Sunday, April 01, 2007

Ethiopia Trip #5

March 27, 2007
Today I met four of the most strong, resilient women I’ve ever had the privilege of talking to.* Four women who raise the standards of mothers. I can only hope their children will one day understand how amazing their mothers are.

After two hours, we arrived in Walliso, a rural community 110 kms from Addis. As soon as we arrived in town, children ran alongside the truck, pointing at the white people inside. They giggled when we waved, even more when we spoke to them in English.

The first mother I would meet was Elech, and her daughter, Sig. While I waited for my questions and her answers to be translated, I made faces at Sig, who rewarded me with wide, toothless grins. She waved her arms in the air and made thwacking sounds on the smooth wooden desk in front of her. When Elech caught as at our game, she smiled shyly.

Elech summed up her need for help simply: “I am poor.” She rarely looked at me when she spoke, but rather she kept her eyes on Sig, who wriggled in a stained sling wrapped around her mother’s body. But despite her shyness, Elech looked regal. Her strong face displayed her will to survive. She was not giving up. She was humbly plowing forward, inspired by the grins and laughs of her child.

Nesh was the second mother I met. Her daughter, Bec, was a blur of activity, exploring the small office where we sat. When she discovered no toys or food, she climbed back in her mother’s lap, tugging impatiently at her blouse.

Nesh seemed tired. More than just raising an active 18-month-old tired, but something deeper, harder. I soon learned that she has a heart defect that drained her energy and left her weak. But still, even through her exhaustion, her love for her child broke through. As she waited for the translations to finish, she looked tenderly at her feeding daughter, gently smoothing her hair and kissing her forehead.

As I took the pictures of Elech and Nesh, I knew those flat images couldn’t capture what I saw. The fierce determination. The humble power. The weary love. The beauty. But I took them anyway, a memory burned to photo paper, saved to a hard-drive, emailed and posted and printed. Their stories must be told.

After a brief lunch, we went on to the next project. I was excited that this time I would be visiting two mothers in their homes.

Kesh greeted us at the fence that surrounded her home. A latrine leaned to the side near a water pump. By her community’s standards, life was not too bad. Len, her 17-mongh-old son stood in the front yard, naked from the waist down. He waved to us, then ran around, chattering in either Amharic or his own invented language. I couldn’t tell the difference.

As we began talking, rain fell outside, thunderous on the metal roof. I leaned so close that I could brush away the large flies that lit on the scab that covered Len's knee.

I quickly learned that Kesh has AIDS. Like Nesh, she has little energy to care for her active, headstrong son. Even wrestling an item out of his hand visibly tires her. But Kesh has retained her sense of humor. When I asked her what her hopes for her son’s future were, her answer inspired laughter to fill the room—“I hope he will go abroad.”

It saddens me that Kesh takes a 3-hour bus ride to the city each week to receive medical treatment. It saddens me because a hospital is a close walk away, but the stigma of her disease is too great to risk being seen by her neighbors.

The stigma she’s afraid of shouldn’t exist anymore. It is her own silence that holds her prisoner. The likelihood is each person in her community has teen touched by AIDS. Perhaps her next-door neighbor suffers from AIDS. Perhaps the woman she boys vegetables from in the market. Her best friend. Surely someone she loves has AIDS. Why hasn’t she learned yet that AIDS is not a punishment? When will her neighbors understand that they can’t catch this disease by shaking her hand or giving her a kiss on the cheek?

The last home we visited was tiny, surrounded by narrow strips of muddy ground. Here, Mara shared the 2-room home with her mother, two sisters, and her 11-month-old daughter, Helena.

Mara left home when she was in the 8th grade. She worked at a bar, and her days were filled with leering men who quickly stole her innocence. When she was 21, one of those men left her pregnant and alone. With no money, no husband and no way of supporting her child, Mara returned home.

When Helena was born, Mara was poised to flee again. Raising a child was hard. The newspapered walls of her home seemed to close in on her. Most days, Helena lay on a stained pillow until her grandmother would comfort the crying child.

But when Mara joined our program, she began to learn how to enjoy Helena. She felt less restless as she spent her days learning about nutrition and hygiene. She began to have coffee with other mothers, and together they brag about their growing children. And when Helena smiles with her chubby cheeks, Mara feels her heart tug. She’s still young. She’s still inexperienced. But finally, she‘s a mother.

As we left Mara’s home she stood shyly, her young face serious. When I took her photo, I had to convince her to smile. I wonder what keeps away her smile. The tiny, dark house? The responsibilities of motherhood? The hunger in her stomach?

But finally, the smile comes. Maybe it is from the warm, wriggling body of Helena. Maybe our conversation had served as a reminder of the hope she’s found. Perhaps she is recalling her answer to my last question that I asked a moment ago, when I inquired about her daughter’s future—“I want her to be a doctor,” she said with a wide smile.

As we pulled away onto the freshly muddy streets, we are surrounded by children. I hang my arm out the window, and they eagerly reach for it, shaking my hand, touching my skin. I can still feel their fingers, even as we pull onto the paved road miles away. Still hear their shouts. Still see their eyes.

Ethiopia is inside me.

(*The names of the people in this story have been changed.)

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