our small, stagnant-aired van begins to make its way out of the grey hue of the city. burning trash, opaque streams of water, and trailing exhaust from thousands of well-worn cars and buses – addis ababa feels to me a suffocating weight today.
as we circle one roundabout after another, our path seems to be leading toward somewhere fresher, perhaps somewhere brighter. oh, it’s not that addis has no appeal. in fact, by this, our third full day here, we’re actually quite smitten with the friendship, fellowship, and love that oozes from the city and her people.
but the grey.
our translator, fekadu (who lightheartedly told us that he chose for himself the american nickname kyle because it means “handsome”) engages us with stories about the people and places we’re passing. we stop mid-road at times to let the ever-present flow of goats, bulls, and wandering children pass, and kyle uses these times to tell us who he used to be and who he’s been able to become.
handsome fekadu himself used to be a child under the care of compassion international’s program, sponsored by a family in australia. he tells us of the joy of being supported and loved by a family a continent away, and he humbly shares about the opportunities he was given wholly by the faithful generosity of intimate strangers who wanted more for him.
the beginning of his story isn’t that new for us. we’ve seen the diligent work of compassion and its sponsors time and time again. we’ve marveled at the glimmer in a child’s eyes as she proudly clings to her sponsor family’s photos and letters, and we’ve listened tearfully to another as he thanks his world-away family for food, for books, for clothes. but the farther we climb into the mountains of that village land, the more we wind through the story of a life that was radically impacted by the work of compassion.
when fekadu aged-out of the regular sponsorship program, he was given opportunities far beyond what most young men and women of his country ever know when he was sponsored by an american family in the leadership development program of compassion. he was guided, shepherded, taught, and molded. he made the most of the extreme rarity of university training, becoming a veterinarian several years ago. i sit against a dirty window and marvel at how the immaculate landscape seems to turn greener and fresher with each new detail of our guide's life story.
as he completes his wonderful tale, i ask about a compound that’s perched oddly in the middle of the countryside and fekadu explains its utilization as a greenhouse, a center of floral exports from the amazing land we’re passing through. but i realize there's one thing missing out here. for all its bustle, grime, and grey, the city does have something of great value that this outlying beauty doesn’t – accessible water. suddenly, i become shockingly aware of the scores of girls and women we’re passing on our long drive who are hunched over with bodies decades beyond their years - bodies gnarled and bent by a life of carrying life-giving drink from here to there. there to here.
where do they get it? i ask.
fekadu answers, the water? they get it from the greenhouse.
i stare at his face, perhaps waiting for him to correct a mistake. you mean, from that greenhouse? yes, that’s the one. it’s miles away from us by now, and it’s miles away from them always. as the exhausting weight of these young and old lives alike begins to settle into my western heart, we arrive at our long-awaited destination. our driver gingerly turns the van off of the poorly constructed road onto a path that could be labeled as a rocky trail at best. the grey concrete of the city’s construction has long since given way to the tan straw of the countryside’s huts, and i watch with a mix of excited wonder and stabbing heartache as children much smaller than my own run in and out of see-through, six-foot square houses.
we make a hard-right turn onto another dry, bumpy path and shortly stop at the doors of compassion international’s sadamo genet child survival program. the program director for the CSP meets us as we climb out onto the hard soil, thanking us profusely for visiting in a thickly accented mix of english and the village’s local amharic dialect. i try anxiously to soak up everything around me - the big metal gate, the makeshift guard station, the pattern of the stones under my feet, and the friendly, ongoing battle between ethiopia’s hot sun and its cool mountain breeze. but fast as my brain tries to memorize, there’s no way to fully grasp what i witness next.
the director ushers us through the gate and waves his arm toward the right to reveal a living wall of dark and beautiful mothers, children, and babies. colors everywhere! and then i see it – they’re each dressed in their brightest and finest clothing, but the vibrancy of their ethiopian threads is surpassed only by the limitless colors of the roses they each hold in their hands. i have so much, they have so little. i came to serve them, but they are ministering to me. the beauty of that magnificent moment overwhelms me and i kneel to the ground in flowing tears as child after mother after child offers me a welcoming gift.
looking up from the dozens of roses i now hold, i see frightened and anxious faces on several of the littlest around me. the program director explains with an awkward giggle, we’ve only ever had one other visitor here before, so for most of them, you’re the first light person they’ve ever seen. we all laugh and exchange gentle hugs – and for the rest of the day the only colors that seem to matter are on the roses i hold in my hands.
they're proud to show us their program. medical care, childcare training, fellowship, and most importantly, christ’s love – they learn about it every week. each day holds its own agenda, and we walk through the wooden rooms of the program’s few small structures hearing about how every component of the CSP is designed to give these women and their children needed basics, training, and education. finally we find ourselves in the resource room – a room lit only by the sun through the small windows and door – and we sit toward the front as mother after mother carries her little ones with her to the front to talk not about the global purposes of compassion international but to share about the real and intimately personal impact that the sadamo genet child survival program has had for her and her children.
the first woman to come forward is a soft-spoken mother of several small children. she shares about how, since joining the CSP, she has learned how to properly care for her children and has received the needed clothes and blankets to help keep them warm and dry.
for the next mother, the fellowship of other moms and believers has been vital to her as she’s welcomed her first child into the world. she’s been taught how to sew and is now making and selling clothes to provide an income for her family.
but it was the next woman’s unexpected words that broke me.
when i was eight months pregnant with my daughter, i knew i was going to have to give her away after birth. there was no way to pay for her to eat, to provide what she needed. your giving let me keep my baby.
i’ve long since known the drastic quality of life improvement that is birthed out of the programs of compassion’s child survival programs. i had even begun to understand the true difference in life and death that this ministry can make. but until that moment, i had never been so poignantly struck by the knowledge that through the work of compassion and its sponsors, mothers are freed from the unimaginable decision of choosing which of their children’s mouths to feed.
which of their children to keep.
several other women share about their children and their lives. some make me laugh - others make me cry. but one common thread weaves through the tapestry of each of their stories: compassion international's child survival program offers them hope, joy, and a future.
want to help change a life? save a life? these women and children are real people with real needs. i've hugged their necks, kissed their cheeks, and bonded my heart to theirs. i wholeheartedly urge you to please join with me in sponsoring the families of sadamo genet. for only $20 per month, we can radically impact lives.
come back next time for coffee, the breaking of bread, and photography lessons (ethiopian style). you won't want to miss it!!