I don’t know much about Africa. I was there just two weeks. Hardly long enough to be an expert.
But I landed in Ethiopia with this mission: to keep my eyes open and tell the stories of what I saw.
I took in all of it like a sensory sponge. The sun-warmed, dark and earthy scented skin of the women who received my embraces.
The cracking of the coffee beans as they roasted in a pan over an open flame, its aroma releasing into the air.
The peculiar warmth of the burberry spice, the clean wash of Ambo, Ethiopia’s bottled sparkling water. A sun bright and almost within my reach. The shifting gears of our bus, and honking of horns and the squeaking brakes; the padding of running feet chasing us as we came to a stop and the smiling, young faces shouting, “You! you! you!” Pink open palms waiting for a coin or two.
I still (and will always) tell the stories to anyone who will listen or read my words. I soaked in Africa for two short weeks and I will wring from my memory every story, every impression, every face.
This is the story of the girl who became a mother and the baby who became an orphan. Because all over America, mothers will be honored this Sunday; I am one of them. But she is not. She is not honored anywhere.
She is the face of failure; forgotten and shamed, she is the mother Hallmark writers cannot address with well-crafted sentimental verse. So I will honor her now.
It was a brilliant day in Soddo, Ethiopia.
The sun blazed in a lupine-blue sky. The air fluttered silken and soft. It was November.
We walked the grounds at the Soddo Christian Hospital and were about to take a break for cold, honey-sweetened rooibos tea. Our guide, and then-director of an orphanage, Stephne, received an urgent call.
“There’s a mother,” Stephne announced, “You should come along and see.”
In a matter of minutes, the Land Rover pulled into the orphanage gates. We settled into the low-slung benches (made for the children who stayed in the orphanage and daily took their meals in the courtyard). Across from us sat an Ethiopian social worker and translator and a dark-skinned teenager. Under the portico, just ten yards away, another social worker held a tiny, dirty bundle of rags. And in those rags, a baby boy.
I tried not to stare, but I was staring. This intake process and interview with a defeated, desperate mommy was nothing new to Stephne as she asked questions directly, graciously, persistently; but to me, the scene was surreal. Her story, not uncommon, was laced with the realities of the developing world.
Her breasts were dry, unable to produce milk, but her story was dripping, leaking, with tragedy, inhumanity, shame.
She was a small-town girl and had recently arrived in the city of Soddo in order to find work. Uneducated and under-privileged in every aspect, she took odd jobs, mostly doing unenviable tasks like cleaning public restrooms (which are notoriously disgusting, by the way). One day, while she was cleaning a bathroom, a man’s shadow darkened the doorway. Her time had come. She was raped near the hole in the cement that served as a toilet. She was left behind like so much detritus.
The stranger sauntered off and left her shuddering, bleeding, alone. And pregnant.
She never thrilled at the sound of the fetal heartbeat. She never swallowed a single prenatal vitamin or received a proper doctor’s examination.
She gave birth, alone, on a rainy night.
An older woman, one who was herself raising a toddler she had found on the roadside, tried to take the girl-mama and her baby boy into her home and care for them. Being a single “foster-mom” herself, with little income, knew the hopelessness of the situation; plus, the young mom had become feverish and ill.
The older woman knew of a place. A place of hope, perhaps. A place where people with few options can rap on the gate and find compassion.
Indeed the young mom was ill. I could see it in her eyes, flat and blank, black disks in gaunt sockets. Her emotions cauterized her face and she answered Stephne’s questions simply, nonplussed. No hysteria, no manipulation.
She was fearful, she had said, that her baby would starve to death. Her breasts made no milk and she had no home or money for formula. She held her hand up and demonstrated how she had cupped water into her loose fist and dribbled a small stream into his tiny mouth.
For three days. Her infant boy was born into starvation, only knowing the thin sustenance of water rolling from her palm.
She was ready to give up the boy. To sign away her parental rights, in order that he might eat, live, survive.
Did she dare to hope that he would thrive?
As for her, she had no plans. Resigned to failure. That’s all I could see in her body language, in the pained rigid stance she maintained throughout the interview. Through physical pain and unimaginable shame, her spine was straight with what–dignity? The strong will to survive?
Or the expansive strength of a mother’s love?
Once the papers were signed she didn’t look back again, even to say goodbye, at the infant resting in the orphanage nanny’s arms. She gingerly stepped into the Land Rover and we drove her to the hospital.
I rode beside her in the back seat and not once did I stop praying. The God of all power did not supernaturally give me Amharic words of truth. I could not share the gospel with her. We sat shoulder-to-shoulder, thigh to thigh, and I took my hand in hers and prayed that Hope would find her.
My impotence suffocated me.
Later, after the bleeding, infected mother was admitted to the Soddo Christian Hospital, I held her perfect brown son in my white, American arms. The nurse had examined him and determined him to be healthy. I carried him in his filthy swaddling and picked out a newborn-sized outfit from the donation closet. Bathed and dressed in baby blue, he suckled formula from a bottle like any other baby I’ve held. His eyelids quivered in satisfaction and after the feeding was through, I patted his tiny back until he burped. I counted his fingers and toes, as I had my own children, and marveled at their perfect form, their tiny pink nails and the spiraling ridges of his unique fingerprints.
He was beautiful. He was adoptable. He was hope.
That was in 2009. Perhaps this year he’s scampering off to preschool or learning to hold a pencil. Maybe he kicks around a soccer ball in a grassy suburban backyard. Does he ride on his daddy’s shoulders? Does his curly hair get crazy after naps?
And what of that young mom? Did her womb heal? Will she be loved? Will she know the sweet redemption of watching another child grow and toddle and run? Will she know the hard-won honor of motherhood, the pride of watching her beloved children learn to read, make friends, and dream big dreams?
She was just one of millions. And so am I.
I long to shout her story and have people hear me and care even a little bit, but God hasn’t given me a large audience.
So I tell my stories of Africa to my own children and hope they see in my misted eyes and hear in my halting words that they, my children, are the Hope, the Plan, the Answer to the suffering.
I tell them again and again and I see in my mind that young mom looking at me, wondering, perhaps, why this fair-skinned, blonde-haired woman held her hand in the back of a car. I reject impotence and repeat my story.
There are millions of stories like hers; I know, unimaginable millions. And I am far, far removed from Africa in my northeast Washington home.
But at Mother’s Day, each year, I think about this mother who gave her child up to frivolous, reckless Hope.
She is me and you, and really, all of us.
Someday (and this is my Hope) Christ will return and make things right, perfectly right.
Until then, we are God’s only Plan A.
We are the cogs and the gears and the hand and feet and problem-solvers and gospel-givers and hope-holders.
Are we taking hands with one another and leading the lost to the source of hope? Are we holding the weak in our arms and interceding. Are we feeding and sharing and caring?
Here are the people I know who are at the front-lines. They need us. They need me more than I need a Hallmark card or a fancy Mother’s Day brunch. I am a mother after all, and my arms cradled a starving infant and my heart burst with pain as I held the hand of a broken daughter. I cannot unsee what I saw and I will always tell the story.
Tell it with me? Share it? Give? Support? Pray? Mother this hurting world straight into the arms of Jesus with me?
A friend, a woman, an Ethiopian called back to her homeland after living over a decade in Texas, Sharon is committed to utilizing the Community Health Evangelism (CHE) tool to reach her country with transformative and sustainable change. She has developed a ministry particularly for women, the Women’s Cycle of Life, that has reached dozens of communities in Ethiopia. She has been approached by many men in these villages, asking for biblical instruction. Families are changing, one by one, because of Sharon and her team. Read more by my friend, DianeSamson, about Sharon’s ministry and story. Or watch this video: Sharon Abebe – Women’s Cycle of Life from Life Center on Vimeo.
Chris and Shelly Weiland
My friends, Chris and Shelly Weiland and their family are living in Ethiopia and Chris is teaching at a school in Addis. Shelly, a mom of four biological kids and two Ethiopian children is passionate about serving the mommies-to-be in this ministry as a doula.
New Covenant Foundation
My church, Life Center Spokane, partners with New Covenant Foundation in supporting Sharon Abebe, an amazing church planting partnership, the sending of African missionaries across north Africa teaching the CHE principles, the power of the gospel, discipleship training and women/family/disability ministries. More information and ways to support can be found here and here.
Harry and Stephne Bowers
My friend, Stephne, and her husband Harry, are back in Ethiopia in order to develop an amazing, locally sourced and sustainable, protein supplement and food source for undernourished orphans as well as patients too ill to undergo necessary surgery. Information about their story and how the MITTIN Food Production Center can be found here.
Dominion Trading Coffee
This coffee tastes amazing. It is the for-profit company that directly benefits New Covenant Foundation. We buy it in 5 pound bags, unapologetically! DTC coffee is available green to roasting companies and in hand-roasted blends through their website.
Nurse Sophie, she amazes me. She works in outposts and remote clinics, mostly with the poorest of pregnant mamas.
Soddo Christian Hospital. A teaching hospital committed to caring for physical needs in Jesus’ name as well as teaching Ethiopian doctors and nurses the latest and best medical care techniques.
Please consider sharing this post, through any social media or through email. Print it out. Pray over it. Give, if you can. Let’s take hands.
(all photos courtesy of New Covenant Foundation)