Hope Lives Here
She was five. Her aunt had braided her hair into pigtails several days earlier; on this day her grandfather merely ran a trembling hand over her head, picking out a bit of fuzz here, a feather there. Mekdes was wearing the clothes shed slept in a striped t-shirt and striped leggings. They were the only clothes she owned, other than a too-big blue cotton blouse and a pair of rubber flip-flops. Her grandfather gestured for her to put on her blouse, because the morning air was cold and she was going out.
Mekdes was a skinny, pretty, quick-witted girl. She and her little brother, Yabsira, had lived with their parents, their grandfather, and their fathers sister in a square hut made of mud and straw in a small village on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The children had slept in a single bed with their parents, while the grandfather and aunt slept on the floor. Mekdess slender father, Asenake, was a day laborer in coffee processing. One day, as Mekdes watched out the window, she saw her father enter the yard. He lay down in the dirt for a long time before getting up to go inside. Later, when she got sick, Mekdes believed he must have caught the bad sickness that day, in the dirt. Over a few months time, he got thinner and thinner, with a look of surprise in his brown eyes. Then black blisters grew across his skin and he cried out from the pain. The child assumed her father would get well, but late one night she woke up to her mothers wailing.
Mekdes was not over the shock of her fathers death when her sweet mother began to get the same disappointed, surprised look on her face. At night Mekdes and Yabsira snuggled close to their mother under the blanket. By day, Mekdes chatted busily to her mother, Mulu, to try to make her happy again; she told news about the chickens in the yard or the children in the lane. Such stories once had made her mother laugh. But Mulu grew more and more still; the huge blisters crept across her body, too; her eyes protruded and did not blink very often; her voice grew hoarse. Although she was frighteningly bony, she turned her face away from food.
Mekdes helped her mother by running to neighbors with important messages, and by taking care of Yabsira. Though the little boy weighed more than half what she did, she carried him on her hip when she left the house as her mother used to do. When she fed Yabsira, she set food by her mothers side and, later, removed the untouched plate. At bedtime, her mother barely returned Mekdess enthusiastic hugs and wet kisses; her eyes were open but she didnt react. Then one night Mulu did not move at all and Mekdes understood that her mother had died.
Yabsira was the same funny toddler he had always been, as if none of the bad things had happened. Hed step outside naked, his chubby tummy jiggling as he ran; and their grandfather would hurry half-blindly after him into the sunlight and Mekdess baby teeth would flash in laughter again.
But on this morning, the grandfathers mood was somber. When their other aunt, their mothers sister, stepped into the hut, the children brightened, but both aunts acted subdued. The grandfather patted over each of the children; he kissed Mekdes on both cheeks, then stooped and tried to do the same with runny-nosed Yabsira. Each aunt took a childs hand and the family stepped into the courtyard. An elderly neighborhood official, Haj Mohammed Jemal Abdela, in khaki shirt and slacks and a baseball cap, waited for them. The two old men the official and the grandfather shook hands in the respectful style of holding the right forearm with the left hand, as if the very honor of the handshake were weighty. Mekdes did not call goodbye to her grandfather. She did not know she was leaving him. The group headed downhill in the direction of the city.
At that same moment on a hot December day last year, I was hiking up a nameless dirt road into the populous, high-altitude, dusty outskirts of Addis Ababa. Because it was December, Id packed winter clothes, foolishly forgetting how the seasons are arranged near the equator. On this East African December summer day, I wore an ankle-length brown skirt, long-sleeve white blouse, double-knit brown jacket, and low boots. I tramped, sweating, with an Ethiopian friend named Selamneh Techane, searching for the compound of a middle-aged woman named Haregewoin Teferra, who was said to lead an amazing life among the citys AIDS orphans.
Like pebbles rolling down a hill, scores of little kids skipped and scampered down all the dirt lanes towards us as we climbed. Some chased tin hoops with sticks, a game I recognized from paintings of colonial America. The laughing children wore the uniforms of the poor: mismatched, ill-fitting, random, and spattered with dirt. A happy little girl caught my eye: she danced along barefoot in grey sweat-clothes under an extremely frilly and puffy pink Easter dress, and, on top of that, a too-small winter coat. I noticed then that lots of the children wore wrong-gender wrong-size winter coats, some with fuzzy hoods, some with mittens dangling from the sleeves. I doubted the children had also been mistaken about the season. Evidently some kind North Americans or northern Europeans had packed up used stuff for AIDS orphans and a box of parkas and ski-pants had landed in this hot dry east African neighborhood. These were the childrens only clothes
A crowd of the downhill-leaping children skidded to a halt outside a metal door into a high corrugated tin fence. The kids pounded and whistled and waited for entry. The door was unbolted from the inside and a skinny guard swung it open, welcoming the children with a gummy grin. A short, chunky woman stood beaming in the middle of the cement courtyard. It was Haregewoin Teferra. She had a trim dark Afro with just a few tendrils of grey at the front, and laughing eyes. Her dark lotioned skin looked damp in the morning heat. She wore a red t-shirt and a long leopard-print cotton skirt. Maye! Maye called three dozen, four dozen, five dozen children Mommy! Mommy! Her outstretched arms wavered in the gale like a weather vane as the children thundered past, attached mittens flying.
She greeted Selamneh with a kiss to each cheek and then pulled me into a warm, four-handed handshake. I towered over her. She had a very erect, straight-shouldered posture, her head tilted back cockily, perhaps in permanent expectation of conversation with someone much taller than herself, perhaps to signal that she was equal to whatever challenge beset her. She turned and swept us behind her through the throngs of children into her red brick house.
Selamneh and I sat on a low, loose-bottomed sofa in a common room with a linoleum floor. The brown tiles of the linoleum baked in the sun beneath the wide glassless windows. A few toddlers banged on toys on the floor nearby. One of Haregewoins workers, a slim graceful girl with a kerchiefed head, set out fresh white cake, cubed and stacked on a platter, and a clay bowl of quartered oranges. Coffee cups waited on a wooden tray with legs. The fresh Ethiopian coffee, of course, was roasted right in front of us, the girl kneeling in her dress on the floor, stirring the beans on an iron skillet heated on a portable burner. I accepted a cup. I took off my jacket, rolled up my shirtsleeves, and dabbed at my perspiring face.
After a swallow, Haregewoin set down her coffee and turned in her chair to face me. She spread her hands, palms-up, as if feeling for rain, and smiled her crinkly smile at me. She was inviting me to ask. The centers of her eyes were coal-black. The sad creases between her eyebrows gave a different invitation, a caution.
I was born in 1950, in Sidamo, Ethiopia, she began, and Selmaneh translated from the Amharic. I graduated from commercial high school and I found work in Addis Ababa as a secretary in government offices and in NGOs. My husband was a schoolteacher. We lived very well. She and her husband had two daughters, Atetegeb and Suzanne. They had plenty of friends, two cars, vacations in Egypt. The marriage wasnt perfect, I gathered, and after a time she and her husband separated.
In those years, an evil plague was making its silent approach to the city, rendering adults as emaciated as in the famine times. Haregewoin and her husband were oblivious then, as were most business-class Ethiopians, to the virus that was beginning to feed on their people.
Haregewoins husband became sick with cancer. After he died, Haregewoin continued to work and she raised her daughters to adulthood. Atetegeb worked as a secretary like her mother and got married in her early 20s. Haregewoin moved in with Atetegeb and her husband; mother and daughter were very close.
At that same moment, farther down the hillside, all sorts of little kids were skipping and bounding down the dirt lanes. Some chased tin hoops with sticks; all wore mismatched, ill-fitting layers of clothing, spattered with dust. One happy little girl trotted along barefoot and wearing grey sweatpants under a frilly pink Sunday school dress, and a too-small winter coat on top. Many of the children wore wrong-gender wrong-size winter coats, some with fuzzy hoods, some with mittens attached to the sleeves. Evidently some kind North Americans or northern Europeans had packed up used clothing for AIDS orphans, and a box of parkas and ski-pants had landed in this hot dry east African neighborhood. They were the childrens only clothes.
The downhill-leaping children skidded to a halt outside a high corrugated tin fence with a metal door. They pounded and whistled and waited for entry. The door was unlocked and swung open by a skinny middle-aged guard with missing teeth. A short chunky woman stood beaming in the middle of the cement courtyard. Her name was Haregewoin Teferra, but all the children called her Amaye, Mother, or Maye, Mommy. She had a trim dark Afro with a few tendrils of grey at the front, and laughing eyes. Her dark lotioned face was damp on this hot morning. She wore a red t-shirt and long leopard-print cotton skirt. She had a very erect, straight-shouldered posture, her head tilted jauntily back, perhaps in permanent expectation of conversation with people much taller than herself, perhaps to signal that she was equal to whatever challenge beset her. Her outstretched arms wavered in the gale like a weather vane as the children thundered past, attached mittens flying.
At about this time, Mekdes and Yabsira, still holding the hands of their two aunts, arrived at the silver door. The neighborhood official knocked for entry, then led the small group into Haregewoins compound.
Mekdes was both dazzled and frightened by the crowds of children on the dirt yard. She had a happy thought: this must be school! But then she felt uncertain, for none of the children wore uniforms, nor did she have a uniform, and everyone knew uniforms were required for all schoolchildren. Haregewoin greeted the visitors warmly, but Mekdes shyly hunched down behind her brothers round head.
Suddenly the adults began to depart. Mekdes felt the air at her back and realized her aunts were no longer behind her; they were walking toward the exit. Then her own arm was gripped by Haregewoins hand, holding her back as her aunts made for the door of the compound. Mekdes was unable to pursue as the the only living links to her parents, the only way home to her grandfather, stepped outside and slammed the door behind them.
Mekdes felt turned inside-out by grief and terror. She arched her back in protest. She pulled out of Haregewoins grasp, fell backwards to the ground and writhed there, beginning to shriek. Then she stood up and ran after the departing adults. She ran straight at the blue metal door of the compound and hit it with a bang; it threw her back onto the dirt; she was up again in an instant, running straight at the door again. Bang. Beserk, she began to scream and to run in circles. She ran fast, dodging the thin elderly compound guard who jogged to try to capture her, aiming full-tilt at the blue door again. Bang. It knocked her back. In the dirt, she went through all the prostrations of grief: digging her fingers through the dust, dropping fists full of dust on the back of her head and neck. Still on her knees, cradling her head, Mekdes began moaning and rocking, occasionally lifting her head and reaching her arms out beseechingly towards the blue metal door.
I was in Haregewoin Teferras compound that day. I was in Ethiopia to help a small foundation, World Wide Orphan foundation [WWO] set up a pediatric AIDS clinic for orphans without access to pediatricians or to life-saving drugs; and I was there to meet a nine-year-old boy my family is adopting. I had heard about Haregewoins Teferras remarkable life among the AIDS orphans. But I hadnt anticipated witnessing the moment that impoverished adults abandoned the orphans of their extended family.
As Mekdes writhed, in deep mourning, in the dirt, I slipped out the blut metal door to see what had become of the adults whod dropped off Mekdes and Yabsira. Id thought Id spot them at the top of the dirt hill, heading home, but they were right there, right outside the door of the compound, and they too were grief-stricken. The women, Mekdess aunts, had covered their faces with their shawls and were rocking and moaning, too; aii aii aii, they cried. One held out her hands palms-up as if asking God for answers. Elderly Haj Abdelas eyes looked red and hurt. People in the street gave them wide berth. Then we all heard bang and knew Mekdes had gotten up and flown into the door again; then again bang. I began sobbing, too. I have two hundred dollars, I told my translator, Selamneh Techane. If I give it to them, could they keep her?
No, he said. It would only be for a little while. Let her stay with Haregewoin. They are too poor to raise the children.
The adults looked at me with their red eyes and I looked back at them the same way. BANG! went the door. There was nothing to say. Head bowed, I stepped back inside.
The guard had picked Mekdes up from the dirt and was carrying her towards the house. She went limp and fell backwards in his arms like she had fainted. When that didnt make him stop, she began kicking and screaming again, the passion and terror unabated. Haregewoin approached and took the thrashing child. Mekdes twisted and flailed, and Haregewoin, with squinting eyes, averted face, and strong arms, absorbed the blows. She was used to this.
I was born in 1950, in Sidamo, Ethiopia, Haregewoin told me later, when Selamneh and I were seated on a low sofa in the common room of her red brick house. The brown tiles of the linoleum baked in the sun beneath the wide glassless windows. A few toddlers banged on toys on the floor nearby. One of Haregewoins workers, a slim graceful girl with a kerchiefed head, set out fresh white cake, cubed and stacked on a platter, and a clay bowl of quartered oranges. Coffee cups waited on a wooden tray with legs. The fresh Ethiopian coffee, of course, was then roasted right in front of us, the girl kneeling in her dress on the floor, stirring the beans on an iron skillet heated on a portable burner.
I graduated from commercial high school and I found work in Addis Ababa as a secretary in government offices. She and her husband, a schoolteacher, had two daughters, Suzanne and Atetegeb. They had a comfortable middle-class life; they had plenty of friends; they vacationed in Egypt.
In those years, unbeknownst to them, a plague of Biblical proportions was making its silent approach to the city. Haregewoin and her husband were oblivious then, as most professional-class Ethiopians were, to the quiet devastation that was beginning. When her husband died of cancer, Haregewoin raised their daughters alone. Atetegeb worked as a secretary like her mother and got married in her early 20s. Haregewoin lived with Atetegeb and her husband.
At 24, Atetegeb shared the news that she was pregnant. Haregewoin was overjoyed and helped the young couple prepare for the baby. But then Atetegeb died in childbirth. The baby lived but was taken by his father to a distant region. Overnight, Haregewoins life lost all its happiness. She was numb with shock and grief. But I cannot live without my daughter, she said. My life is over.
She moved in with Suzanne. Her characteristic smile fell and could not be lifted. Her eyes sagged with tears and her cocky shoulders rolled forward. She couldnt work anymore. Every morning, she slowly draped herself in black shawls, shuffled to her car, and drove to the cemetery. She sat by her daughters grave and stared. A year went by. Where are you? What are you doing? friends and former colleagues phoned to ask.
I go straight every day from my house to her grave, said Haregewoin
An Orthodox Christian, she began praying at different Christian churches around the city. I believe all churches lead to God, she said. She became known to church-goers and clergy as a devout woman.
After 18 months of mourning, despite the entreaties of friends and one-time office-mates, Haregewoin felt unable to recover. Everything is ruined for me, she thought. Let me go to the church. She prepared to present herself to the Orthodox church and ask to be taken into seclusion. I went a little crazy, it is true, she told me. My daughter was very near to me. I liked her very much.
One morning, exiting the Catholic cathedral after morning prayers, Haregewoin was approached by a church official.
We have a problem, he murmured. The priest believes you might help us.
A week earlier, he explained, a young woman had sought shelter from a Catholic organization. She was emaciated and exhausted, with a wild-eyed look. Two thin children held onto her skirt. She accepted with gratitude the cot offered to her and she died in it. As the name of the plague was virtually taboo, staff-persons refrained from pronouncing the word, but all surmised it was AIDS. The young womans son and daughter, heads down, mumbled their names to the staff: Yonas was six, Meskerem was five.
For two nights, the children have slept at our building, the church official told Haregewoin. But we cannot keep them. The Mother Teresa orphanage is full. There is no other place for them. We dont want to put them out in the street.
Why do you tell me this? asked Haregewoin.
Could you take them? the church official whispered.
I have already left this world, she thought. Why should I go by myself? Ill take the two children and well retreat from the world together.
Yes, she said.
They may be sick, said the official with a raised eyebrow.
I understand, she said. Let me get a place ready.
She rented a rectangular four-room house on one of the citys hills. It had glass windows and tile floors, and sat on a dirt compound surrounded by a tall corrugated metal fence. But when she told her daughter what she was doing, Suzanne was shocked.
Mother! Dont do this! she cried. Not only was the word AIDS taboo, but the stigma carried by HIV/AIDS sufferers and their survivors was forbidding. You will end up completely alienated. Youll be shunned.
It is already done, said Haregewoin. How can children live without a mother?
She fetched the two ragged children from the Catholic organization. She shared her bedroom with them. They cried for their mother, she cried for her daughter. Silently, with dark circles under their eyes, they began to shadow Haregewoin as she puttered about the house. She took them along in the car when she ran errands. Very shortly, with plenty of food, sleep, shelter, and kindness, with clean hair and neat clothes, Yonas and Meskerem turned out to be lovely children. They began calling Haregewoin Maye, Mommy.
Suzanne peeked in. But theyre darling! she said in amazement. She began visiting frequently after work. She pledged part of her paycheck to help raise Meskerem and Yonas.
Haregewoins old friends were more reluctant. Youre crazy! they said over the phone. She would have been better off in the church, they told one another.
My heart is filling with life again, Haregewoin thought. She invited her friends: Just come see the children.
Nervously, fearful of catching AIDS, the old friends and colleagues peeked in. Whatever grim scenario theyd imagined perhaps a black-draped woman weeping beside two ghastly children was not what they found. They found Haregewoin invigorated, planting a garden, while the children played nearby.
You see? Haregewoin said, laughing.
Though Yonas and Meskerem, well-trained children, reached their hands out very soberly to offer handshakes to Haregewoins old friends, most of the women laughed nervously and found ways to avoid skin-to-skin contact. Still, like Suzanne, Haregewoins old friends and colleagues accepted Haregewoins new family.
Are they sick? some asked pointedly.
I dont know, I dont care, she said. [Both children later would be found to be HIV-negative.]
Like Suzanne, Haregewoins friends offered to help her support Meskerem and Yonas.
UNAIDS reports that AIDS has orphaned 14 million children worldwide and that 11 million of the children, from newborns to 15-year-olds, live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Seven years from now, UNAIDS expects 20 million African orphans. In a dozen countries, a quarter of the children will be orphans.
The numbers sound ridiculous. The figures are inconceivable. 11 million, 20 million they sound like answers to how many stars are in the sky, or how many light-years since the Big Bang?
You can make calculations with a number like 11,000,000, but its impossible unless youre Stephen Hawking to feel anything about it. You can find mathematical sub-sets of 20,000,000; you can perform square root maneuvers; you can graph it, but hats off to anyone who can begin to imagine what this looks like, what this means.
Who is going to raise 11 million children? My husband and I now have seven children and there are days we think were going to be driven insane. Whos going to sign 11 million permission slips for school field trips? Whos going to pack 11 million lunches? Whos going to cheer at 11 million soccer games? Who will buy 11 million pairs of sneakers that light up when you jump? 11 million bedtime stories? Backpacks? Toothbrushes? Who will offer grief counseling to 11 million children? Who will help them leave lives of servanthood or prostitution? Well, as it turns out, no one. Or very few. There arent enough adults to go around. A generation of parents, teachers, principals, physicians, professors, spiritual leaders, musicians, nurses, farmers, and merchants is being devoured. Very little aid from the West, including President Bushs much-ballyhooed $15 billion dollar AIDS Relief Initiative, has reached Africa.
Beautiful children are tumbling out of houses and shacks in the cities, and from grass huts in the countryside; they are crossing the great golden valleys barefoot or in flip-flops; they are dodging cars and buses in the cities and towns, tapping on car windows with outstretched hands, saying, I am hungry, missus. In rags, they labor or beg to earn their meals; they are vulnerable to becoming sex workers and house servants. Children the age of middle-schoolers are finding themselves heads of families, responsible for younger brothers and sisters, including babies, though they know nothing about growing food or earning income. When the babies die of AIDS or malnutrition, the older children are stunned by guilt. On dirt floors, children sit cross-legged together, quietly starving. UNICEF has observed that the child-headed families have, as their survival strategy, to eat less.
Word quickly spread in Haregewoins neighborhood that there was a woman taking in AIDS orphans. With between one and two million orphaned children, Ethiopia is home to the highest concentration of orphans in the world. At all hours of the day and night, adults politely knocked on the blue metal door into her compound, holding the hands of frightened children. Please, I am sick; I cannot feed her.
Please take them, we will not live much longer. I cannot bring him up, I have no money and his parents are dead. I found them in my yard I dont know who they are. Local police put Haregewoin at the top of their list of safe havens for abandoned children, including newborns. By the summer of 2003, Haregewoin had 18 children living with her as her own. They all called her Amaye, Mother.
She and the older girls share one bedroom, the older boys share another, and little kids share the third. But an avalanche of homeless children rolls into and across the city. With regret, Haregewoin was obliged to say no to the begging families in the road, offering children to her. But she wondered, If I watch the neighborhood orphans during the day, could these adults keep them? And: If I set up a workshop so that the sick women could earn a living, could they keep their children with them a little longer?
With the help of her friends, she purchased the two abandoned boxcars, had a door carved out of each, hung blackboards, and created two classrooms. Young woman in the neighborhood stepped in as teachers, in exchange for one meal a day and salaries of $18 a month. A kindergarten for students of all ages opened its doors to neighborhood orphans, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week.
Now, when Haregewoin declined to raise children, she could still offer support. Look at my house I have no more room, but I will help you. Ill care for the children during the day. Ill teach them and feed them. Well all share what we have.
By early 2004, 75 neighborhood orphans attended her day-school and another 20 children lived fulltime with Haregewoin. 50 AIDS-afflicted mothers wove beautiful Ethiopian cloth in a sheltered workshop.
Haregewoin named her house, school, and workshop Atetegeb Worku Memorial Orphans Support Association, in memory of her beloved daughter.
Children from every nook and cranny of this corner of the city trot towards Haregewoins compound every morning. Inside each of the trailers, and outside under a canopy of woven sticks, little kids hunch in their winter coats in the hot day and chant the English ABCs. They memorize Amharic songs and poems. I spotted, in the outdoor classroom, the little girl in the pink Easter dress. She showed great pride of ownership, reaching around often, as best she could in her winter parka, to smooth her stiff petticoats. She cast her soft eyes around to see if anyone had noticed how pretty she was today.
All the children have lost their parents. Some are themselves HIV-positive. They dont scare Haregewoin. Or perhaps it is better to say: the only thing that scares Haregewoin about the infected children is that she might lose them. Last year a tiny orphaned HIV-positive baby named Nardos was dropped off. At three months, she was smaller than a newborn. Haregewoin mothered her, covered her with kisses, slept with her at night. Shrunken startled-looking Nardos clutched at Haregewoin blouse with bony fingers, and began to thrive. She grew round and gleeful. Re-tested, she proved HIV-negative. 75% of children born to HIV infected mothers do not carry the virus, but may test positive initially due to their mothers antibodies still in their systems. The change in results from positive to negative is called sero-conversion. Science aside, Haregewoin believes it was her devoted mothering which saved Nardos. When I meet Nardos, she is a chunky young lady of eleven months, with a mostly gummy grin, wearing a frilly pink head-band around her bald head as she cruises the furniture, patting it affectionately as she makes her way. A visiting American woman recently met Nardos and asked to adopt her. Nardos is going to grow up in Los Angeles.
Now another sick scared-looking HIV+ baby absorbs Haregewoins energy: two-month-old Tesfa. I will not give him to anyone, she says. I will keep him. I bottle-feed him. He sleeps besides me. He will convert, youll see.
Ababu, a three-year-old boy, is the size of a baby. His eyes are huge and distressed in his wizened face. His legs are curved sticks. He whimpers in pain when Haregewoin lifts him out of his crib. She sets him on the floor of her common room and he crumbles; his huge eyes fill with tears. Haregewoin coos to him and lovingly coaches him and, remarkably, he props himself up on spidery arms and creeps towards her. To the amazement of all except Haregewoin, he stands on rubbery legs for a second and takes a step towards her. The big action of the household the scores of healthy children sweep by him with gale-force winds; the larger-than-life colors and sounds overwhelm him. But he has a small bit of life all his own. When Haregewoin hands him a roll, he gnaws on it. When she scoops him up and showers him with endearments, he purrs.
If left at a hospital, Ababu might be placed in a ward for children with end-stage AIDS. Would anyone even test his blood? There are no pediatric AIDS drugs to be had in Ethiopia at this time, at any price, so a positive test result would not win treatment for Ababu anyway. In a paupers hospital, no one would kiss and play with Ababu; he would die alone. Here he has Mama Haregewoin to tend to him. He sits hunched over in a patch of sunlight on the floor until the sheer exertion of trying to sit up exhausts him. She carries him back to his crib; he rides in her arms as weightless and as limp as a stuffed animal, his eyes glassy. She loves him.
By early 2004, 24 unofficial foster children lived with Haregewoin because she was still having trouble saying no.
When I left Haregewoins compound that day, Mekdes stood near Haregewoin, looking dazed, coated with dust, her eyes at half-mast. Id traveled to Ethiopia with duffle-bags full of toys and school supplies for orphanages, but Id given out the last of them that morning to the children in Haregewoins yard. I desperately wanted to give a doll or stuffed animal or even a box of crayons to Mekdes. I rooted through the car frantically, as if it would matter in Mekdess life, but it looked like all the toys were gone. Finally, in the trunk, I found a stray toy: a plastic Madame Alexander doll from a McDonalds kids-meal a miniature blonde bridesmaid doll. Mortified that it wasnt something more, I held it out to Mekdes. She seized on it with a lightning-fast grab. When other children reached to see the doll, Mekdes elbowed them out of her way like a linebacker. As we backed out of the compound, bereft Mekdes stood watching, expressionless. Her family was gone, but she had a plastic kids-meal toy in her hand.
I would say it was the most inadequate gift Id ever offered, had I not given a poorer one earlier that hour. Id handed out balloons to the children in Haregewoins compound and they had an uproarious time blowing them up and letting them go and chasing them as they sputtered overhead. Haj Mohammed Jemal Abdela, whod stepped back inside the compound after Mekdess aunts departed, stood watching and smiling. He tapped on my shoulder, held up two fingers, and pantomimed two small heads at his side. I understood that he was expressing his desire for balloons for two children he had at home, perhaps his grandchildren. I felt jealous for Haregewoins children, who had no kind grandfathers and no homes. So I fished out just one balloon for him, figuring his children could share it. He thanked me by holding his hands together prayerfully as he bowed to me.
Later that day I learned that Haj Abdela, like Haregewoin, ran a hole-in-the-wall orphanage. He was responsible for 100 children, many of them sick with AIDS.
Id given that nice man a balloon.
The next morning, I returned to Haregewoins compound. I brought with me an American pediatrician whod agreed to have a look at little wasted Ababu. Dr. Julio Guerra was visiting Ethiopia, on behalf of World Wide Orphans [WWO to see what could be done about the absence of AIDS drugs for children in the country.
It looks like end-stage AIDS, the doctor said, kneeling to meet Ababu on the floor of the common room. Has he been tested?
He had not.
What do you feed him?
It turned out that Ababu was fed almost nothing but straight cows milk. He could have an allergy to cows milk, Dr. Guerra explained. In America, we give milk-allergic children soy formula or soy milk. He may need a soy-based formula. The American doctor pointed at obvious signs of muscle wasting on Ababus chest and legs, due to chronic malabsorption.
Haregewoin hadnt heard of it. Is it available in Addis Ababa? the doctor asked others, and was assured that it was. Before leaving Ethiopia that week, Dr. Guerra urged Haregewoin to get Ababu tested for HIV/AIDS and he left money for the purchase of soy formula.
Recently I got a wonderful report from Haregewoin: not only had Ababu tested negative for HIV, but the change in formula made a new boy of him. For the first time, he was able to absorb nutrition. He got stronger. He began running around like a child his age. In the photo she sent, Ababu appears in footed pajamas, looking mischievous. The photo actually is a little blurred, because laughing Ababu is darting across the room. It was a lesson for me: there are other killers of children and adults besides AIDS. Had he not seen a doctor, Ababu would have died of starvation.
That second morning, I most wanted to see how Mekdes was doing. Haregewoin brought her into the common room. The little girl wore her same clothes, same braids, but her face was clean. She was subdued; she looked shell-shocked. My friend and translator Selamneh held Mekdes on his lap and softly translated my questions. Mekdes was so shy she could barely speak. Her little brother, Yabsira, meanwhile, busily explored his new surroundings, let Haregewoin kiss and hug him, banged on toys on the floor. He hadnt been separated from his sister, so he felt perfectly cheery; it was six-year-old Mekdes who had to navigate the empty new world for the two of them.
Does she remember her father? I asked. Selamneh translated the question.
Mekdess dry lips moved but we could hear no sound. Instinctively all the adults in the room bent closer and closer to catch threads of the smallest whisper Id ever heard.
My fathers name was Asenake Addis, she whispered. My father died by herpes-zoster. I was there in the night-time.
Though her eyes were flat, she sat in Selamnehs lap wringing and wringing her hands. She scratched at the palm of one hand with the nails of the other.
What does she remember about her father? I asked.
Mekdes listened to the translation, then whispered in Amharic, I dont want to forget my father.
Does she remember her mother?
My mothers name was Mulu Azeze, she said in her tiny voice. Again, her face showed flat affect, her eyes lifeless, but she was wringing her hands. After my father has died, my mother is sick and she suffer. And after that she died.
Does she remember her mother before she was sick? I asked.
I remember my mother by calling her name.
When does she call her mothers name? I managed to choke out.
After silence, the dry lips moved again. When somebody hit me, I call my mothers name.
In concern, I asked, Are people being nice to you here?
They have a regulation here I do not like, whispered Mekdes.
What is it? We all leaned forward to hear.
I like to watch television. Last night I want to watch more but there is a regulation here that you must go to bed... at eight oclock.
When every adult in the room gave a shout of laughter, Mekdes jumped. Still, we were all reassured that, despite everything, despite having seen her parents die and her world fall apart, she was also a normal little kid who preferred to watch TV rather than go to bed.
At the moment, in the frontlines, there is only Haregewoin Teferra. And Haj Mohammed Jemal Abdela. And the farmer who brings them eggs on his trip to the capital. And the white-collar and blue-collar workers who stop by to contribute a portion of their wages. And the young women who teach the children for pennies a day. And the unofficial foster mother up the hill. And the one around the corner from her, and the one in the neighboring town.
Those of us secure and healthy in America must do what we can for them. We can send money; we can sponsor a child; we can help sponsor one of the hole-in-the-wall orphanages. We can lobby our representatives to send the promised aid. We can pay attention to the life of Haregewoin Teferra. What she has to teach us is this: the zeroes in all those enormous numbers are not zeroes at all. They are children.