After we lost Fenet, I was not ready to accept an immediate referral for another child. Our agency recommended I spend time in some of the orphanages and just hang out with the children. So I did. I was in Ethiopia for about three months in 2012. I loved it of course. Since then, I spend as much time as I can in as many orphanages as will have me.
You can’t just show up at an orphanage and play with the kids. Ethiopians (like all people) love and protect their children. But if you establish a relationship with someone you might eventually develop trust. And if your purpose for visiting the orphanage is to make the children's lives a little bit happier for that day (while being respectful of the adults), you should try. You should bring help and donations (be careful because many donations do not reach the children--more on this later).
There are five orphanages I visit or have visited. However, the pictures I put on this blog are deliberately untitled. I do not want any child’s face to be associated with any particular orphanage. These children are vulnerable and need to be protected. In some cases, I have hidden the faces of children, especially in the case of the children who have disabilities.
One of the strangest things I noticed is that each orphanage has a particular odor. It’s almost like a signature. Unfortunately, some of the orphanages smell like sickness and disease (each one a particular kind of disease that persists season after season, year after year). Others smell like poor hygiene. And others just smell like there are a lot of goats and sheep around. The kids smell like the orphanage they live in.
All the orphanages have specific wings (rooms) for children who have physical and developmental disabilities. The number of disabled children in orphanages is disproportionately high because parents are often forced by poverty to relinquish them. Some of this is heartbreaking. Some of it is inspiring. I will write more about it later.
There is a HUGE difference in resources available between orphanages. For example, some orphanages have wheelchairs (although there is a shortage of child-sized wheelchairs). Some orphanages do not have any wheelchairs at all and the children are carried out on blankets. There is little physical therapy available in Ethiopia but some orphanages have a lot of volunteers to interact with the children and provide them with stimulation. Other orphanages do not allow volunteers and do not have resources for physical therapy.
My favorite group, and this is true of all the orphanages, is the 4 to 7 crowd. I can put one on my back and one under each arm and run through the orphanage laundry that is always hanging out to dry. The kids love it (the nannies probably hate it but so far no one has ever stopped me).
Sometimes I let the kids run up to me and I toss them over my shoulder one at a time (I force my driver to stand behind me to catch them for maximum efficiency). Sometimes, the kids just want to be held. It is hard, of course, because there are so many children. They crowd around me saying "eh ni! eh ni!" which apparently means "me!" or "my turn!" That is why I developed a system. I can take, toss or hold three at a time. This is probably not something you can just pick up and do overnight. You have to train for it.
There are a disproportionate number of babies in the orphanages because babies are found abandoned every day (about one each day in Addis Ababa alone). Every orphanage has rooms specifically for infants. In some orphanages, the babies sleep four in a crib (they are lying sideways). More on that later.
Fingernail polish party.
Teenagers at an orphanage for children who are not eligible for adoption. These kids are just like teenagers everywhere. Except they actually want to spend time with me. And they like to show off and try to impress me. It works. I just wish I had more to offer the kids sometimes.
Related Post: An Open Letter to the Birth Mother of My Child
Related Page: International Adoption/Ethiopian Adoption