This week, one of my former students, one who is Ethiopian-American, asked me on facebook how our time here in Ethiopia was going. We love Ethiopia and believe it is a beautiful country and we have learned that Ethiopians, especially those in the diaspora, love to hear how we love their country. So, as I usually do, I started my reply to him by telling him how we were enjoying our time here because it’s a land of beauty, etc.… But I couldn’t finish the message I intended to write because that morning we’d been confronted with some not-so-beautiful things, caused in large part by some of the difficult poverty of Ethiopia.
One of the hardest processes that we have been faced with here so far has been that of considering new children to accept into the home. The home here is an orphanage; it is designed to provide a home and family, to the best degree possible, to those who don’t otherwise have either. We believe that institutionalized care of children should be a last resort. An institution simply can’t provide all that a family can when raising children. Unfortunately, many children here in Ethiopia don’t have the option to live with and grow up in a family and even many who do, have families who are primarily concerned with finding enough food for the day. The home here regularly gets letters requesting that the organization help. The letters usually come from local government officials at the kebele level (maybe similar to the city ward level in Chicago). We’re quickly learning that these requests are not simple and they always involve some painful decisions and considerations. This week, we were involved in investigating two such cases.
One case involved a young girl around seven or eight years old. She was brought to the home this week by a neighbor. She currently lives with a teenage sister and her grandparents. Her mother passed away, her father is unknown, and both of her grandparents are very ill. The neighbor brought her to us at the request of the grandfather who is very concerned for her care. Because the home is not equipped to care for children who are HIV positive, blood work is the first step taken with any new case. This little girl came back positive, which tragically means we can’t accept her.
On Friday morning, Richelle travelled with our Head Nurse to this girl’s home to meet with the grandfather and inform him of the blood work results. The grandfather was not aware that the little girl was positive, but did not seem surprised when told. As Richelle and the Head Nurse spoke with him, they learned that the little girl’s mother died of HIV/AIDS, the grandmother is HIV positive and is currently dying of cancer, which is probably a secondary disease of AIDS, and the grandfather is positive, has only recently accepted that he must be taking ARVs, has the beginnings of paralysis in his legs, and probably doesn’t have many years left. The older sister has never been tested.
So what’s going to happen to this little girl? Her grandfather is currently able to financially support her with his government employee pension, she is currently going to school, and ARVs are freely distributed, but who’s able to care for her and ensure that she takes the ARVs, what’s it going to be like for her to watch both her grandparents die of the disease that she too has, and who’s going to care for her when her grandparents are gone? There are children’s homes in Ethiopia set up to care for children who are HIV positive (like the Missionaries of Charity where Titay spent her first three years), but none right here in Wolaita. And is that the only option for this little girl… to send her off to Addis, or maybe Awasa, to grow up in an orphanage?
While Richelle was travelling with our Head Nurse to visit this home, I travelled with our Director to visit another family about whom we’d received a letter requesting help. This is a case where the children are not actually orphaned at all. There are eight children living with their mother in the small house of their maternal grandfather where, in addition to their mother and grandfather, there are also six others living. That’s sixteen total mouths to feed for a small, sustenance farmer who himself is getting quite elderly. The mother and eight children are living at the grandfather’s house because the children’s father has a mental disability and has grown violently abusive. When we visited, the mother had bad bruises on her face.
But here’s the problem. The home here is an orphanage and our priority is to care for orphans when no other family is available to care for them. These children aren’t orphans. Back in Illinois, this family would be a clear DCFS intervention case, but there is no such thing here. Here they have the kebele officials who are intervening by reaching out to us to take some of the children to make it easier for the grandfather to feed the rest. We don’t have space for all eight of these children; probably based on gender and age, we can only consider two. In order to help this family survive, we’re being asked to accept two of the eight children, thus separating them from siblings and mother. But there doesn’t seem to be any other form of assistance available for this family and two fewer kids to feed may just make it possible for the grandfather to sustain the others.
So in response to my former student on facebook, I had to stop mid-sentence and reconsider what to write. Yes it’s beautiful here, there is some remarkable history, breath-taking landscapes, friendly people, and unique culture, but there is also some very ugly stuff, much of it partly the result of poverty… food insecurity, lack of clean water, insufficient healthcare and illness prevention, poor education, inadequate institutions, no social safety-net programs, etc. So instead of what I intended to write, I said: “We’re enjoying our time here, but there’s some tough stuff here; it’s a land of beauty, but one that suffers from some difficult poverty.”
P.S. There are also ugly bedbugs, fleas, lice and mites here, all of which exist in an ugly parasitical way on the human body. In some combination of two or more (though we’re not yet exactly sure which), we’re also contending with some of these “uglies” this week.