance…outside, open to the air, no stalls, just a roof over where the boys can clean their bodies.

If forced to live there, I would lie about my age as to not have to leave the younger side of camp for the Lord of the Flies desperation of the older boys side. Caregivers only work with boys under 14 years. No one to talk to and no one to ask about your day.  No one to give advice when life is hard (harder) and no one to instill hope. Is this really survival of the fittest? Is this really how we think the next generation will do better?

It’s easy to want to blame the facilities and be angry about what we saw. Our righteous anger puts the responsibility on someone else’s shoulders. Blame is easy to dole out when you’re not taking action yourself. The situation is complicated but the responsibility is ours. Like it or not, if we’re to take the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” thing seriously, the failure of others is irrelevant to the responsibility put before us. When we neglect to invest in the next generation, we are doomed to failure. Those children will grow, become the next adults and raise more children. What do we want our world to look like??

This is why Selamta matters. The boys and girls living in those facilities ARE OUR KIDS. Selamta children came out of that desperation. We have the capacity to care for them differently. We have a model of care, of love, of family that provides for those discarded and gives them hope for the future. Their hope is not just a dream but much more concrete. Selamta works beyond the minimum to provide excellent education and developmental resources that wrap around the whole person…mind, body and spirit. Our kids are the next leaders…of their families, communities and nation. They are breaking the cycle of poverty and desperation.

Human dignity and hope aren’t rights for the entitled…they are possible for all children. Help us grow Selamta. It’s time. There are too many children still on the streets and in desperate situations I can’t fully wrap my brain around. But I know there’s a better way. I see it lived out everyday at Selamta Family Project. Join us!