Poverty shocks. And it should. As people, we hope the best for our neighbors, we wish them well and we hope that the fates decide to impart good will and prosperity. Americans don’t really know poverty. After my third recent trip to Ethiopia, I know what poverty looks like.
Back in the United States, we have “the poverty line” and Americans below it might go to bed with food in the bellies, a roof over their heads and a light to beat back the night. Here, all three of those things would be viewed as luxuries.
In Ethiopia, poverty makes its own line, a line that’s often obvious, visual and shocking. And while chanting “this is how many live” in your mind, your eyes open to the vision of beautiful children who come to greet you, hands outstretched, smiles gleaming like the summer sun and a nice strong hug like that from a niece, nephew or grandchild. Loving, strong, happy to see you there.
Despite every warning and the loads of Purell swirling in my bag, hugging every one you can greet, kissing their heads and drawing them close is just so instinctual, it’s primal. And it comes with its own reward, your heart lifts, your arms spin from child to child, they kiss in return, greet you in beautifully broken English with childlike syllables… until the second part of this meeting begins.
When the children step back, that poverty line draws itself. First, their clothes are dirty, filthy, tattered with holes. Holes that often give not-so-tiny glimpses of a frail body and tell the tales of many wearers before this one. They live in these clothes until they inherit another. Step back again, many lack pants so kids just run around with a shirt, hopefully one that will cover them from the waist down, often they don’t.
Second, bellies jut out like those after a healthy American steak dinner. But those bellies aren’t full; they’re empty. So empty that a lack of protein has begun to break down muscle in an anaerobic process that produces gas and inflates the belly, leaving a signature and yet false impression of nutrition. Over the course of time, that gas and the other processes associated with the condition will balloon back on the body’s vital organs, causing them to harden, swell and potentially fail.
Third, it’s the marks on the body and the gray ghosts in the eyes of kids that hit you the most. While many of these kids are loved, their environment hardens them and the marks given to them by parents, other kids or even neighbors present themselves readily as scars that should have had stitches, cuts that healed but could have been better if there were access to medical care. And then you see the ghosts in the darkest of beautiful of nearly black and earthy brown eyes. Cataracts are common here. You see it in the eyes of the elderly, faint specks of whitened contrast stitched into the proud, sun-wrinkled faces of many. Yet, seeing those ghosts in the eyes of kids, ghosts that appear through genetics or poor drinking water, and knowing that those ghosts will only grow without medical intervention makes it hard not to help.
Despite all the hardship, these are a proud people, a people who know their history and love to share their tales with an open ear. In such conditions, you’d be amazed that the one thing Ethiopians have in abundance is smiles. At first, smiling seems absurd, like laughing at a funeral. Then you come to understand that they have accepted this as life, and while they might get enjoyment from having more, they’ve come to accept their lives as is. So they smile. Eventually, you begin to smile to.
And yet, I saw many glimmers of hope too. I attended a school run by FOVC Ethiopia where I met kids who were allowed to rise above their potential paths for a time, learning about a different road and given the opportunity to one day run down it.
I watched as they learned not only English, they learned Amharic (one of Ethiopia’s major languages) as well as learning to improve their own native tongue, Wolotygna along with math, science, anatomy and other topics. Entering any room, you saw each class run by a teacher who probably felt momentary fear by the foreigners, only to then watch her pride of students recite their lessons, breath in and know that she’s done her best.
Between classes, children were allowed to run around before they reentered their classrooms. We brought a soccer ball, two volleyballs and two basketballs and the kids were overjoyed to get the brand new equipment. Yet, when class was about to begin, they return to their rooms, ready to learn, although still wildly curious about the ferengi (foreigners) running around their campus – especially our blond-haired nine-year-old son who was happy to play soccer with the boys and appears to have also gained a small and vibrant female following.
At lunchtime, we discovered that the children here are an active part of the campus, each with assignments and responsibilities. We watched as some helped cook injera (the staple bread of nearly every Ethiopian diet) and a protein-rich shiro wat (a spicy bean stew that tastes better than it sounds). Another kid placed the injera on a plate, another poured a ladle of shiro on the injera, another walked it out of the room, another in the room passed it to a fellow classmate. Unlike American lunchrooms, this one was quiet, orderly and respectful. These kids get two square meals a day, five days a week. Food is a privilege, not something to ignore.
So why this school? My family sponsors one boy who’s a student here. Several of our friends and family members also sponsor children and they were overjoyed to receive gifts from their sponsors. We discovered that our sponsored son happens to be best friends with our friend’s sponsored son and it was great to hear them in person as we gave them gifts. We brought six bags, over 300 lbs. of donated clothes, soccer cleats, socks and books as well… gifts that the rest of the school population will soon get as gifts for Ethiopian Easter. Gifts that we would have never have brought without the generosity of our friends, their friends, their kids and local organizations. During the three times I visited the school, only one child asked me for something, our sponsored son. I guess he really does view me as a dad.
We’re tied to this area for life. Our daughter was born not far away. These kids are her people and while we took her from here to walk a new road in America, this is where her road began. Hopefully we inspired them to make new roads to improve their lives, one tiny step forward every day. For we were deeply inspired by them and we’re already working to get several unsponsored kids sponsored. If you’re interested in sponsoring a child, I’d be happy to make the introduction.