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Dessie, Ethiopia

For the first three days of my solo trip in Ethiopia (after my 13 comrades had left) I headed up to Dessie in the Ethiopian highlands, where I stayed at the World Vision compound for three days and visited the child I sponsor, Abdela. 


                       Visting Abdela, My World Vision Child

     D id you ever do one of those things that you knew while it was happening that it was going to impact you for a lifetime?

     Visiting Abdela was, on so many levels, one of the most humbling and rewarding things I have ever accomplished.


     When I signed up to be a World Vision sponsor, knowing I was headed to Ethiopia, there was only one Ethiopian child who grabbed my eye.  It was a surly little boy who, by any standards, obviously wished his picture wasn’t being taken, and probably had no understanding of why it was.  Abdela was grimacing; I got to tell him, laughing, in person.  He reminded me of myself, when someone forced me to do something I didn’t feel like doing.  So, I picked him, the angry little rebel!

     When my teaching colleagues and I had finished our one-week child-centered teaching workshop in Awassa, to the far south, I raced ahead in my mind to the time I would get to travel far north and visit my little child, then a 10-year-old 6th grader.

     World Vision had been most accommodating via email and phone, as we arranged my visit stateside.  But I had NO IDEA how gracious they were planning on being throughout the procedure.  So, in Awassa, I got on the phone and called the World Vision contact in Addis Abbaba, the capital, just a couple of hours away.  I don’t remember how I got to that office, but I do remember leaving in a Land Rover with a World Vision employee, headed straight north to the mountainous and breathtaking highlands.  On our way we stopped and picked up Gemta Birhanu, the director of the Jile Tumuga office/compound out where Abdela lived.  We stopped at a Kaldi’s (the Ethiopian version of Starbucks) and they treated me to a three-course breakfast.  Little did I know then how important feeding me would be to them! I guess they didn’t want any weak American keeling over of heat stroke in the steamy country during August.

     We stopped at several places for coffee, which originated in Ethiopia and is even more imperative to Ethiopians than it is to Americans!  There were several trucks turned over along the way due to imbalance of load. Ethiopians called this “El Qaida.” 

    An old double gate opened when we arrived at the Jile Tumuga, Worlda World Vision headquarters. I was ushered to the room of the man I would later affectionately name “mother” because he tended to my needs so magnanimously.  His name was Tedele.  He was a suave, young buck who could’ve easily been a male model.  Tedele moved out of his room to afford me a place to crash for the next three days.  He woke me in the mornings, forced double and triple helpings of food on me during every mealtime, and led the worship services under the stars when the power went out.

     I was immediately given a tour of the facilities and introduced to I think every one of the 20+ employees, each of whom had to leave/separate from their families in order to take a job at this facility.  It was one of the requirements, I was told.  Everyone was exceptionally friendly and smiling.  They were one of the kindest groups of human beings I have ever met.   Christian-based, World Vision screens their employees to find those that can commit their lives, for whatever period of time, solely to bettering Ethiopian children and community members’ lives.

     I felt like it was Christmas, knowing I would get to meet Abdela in the morning.  They asked me did I want to go to his home, or have him and his mother come to the WV offices.  Was there any choice? So, after a 62-course breakfast of injura (Ethiopian flat bread), sauces, meats (which I didn’t eat since I am a vegetarian), and ample kinds of vegetables, Gemta, Tedele and I piled into the truck, each of us toting a camera.  (They were a quite homey bunch and had several photo albums of their work family in the main hall living room; I wondered if my face would grace them later.)

     Following a 20-minute drive on highway, we got to the back roads, which are really just rocks.  When the rocks turned to impassible boulders, we got out and started the climb up mountain.

      Children from everywhere gathered, scampered along-side us, some joining us for the entire walk.  We passed a school WV was building, a pipeline for clean water supply underway, and a medical clinic, which had the most rudimentary tools.  I especially remember the birthing room only containing a crude metal table and a bucket for the afterbirth.

       Along the way 10-year-old Mohammed, in the red shirt, joined us.  Mohammed has a physical disability which prevents him from walking upright, but once he found out I teach children with disabilities back home, he led the way, walking on all fours, even stopping to do some impressive  aerobics along the way.

      Abdela was waiting, all decked out in a new sports outfit.  He was so shy.  The entire extended family and neighborhood was there to get a glimpse of the traveling American.  For three days I did not see any other White skin, so I’m sure I was quite the anomaly to behold. 

     Mr. Mohammed, Abela’s father, had recently passed, and so I’m sure his mother was still in mourning.  He had a smaller brother and lots of aunties and uncles who peered in the doorway to see the American sitting on the bed with Mrs. Mohammed and Abdela and I in the single-room home.

     “Excels in sports” what was what I read on the report card he smilingly placed in my hands.  He also read English out of a book I brought to give him, along with some Cubs gear and a baseball.  He was in exactly the grade I taught!   We had so much in common.

      Later in the visit, I gifted them some money for an ox, so Abdela went out and showed us how he plowed the fields for his mother.  After I left I knew exactly what he needed, so sent backpacks full of school supplies to him and Mohammed.  Gemta always photographed everything, so even after I returned home, I got to see pictures of the kids with their new school goodies.

     That umbrella you see in the picture was another thing they insisted on. Honestly, I felt like the queen mother, but they weren’t hearing anything about me baking unduly in the sun.

     Parting was such sweet sorrow as Abdela came up to me and Gemta translated how much he enjoyed my visit.   Everybody had tears in their eyes…Suddenly, a rush of people came toward me, as we reached the truck on foot.  Word had traveled that I worked with disabled people, and everyone with a disability or a disabled child had come out of the woodwork.  An elderly man rushed at me repeating  something in Amharic, which translated into, “I am blind.”  A boy was on a string.  I recognized some autistic qualities in a few of those who joined us.  “Gemta, Tell them I cannot heal them!”  I urged, flustered by all the commotion.  He spoke to them and they dispersed.  I took no pictures because the moment was too sensitive.

      That night the power went out for the umpteenth time.  Worship services were held under the headlights of a jeep, while a generator provided power for the keyboard.  I knew none of their songs, but felt like I knew them all…It was one of the most blissful nights of my life.

     On this occasion they let me learn how to host a coffee ceremony, because I wanted to say “Thank you” to all of them, so WV employees sat out under the moonlight laughing light-heartedly at my clumsy efforts to pound, sift, roast, drain, boil, and serve coffee and the customary popcorn that accompanied it.  Oh, the trouble they go through to serve a cup of coffee!

     Back in Addis at the office of the WV man who had sent me, I opened up my mouth to give words to the experience, and just wept.  (I have a tear escaping even now.) He smiled, took a step toward me and gently shook his head in wonderment.  There were never any words, until now, for Dessie.