by Jody Kennedy
My stepfather and I arrive at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa on a late April evening. It’s a day after Fasika, Ethiopian Easter, and during the season of the Little Rains. We’re only going to be here eight days and will be long gone before the Big Rains come two months from now. At a designated meeting spot, we wait for the driver who will shuttle us to the orphanage guesthouse. There’s a father from America waiting, too. I tell him my husband is home in Madison, Wisconsin with our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I don’t tell him how nervous I am, traveling to Ethiopia to meet our new one-year-old son. The single father is meeting his daughter and says he studied in Madison and has fond memories of buying ice cream at the Memorial Union and sitting in the colorful chairs on the terrace overlooking Lake Mendota. I tell him my favorite flavor is chocolate and that my mother used to take my brother and me for cones at the dairy store on Linden Drive not far from the creeks around Picnic Point, where we’d sometimes catch baby snapping turtles and set them free. We end up laughing about how small the world seems sometimes.
Our driver is named Ermias. He smiles easily and has an older model white Toyota van. The air outside is warm, and it’s too dark now to make out any surrounding details. Ermias mentions Barack Obama and how hopeful his presidency was for America. For once, I’m not embarrassed about being an American outside of America. After an uneventful twenty minutes, we arrive at the orphanage guesthouse. A security guard opens the heavy compound gate, and Ermias drives inside.
“Salam,” says the guard. Salam is an informal hello, also meaning, “to your health.”
“Hello,” I say, but what I don’t say is that my breasts are sore and that the last time I nursed my daughter seems like days ago now. I’d kept nursing her to try to keep my milk with the hope that my new son would nurse. Traveling to Ethiopia, I pumped breast milk in the airplane bathrooms and airport stalls from Chicago to Frankfurt and from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa. It was the first time I’d been apart from my daughter for more than a few hours, and though the weaning had been planned, her absence at my breast felt like a monumental rupture. I cried often and deeply, missing her.
One of the orphanage nannies, a young woman named Mehret, comes out to meet us. “Follow me,” she says and leads us to the nursery. The nursery is in a small building just behind the main guesthouse. There are a handful of cribs in a row against the wall. “Your son is here,” Mehret says, showing me to his crib. I lean over, my heart in my throat. There he is, my son, sleeping on his side with his hands tucked under his chin. I immediately recognize the shape of his ear from the pictures I’d spent hours studying on our adoption agency’s photo sharing site. I start to sob. It’s nothing like seeing my daughter for the first time. I’d given birth at home after what seemed like hours of fierce pushing. When she finally came, I cut the umbilical cord and placed her at my breast. I loved her already but was too worn out to cry.
“Do you want to hold him?” Mehret asks in English.
I shake my head and wipe the tears with the back of my hand. “I don’t want to wake him. He looks so peaceful. I’ll come in the morning,” I say softly.
I leave my son in the nursery. My stepfather settles into his room a few doors down, and Mehret shows me to my room on the second floor of the main guesthouse. The room is small and clean with a queen-sized bed and matching traditional brown and white Ethiopian patterned curtains and pillows. I dig out my breast pump and think of my daughter and the ocean between us. It’s early afternoon in Madison; she’s probably taking her nap. I pump and throw the milk down the bathroom sink across the hall. Back in my room, I fall asleep thinking of my daughter so far away and my new son so close by.
I wake the next morning to a call to prayer from the nearby Abadir Mosque. The words are hauntingly beautiful, like some mysterious Delphic poem that stirs a longing in the deepest parts of the soul. I wonder if my son will hold a memory of these rich, drawn-out intonations in Arabic. God is great. There is no god but God. I think of the one God with ninety-nine names that all equal love. I think of how we continue to build our ninety-nine walls around our ninety-nine religions—to protect us from what? To protect us from love maybe? I close the window and hurry to the nursery, ninety-nine steps between here and there, ninety-nine steps between your heart and mine.
Mehret catches me at the nursery door. “He’s awake now,” she laughs and glances over at my son’s crib. My son is standing against the bars, smiling. He’s beautiful and I’m nervous. One of the other adoptive parents visited the nursery at Christmas and said that my son was a doll and she could spend the whole day making him laugh. “Hi Naol, it’s me,” I say. Naol, an Oromo name, means peaceful, long-lived wanderer. I gently lift him out of his crib. So, how does this work? I’ve spent the past eight months dreaming of him, and he doesn’t know me from any of the other parents passing through the orphanage. I wonder if this is what an arranged marriage feels like? Building a love without that initial mutual attraction? We’ll have to get to know each other in different ways, I think. I thank the nannies for their care—grateful it’s the last time my son will wake up in the nursery.
The guesthouse is enclosed by a high cement wall crowned with barbwire. There are blooming red rose bushes in the small yard, a worn basketball hoop, and a terrace with triangular-shaped pavers, which I recognize from pictures I’d seen of the nannies and groups of babies lying on blankets in the sun. There’s a different security guard at the compound gate now. He has a kind, thin face, and is wearing fifties-style eyeglasses, a green baseball cap, and a cheap pair of flip-flops. “Salam,” I say, “I’m Jody, and this is my son, Naol.”
“I’m Teodros,” he says, then places his hand on Naol’s head as if giving a priestly blessing.
Ethiopia is beautiful. I tell my son he’s lucky. It’s the place where present day humans were born. We’re all related in this way, brothers and sisters, I say, though most of us have forgotten. There’s the Blue Nile, sometimes said to be the River Gihon in the biblical Garden of Eden. There’s the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon and the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the priests in Aksum who protect the Arc of the Covenant, the same covenant given to Moses from God. There’s Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jews, and Operation Moses. There’s the fourth most holy city of Islam, Harar. There’s the Ethio-Jazz musician Mulatu Astatke and artists like Qes Adamu Tesfaw and Oromo runners who regularly win Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medals, outrunning us all.
I make a bottle and carry Naol upstairs to our room. On the bed, I try to nurse him first, but he spits out my nipple. I wonder if his birthmother nursed him. I should have waited. Love can’t be forced, and patience hasn’t always been my strong point.
We meet my stepfather in the downstairs dining room for breakfast, and he’s grateful to finally hold Naol. I’m glad my stepfather could travel with me. He’s an adventurous spirit who once, at twenty, flew to Paris with eleven dollars in his pocket and sold newspapers near Notre Dame to pay rent on his tiny fifth-floor walk-up in the now defunct Hotel Quatre-Nations. It was early winter and at the Café le Buci, not far from the hotel, he tried to stay warm and stretch a cup of coffee for hours while making pen and ink drawings in his sketchbook.
Other parents join us at the table: a woman from Oregon, another from Washington, DC, and a father from, of all places, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We introduce our children and share stories. After breakfast, plans are made to go the market. We aren’t allowed to take our children out in public, except for official adoption related business, so the nannies are expected to watch them. It’s complicated. I feel guilty—like what we’re doing (adopting from Ethiopia) is somehow wrong. One of the nannies looks at me as if she expects me to leave my son and go with the others. When I tell her I’m staying, she seems surprised. I can’t leave him so soon. I’d feel too much like a tourist here to buy souvenirs and pick up a baby on the side.
Naol and I spend the day playing together in our room and in front of a large mirror in the upstairs hallway. We visit the nannies and the other babies, now spread out on blankets in the sun, and after lunch, we take a long bath together, skin on skin, following the recommendations of my attachment parenting books. At nap time, I take a picture of Naol sleeping on our bed. That night, I curl around him but sleep lightly, waking often to make sure he’s still breathing like I do sometimes with my daughter. I don’t tell anyone that I’m experiencing moments of intense fear, maybe like the fear of an alpinist finally reaching the summit of Mount Everest and now praying for enough oxygen and strength to make it back down.
The orphanage director comes to collect us the next morning for a medical appointment. Naol looks confused and searches my eyes for reassurance. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere and neither are you,” I whisper. The orphanage director is a tall, white woman who drives a big Toyota Land Cruiser. The road outside the guesthouse is dry, packed earth lined with corrugated metal houses. The further out of the neighborhood we get, the more I notice the people walking everywhere. People dressed in t-shirts and jeans, colorful headscarves and dresses, wearing mostly flip-flops or plastic sandals. Children run alongside cars and beg for money and there are sometimes small herds of goats crossing the road and holding up traffic.
In line at the medical center, there’s an older Ethiopian woman waiting with two young girls holding newborn babies. The girls are smiling and pretty and look about seventeen or eighteen-years-old. I wonder if they’re getting paid to have babies for all us desperate American and European families. I try to push that thought away, but other lingering fears rise up behind it—fears about fraud, corruption, and trafficking and about how the twenty thousand or more US dollars spent on adoption fees and travel converted into Ethiopian birr would help a lot of farmers or single mothers and their children.
A Buddhist friend of mine always says that there are no accidents, there are only our individual and collective karmic workings-out, that is to say, the consequences of our past actions accumulated over lifetimes. I try to hold onto that thought and trust life’s unfolding.
I didn’t come to Ethiopia to save or convert anyone. I’m not the kind of person who says things like, “forever family” or who uses Biblical quotes like, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” as justification for adopting. I came to Ethiopia for selfish reasons. My husband and I simply wanted another child and a sibling for our daughter. I was in my early forties and was sure I wasn’t going to get pregnant again after trying almost two years for my daughter. Adoption in Ethiopia was relatively straightforward, and I felt an overwhelming urge to start the process soon after our daughter’s birth so the age difference between them wouldn’t be so great. I also hoped for a boy, and if we didn’t share a preference, adopting from Ethiopia pretty much guaranteed a referral for a boy since most families wanted girls. The whole process went smoothly and took about a year from start to finish.
It’s the Feast of St. George, patron saint of Ethiopia, and Naol and I spend a quiet day with some of the other families. That evening we eat Doro Wat, spicy chicken stew, and drink bottled water. The serving is too big, and I can’t finish everything on my plate. There are people starving in the world right now even though there are enough resources to provide for everyone. It’s just—to put it very simply—a matter of priorities. I say a prayer, scrape the leftovers into the garbage, and try to let go.
Naol was found abandoned in Shashemene according to his official adoption paperwork. We leave early with Ermias for the 155-mile drive south of Addis Ababa—Naol, my stepfather, the Milwaukee father, his son, and two Ethiopian social workers from the adoption agency. Shashemene is on the Trans-African Highway, one of the social workers tells us, and it’s a place where a lot of people go and get into trouble. I remember hearing about Shashemene during my Bob Marley days—the Emperor Haile Selassie donated land to the Caribbean Rastafarians as part of a resettlement plan.
The further from Addis Ababa we travel, the more the landscape begins to look like one of those African scenes often seen in books—thatched round houses, wide, dry plains, and single acacia trees scattered here and there. The closer to Shashemene we get, the more lush and populated it appears—with tall cacti, different kinds of trees, blue Bajaj, small three-wheeled auto rickshaws lining the road, women driving donkey carts overloaded with bundles of sticks, and people walking everywhere.
Our first stop in Shashemene is the home of Bekele, a woman in her early sixties who, it turns out, knew my son’s birthmother. Naol tugs at her chin and ears, seemingly remembering her. I ask questions in English through the social workers. I hardly know any Amharic—my fault—and I’m not sure now how much is being lost in translation or maybe not even understood. Who named my son? What about his birthfather? Who was he? What was his birthmother’s story? Why did she leave him? I hoped she wasn’t coerced. I hoped maybe she was like a younger version of me, too wild to finally settle down, instead smoking cigarettes, drinking homemade Tej beer, and getting in trouble under the fig trees with older, good-looking neighborhood boys.
Naol’s birthmother was twenty-five and came to Shashemene from a region further south. She worked as a housekeeper and a cook then went away to Bale, a nearby district, and came back pregnant, says Bekele. She was always unhappy and complained a lot. I shudder. I’m just like her, I think, and it looks like my son might not be able to get out of his life lessons so easily. I wonder if he’ll try to find her someday. Will he call her his real mother? What will I be called then? I’ll help him look for her if he asks and try to remember Kahlil Gibran’s words, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”
A crowd starts to gather around us, ten, twenty, thirty, or more people. I search the faces of the young women and wonder if my son’s birthmother could be here, watching us. Maybe his birthfather is here, too. How would I know? I’m starting to feel like a highly conspicuous ferenji, a foreigner. The crowd begins pushing in, touching us, saying over and over in broken English, “Lucky boy, going to America.”
We leave Shashemene and travel north to Lake Awasa, a lake famous for its hippopotamuses—though we don’t see any. There are Marabou storks hanging around though—tall, strange-looking birds—and there’s a man out on the lake in a reed boat, using a push pole instead of oars. My stepfather takes a picture of Naol and me smiling at each other with the blue lake behind us.
At a nearby restaurant, we order Spris, layered mango, avocado, and papaya fruit drinks in tall glasses. Ermias and the adoption agency social workers share a communal plate of injera and different kinds of wat, and my stepfather and I order spicy red lentils. Naol is restless. My stepfather and I take turns eating and holding him.
On the way back to Addis Ababa, we pass a young boy selling watermelons along the road. Ermias pulls over, and we spill out of the van. There’s group of large acacia trees a short walk away. I wander out beyond the trees and take a picture of the mountains in the distance. They must be part of the Main Ethiopian Rift, I think. I wish I were a bird sometimes and could fly up to see the world from a different point of view. What would I see right now? I’d see the beauty of the soft evening light on the distant mountains, of a young boy selling watermelons along a dusty road, and the beauty of a group of strangers brought together by chance or maybe destiny.
That night, back at the guesthouse, I try to nurse Naol again, but he refuses. I rock him to sleep with a bottle and imagine him at his birthmother’s breast. Her beautiful, strong arms cradling him as he falls asleep in the fading light.
Today, I celebrate twenty years of sobriety. I don’t mention my anniversary to anyone except my stepfather. I’ve learned over the years that talking about not drinking can be like trying to make funeral arrangements for the living. Sometimes I still feel marked, but then I take courage in a line from one of my favorite Rumi poems,“What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.”
Later that morning, I finally agree to go to the market with some of the other parents. My stepfather stays behind with Naol. The Addis Merkato is the largest open-air market in Africa. It’s noisy and crowded. We wander through stalls displaying colorful silk scarves, baskets, t-shirts, and nylon track suits with the Ethiopian colors—red, yellow,, and green. I feel guilty, again, seeing the poverty. My Ethiopia guidebook says guilt is normal and to try to accept it. I try but just can’t seem move beyond it. Instead, I feel like the shy little girl I once was, hiding behind my mother and not fully participating. I reluctantly buy two traditional Ethiopian children’s outfits, though, that both kids will wear when Naol is baptized three months from now.
Back at the guesthouse, my stepfather leaves for one last sightseeing trip, and I spend the afternoon taking photos of Naol with the nannies, of Teodros the security guard, the nursery, the rose bushes in the garden, and views out the windows of the second-floor bedrooms. The other parents and I take a group picture before dinner. There are eight of us smiling and holding our babies or standing with arms around our older children. We talk about having a reunion in Addis Ababa someday and how we plan to stay in touch.
It’s after 10 o’clock, and my stepfather is late in coming back. When he finally gets in an hour later, he gives me a lovely yellow silk scarf and a set of small hand-painted icons, one in particular for Naol of St. George slaying the dragon. He apologizes for being late and says he got caught up in one of those coffee ceremony scams the guidebook warned about. He had a really good time though buying Coca-Colas and sandwiches for everyone at a cafe until the overinflated bill came. There were prostitutes singing religious songs, he says. They were beautiful, and he couldn’t believe they were prostitutes. I’m furious at him for being so late but finally let go because I can’t keep from loving him and his joie de vivre.
It’s our last morning in Ethiopia, and I have a dream that God and his ninety-nine names sees only the light in each of us and nothing else, not our physical appearance, not our cultures or races, poverty or riches, not our mosques, temples, or churches, not even our mountaintops or forests.
I’m nervous. I’ve never been good at early mornings, especially traveling. I pack my breast pump and prepare a bottle for Naol (who still won’t nurse). It’s dark outside and just before the first call to prayer when we leave the guesthouse. I’m going to miss those deeply haunting calls in Arabic.
Ermias, the driver, is waiting for us in his white Toyota van, and Teodros, the security guard, is unlocking the gate. Goodbye, Teodros, I say and notice he’s wearing my stepfather’s heavy-duty sports sandals (sandals my stepfather has given him). My own father could never have been so present, I think. My son is lucky to have a grandfather like my stepfather. Teodros places his hand on Naol’s head as if blessing him again, though he says nothing.
The drive to Bole International Airport is quiet. My stepfather keeps nodding off, and Naol is resting comfortably in my lap. “Salam Ethiopia,” I whisper as I close my eyes and pray that my son will be able to forgive me and to forgive the world for its multitude of imperfections someday, too. §
Jody Kennedy is a writer and photographer living in Provence, France. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, Rattle, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere.