After several tries I was able to get Gail, our orphanage director, on her cell. She located an available driver and sent him immediately to pick us up. A couple of shots of the area as we drove to the orphanage.
We arrived at the Layla compound and the big blue doors were opened to admit our van. Two other small vehicles were being loaded with children departing on a swimming field trip to the Sheraton hotel. Remember, it’s illegal for me to publicly post photos of any of the children, so I’m giving you a not very interesting peek at the vans as Gail finished loading up the kids.
The compound is a maze of concrete structures, concrete corridors, concrete stairways. Gail led us down a passageway, and at the bottom of a set of stairs, called into two separate classrooms to Alex and Melkam. And just like that, we met our boys! We sat on the stairs and shook hands with Alex, who was clearly unsure of himself. No smiles from that one right away. Melkam, flashed us that now-famous smile and wanted a hug. That might have been the best hug of my life! Both of them sat on our laps, but it was a bizarre, awkward moment…us smiling like lunatics and these poor overwelmed children feeling who knows what. I handed my camera to Gail and she recorded the moment. The best plan seemed to be to split up so we could each accompany one of them to their class. Melkam led me into his room where the seven other children were singing a song in Amharic. One precocious little girl in the back was singing at the top of her lungs. They were adorable! Neither the children, nor the adults, speak much English, and in my classes with Melkam I was an oblivious observer most of the time. But the language of children is universal, and when we moved to the next room Melkam made it clear where he wanted me to sit by him. A precious little friend of his was on the bench next to him. The teach began to hand out paints and brushes and each child waited patiently until everyone had their materials. Melkam began to paint circles, and he loved having an audience. He gave me the brush and I painted and A and said ‘A.’ Melkam smiled sweetly and said ‘B!’ and handed me the brush again. His little friend painted and A on his own paper and smiled at me. We went through the whole alphabet, and Melkam knew the first half, and repeated the rest after me. I found out later that in Alex’s class, Charles sat in the corner with Alex near the teacher. He pulled out his iPad and showed Alex the photos we had pre-loaded, explaining each one while the teacher translated. Alex loved being able to scroll through the photos with his finger on the touch screen. He lit up at the photos of Noah in the snow, the chickens, and of the other children like his new cousins and our friends’ kids. After the photos an introduction to Tap Tap Radiation, Alex was hooked on Charles. He was all smiles the rest of the day. We will definitely have to download a bunch of kids games for the iPad for when we bring them home. It’s a brilliant kid’s tool! Back in the my classroom, it was time to put paints away and Melkam led me by the hand to snack time in another room. Charles was there with Alex and his class. Big smiles from Alex by that point, and he was totally into Charles and happy to see me and Melkam. Charles was pasting stickers on each child’s hand and being mobbed by the group.The staff put Snow White on an old TV in the corner and all the children sat on a rug while they handed out tea biscuits. Charles and Alex’s group left to get back to their studies. A little boy named Danny without the use of his legs or one arm scooted over to me and made his best efforts to climb into my lap. He sat happily with me for the first few minutes of the movie. After he was back on the floor, Melkam came over to claim my lap. We sat together for a while, and then he produced a gold plastic jack from his pocket. He showed me how he could spin it like a top on the table. He’s right handed. We spun that little jack together over and over again for about fifteen minutes until he grew tired of it. Back into his pocket went the jack, and he climbed over the twenty or so children on the rug to fish a plastic toy dog on wheels from the toybox in the corner. He brought it over to show me, and then drug it back and forth by it’s string in front of me. After a while he turned the dog over and started inspecting how the wheels made the legs go up and down. Then he found a large bead on the floor and began bowling with it, rolling it across the floor to child against the opposite wall who would roll it back. All this time, almost every other child was content to sit and watch Snow White. Melkam is busy! In a good way…I love it! Soon we went back to his classroom and it was time to work on letters and numbers. The teacher wrote capital and lower case letters, A through H, across the white board and had the children recite them old school style as she pointed to each with a ruler. Then she invited several individuals to come up and lead. Melkam was one of them, and he did great. He knew all the letters in English and Amharic. I understand he has only been in this new class for four days…before this he was with a group of younger children. The kids he’s with now are all four and five year olds. He is one of the smallest, but he knows exactly what’s going on, I think he’s really smart! Meanwhile, CFM was back in Alex’s class watching him work through letters and numbers in a workbook. He shot a video of Alex finishing his work quickly and proudly receiving a gold star from the teacher. Then it was time for lunch. The boys led us out with the group to the outdoor laundry area where all the children helped each other wash hands, passing around a bar of soap, and pouring water over each other’s hands from a can. Air dry…paper products anywhere and no reason to dirty another cloth (the amount of laundry is amazing!). Our boys took our hands and led us to the lunchroom. Alex showed us where he wanted us to sit at his table with he and Melkam. Injera, looking like a pyramid of light brown, rolled up washcloths, was placed in a platter on the center of the table. Each boy took a roll and tore it in half and unrolled it onto their plate. A pot of cabbage and potato stew with halved jalopenos on top was placed on the table. I distributed some to each boy except for the one right across from me who made it clear that cabbage was not on his list of acceptable foods! Then a second pot of red bean stew was brought out and a serving spoonful of this was added to each plate. Melkam took a few bites of injera and Alex reminded him that he was supposed to wait. Alex volunteered to pray. He stood up and all the children put both hands over their eyes like American children playing hide and seek. He recited several phrases of a prayer, all the children echoing a version of ‘Amen’ in unison after each section. It was beautiful! Then we ate, with our hands, Ethiopian style, picking up stew with hunks of spongy injera. The food was actually delicious, and SPICY! These little ones eat spicy food, it’s great! When Alex was finished eating, he dispatched his plate to the counter behind him, just like CFM does at restaurants when the wait staff is too slow. Charles loved this and made sure to point it out to me (oh the joy of finding a similar neurosis in your new child! Something to bond about). When our boys had cleaned their plates they indicated we should come with them and they took us back to the hand washing area where they helped us wash our hands. Gail came just after that and invited us to say goodbye to the boys and come to the baby house to meet Tarike. The baby room that Tarike is in is tiny, with cribs lining the walls and some rugs on the floor in the middle where volunteers sit feeding, changing or playing with babies. Tarike was dressed in a cute pink dress and was one of the healthiest looking little ones there. She calmly permitted us to hold and cuddle her as we sat on the crowded floor with toys. Tarike babbled, put toys in her mouth, and rocked back and forth on all fours looking like she was practicing to crawl. There were only a few other babies in the room at the time…two with clear developmental disabilities, one tiny preemie who was sound asleep, one very ill baby who was pathetically miserable, and another healthy baby girl I recognized from photos. There were several snotty noses including Tarikes, and although she seemed robust and healthy, there was clearly some respiritory stuff going around and she had an occasional raspy cough. I couldn’t wait to get her outside in the fresh air. No shoes are permitted in the baby room, and hand sanitizer is used liberally, but still…tough to fight germs in place like that where all the toys are shared and there are lots of littles in close contact. The desire to get all three kids out of the orphanage and home was overwhelming, and I was surprised by it. Our job on this trip is to get to know them and lay a foundation of trust. We will get Gail to help us visit Bethezata orphanage where the boys were before Layla, and to learn more about them. The children are all cuddly and like to hold hands, be held, sit on laps. We did finally coax a smile out of Tarike, but it wasn’t easy. Our interaction with her was interesting…she enjoyed being held and handled, and it was unusal to pick up a six month old child who’s never seen us before and not have her respond negatively or reach for a known caregiver. It’s just not something you experience among your friends’ babies. Surprising to us, we came away from today feeling like the baby will be the one who may have the most trouble attaching. Of course, we packed a lot of processing into one day of interaction with these kids, and we will have to see how it progresses as we spend daily time with them over the next week and a half. We walked home from the orphanage, a nice 15 minute walk with an internet café and a coffee shop along the way. We will make that walk at least twice a day for the next 11 days. We’ll keep you posted from that café as much as possible!