Ethiopia is a beautiful country. It’s capital city, Addis Ababa, sits at the foot of the Entoto Mountains, a range known for their dense covering of eucalyptus trees, a site I could see from the roof of our hotel. (You can read the first part of the story here.) Rich with historic and political significance, the culture was intoxicating, but for all its allure the thing I couldn’t get used to was the smell. A mixture of body odor and diesel fuel choked the air leaving my lungs feeling naked. Huddled in the back seat of a taxi with two other women and a toddler, I covered my mouth with the REI Buff I’d bought for the occasion, a failed attempt to block out the smell.
The women were Americans (an adopting mom and her sister) and the only other paying customers at the Yebsabi guest house where we were staying. A couple of days prior, I listened to their story over breakfast, appreciating the humorous spin with which the mom shared the initial hardships of her first adoption. Now back to bring home a second child, she decided to expand her trip and take in the country. When she told me her plans included a visit to Children’s Heaven, a safe house of sorts dedicated to improving the lives of orphaned girls who had lost one or both parents to the AIDS epidemic, I couldn’t stop myself from imposing.
Which was why there were now four of us crammed into the back seat of a taxi instead of three.
As we drove out of the city limits, the scenery closed in on us. The masses of people and animals who were twenty, thirty, forty feet away in the downtown streets now brushed against our windows. Store fronts turned into one-room shanties, concrete into cardboard, bumpy pavement into ruts, modern-day fashion into strips of cloth. Even the dirt seemed dirtier.
When I noticed that Kullie, our faithful cab driver, seemed out of his element, I told myself it was no big deal. The first time he got out of the car to ask directions, I did my best to keep tabs on his whereabouts, adjusting my comfort level to match his body language, while I soaked in the surroundings. I forced myself to relax, pulling out my camera in an attempt to capture the drastic changes, but when a pair of eyes as black as wet earth met mine and their owner gave me the slightest, slowest shake of his head, I lowered my camera, embarrassed and unnerved. I was relieved when Kullie slid into the driver’s seat again and pulled away, but by the third time he got out of the car, pacing the streets in search of someone who could help direct us, I was squirming in my seat. It was the first time since we’d arrived in Ethiopia that I was afraid.
Little did I know that there, sitting uneasy, uncomfortable, anxious in that taxi, I was just minutes away from a refuge to some eighty-one orphaned girls; a refuge that meets their basic needs (food rations, school supplies, medical treatment), yes, but one that instills hope in a way that I’ve never seen so up close. Finally, a left turn, a pause as a herd of cows crossed the dirt path, then a gate. The irony still tugs at my heart. For at last, in this poorest of poor place, we had arrived at the oasis that was our destination: Children’s Heaven.
Ethiopians are known for their hospitality. Hanna, the founder of Children’s Heaven, along with her staff, did not disappoint. A brief tour included a newly updated library (fresh with periwinkle walls), a bathroom and an office with three desks, all of which (see photos) reminded me how overly accustomed I’ve become to my comfortable western surroundings.
After the tour, we continued down a long, narrow hallway talking, listening, exchanging until we came to one final door. My mood was despairing and I assumed that walking through this door would only compound the weight. In all the times I’d mused about heaven’s trappings, it’d certainly never looked like this. But what I didn’t know was that waiting on the other side of the door, seated in fortyish padded chairs, was why they did, and should, call it Children’s Heaven.
They ranged from ages eleven to fourteen and their beautiful faces were brimming with hope. Hope. They had been waiting to meet us.
After a few words of welcome from Hanna, they started to sing. First in their native tongue with hands and arms moving, bright teeth shining. I watched and smiled back at them, enjoying the foreign sounds and rhythms that come with a language that was not my own. When Hanna asked if the girls could sing in English, a prospect that obviously delighted them, we said we’d be honored.
I only had a moment to be surprised by their fluency before the words of their songs brought tears to my eyes, for they weren’t just singing, they were worshiping. Worshiping our God whom I didn’t know they knew, singing of his deep love for them in the midst of their broken, unjust lives. Love that I could see washing over them as they sang and all I could think was I wonder if they know how beautiful they are.
What happened next, however, is what has compelled me to write.
The girls stood up, one by one, and introduced themselves:
Hi, my name is Gabra*. I’m 12 years old, my favorite subject is history and when I grow up I want to be a doctor.
Hi, my name is Abeba. I’m 11 years old, my favorite subject is math and when I grow up, I want to be a teacher.
Hi, my name is Berta. I’m 14 years old, my favorite subject is English and when I grow up I want to be a nurse.
I want to be a lawyer.
These were orphans. Girls who were living in the places in which I was afraid to simply sit in a motionless taxi. Girls who knew what it was like to lose a parent to AIDS, some of whom were in danger of suffering the same fate. Girls who were parenting younger siblings. Girls who’d be lost to the hardships of the streets if it were not for one woman who believed they could become something more. Something more that included a vision, a hope and a future, and began with a foundational belief that makes young girls stand up and declare that they want to be teachers and doctors and lawyers and pilots and is grounded in knowing, despite their circumstances, that they have a Father who will never leave or forsake them.
Girls brimming with hope in the poorest place I’d ever seen.
That day, as I stood in that room halfway around the world listening to these girls, I experienced the presence of God like I have few times in my life. The kind of experience that overwhelms your soul so completely, that presses down on your heart so heavily, that fills you so wholly that any doubt you’ve ever had that God is real or that you can actually encounter his holiness in this life evaporates. The tears started to leap and flow and under the weight of that moment I knew why a woman I barely knew invited me into one of the most intimate experiences of her life.
And so I made a promise.
I said God, if you ever have any reason for me to be part of what is happening here, I will. If you ever have any reason to bring me back to this space, I will come. If you ever ask me to do anything for the sake of these girls, I will do it.
Two months ago I received a letter from Hanna. She needs help. And so. . . here I am. And here you are too. My hope is that you’ll come back just one more time so that we can find a way to help together.
I started my last post by saying this:
Experience can’t be transferred. I know that.
Passion can’t be forced out of one heart and into another. I know that too.
I still do. Really. But I also know that making a difference in the lives of these girls would be relatively painless for us and because I made a promise, I don’t mind asking. And so I will.
Hope to see you soon.
*Names and ages are fictional.
You can visit Children’s Heaven at www.childrensheaven.org
To see the beginning of this series go to Do Me a Favor?