Monday, December 6, 2010
"There is no way she would be able to attend school if it wasn't for her sponsorship" ...
Fitsum slipped her hand back into mine, as we now journeyed toward her home. She was nearly skipping with excitement as we navigated narrow paths along rutted cow paths and small, square plots of land planted with Tef (wheat) that looked like it was nearly ready for harvest. Beniam was still leading the way, looking over his shoulder every now and then to see if we were keeping up. I felt Fitsum's hand squeeze mine and I looked up to see a little stick and mud house in the distance that her eyes were focused on.
I slowed my pace until she stopped and looked up at me. "Is that your home," I asked her. She nodded and we stopped for a picture with her family home in the background.
One of her sisters was keeping watch for us, and I saw a slim figure quickly vanish from her look-out spot. I smiled knowing she was probably inside whispering "They're here!! They're here!!" As we came around the corner, a thin, attractive woman met us at the door and greeted us warmly. Fikre introduced everyone and then Fitsum's mother gestured toward the open door and invited us in. Fitsum skipped inside, plopped onto a bench on the far wall, and patted the space beside her for me to sit next to her. She entwined her arms in mine, and sat contentledly, swinging her feet, as we spoke with her family.
Fitsum's mother and father joined us on the benches - while her 3 sisters knelt or sat on the floor nearby. Fitsum's father seemed to be staring blankly over my head, and I wondered if he was bored or maybe even enduring this meeting, perhaps feeling like we were invading his home (but that was not the case). After a few moments, he abruptly got up and exited the house, to pace back and forth in the yard, talking animatedly to himself. Fitsum's mother then lowered her voice and explained something in great detail to Fikre. He nodded with understanding - and then turned to explain to me.
Many years ago, when the children were much younger, he had started acting more and more strangely and distracted. Gesturing to her head, she had explained that he has a mental illness and disappears for long periods of time. He is no longer capable of work, and so 3 of her 7 children work outside the home to support the family. Her only son works for a farmer in his fields so that the family has something to live off of. Two of her daughters work as daily laborers or house cleaners when they can find work.
All of the children work at various odd jobs so they can afford school fees. Sometimes they are able to attend a government school and sometimes they cannot afford the uniforms, school supplies and books - so they work and save money, until they can attend school. Fistum's three older sisters, who were all there with us in the house, were all focused on finishing school.
Her mother explained to me that Fitsum is the youngest of the family and was a surprise - she was not expecting to be able to have more children. "If it was not for Kind Hearts and her sponsorship, there is no way that she would be able to go to school, since she is the youngest. We are so thankful to her sponsor family." I then explained that it is my parents who sponsor Fitsum and that they have a photo of her at their home. Her mother smiled warmly and her eyes seemed to suddenly glisten with tears. Noticing this, Fitsum wrapped her little arms around me even tighter and looked at her mother with a questioning expression. Her mother said something to her in Amharic, and Fitsum responded with a flurry of soft-spoken words. Fikre translated, "She says YOU are her second mother!"
I asked about each of her children and about her hopes for them. As we got up to say our good-byes, I presented them with the coffee beans and sugar and thanked her for opening her home to us. As she followed me to the door, I got a glimpse into the adjoining room which was there bedroom. Sensing my curiosity, she asked one of the girls to open the shutter over the window to let light into the room.
Similar to Beniam's family bedroom (except that this one had no bed), clothing was stored in plastic "grocery" sacks and a few garments hung from a rope clothes-line. The family slept on what looked to be burlap sacks laid directly on the dirt floor. There was even a short dirt "wall" that had been sculpted and formed from wet mud to separate the childrens' area from the adults'. She showed me with gestures that she sleeps on one side of the wall, and several of her children sleep on the other side. The older kids sleep in the main room on small mats and her husband now sleeps in a lean-to shelter that is attached to the kitchen. She explained through the translator that he does not sleep in the house any longer because he sleeps in fits and has "episodes" that kept everyone awake at night.
I looked out the window to the stick and mud hut they used as a kitchen - and I could see plastic sheeting and rags that created a small, covered sleeping area for him.
We stepped out into the sunlight to cross the yard to the "kitchen". Inside the blackened interior I could see the remains of a cooking fire with ashes, and a large injera pan. The kitchen was a separate structure from the house to keep the smell of food and smoke from permeating the house, and to keep the fire from blackening the interior of the house. Fikre cautioned me as I stepped inside, "Be careful, it will smell like goat head in there." I asked, "Why would it smell like goat head?" And he laughed and pointed to the floor where the head of a goat laid. "Oh - that's why," I said with a smile.
Each of the family members hugged us good-bye and again, I was honored with the affectionate 3 kisses from Fitsum's mother. She hugged me tightly and asked Fikre to tell me to please visit again. I asked if I could take a picture of the family in front of their home - and they loved looking at it afterwards.
As we said good-bye, I told her how much I appreciated her clean home and how she mothered her children. I told her what a "stand-out" Fitsum is and how my parents loved her the moment they saw her. I also asked her if she realized how stunningly beautiful her daughters are. She gestured to heaven in thanks and told me that she was very aware of their beauty. I promised her that I would try to visit the next time I am in Ethiopia. (And the next day when all the care-givers arrived for the meal we prepared, I caught her eye in the crowd as we prayed before the meal, and she waded through the crowd afterward to greet me and hug me again. We were no longer strangers - we were now friends ... and even family.)
As we turned to leave, one of the sister tapped me lightly on the arm and spoke softly to me in Amharic. I turned to Fikre to ask him to translate and he tilted his head and asked her to repeat what she had said. She shyly asked again and Fikre turned to me and said, "She is asking if you have any pencils that you can give her for her schoolwork." "Yes. Pencils are very important for school! I agreed with her. "When you pick Fitsum up from school this afternoon, find me and I will have pencils for you."
As we walked back to Kind Hearts, we had to climb off the walking path to let a boy and several cows go by. The cows were worth several thousand dollars and I understood as I looked at the young boy that this is how he was earning a living for his family - by herding livestock all day and that he had a coveted and important job keeping track of cattle with such value.
A little later on our walk back to Kind Hearts, I was admiring a huge, sprawling tree and as we approached it, I noticed what looked like drums, secured in the branches. Pointing to them, I asked Fikre what they were, and he explained that they were bee-hives, which a family will harvest the honey-comb to sell at the market. (I had even noticed children selling dripping, sticky cakes of honey-comb on street corners in the villages.)
After my visit to Fitsum's home, she stayed close by my side each moment we were at Kind Hearts. Her and I had made a special connection last year - and this year it was cemented even further. Later that afternoon as the kids began to leave the care-point for home, I looked toward the edge of the schoolyard where Fitsum's sister had just arrived to walk her home. The sun was low in the sky and there was a beautiful rosy glow in the trees as she waved to me. I gathered up a handful of pencils, pens, markers and notebooks and offered them to her. Her face broke into a beautiful smile and I asked her to do something for me ... "Work very hard in school!" She nodded emphatically and hugged me. Fitsum, her sister, and a few other kids stood under that acacia tree waving until our van drove out of the schoolyard.