Paul Steinmetz recalls the journey to adopt his three-year-old daughter from Africa.
My middle-class life is normally calm, and although I like it very much, observers might describe it as boring most of the time. Even for me, unless I take notes, many of the particulars of my day-to-day life blend together after awhile. That is not true for the trip I made to Ethiopia with my wife to adopt our new daughter. The circumstances were unusual, but the setting was equally unforgettable.
Among the rush of impressions I felt was the overwhelming sense of poverty in the capital of Addis Ababa. Within the city, we traveled to the orphanage that had become home to a three-year-old girl named Mahelet. She had no mother or father, but her aunt lived nearby. The time passed when the aunt was supposed to arrive at the orphanage to sign off on our adoption, and we began to wonder if it would happen. Finally she walked in from the courtyard outside, carrying Mahelet.
Mahelet’s aunt was solemn and looked very old. Her hair was tightly bound within a scarf. She wore a red blouse and a skirt decorated with squares of black and brown. A cross was tattooed on her forehead. Jenine and I each held her hand in greeting and kissed her three times—on the right cheek, the left, and the right—the Ethiopian custom. She said she was happy that Mahelet was going with us. She gave us two photos of Mahelet and a black-and-white photo of her mother, who was beautiful and regal looking.
The aunt told us, through a translator, that she wanted to bring Mahelet to see her grandmother, who was ill but wanted to bless her granddaughter before we left for America. We asked if we would be allowed to go along.
Ethiopia has a proud history, but it is very poor. Per capita income at the time was about $116, according to the U.S. state department. It is one of only two African nations that weren’t colonized by Europeans, though it was occupied by Italy during World War II. The country’s food and language still carry Italian influences. A 17-year civil war ended in the 1990s, but a war with neighboring Eritrea began soon after. Of its 80 million citizens, we were told, 5 million are orphaned children—more than 6 percent of the population.
A block from the orphanage we turned into a small street that was paved with flat gray stones. For part of the way, sewage flowed open in the gutter.
The aunt carried Mahelet most of the way to the grandmother’s house. I was worried that Mahelet would decide to stay with them. She was already legally our daughter, and the nurses at the orphanage had explained we were her new parents, but I wondered whether she might suddenly think it would be better to stay with people she knew. But once we got to her grandmother’s house, Mahelet sat on Jenine’s lap and called her mommy.
They lived in a 10 foot by 10 foot hut. The walls were corrugated sheet metal supported by sticks the width of my wrist, stripped of their bark. A few drawings of Jesus and Mary, and a small woven basket with a red and yellow design hung as decorations. Everything was covered with a coat of grime.
The grandmother had wrapped herself in shawls. She kissed each of us three times and we sat on her bed. The aunt made us stand up so she could remove the plastic sheeting, and our social worker explained that the roof leaked when it rained.
Mahelet’s grandmother was paralyzed on her right side. She sat in a chair, picked up her right hand with her left and let it drop into her lap. Her eyes were rheumy and her hair straggly and gray. She was missing several teeth. A couple of neighbor women came in to give Mahelet a hug. Then her cousin, who was 15 and handsome, the son of the aunt, arrived. He quickly shook our hands and stood to the side and watched us with curiosity.
A small charcoal stove sat next to the bed, with a pot of rice next to it. Mahelet asked for something to eat and her aunt got out a little blue container that looked like the top to a square plastic box. It was the dish Mahelet ate out of when she lived there. The aunt filled it with rice and Mahelet smiled. Jenine told everyone that Mahelet did have lunch, just in case anyone thought we hadn’t fed her.
The aunt and grandmother both made sure Jenine and I understood that they were happy for Mahelet. They thanked us several times. We showed the grandmother a book of photos we brought of the rest of our family, the school Mahelet would attend, and our house. She blessed the house and the two of us, as the translator interpreted. She leaned from her chair and placed the palm of her hand on the ground and chanted softly.
The interpreter said, “When Mahelet goes with you, she will be imbued.”
It was time to go. The grandmother thanked us and blessed us again. We kissed three times. She was crying. I put down my video camera and hugged her. She reached for Jenine’s hand and they embraced. The aunt kissed me on the cheek and leaned down and kissed the inside of my right knee. She did the same to Jenine. We took photos with the neighbors and Mahelet and her aunt outside, then walked away down the little lane.
Mahelet’s cousin followed us a few paces behind and when we were almost to the main street, he called out: “Mahli! Ciao!” He smiled and stopped, leaning against a wall. We stopped and waved, and then walked on and around the corner.
Photo [main]: Flikr
Inset photo courtesy of the Author