July 24, 2012
Kayla King - Women's Soccer
My hands are dirty. My mouth's been dry all day. My heart's racing. I have this immovable lump in my throat. I think I could still be shaking. My jeans are wet and haven't been washed in two days. They've been covered in everything from paint to kerosene to charcoal dust to mud to gravel. They probably won't get washed for another few days. My nails are filthy and my hands will be stained from paint and charcoal for the duration of this trip. My hands are empty but my heart is full. My eyes are dry but my soul weeps. My mind and eyes have been opened farther than I could have ever imagined and it's only been two days. My heart has been stretched and pulled and used and changed. I have made so many human connections that I feel like my heart will burst with all the love that I've been given. I don't know where I belong or how I will go back to the life I left in Lexington. Forty-eight hours in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I will never be the same again.
Today we went back to the community center and church that we painted yesterday. Tesfaye and Kaleab greeted us with huge smiles and big hugs. We walked in through the door, debriefed, prayed and started to work. Today we had a mission - sort and deliver rice, coffee, soap, sugar, salt, and charcoal with matches to 50 families. We also needed to finish some of the painting from yesterday, so Aubrey and Kastine offered to finish that as we only needed two workers for that job. Everyone else was given bags and told to begin sorting the charcoal. Fifty-pound bags were dumped out on the cement floor under the canopy and after putting latex gloves on for safety, we dug right in. They gave us yellow bags to fill and the competitive athletes in all of us came out and soon it was a race to see who could fill the most bags the fastest. Needless to say, I won. We filled every bit of 15 bags by the end of it and my gloves were torn to pieces. Completely worth it. Bragging rights are mine.
The day was split by lunch where we went to a nice little pizza place. But the highlight of the lunch hour was sitting next to Noonish and Belailu and picking their brains about Ethiopian customs, weddings, phrases, obscure facts, and their personal lives. I've sort of acquired the reputation of an interrogator, and it might be justified by the fact that I corner everyone and demand (politely) that they tell me about their lives. It worked perfectly at lunch because they were more than happy to explain their country to me. They were proud, too. They were glad I asked and it seemed like it gave them a measure of self-worth that the firenga (foreigners) wanted to know about them. I learned just last night that Belailu had recently lost his six front teeth due to a gum infection. With the loss of his teeth, he also lost his bubbly personality due to an extreme self-consciousness and embarrassment. When we started talking to him, he lit up and was more than happy to talk and educate us. I didn't know him before he lost his teeth, but it seemed like his personality came right back out and his whole demeanor changed. It was really cool to see. It was his birthday and I learned later that one of our team's leaders had sponsored a full repair of his teeth. I'm so excited for him to get his confidence back and for him to share his sincere smile.
After lunch we went back and were greeted by 20 families of single mothers and their children. They had filled up the small concrete patio and were patiently waiting on us. Tesfaye ushered us in and explained that we were going to distribute bags to these families and then take the remaining 15 or so out into the community, as those individuals were too sick or handicapped to make the walk to the church. The women came forward one by one and accepted these 25-pound bags with surprising ease. The highlight of the day, though, came right after I handed a bag to an elderly woman. I heard my name being called and looked out the doorway and saw Berexet weaving her way through the densely packed crowd to me. I met her yesterday and had mentioned that we'd be back today to deliver this food, with no expectation that she'd remember or even come back. Not only did she come back but she remembered me by name and asked after me. When she saw me, her face lit up and she gave me the biggest, strongest hug that I've had yet. She immediately latched on to my hand and didn't let go for anything. We found a seat, sat down, and talked. She just finished 6th grade, her favorite subject is English (at which she's quite proficient), she has two older brothers, her favorite color is blue, she's 13 and doesn't care for the rain. She likes bright colors, and she wears them everywhere, from her bright orange shirt to her pink hair clip. She asked about my family, and I was fortunate enough to have some pictures on my camera to show her. She marveled at my parents, my two sisters, my grandparents, and she remembered them in different pictures. She told me how young my mom looked and how tall my stepdad was. She loved my sisters. I was able to snag someone and get our picture taken, and she loved seeing herself on that little screen.
When Tesfaye gave the word, we picked up our bags of charcoal and supplies and headed out to the community. Berexet was worried that she'd lose me and offered to carry a bag so we could hold hands, but I assured her that I could carry both of them and she could link her arm through mine. After trying and failing to pick one up, she agreed and latched onto my elbow. That's how we walked through Korah together, me carrying two yellow bags full of charcoal and her gripping my elbow and chit chatting as the rain lightly fell on our heads.
We were walking along and following Kaleab, an absolutely fantastic man who serves as one of our translators, when I looked up and saw where we were. And it just hit me. All those pictures of the destitute and poverty-stricken Ethiopians in this leper colony, all of the trash heap houses and mud roads, all of the hopeless and fallen, all of that was real. Real and right in front of me. All around me were the faces of men and women, who, through no fault of their own, were ostracized because of an ignorance and fear surrounding a treatable disease. It started with leprosy and only worsened with the advent of HIV and AIDS. These people were unloved by society, outcast because of a physical appearance, and left in this pit to waste away their remaining days. I forgot about Berexet, I forgot about the rain, I even forgot about the uneven footing. I just stopped and looked around at what I'd only seen in pictures and realized that the pictures miss so much. They miss the pallor that the rain causes, the feel of your shoes when you miss a rock and sink into the muck, the emptiness that echoes as loud as the silence. They capture so much, but miss all of it at the same time. I simply couldn't believe what I was seeing.
Then Berexet brought me back real fast.
"I live here."
"Yes, right there. 11-30."
Are you kidding me? Berexet, my gentle, smart, conjo (beautiful) Berexet, lives here? The girl who loves bright colors and wears red boots lives here? No. She couldn't. It had to be wrong. Surely she meant that she lived on the other side of Korah, somewhere with gravel roads and a patch of sunlight. Not here.
"Oh look! There is my dog, Jack. He is very fun to have. I like playing with him very much."
It was true. Berexet lived in this filthy mudhole with everyone she called family. I told her how nice Jack looked and how I'd take a picture of her in front of her house when we finished delivering all the supplies. She didn't seem as excited to take it as she was about our first picture, with me under the canopy, but she agreed and pointed her house out to me. I stared at it in utter disbelief as she changed topics and cautioned me to watch my step.
Our group traversed the uneven, muddied, gravel-strewn maze that was the pathway through Korah in the steady rain carrying our charcoal in one hand and supplies in another. Tesfaye finally stopped at a side road, and explained to us that the majority of the families lived here, down this back alley wide enough for maybe a person and a half to walk side-by-side. The walkway behind the house was even worse than the streets we just walked on, and our 20-person group filed in one by one. Berexet left me here; she said she'd meet up with me after we finished delivering the food. Astonishingly, the alley opened into a small courtyard which then became a labyrinth of more back alleys and corners and people too many to count. Our first house was smaller than my room at home. The bed filled half the room and the dirt floor was carefully arranged with the very few possessions they had. A mom with HIV and her daughter lived there, Tesfaye said. We crowded in and filled the small house.
The next house was arguably the hardest on each of us. This woman had lived for 18 years in the same bed because her leprosy had debilitated her beyond movement. She had no hands, no feet, and no body fat. The rags that adorned her body as clothes hung loosely around her shoulders and her wraith-like appearance showed her despair. In her one room house, her daughter and three other people lived with her. Her daughter was a member of the church we visited and took good care of her, but insufficient funds and expensive medicine only created more health problems for her mom, a stomach pain of some sort, Tesfaye said. As I was leaving, I saw a shadow of a man sitting almost invisibly in the corner. Without thinking, I reached out my hand and said "Selamo," hello in Amharic. He grasped my hand and rose out of his corner to thank me in whatever words he had. As I turned toward the door, I saw Kaleab who had been watching the whole exchange. He opened his arms and I just clung to him.
It began to rain harder.
House after house, story after story we walked and saw and lived and learned. We reached out, held hands, gave hugs, left food and maybe gave hope. As we finished with the last house, I couldn't help but think that the rain was well fitted to our journey today. It matched the conditions we saw, and just hammered home the destitution of this place. I walked back to where we started, only in silence, thoughts weighing heavy on my soul.
There are so many things I haven't even told you about, grand things, heart wrenching things, awe-inspiring things. I could go on for pages about the people I've met, their kind personalities, the beauty of their souls, the joy they radiate. I could tell you of Kaleab's impeccable sense of fashion with the sweetest shoes I've seen here in all of Ethiopia, but his disregard for them the minute we walk the streets to give food. I could tell you of Tesfaye, whose name means "hope happens," and how he returned to his village after getting a degree in computer engineering. He works as a community developer for his people, when he could be making bank somewhere else. I don't have time to tell you of Nathan, our photographer, or Alena the pastor's daughter or Beesa, a girl who gave me her only bracelet yesterday. There are countless people with countless incredible stories, and simply not enough time to tell them all.
The purpose of this trip was not to leave with clean hands. The purpose of this trip was to do as much as we can for as many as we can in the time that we have. To pour ourselves out and love on these people with all that we have. In doing so, these people have poured into us, with their stories and knowledge of their country. They have given us more than we could ever give them, and for that, I am forever grateful. I have seen what it is to live in poverty, in absolute abject poverty, and I have seen in the same instant the unadulterated joy that these people who live there have. Their smiles light up their whole faces and their laughter rings out amid the corrugated tin. They do not pity themselves, nor do they ask for it. They live with what they have - disease, isolation, poverty. And yet, they do not mourn, they do not begrudge, they do not hate. They simply live day to day, doing the best they can.
I have been so blessed to be part of this trip and I cannot express in words how grateful I am for this opportunity. To everyone who has had a part in me being here, physically and financially, to those who have listened to my excitement and worries, to the people who have donated shirts and supplies for me to bring over here, thank you. Thank you from the deepest part of my heart. You have changed me, whether you realize it or not. I hope one day to have the opportunity to pass it forward, and touch lives like you have touched mine. To the people on this trip with me, thank you for being here and for making me a better person. As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another, and I have greatly benefited from your influence, and will continue to do so. I am so humbled and honored to be chosen to be to be here, representing the greatest university in the nation. I would not trade this experience for anything in the world. As they say in Amharic, "Ameseginalehu." Thank you.