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Adoption Blog: Melting Pot Family
Returning to Our Daughter’s Birth Country
This summer our family had the amazing experience of traveling back to Ethiopia, our daughter Leyla’s birth country. We went with a number of objectives in mind: to spend time getting to know Ethiopia, including the community where Leyla was born, in a way we couldn’t during our frenetically anxious first visit when we adopted Leyla; to connect Leyla, 3, to her country as she grows up—starting with this trip; to have our (biological) sons view Ethiopia as a part of our family’s shared heritage; and to see the seeds sprouting from our library planting efforts. As you can imagine, we felt a number of emotions and had so many amazing experiences—it's a lot to process, so it will take a number of blog posts to fully explore how well we met these objectives over the course of our stay.
As the trip unfolded, I realized I had another objective for myself that I hadn’t as clearly articulated or thought through. I was trying to imagine and appreciate what Leyla’s life might have been had she grown up in Ethiopia and what it was like for many children in her country. The logistics of our first visit shielded us from much of these considerations. We met Leyla at the transition house of her adoption agency, WACAP, in Addis Ababa and spent most of our time visiting with her there, traveling with WACAP staff, or completing the required adoption paperwork.
Leyla was born in Bahir Dar—an especially lovely part of a very beautiful country. It sits on the banks of Lake Tana in the northern part of the country. The Blue Nile Falls are not far outside the city. It is not far from Addis Ababa but the terrain is so difficult, a plane ride is your best option for getting there. Our first day there was a whirlwind of experiences and emotions. We began with a visit to the school where Leyla would likely have attended. It was there we planted our first library, set to open in the fall.
We then set off on a boat ride across the third-largest lake in Africa. We saw a number of sizeable boats with tourists taking off on the two-hour trip to some of the islands in the center. We were excited waiting for our turn. Then we saw our boat—it was small, battered and did not inspire confidence it could make it across the watery expanse. You can see a bit of it in the picture above. We sat uncomfortably perched on its edges since there were no real seats except for the driver’s. A haze hung over the lake, which gave an otherworldly feeling—like that evoked in the stories of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. The foliage was lush and green and the airborne fowl, diverse and plentiful. We were headed toward a monastery on an island deep inside the lake.
About halfway there, the boat stopped. Neither the driver nor the guide seemed concerned. I did notice at that time I did not see any life jackets. The driver pulled a spare gas can out from the back of the boat and filled the tank. He then attempted to start the boat again but instead it sputtered and quit. I had visions of being stranded in this enormous body of water halfway around the world from our home. Thankfully, the sound of the angry chopping of the engine springing to life jolted me back to reality.
When we arrived, we gratefully stretched our cramped legs. As we climbed up the mountain toward the monastery, children selling handmade goods surrounded us. My sons wanted to buy everything, but my husband and I declined. We learned from past experience that unless we wanted to spend the little time we had haggling with many prospective sellers, we needed stay close to our guide who could help us navigate quickly.
In the entryway to this ancient place of worship, we saw more children. A number of pairs of large, liquid-black eyes peered curiously out at us from inside makeshift tents. The guide told us that they were the orphans supported by this monastery. They survived on handouts from those living on the island who had a bit to spare. The priest and monks helped with their education. Many were painfully thin, with well-worn clothes and broken plastic shoes, if they were lucky enough to have any. A pair of kids, whose faces were covered in flies, sat outside the tents, appearing not to have the energy or will to bat the insects away.
Within minutes, my sons announced they needed to use the bathroom. This is a particular challenge in Ethiopia since public toilets are far from the norm. Fortunately, this was a rare occasion when there was one nearby. With Leyla in my arms, I waited outside attracting a small group of locals. One man confidently approached and asked me, “Is she yours?” pointing to Leyla who was taking it all in with her own liquid-black eyes. I said, “Yes, she is my daughter.” He looked from her face to mine and back at hers again. He responded, “She is black and you are red.”
He didn’t appear to be making a judgment but rather a statement of fact. Leyla appeared nonplussed by the exchange. She gazed closely at my face while we talked to see my reaction. At 3, I don’t know how much she comprehended. This man, like many Ethiopians we encountered, then reached out to touch her arms. She turned her body away. She does not care to have unfamiliar people lay their hands on her. My boys found the man’s description of me beyond funny when I recounted. I am definitely quite pale but have never been called red before. As we walked on, I talked with them about how varied experiences and cultures can create different perceptions.
The monastery was beautiful, but the orphans who made their home at its entrance lingered in my mind through the remainder of our tour there and the long return ride. When we brought Leyla into our lives, I was struck by how different our life experience was from her birth family's. Now I saw with my pale green eyes a bit of what her life might have been like had she remained.
And those children were some of the lucky ones. Her life now is a world apart from theirs—the geography and being raised by a "red" mother are only the most obvious differences. I saw the evidence in even something as simple as the flies—she will not let one come near to landing on her without making a fuss. The immense need was palpable when I looked at these children who shared my daughter's eyes.
I felt, too, the power of community—doing its best to care for and provide hope to the most vulnerable among them. Seeing this combination of need and hope reminded me of one of the reasons we came: to be a part of the extended village that sees providing hope to children in these circumstance as their global responsibility. Adopting Leyla connected our hearts to Ethiopia—we saw, and continue to see, through having her brighten our lives every day, so much beauty and potential there. And we believe we owe much to her homeland and its children who are still in need of hope.
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