Thursday, January 23, 2014

a day at Children's Heaven

I can’t say it enough, but Ethiopia is constantly opening doors for me in terms of opportunity.  A month or so ago I was contacted by the CEO of Studio Samuel, a NGO based in New York City started by a couple in response to the poverty they experienced while in Ethiopia adopting their son.  It’s an amazing story and the program aims to build sustainable business for impoverished girls in Ethiopia.  After finding my blog, Tamara, contacted me about a photography opportunity.  How neat is that?  

I was thrilled of course. I am always looking for experiences to stretch myself as a photographer and gain new skills.  There are only so many cupcakes I can photograph before I want to scream, you know?  Anyway, I was more than happy to help Tamara.  She asked me to photograph the girls at Children’s Heaven so she can show her board of directors and potential donors the wonderful things their generosity can assists with.  I can only imagine trying to describe, with words, to someone in the States what life in Ethiopia is like for these young girls.  Photographs tell a story.  They speak a thousand words. 
I’m emberassed to admit that I didn’t have a lot of time to research what I was getting into at Children’s Heaven.  I scheduled a ride to the orphan care program for the Saturday after Ethiopian Christmas. I packed my camera and a bottle of water. Children’s Heaven is an after school/weekend care program for 105 girls from the ages of 5 to 18.  The girls are orphaned or have HIV positive mother.  Sometimes extended family is in the picture, sometimes not.  Children’s Heaven supports the girls in their schooling, provides meals, clothing and safety.   Little did I know how special that day would be for the children who attend Children’s Heaven.  It happened to be their Christmas celebration and I just got lucky in that I was there to photograph for Studio Samuel.  Studio Samuel is sponsoring programs for girls at Children’s Heaven.  I photographed each girl involved in the programs individually, then snapped away as they played games on the concrete slabs.  Their director and mother figure, Hanna gave me a tour of the buildings including a chicken coop, small library, tutoring rooms and even showed me their new industrial grade oven so they can hopefully start baking their own bread for the meals they provide the children.   She was really surprised to hear that I was a baker and was eager to talk bread with me!  
I could hear the singing as I finished up the last few individual portraits.  Next, I was escorted into the main room of the compound and I was faced with one of the most precious scenes I have ever experienced.  Girls of all ages sat shoulder to shoulder, sometimes even on one another’s lap, across benches arranged along the walls and lined facing the front of the room.  Garlands of all colors were hung and draped from the ceiling and walls, a small modest Christmas tree stood proud in the front of the room.  Older girls and handed out song verses to the girls and they sang, chanted, drummed to traditional Christmas hyms all in Amharic.  It was beautiful.  They love singing, Hanna told me.  They are always singing. 
For the next two hours I took photos of the Christmas celebration, including the cooking of the special Christmas meal (goat tibs, lamb, dorro wat, injera, hard boiled eggs).  The girls presented Hanna with Christmas gifts to which they all gasped, clapped, cheered and yelped in excitement as she tore open the paper and help up the photo album
The singing continued until the meal was announced and then I watched the girls line up from youngest to oldest to wait for a heaping plate of beautiful hot food.  This is when I took my leave.  The insisted that I stay and partake in the meal but I just couldn't.  It didn't feel right.  These lovely children and their teachers deserved to enjoy every last bite.  

The day was a healthy reminder for me of all the greatness in Ethiopia.  Of all the beautiful selfless people  who care for the less fortunate in this country.  But emerging from these thoughts was another idea.  These beautiful young women may be less fortunate, but they are not to be pitied.  They are strong and full of life.  They clearly are loved and cared for and have amazing things in store for their futures.  Especially if organizations like Studio Samuel have anything to do with it.

Monday, January 20, 2014


It’s already mid January and I just had a chance to get my Christmas day photos up on the blog.  Isn’t this how January usually goes though?  I enjoy Christmas and the holiday with my family so much that I can’t possibly take a moment to blog about it.  Life is happening and I’m less eager to break the blissful holiday spell by sharing with the world.  Maybe Christmas, and that lovely laziness that follows, is meant to be kept to myself. 

But truly, January just sort of flies by!  We spent Ethiopian Christmas in Gheralta with friends of ours and it was the most glorious family vacation.  I have absolutely gorgeous photos from the trip to share and it’s on the list to-do.  So when I get a moment I can’t wait to share the photos with you.  Gheralta is just stunning. 

My absence from the blog has a lot to do with focusing on the girls while they were on winter break from school.  They JUST went back.  Addie on the 14th and Bella on the 15th.  It was an amazingly long vacation and I enjoyed every second of it.  Addie, Bella and Ashlynn have become inseparable friends.  Justin and I watched in awe as they spent their entire winter break entrenched in the sweetest and most earnest imaginary play together.  There was hardly any fighting and we rarely intervened unless it was meal time or bedtime.  As they've grown older, they've just become closer.  Addie and Bella especially.  They can play endlessly for hours together and never tire.  Ashlynn is almost always included in the fun although she can’t quite keep up for the length of time they will play. 
I adore Bella's look of adoration towards Addie.  I love how much my girls look to one another for guidance.
It was lovely to have my girls home with me.  We had lazy mornings with breakfast and a movie, maybe tea at 10AM before we were dressed for the day.  The girls helped in the kitchen and didn't get in the way when it was time for me to work.  We enjoyed every moment of it and they even expressed remorse about going back to school when the time came.  Luckily that was short lived and we’re happily moving back into our early morning, school buss, shoes on, backpacks packed routine.  Ashlynn and I have the house to ourselves for most of the morning.  But even that is short lived because she’s starting a preschool program (same school as Bella’s) in a week. 
Random coffee photo.  Ethiopian coffee only gets better with frothed milk on top.
I’ll also admit that there will be fewer blog posts from me in the coming months because as of right now, we only have five months until our departure of Ethiopia.  I know!  It’s wild and to be quite honest I am equally thrilled and devastated by the move.   Inevitably, the wind-down period of any overseas tour comes with mixed emotions.  I felt the same way in the Philippines.  It’s hard to grapple with the idea that this place that we’ve called home for all this time, will soon become a memory and likely a place you won’t ever return.  The things that I have built up bravery and coping strategies to manage in Ethiopia are starting to crumble.  I'm starting to let go of Ethiopia.  Letting some of the barriers crumble means that things I could easily manage 6 months ago, suddenly feel too big to handle.  The random construction road closures, the defecating in the streets, the pollution, the rotten egg that I cracked open every day.  These are all examples of the types of things I have done a really decent job of managing and in some cases embracing for the past two and a half years.  But as our time in Addis is marching towards our departure, I find these things more annoying and in some cases a frustration that I try to avoid completely.  It’s all a part of mentally preparing myself to leave.  I get it.   We’re looking forward, past Addis and it’s hard not to be excited to spend time with our friends and family in America we haven’t seen, in some cases, in two and a half years! 
I'm making my own shiro for lunch, my guard is sweet enough to pick up fresh injera every day.  Best lunch ever.
There is less exciting discovery for me in Ethiopia.  We’ve done a lot of discovering during our time here and I’ve blogged about all of it.  Sometimes the last few months for me is hard to write about.  The combined feelings of elation to leave, with sadness to say goodbye is something I find very difficult to capture in words.  We’ve loved so much about Ethiopia and I’d like to focus on the good things, so over the course of the next few months I’m going to try to complete a series of posts about what Ethiopia has taught me.  
It's prim (tiny plums) season in Ethiopia.  We're buying them by the kilo.  Instead of trying to perfect prim tarts this year, I'm going to just eat as many as I can.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Christmas Day

The girls were up bright and early on Christmas morning.  Addie woke me up with a kiss on the cheek and whispered "Merry Christmas Mommy".  It doesn't get much sweeter than that.  Justin was up earlier than the girls and he said that they popped their heads out of their bedroom and immediate asked, "Did he come?".  Ashlynn slept longer and wandered down the stairs about 30 minutes later and when she saw the gifts under the tree almost squealed with excitement.

The girls opened gifts, the cinnamon rolls baked and Justin made coffee.  We topped with milk foam that we made with our new milk frother.  It was pretty perfect.

We all got dressed and went to Christmas Mass at the Vatican Embassy.  When we got home we had a big turkey leftover meal and let the girls play with their new toys for the rest of the day.  Justin and I may have polished off a bottle of wine and another round of frothy homemade cappuccinos.

Christmas Day and the days that followed were blissfully quiet.  We colored with the girls new art supplies, listened to all their imaginative play with their new dolls and read lots of new books.  We ate a lot of leftovers and I've been concocting all sorts of variations of turkey dishes.  I took several naps and lounged in my pajamas.  It was quite possibly the best few days of the year.